Kissinger on Bismarck

April 13, 2011

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.

20 Responses to “Kissinger on Bismarck”

  1. David Hoopes Says:

    Great post. I always enjoy what you write (ThinkMarkets is one of my favorite blogs).

  2. N. Joseph Potts Says:

    I fear Washington’s “checks and balances,” after an attack begun in earnest by Lincoln 150 years ago, are finally reduced to a pitiful remnant.

    While the good they did lasted longer, and in greater fullness, than any good done by governments of Germany after Bismarck, as institutions, I fear they are far more-ephemeral than the truncheon governance exemplified by Bismarck and the evil times he launched.


  3. In the light of history, the centralization of both the German and Italian states have had unfortunate consequences. Were there net benefits?

    What if each had remained a collection of smaller states? Or federalized in the decentralized way of Switzerland?


  4. […] Posted by ignasi on abril 15, 2011 · Feu un comentari  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 … Read More […]

  5. Pietro M. Says:

    Very interesting post.

    I must admit however that Bismarck’s creation has passed the test of history, while Washington’s hasn’t. This is a fact, not a naturalistic fallacy: I do despise this development, but nonetheless it’s true.

    The centralized interventionist state has quickly degenerated into a bloodshed, but after WWII he got an emasculated libertarian flavor thanks to the doctrine of the Rechtstaat (the continental surrogate of the rule of law), and some limited free trade policies.

    Washington’s creation has become more and more interventionist, centralized, based on legislation, collectivist and lobby-driven in the long run. And now it’s not much different from present day Italy or Germany. There are still differences, surely cultural/moral/ideological (in the US there is an individualist rhetoric that in Europe is week), and probably legal (common law vs civil law), but the tendency is for greater political homogeneity, social-democratic style.

    Centralized unrestricted power is the Nash equilibrium of politics, although the institutional constraint is not binding rigorously and some leeway is possible.

    We are all Bismarckian now.

  6. hsearles Says:

    “In the light of history, the centralization of both the German and Italian states have had unfortunate consequences. Were there net benefits?

    What if each had remained a collection of smaller states? Or federalized in the decentralized way of Switzerland?”
    There is always the argument that both Italy and Germany had remained decentralized princedoms that they would have been vulnerable to foreign domination. Supporting this is Metternich’s desire to have Italy always be only a geographic expression to ensure that Austria would be able to dominate its holdings there.

    However, I myself do not think that to be that convincing of an argument since what is really the difference from being dominated by a foreign empire and being dominated by one’s own native state?

  7. chidemkurdas Says:

    Joseph Potts–
    You raise a huge question. Institutions are subject to entropy, like everything else. Mancur Olson’s explanation, based on the growth of special interest groups, is obviously relevant. Also Robert Higgs on the role of crises in ratcheting up centralized government power– to my mind a very powerful insight. For instance see his article on the role of US foreign policy:
    http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?a=534

  8. chidemkurdas Says:

    Jerry O’Driscoll–
    It’s a great question whether late 19th-century Germany could have gone “the decentralized way of Switzerland”. By then the Swiss model was already well established. But it would not be to the liking of Bismarck.

  9. chidemkurdas Says:

    David Hoopes–
    Thanks. We’re lucky to have smart, well-informed, interested readers. I think ThinkMarkets has some influence, too. Mario Rizzo’s recent post on the legality of the Libya adventure, for example.

  10. chidemkurdas Says:

    Joseph–
    Re the persistence of “the truncheon governance exemplified by Bismarck and the evil times he launched” True, one can’t deny that, but people do resist, as we see in the Mideast. Where it goes, one does not know, but some protests eventually lead to greater freedom.

  11. chidemkurdas Says:

    Pietro M.–
    Re “We are all Bismarckian now.”
    I take your point that there is a tendency to centralized power. If you take that as the equilibrium position, it is surely unstable. There are counter-forces and long-term outcomes are not predetermined.

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    hsearles–
    We do have the example of Switzerland, with centuries of history. It does not look to me like it is under foreign domination, though you may argue that to this day the country engages in a delicate balancing act between larger powers.

  13. David Says:

    Stimulating post, but I don’t think it’s useful to compare the policies of Bismarck and Washington without taking account of their different historical circumstances. Washington lived in a more liberal age than the world of the 1860s, when Bismarck attained power. Bismarck’s Europe was dominated by an often mindless nationalism and he faced the security challenges created by the industrial revolution and a location in the center of Europe. A liberal Germany might well have suffered the fate of Poland.

  14. chidemkurdas Says:

    David,
    It makes an intriguing counter-factual question. Certainly the circumstances were different. But a more liberal and federal Germany would not necessarily be weak.

    As for “A liberal Germany might well have suffered the fate of Poland.” Yes, but a militaristic Germany was a big part — half, anyway — of Poland’s problem. Bismarck’s legacy was a threat to other countries. A different path for Germany implies a different environment in Europe at large.

  15. hsearles Says:

    “We do have the example of Switzerland, with centuries of history. It does not look to me like it is under foreign domination, though you may argue that to this day the country engages in a delicate balancing act between larger powers.”
    There is not only that counter argument but also the argument that Switzerland also has little value for any would-be conqueror to want to conqueror it. Switzerland would also be quite a difficult country to actually seize because of its terrain and because of its militia.

