Bismarck: a Life

Otto von Bismarck was the most powerful figure in European politics between Napoleon and Lenin, and did less harm than either of them. Under his leadership, in 1871, German unification was achieved following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war. "The war represents the German revolution," Disraeli presciently told the House of Commons the same year, "a greater political event than the French Revolution of last century. The balance of power has been entirely destroyed, and the country which suffers most, and feels the effects of this great change most, is England."

Germany would probably have achieved unification in some form even without Bismarck. What Bismarck did was to ensure that the German revolution was contained. Acting in the spirit of Goethe's aphorism that genius lies in limitation, he sought to maintain rather than expand the German empire. After 1871, he tried to create a new equilibrium in Europe through a complex system of alliances that kept the peace for a generation. Had he been Reich chancellor in 1914, war might well have been avoided. But his alliance system was so complex that no one else was skilful enough to operate it. Bismarck's successors - the Kaiser and Hitler - lacked both his diplomatic finesse and his moderation. Between them, they destroyed his legacy.

Bismarck sought equilibrium at home as well as abroad, calling upon the masses through universal male suffrage to undermine his liberal opponents. Like Napoleon III, he showed that democracy could be tamed by enlisting the people on the side of the established order. Like Disraeli, he believed that a mass electorate might prove a stronger buttress of the established order than the landed aristocracy had ever been. Bismarck campaigned against both Catholics and socialists, whom he attacked as Reichsfeinde - enemies of the empire. But he stole their social policies, introducing the world's first system of old-age pensions and health insurance. Here, too, he turned the weapons of his opponents against them.
As Jonathan Steinberg points out, Bismarck has attracted numerous biographers - Erich Eyck, an old-fashioned German liberal; A J P Taylor, an equally old-fashioned English radical and socialist; an American, Otto Pflanze, who wrote a three-volume biography; and a German scholar, Lothar Gall, who produced a two-volume biography and labelled him a white revolutionary.

Does Steinberg have anything to add? Bismarck: a Life is primarily a work of interpretation rather than original research and there is more in it on Bismarck's personality than on his policies; more on his malice, gluttony and hypochondria than on the Reinsurance Treaty or the Gastein Convention. There is some psychoanalytical speculation about the effects on Bismarck of his distant relationship with his cold and unfeeling mother, but this amounts to little more than guesswork. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully written book that provides a stimulating and enjoyable introduction to the history of modern Europe.

A historiographical question that Steinberg does not seek to avoid is whether there was an affinity between Bismarck and Hitler - between the 19th century's most successful conservative and the 20th century's most destructive revolutionary. In 1918, Max Weber wrote that Bismarck had "left a nation totally without political education - totally bereft of political will, accustomed to expect that the great man at the top would provide their politics for them". That was the environment that allowed the learned classes in Germany to acquiesce in Hitler's crimes.

German conservatives in the early 1930s, in one of the great misjudgements of modern times, believed that Hitler was a second Bismarck who would use mass support to preserve their privileges and make Germany a great power again. Steinberg perceives, therefore, a "linear and direct" link between Bismarck and Hitler. But that surely is an exaggeration. Bismarck's mission was always a limited one: to preserve the empire that was, as he put it, a satiated state. By contrast, Hitler's plans for Lebensraum did not allow for limitation.

Of Bismarck's handiwork, little remains. German politics today is dominated by the parties of the Reichsfeinde - the largely Catholic CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union) and the SPD, the social democrats, who have governed the federal republic quietly and peacefully for over 60 years. The Bismarckian idea of a Germany that holds the balance between east and west has been superseded by a Germany firmly anchored inside the European Union, an idea for which Bismarck had little time.

The word "Europe" was, he said, usually heard from "those politicians who demanded from other powers what they in their own name dare not request". When asked to mediate between Germany and France in 1870 in the name of Europe, Beust, the minister-president of Saxony, replied: "I cannot see Europe any more."

Today the stability of Europe depends not on Bismarckian legerdemain, but on the integration that Bismarck disdained. The alternative, a continent of competing nation states, would allow Germany to become once more a pivotal power able to play off the west against the east, a prospect that instilled fear in far-sighted German leaders such as Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. For both Germans and Europeans, therefore, Bismarck's career serves not as an inspiration, but as a warning. l

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College, London. His next book, “The Coalition and the Constitution", will be published by Hart on 31 March

Bismarck: a Life
Jonathan Steinberg
Oxford University Press, 592pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, New Issue

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.