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Book Review: Bismarck

Bismarck: A Life

by Jonathan Steinberg

Oxford University Press, 2011

For almost thirty years, first as a crown minister of Prussia and then as Chancellor of the Germany he himself united, Otto von Bismarck ruled the country over which his succession of kings – Wilhelm I, Frederick III, and Wilhelm II – actually reigned. In that time, the so-called “Iron Chancellor,” the famous promulgator of the “blood and iron” alternative to “speeches and majority decisions,” held to the same political philosophy, and that philosophy boiled down to one thing: the armed enforcement of his own will. “If a compromise cannot be arrived at and a conflict arises,” he maintained, “then the conflict becomes a question of power. Whoever has the power then acts according to his opinion.” Loudly implicit in such statements was the understanding that not all that much effort would be made to arrive at compromise – power was so much easier, after all. It wasn’t for nothing that Lord Clarendon referred to Bismarck as “un homme sans foi et loi” – Jonathan Steinberg, in his absorbing new life of Bismarck, puts it another way: “He wanted absolute dominance and would do anything to retain it.”

Paradoxically, he retained his ferocious personal power by constantly subordinating it: in the mythology he so carefully tended, he was merely the King’s servant. Referring to the 26 years Bismarck served the canny old king-then-emperor Wilhelm I, Steinberg puts it pithily:

During those twenty-six years Bismarck forced the King again and again by temper tantrums, hysteria, tears, and threats to do things that every fibre of his spare Royal Prussian frame rejected. For twenty-six years Bismarck ruled by the magic that he exerted over the old man… Bismarck needed no majorities in parliament; he needed no political parties. He had a public of one.

Bismarck could be mesmerizing, although Steinberg’s book shows us more of his inner vacillations than either of its two major English language predecessors (the more literary biography by A. J. P. Taylor and the more openly antagonistic one by Edward Crankshaw, both still hugely worth reading). This is a far more human Bismarck than we’ve seen in a work intended for a popular audience (in this is reaches more directly across time to its German antecedents by such writers as Arnold Oskar Meyer and especially Erich Eyck, whose Bismarck, Leben und Werk is here given many salutary echoes), often reflected in the assessments of the Chancellor’s contemporaries. That adroit trickster Disraeli wrote to Queen Victoria about a dinner with the great man: “I could listen to his Rabelaisian monologues: endless revelations of things he ought not to mention. He impressed on me never to trust Princes or courtiers,” and Bismarck’s old friend from his days at the University of Gottingen, the great Massachusetts historian John Lothrop Motley, remained an apologist for his entire life:

He is a frank reactionaire and makes no secret about it. Supports the King in his view that the House of Commons majority is not the Prussian form of government, whatever may be the case in England … I am a great Liberal myself, but I believe that Prussia is by the necessary conditions of its existence a military monarchy, and when it ceases to be that, it is nothing.

Something of that mesmerism lingers. Even Steinberg, who is throughout his sparkling book the most calm and knowing of guides, joins Motley in an ambivalence that is wholly unmerited by its subject, telling us that “Bismarck’s personality had such contradictions in it that it could be experienced as a positive or a negative – angelic or demonic – sometimes both at the same time.” One will search in vain through the pages of Steinberg’s own book for even the slightest trace of anything angelic in his subject, who was a brutal, ranting hypochondriac with only a shallow, tinny sentimentalism where his human emotions should have been. Steinberg himself states, in his book’s most controversial assertion, that “the servility of the German people” was fixed in place by the Great Man at his book’s center – and yet he flirts with the idea of exonerating that Great Man from wanting such servility. One shudders to think of such grossly even-handed treatment being given to Adolf Hitler, who was only Bismarck’s most horrific legacy.