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
Oxford University Press, 592pp, £25