The way to power in Germany
Otto von Bismarck was revered in Germany for years as the architect of a united Germany, one who put together a coalition of kingdoms under an emperor who had been ruler of Prussia, the man who formed a nation that took its place proudly among the other nations of Europe.
A recent biography put some different touches to that picture. “Bismarck: A Life” by Jonathan Steinberg points out some flaws, both personal and procedural, that had a long-term effect on nearly a century of subsequent German history.
The Prussia that Bismarck was born into had a long tradition of military predominance. In the mid-1600s, the head of Prussia decided he did not want to hire mercenaries for his army. Instead, he induced the landed nobles to cultivate military habits. His successors, including Frederick the Great, added to this habit. By the time of Bismarck, the landed nobles and their children were accustomed to attending military schools and then serving terms in military regiments. Steinberg says Prussia became an army containing a country, not a country containing an army.
Although such was the kingdom he was born into, Bismarck did not follow that pattern. Although of the landed gentry, he did not attend a military school, but a regular German version of a civilian high school. Then he attended the University of Gottingen. He spent as little time in the required regiment as possible, because he didn’t like to take orders.
But he liked to give orders. The son of a weak father and dominating mother, he learned as a child how to get his way, with lies if necessary, but in any event to dominate his surroundings. One of his fellow students at the university was John Lothrop Motley, an American who later wrote a monumental history of the rise of the Dutch Republic. Motley said Bismarck (thinly disguised in a novel) remarked: “The way to obtain mastery over my competitors, who were all extravagant, savage, eccentric, was to be 10 times as extravagant and savage as anyone else.”
Part of such extravagance was an ability to be utterly truthful, when it would serve his purposes. Shortly before becoming prime minister of Prussia, he was visiting London and attended a reception at the residence of the Russian ambassador. Also at hand were the Austrian ambassador and Benjamin Disraeli, soon to become British prime minister. To that gathering, Bismarck said:
“I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to reorganize the army. As soon as the army is 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.”
Disraeli, no slouch himself at maneuvering, remarked to the Austrian ambassador: “Look out for that man. He means what he says.”
Three personalities were instrumental in Bismarck’s progress. The first was the Prussian king, Wilhelm I. The others were Gen. Albrecht von Roon, Prussian minister of war, and Gen. Helmut von Moltke, who modernized the army. Von Roon persuaded Wilhelm to name Bismarck prime minister. Although imbued with a military background himself, Wilhelm gave Moltke authority for army reform. As for dealing with civilian matters, the king willingly turned that duty over to Bismarck.
Within a decade of becoming prime minister, Bismarck had achieved what he had predicted in London. Austria was defeated. The improved army inflicted a devastating defeat on France, and Wilhelm had become emperor over an increasingly centralized patchwork of German principalities.
But Steinberg takes care to make clear that it was not a sound structure that resulted. It all depended on Bismarck’s ability to get Wilhelm to let him have his way. Even von Roon expressed doubts toward the end:
“He believes that he can win everybody over by ... spreading bait. He talks conservative to the conservatives and liberal to the liberals, and reveals in this so sovereign a contempt for his entourage, or such incredible illusions, that it makes me shudder.”
So the governmental edifice that he built depended on his personality. And when the compliant Wilhelm I was replaced by the megalomaniac Wilhelm II, who dismissed Bismarck shortly after coming to the throne, there was no solid structure to keep the state on a steady course. A German analyst wrote: “Bismarck left a nation totally without political education, totally bereft of political will, accustomed to expect that the great man at the top would provide their politics for them.”
Steinberg says: “Under Bismarck’s rule political opponents became enemies and had to be crushed. He helped the worst elements of the old ruling class to survive, so that in 1933 they could give the office that the Iron Chancellor had created to an Austrian corporal who destroyed what remained of Bismarck’s Germany.”
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.