Bismarck: A Life 
by Jonathan Steinberg.
Oxford, 577 pp., £25, February 2011, 978 0 19 959901 1
Show More
Show More

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.

The momentous achievements of these first nine years in high office would have been enough to assure Bismarck of a place in the pantheon of 19th-century statesmen. But he stayed on for another 19 years, imprinting his personality on the laws, foreign policy and institutions of the new Germany. He saw that the foundation of the new empire was the beginning, not the end, of the process of unification and he had no intention of leaving that task in less capable hands. As imperial chancellor, Prussian minister-president and Prussian foreign minister (there were other, lesser titles), he occupied a constellation of offices that gave him unparalleled control over the wheezing federal machinery of the Prussian-German Empire, a vast and hugely varied polity that stretched from Switzerland to Lithuania. In the 1870s, he hurried nation-building legislation through the Reichstag while rallying the liberal and anti-clerical conservatives in a massive assault on the institutions and personnel of the Catholic Church, viewed by Protestant Berlin as the seedbed of regionalist resistance to the new imperial order.

From 1878, however, he abandoned his liberal allies, made an uneasy peace with the Catholics, turned against the ideology of the free market (a timely move at a moment when a world recession was undermining liberal certainties) and aligned himself with the protectionist politics of the conservatives. And then he surprised some of his critics on the left by taking the lead in establishing the foundations of a rudimentary welfare state, even as he attempted, without much success, to lead the conservatives and parts of the liberal movement in a draconian campaign against Germany’s new left-wing mass party, the Social Democrats. At the same time, he managed the new empire’s external relations with remarkable skill and restraint, avoiding conflict whenever possible by ensuring that Germany remained on good terms with Russia, avoided antagonising Britain and generally punched below its weight. By 1887 – the high point of the Bismarckian diplomatic ‘system’ – Germany was directly or indirectly linked by treaties with every major European power except France.

Only from close up can we see how perilous and uncertain many of the steps he took appeared at the time. As Jonathan Steinberg shows in this superb biography, there was nothing preordained about Bismarck’s successes. Had the war with Denmark not revived his fortunes he might well have disappeared from Prussian and German politics for ever after the 1862 constitutional crisis. The wars with Austria and France were both close-run things that could easily have ended in disaster. Imposing his will on the Prussian military command required all of his ingenuity and determination. And there was the ever present danger that the emperor would lose faith in his chancellor and sack him – Bismarck was not an elected leader, let alone a popular tribune, but a royal appointee. Acknowledging the element of contingency does not diminish his achievement, however: it was precisely Bismarck’s ability to deal with conditions of uncertainty and instability that marked him out as a political leader.

It wasn’t just that he could cope with instability: he courted it. From the beginning he understood that the outrage and conflict stirred by provocative gestures were more clarifying and more enabling to the skilful politician than ostensible harmony. According to a thinly disguised portrait by his American friend John Motley, the 17-year-old Bismarck found his way into the most exclusive student fraternity at the University of Göttingen not by ingratiating himself with its members but, as Motley has it, by insulting ‘them all publicly and in the grossest possible manner’, and using the resulting duels as opportunities to wound them so grievously that eventually, ‘desiring to secure the services of so valorous a combatant’, they welcomed him into their ranks.

As Steinberg shows, Bismarck did exactly the same thing in 1847, when he delivered his sensational maiden speech – the first political speech he had ever given – before the United Diet in Berlin, the first all-Prussian territorial assembly since the Napoleonic era. Bismarck had aligned himself with the assembly’s aristocratic ‘ultras’ and used his speech to mount a gratuitous assault on the liberal memory of the campaign against Napoleon in 1813 as a ‘people’s war for liberty’. It was a shot aimed at the historical heart of the liberal ideology and it stirred the benches opposite into a froth of outrage. ‘Murmuring and loud shouting interrupt the speaker,’ the stenographic records of the session note. ‘He draws the Spenersche newspaper from his pocket and reads it until the Marshal has restored order. He then continues.’

Scenes like this would crop up throughout his career. In the United Diet of 1847, it was by no means obvious that insulting the liberals – rather than seeking an accommodation with them – was a useful or politically astute thing to do. But in retrospect it is clear that Bismarck’s provocations were effective. Had he merely contributed intelligently to a debate on local government reform, he would never have achieved the notoriety that secured him access to court circles during and after the 1848 Revolutions and put him in the frame for appointment to the minister-presidency. Throughout his career, he deliberately stirred up controversy, exploiting the way it pressured friends and enemies into showing their true colours.

