We Germans fear God but otherwise nothing else in the world and that fear of God causes us to love peace and cultivate it.” — Otto von Bismarck, 1888
A review of Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 592 pages, $21.95 [paper])
Bismarck: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg’s best-selling biography of the great 19th century statesman, is more than a full birth-to-death story. It delivers on a manageable scale the key events in the life of the unmanageably scaled Otto von Bismarck. Steinberg supports his narrative extensively with firsthand quotes, allowing the reader to judge for himself, even where Steinberg lays it on thick. Reading Bismarck, A Life one cannot miss the magnitude of the man’s genius at the “art of the possible.”
Steinberg strings his Bismarck on an unusual thread of the “sovereign self,” a concept Steinberg has invented. But this tends to conceal rather than reveal Bismarck. Steinberg’s “sovereign self” deemphasizes Bismarck the benefactor of a king, an emperor, and a people, and presents Bismarck as a flawed, selfish, megalomaniacal force of will.
Steinberg seems not to grasp what Bismarck did for Prussia and then Germany, and why it was such a high act of statesmanship. One suspects Steinberg cannot fully evaluate Germany of the 19th century because of what happened in Germany during the 20th.
Yet if the life of Bismarck is to be instructive in the 21st century, we ought to try to understand it for what it was.
A Tyrannical Personality?
No European statesman, other than perhaps the Tudor giant, Queen Elizabeth I, has so successfully unified his country and built its prosperity. Elizabeth’s Britain was in a near constant condition of aggression with Catholic Spain. And scholars do not blame Elizabeth for the English Civil War. Why then is Bismarck uniquely responsible for events occurring after his dismissal and death?
Steinberg’s approach uses Bismarck’s combative behavior to suggest Bismarck is best understood as a tyrannical personality. The reader cannot escape Steinberg’s suggestion—a rather conventional one—that Bismarck represents an anticipation of the German will-to-power madness of the 20th century. The charge, however, appears itself more like an act of will than a serious accusation, as the facts in Bismarck make their own case, res ipsa loquitor.
Rather than arrogating all power to himself, Bismarck answered to a sovereign king and emperor, as an American president answers to the sovereign American people. Bismarck ensured the subordination of the ministers and civil service, including himself, to the Hohenzollern monarchy, as he defended it against Napoleonic revolutionaries and later radical socialists. As he did so, Bismarck continually contended with parliamentary maneuvers in the Bundesrat and Reichstag and with the vicissitudes of public opinion (important even in an absolute Hohenzollern monarchy).
Bismarck did such a thorough job of loyally defending the rights of his sovereign that in 1890 a childish Wilhelm II could simply dismiss—without ceremony—the immensely popular Bismarck. Bismarck immediately and quietly accepted the Hohenzollern authority, though he continued to poke at Wilhelm II until his death.
Attributing to Bismarck German failures that came after 1890, in a particularly stinging chapter, Steinberg ties Bismarck to the rise of German anti-Semitism. But here again the facts Steinberg presents make another case. Bismarck appears to have treated his political enemies with equal aggression, regardless of whether they were Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, and he treated his friends, while they lasted, equally solicitously.
Bismarck’s Jewish Problem
One reads with regret that Bismarck did on a variety of occasions disparage political enemies using anti-Semitic obloquies. And early in his career, Bismarck argued against Jewish participation in Junker dominated politics, blocking the sale of landed titles on the ground that the ruling structure of Prussia would become commoditized—and therefore disloyal—if it could be bought and sold.
This early political act reflected Bismarck’s dedication to the ancient Prussian system of little princes whose rights were microcosms of the monarch’s absolute power. The monarch rights were in turn a microcosm of Pietist notions of the divine. God’s authority over man was absolute, and direct, on account of the “priesthood of all believers,” derived from Luther’s Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520).
Yet Bismarck’s enormous intellect craved Jewish talent, alliance, and friendship. Bismarck’s Jewish personal banker, Gerson von Bleichroeder, was Bismarck’s political ally and personal intimate who aided Bismarck in digging Prussia out of the debts the impoverished state had amassed in the wars that precipitated German unification. It is clear that Bismarck, in addition to his friendship, understood Bleichroeder’s contribution as a Prussian and German citizen to the creation and success of the German Empire. Bleichroeder was ennobled in 1872.
Steinberg also acknowledges an event which he says “calls into question the depths of Bismarck’s anti-Semitism.” In response to the death of Ferdinand LaSalle, a Jewish socialist politician and the indirect founder of the German social democrats (SDP), Bismarck spontaneously remarked:
What he had was something that attracted me extraordinarily as a private person. He was one of the cleverest and most charming men whom I have known. He was ambitious in grand style … Lassalle was an energetic and witty man with whom it was very instructive to talk. Our conversations lasted for hours and I always regretted when they were over.
