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The Iron Revolutionary

By: Patrick J. Garrity
October 17, 2012

"If there is to be revolution, we would rather make it, than suffer it." Thus Otto von Bismarck, minister-president of Prussia, in the midst of his campaign to bring about the unification of Germany. But what sort of revolutionary, exactly, was the man who became known as the Iron Chancellor?

There are broad schools of historical thought on Bismarck and his outsized impact on European and world history. The first interpretation, popular at times when Germany seems especially threatening, establishes Bismarck as the linear predecessor of Hitler. The Third Reich would not have been possible without the Second. Bismarck's violent route to unification destroyed the possibility of a liberal, peaceful, multicultural Germany (or, from the perspective of the Left, of a revolutionary, socialist Germany). Bismarck created a modern industrial juggernaut in the service of Prussian militarism, absolutism, and reactionary Junker values. His nationalist and repressive views dominated Wilhelmine Germany, were not far beneath the surface of the Weimar Republic, and culminated in the person of Hitler and National Socialist ideology. Even if Bismarck personally did not aim to conquer Europe or the world, or to exterminate the Jews, he was the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

The second school of thought offers a more nuanced and favorable view of Bismarck and his accomplishments. A great man cannot make omelets without breaking eggs. Bismarck cut the Gordian knot that had kept the German lands weak and divided and a source of continuing international conflict at a time of growing nationalism. Despite the use of violence to unite Germany, Bismarck was at heart a foreign policy realist who understood the limits of power. With a few tragic exceptions, he adopted a policy of moderation once he had achieved his basic objectives. He was a modernizer who created the welfare state that served as a model for the rest of Europe and for Progressives in the United States. What became the German problem was created by his successors who lacked his political skills, his appreciation for the limits of German power and his non-dogmatic approach to domestic affairs. Bismarck, in this view, was no more responsible for the gross excesses that followed his time in office than Abraham Lincoln—another visionary modernizer—should be held accountable for the failure of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or late 19th-century American imperialism.

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Jonathan Steinberg, professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a new biography of Bismarck, Bismarck: A Life that broadly takes the first position. Although Steinberg regards Bismarck as Germany's greatest statesman, he believes that even without him Germany could still have been unified, but on a voluntary basis and on a much more promising political foundation.

Steinberg's distinctive way into presenting the problem of Bismarck is through the study of his exercise of power—what he calls Bismarck's "sovereign self"—much along the lines of Robert Caro's approach in his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. "The power [Bismarck] exercised," according to Steinberg, "came from him as a person, not from institutions, mass society, or ‘forces and factors.' The power rested on the sovereignty of an extraordinary, gigantic self." Steinberg struggles to capture exactly what this means:

that combination of physical presence, speech patterns and facial expressions, style in thought and action, virtues and vices, will and ambition, and, perhaps, in addition, a certain set of characteristic fears, evasions, and psychological patterns of behaviour that make us recognizable as persons.... Bismarck somehow had more of every aspect of self than anybody around him, and all who knew him—without exception—testify to a kind of magnetic pull or attraction which even those who hated him could not deny.


Bismarck combined an extraordinary practical genius with a demonic personality. He could be courteous to visitors, charming and warm to friends, and display a sense of humor that could win over enemies. But he was not the hail-fellow-well-met. He had a famously volcanic temper. One contemporary thought that the various postures of Bismarck concealed an ice-cold contempt for his fellow men and a steely determination to rule them. Bismarck, according to Steinberg, had the ability to anticipate how people, groups, and nations would react under various conditions, and particularly how force and violence could be employed to bend them to his will.

Psycho-biographies have definite limitations and are prone to obvious but unhelpful themes. We are not surprised to learn, for instance, that Bismarck hated his cold, intelligent, and unloving mother, and that this was reflected in his relationship with strong women in the Prussian Court. That said, this approach to Bismarck is highly suggestive about the nature of a certain type of statecraft.

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What seems to have distinguished Bismarck was the overpowering desire to rule, to use power in a way that satisfied a peculiar psychological need to dominate men and affairs, and to maintain that power at all costs. This was not merely common ambition—to be student body president for life, as Bill Clinton happily would have been. Nor was it the ambition of the garden-variety tyrant, to make oneself and one's followers rich and safe within their domain. It is rather akin to the rule sought by the "family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle" as Lincoln, Bismarck's contemporary, characterized men who combined the loftiest genius "with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch." Such a genius, Lincoln said,

distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.—It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. Itscorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.


If Bismarck were truly of such a tribe—Lincoln cites Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Napoleon as members—we could explain his actions as seeking "distinction" and world-historical fame by bringing about the unification of Germany (or really, the division of the German lands to exclude Austria). This required a revolution, that of overthrowing the settlement of the Congress of Vienna both as it pertained to inner-German affairs and to the larger European balance of power. Bismarck did so in a way that had the added distinction of saving the semi-absolute Prussian monarchy and blunting liberalism and its doctrine of equality.

