A House That Bismarck Built

Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography depicts a Bismarck rife with contradictions. Still, it comes dangerously close to conflating the mad Junker’s cautious conservatism with the führer’s nihilism. There is more to Germany than destiny alone.

Issue: Nov-Dec 2011

Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 592 pp., $34.95.

[amazon 0199782520 full]ON AUGUST 4, 1898, the German Jewish theater critic Alfred Kerr wrote a dispatch about the death of Otto von Bismarck. Ever since the impetuous young Kaiser Wilhelm II had abruptly dismissed Bismarck in March 1890—an episode famously depicted by Punch magazine as “dropping the pilot”—the aggrieved squire had immured himself at Friedrichsruh, his Pomeranian country estate near Hamburg. Now Kerr, who three decades later would flee Nazi Germany for England, expressed the sense of loss and unease pervading the German empire Bismarck had forged under Prussian leadership:

On Sunday morning you knew that he was dead. A newspaper hangs on the wall, you take it down and want to turn the first page in an unconcerned manner and read the news of his departure. A shiver and tremor possess you—even if you don’t want them to. In this second you experience, even if a sense of hatred against him was the basic impulse, how deeply you resentfully loved him. A piece of Germany has sunk into the streams of world events for all eternity. Travel safely.1

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