Interview: Jonathan Steinberg
The full text of Jonathan Steinberg's interview with History Today editor Paul Lay.
Our Book Choice for September is Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck: A Life. Here is the unedited version of the author's discussion about the Iron Chancellor with History Today editor Paul Lay.
Bismarck was a political genius and one of the most important figures of the 19th century, but he was a notoriously uncharismatic figure. How did he attain such influence and who helped him on his path to power?
I would not say that he was 'notoriously uncharismatic'. It's true that he spoke very softly and even with hesitation. There is a good description of him in action from September of 1878, at the height of his power and fame. The newspaper Schwäbische Merkur described one of Bismarck’s speeches in the Reichstag:
How astonished are those who hear him for the first time. Instead of a powerful, sonorous voice, instead of the expected pathos, instead of a fiery tirade glowing with classical eloquence, the speech flows easily and softly in conversational tones across his lips, hesitates for a while and winds its way until he finds the right word or phrase, until precisely the right expression emerges. One almost feels at the beginning that the speaker suffers from embarrassment. His upper body moves from side to side, he pulls his handkerchief from his back pocket, wipes his brow, puts it back in the pocket and pulls it out again.
It’s true he had not got that type of charisma which Max Weber (1864-1920), the German sociologist who invented the term, defined as that of a great orator or preacher, somebody who brings a crowd to a frenzy of enthusiasm, but then Bismarck never needed to address crowds because his power rested on his personal relations with the king/emperor. He was a skilled parliamentary debater, very quick on his feet. He had a fine feel for the smart reply and knew how to make a body of hostile parliamentarians laugh. He had an extraordinary command of the German language, and wrote and spoke wonderfully witty and fluent prose. The novelist, Theodor Fontane (1819- 1898) remarked ‘when Bismarck sneezes or says prosit, it’s more interesting than the wise speeches of six progressives’.
He had something else, something more unusual than charisma and much harder to define – a kind of personal magnetism which impressed and fascinated his contemporaries. Many contemporaries believed that Bismarck’s power – and his ability to hold on to it – had something inhuman to it. The Roman Catholic politician, Ludwig Windthorst (1812-1891), unofficial parliamentary leader of the Catholic Center Party, once actually called Bismarck le diable. As the greatest German parliamentarian of the nineteenth century, Windthorst sensed, as others did, that there was an unearthly dimension to him, perhaps what Freud would call das Unheimliche [uncanny]. When Odo Russell (1829-1884) and Robert Morier (1826-1893), the two British diplomats in Germany who knew Bismarck best, called him the Zornesbock, the raging billy goat, did they choose the Bock, knowing that the devil used the goat as one of his many disguises? Odo Russell, long-serving British ambassador in Berlin, knew Bismarck well and wrote in a letter to his family that the demonic in Bismarck was stronger than in any human being he had ever known.
You write about Bismarck’s need to dominate others. How did this manifest itself?
There is an extraordinary description of that urge to dominate in the young Bismarck, offered by his undergraduate roommate, John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877). Motley, who had the same birthday as Bismarck (1 April) but was a year older, came to Germany, as many upper class American young men of that generation did, to experience the German romantic and philosophical movements. Motley first met Bismarck as a seventeen year-old freshman along with fellow students from Göttingen, who had begun ‘eine Bierreise’, a beer-drinking trip, the object of which was to get ‘smashed’ in as many German cities as possible. Some months later, he ran into him again under peculiar circumstances. Here is the description he gives of the character in the novel Morton’s Hope, which Motley published in 1839 when he was 25 and Bismarck 24. The character, Otto von Rabenmarck, is clearly a portrait of his roommate and friend. The main character had been walking the streets of the university city of Göttingen and saw the following scene:
all along the street, I saw, on looking up, the heads and shoulders of students projecting from every window. They were arrayed in tawdry smoking caps, and heterogeneous-looking dressing gowns with the long pipes and flash tassels depending from their mouths.
Motley/Morton then ran into Rabenmarck walking his dog, Ariel. Both man and dog were dressed outlandishly and, when a group of four students laughed, von Rabenmarck challenged three of them to duels and the fourth who insulted the dog was forced to jump over Rabenmarck’s stick like a dog. They went back to Rabenmarck’s rooms. Morton noted the plain furniture and that ‘the floor was without carpet and sanded’.
"There", said Rabenmarck, entering the room, unbuckling his belt, and throwing the pistols and schläger on the floor. “I can leave my buffoonery for a while and be reasonable. It’s rather tiresome work, this renommiring [gaining reputation or renommée – JS]… I am a fox [college slang for first-year student – JS]. When I came to the university three months ago, I had not a single acquaintance. I wished to introduce myself into the best Landsmannschaft [a dueling society – JS], but I saw little chance of succeeding. I have already, however, become an influential member. What course do you suppose I adopted to gain my admission?”
