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.


Granger Collection

‘Dropping the Pilot’; John Tenniel’s cartoon on Bismarck’s resignation, published in Punch, 1890

His move was cunning at least as much as doctrinaire. Bismarck did not reject working-class movements out of hand. In fact he had shown surprising respect and genuine fondness for their flamboyant early leader Ferdinand Lassalle. He claimed (with a grain of truth) that Britain would never have ideological socialists because horse-racing—which brought classes together—was so popular. When an organized Socialist Party emerged in Germany he detested it viscerally, but sought to undermine it with both stick and carrot. On one hand he used the pretext of assassination attempts on the sovereign (doubtless reminding Bismarck how slender was the thread on which his own authority hung) to introduce emergency powers. On the other hand he used revenue from a hike in tariffs to introduce a pioneering scheme of compulsory state insurance. Both measures (and here lay the real cunning) allowed him also to distance himself from his liberal allies and reestablish a conservative majority in parliament.

By the late 1880s Bismarck was running out of expedients. His failing grip on political institutions combined with the death—from sheer old age, in the end—of Emperor William I to weaken his hold on power. Soon the young and impetuous William II took over, with plans already laid to ease Bismarck out. Again Catholics and socialists served as prominent triggers for the chancellor’s enforced resignation in 1890: Bismarck was deemed too close to the former, too fierce toward the latter. At root, however, he was undone by his own kind of intrigue, and by his lack of any independent or constitutional power base. Tenniel’s famous and wonderful cartoon to illustrate the episode, “Dropping the Pilot,” implies a ship of state sufficiently seaworthy to withstand any further buffeting.

The domestic threats were certainly not disastrous: after all, both Catholics and socialists would, as popular movements, become loyal enough to the Empire. Bismarck’s successors as chancellor, though structurally constrained even more than he had been, still enjoyed scope for maneuver and development. And the antics of William II were only indirectly Bismarck’s fault. Rather it was the master diplomat’s two greatest achievements in international affairs, the victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870–1871, that proved Germany’s severest liabilities for the future.

France became enemy number one after 1871. It had not been so earlier: when war threatened in 1860 Bismarck feared at worst only the temporary loss of a few provinces. Defeat at Sedan was compounded for the French by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Bismarck always justified this controversial annexation on grounds of security; but he actively led the claim, which had not been of great concern to ordinary Germans before the war. Toward the French he felt a growing disdain, speaking of them privately as “thirty million servile negroes.” And fears of revanche gave the highest priority to isolating France and putting all other European powers in need of Germany. Thus Bismarck spelled out his purpose in 1877 in the quaintly named “Kissinger Diktat” (a memorandum written in the town of Bad Kissingen).

This policy meant above all cultivating Russia, a rival state, but a conservative one that shared common ground with Prussia-Germany, above all in attitudes toward dissident Polish populations in both countries. Bismarck’s own anti-Polish views extended to confidential talk of “exterminating” them; and their fiercely Catholic allegiance exacerbated the Kulturkampf. For a time Bismarck could also help St. Petersburg recover internationally from the Crimean War fiasco, and profit from the deep Russian animosity toward Austria that that war had engendered. Yet as the tsarist government recovered its nerve and ambitions, it stood on a collision course with Germanic Central Europe. More and more, Russia and Austria were competitors, especially in the Balkans.

Here we reach the most paradoxical aspect of Bismarck’s politics: his Austrian dilemma. It is largely missed by Steinberg, though Bled comes into his own now, as an expert on the Habsburg lands. From the first, Bismarck felt remote from the chief imperial power in the region, and resentful of it. The core of his diplomatic alliances from the beginning of the 1850s was to fulfill Prussia’s ambition, since Frederick the Great, to be at least Austria’s equal. “There is no room for us both as long as Austria makes its claims,” he asserted. “In the long run we cannot coexist with each other.” Like any crude German nationalist he condemned “the Slavic-Romanic mixed state on the Danube.” Then he maliciously exploited Austrian diplomatic and military incompetence toward Prussia, creating an enmity that culminated at the Battle of Königgrätz-Sadowa in July 1866.

Yet in his hour of victory Bismarck already saw the need for Austria merely to be excluded from Germany politically. He made no territorial demands (contrast his treatment of France five years later). In 1879 he went further, tying himself by international treaty to the reconstituted Austria-Hungary. The terms of this Dual Alliance even required Germany to fight with Austria against Russia, but did not expect Austria to fight with Germany against France. While condemning German secessionists in Austria who subverted the Habsburg monarchy, Bismarck cited common history, ethnicity, and language as justification for his concessions. He also saw the treaty as a revival of the German Confederation and as helping to heal the wounds of the Kulturkampf. Altogether, he wrote, the Habsburg monarchy was a safer bet than Russia: “Alliance with an autocrat, a half-barbarian and very disturbed nation, constitutes a risk, while one with a weaker state like Austria offers plenty of advantages.”

