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The Gambler in Blood and Iron

Bismarck: A Life

by Jonathan Steinberg
Oxford University Press, 577 pp., $34.95


by Jean-Paul Bled
Paris: Perrin, 319 pp., d23.00 (paper)
Scala, Florence/BPK, Berlin
Otto von Bismarck with his dogs, Tyras II and Rebecca, July 1891

Life with Otto von Bismarck could be very uncomfortable, even for those on his own side. Shortly after being appointed premier of Prussia in 1862, with a brief to defend monarch and army against an overwhelming liberal majority in parliament, he gave a speech that included the infamous claim that “the great questions of the time will be determined not by speeches or majority decisions, but by blood and iron.”1

The king of Prussia himself was outraged at this wild language, and began to fear the fate of Charles I of England or Louis XVI of France. Bismarck had to expend all his guile, his rhetoric, and his nervous energy to pull William I around. The next year he needed to mount the king’s private carriage and face him down to prevent William from making a deal with Austria, Bismarck’s bête noire, that could have led to German unification under Austrian auspices. And so it continued. Even the celebrated launch of the new German Empire on January 18, 1871, in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors (and nudes!), ten days before the French surrender in the Franco-Prussian War, barely covered over a seething row between Bismarck and William over the wording of the imperial title to be adopted.2

Meanwhile, in those nine years, Bismarck had dramatically changed the map of Europe. With three short wars, each of which he at least took advantage of, if not engineered, he made himself the architect of a unified Germany, from Bavaria to Schleswig-Holstein, under Prussian aegis. He invoked national feeling to consolidate his creation. The most effective diplomat of the nineteenth century, he then, over the next two decades, guided one of the most powerful states the continent had ever seen in a federal and monarchist structure built around his own personal authority. Was he a conservative who embraced inescapable reform, or a realist who struck reactionary poses when they suited his purposes, or a mere opportunist who took his chances? For good reason there has been no end to the making of books on the man.

Biographers can draw on a huge documentation, stretching back to Bismarck’s own carefully manipulated memoirs and his voluminous Collected Works, posthumously published but likewise doctored by their editors. Two standard German contributions of the last generation appeared in each half of a still divided nation. In the West, Lothar Gall presented Bismarck as a “white revolutionary” who seized the historic moment to restructure German Central Europe in the interests of its traditional ruling elites. In the East, Ernst Engelberg (who finished as the Nestor of the guild, dying in 2010 at the age of 101) saw him as an Urpreuße, an archetypal Prussian, but also as a “Bonapartist,” drawing on a French model of populist dictatorship.3 Both books became commentaries on the reunification of Germany in 1990, which lent renewed topicality to Bismarck’s earlier achievement—and as it happened, occurred exactly one hundred years after his fall from power.

Now we have two new works.4 They cannot add much fresh information; nor are they freighted with ideology or theory. As their unadorned titles imply, neither author believes in summary categories like “white revolutionary” or “Bonapartist.” But both are thoughtful and readable reappraisals. Jean-Paul Bled, a historian who teaches at the Sorbonne, tells the story more clearly, whereas Jonathan Steinberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, goes deeper. In particular he seeks to plumb the psychological depths of Bismarck’s relationships, above all the one with his sovereign. It’s an approach pioneered by the great American scholar of the age of German unification, the late Otto Pflanze, but it was already explored in one of A.J.P. Taylor’s most effervescent works, still perhaps the best-known previous treatment in English.5

There is no scope for psychoanalysis: we know comparatively little about Bismarck’s youth. His father was a typical Prussian provincial landed noble, a Junker. The word implied a set of values important for Bismarck: military and civil service to the Prussian state; living on and managing country estates; and a Protestantism that often assumed pietistic forms, though Otto wore them lightly, for social consumption, without the soul-searching of some of his confrères. His formidable intellect, so often deployed in joyless cunning, was inherited from a clever but cold mother, whom he loathed. That may also explain Bismarck’s philistine tendencies: he displayed little interest in literature and music, whether classical or contemporary, and he shared the archetypal Junker’s lack of artistic taste. This fine stylist, who in his letters and memoranda could be racy and comic by turns—well illustrated by Steinberg, albeit his translations are sometimes odd—was not a highly cultivated figure. Indeed, since his wife Johanna, who came from a similar Junker family, wanted no role in society at all, they adopted a regime of extreme domesticity, centered on food. Bismarck’s first move on taking office in 1862 was to summon his favorite chef.

That is the more extraordinary since Bismarck owed his rise and subsequent triumphs to his skills as a cosmopolitan, worldly-wise diplomat. He initially came to prominence as a wild and extravagant leader of the local jeunesse dorée in 1848–1849, adopting a hidebound position against the liberals who first sought a union of German states under the auspices of a constitutional Prussia. But his posting to Frankfurt as envoy to the German Confederation and his spells as an ambassador qualified him to be called to the helm in Berlin. Steinberg repeatedly argues that Bismarck always behaved in more rational, balanced, and conciliatory ways in external affairs than in domestic political matters; and indeed it was as longtime foreign minister of Prussia that he most effectively exercised his command.

Certainly Bismarck never became a conventional politician. He was no party leader: though his acolytes organized themselves as “Free Conservatives” from 1866 and later as a Reichspartei, they made little showing. While his parliamentary addresses could be fiery and outré, witty and dramatic, he delivered no speeches to a mass public. Nor did Bismarck, the royally appointed premier of Prussia and then—concurrently—chancellor of Germany, ever organize an administration of his own. It’s a nice irony both that this reactionary needed representative bodies to achieve his ends; and that he deliberately deprived himself of the scope for power that might have been available through cabinet government.

