Sovereignty of the Self


Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life


            In “Bismarck: A Life,” Jonathan Steinberg has produced a masterful biography of a mercurial figure, Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, almost certainly the most important diplomatic figure of the second half of the 19th century.  Steinberg shows how Bismarck went from a “shallow country squire” (p.2) to the man who, between 1862 and 1890, unified the disparate German kingdoms, duchies and fiefdoms into the most powerful country on the European continent.  In stitching together modern Germany, Bismarck put the pieces in place for the new powerhouse to lead Europe into two murderous 20th century wars, then transform itself late in the century into what Timothy Garton Ash recently termed “about as solid a liberal bourgeois democracy as you can find on earth. . . civilized, free, prosperous, law abiding, moderate and cautious” (“The New German Question,” New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013, at 52).  


           Steinberg acknowledges at the outset that his biography is another in a series about Bismarck.  What Steinberg adds is a powerful understanding of Bismarck’s volcanic personality, and how that personality affected his public life.  Never have I read a biography that gets into the head and psyche of its subject to the degree that Steinberg does here.  The keys to Bismarck’s character lie in his “deep dualism” and “powerful contradictions” in his nature (p.173), Steinberg argues: “[f]alsehood and honesty, kindness and vengeance, gargantuan energies and hypochondriac frailty, charm and cold remoteness, frankness and deceit” (p.183).  Bismarck’s’ three greatest attributes were a “wonderful flexibility of strategy and tactics, shirking responsibility for what went wrong, [and] rage and brutality to his enemies”  (p.412). 


           These attributes made Bismarck a rare political genius, a “manipulator of the political realities of his time” (p.5).  The power he exercised “came from him as a person, not from institutions, mass society or ‘forces and factors.’  The power relied on the sovereignty of an extraordinary, gigantic self” (p.4).  Bismarck’s “sovereignty of the self” combined an “ice-cold contempt for his fellow human beings” with a “methodical determination to control and rule them . . . [and an] extraordinary double ability to see how groups would react and the willingness to use violence to make them obey, the capacity to read group behavior and the force to make them move to his will” p.466).


           Born in 1815 in Schönhausen, in the kingdom of Prussia, Bismarck, came from an old Prussian family and personified and accentuated many of the “darkest characteristics” of the landowning Junker class (p.18).  Junker values included fierce loyalty and militarism but also anti-Semitism, a “visceral hatred of Jews” (p.388).  Bismarck bought into the Prussian notion that equated liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism with Judaism “Anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century became a surrogate for everything that the Junkers, churches, peasants and artisans most feared and distrusted,” (p.475) Steinberg writes.  While Bismarck “certainly did not create [German] anti-Semitism, which was “universal at all levels of German society,” the anti-Semitism and anti-liberalism of his time “passed into the bloodstream of Germany to become virulent in the overheated atmosphere of the First World War and to become lethal in its aftermath.  This too was a Bismarckian legacy” (p.477). 


           Bismarck was elected to the Prussian diet in 1844, at age 29, with “no real qualifications beyond his outsized personality” (p.70).  But from his first foray into politics, he proved to be unusually gifted in the dark art of legislative maneuvering, a “brilliant, persuasive and overwhelmingly convincing parliamentary politician” (p.72), His first political speech revealed what would become his characteristic style, delivered with “sparkling prose” and “easy conversational tones” that hid his “complete contempt” for fellow parliamentarians (p.77).    


           Bismarck raged at his enemies, and was consistently vindictive.  “Nobody ever indulged himself so utterly in vehement or violent anger as Otto von Bismarck . . . He lost his temper at the slightest provocation” (p.467-68).  Anyone who “said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing in Bismarck’s opinion would finish in outer darkness” (p.183).  Bismarck “never considered compromise a satisfactory outcome.  He had to win and destroy the opponents or lose and be destroyed himself” (p.472).  His “destructive urges and rages, his need for revenge, his paranoia and sleeplessness had psychological origins,” Steinberg writes.  They “lay in the dark recesses of his colossal and complex nature” (p.415)    


           Physical sickness seems to have been one of Bismarck’s most effective tools.  No statesman of the nineteenth or twentieth century “fell ill so frequently, so publicly, and so dramatically as Otto von Bismarck,” (p.238) Steinberg recounts.  He “trumpeted his suffering and all his symptoms to everybody” (p.238).  But in Steinberg’s view, Bismarck’s sickness “lay primarily in the mind [and] not the body” (p.238).  His health, temper and emotional life “deteriorated the more successful he became” (p.34).   It was Bismarck’s tragedy and that of Germany, Steinberg concludes, that Bismarck never learned “how to be a proper Christian, had no understanding of the virtue of humility and still less about the interaction of his sick body and sick soul” (p.155).  


