Otto von Bismarck, Master Statesman

The New York Times Book Review

In the summer of 1862, Otto von Bismarck was appointed minister- president of Prussia. His highest previous rank had been ambassador to Russia. He had never held an administrative position. Yet with a few brusque strokes, the novice minister solved the riddle that had stymied European diplomacy for two generations: how to unify Germany and reorganize Central Europe. He had to overcome the obstacle that Germany comprised 39 sovereign states grouped in the so-called German Confederation. All the while, Central European trends were warily observed by the two "flanking" powers, France and Russia, ever uneasy about — and tempted to prevent — the emergence of a state capable of altering the existing European balance of power.

Within nine years, Bismarck untied this knot in what Jonathan Steinberg, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, describes as "the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries." He overcame the princes of the German states in two wars and rallied them in a third; won over public opinion by granting universal manhood suffrage — making Prussia one of the first states in Europe to do so; paralyzed France by holding out the prospect of agreeing to the French acquisition of Luxembourg, and Russia by a benevolent attitude during the Polish revolution of 1863. Bismarck accomplished all this "without commanding a single soldier, without dominating a vast parliamentary majority, without the support of a mass movement, without any previous experience in government and in the face of national revulsion at his name and his reputation."

It is a measure of Steinberg's achievement in "Bismarck: A Life" that the subsequent description of the "political genius of a very unusual kind" becomes far from a panegyric. He describes — in an incisive, if occasionally distracting, psychological approach — a highly complex person who incarnated the duality that later tempted Germany into efforts beyond its capacity. Bismarck was never seen in public without a uniform, yet he had never really served in the military and was generally viewed with suspicion by the military leaders for what they saw as his excessive moderation. The man of "blood and iron" wrote prose of extraordinary directness and lucidity, comparable in distinctiveness to Churchill's use of the English language. The embodiment of realpolitik turned power into an instrument of self-restraint by the agility of his diplomacy. He dominated Germany and European diplomacy from a single power base, the confidence of an aging king, without other institutional backing or great personal following.

Bismarck is often cited as the quintessential realist, relying on power at the expense of ideals. He was, in fact, far more complicated. Power, to be useful, must be understood in its components, including its limits. By the same token, ideals must be brought, at some point, into relationship with the circumstances the leader is seeking to affect. Ignoring that balance threatens policy with either veering toward belligerence from the advocates of power or toward crusades by the idealists.

Bismarck dominated because he understood a wider range of factors relevant to international affairs — some normally identified with power, others generally classified as ideals — than any of his contemporaries. He came into office in a world beset by the memory of the Napoleonic period. The new order that emerged was based on the belief that the goal of peace could be achieved only by nations with compatible domestic institutions (shades of modern neoconservatism). The Holy Alliance of Prussia, Austria and Russia was created to police the continuation of essentially legitimist conservative states, committed to upholding rule by their royal families. The balance of power sustained Europe's strategic equilibrium. When Bismarck became Minister-präsident, all these elements were in flux. A new Napoleon had made himself emperor in France by popular election. Parliaments were gaining at the expense of princes. The principles of the Holy Alliance were in tatters.

Bismarck's originality consisted of being neither in the camp of power nor in that of ideology. During the Crimean War, while serving as ambassador to the German Confederation, Bismarck outlined three options for his king: (a) alliance with Russia, which implied a conservative orientation; (b) alliance with France, implying the opposite; or (c) a sharp shift to domestic policies in Prussia with an introduction of popular institutions — a step that would cut the ground out from under the princes. Like a physicist, Bismarck analyzed the principal elements of each situation and then used them in an overall design. He appealed to the czar on the principles of the Holy Alliance, to France on openness to liberal institutions, to German liberals with the prospect of a popular legislature. He fought three military campaigns, each with limited political objectives — intended to co-opt, rather than humiliate, the adversary. Under his leadership, Prussia was among the first on the continent not only to introduce universal suffrage but also, later on, to enact sweeping social legislation. He prevailed not so much because he was stronger as because his adversaries proved less nimble.

Bismarck's opponents were still wedded to the 18th-century concepts of the international system as a great clockwork with intricately meshed parts: the science of Newton. Bismarck foreshadowed an age whose equilibrium was an ever-changing interaction of forces, themselves in constant flux, like later atomic physics. Its appropriate philosopher was not Descartes but Darwin; not "I think, therefore I am," but the "survival of the fittest."

