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

To the dismay of pious, conservative Christians, Bismarck, in other words, was perfectly prepared to ally himself with the parvenu emperor Napoléon III to challenge Austrian predominance in Europe. He was equally capable of turning on France. Only when Germany was united in 1871 did Bismarck declare that Prussia was a “satiated” power and that he feared the “nightmare of a coalition” directed against his shiny new creation.

BISMARCK’S STRATEGY was as cunning as it was simple: he saw that nationalism, the great force of the nineteenth century, did not have to be opposed to monarchy. Instead, it could be harnessed and manipulated. He was in many ways a populist conservative, which proved to be anathema to his early backers. He did not want to cede nationalism to the liberals, who championed freedom and democracy. Instead, he wanted to hijack it. His first move was to provoke war in 1864 with Denmark over the northern province of Schleswig-Holstein, which remains part of Germany today. By annexing the territory he was able to stir up nationalist feeling and set the stage for conflict with Austria, which had troops stationed in the region. England watched the march toward war with consternation: Lord Clarendon, the British foreign secretary, wrote, “In the name of all that is rational, decent and humane, what can be the justification of war on the part of Prussia?” One of Bismarck’s early patrons, Ernst Ludwig von Gerlach, a Pietist and lawyer, visited Bismarck in 1866 and concluded, Steinberg writes, that the minister-president had “abandoned any semblance of the rigorous Christian morality which the two brothers Gerlach and many others thought they had discerned in the young Bismarck.” But the Gerlachs (Ludwig and his army-general brother, Leopold) were political dinosaurs; the fastidious Leopold had once reproved Bismarck for visiting Paris, as though a visit to that cosmopolitan city would corrupt him.

Bismarck was on a roll. He concluded a treaty with Italy, which stipulated that it would attack Austria in the event of a Prussian conflict with the empire. To stir up even more trouble for Vienna, he called for universal suffrage. The idea was that the Hapsburg empire, which contained numerous national groups, would be confronted with competing demands for freedom that it could not satisfy. Once again, orthodox Prussians were horrified. But Bismarck believed that even if the parliament was directly elected, he could emasculate it—later on, as the Social Democrats became a mass party, he wanted to repeal universal suffrage. But on the eve of war with Austria in 1866, he told his ambassador in Paris, “In the decisive moment the masses stand by the Monarchy, without distinction whether it has a liberal or conservative direction at that moment.” Liberals and nationalists were happy because Bismarck had defeated the retrograde, Catholic Austrian empire.

Bismarck’s third and final war came against France in 1870. The cause was trivial; the consequences immense. Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern was supposed to become the next Spanish king. The French lashed themselves into a frenzy of indignation. War ensued. Prussia, expert at using trains to deploy its troops quickly, prevailed. Yet it soon found itself bogged down in partisan warfare as French irregulars picked off its forces. Then there was the fall of Napoléon III and the rise of the Paris Commune. Eventually, Prussia bombarded Paris with siege guns. The liberally minded Crown Prince Frederick, married to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, confided to his war diary:

What good to us is all power, all martial glory and renown, if hatred and mistrust meet us at every turn, if every step we advance in our development is a subject for suspicion and grudging? Bismarck has made us great and powerful but he has robbed us of our friends, the sympathies of the world, and—our conscience.

Bismarck was at the height of his power. Steinberg’s verdict is unequivocal:

These nine years, and this ‘revolution’, constitute the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries, for Bismarck accomplished all this without commanding a single soldier, without dominating a vast parliamentary majority, without the support of a mass movement, without any previous experience of government, and in the face of national revulsion at his name and his reputation. This achievement . . . rested on several sets of conflicting characteristics among which brutal, disarming honesty mingled with the wiles and deceits of a confidence man. He played his parts with perfect self-confidence yet mixed them with rage, anxiety, illness, hypochondria, and irrationality.

The German Constitution of 1871 retained Prussian particularism, and so Bismarck rode roughshod over parliament, persecuted his foes, and tried to maintain stability inside and outside the new Reich. His friend Ludwig Bamberger once observed about the Iron Chancellor’s self-confidence, “Prince Bismarck believes firmly and deeply in a God who has the remarkable faculty of always agreeing with him.” Emperor William put it more concisely: “it’s hard to be Kaiser under Bismarck.”

