The life and legacy of Otto von Bismarck
Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By STEVEN OZMENT
Jonathan Steinberg presents the fabled German chancellor as both an egomaniacal hypochondriac and a political-military genius: “He is the statesman who unified Germany in three wars . . . a hypochondriac with the constitution of an ox, a brutal tyrant who could easily shed tears, a convert to an extreme form of evangelical Protestantism, who secularized schools and introduced civil divorce.”
‘The Proclamation of the German Empire’ by Anton von Werner (1885). Bismarck, at center, in white tunic.
The reader learns early and often that Bismarck “made Germany but never ruled it.” As chancellor (1862-90) he served a line of three long-lived kings, any one of whom could have fired him at will—and at the end, one did. Active in politics from 1847 to 1890, he also maintained a hate/awe relationship with the large political parties. Although he changed the world, Steinberg seems to think it might have been much ado about nothing. Bismarck was a shallow country squire, devoid of true leadership qualities, always looking out for himself, more an accident of German history than any gift to it. Bismarck: A Life is an effort to put Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) in his proper historical place and importance from a modern perspective.
In the letters and memoirs of men and women who were often in his presence, Steinberg finds the descriptions “tyrant” and “dictator” popping up. Defiant from his youth, he evaded conscription only, in his later adult life, to wear military uniforms without any proper claim to them. Many who worked with or under him were often startled by his fragile health, both physical and mental. As Steinberg puts it: “ ‘Hypochondria’ hardly does justice to his complaints.” Steinberg also believes that Bismarck’s power and success came solely from the man himself, not from great “institutions, mass society, or ‘forces and factors.’ . . . Bismarck somehow had more of every aspect of self than anybody around him, and all who knew him—without exception—testify to a kind of magnetic pull.” The author also testifies to a “hypnotic effect” running irrepressibly through his writings.
For 26 years he served Prussia’s King William I, playing an “alter” or counter “king” when the divided reigning king avoided hard decisions Bismarck knew the state must make. In getting the royal attention, he resorted to both real and faux temper tantrums, hysteria, tears, and unending threats of resignation. If Steinberg has gotten it right, Bismarck manipulated all the kings he served both to their faces and behind their backs. He transformed his times solely by his “sovereign self,” much as Hitler did across the whole of Germany in the 1930s and ’40s. But when Bismarck spoke for himself, he exposed the bondage of the will: No human being could control his own destiny, much less that of the masses. Before “the roaring stream of Providence and history,” as he put it, even the bravest and smartest could only jump in, float with the stream, and take what it gave him. The sovereign self was a myth.
Steinberg’s biography claims to differ from its predecessors in aim and method. His aim is to explain how Bismarck survived his debilities and exercised political and military power so deftly. His method is to cast a wide net over contemporaries—friends and foes, Germans and foreigners, young and old—who worked under him, or spent time with him, and recorded their experiences in letters and memoirs. Such recollections and testaments become Steinberg’s coauthors at numerous junctions, supplementing and authenticating the mainstream story. Although at times repetitious and inflationary, these interventions do give Bismarck and his age a real-life tint.
At home and abroad, Bismarck rocked boats and steadied them—which might be expected from one of history’s great control freaks. In foreign affairs he was handicapped on the diplomatic front by the unknown and untrustworthy; but by taking firm and “entirely rational action” he garnered fame for himself and respect for Germany throughout the international community. In domestic affairs, however, he clashed constantly with opposing liberals, conservatives, and Roman Catholics, whose familiarity and dedication to alternative causes induced new fits of rage and irrational behavior in the chancellor.
Born into the culture of the Old Prussian nobility, the proud Junker class, Bismarck grew up with its virtues: devotion to duty, efficiency, punctuality, and self-sacrifice, to which the military culture of Frederick the Great and evangelical Protestant piety were thrown into the mix. For Steinberg, who never flatters his subject, that mixture was a seedbed of anti-
Semitism and warmongering. The author does some raging of his own when he declares Bismarck’s greatest achievement to have been his preservation of “those ‘darkest characteristics’ of the Junker class through three wars, the unification of Germany, the emergence of democracy, capitalism, industrialization, and the development of the telegraph, the railroad, and . . . telephone.”
