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Iron in the blood

How curious that such an outsize man, in physique as well as personality, should be remembered today mainly for giving his name to a small fish.

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

How curious that such an outsize man, in physique as well as personality, should be remembered today mainly for giving his name to a small fish. For the 19th century, Bismarck was no herring but a leviathan. Between 1862 and 1890 he created Germany, seeing off first the Austrian empire and then France. He dominated Prussian and then German politics and played a central role in the international relations of Europe. He also created the German problem which has been with us in one form or another ever since: his new country which sat at the heart of Europe was already a great military power and in the years after unification grew into a great economic one as well.

He came from an unlikely background for such an extraordinary statesman. The Bismarcks were Junkers, landed gentry, eking out a modest living on their estates in east Prussia. Although some of their values and prejudices remained with Bismarck, he was bored to desperation by country life. He showed no particular promise at university, where he seems to have spent most of his time drinking and gambling. He did his best to avoid his obligatory military service, although he later tried to claim, much to the annoyance of the generals, that he had been a keen soldier. It was fortunate for him, if not for Europe, when he discovered his aptitude for politics.

His skills, his boldness and his sheer determination caught the attention of the powerful including, crucially, the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I. The key relationship in Bismarck’s life was with this decent and conventional man and not with his own wife, who seems to have been a rather ordinary woman. Bismarck had no independent power base, but as long as Wilhelm backed him he was secure. And back him Wilhelm generally did; as the King rightly said, ‘Bismarck is more necessary than I am.’

In return Bismarck solved his master’s political problems at home and made him Emperor of the Germans. At times the relationship of the two men sounds like Downing Street under the last Labour government; there were tears, slamming of doors, headaches, and threats to resign, often over the most trivial issues. The King went to extraordinary lengths to keep his difficult Chancellor. How could Bismarck think of resigning, he wrote after one scene: ‘It is my greatest happiness [underlined twice] to live with you and thoroughly agree with you!’

It’s a worn out cliché but, as Jonathan Steinberg shows in this excellent new biography, Bismarck really was larger than life. His capacity for work, his ambition and his appetites were all huge. (Two of his guests were once struck with admiration at his chamber pot, so much bigger than the usual.) He was usually brutal to his sub- ordinates and inferiors, and his rages were terrifying. He lied shamelessly and blamed others for his mistakes. He used people and abandoned them without hesitation when they were no longer of service to him.


He was prone to fits of hypochondria and self-pity, but he had little pity to spare for anyone else. He apparently was a Christian but he did not believe in forgiveness; if you crossed him, he was ruthless and vindictive. ‘The demonic is stronger in him than in any man I know’, said Odo Russell, a British diplomat who knew him well. Yet he could also be charming and highly entertaining. Disraeli, who spent an evening with Bismarck in Berlin in 1878, was fascinated by the contrast between his gentle, rather refined voice and the outrageous things he was saying.

Politics, whether domestic or foreign, was for Bismarck a wonderful game. He had an uncanny ability to sense the way history was flowing, and move with it. He also knew how to balance one force against another, whether it was Russia against Austria, or the German working classes against the liberal middle classes he despised. He used military victories to destroy opposition to his autocratic rule at home, but brought in universal suffrage when he thought he could use it against his enemies. He also introduced the first universal welfare system. (Surprisingly, Steinberg devotes a mere half page to this most innovative policy.) It helped that Bismarck had few fixed principles beyond furthering Prussia’s, and then Germany’s, interests, and no illusions. His cynical realism needs a German word—realpolitik—to describe it.

In 1862 he told Disraeli what he intended to do: he would find an excuse to fight Austria when the time was right. When Prussia won, he would bring the remaining German states firmly under its control to create a new country. And so he did. Again his luck held; Austria’s leaders were no match for him, and when France awoke too late to the dangerous new power growing in the east, the hapless Louis Napoleon fought a war without any allies. As Bismarck once exclaimed in delight, ‘I have beaten them all! All!’

It is a complicated story, in part because Bismarck himself manoeuvred so craftily and through such complex and interlocking levels, but Steinberg tells it well. He even manages to make sense of the notorious Schleswig-Holstein question, which is said to have driven people mad.

In 1871 the new German Reich was proclaimed at Versailles, a humiliation which France never forgot. More seriously still, the German military (not Bismarck himself, as Steinberg in a rare mistake says) insisted on annexing the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. With France defeated and Austria and Russia friendly, Bismarck was the master of Europe after 1871. In the end, though, the system he created was unstable and Austria and Russia drifted into enmity.

The same instability was true of Germany itself. He ruled it through a ramshackle system which depended far too much on his ability to manage it. The public and parliament had little control over key areas such as the military and foreign policy. As a French ambassador said, Germany’s constitution was ‘a fine and beautiful facade’ behind which lay a cowed judiciary and bureaucracy, an army which believed it answered only to the Emperor, and a population which was ‘quick to criticise, but quicker still to bow to the supreme will.’

Steinberg makes much of the continuities in German history; he argues, for example, that the conservative, chauvinistic and anti-democratic values of the Junkers carried on unchanged into the 20th century to shape the German national character. He also believes that Bismarck transmitted a cult of reverence for an absolute ruler and for force which served Hitler well. Bismarck cannot be held solely responsible, though, for all that happened after his death, whether it was Germany’s entry into world war, or the failure of Weimar democracy in the 1920s and the rise of the Nazis. Germany had choices which could have taken it down different paths.

It is true, however, that Bismarck missed a real chance to build strong institutions and to encourage a robust politics, simply because it didn’t suit him to share power. There are other tantalising ‘what ifs’ too, especially what would have happened if Wilhelm I’s son, the liberal Frederick Wilhelm, had succeeded earlier than 1888 or had not died shortly after. That tragically early death brought Wilhelm II to the throne and gave too much power to a man manifestly unsuited to wield it.

The last thing Germany’s new ruler wanted was to share power, and Bismarck himself was booted out of office in 1890. The old man typically took what revenge he could, leaking stories to the press to discredit his successors. To everyone’s surprise he also became an iconic figure to a new generation, a symbol of Germany’s new greatness. Professor Steinberg has done an excellent job of explaining the man himself and his long and momentous career.


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