11th Grade: Bismarck and “Unnatural States”

Greetings,

This week we began to look at German unification, orchestrated under the brilliant and controversial Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck raises some important and perhaps uncomfortable questions about leadership.  What is the line between serving the interests of your country and serving God?  Should nations be treated akin to how one would treat individuals, and therefore punished and rewarded like individuals?  Or, should nations be thought of as artificial entities that do not have to play by the same rules as people?  Cardinal Richelieu said to this effect: ‘People are immortal and thus subject to the law of God.  Nations are mortal ] and are subject to the law of what works.’ That is, artificial and unnatural creations — one can’t imagine the universe as it is without gravity, but it would be the same universe without the United States.  This hearkens again to Richelieu who would have argued that while Frenchman are Catholic, France is not.  France can’t be Catholic any more than a cardboard box could be Catholic.  Frenchmen may be redeemed, but France will have no heavenly judgment or reward.  For better or worse, Bismarck would have agreed with him.  He also said,

If one wants to retain respect for laws and sausages, don’t watch them being made.

Politics for Bismarck was a dirty business, and there was no point pretending that success would not mean getting his own hands dirty.  But for Bismarck, the world of international politics remained essentially unredeemable, a conclusion Christians may not wish to share.

While there are many debatable aspects of Bismarck, a few things are beyond dispute.  He gained an advantage over some of his foreign political adversaries in part because he recognized what the Industrial Revolution would mean for politics before others.  He realized that

  • Mass production would lead to a ‘mass society,’ where mobilization of opinion could make a huge difference.
  • Old aristocratic Europe was finished, at least in the sense that kings and nobles could no longer act without direct reference to their populations.  The press and public opinion would be nuisances to others.  Bismarck saw them as opportunities for making Prussia’s actions much more potent.

Bismarck is  controversial because

  • He used democracy, but he had no time for it.  Democracy, he felt was for doe-eyed idealists. In the end for Bismarck, ‘blood and iron,’ not speeches, win the day.  Force and strength were the best projections of power, though to be fair to Bismarck, he believed in a limited/surgical use of force.
  • Bismarck was the ultimate realist.  He believed that concerning oneself with justice, for example, could lead one to get carried away, to lose focus.  The primary motivation for policy should be whether or not it serves the interest’s of the state.  Don’t first concern yourself with rewards or punishments.  Do what serves the ends of the state.  A foreign policy built primarily on  morality (an example might be punishing or rewarding a country based on their human rights record) was not proper for a nation, however much individuals should be concerned with it.

As an example of his policy we can look at his actions during the Polish bid for independence from Russia.  When the Poles attempted to break from Russia almost every major power gave speeches expressing their support for the Polish cause.  They did so, no doubt, for a variety of reasons:

  • The Poles vs. Russia was a great underdog story and everyone loves an underdog
  • Independence movements were rife throughout Europe and everyone loves to bandwagon.
  • Polish success would weaken Russia’s power, and most wanted Russia weakened whenever possible.

Bismarck shocked everyone by not supporting the Poles, but even offering public support — and troops — to aid the Russians in crushing the rebellion.  Why did he take such a position?

  • Speeches make you feel good and important, but speeches themselves will not help the Poles one whit.
  • These speeches, however, will serve to alienate Russia, and you would have gained nothing and angered a major power.
  • No foreign power would actually send troops to aid the Polish, so again, the expressions of support mean nothing in reality.
  • The Poles, without foreign aid, would certainly lose.

Thus, it seemed far better to Bismarck to go against the grain and actually aid his country by standing up for Russia in their time of need.  Yes, other countries would get momentarily upset at Prussia’s actions, but again, it would mean nothing.  Bismarck planned to cash in  the favor he performed for Russia later, and he did in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

To put Bismarck’s actions in perspective, think of the “Free Tibet” movement that we occasionally hear about.  Lot’s of people make speeches to end Chinese occupation of Tibet.  But . . . no one will actually do anything about it.  No one would risk war with China over this issue.  The words of sympathy given to Tibet 1) Do nothing for the Tibetans, 2) angers China, which makes them 3) not just worthless, but counterproductive.

