‘ I h a v e b e a t e n t h em a l l ! A l l ! ’
BISMARCK: A LIFE
By Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press 577pp £25)
hypochondria was also drummed into service as a political weapon. If his sovereign allowed even a hint of criticism to pass his lips, Bismarck would take himself off to bed, moaning and groaning until an apology was forthcoming. Typical was a letter of 1869: ‘I am sick to death and have gall bladder problems … I have not slept for 36 hours and spent the entire night vomiting. My head feels like a glowing oven in spite of cold compresses. I fear that I am about to lose my mind.’ He was not the only one: many contemporaries thought that Bismarck was always verging on madness and often tipping over the edge.
RIDING THROUGH LORRAINE after the defeat of France in the autumn of 1870, Otto von Bismarck was accosted by a woman whose husband had just been taken into custody for attacking a Prussian hussar with a spade. ‘In the kindliest possible manner’ he replied to her tearful entreaties: ‘Well, my good woman, you can be quite sure that your husband’ – and at this point he drew a line around his neck with his finger – ‘will very soon be hanged!’ This contrast between civilised exter ior and brutal s ubstance a r i s e s o f t en i n Jonathan Steinberg’s magnificent new biography. Disraeli, for example, was impressed by Bismarck’s ‘sweet and gentle vo i c e ’ and h i s ‘ peculiar l y refined enunciation’ but added t ha t i t made a l l t he more appalling the terrible things he actually said. Bismarck not only loved to outrage people, he t u r ned o f f ens iveness i n t o a political tactic r ight from the start, subduing his fellow cons e r va t ive s i n t he Pr u s s i an Parliament by presenting himself as ‘the most extreme of extremists, the wildest of reactionaries, and the most savage of debaters’.
So, how on earth did he become the most successful political figure of the nineteenth century? He was German Chancellor for nineteen years and transfor med the European continent more radically than any other individual, with the possible exception of Napoleon, even though, unlike the latter, Bismarck was neither a general nor an emperor. As Steinberg makes clear, the secret of his power was his ability to control the King of Prussia, William I, whom he made German Emperor in 1871.
Bismarck: bringing Europe to heel
Appointed Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862, when William was contemplating abdication over a prolonged dispute with the l iberal major i ty in Parliament, Bismarck quickly made himself indispensable. It was a re l a t ionship he then exploited with character istic ruthlessness. William may have moaned that ‘it’s hard to be Emperor under Bismarck’ and occasionally kicked feebly against the pricks, but he was always soon back in harness, apologising profusely for his temerity. When Bismarck asked to resign in 1869 over a trivial
A self-centred, neurotic, corrupt, vindictive, treacherous, unprincipled, despotic, gluttonous ingrate, and a habitual liar to boot, Bismarck was a spectacularly nasty piece of work. That is well known, of course. What marks out Steinberg’s account is his ability to get inside his subject’s seething mind. The praise bestowed by Bismarck on Thomas Carlyle – ‘he understood how to put himself in the soul of another person’ – also applies to his own biographer. As Steinberg convincingly argues, there was a close causal relationship between his subject’s frequently diseased body and his permanently sick soul. He was always whining about his poor health, indeed ‘no statesman of the nineteenth or twentieth century fell ill so frequently, so publicly, and so dramatically’. This issue – as he often did – William wrote: ‘How can you imagine that I could even think of acceding to your idea! It is my greatest happiness [underlined twice] to live with you and to thoroughly agree with you!’ and signed the letter ‘Your most faithful friend [underlined three times] W.’
From this bedrock of royal support Bismarck dominated first Prussia, then Germany and then Europe. He had been dealt a strong hand. By the time he came to power, Prussia was well on the way to becoming the continent’s dominant economy, not least because it had acquired the Ruhr from the wreckage of the Napoleonic Empire. The international situation was equally propitious. Russia was still licking its wounds after defeat in the Crimean War; Austria had been enfeebled by the war against France over Italy in 1859; Britain was preoccupied with getting rich and grabbing colonies. In taking advantage, Bismarck was
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011