In an article written in 1949, Thomas Mann quoted an observation by Nietzsche to the effect that a people (Volk) was Nature’s roundabout way of producing three or four great men. This was a very German saying, Mann wrote, and one to which the Germans would be more willing to assent than any other people in the world, because
in Germany greatness inclines to an undemocratic process of hypertrophy; and between it and the masses there is a gulf, a “pathos of distance,” to use Nietzsche’s favorite saying, that is not so sharp elsewhere, in lands where greatness does not create servitude on the one hand and an overgrowth of absolutistic egotism on the other. 1
The greatest embodiments of the German spirit, Luther, Goethe, and Bismarck, were, in Mann’s view, figures of such “exorbitant and increasingly isolated greatness” that their fellow countrymen were all too willing to assume that their very existence proved that “humanity in its most noble and powerful form was possible only in Germany.” This was an illusion in itself, but it had the additional effect of defeating any possibility of viewing truly outstanding talents with objectivity, the tendency being rather to mythologize or demonize them. Mann himself was guilty of this in a passage about Bismarck that has been often quoted:
This phenomenon of a political genius of German stock, who in three bloody wars created the Prussian-German realm of power and for decades secured for it the hegemony in Europe—a hysterical colossus with a high voice, brutal, sentimental, and given to nervous spasms of weeping;…a giant of fathomless cunning and…cynical frankness of speech,…contemptuous of people and overwhelming them with charm or force, careerist, realist, absolute anti-ideologist, a personality of excessive and almost superhuman format who, filled with himself, reduced everything about him to adulation or trembling….
At the mere mention of a political opponent, his look was that of an angry lion. Gargantuan in his appetites, he devoured half a henturkey at dinner, drank half a bottle of cognac and three bottles of Apollinaris with it, and smoked five pipes afterwards…. Like Luther, he took a passionate joy in hating, and with all of the European polish of the aristocratic diplomat he was, like him, Germanic and anti-European…. Revolutionary and at the same time the product of the enormous powers of reaction, he left liberal Europe, thanks to the success of his seasoned Machiavellianism, in the most complete disarray and in Germany strengthened the servile worship of power to the same degree as he weakened faith in tenderer, nobler human ideas and values.2
This is a description rather than an explanation, a portrait without background which all but suggests that no background is needed because its subject is self-contained and invulnerable to external influence. However permissible to the man of letters, this is not a view that commends itself to the historian, and the greatest students of Bismarck’s life and statecraft have always sought to relate the man to his time and to delineate the reciprocal relationship between his policies and the circumstances in which they were developed. It is not surprising, then, that the hundredth anniversary of his dismissal from office should see the appearance of three new attempts of this nature: the long awaited three-volume work of Otto Pflanze, the Charles Stevenson Professor of History at Bard College; the second and final volume of the biography by the East German historian Ernst Engelberg; and a major exhibition on Bismarck and his times under the auspices of the new German Historical Museum in Berlin.
The fact that the Berlin Bismarck exhibition opened its doors just as the process that united the two parts of Germany came to fruition may have struck some observers as portentous. In fact, it was an accident. When the planning committee began its work in 1987, the changes that were expected to take place in Western Europe in 1992 were much in the news, and this inspired its members to think of an exhibition on the transformation of Europe in the nineteenth century and the part played by Germans in it. A natural focus seemed to be Bismarck’s life, which extended from 1815 to 1898, but there was never any intention of building another monument to the chancellor. As Lothar Gall, himself a Bismarck biographer of distinction3 and the historical director of the Ausstellung, writes in the introduction to the catalog, the intention was rather to demythologize Bismarck by
leading [him] back into the nineteenth century, that is into an epoch that through its conditions, its compulsions, and its interconnections left even the cleverest and most influential individual only a relatively limited freedom of action. That is one of the goals of this exhibition. Another is to place those conditions, compulsions and interconnections themselves into the center of the picture and to illuminate the individual and his work through them….
The emphasis on Europe was evident in both the plan and the contents of the exhibition. The Austrian architect Boris Podrecca designed it so that visitors would come first into a central courtyard, or Lichthof, in which they would move by way of an ascending ramp past images and artifacts that represented the development, changes, and internal and external tensions of European society from the battle of Waterloo to the apocalypse of the First World War, which opened a new age. The outer rim of the exhibition was divided into smaller rooms devoted to special themes, such as the age of Metternich, the revolutions of 1848, seen in their European dimension, the national wars of the 1850s and 1860s, and the unification of Germany and its new European role.