"I suppose you made friends of the president or senior, as you call him, and other magnates of the club." Said I.
"No, I insulted them all publicly and in the grossest possible manner… and after I had cut off the senior’s nose, sliced off the con-senior’s upper lip, moustachios and all, besides bestowing less severe marks of affection on the others, the whole club in admiration of my prowess and desiring to secure the services of so valorous a combatant voted me in by acclamation… I intend to lead my companions here, as I intend to lead them in after-life. You see I am a very rational sort of person now and you would hardly take me for the crazy mountebank you met in the street half-an hour ago. But then I see that this is the way to obtain superiority. I determined at once on arriving at the university, that to obtain mastery over my competitors, who were all, extravagant, savage and eccentric, was to be ten times as extravagant and savage as any one else…” His age was, at the time of which I am writing, exactly eighteen and a half.
Bismarck/Rabenmarck made the urge to dominate very clear: ‘I intend to lead my companions here, as I intend to lead them in after-life.’ This urge to control his fellow students became the drive to dominate his party, his country and Europe. I think it was the one consistent impulse throughout his life. He knew that politics involved compromise but he believed that compromise yielded very inadequate outcomes. When an opponent demands a compromise, Bismarck believed, you crush him and clear him from your way.
Describe the relationship between Bismarck and his monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm I.
The best way to describe that relationship is to see it in action. It took shape within the first few days of Bismarck’s twenty-six years as the King’s chief minister. On 22, September 1862, William I, King of Prussia, appointed Otto von Bismarck-Schoenhausen Minister-President of Prussia. The King had just celebrated his 65th birthday and was desperate. The deadlock between the Prussian lower house of parliament and the King over reform and expansion of the army had reached the final crisis. Parliament refused to vote the budget unless the King granted them control over expenditure on the army. The King rejected all compromise on army finance. In his desperation, the King finally gave in to his Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon (1803-1879), and summoned Bismarck for an audience. In his memoirs Bismarck recalled that an abdication decree lay unsigned on the King’s writing desk.
Liberals in the lower house and in the country believed that the King had appointed Bismarck to provoke the Landtag into ever greater folly at which point Bismarck’s puppet master, General Edwin von Manteuffel, head of the King’s military cabinet, would get the King to declare martial law and suspend the parliament. The army would occupy Berlin and install a royal military dictatorship. Napoleon III had done exactly that on 2 December 1851, and got away with it. In the over-heated imaginations of the Liberals only that could explain the appointment of so notorious, implacable and unreconstructed a reactionary as Otto von Bismarck.
Just over a week later, on September 30, 1862, the new Minister-President went before the finance committee of the Prussian Landtag, the lower house of the legislature. At the end of his speech he uttered the most famous slogan of his career:
Prussia must build up and preserve her strength for the advantageous moment, which has already come and gone many times. Her borders under the treaties of Vienna are not favorable for the healthy existence of the state. The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by blood and iron.
Bismarck’s “blood and iron” speech, his first as Minister-President, could easily have been his last and nearly was. Informed opinion in the country was shocked and outraged. The right-wing liberal, and famous historian, Heinrich von Treitschke to wrote to his brother-in-law:
You know how passionately I love Prussia, but when I hear so shallow a country-squire as this Bismarck bragging about the “iron and blood” with which he intends to subdue Germany, the meanness of it seems to be exceeded only by the absurdity.
Much the most important reaction has left no trace but must have happened over the breakfast table or in the royal bedroom, at the spa in Baden-Baden, where the king had repaired after his strenuous weeks in Berlin. No married person will find it hard to understand Queen Augusta’s “I told you so!” which must have been repeated from every angle. Had she not warned her Lord and Sovereign not to trust Bismarck? Had not the Grand Duke of Baden and the King of Saxony and many other dear relatives not warned the King? etc., etc. His English daughter-in-law, Vicky, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and the late Prince Albert, would have implied that in well-governed countries, people like Bismarck would not be tolerated. The King in order to have a little peace and quiet gave in. Yes, he would go to Berlin and have it out with Bismarck and, well, yes, get rid of him.
