Bismarck’s rise was driven by ruthless ambition and a dread of boredom, says John Hinton
JONATHAN STEINBERG OUP, £20
Behind the magnetic charm of Otto von Bismarck was a man of “demonic powers” determined to unite the principalities and duchies of Germany into a powerful nation whatever the cost to himself or those foolish enough to get in his way, according to a masterly new biography by Jonathan Steinberg, a former lecturer in modern European history at Cambridge.
The genius who designed the German empire was devoted to his amiable Emperor, William I, but persecuted Catholics and socialists alike and at times crushed public opposition with the bayonet.
Among his favourite drinks was a blend of champagne and dark beer – which naturally came to be called a “Bismarck”. And he also lapped up any fights that came his way; it took little time to crush the flower of the French cavalry with his shrapnel-firing artillery and annex Alsace Lorraine in the FrancoPrussian War of 1870.
A meeting with the extraordinary “Iron Chancellor” was described by Benjamin Disraeli after a visit in 1878. “Bismarck soars above all: he is six foot four, proportionately stout, with a sweet and gentle voice which singularly contrasts with the awful things he says, appalling for their frankness and their audacity. He is a complete despot here, and from the highest to the lowest, all tremble at his frown and court most sedulously his smile.” Bismarck grew up part the Lutheran Prussian aristocracy of Pomerania, with an ample personal allowance and unresolved ambitions which failed to be satisfied either at university or at law school. Frequently bored, he visited England and the homes of well-off friends, galloping horses recklessly and getting into trouble. Indeed, he often exhibited the lifestyle of the Junker squire he privately mocked. An early love affair failed because the girl of his dreams was already engaged and then died tragically aged 24.
As Otto turned 28, the author sees desperation: “This huge man with his fierce, undirected ambition, his spectacular and extravagant behaviour, his tremendous urge to dominate and his dread of boredom, resembled a massive steam engine at highest pressure and the wheels locked by cast-iron brakes.'
A year later, and the massive engine had begun to move. He decided to marry a cousin of the girl he had loved and direct all his energies into a political career. But while he was to prove a faithful enough husband, he was passionate about nailing his ultra-reactionary brand of political beliefs to the mast of the hereditary monarchy. All the power which he began to accumulate was directed through William, the Emperor.
Perhaps even William, badly rocked during the 1848 revolutions, regarded him as the type to be summoned only when there was need for bayonets with which to stick liberals. But, although no push-over, he soon began to play all the cards Bismarck gave him. As this rich and readable biography shows, Bismarck had an almost uncanny sense of power. He had few friends, so everyone he encountered was a means to an end to be easily discarded. In 1862 his bayonets were needed during a budgetary impasse, and he was appointed Prussian minister president; eight years later he became Germany’s first chancellor.
Lacking a substantial political party of his own, Bismarck ceaselessly shuffled the main parties. He rallied the Liberals against the Catholics, and then the Catholics against the Liberals. Unlike many of his reactionary Prussian friends, he realised how parliamentary elections might work to the advantage of both the Prussian throne and its conservative supporters, initially by trumping the rulers of smaller states that stood in Prussia’s way. In the 1880s he sought to undermine socialism by introducing the world’s first state social security and old-age pension system.
The author, currently Professor of Modern History at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at the opinion of Bismark offered by his contemporaries. Most were highly unflattering. The bushy moustache and smiling lips concealed a malign genius with an ice-cold contempt for his fellow human beings; a methodical determination to control and rule them. And behind all this was an enormous capacity for work; he wore out his secretaries by dictating documents and letters from dawn to dusk.
Among the seven deadly sins – and he ate and drank to excess – he repeatedly committed the sin of wrath, admitting to his brother that he became so angry with those who sought to annoy him that “I could bite the table”. Concerned that his temper had made him deranged, his friends suggested the Christian way of “loving thine enemies”.
But this didn’t work and his unbridled misogyny continued, most notably with the Queen / Empress Augusta, the wife of the sovereign and the lady he should have least offended. But he relied on William’s weakness to get his way and that in itself derived from Augusta’s strength. As Steinberg sees it, Bismarck may have been the most powerful man in Europe but psychologically he was a little boy at the point of an upside-down triangle.
William, his bridge to power, couldn’t last forever, and Bismarck’s authority was briefly tested after his death by Crown Prince Frederick and his English wife.
As it happened, Frederick died of throat cancer after only 100 days on the throne in 1888. But the ageing Otto then had to deal with the excitable Wilhelm II, whose intimates were a clique of scheming guard officers.
The man of blood and iron was unceremoniously retired aged 75 in 1890 – portrayed in the famous Punch cartoon “dropping the pilot” – leaving Germany like a huge battleship without a rudder, steaming inexorably towards what became the First World War.