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Gold and Iron
Columbia historian Fritz Stern gathered thousands of previously unpublished documents, letters, and correspondences between the two foremost shapers of German unification, Otto von Bismarck and Gerson von Bleichrder. Most readers will be familiar with the former figure: Bismarck, new Germany's first leader and molder of political realities in nineteenth-century Europe. However, fewer will recognize the name of the latter. Gerson von Bleichrder, Jewish banker and unofficial confidant of Bismarck, remains neglected from German historiography. Stern seeks to correct this glaring omission by weaving the biographies of these two influential men into a comprehensive history of German unification. The result is a six hundred-plus page tome called Gold and Iron: Bismark, Bleichrder, and the Building of the German Empire. Well-written, well-organized, and thoroughly researched, Gold and Iron examines the personal and public lives of these two men and illustrates how they shaped German social, political, and economic policies. The author's style of writing engages readers and his audience could just as well be casual consumers as erudite scholars. Divided into three main topical sections, Gold and Iron contains no photographs, graphs, or maps, or illustrations. While graphs would be or no particular use in this case, photos and maps would embellish the book and enhance its impact; their absence is one of the only weaknesses of the otherwise thoughtfully-compiled tome. Stern includes a helpful Guide to Abbreviations following the Table of Contents, prior to the nine-page Introduction. The Epilogue precedes separate sections for chapter endnotes, acknowledgements, bibliography, and an incredibly detailed topical index.
In the Introduction, Stern states "This is a book about Germans and Jews, about power and money," (xv). Moreover, Gold and Iron examines the thirty-five-year relationship between Bleichrder and Bismarck, both of whom were known to their contemporaries but only one of which has survived in history books. The author explains one of his chief motives for writing Gold and Iron as the presentation of Bleichrder as key figure in German history, as important as Bismarck but overshadowed by him. Bleichrder "is everything that has been left out of German history," according to Stern (xix). Stern posits that one of the main reasons, if not the only reason, why Bleichrder does not receive the credit he deserves for helping his nation rise to political and economic power is that he was a Jew. Although under the liberal Prussian monarchy, Jews were afforded some level of protection, and although Bleichrder came from a fairly prominent, almost respectable Jewish family, anti-Semitism was a social and political reality in nineteenth-century Germany. Jews were primarily viewed as money-hungry vendors or bankers and Stern notes that the myth of a great international Jewish conspiracy started in the 1870s. Therefore, in the Introduction, Stern sets the stage for the main points of his book: German unification was grounded as much in economics as in politics; the rise of the Empire coincided with a short-lived rise in status of Germany's Jews; the overt political and diplomatic accomplishments of Otto von Bismarck have erroneously overshadowed the economic prowess of Bleichrder, whose financiering was fundamental to Bismarck's success; Bismarck and Bleichrder both exemplified the hubris and hypocrisy that characterized social and political realities of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Of these main points, the last one is obviously the most difficult to prove scholastically but based on the facts he presents, Stern is accurate in making psychological judgments and assumptions. Moreover, such judgments show how history is shaped not by abstract forces but by individual, multi-faceted, fallible human beings.
Part One of Gold and Iron, entitled "The Hazardous Rise, 1859-1871 and divided into seven chapters, documents the rise to power of both men. Chapter One, "First Encounter: Junker and Jew" offers some biographical background information on the two men, lending insight into their family histories and personalities. Bleichrder inherited his father's banking business and his connections with the Rothschild economic dynasty. As a Jew, Bleichrder enjoyed unusual social and political recognition and was awarded Red Eagle and given the title Kommerzienrat from the Prussian government (18). His connections, both business, and personal, with the Rothschilds earned Bleichrder his reputation as a banker, which Bismarck to him around 1860. The two men engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship that approximated friendship. Stern notes on page 18 that his dealings with the Rothschild dynasty prepared him for the "effusive but never quite spineless subservience and loyalty that came to characterize his relationships with Bismarck."
