Merkel von Bismarck The peaceful warrior

Chancellor Angela Merkel's diplomatic handling of the Ukraine crisis has triggered comparisons with Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Reich.
Multilateral diplomatic strategists: Otto von Bismarck and Angela Merkel.


In the last week, Angela Merkel has hardly slept. She has flown from Moscow to Washington to Minsk and Brussels on a never-ending mission to keep Europe from flying apart.

She is trying to persuade Greece to not default on its debt, and is talking, talking endlessly to Vladimir Putin, asking him to stop Russia from erasing the eastern border of Europe. She has pushed for sanctions but is desperate to avoid all out war.

Some Americans, who want to arm Ukraine, are likening her to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who in 1938 was so desperate to avert war in Europe, he signed an agreement with Adolf Hitler permitting Germany to annex Czechoslovakia.

But inside Germany, Ms. Merkel is likened to a more powerful leader, the strategic mastermind who created modern Germany, kept the young nation together and made it the epicenter of a peaceful Europe: Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck ...remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers. Eric Hobsbawm, Historian

Bismark’s success lay in a strategy of fighting short, successful wars to establish Germany as a new powerful country in the heart of Europe, and then spent two decades keeping Europe at peace.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm described Bismark as the “undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess.”

On Thursday morning, Ms. Merkel emerged from all-night talks with Mr. Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and French President François Hollande. Mr. Putin spoke first, saying the leaders had managed to agree to a ceasefire in Ukraine starting on Sunday. But it was clear that Ms. Merkel was the linchpin in the talks.

She rebuilt the French-German relationship that had been weakened by the euro crisis, and has been the West's key Russian-speaking intermediator with Mr. Putin. But she is also a polarizing figure: Hated in Greece by many for her unbending adherence to fiscal austerity, criticized across Europe for putting Germany’s economic interests at the heart of the European project.

Bismarck, the son of a lesser nobleman from the Prussian province of Saxony, a Prussian envoy, its foreign minister, its prime minister and then, finally, the first chancellor of the newly created German Reich, would have understood.

Contemporaries once referred to him as the "monster of the German Reich," who bullied and threatened his way to power.

But he is known as the man who created a strong, unified Germany after it emerged from an expensive, damaging war with France in 1871. A general who knew how to win wars, he was one of the few leaders of his era who could formulate a foreign policy based on maintaining the peace.

Bismarck would have known what to do in the Ukraine crisis. At the time, he would have felt that Russia's legitimate security interests were beyond dispute. He would have worked on all sides to stop a situation like the one in Ukraine from arising in the first place.

Taking pains not to humiliate her opponent, not to close any doors, to let patience prevail and to create new options – these were the principles by which Ms. Merkel acted in Minsk.

Bismarck would have done the same.

Bismarck would have never become involved in a long war, because he knew that it would have stirred up uncontrollable expectations. Jörn Leonhard, historian

Both Bismarck and Ms. Merkel understood how big powers feel. Russia is a weakened giant, paranoid that the West, under the guise of NATO, is encroaching on its territories.

The United States of America, the global hegemon that lost military credibility after the debacle in Iraq, is trying to position itself as guarantor of international law. It feels it must guarantee Ukraine's independence and prevent Europe from aligning too closely with Russia.

In the middle lies Germany, geographically close to Russia, but wanting integration with the West.

Germany wants to avoid a military conflict with Russia at all costs, a strategy Bismarck understood.

"Bismarck would have never become involved in a long war, because he knew that it would have stirred up uncontrollable expectations," said historian Jörn Leonhard.

Mr. Leonhard argues that Bismarck would not have entered the two world wars of the last century, nor the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

One of Bismarck's political leitmotifs was to consider the interests and sensitivities of other nations, thus keeping the option of future alliances open. When German King Wilhelm I and military agitators urged him to march into Vienna after Prussia's victory over Austria in 1864, Bismarck successful resisted this unnecessary humiliation of the Austrian monarchy.

Germany’s current economic dominance has echoes of Bismarck.

At the moment, Germany is the most powerful economy in the euro zone.

Weaker nations complain they live within a German economic empire, where their interests are secondary.

Bismarck established the foundation for Germany's economic strength, promoting capitalism and the first modern social welfare state.

He allowed Germany's industrial future to prevail over its agrarian interests.

The number of medium-sized German cities more than doubled during his term in office, while the number of large cities quadrupled. Of course, idyllic country estates, villages and towns still existed, but large urban centers with smoking chimneys, noisy factories and department stores became the norm.

Bismarck was even a man of change when he disapproved of certain types of change.

Although he opposed labor movements, he was a realist and often acted in accordance with Karl Marx's maxims of the day. Between 1883 and 1889, he introduced health insurance, casualty insurance, disability insurance and old-age insurance, which guaranteed workers basic financial stability starting at age 70.

Workers in dire straits no longer had to beg for assistance, but were given legal rights to financial support.

It was a revolutionary and far-reaching policy, and a model for all of Europe.

He wanted a strong Germany but not an ever-growing one. His political star faded when Kaiser Wilhelm II came to power in in 1888 and demanded that Germany must recapture its "place in the sun:" a concept alien to Bismarck. Bismarck left power two years later. Kaiser Wilhelm II went on to follow a bellicose foreign policy that ultimately took Germany into a disastrous World War I.

Ultimately, Bismarck was a Prussian conservative who founded the German Empire and pursued astonishingly modern policies to strengthen it in economically and socially. His lasting legacy is the Germany of today – and the lesson that morality only has a place in politics as long as it is compatible with realism and a sense of pragmatism.

This is especially true of the foreign policy that shapes Germany's foreign agenda today.

Bismarck would like today's Germany, with its cautious, balanced positioning within a turbulent Europe. And despite the many differences between the Prussian, monarchist conservative and Ms. Merkel, the physicist daughter of a Protestant minister who grew up in former East Germany, he would probably approve of her prudence.


Michael Brackmann  is an editor at Handelsblatt's central new desk. Frank Wiebe is a New York correspondent for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected]  and [email protected]