The “Great Men” of history were mostly mad or bad, and often both. To be driven by pride, vanity, and ruthless ambition is common and unremarkable. That drive is not sufficient to leave a lasting mark on the affairs of mankind, of course, but it is necessary.
It is therefore redundant to dig diligently into the significance of Alexander’s sexual proclivities, or to ponder the impact of the sudden death of Caesar’s father or Muhammad’s, or to dwell on Napoleon’s height, Marx’s self-hating Jewishness, Stalin’s early religiosity, Hitler’s uncertain bloodline, FDR’s polio. To be obsessed with politics means to be unstable ab initio. An inquiry into the roots of an historical figure’s specific form of instability merely describes his path to the pedestal. It “explains” little.
This, in short, is the problem with Jonathan Steinberg’s massive biography of Otto von Bismarck. The author sets out to explain “how Bismarck exercised his personal power,” and the method is supposedly to let those on whom the power was exercised “tell the story.” But in the ensuing 500-odd pages, Steinberg proceeds to use judiciously selected quotations from Bismarck’s contemporaries to tell his own story based on his own feelings and impressions—jaundiced for the most part—about his subject’s life, times, and personality.
The book opens with a truism: Bismarck lacked inherited authority or charisma, but he possessed a “sovereign self” that enabled him to dominate people. Of course he did—politicians all do, crowned or not. To say that “Bismarck commanded those around him by the sheer power of his personality” or the power of his “gigantic self” is a cliché: The opposite cannot be said of a single great man.
Steinberg’s quest for the roots of Bismarck’s persona in the character of the Prussian state and society is tinged by the author’s barely concealed Teutonophobia. Steinberg accepts East German historian Ernst Engelberg’s designation of Bismarck as an Urpreusse—an essential Prussian—at face value, and a hostile Habsburg diplomat’s remarks in 1864 on the “darkest characteristics of the Prussian Monarchy” as accurate, only to proceed to an ahistorical sketch of the Iron Chancellor’s effect on the Junker class that borders on caricature:
Bismarck’s greatest achievement was to preserve those “darkest characteristics” of the Junker class through three wars, the unification of Germany, the emergence of democracy, capitalism, industrialization, and the development of the telegraph, the railroad and, by the end of his career, the telephone. [Mid-19th-century Junkers’] grandsons still commanded regiments under Adolf Hitler. They supported the Nazi’s [sic] war and led the army until that war was lost . . .
Their plot to kill Hitler was too little, too late, Steinberg continues, noting approvingly that it took the Soviet occupation of the “core” Prussian lands in the East—a third of today’s Poland—“to destroy their estates and expel the owners.” What he fails to observe is that some eight million other Prussians, with no nobiliary particle before their surnames, had their homes destroyed and their families uprooted in the Untergang of 1944-45, when at least one million perished in the process; to Steinberg, cracking a few German eggs seems to be the acceptable price of the Junkerrein omelet. He even stoops to quote, again approvingly, the infamous “abolition” of Prussia by the victors’ “tribunal” at Nuremberg in 1947: “The Prussian State, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany, has ceased to exist.”
When Steinberg informs us as early as page 18 that “Bismarck belonged to the Junker class,” which defined his identity and his values, the stage is set for a life story seen through a very dark lens. That class, the “reactionary Prussian landlords,” avidly read Burke, Steinberg assures us, becoming the “best pupils” in fact of the author who warned them that “the next generation of the nobility will resemble the artificers and clowns, and money-jobbers, usurers, and Jews, who will be always their fellows, sometimes their masters.” Since Burke loathed “Jew-brokers, contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation and depreciated paper the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils,” and since the Prussian Junkers and other “old ruling classes of Europe”—not just Germany, but all of Europe—were devout Burkeans, their resulting
hatred of free markets, free citizens, free peasants, free movement of capital and labor, free thought, Jews, stock markets, banks, cities, and a free press continued to 1933 and helped to bring about the Nazi dictatorship.