While we have no record of the conversations in the royal household, we have a fine piece of Bismarck the novelist in his account of what happened next. He was, as always, very careful not to admit fault, let alone that the speech had been a blunder. Bismarck knew he had to see the King urgently so he took the unusual and desperate step of halting the train before it got to Berlin. This account needs to be read with skepticism:
I had some difficulty in discovering from the curt answers of the officials the carriage in the ordinary train, in which the King was seated by himself in an ordinary first-class compartment. The after-effect of his intercourse with his wife was an obvious depression, and when I begged for permission to narrate the events which had occurred during his absence, he interrupted me with the words: “I can perfectly well see where all this will end. Over there, in front of the Opera House, under my windows, they will cut off your head, and mine a little while afterwards.” I guessed, and it was afterwards confirmed by witnesses, that during his week's stay at Baden his mind had been worked upon with variations on the theme of Polignac, Strafford, and Lewis XVI. When he was silent, I answered with the short remark, “Et après, Sire?” “Après, indeed; we shall be dead,” answered the King. “Yes,” I continued, “then we shall be dead; but we must all die sooner or later, and can we perish more honourably? I, fighting for my King's cause, and your Majesty sealing with your own blood your rights as King by the grace of God;… Your Majesty is bound to fight, you can not capitulate; you must, even at the risk of bodily danger, go forth to meet any attempt at coercion.
As I continued to speak in this sense, the King grew more and more animated, and began to assume the part of an officer fighting for kingdom and fatherland.
The crisis passed and Bismarck stayed in office – just. Bismarck, the sorcerer himself, used his magical gifts to manipulate and control a rigid, stubborn, reactionary old gentleman, William I, King of Prussia. If William I had had the decency to die at the biblical ‘three score and ten’ in 1867, Bismarck’s creation, the North German Federation, might have eventually absorbed the South German kingdoms but not through a devastating war. William did not die at 70, nor at 80, nor at 90 but in 1888 at 91 and that longevity of the old King gave Bismarck 26 years in office. 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 in his spare frame rejected. For twenty-six years Bismarck ruled by the magic that he exerted over the old man. Bismarck’s career rested on personal relations—in particular, those with the King and the Minister of War. Because Bismarck had a power-base of one person, he depended on the old man’s health (excellent), his willingness to be bossed by him (limitless) and the tensions of the king’s marriage (weak husband – strong wife) to rule Germany and change history. There is in this triangle of husband, wife and a kind of ‘adopted son’ a key to the power that Bismarck deployed and also an explanation for the terrible toll which that power took from Bismarck’s physical and mental health.
Bismarck sent in a letter of resignation on 22 February, 1869,(one of the eleven he submitted under William I), because an ambassador in Italy had been slack, because the county reorganization plan had been moving too slowly and because the King and Queen had wished to extract a smaller reparation from the city of Frankfurt. The man who had changed the history of Europe submitted his resignation over absurd, trifling and insignificant issues. How can one explain this or the fact that over the next eleven years this comedy repeated itself, often over matters even more trifling? The King entirely properly replied that
I repeat there is but one single difference, that concerning Frankfurt-on-the – Main. The Usedomiana I discussed exclusively yesterday in writing, according to your wish; the House affair will adjust itself; we were agreed on the filling of appointments, but the individuals are not willing! What reason is there then for going to the extreme?
On the date he submitted his resignation Bismarck told Roon that‘I am at the end of my capacities and cannot hold out spiritually in the battles against the King.’ But what battles? The King expressed his respect and affection in effusive terms:
How can you imagine that I could even think of acceding to your idea! It is my greatest happiness (underline twice in the original) to live with you and to thoroughly agree with you! How can you be so hypochondriac as to allow one single difference to mislead you into taking the extreme step! You wrote me from Varzin at the time of the difference in the matter of making up the deficit, that you were indeed of another opinion than I, but that when you entered your post you regarded it as your duty when you had, as in duty bound, expressed your opinion, always to conform to my decisions. What, then, has so utterly changed the opinions you so nobly expressed 3 months ago? Your name stands higher in Prussian history that that of any other Prussian statesman. And I am to let that man go? Never. Quiet and prayer (twice underlined in the original) will adjust everything. Your most faithful friend (underlined three times) W.
Remarkably, Bismarck had little military experience. How dependent was he on the great German army figures of his time such as General Helmut von Moltke and the Prussian minister of war, General Albrecht von Roon?
‘Little military experience’ is an under-statement. In January 1838, Bismarck wrote to his father that he had been trying to evade military service, a letter which the guardians of the flame omitted from the official publication of his collected works. He tells his Father that he has not yet begun his military service because he made “one last attempt” to get out of his one-year military service in the reserves “as a result of muscular weakness which I explained came from a sword-cut under the right arm which I feel when I lift it (!); unfortunately the blow was not deep enough.”
