Otto von Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck; drawing by David Levine

In August 1978, when French newspapers were going through one of their recurrent spells of worrying about signs of renascent Nazism in West Germany, the dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, not usually an admirer of great men, wrote a curious essay in the influential weekly news magazine Der Spiegel entitled “Bismarck the Classic,” in which he roundly criticized German historians for their inadequate appreciation of Germany’s greatest statesman. He reminded them that an English historian had called Bismarck’s memoirs “an unexcelled memoir of statecraft” and “the most authoritative statement about the art of governing since Machiavelli’s The Prince.” He pointed out that the chancellor’s social insurance laws antedated by at least sixty years any comparable legislation in the United States; and he described the three volumes of Bismarck’s Table Talk (Gespräche), which he said should be required reading for his countrymen, as “the only books in the German language whose human and political stature (the rarest combination that there is) places them on the level of Shakespeare’s historical plays.”

This view of Bismarck as a combination of social reformer, political scientist, and humanist may strike students of the Iron Chancellor’s career as being selective and arbitrary, but the fact is that most German judgments of Bismarck since the end of the Second World War tend to be either arbitrary or ambivalent. At those times when they are feeling frustrated by their reduced role in the world or are irritated by foreign criticism, Germans are apt to invoke his name as if to reassure themselves with the memory of a time when they possessed a Zauberkünstler who knew the answers to all foreign political conundrums and who made his country respected and feared abroad. In more reflective moments, if they think of him at all, they wonder whether there may not be some connection between his policies and their present perplexities. It is not irrelevant to note that, in the days when the Allensbach Institut für Demoskopie used to ask its respondents, “In your opinion which great Germans accomplished most for Germany?” Bismarck’s share in the vote was never higher than 35 percent (in 1950) and declined steadily, reaching a low point of 13 percent in December 1966. It would probably be no higher today.

One of the chancellor’s greatest admirers, the historian Friedrich Meinecke, wrote sadly in 1948 that it was time for Germans to face up to the fact that Bismarck’s contribution to German history had “a night side” as well as “a day side.” The latter was his founding of the German Reich in 1871, which released energies that had lain dormant for decades and, by doing so, brought benefits not only to the German people but, if one thinks of the achievements of German science and industry and art and scholarship during the empire, to the rest of the world as well. The “night side” was represented by the fact that the Reich was as much the creation of military force as it was of Bismarck’s political skills. The chancellor, who had planned the victories over Austria and France, always recognized that force, while indispensable, had its limitations, but this was lost upon many patriotic Germans. In the short history of the empire, there is no doubt that the emphasis upon power at the expense of the spirit corrupted the values and stunted the political growth of the German people.

This was more clearly evident during the reign of William II, beginning in 1888, than in the days when Bismarck was chancellor, but it would be idle to deny that he must share the blame. His determination to preserve the absolutist character of the state and to keep the Prussian monarchy free of parliamentary restraint made him give the military an excessive and irresponsible position in the empire’s constitutional arrangements, and his aversion to theories of popular sovereignty found expression in his emasculation of the political class that in England and France had led the fight for liberal reform and democratic government.

Bismarck’s Reich was an anachronistic political structure with a parliament that had no effective control over government policy. The chancellor’s favorite tactic against any group or party that challenged and sought to change this situation was to stigmatize its members as “enemies of state” and to conduct war against them with as much virulence as if they had been agents of a foreign power. His most famous campaigns of this kind—the so-called Kulturkampf against the Catholic Center Party and his prolonged attempt to destroy German social democracy—were, in the long run, failures; but by making the once liberal middle class his accomplices in these unavailing struggles, he contributed to its demoralization and corruption, while, in a general sense, his tactics of government impregnated German politics with a friend-foe psychology from which it has not yet freed itself.


