On April 1, 1815, Otto Eduard Leo pold von Bismarck was born on the family estate at Schönhausen near Berlin, in what used to be Prussia. He came into this world at the end of a quarter-century of pan-European crisis, which started with the French Revolution and ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
Bismarck’s bicentennial comes at a time when Europe is on the verge of another major crisis, the likes of which has not been seen since the Berlin blockade of 1948. His long career, and the diplomatic dexterity he displayed in the first 20 years of the Second Reich’s existence, provide us with an example of mature statecraft that is lacking in our own time.
Having engineered and won three limited wars in six years, Bismarck united Germany—a feat described by a recent biographer as “the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries.” The secret—in addition to having the best army of its time at his disposal—was to reconcile nationalism with conservatism, two creeds regarded as incompatible in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848.
Bismarck avoided incorporating German-speaking Habsburg lands into the Kaiserreich, even though it was in his power to do after Königgrätz. In addition to disliking Austrians (“A Bavarian is half-way between an Austrian and a human”), he...