Sunday, April 03, 2011

Bismarck, Kissinger, and the New York Times

Yesterday the New York Times printed one of the funniest corrections that has appeared in that august paper for some time. It read:

"Because of a production error, a review on the cover of the Book Review, about 'Bismarck: A Life,' by Jonathan Steinberg, omits the byline in some copies. As noted in the table of contents and in the contributor’s biographical note, the review is by Henry A. Kissinger."

The review arrived on my doorstep this morning and I read it with interest. Henry Kissinger has never been more than a part-time historian. He was trained as a political scientist and became a Presidential adviser, diplomat, and Secretary of State. While his books, such as Diplomacy, are full of provocative observations about historical events, they do not always show, shall we say, a determination to get to the bottom of them. My late adviser Ernest R. May noted in the Times when Diplomacy appeared that it was full of errors that would have drawn a marginal comment on an undergraduate paper. To my amazement, Kissinger's review of this book also contains two such errors.

The first error is subtle, but nonetheless highly significant. Bismarck, Kissinger writes, "won over public opinion by granting universal manhood suffrage--making Prussia one of the first states in Europe to do so." Now Prussia, Bismarck's country of origin, was the largest, by far, of the German states that Bismarck forged into a single unit in 1866 and 1871. But Bismarck made no changes to the suffrage laws in Prussia. Prussia had secured "universal manhood suffrage" as a result of a revolution in 1848-9--but not universal equal manhood suffrage. The voters in Prussia were divided into three classes based upon income, and votes of members of the richest class were worth about 20 times as much as those of the majority of voters in the poorest class. Bismarck never changed this system withing Prussia. He did grant universal equal manhood suffrage for the Reichstag, the legislative body in the new North German Confederation (1866) and German Empire (1870) that he created, but limited the powers of that legislature mainly to economic issues. He made certain, in short, that Prussia itself--which included more than half of the new German state--would be dominated by conservative aristocrats like himself. To confuse so badly the distinction between Prussian institutions on the one hand, and those of the German Empire on the other, is an astonishing mistake for one of Kissinger's background to make.

Secondly, Kissinger writes, "Until Bismarck appeared on the scene, it had generally been assumed that nationalism and liberalism represented opposite poles; he rejected that proposition." The exact opposite is true. Liberalism, especially in Germany, had been completely nationalistic, and German liberals had tried and failed to unify Germany in 1848-9. Conservatism and nationalism had been thought of as opposites before Bismarck, because conservatism believed in the rights of individual monarchs, which unification would reduce or even destroy. As a contemporary observer noted, “Count Bismarck made liberal ideas and energies subservient to conservative ends.”

When one reaches a certain level of eminence one's thoughts automatically become publishable. That in turn leads to temptations to which I am glad never to have been exposed. I'm glad I was taught to get my facts straight and to read the most authoritative works on subjects of interest. None of this is designed, by the way, to make any judgment about Jonathan Steinberg's book--I doubt very much that these errors originated with him.


Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for this note.

I had happened to watch, again, last night, Steinberg's lecture on the Krupp family, in the European History, European Lives course.

Wonderful stuff for the amateur viewer.

He does have a talk devoted to Bismarck, part of which at least I watched some time ago, and I will review that with interest. Steinberg points out that Bismarck used democracy to outmaneuver liberal forces, using democracy to undermine them.....yet fought against the growth of parliamentary democracy.

That seems consistent with the point you have made here about limited manhood suffrage in Bismarckian Germany.

All the best,

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

Your post proves that effective strategy and the facts are not strictly dependent upon one another. Specifically, Kissinger was certainly an effective strategist, even though he lacked an absolute command of the facts. The same observation might be extended to explain the recent political gains of a popular government-reduction movement.

On a broader scale, if the incipient gains in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa hold, the world may become a more democratic place than ever before. As we are learning, democratic does not always mean rational.

At its root, human behavior is not particularly complicated. There is an elegant, implicate order to it that unfolds daily. The unfolded behavior is not always rational, but is always real. If you make a list of even fifty important irrational behaviors that changed history, you should be able to see the underlying order, and in so seeing, understand strategy in the context of a true and complete reality--maybe even better than Kissinger does.

With respect and affection,
Jude Hammerle

David Kaiser said...

Very nice to hear from you, Jude. I remember you well, as well as our last encounter at LAX. You will be interested to know that I am still in fairly regular contact with Matthew Diller. What are you doing with yourself?

Jude Hammerle said...

Thanks for your reply! For the past fifteen years I have advised entrepreneurs and pursued the roots of consumer motivation. In 2001 I noticed a hidden pattern in consumer buying that reveals a game people appear to be playing with one another. Now I'm writing about the game, engaging in dialogues, and reading more too. Interestingly, in the first chapter of Diplomacy, Kissinger reveals an uncanny instinct for-- or very considerable schooling in--games of strategy. Given that (and his voice) I can't believe he wasn't Deep Throat!