Thanks to the energy and diplomacy of the exhibition’s director, Dr. Marie-Louise Gräfin von Plessen, 280 museums and special collections collaborated in sending exhibits to Berlin, including the Museum of the Army in Paris, the National Historical Museum in Frederiksborg, Denmark, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, and museums in Florence, Vienna, Versailles, and London. As a result visitors were privileged to see under one roof such masterpieces of historical painting as Lanfredini’s powerful representation of the execution of the revolutionary priest Ugo Bassi by Austrian troops in Bologna in 1849, Flandrin’s portrait of Napoleon III, and the large canvas that dominated the central court, Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo’s Fiumana, a study for his monumental painting The Fourth Estate. Foreign contributions also added to the variety and scope of the exhibition’s portrayal of the political life of the age, the progress of industrialism, and the emergence of the social problem and, in the case of the Prussian military victories of the 1860s, enabled visitors to see these conflicts from the other side of the hill. Particularly striking in this respect were Alphonse de Neuville’s painting of the dogged French defense in the churchyard of Saint-Privat in 1870 and a desolate photograph showing the results of the German bombardment of Strasbourg in the same year.
Through this century of political transformation, material progress, and mounting violence, Otto von Bismarck made his way, first exploiting the forces of revolutionary change, later, in his years as imperial chancellor, seeking, not without success, to direct them in ways that would serve his country, and in the end, like many another European leader, becoming a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice, overwhelmed by forces that he had helped to release. The exhibition illuminated every phase of this progress. There were theme rooms devoted to Bismarck’s Prussian ancestry and his life as a landed proprietor, his diplomatic debut in Frankfurt in the 1850s, and his foreign policy as Prussian minister president (which led him later to confess, “If it hadn’t been for me, there wouldn’t have been three great wars, 80,000 men would not have died, and parents, brothers, sisters and widows would not be mourning. But that I have had to settle with God”).4
Other rooms contained materials that illustrated the various shapes of his contorted relationship with the Reichstag, his savage offensive against socialism and political catholicism, his social insurance policies, which were trailblazing but fell so short of his own objectives that he never even mentioned them in his memoirs, his ventures into overseas colonialism, and finally—in one of the most interesting of these rooms—his transformation, after his dismissal by William II in 1890, into a national cult figure.
For those interested in the inner life of the great man, a vestibule between the central court and the theme rooms provided, among other things, family portraits, pictures of him on horseback and with his dogs, two felt hats and a hunting cap, a pair of the gigantic boots that he customarily wore, which extended far above the knee and so impressed contemporaries that Anton von Werner painted a picture of them, a portrait of his doctor Ernst Schweninger, a pill box from the King Solomon Pharmacy in Berlin with powders to be taken daily, a postcard from Bad Kissingen showing the Prince Bismarck Weighing Machine and the variations in the chancellor’s weight between 1874 and 1893, and a collection of his favorite reading, the Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare in twelve volumes, the collected works of Schiller and Heine, and the poems of Uhland, Chamisso, and Rückert.
Whether intended or not, the topicality of the Bismarck exhibition was not in doubt. Even the rooms dedicated to periods and subjects that might ordinarily seem remote had something to say to the present. In his introductory essay in the exhibition’s informative catalog, splendidly illustrated with dozens of color plates, Lothar Gall makes the point that the history of the revolutions of 1848 reveals agencies and provisional alliances, as well as moods, symbols, and hopes, that Europeans who remember the tumultuous events of 1989 will recognize in their own immediate experience. At the same time, the presence in the exhibition of forms and structures of history that have long since disappeared—such things as Prussia itself, the institution of monarchy, and the nobility as a political and social force—may have suggested to reflective visitors that that disappearance was not an unalloyed gain but one that has revealed problems and deficits in modern society.
Of immediate contemporary relevance, finally, was one of the most interesting features of the exhibition, an inner gallery flanking the central court that was dedicated to what the catalog called the “deutschen Seelensuche” and what we may call the German search for identity. Here were grouped symbolic representations of Germanness, German Sehnsucht (longing), and German national aspiration—Schloss Marienburg, the home of the Teutonic Knights; Luther in his study; Cologne Cathedral; the Kyfhäuser, where Frederick Barbarossa lies sleeping; a barrow or megalithic grave under an ancient oak that invokes the memory of Klopstock’s poem about Hermann the Cherusker; the Lorelei; Hagen consigning the hoard of the Niebelungs to the Rhine; and several portraits of Germania in full armor.
