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

Nevertheless, any system that rested on one man was likely headed for collapse. There was Bismarck, but no such thing as Bismarckianism. Instead of exemplifying a coherent school of foreign policy, he represented an ad hoc approach, based on equal parts wily operator and profound thinker. It was enough to create but not sustain imperial Germany. “The ultimate and terrible irony of Bismarck’s career,” says Steinberg, “lay in his powerlessness.” He was always dependent on the royals for his authority. The wider point is surely that a patriarchal monarchy had itself become almost impossible to reconcile with the resurgent national movements that Bismarck had once attempted to co-opt. The ineptitude of these regimes was exposed by the demands of modern warfare. It was no accident that the Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern dynasties all crumbled under the stresses of World War I—only to be supplanted by totalitarian regimes.

Were Bismarck to survey today’s Germany, he would doubtless be taken aback to see that it was shorn of East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. But perhaps he would not find it odd that Germany has once again become the most powerful country in the heart of Europe, dictating from Berlin not its military but, rather, its economic future. The most that remains of Berlin’s Prussian heritage is an equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, “old Fritz” as he was known, on Unter den Linden. Bismarck has largely vanished from the memories of most Germans. Perhaps that is just as well. He himself asked that the epitaph on his grave should simply read, “A faithful German servant of Kaiser Wilhelm I.”

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.

1 Alfred Kerr, Wo Liegt Berlin?: Briefe aus der Reichshauptstadt (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1998), 407.

2 Fritz Stern, Five Germanys I Have Known (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006), 469.

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