'I have beaten them all! All!'
Bismarck: A Life
By Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press 537pp £25)
Riding through Lorraine after the defeat of France in the autumn of 1870, Otto von Bismarck was accosted by a woman whose husband had just been taken into custody for attacking a Prussian hussar with a spade. 'In the kindliest possible manner' he replied to her tearful entreaties: 'Well, my good woman, you can be quite sure that your husband' - and at this point he drew a line around his neck with his finger - 'will very soon be hanged!' This contrast between civilised exterior and brutal substance arises often in Jonathan Steinberg's magnificent new biography. Disraeli, for example, was impressed by Bismarck's 'sweet and gentle voice' and his 'peculiarly refined enunciation' but added that it made all the more appalling the terrible things he actually said. Bismarck not only loved to outrage people, he turned offensiveness into a political tactic right from the start, subduing his fellow conservatives in the Prussian Parliament by presenting himself as 'the most extreme of extremists, the wildest of reactionaries, and the most savage of debaters'.
A self-centred, neurotic, corrupt, vindictive, treacherous, unprincipled, despotic, gluttonous ingrate, and a habitual liar to boot, Bismarck was a spectacularly nasty piece of work. That is well known, of course. What marks out Steinberg's account is his ability to get inside his subject's seething mind. The praise bestowed by Bismarck on Thomas Carlyle - 'he understood how to put himself in the soul of another person' - also applies to his own biographer. As Steinberg convincingly argues, there was a close causal relationship between his subject's frequently diseased body and his permanently sick soul. He was always whining about his poor health, indeed 'no statesman of the nineteenth or twentieth century fell ill so frequently, so publicly, and so dramatically'. This hypochondria was also drummed into service as a political weapon. If his sovereign allowed even a hint of criticism to pass his lips, Bismarck would take himself off to bed, moaning and groaning until an apology was forthcoming. Typical was a letter of 1869: 'I am sick to death and have gall bladder problems ... I have not slept for 36 hours and spent the entire night vomiting. My head feels like a glowing oven in spite of cold compresses. I fear that I am about to lose my mind.' He was not the only one: many contemporaries thought that Bismarck was always verging on madness and often tipping over the edge.
So, how on earth did he become the most successful political figure of the nineteenth century? He was German Chancellor for nineteen years and transformed the European continent more radically than any other individual, with the possible exception of Napoleon, even though, unlike the latter, Bismarck was neither a general nor an emperor. As Steinberg makes clear, the secret of his power was his ability to control the King of Prussia, William I, whom he made German Emperor in 1871. Appointed Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862, when William was contemplating abdication over a prolonged dispute with the liberal majority in Parliament, Bismarck quickly made himself indispensable. It was a relationship he then exploited with characteristic ruthlessness. William may have moaned that 'it's hard to be Emperor under Bismarck' and occasionally kicked feebly against the pricks, but he was always soon back in harness, apologising profusely for his temerity. When Bismarck asked to resign in 1869 over a trivial issue - as he often did - William wrote: 'How can you imagine that I could even think of acceding to your idea! It is my greatest happiness [underlined twice] to live with you and to thoroughly agree with you!' and signed the letter 'Your most faithful friend [underlined three times] W.'
From this bedrock of royal support Bismarck dominated first Prussia, then Germany and then Europe. He had been dealt a strong hand. By the time he came to power, Prussia was well on the way to becoming the continent's dominant economy, not least because it had acquired the Ruhr from the wreckage of the Napoleonic Empire. The international situation was equally propitious. Russia was still licking its wounds after defeat in the Crimean War; Austria had been enfeebled by the war against France over Italy in 1859; Britain was preoccupied with getting rich and grabbing colonies. In taking advantage, Bismarck was helped by two organisers of genius: the Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, and the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was they who supplied the military instrument to defeat Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71. But it was Bismarck who combined all the political, diplomatic and military assets in one invincible package. Well might he pound his desk and shout in triumph: 'I have beaten them all! All!' As Steinberg's knowledge of the context is as profound as his knowledge of Bismarck, this biography also provides a brilliant account of the process of German unification in all its manifestations.
He also charts with masterly cogency the growing problems that afflicted the second - and much longer - part of Bismarck's political career, ending in his humiliating dismissal in 1890. The law of unintended consequences operated with ever-intensifying insistence, as he lost control of the forces he had unleashed. As Steinberg puts it, employing one of the many arresting images that make this book such a pleasure to read: 'in 1866 Bismarck brandished democracy at the Habsburgs like a cross in front of a vampire'. But whereas at first his mobilisation of the masses worked well, they turned out to have a will of their own. Instead of following Bismarck's script and voting for conservative parties, they increasingly turned to the Catholic Centre Party and then - even more alarmingly - to the Social Democrats. By 1890 those whom Bismarck excoriated as 'enemies of the German Empire' held a majority in Parliament.
The very complex and unwieldy constitution he imposed on the new Germany was expressly designed to suit him, or in other words to preserve a system in which a strong Chancellor bullied a weak King. Always difficult to manage, it fell apart completely in the late 1880s. After William I died in 1888 at the age of ninety, his son Frederick reigned for only ninety-nine days before succumbing to throat cancer and making way for his own son, William II. As highly strung as Bismarck but not as bright, the new Emperor was soon asserting himself. With all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the very same sort of plot that had brought Bismarck to power - an intrigue by a court camarilla - now brought his downfall. Retiring to one of his numerous estates, he was soon back doing what he did best: complaining and conspiring. He also enjoyed being the Grand Old Man of Germany, revelling in his status as the national hero, as a forest of statues in his honour sprang up right around the country. Even the Bavarians had come to venerate him. If they had known what was coming, they might have been less enthusiastic. As Jonathan Steinberg argues, many of the woes that were to afflict Germany, Europe and the world in the century that followed can be traced back to the man in whom 'the greatness and misery of human individuality was stretched to its limits'.
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Tim Blanning is a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His most recent book is The Romantic Revolution.