Steinberg relies on quotes from Richard Wagner (a ward of Bavaria’s intensely Catholic and possibly insane king, Ludwig II) to press his charge that Bismarck fostered rising German antisemitism in the late 19th century. But then later Steinberg casually observes that Bismarck did not care for or even listen to Wagner. An un-evolving Junker, Bismarck preferred Beethoven. Why smear Bismarck with Wagner’s hatred of Jews?
German antisemitism is revolting.
Steinberg strains too hard to lay this evil at Bismarck’s feet. The ennobling of Bleichroeder and a private remark may not be Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation but the thesis of Bismarck’s responsibility for German antisemitism is weak up to, if not past, the point of being unfair.
Patriotism vs. Vanity
But not all indictments of Bismarck are unfair. Bismarck lived as a mighty oak of German politics, and fault can be found there. Bismarck’s hyper-potent practical intellect cast a shadow over the new growth of other statesmen who might have succeeded him. Bismarck failed to anticipate an accumulating succession problem. Wilhelm I’s longevity taxed the monarchical structure and caused it to skip a beat at a critical moment. Frederick III, well prepared for the job, was on the throne for only a few months before succumbing to cancer, and the young and unteachable Wilhelm II ascended.
Steinberg makes too little of the pathological, deformed, and genuinely antisemitic runt, Wilhelm II, as the cause of the unravelling of the German Empire. The Hohenzollern stock had run dry and the super-state that Bismarck had assembled fell victim to the defect of hereditary monarchy: the arrival on the throne of “an ass for a lion.”
Wilhelm II’s vanity would not brook Bismarck’s towering character, and Bismarck admitted privately the certainty—given the new kaiser’s conceits—of his dismissal in 1890. What distinguished Bismarck as a statesman, however, is that he towered loyally—thinking always of the rights of his sovereign and his country. Bismarck offered the same loyalty to Wilhelm II he had offered Wilhelm I, and Wilhelm II viciously spurned it.
The virtue of Steinberg’s biography is, despite its theme of selfishness, in its fidelity to events it cannot help but show how Bismarck worked toward, and achieved, a singular political goal: A unified, Lutheran-dominated, Hohenzollern Germany, economically powerful, militarily secure, and most importantly, at peace.
Bismarck found Prussia, poor, weak, and threatened and made it rich, strong, and secure. His vision far exceeded that of any other single statesman of his age. Even the great Queen Victoria had both Gladstone and Disraeli. Two heads are better than one.
Bismarck characteristically saw events around corners. In a meeting in 1862, Bismarck foretold in detail to a shocked Disraeli how he intended to unify Germany. Bismarck had recognized the necessity of eliminating Austria from a German imperium, and of conflict with France as the unifying event. Bismarck played in the permutations of politics like no one else. Over eight years, three short wars, and great uncertainty, what Bismarck had foretold to Disraeli came to pass.
Following the birth of the German Empire, Bismarck turned his attention to a complex series of treaties with Russia and Austria. Bismarck forged domestic solidarity through legislative maneuvering that zigged and zagged from Kulturkampf to universal pension insurance. The tranquility Bismarck constructed lasted 44 years, including 24 years under Wilhelm II. This peace lasted arguably longer than any peace the United States has seen in its 242-year history. Yet Steinberg reflexively paints Bismarck a warmonger.
Perhaps this reflex can be traced to Disraeli. The English instinct—really policy—is to deem the top continental power, whether France or Germany, a threat. Disraeli remarked sourly on unification, saying the German “revolution” is war with France. For Disraeli, just as conservation and renewal of the French republic meant the violent export of revolution, the German “revolution” would be conserved and renewed with war.
Maybe so, maybe not. The “mystic chords of memory” of the German Empire would indeed include three wars that led to its founding. But it would also include Bismarck’s Pietist love of peace. And there was a practical matter to consider. Germany as the land in the middle could not afford war. Bismarck’s genius, aggressive as it was, worked sedulously to avoid it.
Juxtaposing Bismarck and Churchill
Wilhelm II threw away the fruit of Bismarck’s statesmanship, and blame for this should fall on the runt and not the great man. If Bismarck failed beyond neglecting to groom a successor, it was in that he bore responsibility for the German Empire’s written constitution. It had no default mode—no ambition to counter ambition—through which it could function without an enlightened statesman.
In fairness, however, German precision would not easily tolerate a constitution which muddled the origin of its sovereignty in the manner that English polysemy allows the English constitution to be a monarchy when seen from one side and a democracy when seen from the other. The characteristic exactness of Germans inclined against such duality, and the check on absolute monarchy of the Hohenzollerns was left to the character of the Hohenzollerns.
