When in 1863 Emperor Franz Joseph summoned German royals for talks on unifying under Austrian rule, Otto von Bismarck was not happy. He had plans of his own for Germany. His sovereign, King William I, was rather more excited to be part of this Congress of Princes.
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The struggle between the king and his recently appointed prime minister left both ill and exhausted. On the one side was the absolute monarch; on the other, the wily and domineering politician with no real power base.
Bismarck prevailed and for the next 25 years played off enemies and friends to unify Germany with his cynical form of Realpolitik.
William complained that it was “hard to be Emperor under Bismarck,” but retained the Iron Chancellor in office.
By creating a political machine designed mainly to keep himself at the top, Bismarck created a power vacuum that allowed the next ambitious tyrant -- Adolf Hitler -- to take over a pliant German people.
I spoke with Jonathan Steinberg, author of “Bismarck: A Life,” on the following topics:
1. Detested Functionary
2. The Prussian Tradition
3. Gargantuan Appetites
4. German Unification
5. Road to Hitler
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)