We are reminded by these images of how many ill-defined expectations were aroused in the nineteenth century by references to German renewal or re-birth, and Gall tells us that Bismarck, who in 1848 dismissed the aspiration to unity as “German fantasizing” but later used it for his own purposes, was always wary of its explosive potential. This he sought to control by a statecraft based upon the anti-ideological rationality that he had learned as a Prussian diplomat and by an insistence after 1871 that Germany was a power with no territorial ambitions and a common interest with its European neighbors in collaboration, interdependence, and peace. Bismarck believed, in short, as most Germans and all of Germany’s neighbors do today, that a united Germany was safest when it was a member of an effective European international system.
The first volume of Otto Pflanze’s Bismarck came out in 1963. It had originated in a dissertation written under the supervision of Hajo Holborn at Yale University on the development of the imperial administration during the Bismarck era, but the man soon became more interesting to Pflanze than the administrative structure, and he began to think of a book about Bismarck as a political tactician. He soon became aware that it would be difficult to separate this emphasis on Realpolitik from the whole complex of Bismarck’s life and work and, with Holborn’s encouragement, he broadened his investigation. Bismarck often spoke of “the stream of time,” which, he said, “man can neither create nor direct…. He can only travel upon it and steer with more or less skill and experience; he can suffer shipwreck and go aground and also arrive in safe harbors.” The saying impressed Pflanze, and rather than write another biography, he decided to try to explain how Bismarck fared as a steersman on that torrent.
Illness delayed this project and forced Pflanze to terminate the book with the founding of the Reich in 1871. When he began work on the sequel, new approaches of German historiography had opened up a wealth of information about the social and economic aspects of post-1871 Germany. By the time this had been mastered, Pflanze felt it necessary to delay publication until he had a chance to mine the archives in Potsdam and Merseburg, and when this was done the sequel, which had already grown from one to two volumes, required considerable rewriting, as was true of the first volume, to which extensive changes and additions were made. It is not at all clear that the work as a whole has profited from this reworking. Certain aspects of Bismarck’s life and work seem to have been blown a bit out of proportion, although there will be differences of opinion about this, and some readers may feel that Bismarck is less interesting at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. However that may be, this is the best work of its kind in English, certainly the most complete and, in its scholarship, up-to-date, as well as the most readable (much more so than Gall’s biography), and it is not likely that it will superseded soon.
The unification of the German states under Prussia, which is the subject of Pflanze’s first volume, would have struck few political observers during the first half of the nineteenth century as even a remote possibility. Always the weakest of the Great Powers, Prussia had suffered in reputation and respect when, in 1850, under Austrian pressure King Frederick William IV abandoned his plans for closer association with other German states; and the government’s ambivalent and ineffective course during the Crimean War did not improve things. A country of undoubted industrial strength and financial vigor, whose customs union (Zollverein) gave it the commercial leadership of northern Germany, it was subject to an absolutist system that was adamantly opposed to change. In a Germany that was now being transformed by industrialism, the question at the end of the 1850s was, in Pflanze’s view, first, whether “Prussia would convert its…economic sinew into political muscle” and, second, “whether the aristocratic-monarchical order in Prussia would succeed in containing the new social forces that industrialization produced,” or, to put it another way, “whether the old order could produce a leadership capable of keeping it afloat upon the rushing stream of time.”
The appointment of Otto von Bismarck as minister president in September 1862 did not promise to answer any of those questions affirmatively. The appointment was a desperate move on the part of a king whose plans to reorganize the army had been defied by the liberal majority in the House of Deputies and who had been brought to the verge of abdication by the resultant paralysis of government; his new premier was regarded as a reactionary by the liberals and a “democrat in disguise” by the conservatives and was trusted or supported by no faction in parliament. Yet in fact the choice was decisive for the future. For one thing, it prevented Prussia, and subsequently Germany, from going the way of Great Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, where legislatures came to dominate the executive branch, for Bismarck vowed to defend the prerogatives of the crown from parliamentary usurpation, and his successful determination on this point preserved the system of mixed powers which, as Pflanze points out, “became by the end of the century the uniquely ‘German form’ of constitutional monarchy.” Moreover, the appointment set Prussia on the road to German hegemony, for Bismarck came to believe that a policy that appealed to German national feeling was the most promising way of breaking the liberal opposition and winning the support of the new businessmen and bankers that he would need in the future.