Even in foreign affairs, where his appreciation of the real interests of his country was shrewd and realistic and marked, after 1871, by a rejection of adventurism and a willingness, for the sake of the international balance of power, to recognize the legitimate aspirations of other states, his own brilliant performance was flawed by a failure to train people who could, after his death, conduct Germany’s foreign relations in accordance with his principles. Because of his constant suspicion of rivals, he kept his own counsel and treated his closest associates in the foreign ministry and the diplomatic service in a manner that discouraged initiative. The fact that most of William II’s diplomats believed that the whole art of diplomacy lay in knowing how to pound one’s fist upon the table can be laid, in large part, at Bismarck’s door.

Bismarck still has his uncritical admirers in Germany but most serious historians have taken Meinecke’s words to heart, and those who write biographies of the chancellor do not try to avoid the contradictions and ambiguities involved in the task. This is admirably true of the 1980 work of the Frankfurt historian Lothar Gall, which has been widely praised for its comprehensiveness and its rigorous scholarship and has been described as the “classic” biography of this generation.* Gall does not hesitate to describe his protagonist as a “world-historical figure” in the Hegelian sense, with the ability “to recognize what was necessary in his time and to pursue it with passion.” He sees Bismarck as a statesman of vision and courage who realized that, if it was beyond the human capacity to direct the stream of history, he could at least derive benefit for the state he served by daring to sail before the storm. But Gall also argues that this “white revolutionary” (a term that Henry Kissinger once also applied to Bismarck) was in the end incapable of controlling the forces of modernity that he had released and, in his frenetic attempts to do so, was transformed into a reactionary both in policy and tactics, a vindictive old man who was willing to destroy the constitutional system that he had created rather than see it controlled by his enemies.

It is a pity that Edward Crankshaw’s new book on Bismarck follows so closely on that of Gall, for it suffers from the inevitable comparison. It is, to be sure, particularly in its treatment of its subject’s early life, his first years in politics, and the events that led to German unification, a livelier book than Gall’s, which suffers in part from that German profundity that Nietzsche said was akin to bad digestion, and has passages of truly daunting obscurity. In contrast, Crankshaw’s book is a model of clarity and concision; it is perhaps the most readable biography of Bismarck since that of A.J.P. Taylor in 1955. But, unfortunately, its merits are outweighed by its faults.

Among them is his odd argument that the reason previous writers haven’t understood Bismarck is that they have taken him too seriously. “It is only,” he writes in his account of the Franco-German crisis of 1875, “when our inherited awe of Bismarck is moderated that we can begin to understand some of his more mysterious initiatives. The actions which seem totally inexplicable only because it is assumed that, leaving political morality aside, everything Bismarck did was wise, considered, farseeing, and infinitely clever, may be seen for what they are: mistakes—sometimes quite silly ones.”

Apart from its false premise—it would be hard to find anyone these days who makes the assumptions Crankshaw objects to, and Bismarck’s conduct in 1875 has long been regarded as maladroit by historians (most recently by George F. Kennan, whose Decline of Bismarck’s European Order does not appear in Crankshaw’s bibliography)—this passage reveals the basic weakness of his approach to Bismarck’s foreign policy in general. It is characterized by a drastic reductionism, which often sweeps away the context, denies complexity, and trivializes danger.

On the contribution that Bismarck’s policy made to the maintenance of the peace of Europe from 1871 to 1890, Crankshaw is as contemptuous as he is illogical. “For Bismarck peace-making was no more than an expedient,” he says. “At no time was he interested in anything but the security and prosperity of Germany.” And again, “The most important thing to bear in mind when considering Bismarck’s career is not that for a number of years he made war and then stopped, but that he cheated and made mischief all his life.”

Statements like this will not be helpful to anyone seeking to understand how Bismarck managed the crises of 1877-1878 and 1886-1887, nor will Crankshaw’s remarkable suggestion that Bismarck suffered from “astonishing blindness,” because he did not see that Austro-Russian conflict in the Balkans was inevitable “unless a sharp and sustained congress of all the powers could meet, excogitate, arrive at an agreed solution (which must also include an agreed solution to the Anglo-Russian quarrel over the Straits), and set up the machinery to impose it.” This bill of particulars would have amused the chancellor, who knew rather better than others that diplomacy is the art of the possible.


