by Chidem Kurdas
A man described as both great and evil, Otto von Bismarck-Schönhausen makes a fascinating study, as Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A Life demonstrates. Henry Kissinger reviewed this biography in the New York Times Book Review, highlighting the diplomatic and political victories the unifier of Germany won through nimble maneuvers.
The review is a bravura tribute from one practitioner of realpolitik to another. Yet a closer look at Bismarck raises doubts as to realpolitik.
While admiring Bismarck’s subtle power games, Mr. Kissinger admits that the result lacked institutional balance and “sowed the seeds of Germany’s 20th century tragedies.” But he takes issue with the connection Mr. Steinberg draws from Bismarck to Hitler. Kissinger points to the contrast between the two characters. “Bismarck was a rationalist, Hitler a romantic nihilist,” he writes. “Hitler left a vacuum. Bismarck left a state strong enough to overcome catastrophic defeats …”
Nevertheless, Bismarck’s actions led to those catastrophes. Free of principle, ideology, moral scruple or even a minimal sense of honesty, he was the great manipulator. He created war hysteria to take Germans into battles they were not originally inclined to fight. He destroyed checks and balances every way he could. When parliament opposed a looming military adventure, he told the House: “Let me assure you and also the world, that if we find it necessary to carry on a war we shall do so with or without your consent.” To control those who did not consent, he built a police state.
Bismarck perfected the model of untrammeled executive power behind a façade of popular support. Many of his policies were revolutionary for the time. He granted universal (male) suffrage, correctly calculating that he could manipulate the masses. He pioneered programs that resembled Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. He turned protectionist when it became convenient to restrict trade. Meanwhile, his police bullied and imprisoned critics.
He took aspects of mid-19th century Prussia – militarism, monarchy, authoritarianism – and used them to forge a centralized state out of small princedoms. The best that could be said about his handiwork is that it was determined by what he inherited—an example of path dependence. The rationalist that he was, he found a feasible way to cobble together the disparate German states.
Kissinger refers to Bismarck’s saying on statesmanship—-that one listens carefully to the footsteps of God through history and walks with him a few steps of the way. Karl Marx expressed a similar idea: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”
Bismarck, however, was one of those exceedingly rare figures who officiate at a crossroads. He chose to make history using certain institutions while destroying others. The Germany he fashioned, a blend of military might with economic protectionism and a welfare system, was less of a civil society and less classically liberal than it had been. Later it developed strident left and right movements favoring a large, all-powerful state—the left for collectivist economic policies, the right for military success. Both visions contained components of Bismarck’s legacy.
Let’s compare him to another nation builder. George Washington certainly had a realistic understanding of people and circumstances, but his politics was based on principles entirely lacking in Bismarck’s mindset. For Washington, government was a means to an end, and a dangerous means at that. It had to be subject to controls.
“It will at least be a recommendation to the proposed Constitution that it is provided with more checks and barriers against the introduction of tyranny, & those of a nature less liable to be surmounted, than any government hitherto instituted among mortals,” he wrote to Lafayette.
Bismarck did not reason that way. His government was the master, not the servant. Policies and programs were there to make sure people obeyed this master. The only checks were his personal authority and guidance. He was astute, but under others—well, we know the history. His realpolitik lasted only as long as his own power, whereas the “checks and barriers” Washington favored lasted for centuries.
One could take this as proof that Washington had the better, more realistic, longer-term realpolitik. But by all evidence Washington was impelled by a sincere desire to avoid tyranny. That’s idealism, and its success outshines Bismarck-style machinations.