In June 1862 Otto von Bismarck, then 47 years old and not yet minister-president of Prussia, decided to visit London. He had been the Prussian ambassador to St Petersburg since 1859 and for nearly a decade before that served as Prussia's ambassador to the German Confederation. His reputation in diplomatic circles was that of a person capable of eccentric and outrageous statements. He lived up to it at a reception at the Russian ambassador's residence. Bismarck explained his plans to Benjamin Disraeli, the future British prime minister; Baron Brunnow, the Russian ambassador; and the Austrian envoy, Friedrich, Count Vitzthum von Eckstadt. He told the astounded guests exactly what he had in mind. Disraeli recorded his words:
I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to re-organise the army, with or without, the help of the Landtag ... As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen's ministers.
On the way home, Disraeli accompanied the Austrian ambassador to his residence. As they parted, Disraeli told Vitzthum: 'Take care of that man; he means what he says.' And he did.
Nine years later, almost to the day, the victory parade passed through Berlin after the stupendous Prussian triumph over France in the Franco-Prussian War and the proclamation of a German empire in the euphoria of that success. Bismarck had accomplished much more than he had impudently promised his audience in London. These nine years and this 'revolution' constitute the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries, for Bismarck accomplished all this without commanding a single soldier, without dominating a vast parliamentary majority, without the support of a mass movement, without any previous experience of government, without the charisma of a great orator and in the face of national revulsion at his name and his reputation. This success, the work of a political genius of a very unusual kind, rested on several sets of conflicting characteristics. He played his parts with perfect self-confidence, yet mixed them with rage, anxiety, illness, hypochondria and irrationality.
Ever since I first lectured on Bismarck as a junior research fellow at Cambridge 40 years ago this achievement has puzzled me. How did he do it? Of course previous biographers have asked and answered this question but not as the central issue. They asked what did Bismarck accomplish with what consequences for German and European history. But what fascinates me is how this giant of a man, a rural aristocrat with no military credentials, a reputation for violent statements, reactionary views and irresponsibility, could become the great Bismarck of history?
A few contemporaries saw that Bismarck had an urge, more powerful than any other impulse in his nature, to dominate his fellow human beings. His university room-mate, the American John Motley, saw it in the 18-year-old Bismarck and in 1839 published a novel about him, Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial. This is what Otto von Rabenmarck, the thinly disguised Bismarck, tells the narrator as a new student at the University of Gottingen:
I intend to lead my companions here, as I intend to lead them in after-life. You see I am a very rational sort of person now and you would hardly take me for the crazy mountebank you met in the street half an hour ago. But then I see that this is the way to obtain superiority, l determined at once on arriving at the university, that the way to obtain mastery over my competitors, who were all, extravagant, savage, eccentric, was to be ten times as extravagant and savage as anyone else . …