- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011


By Jonathan Steinberg
Oxford, $34.95, 577 pages, illustrated

The early decades of the 19th century saw the rise and fall of Napoleon; the middle decades of the next century brought the ruthless expansion of Germany under Adolf Hitler. Napoleon and Hitler were both charismatic leaders, able to sway armies or multitudes by their mere presence.

In between the eras of Napoleon and Hitler came the emergence of Germany as a great power through the masterful diplomacy of its first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The Prussian aristocrat inspired no cheering crowds. But the united Germany he created would lead Europe into two devastating world wars, first under “Kaiser Bill” and then under Hitler.

The future “Iron Chancellor” was born in 1815 at his parents’ estate in Brandenburg. His father was from an old Junker family. An American historian, John Lothrop Motley, would later write, “One can very properly divide the Germans into two classes, the Vons and the nonVons.” Bismarck was a Von.

At 17, Bismarck entered the University of Gottingen, where he was active in the local dueling fraternity and acquired a reputation as a brawler. He graduated in 1835 with a degree in law, however, and entered the Prussian civil service. Colleagues learned to respect his energy, his skill at languages and his broad intellectual interests.

Weary of sexual liaisons, Bismarck sought a bride, but complained to a brother, “With my shortage of funds, I do not think I can take a wife who brings less than 1,000 pounds a year” as dowry. He fell in love with one young lady, but dropped her when he learned that she was illegitimate. In 1847, he married the frumpy Johanna von Puttkamer, who at least brought with her the vital “von.”

Bismarck entered the Prussian legislature, but found no outlet for what the author calls “his fierce, undirected ambition, his spectacular and extravagant behavior, his tremendous urge to dominate, and his dread of boredom.” He generated fear among some colleagues; others were impressed by his frank manner and the depth of his knowledge.

In a succession of offices, Bismarck sought the unification of the German states in such a way as to preclude their domination by Austria. His reactionary policies were not always welcome: He was “exiled” for a time as ambassador to Russia. But his personal prestige soon led to his recall, and in 1862, he became Prussia’s foreign minister. In the following decade, Bismarck’s policies led to successful wars against Denmark and Austria.

There followed three years of secret diplomacy directed against France. By means of the aggressively worded Ems Dispatch, he provoked France into declaring war in 1870. The Franco-Prussian war that followed was an overwhelming victory for Bismarck. The peace treaty obliged France to surrender Alsace and Lorraine and established Germany as the leading power on the Continent. In Bismarck’s view, “It is not worthy for a great State to fight for a cause which has nothing to do with its own interest.”

Bismarck emerged from the war the acknowledged leader of a united Germany. He was obliged to deal with a fractious Reichstag, but enjoyed the firm support of King William I. In foreign affairs, he sought to secure what Germany had won by keeping France diplomatically isolated and by preventing the emergence of any anti-German coalition. However, the existence of a powerful German state was a challenge to Britain and France and prompted a series of secret alliances that contributed to the coming of World War I.

Mr. Steinberg points out that the Bismarck who struck fear into his rivals was a very complicated person. He bullied his staff. He often expressed loathing for Jews, yet took no part in the extreme anti-Semitism of his day. And for all his seeming vigor, he was a hypochondriac. In the author’s words, “No statesman of the nineteenth or twentieth century fell ill so frequently, so publicly, and so dramatically. Bismarck trumpeted his suffering and all his symptoms to everybody.”

Under William I and his successor, who reigned less than a year, Bismarck was the government. In part to undercut the Socialists, he introduced elements of the welfare state - state insurance against sickness and old age - which were far ahead of their time. But the accession to the throne of the ambitious, unstable William II brought an end to Bismarck’s virtually unchallenged rule. A series of disputes over domestic issues led Bismarck to submit his resignation in 1890. He retired to his estate, where he died in 1898.

The central tragedy of Bismarck’s career is that he created a mighty power that he could not totally control and which eventually led to his overthrow. The nation that he created, in the hands of lesser men, would lead to Germany’s defeat in two world wars and to the destruction of much of Europe.

John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).

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