The White Revolutionaries

Henry Kissinger saw Otto von Bismarck’s traits in twentieth-century figures such as Konrad Adenauer and Charles De Gaulle — each their own form of ‘white revolutionary'.

Poster of Bismarck.
Poster of Bismarck. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

‘A young lady friend of mine invited me to attend the Woodstock festival and I wanted to go’, Henry Kissinger once joked. ‘But I looked at my calendar and discovered I could not. The festival fell on Bismarck’s birthday.’

We may have been denied the incongruous image of Kissinger at the epochal music festival, but his keen interest in Otto von Bismarck is an important and unfiltered exhibit of his worldview. The historian Niall Ferguson employed it in his account of Kissinger’s early life, but otherwise it remains understudied. Kissinger is widely upheld within a lineage of Germanic political realism and as someone who utilised the lessons of nineteenth-century European power balances for the Cold War. His publications, from both before and after his tenure in office between 1969-77, have certainly evinced his expertise and interest in Bismarck. His PhD thesis, developed into his debut, A World Restored — on the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the efforts of Metternich and Castlereagh to rebuild the European order — has served as a foundation for such interpretations, and Kissinger later wrote an article on Bismarck’s role in the unification of Germany. The emphasis, however, has been placed primarily on Metternich, a frustrating conclusion for Kissinger. ‘Any newsman who wants to write something moderately profound mentions the enormous debt that I owe to Metternich,’ he once complained. ‘The unfortunate problem for this theory is that I really wanted to write a book about Bismarck, and I only started writing about Metternich as a counterpoise to Bismarck in order to understand this.’

Kissinger has been construed as the great applier of history: a statesman who excavated the past for suitable analogies and wisdom for the present. He certainly applied his historical expertise in office, but his original intentions were more orthodox. In the 1970s, he told a journalist, ‘On Metternich I’ve written only one book, which was to be the beginning of a long series of books on the construction and disintegration of the international order of the nineteenth century. It was a series that was to end with the First World War.’ His works were not primarily planned as case studies for applications to the present, but a sustained exploration of the origins of modernity. His book on Bismarck was to be the central plate of the triptych, a chronicle of the destruction of the Concert of Europe following the uprisings of 1848 and the ensuing rise of German continental hegemony that, after Bismarck’s death, dissolved into another global conflagration.

The book that Kissinger was writing on Bismarck in the 1950s and 1960s lies incomplete and scattered across his papers, and consists of disparate fragments — some typed, some handwritten, some with fierce lines scrawled through apparently unusable text. The draft ends in the wake of the Crimean War in 1856, before the unification of Germany, but it is nonetheless over 50,000 words and an ambitious study of a man, a nation and an era.

In 1968, just before entering office, Kissinger published a truncated version of the book as ‘The White Revolutionary’ in the journal Daedalus.  Its proximity to his new career has caused journalists and scholars to mine it for insight into President Nixon’s new national security advisor. In it, Kissinger posed the question ‘What is a revolutionary?’ and noted two competing facets to the concept, quoting a nineteeth-century source: ‘People are born as revolutionaries. The accident of life decides whether one becomes a Red or a White revolutionary.’ We are all familiar with the Red revolutionaries — Robespierre, Lenin and the like, who used violent means to upend the established political and social order. White revolutionaries, however, manipulated existing structures to their own end and achieved authority within that framework. ‘His was a strange revolution,’ Kissinger wrote of Bismarck. ‘It appeared in the guise of conservatism, yet the scale of its conception proved incompatible with the prevailing international order.’ Bismarck, to Kissinger, was a masterful agent of political change, who could employ disparate forces in the service of his state. ‘With a few brusque strokes Bismarck swept away the dilemmas that had baffled the German quest for unity. In the process, he recast the map of Europe and the pattern of international relations.’

‘The White Revolutionary’ is an important source in the complex art of Kissingerology, but it is incomplete. With its original iteration as a biography one can discern a clearer perspective on Kissinger’s sense of power, policy and the course of history. The article places the emphasis on Bismarck himself, prejudicing interpretations of Kissinger’s worldview towards the apparent universality — and therefore applicability — of the qualities of a statesman. The original source suggests a richer story of Bismarck in his time, as a figure in the course of international politics through the long nineteenth century and a catalyst for profound transformation.

