A House That Bismarck Built

A House That Bismarck Built

Mini Teaser: 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.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

It was his own family history all over again. Bismarck’s relations with his parents were troubled. He loved his father, Ferdinand, but viewed him as an ineffectual weakling; his domineering mother, Wilhelmine, he resented for her emotional detachment. “As a small child I hated her; later I successfully deceived her with falsehoods,” he wrote. It is tempting to trace Bismarck’s later emotional turbulence—gluttony, rage, despair and exhilaration—back directly to his childhood, a temptation that Steinberg does not resist. But he makes a very strong case that Bismarck’s personality was decisively shaped at an early age, both for good and ill.

How otherwise, Steinberg observes, to explain the fact that Motley, who first met Bismarck at the University of Göttingen, turned the seventeen-year-old freshman into a character called Otto von Rabenmark in his 1839 novel Morton’s Hope? Rabenmark is “gifted with talents and acquirements immeasurably beyond his years” and makes a name for himself by insulting the members of the dueling fraternity. In a country where the Schmiss, the dueling scar, is the highest honor a university student can display, daring and conflict are Rabenmark’s watchwords. He announces:

After I had cut off the senior’s nose, sliced off the con-senior’s upper lip, moustachios and all, besides bestowing less severe marks of affection on the others, the whole club in admiration of my prowess and desiring to secure the services of so valorous a combatant voted me in by acclamation . . . I intend to lead my companions here, as I intend to lead them in after-life. You see I am a very rational sort of person now and you would hardly take me for the crazy mountebank you met in the street half-an hour ago. But then I see that this is the way to obtain superiority. I determined at once on arriving at the university, that to obtain mastery over my competitors, who were all, extravagant, savage, eccentric, I had to be ten times as extravagant and savage as any one else.

Hyperbole? Not at all. Steinberg does not mention it, but Mark Twain, who witnessed several ferociously bloody duels in Heidelberg, noted in A Tramp Abroad that “a corps student told me it was of record that Prince Bismarck fought thirty-two of these duels in a single summer term when he was in college. So he fought twenty-nine after his badge had given him the right to retire from the field.”

For all his ambition, Bismarck went nowhere for many years. In 1845 his father’s death meant he had to move to remote Schönhausen to run the family estate. Bismarck, known as the “mad Junker” for his antics, which included firing pistols through the windows at his guests, was bored to tears. He ended up wedding the dour Johanna Friederike Charlotte Dorothea Eleonore von Puttkamer, but his true love was politics. The thirty-two-year-old country squire’s first post was to serve as a member of the Prussian parliament: “Johanna von Puttkamer,” Steinberg writes, “lost her husband’s full attention even before they had formally been married.”

BISMARCK MAY not have had much of a career, but he built close relations with prominent conservatives who were intent on protecting the patrimonial interests of the Junkers. Many of these conservatives believed in a rigorous branch of Lutheranism known as Pietism, which stressed an inward and direct relationship with God. As Steinberg notes:

When the Crown Prince Frederick William came to the throne in 1840, he brought Bismarck’s new friends to power with him and, when the unrest leading to the revolutions of 1848 broke out, his neo-Pietist friends would make Bismarck famous.

This was the circle that would launch his career. And thus his great enemy at the outset was liberalism. He knew that the way to make a name for himself was to denounce it in the most vociferous terms possible. In his maiden speech before the Prussian United Diet of 1847, Bismarck committed the ultimate heresy, at least for pious liberals, by mocking the notion that the War of Liberation had anything in common with the demand for freedom or a constitution. In essence, he was saying that it was nothing more than a bunch of sentimental claptrap. The truth was that the Prussian army had always been very uneasy about the existence of the free corps that had fought against Napoléon and the idealism they embodied. Now he declared,

It does the national honour a poor service . . . if one assumes that the mistreatment and humiliation which the foreign power holders imposed on Prussia were not enough on its own to bring their blood to boiling point and to let all other feelings be drowned out by hatred of the foreigner.

