14 March, 2011Issue 15.5History

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Through Sheer Force of Iron Will

James McComish

foerJonathan Steinberg
Bismarck: A Life
Oxford UP, 2011
577 Pages
£25.90
ISBN 978-0199599011


Everything about Otto von Bismarck was larger than life. Standing well over six feet tall (an impressive height in the 19th century), he bestrode the European political scene like a colossus. The Iron Chancellor—unifier of the German nation and inventor of Realpolitik—had an appetite to match his physique. In his own description, a light afternoon tea could consist of “tea [and] coffee, six eggs, 3 sorts of meat, baked goods, and a bottle of Bordeaux”. As a result, even Bismarck’s digestion was prodigious. His private secretary Christoph von Tiedemann recounted an episode after dinner one evening when he and a guest, the historian Heinrich von Sybel, were invited to follow Bismarck to his study.

As a precaution he offered us his bedroom, which was next to the study, as a place to relieve ourselves. We went in and found under the bed the two objects we sought which were of colossal dimensions. As we stationed ourselves at the wall, Sybel spoke seriously and from the depth of his heart, ‘Everything about the man is great, even his s—!!’

This is perhaps the most extraordinary tribute to the great man in Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography, but as the author convincingly demonstrates, Bismarck’s personality—specifically, his ego—was by far the biggest thing about him. Steinberg calls this Bismarck’s “sovereign self”: a sheer force of will that allowed him to ascend—and then fall from—the very heights of power, despite his having little by way of background and experience to mark him out as a conventional political leader.

Otto von Bismarck was born in 1815, the younger son of an undistinguished Junker family from Prussian Saxony. After studies at the University of Göttingen (where he met the future American diplomat and historian John Motley, who became perhaps his only lifelong friend), Bismarck entered the Prussian civil service, first in the law and then in the diplomatic corps. In 1847 he entered the Prussian Landtag where he cultivated a reputation as an outspoken reactionary—a quality for which he gained most notoriety in his famed “blood and iron” speech of 1862. He won royal favour, and soon found himself in Frankfurt as Prussia’s envoy to the German Confederation, then in St Petersburg as ambassador to Imperial Russia. A political crisis of 1862 saw him appointed minister-president of Prussia. He gained other offices as he directed the course of German unification, becoming chancellor of the North German Confederation in 1867 and ultimately chancellor of the unified German Empire upon its creation in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1871. At the time of his appointment as minister-president he was an improbable choice for the role, yet he made it his own and held the post for 28 years until his eventual dismissal in 1890. He died eight years later in 1898.

Bismarck struck shrewd contemporaries like Benjamin Disraeli as a strangely multifarious character. He could be brutally coarse, yet was also a charming and refined conversationalist; a man of commanding power yet prone to melodramatic rage over the most trivial setbacks; the possessor of superhuman appetites and energy but also a hypochondriac and slugabed; the loyal servant of his country yet consistently disloyal to individual masters; the father of a nation but an alienating figure to his own children. All this provides rich material for a character study, and Steinberg (along with numerous earlier biographers) is blessed with a superfluity of sources from which to work. Bismarck was a prolific speaker, letter-writer, and memoirist, and those who encountered him often felt compelled to commit their impressions to paper. As Steinberg makes clear, however, Bismarck was often the least reliable witness to his own thoughts and deeds, and his near-pathological deceit—even in intimate letters to his wife—is one of the most psychologically telling features of Bismarck’s persona. Steinberg’s careful analysis and patient sifting of fact from fiction provides—in this respect at least—a satisfying portrait of a complex psyche.

Steinberg’s biography is also strong on diplomatic history and the international context in which Bismarck operated. His description of Bismarck’s techniques, his successes, and his failures is judicious and informative. Very often, he allows Bismarck to speak for himself, especially on the subject of Realpolitik, of which Bismarck’s own definitions probably cannot be bettered. Politics was “the art of the possible”; and after all “one cannot play chess if 16 of the 64 squares are forbidden from the beginning.” In international as in domestic politics, as Steinberg notes, keeping his options open was very often the key to Bismarck’s success.