When he became Ambassador to the court of Tsar in 1859, he felt ashamed that he would have to go to court in the uniform of a reserve lieutenant. Prussian Junkers took every occasion to wear uniform and Bismarck insisted on one, even though he had only served briefly and most unwillingly as a reservist. His friend and patron, Minister of War Albrecht von Roon, found Bismarck’s insistence on wearing uniform a little awkward. In May of 1862 when Bismarck had arrived in Berlin in the hope that he would soon be made Minister- President, Roon recorded in his diary that at the end of May on Tempelhof field the annual Guards Parade took place, and Bismarck attended:
His tall figure wore then the well known cuirassier’s uniform with the yellow collar but only with the rank of major on it. Everybody knew how much trouble getting that had cost him. Repeatedly he tried to make clear that at least the major’s epaulettes were essential at the court in St Petersburg to give the Prussian Ambassador necessary standing and for his personal prestige. The then Chief of the Military Cabinet (General von Manteuffel) could not be moved for a very long time to make the necessary recommendation.
As he became more famous, he wore more uniforms and often appeared in the uniform of a general. How Bismarck got his general’s uniforms I cannot say. At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian, Bismarck showed up on 31 July in the Headquarters of the King at Mainz kitted out in the uniform of a Major General of the reserve, a spiked helmet of the heavy cavalry and huge leather hip boots, a ridiculous and unmilitary figure. That real soldiers ridiculed him becomes clear from the diaries of Lt Colonel Paul Bronsart von Schellendorf, one of the ‘demi-gods’ as the three staff officers of General Helmut von Moltke were called, ‘“The civil servant in the cuirassier jacket becomes more impudent every day”.
In Prussia the soldiers mattered. As one of Frederick the Great’s officers put it,
Prussia is not a state with an army but an army with a state in which it happens to be stationed.’ Proper aristocratic Prussians with ‘von’ before their names sent their children at the age of seven to the military academies, the so-called Kadettenanstalten. There they learned the Spartan virtues of the traditional Prussian noble. Then they went to their regiments. Bismarck’s bourgeois mother wanted none of that. Bismarck went to a progressive primary school, then to the classical gymnasium in Berlin and enrolled in university to become a lawyer. As an aristocratic character puts it in a Theodor Fontane novel, ‘Bismarck was nothing but a pen-pusher
Where Bismarck’s civilian identity really mattered was in access to the King. The Prussian kings had a long military tradition and William I always saw himself as a soldier. As the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he was the superior officer of every field marshall and general. They in turn had the right of ‘immediate access’ to their commander and used that privilege. Bismarck had no such privilege and had to rely on his friend and patron, the Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon. During the crisis before the Austro-Prussian War, Bismarck desperately needed to see the King but had to arrange it through Roon. The Prussian King and his ministers had opted for war with Austria and a Crown Council meeting took place on Monday 27, March, 1866 at which the King agreed to order a partial mobilization and a call up of reserves. Roon worried that ‘Bismarck’s neurotic impatience’ would cause a disaster. The next day like clockwork, Bismarck wrote impatiently to Roon that ‘it is very much to be wished that tomorrow the King issues definitive orders. Maundy Thursday he will not be in the mood for such things. You see him tomorrow. Couldn’t you arrange that we seem him together?’ Roon did arrange that and on 29 March, the Wednesday before Easter, 1866, the orders were actually signed.
Roon played a central role in Bismarck’s career. He had first met Bismarck through his nephew Moritz von Blanckenburg, when Bismarck and Moritz were seventeen. He took the two boys with him to spend part of their summer vacations in mapping part of the Prussian countryside for the General Staff. Roon, though I cannot prove this, must have been as impressed as Motley was by the young Bismarck. In 1858, William I asked Roon to draft new legislation for a larger more modern army. The proposals caused a stalemate with parliament, and, when the King appointed Roon his Minister of War in 1859, Roon in turn tried to convince the King to appoint Bismarck as Minister President, and he continued to plead Bismarck’s case until the abdication crisis of 1862. Bismarck owed his career to Roon, and Roon knew it.
When Roon’s best friend Clemens Theodor Perthes, professor of law at the University of Bonn and founder of the Protestant “inner mission”, berated Roon in April, 1864 for having engineered the appointment of a man, ‘who calculates so coldly, who prepares so cunningly, who has no scruples about methods’ Roon replied:
B. is an extraordinary man, whom I can certainly help, whom I can support and here and there correct, but never replace. Yes, he would not be in the place he now has without me, that is an historical fact, but even with all that he is himself… To construct the parallelogram of forces correctly and from the diagonal, that is to say, that which has already happened, then assess the nature and weight of the effective forces, which one cannot know precisely, that is the work of the historic genius who confirms that by combining it all.
On 27 February, 1879 Albrecht von Roon died, age 76. Robert Lucius von Ballhausen assessed the man whom he had known well:
Roon was the perfect type of the severe, dutiful, conscientious Prussian. He was endowed with very high intellectual abilities, great talent for organization, an unshakeable determination, strength of will. In manner, occasionally rash, off-putting but genuine through and through.