Chapter Two, "Bismarck's Struggle for Survival," shows how the two men met "at a critical time in the fortunes of their country," (20). New nationalism and liberalism competed with an old world feudal order; on one side was the Prussian monarchy and on the other Austria. Both Bismarck and Bleichrder sought to accomplish their goals within the existing social, political, and economic framework of the Prussian monarchy, which for the most part was sympathetic and amenable to their needs. Furthermore, Bismarck was aware that "material prosperity enhanced the power of the state," and likewise, Bleichrder knew that social status and political power could bolster one's financial locus of power (25).
Chapter Three, "Between the Throne and the Gallows," documents the early years of Bismarck's rule in the aftermath of the war against Denmark fought concurrently by the Austrians and the Prussians. Stern portrays Bismarck as a genius political leader, one who "elevated the perfectly human reluctance to make choices into a supreme political virtue," and who "was both magnificently daring and scrupulously prudent, (48; 49). However deftly Bismarck managed to play political games with his neighbors, Prussia and Austria soon stood at the brink of war, largely over the duchies ceded by Denmark to the two political rivals. Moreover, Bismarck cleverly shrouded Prussia's internal weaknesses and began to rely more heavily on the financial wisdom and wizardry of his economic advisor and political confidant, Gerson Bleichrder.
The dual, symbiotic victories of Bismarck and Bleichrder are delineated in Chapter Four, "A Banker's Share in Bismarck's Triumph." However, Bismarck's achievements in 1866 presaged dire consequences. Stern points out that "The union of such vast economic and military power under an authoritarian and anachronistic government in the heart of Europe was to have fatal consequences for the history of the world," (81). Specifically, Bismarck's rise to power signified the ascent of a militaristic nation "that would idolize power even when that power was unrestrained by intellect or moral realism," (94). The author, true to his intent on weaving personal biography with analytical history, notes that to secure Prussia's political prominence, moreover, Bismarck "tempered recklessness with prudence, brutality with moderation," (81). Bismarck secured his reputation as a triumphant leader with his banker-adviser at his side; Bleichrder was a "preeminent figure" in Bismarck's victory. Chapter Five, "Bismarck's Purse and Bleichrder's Place," further explicates the mutually beneficial relationship between the two men: both hungered for power and for wealth and used each other for these ends. Chapter Six places Bismarck's political victory in Prussia within an international framework, outlining the causes and implications of the Franco-Prussian war and demonstrating how the war deepened the personal ties between Bismarck and Bleichrder, who became increasingly privy to Bismarck's personal feelings and intentions. The final Chapter in Part One of Gold and Iron, "Hubris in Versailles," shows how "a new Reich had been forged in the fires of war," (145). The German Empire was finally realized and solidified, and both Bismarck and Bleichrder enjoyed a lofty perch.
Part Two of Gold and Iron is called "Banker for an Empire," and its content forms the bulk of the book. Divided into nine chapters, this section deals with the concatenation of politics and economics within unified Germany and, correspondingly, of Otto von Bismarck and Gerson Bleichder. Chapter Eight, "A New Baron in Berlin," shows how under their new political rubric, Germans "felt that their lives and collective destiny had been transformed...in military and political terms they had ceased to be Europe's anvil and had become its hammer instead," (159). The "new pride" was publicly celebrated and contagious, and led to a boom in population and a blossoming of Berlin as a new metropolis (160-1). However, beneath the surface bred social ills that would in particular affect Germany's Jews. Stern states on page 163: "A Germany that half-denied its capitalistic-bourgeois self proved spiritually less tolerant of the rise of Jewry than did some of its bourgeois neighbors." Moreover, Bleichrder had become "the most celebrated Jew of Germany," (168). Chapter Nine, "Imperial Style in Politics and Economics," defines the nature of German government under Bismarck's rule, a curious mixture of autocracy and constitutional monarchy (176). Stern also begins to delve deeper into the psyche and social life of Bleichrder, who although stood in Bismarck's shadow, "became lobbyist, confidant, king-maker, and financial utility man," (225). "Greed and Intrigue" are the topics of Chapter Ten, which deals with the collective consciousness of the German people and the personal consciousness of the two subjects of Stern's book. Here, the author explains the "rhetoric of rectitude" that bred…[continue]
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