In the domestic context, though, Steinberg sometimes seems less sure of his ground. In part, this seems to be because he seems unsure about how far to go beyond Bismarck’s own life into a discussion of wider social, cultural, or economic currents. Steinberg presents German unification, for example, as a rather decontextualised series of political and diplomatic manoeuvres, whose accomplishment seems strangely deflating in the absence of a richer explanation of why unification was an aspiration that mattered to so many Germans. Steinberg’s discussion of economic and financial matters is similarly thin: given the wealth of available data, it seems extraordinary that he should give an index of English grain prices as almost the sole quantitative guide to economic circumstances in Germany after 1873. Indeed, both the stock market crash of that year and the ensuing depression are dramatic enough on their own terms without Steinberg’s laboured references to CDOs and the 2008 financial crisis. A similar desire to appear modern probably lies behind the author’s praise of Internet sources in his preface, but many would doubt that historical standards have yet relaxed sufficiently for his use of Wikipedia as an authority to pass without negative comment.

Does the absence of very much social, cultural, or economic context matter? In the abstract, the answer is probably not, and many biographies are none the poorer for hewing closely to the subject’s own life. However, in Steinberg’s case the matter takes on an added significance because of his extended discussion of German anti-Semitism in chapter 10 (“The Guest House of the Dead Jew”), which he describes as being invented in its modern form by Richard Wagner. Völkisch and anti-Semitic currents were indeed a major and regrettable feature of life in the Second Reich, made all the more tragic by the overwhelming importance they gained in the Third. But they were not the only currents—progressive social legislation, by contrast, gets short shrift and is discussed in scarcely two paragraphs—and Steinberg risks creating an unbalanced picture of the era through selective emphases of this kind.

The capriciousness of these sorts of inclusions and exclusions points to a more fundamental problem in Steinberg’s biography. As the author acknowledges in his preface, Bismarck started life as a much larger work that was “cut” and “polished” into a more manageable and refined form. Very often, though, it seems that this editorial process has miscarried. Sometimes, it is a matter of including too much. For example, Steinberg gives us eight pages on the appealingly picaresque socialist Fedinand Lassalle, with whom Bismarck conversed and corresponded before his death in a duel in 1864, but this is probably six pages too many and an indulgence in an already-long book. Other times, frustrating omissions hinder the reader’s comprehension. We are told, for example, that at some point Henckel von Donnersmarck wrote to “Thiedemann” about agricultural tariffs. Most readers will need some help in identifying Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Silesian nobleman, iron and mining entrepreneur, ardent protectionist, and confidant of Bismarck—and making sense of who was communicating what to whom is made more difficult by the misspelling of Bismarck’s secretary’s name.

One recurrent source of irritation that arises from poor editing is the eccentric duplication or postponement of brief biographical précis of individuals mentioned in the text. For example, the illness of Frederick William IV and the regency of his younger brother Prince William are introduced twice in the space of four pages, yet Benjamin Disraeli is mentioned 12 times over 192 pages before he is introduced with the dates of his life and his status as British prime minister. Leo von Caprivi—Bismarck’s successor as chancellor—fares better, and has only to wait six pages and four mentions before his dates are included. These kinds of small distractions can be found in the index as well—which is, of course, no fault of the author himself. The episode with Bismarck’s chamber pots, for example, is listed as Sybel’s being “[s]tartled by the size of Bismarck’s bed-pans”. To those used to modern plumbing, the difference between a bedpan and a chamber pot may not seem terribly important, but it is a difference nonetheless, and one that becomes the more notable in the context of other typographical and editorial faults of this kind.

Returning to broader and more important themes, how does Steinberg’s work fit into the history of 19thcentury Germany more generally? He frequently acknowledges his debt to Otto Pflanze’s magisterial three-volume biography of Bismarck, and likewise to Christopher Clark’s excellent Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, which is by far the best guide to Prussia (and indeed Germany) in this period. In a more abstract sense, Steinberg clearly places himself within the Sonderweg tradition, albeit without ever mentioning that term or its accompanying historiography. For him, Germany’s baleful inheritance was dysfunctional institutional structure operating in the context of an illiberal political culture; both, in Steinberg’s telling, largely of Bismarck’s creation.

Ultimately, Steinberg’s biography is rather like Bismarck himself. At its best, it is compelling and insightful, but these positive qualities are often marred by inconsistency, idiosyncrasy, and an indigestion caused by excessive length and poor editing.

James McComish is reading for a DPhil in History at Magdalen College, Oxford.