    Germany, on the other hand, is in the center of Europe so it will always be forced either to unify and arm itself against possible threats or face the dire consequences. This was very much in the German culture at the time and one must take into account the effect that the Napoleanic Wars and fears of French annexation of German-speaking territories had on the course of German nationalist in the next century a la Die Wacht am Rhein

    Despite this, I do not think that Germany would have faced the fate of Poland if it did not unify in the manner that it did. The reason for this is that the partition of Poland was very much a perfect storm of sorts in which a weak nation was surrounded by three powerful ones all of which had the intersecting interests of consuming more of Poland even though it made for some stronger neighbors.

  16. Pietro M. Says:

    Chidem Kurdas:

    “As for “A liberal Germany might well have suffered the fate of Poland.” Yes, but a militaristic Germany was a big part — half, anyway — of Poland’s problem. Bismarck’s legacy was a threat to other countries. A different path for Germany implies a different environment in Europe at large”

    I think that’s the problem. A non-militaristic Germany is threatened by nearby militaristic countries. A militaristic Germany is a threat to nearby countries, militaristic or not. The dominant strategy is to be militaristic: it’s a prisoner’s dilemma.

    Thucydides wrote 2,500 years ago that wars are made for interest, honor and fear. The building of international social capital can make combat-readiness more compatible with trust by part of nearby countries, so that countries capable of effective self-defense can be considered relatively harmless by neighbors.

    This is only possible if people stick to prespecified rules: it’s not possible under pacifism, because countries must cooperate to punish deviant behavior, and it’s not possible under lack of commitment to rules (the Achilles’s heel of political realism) because no international trust can ensue if all short-term benefits are systematically pursued as a matter of principle.

    Although I see that the cultural crisis of classical liberalism has opened the way to the XX century bloodsheds, the task of obtaining a workable international system is daunting. Any system is fragile, and the working of the system as a whole depends on the ideas which are dominant in each single constituent country.

    Germany by itself can do little to ensure a classical liberal system if the cost is excessive, although it can do a great deal of harm in destroying it (as it did), and if it has sufficient might to create such a system, it has probably also sufficient might to benefit from the exercise of absolute power.

    Is there any analysis of international relations which is based on realistic assumptions and not on idealism or wishful thinking? I would think Leeson’s pirates arguments, mixed with some public choice, could form such an analytical framework, but the use of force must be given a key weight in the analysis, and libertarians are usually reluctant to follow this line of thought.


  17. “Germany” is not Germania. For 1000 years, this was a variegated cultural space. Like classical Helliades – which extended from the Crimea to Spain, from the Nile to Nice – Germania included the “Dutch” and the “Donauschwaben.” Its attractions for arts and sciences were rooted in its diversities.

    The decline of cultures is complex; many causes and factors interplay. Bismark was an event in a tapestry that included both Kantian rationalism and the loss of talent to America.

    What is more depressing than the Untergang des Deutschenlandes is the revealed militarism and nationalism that permeates the political Right, even among people who claim to “think markets.” In Harry Browne’s Monetary Crisis is a fantasy visit to “Rheingold” a truly capitalist place invaded by different armies whose officers always wear ornaments of fake silver. It is worth a read.

  18. chidemkurdas Says:

    Pieto M.-
    Re international trust “it’s not possible under lack of commitment to rules (the Achilles’s heel of political realism) because no international trust can ensue if all short-term benefits are systematically pursued”
    Good point. Washington in effect advocated a simple rule for the US and everybody else– cooperate for commerce and other economic activities, otherwise stay out.


  19. @Pietro M,

    Good questions, all.

    How did we get liberalism in the 19th century? Did not governments adopt free trade, the gold standard and free capital movements out of self-interest? Peoples moved freely w/o passports (except in Russia and Turkey).

    Switzerland had a strong military, at least sufficient for its own defense,but was not militaristic. Before Germany, there was Prussia. Prussia was expansionist and hence had to be militaristic. I can’t buy Bismarkian policies as defensive.

    The problem was German unification. That created a threat to Germany’s neighbors. I’ll let you tell use about the consequences of Italian nationalism and expansionism.

  20. Pietro M. Says:

    I think that the XIX century’s relative peaceful coexistense of nation-states has been the result of concomitant factors.

    One was surely a general adoption of classical liberal policies, which minimize the risk of beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

    Another one was the balance of power: there were no states capable of defeating the rest of Europe by themselves, and coalitions were elastic and not rigid (Kissinger wrote a book on this, I think it’s “Diplomacy” in english).

    This was not true after the French revolution: the collectivist and chauvinist ideology of the French, combined with the military genius of Napoleon and the deadly might generated by universal conscription conspired for a Europe ruled by the French. The stench of baguette would have arrived up to the Urals.😀

    But France was finally defeated and no one was big enough to keep its place as troublemaker.

    Then came Germany, which was stupid enough to wage war against the whole war at once, but also powerful enough to be really able to become a dominant power in Europe.

    In the XX century that potential role was taken by Russia, but Europe remained free thanks of the US armed forces.

    Balance of power is usually a coincidence. It takes a “competitive” international order with many small states, and a commitment to form coalitions against aggressors.

    Most of the classical liberal prescriptions on a viable international order are sound: protectionism increases the benefits of aggression, & co. But they are fragile: when my neighbor calls for a levee en masse, it’s already too late.


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