Molder of a Modern Nation-State

Three-volume study of Bismarck reveals the Realpolitik of 19th-century German unification

AS the reunification of Germany consolidates, a biography of the man who engineered German unification in the first place is particularly timely. And so impressive were the achievements of Prince Otto von Bismarck that a biography of the man is perforce a history of 19th-century Germany as well. Otto Pflanze's masterly three-volume study illumines the life of the man of ``blood and iron'' as well as the interplay of social, economic, and political forces that transformed Germany from a late feudal society into a modern nation-state.

This set of books is a meaty, substantial work, providing much food for thought. It abounds with any number of single sentences that could have been expanded into an entire essay. The author has some interesting asides on the role of the physical infrastructure as an agent of national unity, for instance: Whereas France and England inherited road systems from the ancient Romans, and were tied together by their respective river systems, not only did Germany lack Roman roads, but its rivers also tended to function as agents of dispersal, flowing away from the center. Hence the importance of railroads as unifiers of modern Germany.

The 20th-century image of Germany has been of a powerful, militaristic country that needed to be kept under control somehow; even the peaceful, democratic Germany of today is seen to need ``anchoring'' within the European Community and NATO. But Pflanze shows 19th-century Germany as a collection of small states adrift within central Europe, subject to being overrun by hostile military powers on all sides. Unification of those states - particularly the northern, Protestant ones, of whose loyalty to a Protestant Prussian monarch Bismarck was more confident than he was of that of the Catholic states to the south - was key to the freedom and independence of the German nation in the general balance of European power.

Bismarck was not a chancellor in the sense that Helmut Kohl is chancellor of Germany today - that is, as the leader of the majority party of a parliament. He was the king's man, and later the kaiser's, after he had transformed the North German Confederation into the German Reich. Bismarck regarded parliaments as necessary evils, and wasn't keen on sharing decisionmaking powers with even his cabinet.

But what Bismarck had in common with a later generation of German politicians was a tendency toward Realpolitik, rather than ideology. To those who complained that he had no set principles of politics, he countered that they were wrong to conceive of politics as an exact science: ``Politics is neither arithmetic nor mathematics. To be sure, one has to reckon with given and unknown factors, but there are no rules and formulas with which to sum up the results in advance.''

He was successful at politics - at co-opting the issues of the other side, of splitting opposition coalitions - all intrigues carefully detailed by Pflanze. But the popular politics of the campaign trail, of horse-trading, of you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours, wasn't what interested him. The channels through which he communicated were speeches in parliament and articles (including leaks and planted rumors) in newspapers. He didn't have to contend with mass audiences, let alone the demand for nine-second sound bites. Politicians in a democratic society generally convey the impression that they like other people; Bismarck could be personally charming, but an affable glad-hander he was not.

The popular nationalism of 19th-century Germany wasn't his interest either, but it was a horse he could ride toward his goal of national unification. When Wilhelm I was proclaimed emperor at Versailles on Jan. 18, 1871, Bismarck had accomplished the union of three traditions: Hohenzollern authoritarianism, Prussian militarism, and German nationalism.

In the final analysis, he was what the epitaph on his tomb said he was, ``A loyal German servant of Kaiser Wilhelm I.'' His basic concept of his role was as a vassal of the king.

As Pflanze notes, much of Bismarck's work had come undone within 50 years of his death: The constitution that he had written was scrapped and replaced, Germany was divided again.

Ironically, his most lasting contribution was his program of social insurance, which not only survived in Germany but also was exported, notably to Britain and the United States. Yet that program, which he developed in an attempt to woo the working class away from first the liberals and later the social democrats toward greater loyalty to the benevolent emperor, he deemed a failure because it didn't serve his specific political purpose - never mind what substantive success it may have had.

Max Weber, writing in 1918, complained that Bismarck's three decades of dominance on the German scene had crimped the development of Germany's political culture. He was a heroic figure, and one remembers Brecht's line, ``Pity the people that need heroes.'' (Tocqueville, contrariwise, considered it a great strength of the American system, set up as it was by geniuses like the Founding Fathers, that it was able to survive the mediocre politicians on the scene half a century later.)

But Pflanze argues that what is so often seen as a failure of German liberalism at several key points during the 19th century ought to be seen as a triumph of German conservatism instead. ``Repeatedly - 1819, 1848, 1866 - history reached a turning point and failed to turn. The authoritarian state survived when it should have expired.''

Bismarck's contribution, as Pflanze sees it, ``was the last, and for a very good reason. His revolution exhausted the possibilities of compromise. Any further democratization of the social and political order would have broken the power of the enlarged Prussian-German establishment, liquidating residual feudal institutions and traditions and, conceivably, endangering the capitalistic system that had become feudalism's partner in the serious game of survival. The establishment had run out of options.''

The work has a few shortcomings. Anyone lacking considerable background in the period will have to do some cross-checking with other sources in order to follow every turn of the narrative. The cast of characters is immense, vastly longer than that of a Russian novel; the index, though somewhat helpful at tracking figures who pop up during the text, could be more detailed, and the initial identifications in the text could be more complete to help the nonspecialist.

A few more maps would be helpful and perhaps some charts to indicate the relationships of the various parliamentary bodies to one another, and of the Reich to Prussia. The photographs and contemporary political cartoons are a welcome addition.

In an era of ``as told to'' history relying heavily on the tape recorder, this is a particularly satisfying demonstration of scholarship.

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