Roon had an inner integrity and decency which high office, fame and success never spoiled or corrupted. Bismarck owed him a greater debt than to any other figure in his career. Roon’s persistence with the King from 1859 to 1862 secured Bismarck the chance to become Minister-President in the ‘Conflict Time’ and his loyalty through their relationship allowed Bismarck to become what he did. In bad health and very tired, Roon answered Bismarck’s call to become Minister-President of Prussia in 1872 - to allow Bismarck to indulge himself in hysterical hypochondria. Here is Bismarck’s verdict on Roon in his memoirs.
Roon was the most competent of my colleagues. He could not get along with others. He treated them as a regiment which he marched too long. The colleagues in due course complained about this and I had to take over the Ministry of State again.
So much for the adieu to the most loyal and far-sighted of Bismarck’s companions.
Helmut von Moltke owed nothing to Bismarck. Like Roon a brilliant General Staff officer without private fortune, Moltke made his career by his charm and ability. He painted fine portraits of the Silesian aristocrats when he served there. His command of several modern languages, his brilliant prose and his calm temperament made him the ideal military tutor to members of the royal family. He served as military advisor to the Sultan of Turkey during several wars in the 1830s and wrote best-selling books about his adventures. Everything Moltke did he did better than anybody else and without apparent effort. In 1857 William appointed him chief of the Prussian General Staff and Moltke’s reforms of military transport, his new strategic doctrines and his extraordinary intelligence meant that when Bismarck provoked his war, he had a general who knew how to win them.
Their relationship, always strained, became poisonous during the Franco-Prussian War. Paul Bronsart confided to his diary a crushing judgement on the Chancellor:
Bismarck begins really to be ready for the mad house. He complained bitterly to the King that General Moltke had written to General Trochu and claimed that that this as a negotiation with a foreign government belonged in his competence. When General Moltke as representative of the Supreme Command of the Army has written to the Governor of Paris; the matter has a purely military character. Since Count Bismarck claims in addition that he had declared to me that he considered the letter extremely questionable, whereas exactly the opposite is the case, I then submitted a written report to General von Moltke in which I demonstrated the falsehood of the assertion and requested in future not to be asked to carry out verbal instructions with the Count.
Albrecht von Stosch, Commissary-General in the High Command, took part in the dramas between the army and Bismarck. He reported to his wife the reaction of Bismarck to all the frustrations:
Bismarck is furious that the military delay disturbs very nastily his political combinations; the King has more than enough of conflicts and would like to take a day off. Both unload their anger or discomfort on the patient Moltke, who is never crude but gets sick from inner fury. The King fears Bismarck’s rage, Moltke wraps his anger in aristocratic silence. Roon becomes more ill every day and demands urgently the bombardment.
When Bismarck clashed with the General Staff, Bronsart recorded, ‘the civil servant in the cuirassier jacket becomes more impudent every day and General Roon functions in theses efforts as his true famulus.’
How was Bismarck perceived by his contemporaries in Britain and in France?
There were very nasty French cartoons about Bismarck after 1870 which portray him as a monster and a blood-thirsty war monger. I don’t know what French politicians thought. Among the British Disraeli was fascinated by him. He met him in 1862 at the home of the Russian Ambassador to the Court of St James. Bismarck astonished the distinguished guests by telling with breath-taking honesty what his plans were. Here is Disraeli’s account:
I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to reorganize the army, with or without, the help of the Landtag… As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen’s ministers.
On the way home, Disraeli accompanied Friedrich, Count Vitzthum von Eckstädt, the Austrian envoy to his residence. As they parted, Disraeli said to Vitzthum: ‘Take care of that man; he means he what he says.’ And he did.
Disraeli met Bismarck again at the Berlin Conference in June 1878. Bismarck fascinated Disraeli and he wrote long letters to the Queen and to his friends about how extraordinary Bismarck was. The Chancellor showed Disraeli personal attention in a way that to my knowledge he showed very few people in his long career: he invited Disraeli to dine at his home, first a state dinner and then, most unusually, with Bismarck’s family without other guests twice. Here are two passages from Disraeli letters, the first to Queen Victoria:
In the afternoon at 6 o’clock great dinner at P. Bismarck’s. All these banquets are very well done. There must have been sixty guests. The Princess was present. She is not fair to see tho’ her domestic influence is said to be irresistible. I sate on the right hand of P. Bismarck and, never caring much to eat in public, 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; that his illness was not, as people supposed, brought on by the French war but by the horrible conduct of his Sovereign etc etc. In the archives of his family remain the documents, the royal letters which accuse him after all his services of being a traitor. He went on in such a vein that I was at last obliged to tell him that, instead of encountering “duplicity” which he said was universal among Sovereigns, I served one who was the soul of candor and justice and whom all her Ministers loved. The contrast between his voice which is sweet and gentle with his ogre-like form, is striking. He is apparently well-read, familiar with modern literature. His characters of personages extremely piquant. Recklessly frank. He is bound hand and foot to Austria whether he thinks them right or wrong: but always adds: “I offered myself to England and Lord Derby would not notice my application for six weeks and then rejected it.