Bismarck was correspondingly most at home in a covert and shifting world of intrigue. He worked through webs and networks, typically using tame civil servants and army officials to gain and maintain influence. He needed the loyalty and respectable conformity of friends for his own flexibility. He never felt beholden to them, as others learned to their cost; but neither was he ever secure. For all his dependence on a court ambience, he mistrusted the royal court and often stayed away from it (indulging his inbred yen for country living). The servant–lord relation in which he stood to his monarch is crucial. William I was already sixty-five years old when he summoned Bismarck; and the king-emperor’s longevity—he died only in 1888—now became as important for his protégé chief minister as were his plain dealing and bluff integrity. So did the enmity of William’s consort Augusta. Again the irony: from 1867 Germany had a broad electorate, at Bismarck’s instigation, yet the chancellor remained accountable only to the caprice of a crown and of an army command whose decisions he could not control, or even inform himself about directly.

Mike King

That points us to a further contradiction in Bismarck’s position. He was no soldier, and well realized how war divested civilian politicians of their authority. However, he loved military trappings: he cut a distinctive figure when wearing—or depicted with—a spiked helmet and thigh-high leather boots; and he talked of dying for the cause. Moreover, he soon came to be known for advocating aggression as the ultima ratio of politics. Already in 1848–1849 the king had identified him as an asset to be used only when the bayonets were drawn. Bismarck preached that war might be desirable for the benefit of the state, whose power rests on egoism, not sensitivity. Thus he reached his declaration about blood and iron.

Bismarck resolved the German question in the 1860s with blood and iron, creating a new country by forcibly excluding from Germany the Danes, then the Austrians, then the French. Simultaneously, but without violence, he settled the Prussian constitutional question, provisionally at least, to the satisfaction of the established order. His great coup was to couple the two questions, in order to manage the one by means of the other. The existing German Confederation had to be transformed to secure Prussia’s hegemony within it. Back in 1848 he had talked of how the German crown then available required the Prussian one to be melted down first. Above all it would be necessary to exclude Austria and cut France down to size if it interfered. Meanwhile his embattled Prussian government, appointed to force through higher military appropriations and a more professional army in the face of liberal resentments, had to appeal to the German people; and Bismarck felt none of the compunction that restrained other conservatives about sounding national slogans and even promoting full male suffrage in order to outflank his opponents.

In fact the victories over Denmark and Austria in 1864–1866 sufficed to consolidate Bismarck’s position at home. He chastened the liberals, who soon themselves adopted the language of blood and iron. Bismarck now joined them as a financial entrepreneur. He managed a political slush fund derived from railway sales, then from reparations and expropriations, though he continued to need the revenues from his own expanded estates too. He collaborated with the liberals to extend the bounds of the new Germany, even if it took ill-conceived aggressiveness from Napoleon III to bring the remaining, southern German states into his camp.

The resultant political structure (more clearly explained by Bled than Steinberg) placed Bismarck alone as the suture between the Empire, of which he became chancellor, and Prussia, where he remained premier and foreign minister. He commanded huge esteem and something akin to hero worship in many quarters. Yet he was still vulnerable, not only to the whims of royalty and the pressures of courtly faction, but to the structures and interests of the new state. He always had to respect federal arrangements, as well as a wider challenge from political opponents. Two chief issues involved him in what, from a diplomatic perspective, could be thought of as his domestic preventive wars. Historians, and our two authors do not dissent, have usually reckoned both of them failures.

First came the celebrated Kulturkampf. This “culture struggle” was fought out between the Bismarckian establishment, with its liberal Protestant ethos, and Germany’s Catholics, who ironically, given their ambivalence about the new empire, proved the chief political beneficiaries of universal suffrage. Governmental actions only pushed Catholic clergy and laity from various regions together in a new mass Center (Zentrum) Party, under its spirited leader Ludwig Windthorst, Bismarck’s bugbear (and Steinberg’s hero). By the end of the 1870s Bismarck began to mend bridges with Catholicism and found another adversary in rising socialism.

  1. 1

    Actually he said “iron and blood”: ” Nicht durch Reden und Majoritätsbeschlüsse werden die großen Fragen der Zeit entschieden…sondern durch Eisen und Blut “: Otto von Bismarck, Die gesammelten Werke, edited by H. von Petersdorff (Berlin: Otto Stolberg, 1924–1935), Vol. 10, p. 140. It’s unclear how the words became transposed. 

  2. 2

    The issue was whether William should be styled “Emperor of Germany” ( Kaiser von Deutschland ) as he himself wished, or “German Emperor” ( Deutscher Kaiser ), as Bismarck urged, since it better saved the faces of the other German princes. 

  3. 3

    Lothar Gall, Bismarck, der weiße Revolutionär (Frankfurt am Main: Propyläen, 1980), translated as Bismarck, the White Revolutionary (London: Allen and Unwin, 2 vols., 1986); Ernst Engelberg, Bismarck, Urpreuße und Reichsgründer (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag/Siedler, 2 vols., 1985–1990). 

  4. 4

    Actually Bled’s book is almost word for word the same as a work with the same title that appeared in 2005 from Éditions Alvik, though the publisher conceals this. 

  5. 5

    Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany (Princeton University Press, 3 vols., 1963; second edition, 1990); A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (Knopf, 1955). 

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