Essays & Reviews

Bismarck: A White and Gold Revolutionary

This week’s featured work is a notable book, Fritz Stern’s Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (1977). Much has been written about the Iron Chancellor, of course, and like all significant figures in history, he and his policies are subject to various interpretations. Marcus Jones’ chapter on “Bismarckian Strategic Policy, 1871-1890,” in the newly-published edited volume by Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present, offers a good survey of German-language treatments of Bismarck’s approach to strategy, especially after the Franco-Prussian War.

Perhaps the most significant English-language biography of Bismarck in recent years is Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A Life. 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.  Psycho-biographies have definite limitations and are prone to obvious but unhelpful themes. That said, this approach to Bismarck is highly suggestive about the nature of a certain type of statecraft. I discuss this in more detail here.

My argument briefly:

According to Steinberg’s account, 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.  If one follows this logic, Bismarck did not seek power in order to overthrow the Vienna settlement and unite Germany on Prussian terms. 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. He was later prepared to limit his ambition, and that of Germany, not simply because such limitations reflected strategic realism, but because an overly-aggressive German foreign policy threatened his position in power.

By my understanding (if not Steinberg’s), Bismarck could not have been a Hitler, who aimed at absolute national and personal power over Europe as well as Germany, and who was prepared to risk his life, his rule, and the survival of Germany, to accomplish that. The Army and other elements of Prussian-German society, at least at the time, never would have tolerated such a threat by Bismarck to their domestic position.  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.

Bismarck, then, pursued revolutionary means for seemingly limited ends—which would seem to be a contradiction in terms. (On this point, see Henry Kissinger’s article on Bismarck as white revolutionary in the Summer 1968 issue of Daedalus and his later assessment in his books Diplomacy and World Order.) But Bismarck appreciated that the unbridled pursuit of personal and imperial power typically ended badly for the imperator (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon), not just his cause. Bismarck’s more limited, “realistic,” authoritarian revolution has seemed to many a model of what might be accomplished in modern times, even if its immediate object is to gain and maintain personal power. They might point to Deng Xiaoping as a new example of this style of statesmanship, or Putin in Russia, or some future leader of Iran.

Strategic wisdom for the West may consist in part in recognizing a particular class of 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.