Crankshaw’s discussion of Bismarck’s conduct of domestic affairs is hardly more satisfactory, particularly with respect to his years as imperial chancellor. This is largely due to his decision to dispense with a detailed chronological unfolding of events after 1871 because “for the next twenty years in everything [Bismarck] did he was simply ringing the changes on the many aspects of a highly complex character.” The trouble with this approach is that, on the one hand, as in the case of the author’s treatment of foreign policy, it leads to oversimplification—for example, it is simply not enough to say of Bismarck’s persistent campaign against social democracy that “there was a strain of insanity running through it” and that the antisocialist law was “almost bottomless in its silliness.” On the other hand, it excludes both new tendencies and reversions to past attitudes in Bismarck’s thought and action. There is nothing here, for example, about the chancellor’s stubborn effort, by means of social security legislation and other expedients, to elaborate the machinery of the interventionist state to the point that the authority of the parties was undercut and destroyed, although, as Gall points out, this was the true aim of his policy in his last years. Nor does Crankshaw make the point that, while Bismarck, when he came to power in 1862, set his face against any idea of a coup d’état against a recalcitrant parliament, it was precisely that desperate resort that he favored after 1888. This was, indeed, the main reason for his dismissal in 1890, although it receives no emphasis in Crankshaw’s account.

Crankshaw makes no secret of his thorough disapproval of his protagonist, but one does not have to be an admirer of Bismarck to feel that his criticisms are, as often as not, intemperate and unjust. That Bismarck was a “strange neurotic genius” is fair enough, and it is also true that the chancellor suffered from paranoiac fears of conspiracy. But what justification is there for calling him “the supreme Philistine in Berlin,” when one need only follow Hochhuth’s advice and look at Table Talk to be convinced of the opposite? (The novelist Theodor Fontane, who could on occasion be as critical of Bismarck as Crankshaw, once wrote, “My wife never read me one of [Bismarck’s] speeches or letters or sayings without my feeling a real enchantment.”)

It is true that, in his official career, the chancellor was, as Crankshaw says repeatedly, indifferent to the precepts of private morality and that he did not hesitate to use war as an instrument of policy; but it is not accurate to suggest that he enjoyed doing so and quite incorrect to say that between 1864 and 1866 “he actively stirred up war hysteria to make people eager to fight.” And how can one accept Crankshaw’s argument that it was Bismarck who was “largely responsible” for the rapid decline of public and international morality in his time, and that he “threw the nineteenth century back (dragging the young twentieth century with it) to the level of Louis XIV or Frederick the Great,” when one remembers that he lived in the age of Darwinism, of advanced industrialism and monopolies and cartels, of ideological indoctrination and class conflict, of the jingoistic journalism that battened upon the new literacy, and of imperialism and the Technisierung of war? In view of the potency of these forces, which was felt in all Western countries and not only in Germany, the decline of morality that Crankshaw deplores would have taken place even if Bismarck had died as a young man.

It should be possible to dwell upon “the night side” of Bismarck’s career without making him the fons et origo of all of the ills of the modern age. Indeed, while agreeing with another of Fontane’s comments, that as a person Bismarck lacked nobility of spirit and was prone to petty spite, and admitting that his methods of domestic governance helped stifle the initiative and thwart the political aspirations of the German people, one can still believe that there are aspects of his statecraft that can be commended to the attention of contemporary policy makers. It is not too much to suggest that the foreign policy of the last two administrations might have been more effective if the president and his foreign policy advisers had reflected more upon Bismarck’s insistence upon the limitations that define the effective sphere of foreign policy; his constant assumption that the best-laid plans are at the mercy of what he called imponderabilia, or chance and unforeseeable factors, and that it is essential to have alternative courses for all contingencies; and his belief in the supreme virtue of patience, which he once expressed in the words, “We can set our watches, but the time passes no more quickly because of that, and the ability to wait while conditions develop is a prerequisite of practical policy.”

This Issue

November 19, 1981