On April 1, 1815, Otto Eduard Leo pold von Bismarck was born on the family estate at Schönhausen near Berlin, in what used to be Prussia. He came into this world at the end of a quarter-century of pan-European crisis, which started with the French Revolution and ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
Bismarck’s bicentennial comes at a time when Europe is on the verge of another major crisis, the likes of which has not been seen since the Berlin blockade of 1948. His long career, and the diplomatic dexterity he displayed in the first 20 years of the Second Reich’s existence, provide us with an example of mature statecraft that is lacking in our own time.
Having engineered and won three limited wars in six years, Bismarck united Germany—a feat described by a recent biographer as “the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries.” The secret—in addition to having the best army of its time at his disposal—was to reconcile nationalism with conservatism, two creeds regarded as incompatible in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848.
Bismarck avoided incorporating German-speaking Habsburg lands into the Kaiserreich, even though it was in his power to do after Königgrätz. In addition to disliking Austrians (“A Bavarian is half-way between an Austrian and a human”), he understood that, even in her 1871 borders, Germany had the potential to grow into a source of anxiety for the rest of Europe and—more importantly, perhaps—to become too powerful for her own good. His self-restraint was a reflection of his profound understanding of the limits of power. His Germany was to be neither a bellicose hegemon without, nor a völkisch-romantic “national community” within.
This was realism at its best, the fruit of Bismarck’s grasp of the means and ends of power. It enabled Europe to adjust itself to the new reality. The balance-of-power system established at the Congress of Vienna did not collapse; instead, it morphed into a modified system of alliances—the Bismarckian system, which, for all its complexity, functioned well for 20 years. It was a plus-sum game, designed—to put it crudely—to keep Russia in, Britain out, and France down. “Bismarck was an honest broker of peace,” A.J.P. Taylor concluded in his Europe: Grandeur and Decline, “and his system of alliances compelled every Power, whatever its will, to follow a peaceful course.” That system became dysfunctional only after Bismarck’s inept successors embraced Weltpolitik, the Wilhelmine version of neoconservatism, and eventually pushed Europe into war.
A major quality of Bismarck’s foreign policymaking was his ability to separate major from peripheral interests. In 1875 he famously declared that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. During the Bulgarian crisis of 1888, he told the Reichstag that Bulgaria “is far from being an object of adequate importance for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee.”
The key to European stability, in Bismarck’s mind, was “to make a good treaty with Russia.” When Germany abandoned that principle, soon after Kaiser Wilhelm dumped the old chancellor in 1890, the ensuing Franco-Russian alliance was the incarnation of Bismarck’s worst nightmare, that very cauchemar des alliances which he strove to avoid. The result was an inflexible system in which Germany’s only reliable ally was Austria-Hungary. Aware of the rivalry between the Dual Monarchy and Russia in the southeast, Bismarck presciently concluded that one day “a great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” With equally chilling foresight, only weeks before his death he predicted that, “if things go on like this, the crash will come twenty years after I am gone.” And so it did, right on cue: In 1918 Germany lay defeated, and the Hohenzollerns were gone.
It is tempting but facile to draw parallels between Germany’s position in Europe after 1871 and America’s global position after 1991, to compare the Balkans then and Ukraine today, or to contrast the significance of Russia’s alliance with France in 1894 with her emerging alliance with China now. There is one part of Bismarck’s legacy, however, that should be emulated by all statesmen in perpetuity: his imperviousness to the twin temptations of unrestrained power and uncompromising ideology.
Today’s U.S. “foreign-policy community” has no resistance to either. It is steeped in the twin heresies of a global hegemonism that knows no natural limits and an exceptionalism that treats every compromise as impermissible defeat. That fatal blend may yet plunge the world into a war even more cataclysmic than those of 1914 and 1939. If it does, there may be very few people left to recall Bismarck’s warning, “Woe to the statesman whose arguments for entering a war are not as convincing at its end as they were at the beginning.”