To view any portrait or photograph of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898), you can understand how he might invite comparison to iron. His large frame and stern countenance befit a statesman who for twenty years led the government of one of the most powerful empires of the nineteenth century. His crowning success and strongest evidence of his political acumen was the reunification of the German states which had been drifting apart (seemingly irreparably) for hundreds of years. Particularly gifted at reading foreign affairs, Bismarck also managed to maintain the balance of power amongst the European nation states and prevented the eruption of war between them through a complicated string of alliances that, it was quipped, only he could really understand. He has, therefore, been long regarded as a paragon of strength and power in the political sphere; a tenacious strongman whose political mastery knew no equal.
It is hard to square this with evidence that the ‘Iron Chancellor’ could often be intensely emotional and curiously erratic. He was prone to petulant rages, tearful outbursts and any number of other bizarre behaviours when he encountered opposition to his will. Some of this behaviour seems so extreme as to make you question how a man capable of such immature tantrums could come to lead a nation of millions of people. Before embarking on his political career, the Prussian aristocrat grew so bored of running his family estate that he took to drunken horse-riding, greatly unnerving the community. Clearly the attainment of the highest office in the land failed to mellow him. Perhaps the most well known instance of Bismarck’s temper occurred following his son Herbert’s announcement of his intention to marry a Catholic divorcee ten years his senior. The chancellor is said to have ‘pressured his son with tears, blackmail and threats to disinherit him by getting Kaiser Wilhelm I to change the primogeniture statutes’*. People have little sympathy for the emotional turmoil that accompanies high office, but if ignored or left unchecked it cannot but have a significant bearing on other people’s lives. Threats from fathers are often shrugged off by wayward sons, but Herbert could not afford to ignore his. Although it caused him lifelong misery, he complied with his father’s wishes.
Others tried to pacify his rages too. As German chancellor, Bismarck time and time again forced his liege emperor, the reserved Wilhelm I, into acquiescence to his will through intransigence backed up with endless threats of resignation. Haardt has recently argued that ‘With the threat to deny his countersignature and / or retire from office, the Chancellor possessed an effective leverage against the kaiser that Bismarck […] used regularly’*. I find this interesting because it begs the question of whether these frequent emotional outbursts were perhaps grounded in political calculation. Was Bismarck able to measure when an outburst might do the trick and when it might be going too far? In Steinberg’s biography of Bismarck, he notes that the chancellor frequently sought to stall proposals from rival politicians by stating he would need to seek the approval of the emperor for such matters*. There seems a particular irony here in that Bismarck feigns concern that a rival politician’s proposal will meet with imperial opposition when he himself is so adept at manipulating the emperor into agreement.
There can be little doubt that the loneliness and pressures of high office must place great strain on the emotions. Prime ministerial outbursts (while often private and concealed) have been common throughout history and often provide much of the comic relief of what can be otherwise dry political biographies. Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Charles Haughey are some notable examples of political leaders whose extreme reactions were often ridiculously out of proportion to the issues concerned. But you have to wonder to what extent they constituted a power play and to what extent they represent the genuine emotions of frustrated human beings who, for all their great power, still struggle to maintain control. After 1890, in his enforced retirement, an extremely bitter and angry Bismarck sought continued influence over political events from his palatial retirement base in Friedrichsruh. The fact that he was ignored caused him even more frustration. Bismarck left political office, but the it seems that the stress and emotional strain of office never really left him.
- Herbert von Bismarck. (2017, March 1). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:15, March 23, 2017
- Haardt, O.F.R. ‘The Kaiser in the Federal State, 1871 – 1918’. German History. Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 529 – 554
- Steinberg, Jonathan. Bismarck: A Life.