Compared to Adolf Hitler, Otto von Bismarck has received little attention from English speaking popular historians since A.J.P. Taylor wrote a short but entertaining life (Bismarck, The Man and the Statesman (Hamish Hamilton, 1955). Yet Bismarck was, with Richelieu and Metternich, one of the greatest statesmen in the history of modern Europe and irrevocably set the parameters of European relations from 1870 until at least 1945. In an age of liberal revolutions, Bismarck, acting without party, class or personal power base unified Germany under an absolute monarch whilst presiding over a parliament elected by universal male suffrage. Counterintuitively sensing with Proudhon that 'universal suffrage is counter-revolution,' Bismarck created the servile state by being first to introduce a state system of accident, invalidity and old age insurance: he would, thereafter, have considered his work well done had he been able to put the genie of popular democracy back in the bottle by revoking the universal suffrage which he had unstoppered so as to dish the liberals. Yet for all his skill, Bismarck's legacy was a painful one. Once the monarchy which he had done so much to preserve fell into the unsafe hands of Wilhelm II, Germany was a dreadnought in risk of capsize, and the 30 years that followed 1914 can be seen as the working out at Europe's expense of the forces in German society that Bismarck had done so much to frustrate.
Whilst containing interesting information on Bismarck's character and temperament, A.J.P. Taylor's study did not seek to account for their psychological basis, nor did it seek to judge Bismarck in particularly personal or moral terms, emphasizing instead Bismarck's political and diplomatic astuteness and judiciously quoting the Reichschancellor so as to demonstrate the latter's extraordinary powers of perception and analysis. Contemporary readers of political biography are, it would seem, more interested in the psychological composition and moral stature of their leaders, and this is the area on which Jonathan Steinberg's biography concentrates. Steinberg's aim, as he says in the introductory chapter, is to present, analyse, and seek to account for `the sheer power of' Bismarck's personality' seeing in him `the greatness and misery of human individuality stretched to its limits'. The method is `to let those on whom the power was exercised... who experienced the power of Bismarck's personality close up and recorded the impact, tell the story.' This technique the book faithfully follows, and English readers will find here a vivid and stimulating selection of telling quotations, principally from German and English eye-witnesses.
The results cannot be said to be much to Bismarck's credit: Bismarck is portrayed as a demonic personality whose extraordinary gifts and personal drive were apparent from his early youth, but who stands condemned of nearly all the traditional sins - pride, vanity, anger, ingratitude, vindictiveness - even gluttony - and some newly defined ones, such as elitism, militarism, misogyny, anti-semitism, and contempt for human rights. At the heart of it, though, there seems to have been a kind of despair - after 30 years of life as a bored and frustrated country landowner, Bismarck took to politics as other men take to gambling - or to the bottle. There is the same addictive, compulsive obsession; the same love-hate relationship with its object; the same longing to be done with it all combined with an inability to let go: it is a portrait that may remind British readers of the personalities of the two leading conservative prime-ministers of the recently ended century. The contrast, if there is one, is with Disraeli, a man who Bismarck seems to have uniquely admired, and who appears to have been saved only by an incapacity to take himself seriously in any matter in which his personal vanity was not directly involved (such as his command of French). Disraeli said that Bismarck talked `like Montaigne', but Bismarck himself appears to have shared the philistinism of many of his co-professionals - his preferred reading was Dumas, he avoided the theatre and the concert-hall, and he once described Richard Wagner as `a monkey' - an underestimate surely - even of the latter's capacity for making mischief.