Young Otto grew up with an easygoing if ineffectual father, and a brainy and attractive, but hard and cold, mother. She pointed him in the direction he needed to go. In later life he was contemptuous of men who let women dominate them and he had no love for intellectuals and academics. But the worst of humankind to his mind were government bureaucrats, whom he famously labeled “the ‘poop-makers’ of society.” In getting to the core of the man, one of Steinberg’s “most striking findings” is the discovery that Bismarck’s health and virtue deteriorated as his political power grew, taking a toll on a fragile self that might have been deeply damaged in childhood.
Like earlier biographers, Steinberg likes to put his subject on the couch and let him vent his hatred of royalty (Empress Victoria), which he readily did in “disgusting, misogynistic, and prurient outburst[s].” Steinberg also tallies his resignation threats to the king, retreats to Berlin without royal permission, and recurring illnesses and bouts of hypochondria, which (so Steinberg says) were also “ingenious tactics” to get his way when denied by higher authority.
Steinberg also perceives a recurring “psychic triangle” between a weak emperor, a strong empress, and a torn Bismarck that disrupted all of their lives. Bismarck’s chronic worry, sleeplessness, and gluttony threatened his effectiveness, his sanity, and his life. Among the physicians’ interventions was the “surrogate . . . warmth of a loving mother,” who was conjured at his bedside by wrapping him up in warm, damp towels, and holding his hand firmly until he fell asleep.
For all the author’s dark backgrounding of his subject, the reader must remember that Bismarck was not a persistently propped-up basket case. He attended very good schools and acquitted himself well. At 14 he displayed the skills of “one of the best letter writers of the 19th century.” He entered the University of Göttingen, an aristocratic stronghold, where he met the talented Bostonian John Lothrop Motley, who became a true friend, and later the U.S. ambassador to Vienna and London. Motley saw “a special aura” about Bismarck and thought him a “very rational sort of person,” despite his need to rule and dominate all around him. Already, in these early years, he was living a strained life under fire within and without, both imagined and real, a person in whom an empathetic author and reader might glimpse a rugged heroism.
At 22 he was a handsome, six-foot-four linguist who spoke excellent English and sailed through his civil service exam, only to abandon the work for which he trained. With time on his hands he chased after aristocratic English ladies, displaying (according to Steinberg) “every sign of a proud, fatuously self-confident, provincial gentleman swept away by the wealth and style of the English aristocracy . . . [a courtier] desperately out of his class.”
In 1838, unemployed, in debt, and evading military service, Bismarck’s father made over his three Pomeranian estates to Otto and his brother. He now managed his father’s rural properties for a year, becoming a full-time farmer secure in a world dominated by Pomeranian nobles. In these transitional years he was effusive, prone to accidents, and famous for shooting out windows, a reckless sort of life that earned him the title “The Mad Junker.”
His letters, Steinberg claims, suggest that “sexual urges” were no small part of his wild behavior. After the aristocratic English ladies, the next feminine hands into which he fell were those of an aristocratic Protestant pietist, Marie von Thadden-Trieglaff, whose social circle was a kind of “ ‘born-again’ Christian” assemblage. Steinberg sees in Marie’s group Bismarck’s “ ‘first political party’ . . . the platform for everything that followed.” It was in her circle that he met his future wife, Johanna von Puttkamer, and his future political patron, the Prussian prince Ernst Ludwig von Gerlach, in the 1840s the leading political patron of the expectant Bismarck. Approaching midcentury, Gerlach convinced Berlin to appoint the 37-year-old Mad Junker with no diplomatic experience to the second-most important diplomatic post in Germany: Prussian ambassador to the Federal German Council in Frankfurt.