The often told story of how this policy developed Pflanze tells with authority and many fine touches that illuminate and add verisimilitude. His chapter on Bismarck’s diplomatic principles, a Glanzstück of the 1963 edition and here elaborated, should be required reading for all contemporary practitioners of foreign policy, emphasizing as it does Bismarck’s acknowledgment that diplomacy was a form of “gambling with other people’s money” and hence had to be taken with the utmost seriousness, his awareness that “the art of the possible” amounted to no more than skill in making the best of a number of bad choices, his insistence on the importance of patience, and his preference for a strategy that provided alternatives at each juncture. This last not only often enabled him to delay decisions until the last moment but also to monopolize options in such a way as to restrict his antagonist’s freedom of action. In both the tangled Schleswig-Holstein affair (which Pflanze calls “Bismarck’s masterpiece”) and the duel with Austria, these gifts proved themselves. Pflanze will have nothing to do with the argument made by some historians that economic forces would themselves have unified Germany. We are instead confronted, he insists, with “one of those moments…where a single personality, by his capacity to manipulate the forces within his grasp, influenced the course of history and the lives of millions.”
The victims of these arts of manipulation included not only his antagonists—the liberal opposition, the statesmen in Vienna and Paris, and the king of Bavaria, who was manipulated in 1871 into offering the imperial crown to the king of Prussia—but his own ambassadors, who were often not allowed to share his real thoughts (so that Bismarck could be certain that they would be able to make disingenuous proposals to foreign governments with entire conviction), and even his sovereign, the king, and later Emperor William I. Pflanze is very good on Bismarck’s skill in “winding up William” so that he would finally follow the often alarming counsels of his minister. “Why that is revolution!” the king protested when Bismarck insisted that Prussia must undercut Austria and win the support of German nationalists by proposing a national parliament based upon universal suffrage. “But there is no harm in that,” Bismarck replied. “Your majesty will be seated on rock above the flood.”
Both he and the king were right. Bismarck had nothing against revolution provided he could control it from above, and he proved highly successful in doing that, for a time. There were nevertheless, as he was to discover, dangers in the alliance with German nationalism. It was nationalism that in 1870 came close to defeating the requirements of rationality by turning the war against France into one of extermination; it was nationalism that forced the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, with predictable results; and it was nationalism that led to the popular adulation of the Field Marshall von Moltke and the “demi-gods” of the Prussian general staff which was to be so troublesome for Bismarck and, in the end, so ruinous for the empire he created.
In the period after 1871, burgeoning economic development, demographic redistribution, and financial concentration combined with the nation’s pride in its material progress, military power, and scientific and cultural achievement to consolidate the gains of 1866 and 1871. Unfortunately, growing national integration was accompanied by social and ideological divisions and, among intellectuals and artists, a not inconsiderable amount of cultural pessimism. Bismarck’s attempts to overcome this paradox is the essential subject of Pflanze’s second and third volumes, and, since he inclines to the belief that “the most enduring consequences of his statesmanship for German development after 1871 were in the field of domestic affairs,” there is a sharp reduction in the amount of space devoted to foreign affairs.
Yet for almost a decade after the restoration of peace, Germany’s position in Europe was less than secure. Particularly in Great Britain, there was concern over German intentions, and even a Germanophile like Sir Robert Morier wrote, in terms reminiscent of views voiced during the past year, that Germany’s “unparalleled successes” would tend “to modify the German national character, and not necessarily for the better. Arrogance and overbearingness are the qualities likely to be developed in a Teutonic race under such conditions….” Bismarck was suspected of having designs on France and Austria, and his precipitation of a crisis with France in 1875, which led to what Pflanze calls “the greatest diplomatic defeat of his career,” and his obsession with the idea that a Catholic league was seeking to encircle Germany appeared to confirm this. It was not until his services as “honest broker” at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 that faith in Germany’s dedication to the balance of power was restored. Such confidence would have been weaker than it was had it been generally known that Bismarck’s control of policy was often threatened, as in the great crisis of 1887, by the ambitions of the soldiers, a subject about which Pflanze might have said a bit more.