And here is part of his account of Bismarck’s eagerness to talk to Disraeli alone:
Bismarck soars above all: he is six foot four I shd think, proportionately stout; with a sweet and gentle voice, and with a peculiarly refined enunciation, wh. singularly contrasts with the awful things he says: appalling from their frankness and their audacity. He is a complete despot here, and from the highest to the lowest of the Prussians and all the permanent foreign diplomacy, tremble at his frown and court most sedulously his smile. He loads me with kindness, and tho’ often preoccupied with an immediate dissolution of parliament on his hands; an internecine war with the Socialists, 100s of whom he puts daily into prison in defiance of all law, he yesterday extracted from me a promise that, before I depart, I will once more dine with him quite alone. His palace has large and beautiful gardens. He has never been out since I came here, except the memorable day when he called on me to ascertain wh[ther] my policy was an ultimatum. I convinced him that it was, and the Russians surrendered a few hours afterwards.
And finally their last private conversation just before Disraeli left Berlin:
I dined with Bismarck alone i.e. with his family who disappear after the repast, and then we talked and smoked, If you do not smoke under such circumstances, you look like a spy, taking down his conversation in your mind. Smoking in common puts him at ease. He asked me whether racing was much encouraged in England. I replied never more so . . .”Then,” cried the Prince eagerly, “there never will be socialism in England. You are a happy country. You are safe as long as the people are devoted to racing. Here a gentleman cannot ride down the street without twenty persons saying to themselves or each other, ’Why has that fellow a horse, and I have not one?’ In England the more horses a nobleman has, the more popular he is, So long as the English are devoted to racing, Socialism has no chance with you.” This gives you as slight idea of the style of his conversation. His views on all subjects are original, but there is no strain, no effort at paradox. He talks as Montaigne writes. When he heard about Cyprus, he said “you have done a wise thing. This is progress. It will be popular; a nation likes progress’. His idea of progress was evidently seizing something. He said he looked upon our relinquishment of the Ionian Isles as the first sign of our decadence. Cyprus put us all right again.
How different was Germany before and after Bismarck?
When Bismarck came to power, Germany lived under a rickety constitutional arrangement called the North German Bund, a product of the Vienna peace settlement of 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It had one function: to keep the Austrian Empire in charge of German affairs and to make sure that Prussia stayed in its place as an obedient member of the federal structure. Bismarck saw from the moment he became Prussian Ambassador to the German Bund in 1851 that Austrian rule rested on its weakness not its strength and that the small German states (the federation had 39 sovereign members) would always side with Austria because it lacked the strength to threaten them. Therefore Prussia had to smash the Bund by war. He accomplished that and much more in three dramatic wars – with Austria against Denmark in 1864, against Austria in 1866, and against France in 1870. Bismarck made the modern German state, gave it a federal constitution and boundaries that with exceptions on the eastern frontiers still define Germany in 2012. In so doing he transformed the balance of power in Europe and made Germany the dominant power on the European continent, a position which it still holds today.
Can Bismarck be blamed for Germany’s difficult 20th century?
There are two questions hidden in the word ‘difficult’.
Can Bismarck be blamed for the First World War? Of course not. He died in 1898 and his last two decades in office had been designed to prevent war.
Can Bismarck be blamed for the rise of Hitler? Still less so. A huge, destructive war had to be lost with millions of casualties, a punitive peace that all Germans saw as unjust had to be imposed; the worst inflation in history had to destroy the savings of the respectable classes, and the worst depression in history had to follow after a few years of uneasy recovery. A group of irresponsible aristocrats had to imagine that they could control Hitler and an eighty-four year old Field Marshall had to appoint the ‘Bohemian corporal’ to occupy Bismarck’s office of Chancellor. The Bolshevik Revolution had to create large communist parties all over the world, the biggest, most heavily armed and menacing was the KPD, the German Communist Party. None of this can be even remotely blamed on Bismarck.
On the other hand Bismarck must bear a share of the guilt for what he actually did.