This Austrian weakness, however, would have dire consequences. From the 1880s the Habsburg monarchy faced upheavals that were exacerbated precisely by the Bismarckian settlement. For in the German case unification was also division. Some among the strong minority of Germans left on the Habsburg side of the frontier were unwilling to let go: in the late 1890s they brought the Austrian government to a standstill over projected concessions to non-Germans. An overmighty and separatist Hungary, emboldened by Habsburg feebleness, and a new Balkan mission on the part of Austria, as substitute for its historic Central European role, both heightened the instability.

This Austro-German axis, a vehicle for the hegemonic aspirations of William II’s Empire, but with the Austrian tail free to wag the German dog, formed the configuration that precipitated war in 1914 and catastrophe for the entire region in the decades after 1918. Bismarck’s responsibility for that sequence of events, ceaselessly argued over, is in the last analysis imponderable. He had more or less kept Russia in line—and in retirement remonstrated fiercely with his successors who permitted the Franco-Russian alliance. In the end Bismarck sought to restore the kind of European balance of power earlier associated with his Austrian predecessor Metternich, whose career exhibited so many parallels to Bismarck’s: they even resigned at exactly the same age, and in the same week of the year. Yet Metternich was ultimately a conventional conservative and an orthodox diplomat (that’s why he missed the kind of opportunities that Bismarck took); whereas what makes Bismarck endlessly fascinating is his uniqueness as a person full of tensions and ever near the psychological brink.

Steinberg persuades me that the last word must be reserved for the man himself. He calls Bismarck “one of the most interesting, gifted, and contradictory human beings who ever lived”; but perhaps no one before has convincingly depicted him as such a deeply unsavory character. This “great man” in Steinberg’s portrayal was authentically malign and vengeful, nursing hatred of individuals and groups, and grudges even against members of his close family. He was vain, immodest, and ungrateful; suspicious, particularly of women and their “schemes”; deceitful, devious, and sometimes thoroughly mendacious. He was intimidating and unscrupulous, playing to others’ frailties, not their strengths, and indulging bouts of violent rage, petulance, and despair when crossed or ignored or feeling in any way slighted. He was often petty and stingy; cowardly and evasive; lacking all fidelity to friends or supporters.

However, he could make friends (such as Lassalle, or the American diplomat and historian John Lothrop Motley); and he did exert a potent personal magnetism. With his spellbinding conversation he exercised dominance and power over friends as well as over underlings and often adversaries too. Was it charisma? Was he dictatorial, or despotic, or even demonic? His bullying tactics extended to wild talk of suicide; and his illnesses, real or psychosomatic, became very public. Bismarck regularly spent more time away from his desk than at it. Moreover it was precisely his successes that ruined his health, temper, and emotional life.

Steinberg relates all this to what he calls Bismarck’s “sovereign self.” The hypertrophic ego manifested itself most dramatically in the clashes with his actual sovereign, in their frequent emotional crises or “psychodramas.” Did Bismarck find the royal pair curiously akin to his own parents: the forthright, true-hearted king and his difficult, hostile wife? Was he in some psychological sense their brilliant but wayward son? That helps explain his frequent threats of resignation over trivia; and why William couldn’t bring himself to dismiss Bismarck. “He’s more important than me,” the king would say in his frustration. “He’s the real premier,” Bismarck would say, as he cringed when upbraided by William. Besides, Augusta was always in the background: “The Iron Chancellor…feared a little old lady with a Saxon accent.” His eventual resignation was accompanied by more shouting and throwing. And then came all the recriminations.

So Bismarck, devoid of principle, exulted in the “naked exercise of his own power.” He didn’t live life on the edge for the sake of Prussia or Germany, the ruling house of Hohenzollern or the landowning Junkers, the ancien régime or the European order. He had an obsession with the game of politics as such and with his own place at the gaming table. He was a player who sacrificed all for the contest, yet craved a personal triumph, not least as a psychological release. It’s hardly an edifying verdict on a career that Steinberg, with forgivable hyperbole, calls “the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries.” Yet there’s some consolation that the rhetoric of blood and iron came not from a militarist, but rather from a maladjusted gambler.