Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bismarck, by Alan Palmer

Today I'm looking at a biography of Otto von Bismarck, known to students of European and German history as the Iron Chancellor of Prussia who united the disparate states into the German Empire in the nineteenth century. Bismarck has always been a controversial figure, his focus on militarism and authoritarian rule is seen as a foreshadowing of the atrocities of the Nazi regime half a century later. However, Bismarck also was a firm supporter of modernizing Prussia and Germany and later in his administration he would pass comprehensive social security plans for German workers, hoping it would cut any desire for socialist revolution in Germany. Bismarck is ultimately a figure of contradictions. A reactionary autocrat of the first order who promoted social welfare reform. A man often depicted in military uniform, but only served as a soldier for a year and became a Landwehr reserve lieutenant before pursuing a civil career in the diplomatic corps. A member of the Junker aristocracy and yet always seemingly apart from them. For a man who redrew the map of Europe Bismarck remains a puzzle to historians.

The career of Bismarck almost didn't begin. Evidence from his early days suggest that Bismarck played the role of ''wildman Junker'' to the hilt, followed by a pack of hunting dogs and getting in numerous duels during his time at university. In fact, Bismarck didn't do so well at university, despite his later genius at handling both international relations and managing Wilhelm I of Prussia and later Germany. With the death of his father, Bismarck spent nine years working as a gentleman farmer, trying to manage his estates and actually turning a profit. It's probable that if there was any school where Bismarck learned how to negotiate, how to manage people, and the importance of having multiple plans, it was probably the Frankfurt Diet of the German Confederation. Although his time in the diet was much ridiculed by his opponents, it probably still served an important purpose in his education.

Still, even with his experience in the diet it is surprising that Bismarck became chancellor at all. After making numerous enemies at home with his brash actions, Bismarck was sent as ambassador to Russia, a task he loathed because of the social interactions involved. For someone widely regarded as one of Europe's greatest diplomats, Bismarck had a hatred for social galas or even spending time in the capital. Bismarck was far happier to retire to his country estates in Altmark or Pomerania than among the glittering elite of nineteenth century Europe. In truth, Bismarck was only selected for chancellor and minister-president of Prussia because of an ongoing constitutional crisis.

A handful of reforms had been enacted in Prussia in the nineteenth century, including the creation of a parliamentary body, the Landtag. William I had wanted an increase in expenditure for the vaunted Prussian military which required approval from the Landtag, however a majority of the Landtag wanted a reduction in the compulsory military service from three years to two, something that William I was unwilling to negotiate on. Bismarck, never one to be worried by upsetting parliamentary niceties when it was to his advantage to do so, simply used the previous year's budget and governed without the Landtag under the auspices of a crisis, a constitutional position he had explored some years earlier.  The taxes got collected, the troops got equipped, and Bismarck had freedom to rule without parliamentary interference.

The image of Bismarck that emerges from his time as chancellor is a man of extreme moral flexibility. Bismarck will make friends with you one day and then stab you in the back the next if it was beneficial to his plans. Bismarck does not seem to be guided by any political ideology or philosophy and appears to have very little patience for people who do. His goal, as Palmer describes it, seems to be power for himself, and uniting Germany under Prussia was merely a means to expand that power for himself, as exhibited by Bismarck's own frustrations with rampant nationalist ideologues.

Another of Bismarck's strengths was his ability to have an extra plan, or two, or three for him to fall back on if his first plan didn't go through. As Extra History put it in their biographic series of Bismarck, the first rule of being Bismarck was ''Always have a plan''. This fit perfectly with his moral flexibility, and throughout his career Bismarck worked to never be in a position where he was forced to commit definitively to anything he didn't want, something that later leaders of the German Empire did not have the skill or ability to do. Which underlines the biggest weakness of Bismarck's system: it doesn't work without Bismarck.

Bismarck was an autocrat through and through, down to his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to imagine a system that existed without him. He did try to groom his eldest son Herbert for the position of Chancellor, but Herbert proved unequal to the task and only served in a variety of posts in the diplomatic corps. Bismarck's position as Chancellor of the German Empire was added to the constitution of the empire as an afterthought, rather than as a key part. He existed independent of and unaccountable to the Reichstag, serving only at the pleasure of the emperor and so long as that was the manageable, aged William I, Bismarck had free reign to do as he pleased.

As long as Bismarck remained at the center of the system, the elaborate network of alliances, treaties, and agreements, the ad hoc nature of the machinery of government in Germany, everything worked in spite of its inherent weaknesses. But once the autocrat is gone, the entire machinery falls apart. This is even illustrated during Bismarck's administration by his frequent retreats to his estates, when all major decision making is either put on hold, or people must make the pilgrimage to Bismarck to get decisions. Crises that didn't get his immediate attention soon spun out of control until Bismarck was once again at the helm.

In this way, Bismarck is a quintessentially European figure displaced in time. A moral opportunist and autocrat of the first order in earlier epochs could have become king or established a dynasty. In the industrializing nineteenth century, Bismarck was faced with things he could not control or perhaps understand. A figure of contradictions, Bismarck will remain a person of great interest to historians for years to come.

- Kalpar

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