A noble attempt

Through numerous digressions, Bismarck's biography also portrays a fascinating picture of Germany, as well as its culture and politics.

Bismarck 521 (photo credit: Camera Press)
Bismarck 521
(photo credit: Camera Press)
By Jonathan Steinberg
Oxford University Press
524 pages, $34.95
Otto von Bismarck was a giant of the 19th century, one of the great European leaders of his age. Not only did he leave his stamp on a unified Germany, but his legacy lived on in German colonies throughout the world, German alliances in Europe and economic and military expansions that led to World War I. Jonathan Steinberg’s biography is timely and necessary. Bismarck, despite his importance, has generally been written about only as part of larger studies such as Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought, which deals with the arms race.
Steinberg, a professor of modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written on the German navy and the Holocaust. He opens his book by noting that “Bismarck made Germany but never ruled it.” This is true, because he only served at the pleasure of three German monarchs from 1862 to 1890. Unlike many of his generation and class, he “had no military credentials. He had served briefly and very unwillingly in a reserve unit as a young man.” Steinberg notes that even his “von” did not indicate some old noble lineage; he was a “shallow country squire.”
The author sets out to “explain to [the] reader how Bismarck exercised his personal power.” But in fact what he accomplishes is much more of a tour de force. He also describes Germany, as well as its culture, politics and intellectual debates in the period, through numerous digressions. He draws many conclusions throughout about the overall influence of Bismarck and the march of Prussian history. For instance, Steinberg draws a direct line from the “reactionary Prussian landlords,” of whom Bismarck was a minor member, to the destructive future of National Socialism; “their hatred of free markets, free citizens, free peasants, free movement of capital and labor, free thought, Jews, stock markets... and a free press continued to 1933 and helped to bring about the Nazi dictatorship.”
Some of these sketches and connections are overdone. Steinberg correctly notes that it was in fact members of the Prussian nobility who tried to kill Hitler in 1944. But he makes a mistake in blaming their reactionary views for the rise of Hitler. It was the masses, the very people disliked by the nobles, who were beholden to Nazism.
Bismarck was in constant motion. His letters and correspondence filled volumes: “He seems to have made it his business to know everything about everything.” He was not a great orator; early in life, he wanted to be a simple farmer. By the age of 28 he had accomplished little, except meeting many influential people. It was only in 1847, at 32, that he was elected to the Prussian legislature.
During this period of his life, he was a reactionary, fearful of revolution. In 1851, Bismarck embarked on a 10-year diplomatic career. It would eventually bring him to Russia’s capital at St. Petersburg in 1859. His journey was savage; he had to travel by carriage and even push the carriage himself through snow and mud. He writes of his “miserable coach, whose interior was too small for my length” and which, at times, could only make one mile an hour.
The author quotes liberally from Bismarck’s correspondence, giving the reader the chance to judge the man for himself. Unfortunately the author seems to struggle at points to tie together all the important letters he has in his possession. The book weaves back and forth among digressions, such as Prussian militarism and other characters who come and go.
Bismarck is best known for unifying Germany and defeating its neighbors. In 1864, he invaded Denmark and snatched two territories from it. In 1866, he crushed the Austrian army and, oddly, tied Austria in an alliance to Germany afterward. Then, in 1870, he unleashed his Prussian army on France, and in 1871, Germany was unified with an emperor of its own.
Steinberg presents details of Bismarck’s anti-Semitism and the rise of Jew hatred in Germany in the period. “Bismarck played a vital role in the process and he welcomed it,” the author writes. “He shared, as we have seen, the visceral hatred of the Jews among the Prussian Junkers [nobles].”
Here, in the typical fashion of this book, the author moves from Bismarck’s anti-Semitism to Wagner’s, from Wagnerian anti-Semitism to Nazism, and from there to a description of the position of Jews in Germany in the 1860s. Much of this discussion is interesting – for instance, one anti- Semite named Heinrich von Treitschke argued that “Spanish and Portuguese Jews have in England and France caused no trouble, but Germany has to do with the Polish Jews,” and that Jews were too prominent in the press and took up “too much space in our public life” – but it is not really about Bismarck.
Steinberg has written a compelling, readable and important book. However, he seems to have learned what every other author writing about Germany in the era of Bismarck has learned: that Bismarck is not that interesting, and what is interesting is what was going on around him. Perhaps the man’s biographer is still waiting.