helped by two organisers of genius: the Prussian Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, and the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was they who supplied the military instrument to defeat Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1870–71. But it was Bismarck who combined all the political, diplomatic and military assets in one invincible package. Well might he pound his desk and shout in triumph: ‘I have beaten them all! All!’ As Steinberg’s knowledge of the context is as profound as his knowledge of Bismarck, this biography also provides a brilliant account of the process of German unification in all its manifestations.
He also charts with masterly cogency the growing problems that afflicted the second – and much longer – part of Bismarck’s political career, ending in his humiliating dismissal in 1890. The law of unintended consequences operated with ever-intensifying insistence, as he lost control of the forces he had unleashed. As Steinberg puts it, employing one of the many arresting images that make this book such a pleasure to read: ‘ in 1866 Bismarck brandished democracy at the Habsburgs like a cross in front of a vampire’. But whereas at first his mobilisation of the masses worked well, they turned out to have a will of their own. Instead of fo l lowing Bismarck’s script and voting for conservative parties, they increasingly turned to the Catholic Centre Party and then – even more alarmingly – to the Social Democrats. By 1890 those whom Bismarck excoriated as ‘enemies of the German Empire’ held a majority in Parliament.
The very complex and unwieldy constitution he imposed on the new Germany was expressly designed to suit him, or in other words to preserve a system in which a strong Chancellor bullied a weak King. Always difficult to manage, it fell apart completely in the late 1880s. After William I died in 1888 at the age of ninety, his son Frederick reigned for only ninety-nine days before succumbing to throat cancer and making way for his own son, William II. As highly strung as Bismarck but not as br ight, the new Emperor was soon asserting himself. With all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the very same sort of plot that had brought Bismarck to power – an intr igue by a court camar illa – now brought his downfall. Retiring to one of his numerous estates, he was soon back doing what he did best: complaining and conspiring. He also enjoyed being the Grand Old Man of Germany, revelling in his status as the national hero, as a forest of statues in his honour sprang up right around the country. Even the Bavarians had come to venerate him. If they had known what was coming, they might have been less enthusiastic. As Jonathan Steinberg argues, many of the woes that were to afflict Germany, Europe and the world in the century that followed can be traced back to the man in whom ‘the greatness and misery of human individuality was stretched to its limits’. To order this book for £20, see LR Bookshop on page 10
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011