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The Ironic Chancellor

The tragedy of Otto von Bismarck.

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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Bismarck: A Life
By Jonathan Steinberg
(Oxford University Press, 577 pages, $34.95)

IT IS OFTEN said of larger-than-life celebrities and politicians that they “suck the oxygen out of the room.” Otto von Bismarck went one step further: he sucked the air out of an entire nation. Granted, he had given it the breath of life in the first place, painstakingly forging a unified Germany out of a patchwork of 39 sovereign states with long and often hostile individual histories. Cunning, invincibly determined, undistracted by a larger ideology or moral imperative, and unburdened by political scruples of any kind, Bismarck succeeded in his monumental undertaking…. but in the worst possible way. As the English historian Edward Crankshaw succinctly put it:

The tragedy of Bismarck, apart from the profound personal tragedy of a man of wonderful gifts corrupted, was not that he subordinated morality to the supposed needs of the state: most other statesmen of his time did that, including Gladstone. The tragedy was that he exalted the amoral concept of politics into a principle; and that, as a corollary, because he succeeded with such dazzling skill through the nine miraculous years which culminated in the foundation of the Reich, his countrymen surrendered to that principle.

Thus, Crankshaw concluded, “Bismarck and the [German] people corrupted each other.” Always projecting himself as a tower of strength, the so-called “Iron Chancellor” was actually more ironic than iron, a man of seemingly endless contradictions. Merciless to others, he drew on a bottomless well of self-pity when it came to his own real or imagined sufferings. Contemptuous of parliamentary government, he introduced universal manhood suffrage—“one man, one vote”—before most of the more progressive, democratic nations of Western Europe. The irony here lay in his reason for doing so: his deep-seated loathing of the rising middle class, the new bourgeoisie of urban capitalists and professionals that formed a rival power base outside the old Prussian model of an autocratic central monarchy, supported by a loyal Junker class of officers and bureaucrats like Bismarck himself. Combining elements of the 18th-century past and the 20th-century future, Bismarck leapfrogged 19th-century liberalism to forge a coalition between the old, semi-feudal Prussian—and later German—ruling class and the rural peasants and urban masses. As he explained it himself, at decisive moments, “the masses will stand on the side of the kingship regardless of whether the latter happens to follow a liberal or a conservative tendency.”

And so they did, throughout his lifetime and up until the last days of World War I, when Bismarck’s creation, the mighty German Reich, collapsed and died along with imperial Austria and Russia. What had kept it going as long as it did was Bismarck’s brilliant realization that “the artificial system of indirect and class elections” popular in most of Western Europe was “much more dangerous than that of direct and general suffrage, because it prevents contact between the highest authority and the healthy elements that constitute the core and the mass of the people. In a country with monarchical traditions and loyal sentiments the general suffrage, by eliminating the influences of the liberal bourgeois classes, will also lead to... [pro-monarchy] elections.”

These are among the many historical and personal ironies explored and analyzed with insight and eloquence by Professor Jonathan Steinberg in his impressive Bismarck: A Life. As Professor Steinberg sees it, Bismarck’s legacy was not so much one of proverbial “Blood and Iron” as one of “Blood and Irony,” with the “deepest and most impenetrable irony” lying in Bismarck’s own personality: “He moved no crowds at mass meetings and in parliament he roused his listeners more by insults and scorn than by overwhelming oratory, but he had that ‘demonic’ power that made him an irresistible political figure and a disastrous one.” Another great Bismarckian irony: having given the “silent majority” of Germans the vote, he made sure that parliamentary ranks would include few if any ordinary citizens by making membership in the Reichstag unaffordable to those without an independent income—members of parliament received no salary. And the powers of the Reichstag itself were carefully rationed by the Ironic Chancellor. As Gordon Craig pointed out in his magisterial history, Germany, 1866–1945, “the Reichstag’s assent was required for all legislation, but it had few powers of initiative and for the most part merely acted upon matters brought before it by the Chancellor and the Federal Council.”

THUS BISMARCK tailored a garment of government that, for his purposes, was a perfect fit. And by passing a series of social benefits generous and advanced by the standards of the time, he created a German social contract that largely bypassed the bourgeois political class and united the monarchy and the masses. This was largely possible because of his brilliant manipulation of a three-phase foreign policy: (a) by eliminating traditional Austrian influence in pre-unity Germany, Bismarck established his native Prussia as the new paramount power while, (b) eliminating or emasculating other leading German states such as Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, and Hanover, and then (c) leading a triumphant pan-Germanic war effort that crushed Second Empire France and provided the perfect stage moment for declaring a united German Reich with the king of Prussia as German emperor.

Here, too, Bismarckian irony piled on irony. His sovereign, King William of Prussia, a chivalrous old gentleman with a strong sense of tradition, was reluctant to the last about assuming a—to him—dynastically dubious imperial title. And the proclamation itself occurred not in Germany but on alien soil: in occupied France, in the halls of Versailles, the palace that had once symbolized French hegemony in Europe under the Sun King Louis XIV. For poor old-but-new Emperor Wilhelm I, as he confided in a letter home to his wife, it was nothing but an “emperor-charade. I cannot tell you how utterly depressed I have been feeling in these last days, partly because of the high responsibility, partly because of the pain at seeing the Prussian title superseded.”

With this truly crowning irony, Bismarck, by sheer determination and brilliant statecraft, created a new empire and a new emperor of his own devising against the will of many ordinary Germans and the new crowned head himself. In the fullness of time, Bismarck’s flawed empire died. It was succeeded by the Weimar Republic that embodied everything the great man most loathed as impractical, idealistic, and untrue to ancestral values. It in turn was felled by Adolf Hitler, a monster whose ruthless, unprincipled pursuit of power resulted in an evil caricature of empire that Bismarck would have detested.

Yet one reason Hitler was able to gain and then hold power was the ingrained passive obedience that Bismarck recognized and harnessed to his German Realpolitik with such devastating effect in the previous century. Bismarck—the ultimate pragmatist ruthlessly pursuing limited goals—was in no way a precursor to Hitler, a messianic sociopath bent on world domination, as Professor Steinberg seems to suggest. But Bismarck’s Prussian-authoritarian bias in shaping the first modern German nation-state did create an enabling ambience for future horrors he could never have imagined.

It fell to a morally incorruptible German politician from the more mellow western Rhineland, Konrad Adenauer, to preside over the creation of a de-Prussianized, re-humanized German republic that has evolved into a stable, peaceful democracy and the economic powerhouse of Europe. Adenauer, who was no stranger to irony himself, once characterized his German fellow countrymen as a race of “carnivorous sheep.” Unlike Bismarck, however, he helped them to rise above the traditionally toxic mix of passive obedience and arrogant swagger that characterized Bismarckian Germany and the worse things that followed it.

In doing so, Konrad Adenauer proved himself a better man and a greater statesman than his far more brilliant predecessor.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.