Nineteenth century Europe was a game of two halves or, better, a game of two men: the Emperor Napoleon, who dominated the first, and Otto von Bismarck, who dominated the second. If anything Bismarck was the more important of the two, creating not just a new Germany but a new Europe, with a legacy that extended well into the twentieth century. He was the greater because he was the more cunning; the lesser because his vision was considerably more limited. In some ways Bismarck was the best statesman Germany ever had; in other ways the worst.
The paradox of the Iron Chancellor is superbly explored by Jonathan Steinberg in Bismarck: A Life, published earlier this year. Given his importance it’s remarkable how little attention he has achieved in the English-speaking world, obsessed, as it is, with Hitler. The only other study that I have read is Alan Palmer’s Bismarck, a dated and not terribly satisfactory biography. Steinberg makes up for so many deficiencies in our understanding, not just of Bismarck but of modern Germany, his legacy to the world.
There is one thing that’s important to understand about Bismarck – he was a juggler of consummate skill. Leo von Caprivi, who succeeded him as Chancellor in 1890, an unenviable task, said that while his predecessor was able to keep five balls in the air at any one time he could barely manage two. As the balls fell so did the Bismarck system, which maintained a precarious, personally-based, balance of power on the Continent, in succession to the old Concert of Europe, which followed from the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
It’s almost impossible not to admire and dislike Bismarck at one and the same time. There is so much to admire. Here was a man with no military background and little in the way of experience in office before he became Minister President of Prussia in 1862. Here was a man who, bit by bit, removed every obstacle to German unification, unification, on his own terms, I might add, not the unification that was conceived by the liberals of the Frankfurt Parliament in the wild days of 1848, almost as if he was following a road map. Here was a man who thereafter managed a skilled balancing act that kept Russia and Austria, both with dangerously conflicting ambitions in the Balkans, on reasonably friendly terms, thus isolating an unhappy and vengeful France, smarting from the humiliating defeat it had suffered in the war of 1870.
Charming, sophisticated, highly intelligent and enormously driven, Bismarck, on the dark side, was callous, manipulative, paranoid to an astonishing degree, as well as being an amazing hypochondriac, which the author roots in his upbringing under a gentle but ineffectual father and a coldly indifferent mother. He was the kind of statesman that Machiavelli would have admired for his ruthlessness and yet, I would suggest, have found wanting for the lack of vision that I referred to at the outset.
The trouble is, you see, Bismarck never seemed to have thought much beyond himself, thought of a time when he would no longer be in command, thought of the future of Germany. With no power base in either the Reichstag or the army, his chancellorship depended on no more than the personal bond that he formed with King Wilhelm I of Prussia, subsequently the first Kaiser of the new German Reich. As Steinberg shows, everything Bismarck achieved was a result of this unique relationship between monarch and subject; that if he had been sacked after his belligerent Blood and Iron speech to the Prussian Landtag in September 1862 (actually it was Iron and Blood!), as many had wanted at the time, even within royal circles, then Germany may have entered the twentieth century as a collection of principalities. Wilhelm, however, remained loyal, though one has to sympathise with his lament that it was hard to be a king under Bismarck.
The bond worked well in helping Bismarck achieve his domestic as well as his foreign policy objectives, but it was a form of personal politics that created instability at the heart of government. To put it another way, Bismarck could unite Germany but not Germans; he could create a modern state without bequeathing a modern and stable polity. Some of his domestic policies, notably the Kulturkampf, his struggle with the Catholic Church in Prussia, were immensely counter-productive, not to say bizarrely unnecessary. His attempt to quash the Socialist Party, moreover, only served to increase its appeal.
Bismarck’s power was built on a quiescent Emperor. When Wilhelm’s grandson and namesake came to the throne in 1888 the bond was broken and the iron quickly rusted. It was after his dismissal in 1890 that the weakness of his system became immediately apparent, as Caprivi was the first to understand. It would be wrong to say that the road was opened to the Great War – there are two many other variables to be considered – but the temptation is a strong one.
Steinberg should be highly commended for producing a fine piece of work, readable without any sacrifices to scholarship, one of incisive psychology and wonderful attention to detail. I have one fairly important reservation, more of a quibble, I suppose – a lapse at the conclusion into the usual tiresome historical teleology with Hitler as the end result, a seamless progression from the Iron Chancellor to the Little Corporal. But Hitler, with his unrealistic dreams and limitless goals, was the antithesis of Bismarck, always careful, calculated and rational, always aware of the relationship between means and ends. Bismarck could create Germany; Hitler could only destroy it.