But it is Bismarck’s early success and ultimate failure in consolidating the new Reich and fortifying its ruling system against the forces of opposition that is the central theme of these volumes, and they are full of information about his ability to recognize and satisfy the needs of business interests in laying the infrastructure for the new empire, his part in reducing conflict between industial and agrarian capital (which was not always disinterested, for he was clever in protecting his private interests), and the reasons for his movement from free trade to protectionism, which accommodated changes in the economic environment but unleashed a general scramble of interest groups and contributed to a weakening of the bureaucracy’s reputation for integrity. The parliamentary battles that accompanied this renewal of the interventionist state are passed in review, as is the story of the dismantling of his anti-Catholic campaign as his onslaught against socialism gained momentum.
The positive side of his campaign against the Socialist party, the program of national insurance for sickness, accidents, and old age, was, Pflanze points out, the only one of Bismarck’s many achievements in domestic affairs that survived into the twentieth century, but it failed to achieve the objective for which it was designed, easing class conflict and closing the most serious gap in the social consensus, because Bismarck “cynically overestimated both the seductive power of the material benefits the program conferred and, as earlier in the Kulturkampf [his campaign against Catholic influence in Germany], the capacity of the state to repress a political movement led by determined men and inspired by an intense moral idealism.” It was this failure that set him on the course of conflict with the young William II, who, alarmed by Bismarck’s apparent willingness to seek a solution of his intractable problem by coup d’état and the destruction of the constitution, dismissed him in 1890.
In the course of this long and complicated narrative, there are, as has already been indicated, some longueurs. One wonders why Pflanze felt it necessary to go into such detail in describing the long constitutional crisis that led to the parting of the ways between the chancellor and the National Liberals at the end of the 1870s or, for that matter, Bismarck’s search for tax reform (a confusing business of seeking a change in the tax shares of the national government and the states, which ended in frustration). And it is questionable that quite so much space needed to be devoted to Bismarck’s health problems. That they were serious and had an effect upon his judgment has been known for a long time; after his mismanagement of the crisis of 1875, Prince Gorchakov, the Russian foreign minister, said, “Bismarck is sick, because he eats too much, drinks too much, and works too much.”5 Pflanze has accumulated information about his eating and drinking habits that make the collation described by Thomas Mann seem a mere snack in comparison (he tells us that Bismarck drank two to three beer glasses filled with the strongest port wine in order to bring his blood into circulation before opening the Congress of Berlin and provides us with a truly frightening picture of the chancellor attacking a large loaf of pâté de foie gras from Horcher).
He gives us, indeed, so many descriptions of Bismarck’s condition at various times that we almost come to expect a health bulletin at the beginning of every section. But the extent to which the chancellor’s physical state, or—for that matter—the irritations and frustrations suffered by his “narcissistic drive for self-assertion and dominance,” to which Pflanze appears to attribute even more importance, really affected his performance is at best conjectural, and Pflanze’s assertion that psychological imbalance brought Bismarck “close to murdering an opposition deputy on the floor of the Reichstag in December 1874” is, on the basis of the evidence presented, not very plausible. In the last analysis, there is no way of telling whether Bismarck would have acted any differently than he did in 1875 if he had been on a strict diet and had just had three weeks vacation. This reader, in any case, would have preferred less about health and more about other aspects of Bismarck’s personality, his humor, perhaps, which enchanted Theodor Fontane despite his admission, in May 1890, that it was “a good thing that we are rid of him,”6 or perhaps his thinking and the reasons for his miscalculations in the final crisis in March 1890.
But if these are faults, they are in some part redeemed by the thirty-page essay at the end of the third volume in which Pflanze makes his final assessment of Bismarck, the navigator on the stream of time. His conclusion is that all of the chancellor’s safe harbors were temporary and that the deep currents of his age drove him inexorably in the end toward the reefs on which his barque foundered. The chancellor’s solutions to the problem of consolidation of modern Germany were all imperfect, so that most of what he achieved had disappeared fifty years after his death. In 1879 he strongly encouraged a rapprochement of the elite interest groups—industrial, agrarian, and professional—that had long been under way, but he had no illusions about this connubio because he knew that its base “was too narrow and its cohesion too dubious to serve as the foundation of his government.” His attempts to broaden it were defeated by his own temperament and tactics, “which tended more toward the divisive than the conciliatory.” His success in converting the academic and professional elites to conservative nationalism prevented real progress toward effective parliamentary government for forty-odd years after his dismissal, while contributing to the destruction of the monarchy in 1918. All in all, Pflanze agrees with Max Weber, whom he quotes as saying that Bismarck’s political legacy was a nation without political education and, indeed, “totally bereft of political will, accustomed to expect that the great man at the top would provide their politics for them.”