Cynicism by itself produces a shallow opportunism. Any serious policy requires a fixed point from which to alter the world. Bismarck's Archimedean point was the belief in the uniqueness of Prussian institutions. Because, as Bismarck pointed out, the Prussian king was secure even if his entire army was out of the country, Prussia could maneuver with extraordinary flexibility to establish its pre-eminence in Central Europe. Until Bismarck appeared on the scene, it had generally been assumed that nationalism and conservatism represented opposite poles; he rejected that proposition. Prussia's cohesion was sufficiently strong, he argued, that it could challenge the authority of monarchs abroad even while conducting a monarchist policy at home. Like Disraeli, he believed that a broadly based suffrage would be nationalistic and could be mobilized for conservative causes.

The result, however, sowed the seeds of Germany's 20th-century tragedies. Dominated as it was by what Steinberg calls "the sovereignty of an extraordinary, gigantic self," the new Germany lacked institutional balance. Too democratic for conservatives, too authoritarian for liberals, the new order, both domestic and foreign, was tailored to one personality who sought to restrain the contending forces by manipulating their antagonisms.

Still, for the 28 years that he served as chancellor of Germany, Bismarck preserved what he had built by a restrained and wise diplomacy, which was the single most important element in maintaining the peace of Europe. "My map of Africa lies in Europe," he said in resisting pressures to acquire colonies. And he responded to the suggestion of a pre-emptive war against Russia with: "Woe to the statesman whose arguments for entering a war are not as convincing at its end as they were at the beginning."

But "Bismarck: A Life" shows as well the nemesis of success. The emergence of a united Germany reduced the flexibility once provided by the multitude of sovereign states in the center of Europe. A united Germany was powerful enough to defeat each of its neighbors individually, almost obliging these neighbors, especially France and Russia, to explore a coalition. The nightmare of hostile coalitions (le cauchemar des coalitions), designed to compel Germany to divide its forces between East and West, grew into one of the motivating forces of Bismarckian diplomacy. He sought to counter it by involving Germany in a dizzying series of partly overlapping, partly conflicting alliances with the aim of giving the other great powers — except the irreconcilable France — a greater interest to work with Germany than to coalesce against it.

It was not to be. Bismarck's triumphs of the 1860s restricted the maneuvering room for his intricate plan of an alliance with Austria; a Three Emperors' League with Austria and Russia; and a so-called reinsurance treaty with Russia. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871 produced a France determined on revenge and, hence, a potential ally of any other adversary of Germany. Only five major states remained, constricting the available combinations. Even Bismarck, in his later years, had difficulty managing these arrangements between incompatible partners or keeping track of them, as Steinberg impressively shows.

The dynamism by which Bismarck reordered Central Europe was difficult to replicate when he sought to preserve what he had built. When he acted as a revolutionary as minister-president of Prussia, Bismarck could control the timing of policy. In his years as chancellor of Germany and as protector of what existed, others posed the challenges. Bismarck had to await events. In a sense, he became the prisoner of his own design and of its domestic necessities (to which, for example, he had to sacrifice his reluctance to enter the colonial race).

Bismarck was dismissed by a new emperor in 1890. It was the ultimate paradox that the man who had dominated Europe by exalting stability should conclude his career at the whim of a young, somewhat unstable, sovereign.

Bismarck's successor, Caprivi, pointed out the essential weakness of the Bismarckian system by saying that while Bismarck had been able to keep five balls in the air simultaneously, he (Caprivi) had difficulty controlling two. Shortly after Bismarck's departure, the Russian treaty was abandoned. Shortly after that, France and Russia formed an alliance and Europe slid into rigid coalitions. Bismarck's rationalism made him believe that he could distill a doctrine of self-limitation from an analysis of the nuances of power relationships. But power is the most difficult component of policy to analyze. Because its nuances eluded Bismarck's successors and imitators, the application of his supposed lessons led to an armament race and World War I.

I must register two caveats. Steinberg's hostility toward Bismarck's personality sometimes causes him to overemphasize personal traits at the expense of his strategic concepts, which were usually quite brilliant. The second caveat concerns the direct line Steinberg draws from Bismarck to Hitler. Bismarck was a rationalist, Hitler a romantic nihilist. Bismarck's essence was his sense of limits and equilibrium; Hitler's was the absence of measure and rejection of restraint. The idea of conquering Europe would never have come to Bismarck; it was always part of Hitler's vision. Hitler could never have pronounced Bismarck's famous dictum that statesmanship consisted of listening carefully to the footsteps of God through history and walking with him a few steps of the way. Hitler left a vacuum. Bismarck left a state strong enough to overcome two catastrophic defeats as well as a legacy of unassimilable greatness. Nevertheless, "Bismarck: A Life" is the best study of its subject in the English language.