Because he welcomed situations of heightened tension, Bismarck found it easy to resist the temptation to resolve political conflicts and crises prematurely. He preferred to let the turmoil evolve to the point where plausible options began to surface. He allowed the awkwardness generated by the Austro-Prussian parallel occupations of Holstein and Schleswig after the Danish war of 1864 gradually to escalate and when the moment was right seized the opportunity to engage in open conflict with Austria. He did the same with the crisis over the Hohenzollern candidacy for the Spanish throne in 1870, allowing the tone of relations between France and Prussia to deteriorate until the French government was foolhardy enough to risk a declaration of war. In the later 1870s and the 1880s, he applied the same approach to the tensions fomenting on the Balkan Peninsula. His policy on the Eastern Question was not designed to eradicate conflict from the European states system, but rather to deflect it to the periphery, where it would disturb the system in ways that would not threaten Germany and might even enhance its security. Bismarck was never in control of events and he knew it, but he understood that situations of instability have their own dynamic. In almost every major enterprise of his career, he entered the fray with a relatively open mind, not only as regarded methods and affiliations but also the prioritisation and timing of objectives.

His tactical flexibility owed much to the fact that he operated outside the ideological prescriptions of any single interest. He came from the boondocks of Pomerania, from that flat expanse of rural estates where the noble landowner was a king in his own little world. But though he counted many ‘old conservatives’ among his friends, he never adopted their nostalgic, corporatist politics. He could certainly play the role of the red-neck Krautjunker, but his attitude to his own class was marked by ironic distance. Nor, on the other hand, was he or could he be a liberal. He revered the monarchical state, because he admired its capacity for autonomy, and he was unimpressed by the fourth estate – throughout his life he regarded with disdain the Federfuchser, the ‘pen-pushers’, of the administration.

The result of all these non-alignments was a remarkable freedom from ideological constraint, an ability to spring from one camp to the other, wrong-footing opponents or exploiting the differences between them. Scarcely had he humiliated the liberals during the constitutional crisis than he was offering them a parliamentary indemnity, to the dismay of his conservative allies. He brandished the democratic franchise as a weapon against elitist liberalism, and menaced the Social Democrats with the framework of an embryonic welfare state, while puncturing the pretensions of the nationalists by seeming to take charge of the nationalist cause. His career was punctuated by the astonished gasps of those who, having enlisted Bismarck for their cause one day, found him bombarding them from an enemy position the next. The protean nature of his politics infuriated his allies and his enemies, who were sometimes the same people, but at least it kept them guessing. It was one of the keys to his success.

Yet Bismarck could have been sacked by the monarch at any moment. In an only partly parliamentarised monarchical system, the Prussian throne remained the taproot of all real political authority. Bismarck had grasped this elementary truth during the constitutional crisis and for 26 years in high office he assiduously micromanaged his relationship with Wilhelm I, King of Prussia and (from 1871) German kaiser. His interactions with that bewhiskered patriarch, brilliantly captured by Steinberg, are a study in codependency. Bismarck pressed, wooed, bullied and cajoled the kaiser into agreement on most issues of importance. When confrontations occurred, he pressed his arguments home with tears, rages and letters of resignation – all refused by the monarch, who found it impossible to imagine how he would manage without his Bismarck. It was these scenes, which Wilhelm found almost intolerable, that moved him to make the observation: ‘Es ist nicht leicht, unter diesem Kanzler Kaiser zu sein’ (‘It is not easy being kaiser under this chancellor’). It was an exhausting way to run a relationship, but it worked.

Bismarck’s public successes were purchased at horrendous private cost. On this issue, Steinberg’s biography is hugely informative. Drawing on dozens of contemporary memoirs by people who had personal reasons for loving, fearing or hating Bismarck, he brings the reader into intimate contact with his subject. These converging views produce an eerily mobile sense of Bismarck, of his physical presence, his moods, manner and relationships, the pattern of his conversation. As Steinberg shows, politics ate up everything else inside him. It fed on and ultimately destroyed most of his friendships (a remarkable exception was his attachment to John Motley, by now a historian and diplomat, who loved Bismarck – and posed absolutely no threat to him). By the 1870s, he could tolerate the company only of those who were willing to allow themselves to be swallowed entirely by the Bismarckian enterprise. An example is the likeable and intelligent Christoph Tiedemann, who entered Bismarck’s employ as his personal assistant in 1875 and left in 1881 in poorer health after being worked to distraction for five years. Increasingly, it was people in this kind of position who got to see the real Bismarck.