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Yet this is not quite Bismarck, either, if Steinberg's account is correct. We need to invert the logic: Bismarck did not seek power in order to overthrow the Vienna settlement, unite Germany on Prussian terms, and do all the rest. He did all those things because they brought him to power and kept him in power, as close to absolute power as he thought possible. It was not just that ideology—freeing slaves or enslaving freemen—was instrumental, as Lincoln suggested. Even historical fame or "distinction" was instrumental for Bismarck, a means to satisfy his peculiar craving for power itself. He was in fact prepared to limit his ambition, and that of Germany, if it threatened his position in power.

Bismarck's craving for power bounded the kind of statesman he would be, and the distinction he would seek. He could not lead a liberal democratic movement like that of 1848, because a liberal solution to the German problem, however "distinctive," would have placed inherent limits on his ability to rule and dominate men and affairs. In the course of things, he would have been turned out of office, as all liberal democratic leaders are. Liberalism was also insufficient to bring about the sort of revolution that would solve the problem at hand. Thus his famous 1862 "Blood and Iron" speech:

The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power.... Prussia must build up and preserve her strength for the advantageous moment, which has already come and gone many times. Her borders under the treaties of Vienna are not favorable for the healthy existence of the state. The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood. [Eisen und Blut—later transposed in popular lore to "blood and iron".]


This was not merely an objective assessment by Bismarck of Prussia's relative power position in Germany, it also reflected the calculation that his own ability to sustain his personal rule depended on creating something other, and greater, than Prussia. But the new Reich must not be too great—it must remain Prussian at its core, which ruled out union with Austria, because Bismarck could never expect to rule in a greater Germany.

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At the other end of the spectrum of political leadership and ambition to rule, Bismarck could not have been a Hitler, who aimed at absolute national and personal power over Europe as well as Germany. The Army and other elements of Prussian-German society, at least at the time, never would have tolerated such a threat to their domestic position. And Bismarck, to put the matter crudely, could not have tried to kill the Jews, whatever his moral reservations, because he needed the Jewish financial community, such as his personal banker Gerson von Bleichröder, to finance the wars and the domestic projects that enhanced his personal power.

He also understood that the other major European states would never have tolerated the threat to their independence that a bid for German hegemony would represent. Bismarck's keen sense of power told him that major German aggression after 1870-1871 would have been a loser—for him. Germany probably would have been defeated, in which case Bismarck would have lost his grip on power in a 1918-like situation. If Germany had beaten the odds and conquered Europe, the war would have been won in such a way that other men, probably from the Army, would have superseded Bismarck.

A Prussianized German monarchical regime, excluding Austria, was "neither too hot nor too cold," it was "just right" to support Bismarck's desire for power. To be sure, the new regime reflected his deeply-held political values. Like Caro's Lyndon Johnson, Bismarck's worldview was shaped definitively by the influences of the time and place of his upbringing (in Johnson's case, the impoverished Texas Hill Country, and the advantages that the New Deal held out for its people and for LBJ's personal advancement). Although Bismarck was not a typical Junker, he shared Junker values, including anti-Semitism, the loathing of free markets, and rejection of Enlightenment rationalism. But Bismarck ultimately was loyal to himself, not to his class. This meant he could change colors, at one moment waging a Kulturkampf against Catholics, at another moment seeking Catholic political support against the Left.

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Bismarck, however, was neither a trimmer nor a triangulator. Politics, whether domestic or international, was about conflict, not compromise. Struggle clarified necessary policy choices, while compromise obfuscated them. He therefore rejected constitutional government in favor of a system of royal absolutism in which he could exercise power without restraint, a political system where the outcome was zero-sum. He would either win and destroy his opponents or lose and be destroyed himself. For all his complaints and frequent illnesses (real or imagined), this was the game he relished.

The practical question for Bismarck was how to come into a position of absolute power, or as close to it as practicable. He understood that, because he could not rule in his own right or through the sufferance of the people, he must make himself seem indispensable to the monarch, King William of Prussia. Bismarck's personal and professional reputation as a young man—utter unreliability, superficial cleverness, and extremely reactionary views, according to Steinberg—certainly did not recommend him to the Court. But in the summer of 1862, Bismarck took full advantage of the latest constitutional crisis, caused by a deadlock in the Prussian Parliament and the Crown over reform of the Army. William feared that mobs might take to the streets of Berlin, as they had in 1848, and this time succeed in toppling the monarchy. Bismarck offered a hard-line solution to the King and, over the ensuing years, displayed the political genius to pull it off, as well as to make the Hohenzollerns emperors of Germany. The King owed him and he was the sort of person to pay his debts.

Bismarck never took that relationship for granted. He catered to William's pro-Russian and reactionary instincts against those in the Court around Crown Prince Frederick, who took Victorian England as a model. Bismarck manipulated his monarch by temper tantrums, hysterical outbursts, tears, and threats to resign. "Bismarck," Steinberg writes, "ruled by the magic he exerted over the old man.... [He] needed no majorities in parliament; he needed no political parties." To reinforce his control, Bismarck crafted a constitution for the united Germany that made sure that the system could not function properly without him (or someone like him, of whom he made sure there were no viable candidates).

Bismarck did the same to ensure his indispensability in the diplomatic realm. "A statesman," Bismarck said, "does not create the stream of time, he floats on it and tries to steer." He sees the possibilities in the extant configuration of domestic and international forces—in Bismarck's time, the opportunities presented by Napoleon III's rise to power, Russia's defeat in the Crimean War, and Britain's relative indifference to matters on the continent. Bismarck concluded that Prussia—read: Bismarck—could only flourish if he destroyed Austrian hegemony through a series of limited wars, rather than through diplomacy or political compromise, or through a major European war.

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For Bismarck, diplomacy was a matter of keeping all options open on the geopolitical chessboard without any emotional attachment to any of the actors, and being absolutely unscrupulous in the choice of means. It required careful calculations of probabilities, and anticipation of the inevitable missteps and sudden lurches by others. His favored technique was to create fear and uncertainty in a crisis, so that opponents could not be certain how Prussia would act. The strategic configuration of the 19th century—with five (or six, if Italy counted) great powers in Europe—perfectly suited Bismarck's genius because he, better than others, could maintain in his head multiple possible moves and deploy his combinations with some assurance. He said that Prussia must not close off any square on the chessboard by its own choice. This ran counter to most Prussian conservatives, who held that alliances must be based on principle.

The classic expression of Bismarck's approach to diplomacy was his "Kissinger Diktat," which laid out his foreign policy maxims for the unified German Reich. (The "Diktat" was written during the summer of 1877 from the spa of Bad Kissingen. They had nothing to do with Henry Kissinger, although Kissinger was a great admirer of Bismarck.) The doctrine was to create a "universal political situation in which all the powers except France need us and, by dint of their mutual relations, are kept as much as possible from forming coalitions against us." As German journalist Josef Joffe describes this doctrine, Germany sought and gained "better relations with Britain, Russia and Austria than they might forge among themselves, so to make them ‘spokes' to Berlin's ‘hub.'" Bismarck emphasized that Germany must not become intoxicated with its military success during the 1860s and that the new Reich was "a saturated state."

To repeat: it was not so much Bismarck's sense of Germany's strategic vulnerability, or the limits of national power, which conditioned his diplomacy. It was his sense of personal vulnerability if Germany pressed too hard after unification. Bismarck made himself—not Germany—indispensible to the new European balance of power. As one of Bismarck's critics noted, Germany's extraordinarily complicated foreign policy after 1871 had no other purpose than to buttress Bismarck's power by making it impossible to replace him.

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Bismarck, then, pursued revolutionary means for seemingly limited ends—which would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Bismarck appreciated that the unbridled pursuit of personal and imperial power typically ended badly for the imperator, not just his cause. Alexander the Great died prematurely, probably in part because of wounds suffered in campaigns that he need not have fought. In any case, an empire uniting Europe and Asia was simply too big to govern at the time. Caesar was assassinated while about to embark on new conquests. Napoleon overreached, lost power, and suffered exile. Hitler (as Bismarck could have predicted) lost all by trying to grasp all. These supremely ambitious men were prepared to risk everything, including their rule and their lives, in order to achieve more, always more. They were prepared to kick over the chessboard rather than follow the conventional rules.

Bismarck's more limited, "realistic," authoritarian revolution has seemed to many a model of what the tribe of the eagle might accomplish in modern times, even if its immediate object was to gain and maintain personal power. They might point to Deng Xiaoping as a new example of this style of statesmanship. Bismarck's revolution might serve as a model for, say, Putin and Russia, or for some future leader of Iran. Yet this supposedly limited revolution contained the seeds of its own destruction. Bismarck was not immortal; nor, most importantly, was his patron, William. Once the old king died, Bismarck's days in office were numbered. Fortunately for Bismarck, William lived far beyond his allotted three score and ten years, but the clock was always ticking.

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Bismarck's relatively weak domestic political position frequently tempted him to provoke foreign policy crises and to stir the public imagination with an aggressive posture towards the world, especially France, and through his eventual support for a German overseas empire. He may not have intended war but other nations could not be so sure, especially when his less capable but equally ambitious successors tried to use the same tactics. The alienation of France left a number of squares closed on the diplomatic chessboard. As German power grew, resistance to its power grew correspondingly. The German leadership after Bismarck, stirred to emulate his example of using blood and iron to solve problems, became increasingly aggressive, xenophobic, and anti-democratic. The rest, as they say, is history.

Strategic wisdom for the West may consist in part in recognizing a class of great men like Bismarck, or Deng, whose ultimate goal may be the preservation of power, whether personal or (in the case of the Chinese Communist Party) collective. They may be treated differently from true revolutionaries, like Napoleon or Hitler or Lenin. But just as it is difficult to institutionalize a revolution, so too is it difficult to perpetuate moderation based on transient calculations of personal power.