To put Bismarck’s actions here in perspective, imagine if a U.S. president not only did not support Tibet, but publicly supported China.  “Yes — go China!  Crush the Tibetans!  Nature wills that they stand subject to your glorious might!”

It would be a bold move.

This does not mean that Bismarck was personally amoral.  Rather, if nations are essentially ‘pieces on a chessboard’ they cannot be sinned against.  You can sin against people.  But you cannot sin against shapes on a map.  This hearkens back to Richilieu’s foreign policy for France some 250 years prior, and to Machiavelli before that. In the same way, no one would call you a ‘sinner’ if you bluffed in poker.  The poker game is in a sense, an alternate reality where different rules apply.  For Bismarck, the same is true of politics.  We see this philosophy come through in his famous musings after Prussia’s victory in the Austro-Prussian War:

We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia. . . .The acquisition of provinces like Austria Silesia and portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency. . . .Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the King of Prussia.

….To all this the king raised no objection, but declared the actual terms as inadequate, without however definitely formulating his own demands. Only so much was clear, that his claims had grown considerably since July 4. He said that the Austria could not be allowed to escape unpunished, and that, justice once satisfied, we could let the misled backsliders off more easily; and he insisted on the cessions of territory from Austria which I have already mentioned.

I replied that we were not there to sit in judgment, but to pursue the German policy. Austria’s conflict and rivalry with us was no more culpable than ours with her; our task was the establishment or foundation of German national unity under the leadership of the king of Prussia.

Passing on to the German states, the king spoke of various acquisitions by cutting down the territories of all our opponents. I repeated that we were not there to administer retributive justice, but to pursue a policy; that I wished to avoid in the German federation of the future the sight of mutilated territories, whose princes and peoples might very easily (such is human weakness) retain a lively wish to recover their former possessions by means of foreign aid.

If we wish to dismiss his ideas, we should pause first.  After all, it is wrong to kill, but a nation can commission soldiers to kill, and we do not say they sin necessarily by doing so.  People shouldn’t lie, but a nation can spies to disseminate false information.  Is this sin?  If we say no, we have a dilemma on our hands of how we think of states as they relate to ‘individual’ morality.

In the end, Bismarck’s creation of a unified Germany would radically change European politics.  Germany became the greatest land power on the continent immediately.  But the change went deeper than that — the rationale for how a state comprised itself changed.  The idea of a “Germany for Germans” would spread and eventually undo European empires, and sow the seeds of the militant democracies of the early 20th century.

One bittersweet moment for me was the class’s viewing of the last episode of Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series last Friday.  Beginning in 9th grade, I show students at least parts of all the episodes in this series.  Clark has a wonderful eye for discerning the meaning of an age through art, architecture, and music. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, I am always challenged by them.  I believe all episodes are available on YouTube should you be interested yourself.

Clarke’s take on the industrial world is a sobering one.  In the opening lines of the last episode he says as the camera pans on New York City ca. 1968 (I paraphrase),

‘New York City in its present condition took almost as long to build as the Gothic Cathedrals.  This begs a comparison.  While the cathedrals were built for the glory of God, it appears obvious to me that our cities are built to the worship of money.’

AJ Toynbee also discusses the industrial age in his book, ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion.’  For him, the industrial age is simply the outgrowth of western civilization’s “Idolization of the Technician,’ which he believes began in the mid 17th century.  If we acquire the ability to do a thing, that in itself becomes it’s justification.

Clarke and Toynbee’s ideas may not call for agreement, but they do call for a response.  We shall see the effects, good and bad, of the increasing industrialization and mechanization of society in the weeks to come.

Many thanks again,

Dave Mathwin

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