BUT THE speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick approach Bismarck wielded in the realm of foreign policy was nowhere to be found when it came to domestic politics. 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. To combat his foes, Bismarck found himself resorting to increasingly extreme measures—the Kulturkampf against Catholicism, the battle against the rise of the Social Democrats and the refusal to say anything to counter the contumely heaped upon Jews. It is this last phenomenon that Steinberg brilliantly chronicles. Bismarck was anything but immune to the anti-Semitism that permeated his class, which objected to the rise of Jews in the arts, journalism, banking, finance and industry. The young Kaiser Wilhelm, as the historian John C. G. Röhl has shown, also was a rabid anti-Semite. Steinberg acutely states that anti-Semitism “represented a revulsion of a deeply conservative society against liberalism.” Liberals were well represented in parliament and often opposed Bismarck—and were often Jewish. His hatred of opposition meant that he hated the Jews, to the extent that, in a shameful episode, he actually refused to accept a telegram from the U.S. Congress on the death of the German-Jewish liberal politician and jurist Eduard Lasker hailing his devotion to freedom; in addition, he forbade five cabinet ministers from attending Lasker’s funeral at the Oranienburg Synagogue (which has been newly restored) in Berlin. With his customary capacity for invective, Bismarck referred to the parliament itself as the “Guest House of the Dead Jew.”

In focusing on Bismarck’s unfortunate behavior, Steinberg draws another parallel between Wilhelmine Germany and the Nazi era. He essentially revives an older line of historical inquiry, one which suggested that the traits of absolutism and obedience inculcated in the German population made it susceptible to Nazism. According to Steinberg:

[Bismarck] transmitted an authoritarian, Prussian, semi-absolute monarchy with its cult of force and reverence for the absolute ruler to the twentieth century. Hitler fished it out of the chaos of the Great Depression of 1929–33. He took Bismarck’s office, Chancellor, on 30 January 1933. Once again a “genius” ruled Germany.

So was Bismarck really at fault? Perhaps the earliest such line of argument came during World War I, long before Hitler had even come to power. In a fascinating debate between two estranged brothers, the fissures of German society were exposed. In 1914, Heinrich Mann completed his satirical novel pillorying autocratic rule and nationalism, The Loyal Subject, but could not publish it until November 1918. Its protagonist is Diederich Hessling, the owner of a small factory in Netzig who tyrannizes his workers and could not be more obsequious toward higher authority. Hessling, who noisily trumpets his patriotism and twirls his mustache in imitation of the kaiser, is supposed to epitomize the corruption, servility and empty bombast of the Wilhelmine era. Meanwhile, at war’s end, Thomas Mann wrote Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, a series of murky lucubrations about the power of creative irrationalism and Germany’s need for an authoritarian and anti-Western government, which he later repudiated. As the productions of the two brothers indicate, the notion that there were peculiarly Germanic traits that issued in the Nazi regime is not so easy to wish away. One, Heinrich, was decrying what he saw as the German penchant for power worship; the other, Thomas, was explicitly hailing an anti-Western, antiliberal mode of thought as precisely the feature that signified German greatness (though he would later view the work with a measure of embarrassment).

Steinberg’s is thus a profoundly sobering book that is difficult to read without a mounting sense of apprehension about Bismarck’s accomplishments and legacy. But he may go too far. The danger is of adopting a teleological approach in which later events get read backward into history. Can Nazism really be laid at Prussia’s doorstep? Did Wilhelmine Germany follow a Sonderweg, a special path to modernity that condemned it to launching a genocidal war? As Henry Kissinger observed in his discussion of Steinberg’s work in the New York Times, Bismarck was, at bottom, a cautious conservative who wanted to conserve, not expand, the German Reich. Hitler, by contrast, was a nihilist. The genocidal racism that Hitler espoused was of a different order than Bismarck’s anti-Semitism. Hitler was probably closer to the kind of Napoleonic revolutionary spirit that Bismarck was trying to contain and smother—the impulse to gamble and overthrow the European order. Instead, the Iron Chancellor wished to integrate Prussia into Europe, not unify central Europe—let alone the whole continent—under German hegemony. His successors at the Wilhelmstrasse were not as modest. In entering the Kaiserreich into World War I, his epigones shattered the empire that he had painstakingly erected.

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