Saturday, June 25, 2011

One view of Otto von Bismarck

I am putting this up mainly because I disagree with most of it: I hope to write a rebuttal in due course: Bismarck the victor magnanimous in victory; the founder of Europe's long peace etc. I have in fact already put online a quite different view of Bismarck. See here

A VERY small point: He mostly wore the Pickelhaube to cover his bald head. And he WAS entitled to. Although he was not in the regular army, he WAS an officer in the reserves

And "Kaiser Bill" was a fool. He should never have given Britain an excuse to declare war on Germany. The Brits were being run ragged trying to keep ahead of Tirpitz's "Luxusflotte" -- and the disproportionate losses in the battle of Jutland showed that they had every reason to be concerned. Mastery of the seas was essential to Britain and Germany implicitly threatened that

REVIEW of BISMARCK: A LIFE BY JONATHAN STEINBERG (Oxford University Press £25. Review by Peter Lewis

First look at the photograph. The head, like a cannon ball waiting to be fired from the stiff, high-collared neck, and a bristling moustache that droops under its own weight.

An over-fed double chin. Hooded, predatory eyes. No hint of humour or humanity. A nasty piece of work to be up against. To make it look more threatening, the head sometimes sported a brass spiked helmet - a ‘pickelhaube’ - to which it was not entitled.

Everyone knows his name. Bismarck. Founder of a united Germany that was to menace the rest of Europe for the next 75 years, long after he had gone. Was he ultimately responsible for that? This biography strongly suggests he was - which is a good reason for being interested in it.

The most memorable thing he said was: ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ But the changes he wrought in Europe by ‘blood and iron’ looked near-impossible. Especially when you consider what he lacked.

He was no orator. He was not a military man. He had the background of a Junker - a landed Prussian squire of no great estate. He neither founded nor led a political party. He was a one-man band.

His personal character was far from charismatic. He had a raging temper. He inflicted it on anyone who opposed or contradicted him or thwarted him of what he wanted. This went for the kings, princes, grand dukes with whom his world was crowded as much as his secretaries or servants. He scared the wits out of everyone.

He was an unrestrained glutton. After a steak-filled breakfast he could get through eight-course dinners with wild boar and saddle of venison as the centrepieces. ‘Here we eat til the walls burst,’ wrote one of his guests.

No wonder he was always feeling ill: stomach cramps, nervous disorders, headaches and insomnia for several nights at a time. And how he complained about how dreadful he felt! Yet he lived to his 80s without a single stroke or heart attack.

The work he got through as a statesman was prodigious. He would be up until 7am, sleep til midday then gradually feel better and work harder as the night wore on.

Sooner or later everyone hated him, except his wife. The courtiers with their double-barrelled titles beginning with von, the Prussian Queen, the Crown Prince and Princess (Queen Victoria’s daughter Vicky), the politicians whom he trampled on. There was one great important exception: the King himself, Wilhelm the first King of Prussia and later, thanks to Bismarck, the first Emperor of Germany.

The King was a mild, weak, decent man who once complained: ‘It’s hard to be Kaiser under Bismarck!’ When they disagreed Bismarck would throw a tantrum and resign.

The King, sometimes in tears, would plead with him to stay on. So Bismarck stayed - as he had intended all along. So long as he had the King in his pocket Bismarck could ignore any competition. And by an enormous stroke of luck. Wilhelm, whom this book insists on calling William, lived on, and on, and on, to 70, 80, then to 91.

His son Frederick, waiting to succeed the old and ill King, only lasted three months on the throne when he got it (he died of cancer), so his son, Wilhelm II, became the third Emperor Germany had had in the year 1888.

He was Queen Victoria’s grandson, through Vicky - the batty one with the withered arm, ‘the Kaiser’ of First World War notoriety. But he was mad enough to kick Bismarck out in 1890.

What was it that Bismarck, monster that he was, achieved?

In summary he turned Prussia, the underdog to the Austrian empire, into a major European power by provoking and winning three wars. First came a little war against Denmark by which the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein became German.

Next, he provoked a quarrel with Austria which was defeated, leaving Prussia as the dominant power in Germany. The third war, which he taunted France into declaring, resulted in the ignominious capture of the Emperor Napoleon III and his dispatch into exile (at Chislehurst) while Germany acquired the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

Bismarck staged his greatest coup as the German armies besieged Paris in 1870. The suburbs, including Versailles, were in their hands. There in the famous Hall of Mirrors the ageing King Wilhelm was proclaimed Emperor of Germany.

When Bismarck had arrived in politics, Germany was not a country but a collection of 39 different states. Some of them were sizeable kingdoms, like Bavaria and Saxony, but each of them - however tiny or ridiculous - was ruled by a Grand Duke, Elector, Margrave or whatever, with family names like Queen Victoria’s own; Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They met on occasions to discuss their affairs in a sort of club called The Bund, but there was no state of Germany as a whole.

Bismarck created it by declaring universal suffrage which ended the power of these Ruritanian non-entities. They were allowed to keep their state and go on dressing up to their hearts’ content like the Maharajas in India under British rule.

‘I have beaten them all! All!’ Bismarck declared, thumping his desk. As first Chancellor of Germany he set about the huge task of unifying the state. He was saddled with an elected Reichstag but he manipulated or ignored it whenever he wanted. Germany was designed as an autocracy by Bismarck for Bismarck. He was ‘the complete despot’ according to Disraeli.

As power does, it infected him with paranoia. He saw enemies everywhere. Year by year he grew angrier and ruder and more tyrannical to those around him including his own son Herbert, who had fallen in love with a princess of whose family Bismarck disapproved. He broke up their intended marriage and broke his son’s heart in doing so.

Close observers whose letters are quoted here saw something ‘demonic’ in him, including the young Prince Wilhelm who took over as Wilhelm II at last. Unlike Wilhelm I, he was not prepared to leave the governing to Bismarck. They rowed. Bismarck tried to tame him with his resignation tactic.

This time, to his great surprise, it was accepted. After 26 years he was out.

He was furious. He wrote his unreliable memoirs - he always told lies when it suited. Then he died.

Unlike most works of academic history this one is very brightly written, though it sometimes gets bogged down in German political trickery and manoeuvring between the Vons.

At such times I found myself muttering, ‘Ve haf vays of making you yawn’. But without doubt it will be the definitive biography for years to come, and has just been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

My distaste of Bismarck grew into dislike, disgust and finally dyspepsia. Whether the author, Professor Steinberg of Cambridge and Pennsylvania Universities, shares my reactions I am not sure.

He has a biographer’s grudging admiration for his subject. He believes Bismarck’s deplorable character was a necessary reverse side of his political genius. He may be right. To be a genius at politics you may need to be a horrible human being.

At moments one sees a resemblance to Hitler - not least in their violent anti-Semitism. But Bismarck was by far the cleverer dictator.

For one thing, he had the sense not to interfere in military strategy. At this his generals excelled, including Hindenburg who in due course reluctantly installed Hitler as the Iron Chancellor in Bismarck’s chair.

Until recently, Otto von Bismarck was admired in Germany as their ‘genius statesman’.

Not any longer, one hopes, for his lasting legacy was to make the German people all too ready to submit to authority and to leave their fate in the hands of a ‘great man’. Without Bismarck’s example, Hitler might not have received such a ready reception.


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