Margaret Macmillan

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.

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.’

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