If Bismarck had built in checks and balances, such political mechanics would have had rely on the Junker class. But there lies a difficulty. The Junker ethos of absolute loyalty—which had served tiny Prussia so well in war—limited Junker taste for asserting rights against monarchical power. A statesman has to work with the matter he is given, and rigid loyalty is at once the virtue and vice of the German stuff.
America’s (and my own) favorite foreign statesman is Winston Churchill. Juxtaposing Churchill and Bismarck makes for an interesting contrast. Churchill is similar to Bismarck in political longevity, and in reputation for unusual and bellicose behavior. Churchill saved his country from perverted Prussian militarism that had fallen into the wrong hands, this time not through the defect of monarchy but through the defect of democracy: its tendency to collapse into demagogic tyranny.
Churchill saved Britain from the moral annihilation of capitulation to Hitler because Churchill, like Bismarck, saw around corners. Churchill spied the dimly lit path of chances leading away from physical annihilation, a path that would be well lit once Russia and the United States were in the war. Nonetheless, Churchill entered office in a Britain that was wealthy and powerful; when he left office Britain was poor and spiraling downward, a liquidating socialist state.
Bismarck, on the other hand, found Prussia weak and left it strong. In the 31 uninterrupted years during which Bismarck was in high office, Prussia grew into the greatest European power, maintaining peace, while other nations warred and took on the burdens of foreign imperialism. When Bismarck left office, the German Empire abroad—in contrast to the empires of England, France, and Russia—was immaterially small, having fewer than 6,000 colonists in East Africa.
The half-American Churchill themed his statesmanship on “great democracies” and Bismarck was devoted to a different—an unAmerican—sort of regime. That’s why Churchill is much easier for an American to appreciate. Still, is it intrinsically wrong to support the principle of a regime if it presents the best way forward to the safety and happiness of a people? “Prudence, indeed, will dictate . . .” reads the Declaration of Independence; there are conservative claims to preserve an imperfect and long-established form of government. Democracy is, as Churchill pointed out, the worst form of government, until you consider all the others.
Losing Sight of Peaceable Aims—And Learning Lessons
Bismarck worked within one of the others, which suited the inordinately loyal and conservative Junker class. Whether this was the right thing to do is a complex question that goes well beyond a “Tastes great! Less filling!” debate over democracy or monarchy, a discussion bound and gagged by filial devotion to the regime in which the discussion takes place, i.e., serious discussion in a particular regime type of another regime type is never fully permitted. Thus the answer to the question “Was Bismarck right in his support of an absolute Hohenzollern monarchy?” is, like for so many things, “It depends.”
Bismarck opposed revolutionaries and socialists and supported the monarchy because of the advantages of the latter for Prussia and for Germany, including an ability to respond to threats from East and West and the character of the Prussian and German people. With that peace, domestic and foreign, secured Germany became the best educated and in arts, science, and technology the most sophisticated country in the world. Germany from 1870 until World War I lived well, to use the Aristotelian description of the object of statesmanship.
But the monarchy failed. It lost sight of Bismarck’s peaceable aims, instigated a pointless naval rivalry with Britain, ventured abroad, went to war and collapsed thoroughly, despite having fought the entire war on foreign soil and almost never suffering greater losses in battle than did its enemies.
With an American form of government things might have been different. But that would have required flexible, practically minded Americans and the favorable American geopolitical situation. Perhaps this is why the following quote is often attributed to Bismarck: “There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”
Bismarck’s manipulations of the sovereign Hohenzollern household and Reichstag politics, and the piratical way he sometimes did it, remind one of our current politics, substituting for a vacillating sovereign monarch the many minds of a sovereign people, including a mind to abdicate their sovereignty. The tweets, the feints with the public and legislature, the contests of wills with individuals and the press, and the political inconsistencies remind one vaguely of Bismarck’s incessant maneuvering, his insistence in a rule-oriented, Kantian society of playing chess as if all sixty-four squares were unoccupied.
Bismarck had a way of at once hating and loving and being hated and loved. One thing the loyal Bismarck hated most was any rebuke from the throne. It cut him to the core of his faithfully monarchical character. And as a practical matter, Bismarck knew if he could not control the kaiser, he could not implement coherent policy for his country. The kaiser half-hated Bismarck because his better half, Empress Augusta, fully hated Bismarck. Crown Prince Frederick William did not like Bismarck because bien pensant attitudes increasingly demanded gradual accommodation of liberalism as the right side of History.
So Bismarck maneuvered intrusively within the Hohenzollern family to get what he needed for the German Empire. The family despised the divisiveness until they loved the results. The American public—which stands in the position of sovereign in revolutionary America—may well end up feeling the same way about Donald Trump.