It was tempting to give up reading at this point, and still more so after a convoluted attempt, a few pages later, to connect Friedrich Gentz, Burke’s German translator, and his perfectly valid critique of the French revolutionaries’ “one Reich, one People, one Faith” ideology, with the maturing of “the structural anti-Semitism which forms a continuous thread in Prussian and then German hatred of Jews,” leading inexorably to Hitler. This legacy “defined but never contained the aspirations of Otto von Bismarck,” of which “hatred of Jews” was a natural reflection.
This is nonsense. The Jews were simply not important enough in the Prussia of Bismarck’s birth and young manhood to be elevated to the essential status of “other.” The Junkers were prejudiced against them no more, and arguably less, than the aristocracy of Catholic Europe, and any antipathy was by no means obsessive. Steinberg’s assertion that Jew-hatred was a defining Junker trait, on par with “the pervasive idea of Dienst or service, the rigid distinction between nobility and bourgeoisie, a military conception of honor,” etc., is an assertion devoid of factual basis. Legal emancipation and citizenship rights were granted to Prussian Jews as early as 1812, earlier than in much of Europe. Bismarck had no qualms about allying himself after 1867 with the Liberals—a distinctly Jewish party—in order to obtain the parliamentary support required to establish the German empire. In 1869 he placed Judaism on par with any other confession in the North German League, an equality then confirmed for the entire empire in 1871. His complex relationship with “his” banker Gerson von Bleichröder—even in Steinberg’s partisan rendering—indicates the nearly inevitable ambivalence of a 19th-century nobleman toward a nouveau-riche businessman, not specifically anti-Jewish sentiment on Bismarck’s part. As a near-contemporary source—the 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia—has noted, following unification Bismarck opposed curtailment of the constitutional rights of the Jews and declared his opposition to the antisemitic movement, “be it on religious or on racial grounds.” The same source notes that Bismarck’s retirement in March 1890 “gave a new impetus to the anti-Semitic agitation in Germany.” (Steinberg makes no mention of any of this.)
Steinberg’s dabbling in Freudian psychology is more benign, but no less irritating, than his near-obsessive quest for an antisemitic subplot. “Bismarck loved his ‘weak’ father and hated his ‘strong’ mother,” he asserts, and quotes another author’s “speculation” that his habits and attitudes in later years may have stemmed from his early “contempt for men dominated by their wives.” The Oedipal mechanism thus “very effectively” explains Bismarck’s hypochondria, gluttony, rage, and despair of his later years: “That Bismarck’s health, temper, and emotional life deteriorated the more successful he became has been one of the most striking findings of my research on his career.”
His vices grew more vicious; his virtues less effective the longer he exercised the sovereignty of his powerful self. That self had been shaped, possibly deeply damaged in childhood . . . What are we to make of the fact that Bismarck confessed that “as a small child I hated [my mother]; later I successfully deceived her with falsehoods” . . . ? How had she frightened the child so thoroughly that he dared not tell her the truth? We do not know.
Indeed, we do not know, and never will—and no matter. As it happens, not a single recent biographer of Bismarck’s has failed to take note of Steinberg’s subsequent “striking finding.” Indeed, Bismarck was “physically ill more and more of the time as he aged,” as Steinberg notes; but so are most other people, then more so than today. That “its causes were certainly as much psychic as physical” is possible, but by no means certain. The attempt to construct the “psychic triangle between a ‘weak’ emperor and a ‘strong’ empress” who kept twisting “a wounded psychic muscle . . . to a point beyond endurance” is just silly. The emperor was arguably weak-willed by temperament, but he was not so “weak” as to succumb to the empress and defy or fire Bismarck. (At least we are spared the author’s speculation about a supposed homoerotic “psychic” context of Bismarck’s complex and turbulent relationship with the emperor.)
Deformed by the monstrous, Jew-hating legacy of his class, and deeply damaged as a child, Bismarck goes on to behave “despicably from beginning to end” with a British would-be fiancée. He is “ruled by his pride” and neglectful of his early administrative duties at Aachen. Steinberg’s numerous references to Bismarck’s ambition are invariably adorned by value-laden adjectives. (“Ruthless and relentless” is repeated at least six times throughout the book.) That Bismarck “resorted to lies to cover his mistakes” is reiterated in one form or another 12 times.