In December 1846, a lonely and needy Bismarck wrote to Johanna’s father asking him for her hand in marriage, which he approved in January. In these bright months he showered Johanna with long letters, each with a different and more extravagant form of address in English, French, or Italian, quite for the moment a romantic courtier! That same year, 1847, saw Bismarck elected to the local provincial diet. That success would separate the newlyweds for long periods of time, increasing their discontent. Bismarck had yearned for a wife like his mother and Marie, but his fear of failure moved him to “survive and put an end to his loneliness [with] a plain and limited” wife. Therein lay “the void at the core of the Bismarcks’ relationship.”
Bismarck stepped into the political limelight on May 17, 1847, when he made his maiden speech to the Vereinigter Landtag, the United Prussian Diet, in Berlin. Both the man and his politics spoke bluntly and to the point: He would gain his goals by conflict, not by consensus, he proclaimed. This was pure Bismarckian theater that the Germans, and the world, would hear again. Recoiling from the debut, Steinberg, living a century-and-a-half away, dismisses everything Bismarck said, accusing him of never having taken “full responsibility for his acts,” and paints him as a “gigantic ego” that had a “constant need to be seen to be right.”
Bismarck’s next major performance occurred on July 15, 1847, a debate over removing the civil disabilities that denied Jews the right to hold public office and serve in the bureaucracy of a Christian state. Bismarck joined his fellow Junkers in voting it down. Now on the march to power, he concluded that “a career through the [royal] court” was his best opportunity to save the traditional monarchical/aristocratic order and unify Germany in and through the coming revolution. He would unify Germany both as skilled politician and statesman as well as the dark prince of “blood and iron.”
The first task at hand was to define and unite the new Germany under the military leadership of the Gerlach brothers. Moving swiftly, he became the military governor of Berlin uttering, as he accepted, these words: “I go into the matter like a child into the dark.” Four months later he joined the Prussian provisional diet in Brandenburg. On the heels of these promotions Gerlach embraced him publicly as one “of the reliable people upon whom we can call.”
As Bismarck succeeds and rises, Steinberg again reminds readers that this is a man who begrudges every minute he is away from dirty politics. He also attacks Bismarck as an uninvolved husband and parent who was “filled . . . with gloom” whenever he vacationed with his wife and children at the seaside, wishing all the time that it was September: “September meant parliament, Berlin and, at long last, escape from the stresses of family life.” Although often away from his family, Bismarck’s personal letters were never uncaring or unloving; they were also frequent and entertaining to Johanna and their children. Even Steinberg agrees that Bismarck was “a writer of comic genius.”
In 1851 Bismarck became Prussian ambassador to the German Union, which was composed of Austria and Prussia. Both states were independent sovereigns but unequal military powers, and now confronted each other. In the standoff, Prussia had the upper hand. To render Austria and the smaller German states pliable Bismarck “advertised” a Prussian accommodation with the new king of France, Napoleon III. Giving the small states such a scare was calling them home to Greater Germany. As Steinberg explains Bismarck’s “technique,” the successful diplomatic prince must “create fear and uncertainty in a crisis, so that opponents cannot be certain how Prussia will act, and be absolutely unscrupulous in the choice of his means.”
In discussing political philosophy, Bismarck believed that his entire life was spent “gambling for high stakes with other people’s money.” Practicing politics as gambling, he gave them a new diplomatic style, Realpolitik, meaning “do what works and serves your interests . . . politics is less a science than an art . . . one must have the talent for it.” The British ambassador to Prussia confirmed Bismarck’s gifts:
In 1858 Emperor Frederick William IV suffered a series of strokes that damaged his speech, and his powers were given over to Crown Prince William. The regent dismissed the conservatives and appointed a new liberal government packed with Bismarck’s enemies. The new regime welcomed in the “New Liberal” era, while Bismarck deemed it hopeless, hunkered down, and bided his time. Appointed by the new emperor to be Prussian envoy to the court of Czar Alexander, Bismarck paled at the thought of the long journey to faraway, expensive St. Petersburg. But once having settled in, he embraced his new assignment, and letters home conveyed “a mellow sense of well-being.” Always alert when women were on the scene, he was swept off his feet by the Dowager Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and her presence put him at peace with himself: “For me she has something in her kindness that is maternal. . . . I can talk to her as if I had known her from my childhood. . . . I have not felt so well for ages!”
