The House that Bismarck Built

By Daniel Stratford

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It is rare when history is graced by figures of so titanic a presence that it seems to reshape itself in anticipation. Names like George Washington, Cardinal Richelieu, Julius Caesar and Charlemagne are ones to which the mind readily repairs in this regard. However great these men may have been in their own right, and no matter how much destiny seemed to have favored them from an early age, it takes the effort of a nation to build a nation – an effort in which the heavy burdens are, more often than not, shouldered by statesmen and diplomats of tremendous character and motivation.

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There do, however, emerge from time to time examples of figures possessed of such adroitness that they straddle the line between the mundane diplomat and the magnificent national hero, and embrace a dual identity of diplomatic work-horse and hagiographic show-horse. Few in history proved quite as adept at embracing these dual identities as Prince Otto von Bismarck, the former prime minister of Prussia and the first chancellor of the German Empire.

Bismarck was something of an anomaly: Despite his noble birth to a Prussian Junker family, he did not initially embark upon a career in the military, as per the ambition of many men of his social status. Bismarck’s real interest lay in the world of diplomatic derring-do, which was only nurtured by his rich and multifarious education. It also afforded him the wisdom to recognize martial matters as being, in the words of fellow Prussian Carl von Clausewitz, a “… continuation of politics by other means.” This nuanced conception of the inner workings of statecraft – one nursed by time, experience and education – would permit him to reap diplomatic dividends in the future.

However, Bismarck was nothing if not an ideological chameleon, a condition begotten by a long and fascinating intellectual development. In his youth he was a royalist and Prussian regionalist, asserting in his autobiography that, for him, nationalist sentiment “… remained in the stage of theoretical reflections, and were not strong enough to extirpate [his] innate Prussian monarchical sentiments.” He was, unsurprisingly, a visceral opponent of the Revolutions of 1848, by which the German lands were disproportionately beset. However, when he was appointed to the Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt-am-Mein, he bore witness to a swarming multitude of competing German states, which forced an expansion of his world view.

Though the Diet did not become the de-jure legislature of a unified Germany, its mere presence was enough to sow the seeds of inspiration in the minds of many Germans, including that of a young Bismarck. Bismarck, however, was just as attuned to the failings of the Diet as to its successes, and, when prime minister of Prussia, was keen to apply equal parts force and diplomacy to affect the final unification of Germany when it came in 1871. Though the unification was achieved through a combination of wars against Austria-Hungary and France and through diplomatic intrigue, its swiftness and relative bloodlessness was due in large part to Bismarck’s recognition of the complimentary nature of war and peace. Specifically, Bismarck realized that it is always more advantageous to arrive at the bargaining table in the wake of a spectacular victory, with the winds of history at one’s back.

However, the glory of imperial unification is short-lived unless a way is found to adjudicate domestic matters with probity and to maintain an external balance of power that is favorable to stability and growth. In the role of prudential manager, Bismarck excelled: The Constitution of the German Empire was single-handedly authored by him, which granted universal male suffrage to the German populace. Despite his arch-conservative allegiances and his utter contempt for socialists, he was the progenitor of prototypical accident insurance, social security and worker’s compensation programs that served as the model for the modern social safety net. Though his opponents decried these attempts at social reform as being nothing more than political chicanery designed to divide and subvert the German working class, the sense of a collective German consciousness that they created is beyond reproach. It is not due to some unnatural sorcery that the unification of Germany and Bismarck’s subsequent social and political reforms coincided with a decline in emigration from Germany, which had been rampant in years prior due to war, famine and other assorted tribulations.

Bismarck’s post-Unification foreign policy was undertaken with a similar clarity of mind and aversion to braggadocio. Stability, and not necessarily the preservation of monarchy for its own sake, was his chief priority: Consequently, he kept good terms with as many powers of Europe as possible, including a crucial working relationship with the Russian Empire, regardless of what form of government they called their own. Concurrently, he isolated powers that he found disagreeable or otherwise subversive, most notably France, to German interests. It was through this shrewd and masterful balancing act that Europe avoided war for the better part of four decades and why, some argue, World War I could have been avoided entirely had Bismarck retained the chancellorship for just a few years longer.

After digesting information of such nuanced immensity, the humble reader will be all too tempted to ask, “Why?” Why study a long-dead German chancellor who exists only as a paragon for diplomats and a visage in the dreams of history professors? Many will surely spurn the subject with a listless contempt, but men and women will appreciate Bismarck as being the first truly modern diplomat, and for his ability, in the words of a venerable proverb, to “see the forest for the trees.” His diplomatic temperance in the latter 19th century should serve as an inspiration to the dogged leader in us all. In a contemporary world torn asunder by domestic partisanship, international strife and wanton, bellicose cries for war, the example of a prescient leader who can drive the stake of stability through the heart of chaos is one to which we can all repair.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]