In an interesting passage in the second volume of his Bismarck biography, Ernst Engelberg discusses the ambivalent relationship of German writers toward Bismarck in the 1880s and cites the Austrian Hermann Bahr, who recalled that in his youth,
We had a passion for Bismarck [but we also] subscribed to the Zürich Sozialdemokrat which our beloved Bismarck’s police had just strictly forbidden, so that every time, after it had been smuggled over the Swiss border, one had to obtain it from a different unsuspicious small German town and each time in a wrapper with different handwriting, size and color. On the Iron Chancellor’s seventy-fifth birthday, I marched down the Wilhelmstrasse in the colors of my Vienna Burschenschaft and swung my torch with rapture toward the window in which the mighty one was standing; I gave the ritualistic “flaming” speech during our drinking ceremony; and a few months later I was “noted” by the police because I participated in forbidden meeting with Bebel, Liebknecht and Vollmar….
It is possible that, as he copied that passage, Engelberg thought of himself. A member of the German Communist party since his twenty-first year and a luminary in the German Democratic Republic’s scholarly establishment, he was inspired by his deep indignation over Bismarck’s attempt to destroy the Social Democratic party to write something about this class enemy. Once he had begun his research, however, he was overcome by admiration and recognized, as he later wrote,
how strong, how multi-faceted and contradictory, how rich he was as a personality, and how consistently he proved himself capable of resolving the problems left open by the failed revolution of 1848 in his own way.7
He determined to write a political biography of the chancellor, the first volume of which came out in 1985, under the title Bismarck, Urpreusse und Reichsgründer (Bismarck, Prussian to the Marrow and Founder of the Reich). A work of great scholarship that was all but untouched by ideological coloration, it included much new material on Bismarck’s forebears and his attitude toward them, his connections with Pietist circles in Pomerania, and his entrance into Prussian politics in the years between 1847 and 1850. Engelberg’s description of the Reichsgründung was marked by a critical admiration of Bismarck’s diplomatic virtuosity that ended with the tribute:
Gifted with the rare ability to grow beyond himself, a compleat politician, he became the founder of the Reich because he could do what he wanted to do, and he wanted to do what he was capable of doing.8
Engelberg’s second volume covers the same time span as Pflanze’s second and third volumes but is significantly shorter and therefore less thorough in its coverage of some aspects of Bismarck’s politics. Engelberg prefers to dilate upon themes that interest him, even at the cost of scamping others. Referring, without any introduction, for example, to the question of Bismarck’s “bonapartist” powers, a subject that agitated some of his contemporaries (a character in Fontane’s novel Cécile refers to the chancellor as “a Dalai-Lama”),9 he points out that the chancellor always had to share his authority with the emperor and the chief of the army’s general staff and goes on to show how he was compelled to play state institutions and political organizations off against each other in order to gain freedom of action, elaborating a system of balance and control not dissimilar to the one he employed in foreign affairs.
Nor is Engelberg ever reluctant to take the time to tell a good story, like the one of Bismarck catching the young Emperor William II out trying to conceal the fact that he was serving him German Sekt rather than French champagne. The emperor finally said, “All right. I drink it to save money, for I have a large family, and I recommend it to my officers for the same reason. Apart from that, I drink it out of patriotism.” “In my case, Majesty,” Bismarck answered, “patriotism stops before it reaches the stomach.”
Finally, Engelberg, as in his first volume, spends much time on private and family matters because he believes, and cites Engels as also believing, that that is one of the best ways of illuminating the character of a person, particularly in a society of class conflict and class domination that tends to stifle and make artificial human feelings and relationships. We learn a lot in this book, therefore, about Bismarck’s religious faith, his love of nature, his relations with his family and intimate friends, the kind of music he liked (Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, but not Wagner), his favorite reading (he began at seventy-five to reread all of Schiller’s plays in the order that they were written), and the like.
The book is organized principally, however, around three major themes that are indicated by two epigraphs that are printed on the jacket and the subtitle of the book itself. The first of these is Bismarck’s exasperated remark, “Germany’s unity has developed so much new energy and created new interests and points of view. But oh! the social question! It makes all governments shudder.” In dealing with this theme, the ideological note is stronger than in any part of the first volume. Engelberg notes that the Christian Social movement leader Friedrich Naumann once wrote that he kept a picture of August Bebel on the wall of his study beside that of the chancellor because he believed that the deadly enemy of bourgeois society belonged to the whole picture of Bismarckian and post-Bismarckian society. “Moved by similar views,” Engelberg writes, “I found it necessary to let Bebel and the ever-increasing number of his followers have the floor more and more in this part of my Bismarck biography.”