In 1859, war broke out between France and Austria. Bismarck now preached, “We are not rich enough to use up our strength in wars that do not earn us anything.” Henceforth, Prussia would take advantage of the times and carve out its own fate by “iron and fire.” Austria’s distress was the opportune time for Prussia to redesign the German Union, send troops to the Austrian border, and threaten to overrun the intransigent smaller states during the war between France and Austria. Bismarck put his allies in a row with German unification clearly in his sights.
But from the stress and strain of it all, a fragile Bismarck found himself laid up in Berlin, once again at war with his private demons, and none of his anger-management plans succeeded. Neither religious faith nor Prussian physicians gave his body, mind, or soul any peace, and worry over the expense of Berlin life and the presence of the brassy Prince Regent in the city appear to have been the culprits. At this level of illness, writes Steinberg, only two cures had ever given him any relief: “Recognition from the All-Highest authority and lots of food.” On Bismarck in extremis, Steinberg deadpans:
During the crisis years of 1859-62, Bismarck’s friends and admirers, prominent among them the war minister, Albrecht Graf von Roon, urged the king to rehabilitate Bismarck by making him minister-president (prime minister), despite the consternation of the Liberals. So it was not until April-May 1862, in the midst of a ministerial crisis, that the king thought again about bringing Bismarck in from the cold to take the highest ministerial position. At the end of the deliberations, the new chancellor received a royal summons to leave St. Petersburg for Berlin and join the consultations. In preparation for the meeting, Roon prepared a brief, up-to-date assessment of Bismarck’s present state of mind and body:
The new minister-president traveled to London, where he met Benjamin Disraeli in the home of the Russian ambassador. To many, Disraeli was the only contemporary who could match Bismarck in wit and political agility. When they met, Disraeli asked for (and received) a summary of Bismarck’s plans for Germany: “I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government [as chancellor]. My first care will be to reorganize the army, with or without the help of the Landtag. As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership.”
Nine years later, everything Bismarck had told Disraeli he was going to do as chancellor had been done, exactly as stated. As Steinberg kindly concedes:
Looking back, Bismarck’s political feats should not be ridiculed by modern historians who reject conservative politics, nor should his belief in providence in history be scoffed at by modern skeptics. What Bismarck accomplished was not done by deceit and lies; nor does one immediately see how quasi-mystical forces radiating from “sovereign selves” and royal “psychic triangles” gave Bismarck the upper hand over the Prussian king.
Beyond an uncomfortable mix of threats and blandishments that made people distrust Bismarck, what the Prussian king saw in him, and came to trust him for, was something more like a gifted latter-day knight, a relic of history, who knew how to gamble, win wars, and unite kindred lands by both reason and force, no matter the odds. As Steinberg has it, neither King William I, the army generals, the outside flanking powers, the Czarist Empire, Napoleon’s France, and Great Britain were any match for Bismarck. That was the chancellor’s political and military magic. The scale of his triumph over Austria was incalculably telling. The unification of Germany, sought since the days of Tacitus and not completely secured until 1990, owed everything to this fearsome, unlovable knight.
Celebrated throughout Germany for his military prowess, Bismarck moved politically to complete his plans for the new German state, a goal he could only reach by embracing the Liberal party, which he did from 1866 to the late 1870s. Among the three parties dominating the new Germany, the Liberals had both pro- and anti-Bismarck wings, while the Conservatives increasingly turned against him, and Catholics prayed daily to see him in his grave. The most powerful figure of the 19th century now had no real parliamentary support and would remain dependent on the person, emotions, and attitudes of a very old monarch, King William I.
The new constitution was a roadmap of the chancellor’s political mind. The rights of democracy appeared with fixed limits: no bill of rights, no separate judiciary, no power to collect direct taxes. A gloomy Steinberg summarizes: “He had unified millions of Germans in a new state and their elected representatives had sacrificed liberal rights taken for granted elsewhere without a serious fight. The new Germany retained all the worst features of Prussian semi-absolutism and placed them in the hands of Otto von Bismarck.” On April 16, 1871, the Reichstag approved the constitution, and Bismarck’s challenge was to preserve the new Germany and make it work as he willed.