And what they saw, as Steinberg shows, was often horrific. The unrelenting struggle to dominate his opponents, the obsessive-compulsive need to see the entire political system function in conformity with his own priorities, and the sheer frustration at how slowly things actually changed, even when one pushed as hard as one could, unleashed torrents of grief and rage that brought the chancellor to the brink of physical collapse. Bismarck spent more and more of his time in a state of boiling anger. Even on the occasion of the proclamation of the empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the symbolic high point of his career thus far, Bismarck was in a stinker of a mood because of arguments with Wilhelm about the exact wording of his title as emperor. The wit, verve and sprezzatura of his memoirs – one of the great 19th-century literary works in German – belied his personality. He was always flying off the handle: over the kaiser’s preference for a certain ambassador, or the Federal Council’s refusal to ratify the appointment of a postal official, or the alleged errors in the stenographic record of one of his speeches, or the suspected intrigues of the kaiser’s wife, Empress Augusta, or any one of an endless sequence of real or imagined vexations. He got into such a rage, he told his brother, ‘over those who keep knocking at my door and annoy me with questions and bills that I could bite the table.’ All these political frustrations were somatised in one of the century’s most grandiose cases of hypochondria. They manifested themselves in itches, fevers, headaches, chronic fatigue, dizziness, sleeplessness, vomiting, paralysis, ‘blood stoppage’, congestion, stomach cramps and ‘irritated nerves’. Of the 1275 days between 14 May 1875 and the end of November 1878, Bismarck spent 772 either on his estates or at spas.

Yet the real cost of his rule, Steinberg suggests, was borne by German political culture itself. Bismarck bullied his colleagues and subordinates (indeed, he found the two categories impossible to distinguish), with the result that the apex of government was characterised by its craven servility. Dissident ministers were hounded out of public life, obstreperous Reichstag deputies were singled out for furious rhetorical assaults, newspaper editors were covertly bribed with cash stolen from the confiscated Hanoverian crown treasury. Bismarck’s towering pre-eminence became a liability for the German future. ‘When Bismarck left office, the servility of the German people had been cemented,’ Steinberg writes, ‘an obedience from which they never recovered.’ Or, in an even stronger formulation of the same idea: ‘Bismarck’s legacy passed through Hindenburg to the last genius-statesman that Germany produced, Adolf Hitler, and the legacy was thus linear and direct between Bismarck and Hitler.’

This seems to me to push the case too far. There is no doubt that Bismarck’s was in some respects a negative political model. In a subtle analysis of the chancellor’s legacy published in 1917, 19 years after his death, Max Weber observed that those who most admired Bismarck tended to do so not for the ‘grandeur of his subtle, sovereign mind, but exclusively for the element of violence and cunning in his statesmanship, the real or apparent brutality in his methods’. And it is certainly true, as Robert Gerwarth has shown in a recent study, that an authoritarian Bismarck myth flourished in anti-democratic circles on the German right during the Weimar Republic.

It is also true, however, that Bismarck’s foreign policy, which was marked by a scrupulous sense of balance and restraint, bore no resemblance at all to Hitler’s rampant expansionism and must be judged a triumphant success, especially when one considers its rapid deterioration after his departure. Even on the domestic front, the situation was perhaps less straightforward than Steinberg suggests. Not all Germans had been schooled in obedience by Bismarck. His efforts to shut down political Catholicism in the 1870s produced a massive counter-mobilisation in the south and west (not to mention the Polish east), with the result that the Catholic, anti-Bismarckian Centre Party became one of the largest and most robust blocs in parliament. In February 1890, just as he was being levered out of office by a callow new kaiser, the national elections produced a sensational result in the form of a massive victory for the Social Democratic Party, which Bismarck had spent much of the previous decade trying to suppress. By 1912, the SPD would dominate the electoral map, with more than a third of popular votes. It was hardly a ringing endorsement for the Iron Chancellor or for his politics. Between them, the Centre and the SPD contained the seeds of a future that would outlive Bismarck – and Hitler.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences