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Genius Rebuked

by Michael Knox Beran
Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford, 592 pp., $34.95)

Among the statesmen of his generation, Bismarck may very well be the best company. Disraeli alone can rival him in wit, personal fascination, and deviousness. They met in 1862, before either of them had reached the top of the greasy pole, and later in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, after both had attained secular immortality. Disraeli was by then 73, and without a trace of sullenness he contented himself with recording, in a series of brilliant letters, the spectacle of the younger man in motion, mastering everything in sight.

In Bismarck: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg, an emeritus fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written what may be the best introduction in English to Bismarck the man. No writer can unravel the tangled skein of Bismarck the diplomat in a way that is easy for a reader new to the subject to follow; it is enough for a book if it deepens the picture of the living personality behind the diplomacy. This Steinberg has done, through a skillful use of diaries, letters, and memoirs, and by availing himself of the most recent German scholarship.

“Faust complains of having two souls in his breast,” Bismarck said. “I have a whole squabbling crowd. It goes on as in a republic.” Two personas emerged early: the “mad Junker,” a violently eccentric reactionary, and the cool chess player who used the “mad Junker” as a foil. One of Bismarck’s closest friends, the American diplomat and historian John Lothrop Motley, explained the relation between the two Bismarcks in his 1839 novel Morton’s Hope, a book that grew out of his student days in Göttingen. Bismarck figures as Otto von Rabenmark, who “in every respect,” Morton (Motley) says, “went immeasurably beyond any person I have ever known.” He drank deeply, dressed wildly, and provoked innumerable duels; but always with an object in view. “You see I am a very rational sort of person now,” Rabenmark tells Morton, “and you would hardly take me for the same crazy mountebank you met in the street half an hour ago. But then I see that this is the way to obtain superiority. I determined at once on arriving in the university, that to obtain mastery over my competitors, who were all extravagant, savage, eccentric, was to be ten times as extravagant and savage as anyone else.”

The savage extravagance was not altogether feigned. Bismarck’s “hypochondria, gluttony, rage, and despair,” Steinberg writes, were always present, but grew more pronounced as he grew more powerful. His “health, temper, and emotional life deteriorated the more successful he became.” His letters are heavy with spleen. He was so enraged by “those who keep knocking at my door” to “annoy me with questions” that “I could bite the table.” “Now that I have talked myself hoarse to artisans and statesmen,” he wrote in 1859, “I have almost gone mad from annoyance, hunger, and too much business.” “I am sick to death and have gall-bladder problems,” he wrote ten years later. “I have not slept for 36 hours and spent the entire night throwing up. My head feels like a glowing oven.”

When, in the 1860s, the fate of Germany and his own power hung in the balance, Bismarck suppressed his more disagreeable qualities to win the game. Between his accession as minister-president of Prussia in 1862 and the unification of the German Empire in 1871, he allowed the “mad Junker” out of his cage only when it served a constructive purpose. But after he had, in his words, “beaten them all,” he raved and stormed whenever the mood was on him. The realist who said that politics is the “art of the possible” engaged in a fatuous attempt to crush the Church of Rome in a nation that was heavily Catholic. He was under a “psychological necessity,” said Friedrich von Holstein, of making “his power felt by tormenting, harrying, and ill-treating” others. The Berlin salonière Hildegard von Spitzemberg, who adored him, was appalled by the “brutality and heartlessness” with which he “trampled” people “into the dust.” Disraeli, observing him in Berlin, told Lady Bradford that he “is a complete despot here,” and “from the highest to the lowest” the Prussians “tremble at his frown.”

One would take Bismarck for another example of the truth of Henry Adams’s dictum that power is poison, if he did not so often deviate from the type of the corrupted potentate. At times he was unaffectedly kind, although characteristically it was the death not of a person but of a dog that provoked his most impassioned expression of remorse. He “cannot stop talking about the death of his dog and especially that he hit him shortly before he died,” Christoph von Tiedemann, his private secretary, wrote. “He tortures himself with the thought that he caused the dog’s death. . . . He accuses himself of violent temper, brutality with which he hurts everybody who comes into contact with him.”

The flaws would matter less if Bismarck, having united Germany, had fashioned a satisfactory government for it. Genius got in the way. The constitution he imposed on the Reich was an extension of his own highly unusual personality; it was as though the framers of the American Constitution had drafted the document on the supposition that George Washington would always be president. Bismarck gave Germany not constitutional government but what the French diplomat Saint-Vallier called a “beautiful” imitation of it: a “complicated ramshackle structure,” Steinberg writes, that only Bismarck himself (“a very abnormal person”) could hold together.

A. J. P. Taylor was one of the few historians after 1945 to defend Bismarck’s constitutional handiwork. “No doubt it was a poor thing by the standards of modern democracy in Great Britain or France,” Taylor wrote. “Yet, in the last resort, it came to much the same.” It did? A hedonist of power, Bismarck was another example of a problem that drove Machiavelli to despair. The leader who is strong enough to make a nation is rarely good enough to give it freedom.

Yet even in his despotism, Bismarck defies typicality. With all his fantastic egotism, he saw with great clarity the state of Europe. After 1871, his principal task was to prevent his countrymen from overturning the peace in a euphoria of violence. The general staff was eager for battle. No sooner had Moltke returned from the French war than he began to draw up mobilization plans for the next fight. He foresaw, long before Schlieffen, a war on two fronts, with Russia coming in on the side of France. Bismarck preferred to meet the challenge through an intricate diplomacy designed to prevent the emergence of a Franco-Russian alliance. In this he was successful, and only after he got the chuck from Wilhelm II did the French and the Russians negotiate their entente.

Bismarck’s caution came too late; he had united Germany too quickly. The British Empire was the work of generations, and British character and institutions adjusted themselves gradually to the kingdom’s growing power. The German Empire was the work of a historical instant; and the revolution in politics coincided with a no less extensive revolution in industry. In the blink of an eye the Germans found themselves the most powerful people in Europe. The problem was exacerbated by cultural travail. The nationalization of a people is invariably accompanied by the decay of ancient forms of local civilization, humane in scale and rooted in the knowledge of particular places and conditions. This cultural degradation, a trial for any people, was the more painful in Germany; under the inspirations of an illiberal public life, a cult of military violence, and the native insecurity of the people, who for centuries had dwelt precariously in the crossroads of a continent, cultural uneasiness became what the historian Fritz Stern called cultural despair. The anguish of the bewildered Germans was manipulated by demagogues, and nourished a fanatical politics. Nationalism in Germany was hysterical, and bred nothing that was not morbid.

Words like “demonic” and “le diable” abound in accounts of Bismarck. He was “Mephistopheles,” a “second Wallenstein,” the “Pomeranian phoenix.” All who knew him felt the uncanniness of his genius — even those who were themselves uncanny geniuses. Disraeli was entranced by Bismarck’s “Rabelaisian monologues: endless revelations of things he ought not to mention.” Yet the effect, Disraeli said, was not grotesque, for there was a striking contrast between Bismarck’s “ogre-like form” and his voice, which was “sweet and gentle.” “His views on all subjects are original, but there is no strain, no effort at paradox. He talks as Montaigne writes.”

One is left with the mystery of a man who possessed the rough magic of Prospero, but whose soul was shot through with the resentments of Caliban: a wit as amusing as Falstaff, but suffused with the malignity of Iago. There is no accounting for the strangeness; one can simply accept it, as one does any other great work of nature or of art. If Steinberg’s brilliant book has a weakness, it is that it is a little too avid of explanations, and pants for reasons. For a thread with which to find his way in the labyrinth, Steinberg looks to Ma Bismarck (Wilhelmine), who apparently never gave little Otto enough love, and to Pa Bismarck (Ferdinand), whom Otto wanted to love, but whom he could not help despising because he was boorish and limited.

Can this be the clue to the mystery? Is the Bismarckian drama finally a thwarted dream of a happy childhood — “something he couldn’t get, or something he lost” — with a “Rosebud” of one sort or another pitched into the fire in the closing scene? One might swallow a Bismarckian interpretation of Freud — the frustrated intellectual who is a conquistador manqué, enchanted by dominion. But a Freudian interpretation of Bismarck? It seems not to do justice to the subject.

The more plausible moral is that genius has the defects of its virtues. Coming away from Bismarck’s life, the American is apt to be grateful that the preeminent figure in the foundation of his own republic, if he was a man of much good sense and excellent judgment, was not a — genius.

– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life.