This was vintage Bismarck—contempt for parliament and liberalism. Paranoid, restless and scheming, he constantly searched for real and imaginary enemies who might be trying to stymie or topple him. It was a blood sport, little different from the duels he had fought as a student.

Bismarck’s first opportunity to shine came during the 1848 revolution. Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who veered between truculence and obsequiousness—and between the hawks and the doves—lifted press censorship and assented to a constitution after he learned that Klemens von Metternich had fled Vienna to save his skin. Bismarck was horrified. He told a friend that the king had “an unsteady character . . . if one grabbed him, one came away with a handful of slime.” Bismarck wanted to stage a counterrevolution. The military demurred. What ended up happening was more insidious: Bismarck’s conservative allies established a secret shadow government known as the “camarilla” that sought, at every turn, to vitiate liberal triumphs. At the very same time, the National Assembly in Frankfurt, which was made up of liberal groupings from the farrago of German states and principalities, adopted a constitution. But Friedrich IV spurned its offer of a German imperial crown and tried to create his own confederation called the Erfurt Union. It failed. Friedrich capitulated to Austria in November 1850 and signed the Agreement of Olmütz. Known as the “humiliation of Olmütz,” the pact signified Prussia’s abandonment of any pretension to lead the German states. Instead, Prussia docilely returned to the German Confederation headed by Austria, which had originally been established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

In one of his classic realpolitik statements, Bismarck suggested that nationalist grousing about Olmütz was jejune. In retreating, Prussia had made the right move:

Why do great states fight wars today? The only sound basis for a large state is egoism and not romanticism; this is what necessarily distinguishes a large state from a small one. It is not worthy for a large state to fight a war that is not in its own interests. . . . The honour of Prussia does not in my view consist of playing Don Quixote to every offended parliamentary bigwig in Germany who feels his local constitution is in jeopardy.

Now that Prussia had knuckled under to Austria, it needed to send an envoy to Frankfurt, where the German Confederation was based. Bismarck was named Prussian envoy to the federal diet in Frankfurt. His diplomatic path—which would also take him to St. Petersburg, where he became a popular figure among the nobility—had begun.

It was this intersection between domestic and foreign policy that vaulted Bismarck to the twin posts of minister-president and foreign minister of Prussia in 1862. His close friend Albrecht von Roon, the minister of war, had insisted upon expanding the size of the army. King William faced a conundrum: he wanted to implement sweeping reforms that included incorporating the free militias that had fought during the War of Liberation, but the new parliament was balking at paying for them. “That Prussia could easily afford such costs,” writes Steinberg, “had not yet entirely penetrated the consciousness of the tax-paying classes.” The crown and parliament were at an impasse. Roon hammered home the message that only Bismarck could surmount the stalemate, which he did. In his first speech—the famous “blood and iron” one—as minister-president, Bismarck flung down the gauntlet toward Austria, stating that Prussia’s borders were unfavorable for its continued existence. German liberals, who composed the majority of the parliament, were aghast. But Bismarck simply bypassed them. He produced military victories that forced the parliament, in the end, to indemnify the state retroactively. By then, the liberals, who harbored more than a dose of nationalism, were exultant over German unification. But Bismarck’s contempt for parliament meant that the institutions of the state relied on him to function properly.

Consistent with his proclivity for seeking out new alliances, Bismarck was soon to cut his ties with the conservatives. He was a realist par excellence. Before him, politicians, more often than not, at least made a show of following high-minded principles and predicated their partnerships on the basis of religious or political affinities. Not Bismarck. He said such thinking was humbug:

The system of solidarity of the conservative interests of all countries is a dangerous fiction . . . We arrive at a point where we make the whole unhistorical, godless and lawless sovereignty swindle of the German princes into the darling of the Prussian Conservative Party.

Pullquote: Imagine a Teutonic version of Dick Cheney in power for several decades and you may start to get a sense of what Bismarck meant for his colleagues, for Germany and for its neighbors.Image: Essay Types: Book Review