(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Otto von Bismarck, that towering figure of diplomacy and politics who succeeded in unifying Germany where others before and since have so miserably failed, continues to fascinate historians and the reading public.

During Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, the megalomaniac corporal had history rewritten to give himself the benefit of a political pedigree in which the Iron Chancellor figured very prominently. Many Anglo-American historians and publicists accepted the argument at face value, pronouncing Hitler the logical successor to a Bismarckian tradition of militarism and aggression. Since the ashes of the Third Reich have cooled, historians have taken another look. Though not uncritical of Bismarck and his policies, both West German and Anglo-American historians have noted that if one had to choose between the Germany of Bismarck and the Germany of Hitler, the Bismarckian option was rather attractive. Bismarck could be ruthless in his diplomatic and even military pursuit of an objective, but he did have a sense of limitation, of reality, and indeed even of moral restraint in his policies. He unleashed the military power of his homeland when he saw fit, but only in brief wars for well defined and even modest objectives; the unlimited grasp for world power of World Wars I and II was not on his agenda. He used the heavy hand of the Prussian police state against socialist, Catholic, and Jewish political opponents, but the obscenities of Hitler’s concentration camps and genocidal policy were quite beyond the worst the Junker ever had to offer. In short, Bismarck, in comparison to his successors, seems to have all the earmarks of a wise, moderate, and even great statesman. One might argue about this policy or that, and about the long-run impact of the man and his work, but on the whole, the image of Bismarck has become rather favorable.

Edward Crankshaw’s biography enters this conversation with a graceful but firmly negative statement. To be sure, Crankshaw is no Germanophobe. He does not denounce the Germans as a nation, declaring them hopelessly authoritarian, nor is he constantly searching for the roots of Nazism, seeing the seeds of racist militarism in every assertion of nineteenth century Prussian or German power. He has come to the unshakable conclusion, however, that Bismarck was great only in the misfortunes which he brought upon his people. As an individual he was equally unattractive: deceitful, self-centered, and thoroughly disagreeable. Adjectives such as “unscrupulous,” “overbearing,” “irascible,” “insensitive,” and “disreputable” abound. As a diplomat he was a “schemer of extreme subtlety and deviousness” who was loyal neither to Prussia nor to Germany but only to himself. He was master of Germany, says Crankshaw, but as a genuine leader he failed. The German people, by accepting Bismark’s own myth of his greatness, allowed themselves to be corrupted. Though Bismarck was not directly responsible for the grievous errors of 1914-1918 or the heinous crimes of 1933-1945, argues the author, he bears the major responsibility for creating the Germany which so easily and so resoundingly fell from grace.

Crankshaw has no trouble finding concrete examples from Bismarck’s life and works to support his thesis. While serving as Prussian representative to the German Confederation at Frankfurt early in his career, he “decided that brutal frankness and rudeness pays” even while he showed that he knew how to charm and that he treasured the “delights” of “deviousness.” Later, he would rage at any ambassador who failed to toe the line he had laid down, but for himself a splendid independence was more appropriate. After the defeat of Austria in 1866, Bismarck urged a moderate course on his sovereign, William I, laying the groundwork for reconciliation with the Habsburg monarchy. Most historians praise Bismarck for the wisdom of this policy, but Crankshaw sees this “statesmanlike moderation” only as a “legend.” The most accomplished blackmailers, he cynically avers, are always “moderate in their demands.” The Iron Chancellor’s “real nature” was “savagery undisguised.” In the governing circles of Berlin he...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, December, 1981, p. 92.

Booklist. LXXVIII, October 1, 1981, p. 177.

Encounter. CCLXXXI, November 28, 1981, p. 97.

History Today. XXXII, January, 1982, p. 56.

Library Journal. CVI, November 15, 1981, p. 2234.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, November 19, 1981, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, January 17, 1982, p. 9.

Saturday Review. VIII, November, 1981, p. 82.

Spectator. CCXLVII, November 21, 1981, p. 18.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVIII, November 24, 1981, p. 32.