Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Method to His Madness: The Legacy of Bismarck in the New Age of Mass Politics

            Bismarck was a figure of many contradictions who often did the unexpected.  He was the powerful, and seemingly unpredictable, architect of immense changes in a state that didn’t exist when he became prime minister of Prussia in 1862, and he helped forge a working unity among 39 separate kingdoms.  Bismarck was a man who promised to rule by “iron and blood,” not by any dithering parliament; but, in practice, he was capable of extraordinary political concessions.  Bismarck was able to revolutionize the German state without having, or wanting, a political revolution.  The two main agenda items of Otto von Bismarck’s political plan from 1862 to 1890 were to unite Germany under Prussian leadership, and to maintain his own grip on power as chancellor at all costs.  He was open to multiple and seemingly contradictory means of meeting his twofold agenda, and the key to his entire program was foreign policy.  He wanted to provoke a showdown with Austria, while maintaining alliances with France and Russia.(1)  In essence, he wanted to violate the spirit of the 1815 Vienna settlement’s “concert of Europe” without anyone noticing that he had broken its law.  He was able to create a “big Germany” led by Prussia, not Austria.  Yet in doing so, he would stray far from his political origins as a Junker.  Bismarck was a political opportunist who had a pragmatic vision for German unification; the precise details of the actual plan would come to him along the way while playing chess with the rest of Europe.
Bismarck was appointed prime minister at a time of constitutional crisis in 1862.  At this point in his political career, he was not wedded to a particular method of uniting Germany: “In fact Bismarck was faced with almost insuperable problems during the years 1862-66 and he could only feel his way to solutions, keeping as many options open as possible.”(2)  In general terms, he wanted Prussian influence to supersede that of Catholic Austria; he also feared a liberal Germany that would be too democratic, along the lines of France and Great Britain.  Having watched the fiasco of the Frankfurt Assembly, Bismarck did not like, or trust, a parliament, and he had to deal with a liberal majority in parliament from the beginning with the crisis over army reform.  So he would have to win over the liberals in order to succeed.  He accomplished this with his international schemes, a rapid succession of military victories, without provoking the major war that would upset the balance of power.  Through his international plans, he was able to overcome the divisions within Germany and to work with, or rather to manipulate, the political institutions that were separate from the crown.  Bismarck’s successes worked together with economic progress in the markets of the Zollverein: “Bismarck hoped that this economic alliance, however loose, would in the future expedite the political unification of the German states.”(3)  With Bismarck at the helm, a vision of German unification was being forged militarily, politically, and economically. 
From 1862-66, Bismarck ruled illegally, without a constitution.  The prime minister was unable to initiate any new taxation, but the government still collected taxes.  Bismarck ignored the Prussian parliament for as long as he could, then played them to his side through his foreign intrigues.  He was able to pick a fight with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein; this led to a quick defeat of Denmark with Austria-Hungary ironically at his side.  The same regions would then be used to provoke the war with Austria itself--the real heart of Bismarck’s plan for German unification.  His international machinations necessitated political concessions, and the formerly reactionary Bismarck was willing to make them to guarantee an Austrian defeat: “Hoping to win the support of the other German states, Bismarck sent a plan of reform to the Diet, calling for the establishment of a national parliament to be elected by universal male suffrage.”(3)  Bismarck’s means to the end of German unification would require him to change his own political stripes along the way, and the parliament voted to give him the money to run the government after the fact.  His approach seemed unpredictable because he was working on the international and domestic fronts simultaneously, and winning was more important than any Junker ideology.  The war was over in six weeks, and Bismarck was moderate in his peace with Austria.  He kept his fellow Prussians, who wanted to proceed to Vienna, on the short leash after the quick victory.  Moreover, he was able to keep France, Russia, and Great Britain on the sidelines:
“The war had achieved no less and—equally important for Bismarck—no more than he had intended…The Austro-Prussian War was a landmark in the history of several states.  It was a sharp blow to French power and to Napoleon’s prestige…It completed the north Italian kingdom and brought Italian unification one step closer.  It helped to bring about the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867.  None of these consequences embarrassed Bismarck.  The pieces on the European chessboard remained as he wanted them.”(4)

