In a recent post, discussing Adam Goodheart's enthralling 1861 I mentioned that I had studied quite a lot of history but knew very little about the Civil War. What I did not mention is that my concentration in college was in European history and more specifically European diplomatic history. I was particularly fascinated by the Nineteenth Century--the decades leading up to the first World War--a period dominated by the towering figure of Otto von Bismarck, the Minister-President of Prussia and later Chancellor of Germany from 1862-1890, and was therefore naturally drawn to a new biography by Jonathan Steinberg entitled Bismarck: A Life.
Of course the differences abound: Lincoln seems to have progressed on an upward moral arc to reach the position he did about slavery having to be ended in the United States, a crushingly difficult progression since he was also desperately concerned with maintaining — and then restoring — the union. Bismarck on the other hand appears to have had no fixed principles at all beyond the service to his monarch and country. Thus he was an aristocrat who instituted universal suffrage; a monarchist who befriended the leading Socialist of his time; an enemy of socialism who instituted social security, accident insurance and — this is the 1880's! — universal health insurance; an anti-semite (at least by upbringing and instinct) who completed the emancipation of the Jews and maintained close friendships with a number of Jews. He was able to pull off these apparent contradictions because of his powerful intellect and his ability to be able to make use of whatever circumstances may have offered, to turn them to account; this made him the master player in the diplomatic arena, the area of his greatest devotion and concentration.
As Steinberg explains in considerable detail, Bismarck had to make up much of the political process on the job since although there were elected bodies with the trappings of parliaments the actual power rested with the king who had appointed him (Bismarck was never actually up for election) and who appointed all the other ministers as well so that Bismarck never had the luxury of choosing a cabinet of trusted colleagues. To the contrary he believed himself the victim of frequent palace intrigues, largely on the part of the queen and of the crown prince and because he had no independent power base he on the one hand retained vast burdens of dealing with domestic tasks, often of the most routine nature, while on the other using the excuse of real or imagined illnesses as the basis of frequent threats of resignation.
He was never an inspiring orator, but was evidently possessed of an innate ability to charm those around him, especially at meals--he was a big man with an apparently gargantuan appetite. Although Steinberg is occasionally chattier than I think he needs to be, he vividly presents the depth and complexity of this most remarkable character.
I sometimes think that the NIneteenth Century, more than any other time, created outsize figures,much larger than life, who dominated or influenced the world around them in ways that had not been seen before. Thus we see a Tolstoy in literature, a Wagner in music and a Bismarck in public life. None of these people was perfect, far from it, but it is precisely the complexity of their creations that made them to a degree "beyond category". The mold for this sort of person seems to have been lost since nothing of the sort has turned up since: the names most vividly associated with the Twentieth Century are Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, people who stood only for evil.
I thank Jonathan Steinberg for reacquainting me with the colossal outsize figure of Otto von Bismarck; I encourage you to make his acquaintance as well.
— Jeremy Nussbaum