The Gambler in Blood and Iron

Bismarck: A Life

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

Bismarck

by Jean-Paul Bled
Paris: Perrin, 319 pp., d23.00 (paper)
evans_1-022312.jpg
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 …

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  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).