 Bismarck’s vision of a united Germany had become a fact in the German imagination. 
The stunning and swift defeat of France in 1870-71 showed, once again, Bismarck’s ability to play power politics, and to win against all other players, though he was not the moderate peacemaker he had been with Austria as he took Alsace-Lorraine from the French.  He seemed to be at least one step ahead of everyone else as he deftly eliminated Great Britain as France’s ally by sharing French secrets with the British.  By 1871, Bismarck’s master plan had fallen into place with a united Germany in the image of Prussia.  Now the challenge was for Bismarck to maintain his power, and this too would require compromise, conquest, and misdirection—this time at home.  He showed the same ruthless ability to play German political parties off against each other, just as he had done on the international stage with countries.
In the new unified Germany, the Reichtag’s control of budget, taxation, and the right of interpellation were all potential obstacles to Bismarck maintenance of power as the chancellor had come to enjoy it.  Bismarck didn’t want to have to explain his actions to anyone, nor did he want a strong, effective parliamentary body to check his executive power.  He had many political parties with which to contend, and Bismarck played them off against each other to get what he wanted.  He also made the most of assassination attempts against himself and the emperor to attack the Catholics, and then the Socialists.  Bismarck used anti-Catholic legislation to consolidate his own position, then used a coalition with the Catholics to attack the Socialists.  Only a true cynic wouldn’t be confused by his methods.  He used bogus issues simply for their ocular, visceral effects on German voters, but what was going on behind the scenes was harder to determine.  He used the desire for protective tariffs to create a governing coalition, but what he really thought about the issue was unclear.  His socialist programs in 1880 made everyone scratch their heads as Bismarck gave German workers social security, along with accident and old age insurance.  Was he trying to work with the Socialists or make them completely obsolete?  He made the German workers feel that they were part of a great collective state, one that was working for them, and with them.  Though he fostered a distrust of democracy in Germany, his career produced a strong state that took care of its citizens: “Paradoxically, however, he did create a German state with a very modern infrastructure.  Its bureaucracy, industry, educational and state welfare systems were the envy of Edwardian England.”(5)
Bismarck always showed an ability to think outside the box, both internationally and domestically.  He began alliances with France and Russia, at the same time, achieving a balance of power between antagonists, and always seeking the threesome among the five major powers of Europe.  Bismarck’s Germany was in the center of European politics, and no one could act without Germany—that is, without Bismarck.  He was also visionary when it came to imperialism, and Germany was largely immune to the cost and dangers of having an empire abroad.    
Otto von Bismarck should really not look so strange to a contemporary audience.  He was the modern politician in its first incarnation, flirting with dictatorship--a masterful trickster in the advent of a nation that distrusted democracy from the beginning.  Why did the constitutional powers of Germany yield so much to Bismarck?  The political revolution did not come to Germany in the nineteenth century, and the German comfort with an authoritarian state was much different from other European nations, with the exception of Russia.  The problems that came to Germany in the 1890s, and particularly in the 20th century, had as much to do with the incompetence of the mentally challenged William II than with Bismarck leaving the state unprepared, and politically undeveloped, which it certainly was.  Max Weber argued rightly that there was a better way to secure his legacy and the future of Germany, but the anti-democratic tendency was much bigger than Bismarck.  
The political leaders at the end of the nineteenth century were all struggling with how to succeed, or simply to survive the day, in an age of mass politics.  Benjamin Disreali, Napoleon III, and Bismarck have much in common as a result, and they were all figures of some contradiction.  Things were not what they seemed to be in their governments.  Benjamin Disraeli disabused many of the assumption that politics and morality went together, as his archrival William Gladstone believed.  But Disraeli was a conservative who understood that some political reform was necessary, even inevitable.  He understood the necessity of attracting voters, even though he wasn’t particularly interested in their actual needs.  Winning was more important than doing the right thing, and Disraeli’s ocular issue for the masses was the British Empire itself, just as Bismarck’s military victories kept his political enemies at bay.  Political parties changed how they all behaved; crafting a governing coalition required a cunning sense of compromise, mass deception, and party loyalty.  Napoleon III also began as a reactionary, but he worked to strengthen parliament and to break down the left-right squabbles of French history.  All three leaders tried to work between the extremes of left and right—the reactionary and revolutionary elements in their countries, while maintaining their own political position at the same time.  Foreign policy could either preserve their power or send them into exile.  But fundamental questions about the present and the future were never asked in England, France, and Germany.  Was this the result of democracy or its failure?  It was some of both.  Democratic government and the rise of mass politics seemed to necessitate deception, misdirection, and disguise among the leaders of the time, and Bismarck was the master of them all. 

End Notes
  1. David Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), p. 282.

  1. D.G. Williamson, Bismarck and Germany 1862-1980 (London, New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1986, 1998), p. 8.

  1. John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe: From the French Revolution to the Present (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004, 1996), p. 727.

  1. Merriman, p. 729.

  1. Thomson, pgs. 286-87.
    6.   Williamson, p. 91.

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