Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bismarck by Jonathan Steinberg

Bismarck, the living human being; Bismarck, the genius-statesman: Bismarck the Iron Chancellor as icon, make up a complex legacy. Patriotic biographers left out the uncomfortable aspects of his actual life and the editors of documents omitted or censored them. A generation of conservative German historians exalted the wisdom, moderation, and vision of the statesman; the public and propagandists exalted the strong man, the essential German. The real Bismarck, violent, intemperate, hypochondriac, and misogynist, only appeared in biographies late in the twentieth century. What the three Bismarck images have in common as phenomena is the absence of redeeming human virtues: kindness, generosity, compassion, humility, abstinence, patience, liberality, and tolerance. Bismarck the man, Bismarck the statesman, Bismarck the icon embodied none of those virtues.

There are deep ironies in the career of Otto von Bismarck: the civilian always in uniform, the hysterical hypochondriac as the symbol of iron consistency, the successes which become failures, the achievement of supreme power in a state too modern and too complex for him to run, the achievement of greater success than anybody in modern history which turned out to be a Faustian bargain. For twenty-eight years he crushed the opposition, cowed cabinets, poured hatred, scorn, and anger on political opponents in public and private. It required courage of a high order to resist the Chancellor. Almost nobody did. He smashed the possibility of responsible parliaments in 1878 when he used two attempts to assassinate the Kaiser to destroy moderate bourgeois liberalism. He persecuted Catholics and Socialists. He respected no law and tolerated no opposition. His legacy in culture was literally nothing. He had no interest in the arts, never went to a museum, only read lyric poetry from his youth or escapist literature. He paid no attention to scientists or historians unless he could enlist them like Treitschke. He was the most supple political practicioner of the nineteenth century but his skill had no purpose other than to prop up an antiquated royal semi-absolutism – and to satisfy himself. The means were Olympian, the ends tawdry and pathetic. All that fuss to give Kaiser William II the ability to dislocate rational government and cause international unrest. Sir Edward Grey compared Germany to a huge battleship without a rudder. Bismarck arranged it that way; only he could steer it. He gave the German workers social security but refused them the protection of the state. He preferred to shoot workers rather than to listen to their com[plaints. He made his Junker friends into enemies and then ridiculed them. He mocked their Christian belief and offended their faith and values.

In “Parliament and Government in the new order in Germany” (1918) Max Weber asked ‘what was the legacy of Bismarck?’

“He 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. And further as a result of his improper exploitation of monarchial sentiment to conceal his own power politics in party battles, it had grown accustomed to submit patiently and fatalistically to whatever was decided for it in the name of ‘monarchial government’”.

Bismarck saw politics as a struggle but when he talked about politics as the ‘art of the possible’, he meant that in a limited sense. He never considered compromise a satisfactory outcome. He had to win an destroy his opponents or lose and be destroyed himself. Whoever has power in a normal political system may win a round but then must continue the struggle to reach consensus. That was not Bismarck’s way. He set out to ‘beat them all’ and he did. In a political system where principle stood at the center of political activity, he had none but the naked exercise of his own power and the preservation of royal absolutism on which that power rested. If politics according to Bismarck were ‘the art of the possible’, but without compromise, what sort of art or craft was it? And to what end?

The Gerlachs were not wrong that principles matter in politics. Neither reality nor power has unequivocal or objective meanings. Human beings have values, faiths of various kinds, and preferences. The Bismarckian assumption that a master player can ‘game’ the system worked only to a point at which irrational emotions, violence, confusion, incompetence, began top mix themselves up with his plans. What is the purpose of the art of politics if not to serve some cause, to improve the conditions under which people have to live, to make societies freer, more just and more humane or, with the Gerlachs more Christian? Bismarck practiced his wizardry to preserved a semi-absolute monarchy and, when it suited him, he would preserve the rights of a narrow, frugal, fiercely reactionary Junker class, who hated all progress, liberalism, Jews, socialists, Catholics, democrats, and bankers. He differed from them only in his ruthlessness.

Bismarck; A Life by Jonathan Steinberg; Oxford University Press, 2011. Mr. Steinberg is the Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania and Emeritus Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

1 comment:

  1. The stories about how Bismarck occasionally overcame his hypochondria and gluttony are quite interesting. The author was also quite impressed by some of Bismarck's personal letters which often showed a more humane side to his character and, especially in his youth, a strain of comic genius. I shouldn't omit the author's long passages on Anti-Semitism in Germany during Bismarck's time and the role he played in fomenting it (despite being able to work well with Jewish 'liberals' on many occasions)but I did. If anyone wants to study the matter at greater length, this is an excellent reference.