The Failure That Became Bismark: The Limits of Machiavelli

Arnold Toynbee once remarked that the problem with intellectuals was their intrinsic need to only illustrate, not fix the dominate ideas that ruled their profession.  For decades I have been exposed to two false ideas that have dominated academia.  Namely that Charles de Gaulle and Bismark were the greatest Statesmen since Napoleon!

All three men were abject political failures!

Jonathan Steinberg has written a wonderful read in ‘Bismark:  A Life’ published by OUP (Oxford University Press 2011.)  I recommend it to anyone who wishes to understand just how PROSTRATE Germany was made for the arrival of Adolf Hitler.  Jonathan Steinberg’s grasp of the significance of Bismark is remarkably personal in its range and depth of sources.  He writes that Bismark was ‘tall, broad shouldered and impressive but with a certain casualness in stance, movement and speech that retained something provocative. His conversation alone was similar to a rapier.’  Anyone who has a grasp of such personalism is truly a gifted writer.

Just how do academics justify placing Bismark as a great Statesman?  Especially given the aftermath of a militant Teutonic State that was Nazi Germany?

Bismark’s greatest achievement as a statesman was to overcome the international and domestic forces (ideas) that conspired against unification of Germany.  They were:  a dominant Russian, French confederation, Austrian obstruction, quarrelsome middle-states in the Germanic interior and Prussian traditionalism.  All conspired around a single vortex.  The issue was the question of who had the right to determine the Army’s character.  This was the crisis Bismark was brought into government service to resolve.  Remember, Bismark was never elected let alone a popular tribune but a royal appointee.

Bismark immediately saw that the key to solving the crisis was no longer to secure a deal between parliament and Crown, but rather to eliminate all possible rivals for the King’s confidence!

Who does this remind one of?

In pursuing such tactical maneuvering, Bismark deployed the skills of realpolitik as enumerated by Machiavelli.  This cold pragmatism was ceaselessly at work in both his personal relations and his diplomacy as head of State.  He ruled ruthlessly for 28 years before being forced into retirement.

In developing and pursuing such Machiavellian means, Bismark completely transformed the face of Germany into a prostrate craven nation fit for enslavement that became social Darwinism under Hitler.  How else to put it:  his utterly cynical manipulation of democracy and elections completely poisoned Germany’s political economy for decades.

Jonathan Steinberg reveals that as he sat down to write this biography he wanted to explain how Bismark exercised his personal power.  Being born into a marginalized family with feudal trappings never quite contained his drive.  For most of his early life he complained that all he ever could aspire to was field drainage and bog cultivation.  His break came with the arrival of Revolutionary ethos that was 1848.

Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm IV needed someone to manage the growing mob discontent that ravaged most German estates.  Bismarks social acquaintances with key conservatives got him in through the gate where he unleashed his genius upon the King.

Just how did he overcome provincial obscurity and a bad marriage?  He learned to cope with instability by courting it.

From the very beginning he understood that social discontent and conflict stirred provocative political overtures that were more clarifying and enabling than the conditions that permeated stability.  Ostensible harmony could not engage the zietgeist, irritants stimulated creative responses.  It is in such a milieu that we finally engage a counter-intuitive, insolent confidence in absolute monarchy.  The only drawback was that most Germanic conservatives being secure in their principals made no effort to understand opposition.  Bismark, with no fixed principals tied to a petty, vindictive temperament delighted in bribing, seducing and contaminating his opponents.  Being remarkable absent from ideological constraints gave him the required freedom to rule openly.  Sadly such personal success irritated King Wilhelm to the point where his relationship with Bismark became a study in codependency.

His strategy?  Put Prussia on the road to dominating the social forces toward a unified Germany!

He succeeded, but only at a great personal cost to both Germany,  his health and the quality of his family relations.  The real cost of his rule was borne by German political culture itself for the administrative and political tiers were dominated by craven servility, a fine incubator that birthed Nazi Germany!

Bismark’s towering pre-eminense ultimately became a liability for the future of Germany.  When he left office after 28 years of service, the servility of the German people had been cemented.  This blind obedience only increased the drive to ignore the requirement that became of great cultures:  self determination!  Instead, a prostrate Teutonic culture enjoined itself to an even more ruthless mechanized idea that became social Darwinism.

Lincoln understood in his fight with Stephen Douglas that great leaders assist in the arduous task that is self determination.  Bismark failed miserably in assisting Germany to articulate itself in her battle with both domestic and international foes.  Bismark was a martinet unfit for the titanic political challenge that became a tragic Germany under Hitler.

In Him we witness an extraordinary failure of the limits of Machiavelli.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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