Bismarck's angry pessimism was, as Mr.Steinberg notes, not untypical of his class or period - his was an honour-bound, feudal and agricultural class living at a time when its social status and very existence were being threatened by the rapid industrialization of Germany. The dynamic growth of the rail network depressed agricultural prices and threatened the viability of the old estates. Meanwhile huge fortunes were being made in commerce, banking and industry - many of them by `clever' Jews. From time to time an 'arriviste' would have the effrontery to purchase the estate of an impoverished landowner of noble family, but marrying into such entrepreneurial families, even where such an alliance was sought, would have brought social stigma. And whhat started in a mixture of snobbery and envy was rapidly harnessed to class and racial prejudice. Jews of a different stamp had seemed overly represented among the liberal voices in progressive politics and journalism: those liberals had come within an ace of overthrowing the monarchy in 1848, and Bismarck's contempt and viceral hatred for the '48ers', whom he saw as little better than guttersnipes and murderers, is vigorously demonstrated in these pages. Mr.Steinberg's analysis of the basis, development and expression of anti-semitism in Imperial Germany is an important aspect of the book and helps significantly to put later developments in their proper context.
Mr.Steinberg is equally concerned to deconstruct the `Bismarck myth' which so rapidly replaced the almost universal loathing in which the great man was held before he left office. A `genius' Bismarck may have been but he was also `lucky'. Distrusted even by the conservatives in 1848 - when Friedrich Wilhelm IV described him as `only to be employed when the bayonet governs unrestricted' (a compliment which Bismarck returned by describing the King as `an unsteady character... if one grabbed him, one came away with a handful of slime'), the Chancellor owed his extraordinary tenure of power solely to the fact that Wilhelm I came to the throne at the the age of 60, established a relationship of trust with Bismarck that survived the most extraordinary strains, and lived to the improbable age of 90. Indeed, Wilhelm I emerges from this study as a man whose combination of duty, humility and judgment elicits high praise: Machiavelli would have recognised in him the demonstration of his contention that that the wisdom of his principal adviser may, in truth, be attributed to the wisdom of the Prince in selecting him in the first place. When Wilhelm I died, Bismarck fell - and Mr.Steinberg is surely correct in asserting that if Wilhelm had died in 1863, German and world history would have been unrecognisably different. Vital too, it would seem, was the foresight of Albrecht von Roon in giving early and consistent backing to Bismarck, even if von Roon did not always understand the directions in which Bismarck's unconventional brand of conservatism was tending. Similarly, Bismarck was given more freedom of action than he might otherwise have enjoyed by the Russian defeat in the Crimean War, the turmoil associated with the liberation of the serfs, Austria's inept handling of a natural ally, France's complacenct vanity, and England's too-lately-abandoned posture of hand-wringing righteousness.
If I have reservations about Mr Steinberg's approach, they stem partly from the inverse of what is otherwise an excellent method. We hear less from Bismarck than we do from his contemporaries, and it seems to me that in what quotations there are, Bismarck does not always live up to the promises made for him, especially when those promises speak to Bismarck's literary or comic gifts. The intense focus on the individual perhaps serves to distract attention from the statesman, with his profound understanding of the Europe in which he lived, and it is in this respect at least, that general readers may find a useful corrective in A.J.P Taylor's more lightly handled and urbane study. So, writing of Bismarck's destruction of the Liberals, which Steinberg sees as a personal triumph, Taylor notes that the decline of European liberalism was a striking phenomenon of the period. It had ended in Italy in 1876, and in Austria in 1879 - and Taylor suggests that Gladstone's resignation in 1874 was a recognition of the phenomenon - just as Gladstone's subsequent re-emergence was triggered by liberal causes of a distinctly old-fashioned stamp. `Legal and administrative Reform was exhausted', comments Taylor, social improvement would take its place.' He then quotes Bismarck to the effect that: `Political parties and groups based on high policy and political programmes are finished. The parties will be compelled to concern themselves with economic questions and to follow a policy of interests... They will melt like ice and snow. Voters with the same interests will co-operate and will prefer to be represented by people of their own instead of believing that the best orators are also the most skilful and the most loyal representatives of their interests'. It is impossible for an educated European to read this prognosis without a smile of appreciation. Similarly, it is difficult not to smile for different reasons when Mr. Steinberg compares anti-catholic sentiment in the Germany to anti-communist sentiment in the Cold War, and when he writes that `Even democratic Switzerland banned Jesuits from Swiss territory in... Read more ›