Gold and Iron

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Fritz Stern, Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, is a leading authority on modern German history. His earlier books in this area include The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology and The Failure of Illiberalism: Essays on the Political Culture of Modern Germany. Now, to these impressive works he has added the monumental Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire, the first study of Gerson von Bleichröder, Otto von Bismarck’s personal banker and confidant. Stern spent almost two decades in researching the book, which is based primarily on Bleichröder’s voluminous correspondence with Bismarck and members of his family and with the House of Rothschild in Paris. As the title indicates, the central theme of the book is the joint work of Bismarck and Bleichröder in shaping the destiny of Germany at the moment of its great upsurge of power.

In its overall scope, the book is divided into three areas of concentration. Part One deals with the rise to prominence of Bismarck and Bleichröder and Bleichröder’s role in helping the Prussian statesman bring about the unification of Germany. The second part analyzes their multifaceted collaboration in shaping the domestic, financial, and foreign policies of the new German Empire.

The concluding part deals with the Jewishness of Bleichröder in relation to the Jewish community, to German society and politics, and, above all, to German anti-Semitism. In the last third of the nineteenth century anti-Semitism in Germany and other countries was undergoing a transformation from a passive, “respectable” brand characterized by mere social prejudice toward a clannish group, to a more aggressive type whose proponents demanded curbs on the growing power of the Jews. Ironically, Bleichröder’s very service on behalf of the recently unified Reich combined with his own social prominence and financial prestige contributed immensely to the emergence of this new, more intolerant anti-Semitism.

Bismarck chose Bleichröder as his personal banker in 1859, just three years before his own appointment by King William I as Minister-President of Prussia. By 1864, Bleichröder had become a member of Bismarck’s inner circle of advisers, a prestigious position which he would hold for the next twenty-five years or so. During this period, in which he was often referred to as the German Rothschild, Bleichröder’s responsibilities grew steadily as did his own personal wealth and power. He served Bismarck not only as his personal banker but as his political adviser as well, and all of Europe came to know him as Bismarck’s secret agent. Bleichröder’s numerous financial and political contacts throughout Europe comprised an intelligence network whose effectiveness was frequently superior to the official state intelligence agencies. In particular, he maintained a voluminous correspondence with Baron James de Rothschild, who was head of the Paris Rothschild bank until his death in 1867. Baron James frequently transmitted to Bleichröder valuable information on financial and political matters that touched the delicate and declining relations between France and Prussia during the 1860’s. Bleichröder also used his sources of information on financial matters to build up personal fortunes for himself and Bismarck. Despite the tangle of public and private business between the two protagonists, Stern concludes that Bismarck did not formulate policy in order to advance his private interests.

According to Stern, one of Bleichröder’s most important services to Bismarck was his effort to secure financial backing for the first two wars of German unification; namely, the Danish War of 1864 and the Seven Weeks’ (Austro-Prussian) War of 1866. Together, these wars enabled Bismarck by 1867 to unify the German states north of the Main River under the Prussian-sponsored North German Confederation. Bismarck’s desperate need for money to finance these wars—a need which Stern notes has been totally ignored by later historians—became apparent to him in 1863, when Denmark proclaimed the incorporation of the Duchy of Schleswig, thus severing that territory’s traditional union with the neighboring Duchy of Holstein, itself a member state of the German Confederation. Bismarck intended to go to war if necessary to drive Denmark from Schleswig, but he was unable to secure from the Prussian Diet the necessary funds for military expenditures. Consequently, Stern writes, Bismarck turned to Bleichröder and used his connections—among them, the Rothschild banking houses throughout Europe. Bleichröder did indeed have “connections” with the Rothschilds, but no money was forthcoming from them, for, as Stern quotes Baron James de Rothschild, “it is a principle of our Houses not to advance money for any war.” Stern, furthermore, is vague in describing precisely how Bleichröder went about financing the six-month Danish War while it was being waged. The author’s most concrete reference to Bleichröder’s activities in this regard is that he “seems to have urged that the government mortgage the bonds of a loan, already authorized by the [Prussian] Diet for railroad construction,” to bankers who would supply the government with immediate funds....

(The entire section is 2172 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Central European History. X, June, 1977, p. 165.

Listener. XCVII, June 23, 1977, p. 830.

Times Literary Supplement. August 12, 1977, p. 986.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIII, Summer, 1977, p. 99.