The Magazine

Germany’s Godfather

The life and legacy of Otto von Bismarck

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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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.