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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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.”

Painting of ‘The Proclamation of the German Empire’ by Anton von Werner

‘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-