           After stints as a Prussian diplomat posted to Frankfurt, Moscow and Paris, Bismarck served as “Minister President” of his native Prussia from1862 to 1890.  Throughout this period, Bismarck’s fate was almost entirely dependent upon King Wilhelm I, who ruled Prussia, then Germany, from 1861 until his death in 1888.  Bismarck “never had any other foundation for his achievements.  No crowds followed him and no party acknowledged him as a leader” (p.84).  The most powerful figure of the 19th century, Steinberg argues, “had on real parliamentary support and still depended on the person, the emotions, and the attitudes of a very old monarch” (p.261).  Bismarck ruled by the “magic he exerted over the old man.”  He needed “no majorities in parliament; he needed no political parties. He had a public of one” (p.7).  

           Bismarck’s famous “blood and iron” speech, a blueprint for German unification under Prussian leadership, was one of his first public statements in his capacity as Prussia’s Minister-President.  Bismarck told the Budget Committee of the Prussian parliament in September 1862 that Prussia must: 


build up and preserve her strength for the advantageous moment, which has already come and gone many times.  Her borders under the treaties of Vienna are not favorable for the healthy existence of the state.  The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by blood and iron (p.180-81).


 Bismarck then provoked three wars between 1862 and 1871 that led to Prussian dominance over continental rivals Austria and France, and over the other German states that ultimately united into modern Germany.  In 1867, after a war with Austria, Bismarck became Chancellor of the North German Confederation; then, after the war with France, he became the first “Reich Chancellor” of a united Germany, a position he held until 1890. 


            The first of the three wars was with Denmark, over two provinces, Schleswig and Holstein.  In this brief — and to many “incomprehensible” (p.210) — short war, Bismarck wrenched the two provinces away from Denmark and into the Prussian orbit through shrewd diplomatic maneuvering and brute military force.  The Schleswig-Holstein affair was followed by a war with Hapsburg Austria, which eliminated an obstacle to a German confederation.  Against the wishes of King Wilhelm, Bismarck did not annex any Austrian territory and declined a victory parade in Vienna.  Bismarck was thus able to unite much of Germany into the North German Confederation without having to contend with an unruly Austria as part of the confederation, and without provoking France’s intervention on behalf of Austria, thereby leaving the door open for an eventual reconciliation with the Hapsburg Monarchy — in retrospect, uncannily shrewd decisions, marking a “complete transformation of the European order” (p.258). 


           But Bismarck also “needed a crisis with France and possibly even a war to overcome the resistance of the Southern German States to a final unification under Prussian leadership” (p.281-82).  With more uncanny shrewdness, Bismarck maneuvered Napoleon III of France into declaring war against Prussia.  The southern German states saw France as the aggressor, and enthusiastically supported Bismarck’s campaign against Napoleon III.  With a series of surprising and smashing victories, Prussia shocked the world by rapidly overcoming France in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war and annexing Alsace and much of Lorraine.  The war culminated with the full unification of Germany, as Bismarck brought the southern German states into what came to be known as the German Empire, with King Wilhelm as its Emperor and Bismarck as its Chancellor. 


           Steinberg considers the unification of Germany between 1862 and 1871 to be the “greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries” (p.184).  The victory over France and the foundation of the new Reich “marked the high points of Bismarck’s career.  He had achieved the impossible and his genius and the cult of that genius had no limits” (p.312).  The new European state that emerged seemed to be without limits as well:


Between 1871 and 1914 the German Empire would become an economic superpower.  Its coal, steel, and iron production grew larger than the entire production of its continental rivals put together.  Whereas in 1871 Germany and France had roughly the same population, by 1914 Germany had half again as many people, better educated, better disciplined, and more productive than any in the world . . . [By 1914] Germany had achieved a supremacy in Europe which only the French Empire of Napoleon had reached at a few moments but Germany had a much more powerful industrial and technological foundation (p.313). 


