Review of Bismarck by Jonathan Steinberg

Bismarck:A LifeBismarck:A Life by Jonathan Steinberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the book, although it was, in my opinion, light on the the great achievements of Bismarck in foreign policy. Bismarck was a truly monumental historical figure who dominated his era, both domestically and internationally. Steinberg, while writing a strong book in many respects, betrays his anti-Bismarck bias throughout. Steinberg acknowledges Bismarck as a genius, but takes great pains to point out some of the “character flaws” of the great man. Such flaws include losing friends (always the fault of Bismarck), being less than honest as he made the substantial changes to Prussia that resulted in a unified German state that became, and remains, a colossus ,having no real ideological or governing philosophy, (Bismarck did what was good for Bismarck),and the most serious charge, that a straight line existed between Bismarck and Hitler. Without question it must be granted that the edifice of government set up by Bismarck had strong deficiencies that contributed to the German disasters of the 20th century. But most certainly Bismarck’s statesmanship was not practiced by the venal, and quite frankly ignorant, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who dismissed Bismarck and promulgated policies that Bismarck spent his entire foreign policy career seeking to avoid. The German foreign policy, post Bismarck and pre-World War One, cannot be entirely blamed on the “edifice of government” in Prussia and Germany, but should be seen as the result of the Kaiser and other Bismarck opponents throwing off the shackles of Bismarck’s policies that they felt constrained Germany from achieving its dominant role in Europe. Rather than blaming Bismarck I look at it, at least in part, as the ankle-biters of government finally taking down the Iron Chancellor and getting a chance to put forward alternative strategies for Germany. Those policies led to the First World War, and the massive errors made after that war brought us Hitlerism.The Wikipedia entry for Wilhelm II notes: “Upon his enforced retirement and until his dying day, Bismarck was to become a bitter critic of Wilhelm’s policies, but without the support of the supreme arbiter of all political appointments (the Emperor) there was little chance of Bismarck exerting a decisive influence on policy.” Henry Kissinger, in his review of the Steinberg book, repudiated the “direct line from Bismarck to Hitler” theory: “The second caveat concerns the direct line Steinberg draws from Bismarck to Hitler. Bismarck was a rationalist, Hitler a romantic nihilist. Bismarck’s essence was his sense of limits and equilibrium; Hitler’s was the absence of measure and rejection of restraint. The idea of conquering Europe would never have come to Bismarck; it was always part of Hitler’s vision.”

Bismarck was indeed a “rationalist” unconstrained by ideology in determining the best way forward for Germany. That “rationalism” led him to accept restraint, and to attempt to preserve, rather than destroy, the European equilibrium. The original practitioner of “realpolitik’ explained his thoughts in a letter sent to an old friend, appalled that Bismarck would contemplate accommodation with Napoleon III:

“What the principle is that I am supposed to have sacrificed, I cannot correctly formulate from what you write … France only interests me as it affects the situation of my Fatherland, and we can only make our policy with the France that exists … Sympathies and antipathies with regard to foreign powers and persons I cannot reconcile with my concept of duty in the foreign service of my country, neither in myself nor in others. There is in them the germ of disloyalty to the lord or the land which one serves … As long as each of us believes that a part of the chess board is closed to us by our own choice or that we have an arm tied where others can use both arms to our disadvantage, they will make use of our kindness without fear and without thanks.”

With Bismarck there was not going to be any foreclosure of options due to ideological straightjackets imposed by those who wished to play chess with part of the board covered.

Bismarck was a true giant of history. Like many practitioners of government and diplomacy he was far from perfect, and as you read Steinberg’s biography you will get a good flavor for those deficiencies. The Kissinger review, in the New York Times Book Review, is worth a look if you are interested in Bismarck and this book.

View all my reviews

The book review by Henry Kissinger.

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