I could bite the table

Christopher Clark

  • Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg
    Oxford, 577 pp, £25.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 959901 1

In the autumn of 1862, the Kingdom of Prussia was paralysed by a constitutional crisis. Wilhelm I and his military advisers wanted to expand and improve the army. The liberal-dominated Prussian parliament refused to approve the necessary funds. At issue was the question of who had the right to determine the army’s character. The liberal view was that the parliament’s constitutional control of the military budget implied a degree of co-determination in all military matters. In the eyes of the Crown, the army was an organisation bound in personal loyalty to the monarch that must be shielded entirely from the scrutiny of civilian deputies. Crown and parliament were in deadlock and Wilhelm was said to be contemplating abdication.

This is the crisis Bismarck was brought into government to resolve. His appointment to the minister-presidency of Prussia was a measure of last resort. In 1862, the 47-year-old Otto von Bismarck appeared a dubious figure. His fervid scheming on the fringes of the reactionary right during the 1848 Revolutions had earned him the reputation of an extremist. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the risk paid off, and in his handling of the crisis, Bismarck revealed the tactical flexibility, political instinct and ruthlessness that would remain hallmarks of his statesmanship. He began with an attempt to conciliate, concocting a military programme that would secure government priorities in key areas while at the same time meeting some of the main liberal demands. The gambit might well have worked, but it was blocked by the chief of the king’s military cabinet. Bismarck immediately saw that the key to solving the crisis was no longer to secure a deal between parliament and Crown, but rather to eliminate all possible rivals for the king’s confidence. He altered his policy accordingly, abandoning compromise in favour of open confrontation. Military reforms were bulldozed through and taxes were collected without parliamentary approval. The king was impressed by his new minister’s skill and dependability and Bismarck soon dominated the antechamber of power. He would remain at the summit of German politics until he was forced into retirement 28 years and two kings later.

It was an extraordinary career by any measure. In 1864, after only two years in office, Bismarck led Prussia into a war with Denmark over the independence of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The Prussians entered this war as allies of Austria, but Bismarck exploited the ambiguities of the postwar settlement in the conquered duchies to provoke a break with Vienna. In the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a short but deadly conflict that culminated in a vast pitched battle around the Bohemian town of Königgrätz, the Prussians broke the military power of Austria and ousted the House of Habsburg from its traditional captaincy in German politics. Bismarck used the victory to transform the face of Germany. Schleswig and Holstein, Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel, the city of Frankfurt and part of Hesse-Darmstadt were all annexed by Prussia, and the remaining German states north of the River Main incorporated into a Prussian-dominated North German Confederation with a constitution drawn up at Bismarck’s instigation. In the south, only four independent German states remained: Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and the southern rump of Hesse-Darmstadt, but these were made to sign alliances that placed them within the Prussian sphere of influence.

At the same time, he made it up with the liberals he had so enraged during the constitutional crisis. He offered them a parliamentary indemnity and drew them into consultations on the new constitution. It helped that the victory against conservative, multi-ethnic, Catholic Austria enraptured the Protestant, nationalist progressives who made up the bulk of the German liberal movement. The North German Confederation was only four years old when he went to war again, this time against France. In this instance it was Paris that declared war, but Bismarck had laid the ground by exploiting the geopolitical ambiguities created by the Austrian war. Thanks to superior strategy and organisation, the Prussians and their Confederal and South German allies inflicted a shattering defeat on the French armies. On 18 January 1871, with German troops still laying siege to Paris, Wilhelm was proclaimed German emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

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