           “No permanent allies, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests” might well describe Bismarck’s domestic policies and how he played the factions in Prussia, then Germany, against one another, with Bismarck’s permanent interest being Bismarck.  He launched an anti-Catholic “cultural struggle,” kulturkampf, that raised echoes of Revolutionary France. “The Roman Church and all its traditional pastoral and ecclesiastical activities challenged the growing power, competence and intrusiveness of the modern state” (p.319).  Bismarck’s kulturkampf followed the Vatican Council’s 1870 declaration of papal infallibility.  In 1872, Odo Russell, formerly British Ambassador to Prussia, wrote that Bismarck considered himself “more infallible than the Pope” and could not “tolerate two infallibles in Europe” (p.334).  


           Bismarck fought rising socialism just as vigorously as he fought the Catholic Church, but in no small part by instituting reforms designed to keep socialism out of Germany.  A landmark accident insurance program went into effect in 1884.  An old age and disability insurance bill passed in 1889.  This system of social security, Steinberg indicates, “gave Germany the first modern social welfare safety net in the world and still forms part of the modern German social security system, a significant achievement and entirely Bismarck’s doing” (p.417). 


           Devoid of core principles, Bismarck was able to pursue other liberal ends when it served his interest.  He steered a bill through the parliament introducing freedom of trades and crafts, a “very contentious issue, because it broke the historic restrictions on the practice of a trade, an evil which Adam Smith had condemned in Wealth of Nations” (p.279).  He granted full emancipation to Germany’s Jews, lifting “[a]ll existing restrictions on civil and national rights which arise from the diversity of religious confessions” (p.279).  And, in “one of his most brilliant and fateful ploys, Bismarck announced in 1863 that the new Germany would have universal manhood suffrage.  He used the people to undermine and tame the German princes, whose power and intransigence he grossly overestimated” (p.474).   


           Bismarck continued to rule the new Germany until 1890, when he fell irreparably out of favor with the new ruling monarch, Wilhelm II, after the death of Wilhelm I in 1888, just short of his 91st birthday, and his son Frederick III, less than 100 days later.  This accident of history “undid Bismarck because he had always depended on royal favour, and favour no longer sustained him” (p.425).  Now Bismarck had to cope with  Wilhelm II, the Kaiser who would lead Germany into World War I, but in 1888 a 29 year old “headstrong young man who from the beginning intended to rule in his own name and not as an agent of the great Bismarck” (p.436).  After Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, Wilhelm II wrote in a private letter that Bismarck’s “lust for power had taken a demonic hold on this great, noble man” (p.450).  In what Steinberg terms an “impotent retirement,” the 75-year-old Bismarck undertook an “absolutely ruthless settlement of grievances” (p.452), which continued until his death in 1898. 


           Bismarck’s personal and family life seem somewhat slighted in this volume.  Steinberg spends some time showing how Bismarck’s wife Johanna was his second or “fall back” choice, after a woman he courted and coveted jilted him.  The relationship between husband Otto and wife Johanna was not warm, Steinberg suggests.  She was ill suited as a spouse in the circles in which Bismarck moved and seemed to remain on the sidelines as Bismarck’s career took off. 


           Steinberg provides detail of one instance involving Bismarck’s son Herbert, in which the father cruelly nixed a potential marriage for the son because of political grudges he held against the families into which the prospective bride’s two sisters had married.  But Steinberg offers this example mostly to illustrate further the dark side of Bismarck’s character.  “Bismarck’s infinite capacity to hate his enemies, indeed anybody who contradicted him, destroyed his eldest son and added to the long list of victims of the distorted and disturbed personality that his genius had allowed to go unchecked” (p.409). 


          Although the picture that the reader gains from this book of the personal side of Bismarck is largely by inference, an egotistical, mercurial, narcissistic figure in public is unlikely to be soft, cuddly and caring in private.  But Steinberg leaves little to inference concerning the public manifestations of Bismarck’s sovereign self, which are covered in rich and illuminating detail in his one-of-a-kind biography. 


Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

September 15, 2013



Filed under Biography, German History, History

6 responses to “Sovereignty of the Self

  1. I would like to add a comment on the sorrowful passing of the man who in many ways was responsible for the evolution of this blog, my dear friend Tom Fagan, who succumbed to cancer earlier this month. It was through my correspondence and interactions with Tom that I began what I still consider the oddest of hobbies, reviewing books and sharing my thoughts with my friends, old and new, actual and virtual.

    Tom was a college friend whom I met early in my freshman year. He hailed from East Lansing, Michigan, less than 90 miles from the Detroit area, where I grew up in. We shared unbounded enthusiasm for Detroit sports teams and the Motor City and its unique music. Tom and I kept in touch after college: he went to law school at the University of Michigan; he practiced law first with a Boston law firm; then, beginning around 1985, moved to Hawaii to join a leading Honolulu firm. While in Hawaii, he also began teaching American government and political science at a local university.

    In 2005, our family visited Tom and his wife Marilyn in Honolulu. It was only then that I became fully aware that Tom was a bibliophile, reading voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction, while practicing law and teaching at the same time. Sometime thereafter, in touch electronically — we were separated by 12 time zones: he was in Hawaii, while I was in Bulgaria — we exchanged lists of books read during the past year. Tom had way more on his list than I had on mine, and he annotated his list, with a brief comment about each, often caustic but always insightful. I was struck by what a good idea it was to write shortly about each book and started doing the same, putting a few sentences, sometimes even a few paragraphs, together on each book I read. I sent them to Tom as I wrote them, he would do the same, with each of us commenting on the comments of the other. Getting responses from Tom was like receiving a grade on a term paper in college – I was elated when he had kind words to say about what I had written, and vowed to do better when he was less laudatory.

    Sometime in this time frame, Tom learned and informed me that Marilyn had ovarian cancer. Throughout the next 2-3 years, as Marilyn valiantly fought her cancer, Tom stepped up his writing to me as a form of diversion. At one point, we even did a “blind exchange,” with each of us writing a review of a book we had both read – Gordon Wood’s “The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History” – exchanging our reviews upon completion, with each critiquing what the other had written. We corresponded on a whole bunch of other subjects and topics, particularly sports and politics: politically, Tom was headed rightward at a time when I was already well inside the lefty zone, but we somehow were able to find common ground.

    Marilyn died in May 2010, and Tom’s writing tailed off, as he looked for other ways to cope with his grief. But we still kept in touch and I continued to write up a little for Tom on each book I read. In early 2011, with Tom’s encouragement, I began posting reviews of books on Facebook. Tom was very active on Facebook, and a friend in every sense of the word for my two daughters. Toward the end of 2011, one of my daughters son Facebook that a blog would be a better vehicle to post reviews. Tom picked up immediately on this thought and seconded it (in Facebook terminology he “liked” it and added a favorable comment). With Tom and both daughters in favor, I had no room to run, no more excuses, and Tomsbooks was born early in 2012.

    Tom was an accomplished writer, profane and acerbic, but with an uncommonly witty style. He was way better equipped than me to be a book reviewer. I never saw him actually teach a class, but I imagine that he was also a superb teacher – he certainly was for me, over the course of nearly 50 years. As long as I write, I am likely to ask myself, with each sentence and paragraph, what would Tom Fagan say?

  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    …and was not very nice to King Ludwig II of Bavaria

  3. Chanh X. Nguyen

    Tom, Nelly and I were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of your long-time friend Tom Fagan and wish to send you and Christine our most sincere condolences. Even if we never met him I read with interest the judicious comments he posted on your blog and am impressed with what you wrote about him.

    • Chanh, thanks for the kind comments. Tom is already missed: fate can be particularly cruel, as it was in his case.

      Thomas H. Peebles
      Regional Director, Central and Eastern Europe
      1331 F Street, N.W., # 650
      Washington, D.C. 20004-1107
      Telephone: 202-514-9310
      Fax: 202-616-6770
      Mobile: 202-436-2226

  4. Chang

    Bismarck came to power with caution and used it with qualified restraint, and was a skillful, if pretty ruthless statesman. But above all, he was the founding father of a mighty modern nation.

  5. Chanh X. Nguyen

    The name was
    Chanh X. Nu yen

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