Back at his estate in 1843, Bismarck was “lonely and at 28 presumably sexually frustrated as well.” It does not occur to Steinberg that a presentable young Junker could easily find discreet comfort in the company of a female servant or a local peasant girl. He also speculates on what Bismarck’s wife-to-be, Johanna, “must have known” about his supposed preference for another young lady, but he soon concedes that what she “may have thought, we do not know.” Her distaste for going out in later years Steinberg sees as a belated revenge: “Was that her way to repay Bismarck for marrying her on the rebound?” A couple of chapters later the author engages in more guesswork along the same lines: “My hunch is that Johanna refused to make an effort to become what Bismarck needed because of resentment . . . a form of mute protest.” That a Junker girl brought up on a landed estate among real people did not enjoy tedious socializing with the upwardly mobile Berliners or the duplicitous diplomats at Frankfurt (constantly “spying on each other as if we had something worth finding out and worth revealing,” in Bismarck’s words) does not seem to be an option in Steinberg’s assessment.
Rhetorical questions of this kind, and “psychological” speculation as sterile as it is trite, come accompanied by harshly conclusive verdicts on Bismarck’s character: “he never took full responsibility for his acts . . . for his mistakes, not even in small personal matters.” His “constant need to be seen to be right” means that “the scale of the correction of his own history has the proportions of his own gigantic ego.” The “obvious conclusion” Steinberg draws from a speech Bismarck gave in 1846—the conclusion that had eluded his contemporaries—is that it was an exercise in “pure cynical opportunism.” In 1851, the author claims, Bismarck lied to his wife “blatantly” in telling her he had not wished a diplomatic appointment offered to him, whereas “All the evidence shows that he had been intriguing and scheming . . . for months” to get it. Not a single piece of that supposed evidence is quoted, however, to support Steinberg’s claim.
In maligning his subject, Steinberg occasionally uses methods unworthy of an academic historian. For example, he juxtaposes two very different accounts of Bismarck’s behavior during the revolutionary turmoil of March 1848—one, by the subsequent Queen Augusta, damningly negative; the other, by Bismarck himself, predictably self-serving—and concludes that “[t]he reader can choose which version to accept but needs to bear in mind that Bismarck always covered his mistakes.” In offering guidance to the reader, Steinberg should have added that the queen’s own account was written in 1862, 14 years after the events in question, and had the specific purpose of preventing Bismarck’s appointment as chancellor. By warning for the umpteenth time of Bismarck’s overall unreliability and his hostility to Augusta, while failing to draw attention to her own blatantly anti-Bismarck agenda, Steinberg is manipulating the reader to the detriment of his scholarship.
The same disregard for scholarly rigor is revealed in a passage dealing with Bismarck’s decision to remain in Berlin in the fall of 1848, contrary to earlier plans to return to his estate, “though in what capacity beyond busybody cannot easily be established. He went here and there, saw this one and that, and generally made sure that he could not be ignored.” This is the frivolous style and colloquial language of mediocre journalism; it is not history.
Steinberg’s attempt to account for the career of Europe’s foremost statesman of the 19th century by speculating about his emotional hang-ups adds little to our understanding of the career of this remarkable and complex man. The book contributes little to what we already knew about Bismarck the diplomat and politician, while Edward Crankshaw’s overall assessment in his excellent biography, published in 1981, is by no means superseded or diminished by Steinberg’s unsatisfactory efforts.
The book fails also to argue why Bismarck matters to us today—and he does matter. As Germany reemerges as the hegemonic power in Europe, consciously or by default, an inquiry into the Iron Chancellor’s dilemmas and attempted solutions to the problem of German power is useful and necessary. Bismarck remains our contemporary because he was aware of the destabilizing potential of the Leviathan he had created. His inability or unwillingness to develop the institutional mechanisms for keeping that potential under control has cost Europe and the world dearly, and continues to do so over a century after his death.
The causes of that failure remain unresolved by Steinberg. We need a new biography, a good and carefully edited one this time, and we need it soon.
[Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press) 592 pp., $34.95]