He was the most supple political practitioner of the nineteenth century but his skill had no purpose other than to prop up an antiquated royal semi-absolutism – and to satisfy himself. The means were Olympian, the ends tawdry and pathetic. All that fuss to give Kaiser William II the ability to dislocate rational government and cause international unrest. Sir Edward Grey compared Germany to a huge battleship without a rudder. Bismarck arranged it that way; the result of his politics was that only he could steer it. He gave the German workers social security but refused them the protection of the state. He preferred to shoot workers rather than to listen to their complaints. He made his Junker friends into enemies and then ridiculed them. He mocked their Christian beliefs and offended their faith and values but by preserving the semi-absolute Prussian constitution of 1850, he gave the Junker class, a mere 25,000 landed nobles, a permanent veto through the Prussian House of Lords, on all reform. Absolutism and militarism gave the Junkers control of the higher commands in the army, local government bureaucracy and permanent influence at court.
The Weimar Republic gave Germany ‘democracy’, but the old aristocracy detested the ‘Jew Republic’. In early 1933, von Papen, von Blomberg, von Neurath, von Hindenburg, (father and son) and von Oldenburg-Januschau put Hitler into power, and the war which they supported, became a disaster as the Red Army destroyed the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. On July 20th, 1944, representatives of the same Junker class, led by Helmut James von Moltke, Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, Fieldmarshall von Witzleben and many others of the same ilk, tried to destroy Hitler to preserve their conservative supremacy. Bismarck ensured that his social class survived German unification and their disastrous role in destroying Germany can be laid on his coffin.
He certainly crushed and destroyed the flourishing German liberal parties. As early as September 1863, he had, as one of his cleverest moves, promised the German people universal suffrage in a unified German state and kept that promise when he wrote the constitution of 1866 for the North German Federation and 1870 for the German Empire. It filled up steadily, as industrialization transformed the country, with parties that he could not crush – though he tried: industrial workers and Roman Catholics. By 1912 the Center Party of the Catholics and the Social Democratic Party of the workers had a majority of the seats in the Reichstag.
The third party grouping, the National Liberals and the Radicals, he destroyed by ruthless means and did so quite consciously, as he made clear in a letter he wrote to King Ludwig of Bavaria on August 4th, 1879:
The fiery speeches addressed to the property-less classes by Lasker and Richter have displayed the revolutionary tendencies of these deputies so clearly and nakedly that for a supporter of the monarchical form of government no political cooperation with them can be possible anymore… These are learned gentlemen without property, without industry, without a trade. These gentlemen are the ones who deliver the revolutionary ferment and who lead the Progressive and National Liberal parliamentary parties. Splitting these fractions is in my most humble opinion an essential task of conservative politics.
The Liberals merely wanted the standard protections of the rule of law, freedom of speech, protection against arbitrary arrest, freedom of religious worship, freedom of the press and freedom of learning and research, all freedoms enshrined in the Prussian Constitution of 1850 and ruthlessly ignored by Bismarck who had not included them in the Reich Constitution of 1870. Such persons had in his eyes become guilty of revolutionary tendencies, not against the “monarchical principle” but against the tyranny of Otto von Bismarck.
Bismarck ruled Germany for twenty-eight years because for twenty-six of them an old man, who happened to be King of Prussia, let him. During that entire generation, Otto von Bismarck was Germany, and that legacy, the legacy of the genius-statesman, had another consequence, which Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, saw clearly from his own close attention to Bismarck’s form of rule. In 1918, when the monarchy collapsed, Weber summed up Bismarck’s legacy:
He left a nation totally without political education . . . totally bereft of political will [italics in the original – JS] accustomed to expect that the great man at the top would provide their politics for them. And further as a result of his improper exploitation of monarchical sentiment to conceal his own power politics in party battles, it had grown accustomed to submit patiently and fatalistically to whatever was decided for it in the name of “monarchical government”.
How do you think your book has changed our perceptions of Bismarck?
Since Bismarck was one of the greatest political figures of all times, he has had many biographers of various types. This biography takes its place in a long and distinguished train: Erick Eyck, A.J.P. Taylor, Werner Richter, Edgar Feuchtwanger, Edward Crankshaw, Otto Pflanze, Lothar Gall, Ernst Engelberg, and Katherine Lerman. Then there are huge volumes of J.C. G. Röhl about Kaiser Wilhelm II and Germany after Bismarck, the brilliant study of Bismarck’s Catholic adversary, Windthorst by Margaret Lavinia Anderson and dozens of other more specialized works. The Van Pelt Library of the University of Pennsylvania lists 201 books with “Bismarck” in the title.
How does this book differ from its predecessors? It does so in two ways: in its aim and in its method. The aim is easy to express and probably impossible to do: to explain to author and reader how Bismarck exercised his personal power. The method is to let those on whom the power was exercised, friend and foe, German and foreign, young and old, anybody who experienced the power of Bismarck’s personality close up and recorded the impact, tell the story. I have changed the conventional balance between comment and evidence in favour of the latter. I want to recall the long silenced voices of the many, many distinguished people who met Bismarck and wrote down what they saw.