The second epigraph is a saying of Friedrich Engels: “The Reich is brought into deadly danger by its Prussian foundation.” Engelberg illustrates this by citing numerous examples of tension between Prussia and the empire. He quotes Bismarck’s aide Abeken, who said flatly in 1872 that the Germany that had been recently united by a constitution “should also be innerly and organically united, that the erect, firm, energetic spirit of Prussia must also penetrate the rest of Germany…and put an end to the indolent, sloppy behavior that is prevalent in the small states”; and he demonstrates how the values admired by Abeken ultimately corrupted a once proud and independent Bürgertum. He shows how the Bismarck constitution shored up Prussian power by such provisions as those that placed the army under Prussian control rather than that of the Reich, and how the Prussian three-class suffrage blocked the extension of the powers of the Reichstag and the imposition of effective checks upon the prerogatives of the crown. And he shows how William II’s tendresse for the Prussian military made him vulnerable to irresponsible influences and cabals. All of this contributed to the dangers that Engels foresaw.
Finally, Engelberg’s third great theme is the empire in the middle of Europe, the Reich whose very successes inspired resentment among its neighbors, which was always vulnerable to attacks from two directions, the more so because of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and the intractability of the Austro-Russian competition in the Balkans, always tempted to anticipate danger by preventive action, always a troubling presence in Europe, too big and too mighty in achievement, as Christian Graf von Krokow has written,10 to fit reliably into the European balance, and too limited to become a real world power.
What kind of foreign policy was best designed to protect its vital interests and to avoid the external and internal threats to its security? It is Engelberg’s belief that, with some early mistakes, Bismarck supplied what was needed—a policy based upon a thorough knowledge of the world in which he had to move and the personalities with whom he had to contend, a fertility in devising diplomatic expedients, and an insistence upon perspective and restraint. But this was a policy, as he demonstrates, that became increasingly less effective, because of the growing incompatibility of national interests all over Europe, and increasingly less satisfactory to his own monarch and that ruler’s irresponsible advisers. Engelberg’s handling of this theme is masterful, with an incisive analysis of such critical points as the great Bulgarian crisis of 1886–1887 and the chancellor’s subsequent attempts to repair his diplomatic system as his authority began to wane at home. He ends his book with a lapidary description of Bismarck’s part in the responsibility for the debacle that followed:
On the negative side of Bismarck’s historical work remained his enmity against all democratic forces, particularly in the workers’ movement, and his dyed-in-the-wool royalism, which in the end lamed him in his conflict with William II. And so William could become the symbol of a policy, supported not only by entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and soldiers but also by the bourgeois parties that challenged other traditional powers. When that happened, Bismarck’s most significant legacy, the art of allowing discretion to predominate in the European power-game, was utterly dissipated. This tragedy of a richly developed personality became the tragedy of the German nation.
January 31, 1991
Thomas Mann, “Die drei Gewaltigen,” Reden und Aufsätze, Vol. I (Oldenburg, 1965), pp. 62–63. ↩
Mann, “Die drei Gewaltigen,” p. 65 ff. ↩
See my article “The Way to the Wall,” The New York Review, June 28, 1990, which describes his two-volume biography, Bismarck, The White Revolutionary (Unwin Hyman). ↩
Otto Vossler, “Bismarck’s Ethos,” Historische Zeitschrift, Vol. CLXXI, p. 286. ↩
Erich Eyck, Bismarck: Leben und Werk, (Zürich: Eugen Reutsch Verlag, 3 vols., 1941–1944), Vol. III, p. 181. ↩
Fontanes Briefe in zwei Bänden, edited by Gotthard Erler (Berlin, 1968), Vol. II, p. 272 ff. ↩
See my article “The Other Germany,” The New York Review, September 25, 1986, p. 64. ↩
“The Other Germany,” p. 64. ↩
Theodor Fontane, Sämtliche Werke, edited by Edgar Gross, Vol. IV (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1959), p. 249. ↩
“The Way to the Wall,” The New York Review, June 28, 1990, p. 29. ↩