Of course, Bismarck knew that unifying and governing a state was a different kind of war, but still a war. He brought his ruthlessness to the new Germany, which he wanted to run by himself, without anyone looking over his shoulder, believing perhaps that it might disperse his demons. But in a time (1871-90) when his political brand was in decline, going it alone was a perfect recipe for conjuring those demons up. On the horizon lay the Kulturkampf. Even his reputation as an honest international broker diminished after he botched the mediation of issues left over from the Russo-Turkish War, leaving Russia on the short end of reparations. In 1875 he wanted most of the new state’s revenue to come from “income tax from the really rich people,” but in the end he favored indirect taxes, arguing that they were “less burdensome.”
Steinberg repeatedly comes close to dismissing Bismarck’s legitimacy, representing him as a ruthless and unprincipled ruler in both peace and war. Yet he expresses a gentleman’s sympathy for the old warrior’s vulnerability in old age: Surrounded by people who did not like him, would not assist him, and eagerly awaited his overdue demise, the king now held all power over him—and the king’s wife publicly reviled him. For a proud Bismarck, powerlessness was the supreme torture. Showing them that he was still the man of “fire and iron,” both militarily and diplomatically, Bismarck decided to beef up German security with a new Austrian alliance. His goal was to restore the Three Emperors’ League, “the greatest prospect of European peace.” Defying the king as in days of old, he went to Vienna to make the arrangements. The Austrians welcomed him with “the treatment reserved for modern superstars,” and the Austro-German Treaty was concluded in two days, a successful coup for the old warhorse. Although unhappy with Prince Bismarck going off the reservation—again—King William conceded that “Bismarck is more necessary than I am.”
At this time, a tidal wave of public anti-Semitism struck Germany, ending the liberal era and beginning another stage in German-Jewish history that would end with the Holocaust. Having lived among the Prussian Junkers and Christian Pietists, both of whom believed that Jews had no rightful place in a Christian state, Bismarck joined with them, abandoning the Christian state for the secular state, taking with him an unspoken cultural belief that a Jew cannot also be a German. Reading history backwards, Steinberg pounces on what he calls “Bismarck’s real gift to Hitler,” by which he means his personal model as a “sovereign self” and “genius-statesman,” presumably superior to other parliamentarians, which Hitler certainly believed himself to be.
By such reasoning and linkage, Steinberg can conceive of the Hitler of the 1930s and ’40s being welcomed into Bismarck’s 1880s cabinet, and vice versa. With anti-Semitism rife in the late-19th-century German establishment, Bismarck “had nothing to say” publicly on the subject, but floated with “the roaring stream of Providence and history,” taking what enlightenment it gave him. But when a Liberal parliamentarian finds the anti-Semitic movements of the time clinging to Bismarck’s coattails, “however much he rejects them and lets his press scold them for their excesses, they go right on cuddling up to him.” In doing so they showed their true colors and confirmed what Steinberg correctly tells us: “German liberalism,” not Jewry, was Bismarck’s “real enemy.”
Within a hundred days William I and his son Frederick III died, leaving the headstrong, 29-year-old William II the new king. This accident of heredity proved to be Bismarck’s undoing as well, inasmuch as the royal power passed to a weak, unfriendly monarch. For 26 years Bismarck had been under the protective wing of William I, but the glory days when William I let General Moltke command his armies and Bismarck run the state were fast waning. Bismarck was now vulnerable to the same palace intrigue that had made him the most powerful statesman of the age. The youthful William II did not look on the old chancellor as the greatest military strategist, or as the world’s most successful politician. Bismarck had now to worry that the young William would discharge him, and that was just what he did.
Steinberg signs off as he signed on, terminating the life of the Iron Chancellor with this remembrance and lesson:
Steven Ozment, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard, has just published The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation (Yale).