In that process I got ‘to know’ Bismarck the way human beings ‘know’ each other and ended up as conflicted and uncertain in my judgements and emotions about him as his contemporaries were. The best summary of that dazzled ambivalence comes from a diary entry of Freifrau Hildegard Hugo von Spitzemberg (1843-1914), who kept a diary for her entire life and lived in the house next door to the Bismarcks on the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin. Bismarck liked pretty ladies – his wife was a pious evangelical, unusually plain and unwilling to dress fashionably – and Hildegard was very pretty indeed. She belonged to the highest aristocratic circles; the Emperor came to have tea with her. Her diaries reveal a woman of high intelligence, subtlety and remarkable literary talent. She knew that her friendship with the great Bismarck gave her unique access to the private man, and she also knew that she had the chance to ‘interview’ (she used the English word) him on occasion.
After twenty-five years of close observation of Bismarck in public and private, she could not make up her mind. Bismarck’s personality had such contradictions in it that it could be experienced as positive or negative – angelic or demonic - sometimes both at the same time. She could never get over the contrasts in her great friend. She admitted in her diary on 4 January 1888 that ‘the apparent contradictions in the powerful personality are of such an intense magic, that I am bewitched anew every time.’ Like many others Baroness Spitzemberg used words like “bewitched” or “enchantment” to describe the impact of his presence. Bismarck in conversation or in a formal speech seems to have had a special charm, not, as we have seen, charisma in the Weberian sense, but, nonetheless something irresistibly compelling.
This personal magnetism made Bismarck the most interesting character of the nineteenth century. Nobody who knew him would have denied that. His powerful self, a self I call ‘sovereign’, constituted a unique political force, not charisma, but a dazzling combination of charm and intellect which allowed him again and again to dominate his contemporaries in a way some called diabolical. He mastered the King of Prussia so completely that his sovereign Lord acted as his faithful servant for twenty-six years. Only in preserving fellow Free Masons from Bismarck’s wrath, was the old king prepared to resist Bismarck’s will. His sworn enemies succumbed to the brilliant warmth of his personality, and that literally without exception.
That personal aura explains how he succeeded in his ‘combinations’, as Robert Morier called his manipulations of the political forces. His analytic brilliance allowed him almost always to be a move or two ahead of his opponents like a chess grand master anticipates the possible strategies of an inferior opponent. Only Ludwig Windhorst could outplay him but then only in defence of Catholic rights and in parliament, where Windthorst could concentrate his tactics. Bismarck had a gigantic state to run which he did by himself without a cabinet and almost without personal staff and assistance and occasionally he lost a set-piece in parliament to Windthorst.
In the end, he ruefully learned that wisdom which another great conservative, Edmund Burke had seen in his Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790, thatunexpected developments always frustrate the greatest of humanstrategies or, to quote Harold Macmillan, ‘events, dear boy, events’. By 1888 he saw that both in foreign affairs and in domestic politics, his combinations had ceased to work. At home he seriously considered in 1888 a congress of the princes to undo the constitution of 1870 to revoke universal suffrage and abroad in the secret re-insurance treaty of 1887 with the Russian Empire he promised to back them in their expansive aspirations and at the same he had promised his Austro-Hungarian allies to back them in their resistance to those Russian expansive aspiration. The German Empire had reached domestic stalemate and abroad Bismarck could no longer play his game of chess.
Finally the book tries to trace the dreadful price that he paid in personal suffering, in constant ill-health, in overeating, obesity and dyspepsia, in the crushing of his eldest son’s hopes, in destroying his colleagues’ careers and reputations and through the alienation of his oldest friends, which his neurotic desire for revenge and relentless drive to dominate everybody cost him.
Let me end with the judgement of Albrecht von Roon, his truest and most loyal friend, on the man he put into power and served faithfully for twenty year. In a letter to Bismarck’s boyhood friend, Moritz von Blanckenburg, which Roon wrote in January 1870, he summed up how Bismarck governed:
Bismarck treats business, even the Prussian, more or less as he did years ago. He is in cabinet meetings lively, speaks almost all the time and falls into the old error that through intellectual liveliness and personal charm he can overcome all the difficulties in the way. He will flirt with the National Liberals and ignore old friends and political comrades . He believes that he can win everybody over by diplomatic dialectic and human cleverness and to be able to lead them by spreading bait. He talks conservative to the conservatives and liberal to the liberals and reveals in this either so sovereign a contempt for his entourage or such incredible illusions that it makes me shudder. He wants to remain in office at any cost, for the present and the future, because he feels that the structure he has begun will collapse, making him a laughing stock to the world, as soon as he takes his hand away .That is not entirely incorrect but the means to that end! Are they sanctified for his sake?
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