The course of Bismarck’s career pivoted upon what Kissinger perceived as a central quandary of international politics from the Congress of Vienna onwards: the role of Germany in the European system. By the time Bismarck’s entered the political stage as a junior official and diplomat, the revolutions of 1848 had undermined the legitimacy of the order consecrated after Napoleon. Prussia in particular was beginning to push against the constraints imposed on it by the German Confederation oriented around Austria’s unquestionable supremacy. ‘Nothing could restore the two pillars of the Metternich System,’ wrote Kissinger, ‘the general acceptance of the sanctity of legitimate rule and its corollary, Prussia’s voluntary acceptance of a secondary role within Germany.’

Kissinger’s book is as much an incisive account of Prussia’s political culture and ensuing rise as it is a pure biography. ‘Fragmented across Central Europe with no natural frontiers, surrounded on all sides by larger powers, its major portions separated by innumerable enclaves,’ he writes, ‘Prussia never had any physical reality: It was an idea or it was nothing.’ The ephemeral quality to Prussian nationhood conditioned it to a perpetual search for purpose. Prussia could achieve hegemony in Germany or it could collapse’, Kissinger argues, ‘but under no circumstances could it stand still.’ Bismarck’s rise, therefore, occurred at a crucial moment in which one system was giving way to a vacuum ripe for Prussian reassertion. Modern Kissinger scholars have argued that he considered Bismarck an intellectual partner to Metternich, but that evades the essential dynamic of the progression and succession of supremacy in European politics that absorbed Kissinger:

To Metternich the stability of international order had had the quality of a minuet in which the tune prescribed precisely the orbit of the partners. But to Bismarck the tune had lost its compelling quality; he saw the international order as a statistical balance of forces in flux, more akin to the impact on each other of atomic particles impelled by their inner dynamism whose pressures if properly arranged tended to cancel each other out. Policy, therefore, was the art of the possible; the science of the relative.

Bismarck personifies the hyperactivity of Prussia in Kissinger’s book. ‘A policy of unimaginative stagnation is impossible in the centre of Europe,’ he quotes Bismarck. ‘If we do not wish to be the anvil, we must be the hammer.’ The future statesman was a man deeply rooted in the environment and culture of his nation; born in April 1815 (not the same month as Woodstock, it turns out), to parents of the Prussian civil service class, Bismarck spent his early life, Kissinger argues, in tune with the world of primordial Germany. ‘Like the legendary heroes of the Teutonic past he strode on the scene shattering with solitary arrogance the riddles which had baffled a generation and transforming the spiritual dilemmas of decades into disputes for the academy.’ He spent years agonising over his relationship with God, ultimately articulating a form of Spinozean pantheism in tune to the environment of Teutonic Germany and elevating individual agency over any divine subservience. ‘Bismarck’s faith thus represented a means to achieve a theological justification of the struggle for power,’ noted Kissinger. It was, at its essence, ‘Darwinism sanctified by God.’

Ending in the 1850s, Kissinger’s biography of Bismarck leaves the principal years of his life frustratingly unexplored. What he does write, in the book and in the published article, suggests an admiration for Bismarck’s achievements, tinged with an awareness of the decline into conflict that followed Bismarck’s death in 1898. ‘[A]lthough Bismarck became the father of his country,’ Kissinger comments, ‘the very qualities which had made him a solitary figure among his people in his lifetime caused them to misunderstand his lessons when he had become a myth.’ Kissinger’s thesis is that Bismarck was such an exceptional character that future figures could not fulfil the role played by him; the ‘tragedy was that he left a heritage of unassimilated greatness.’

It is this conclusion that most strongly demonstrates that Kissinger originally planned to consider the long roots of the discord of the twentieth century — and, in particular, the recurring dilemma of Germany’s place in the European order — before finding useable parallels. In a discarded page of his PhD thesis he wrote of the nineteenth century:

For in the long interval of peace the concept of tragedy had been lost; it had been forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable, that fear could become the means of social cohesion. The hysteria of joy that swept over Europe at the outbreak of World War I was the symptom of a fatuous age but also of a secure one.

Kissinger’s argument on the course of European politics also contained an implicitly personal element. In 1947, the former American soldier who had fled the Nazis and then seen the horrors of war up close, wrote of ‘Germany, the heir of the Bismarckian tradition of authoritarianism, the Prussian concept of service to the State as an end, culminating in the Nazi ideology of man’s ultimate realization in the mass and the establishment of success as the only criterion of values.’ Bismarck was the successor to Metternich’s realism, but he was also a step in the progression towards the Nazis and their crimes. ‘Reigns of terror are no accident; they are the reverse side of a disintegrated legitimacy.’

Kissinger’s approach to the link between Prussian militarism and the Nazis emulates the work of Friedrich Meinecke on the subject. While one might be minded to consider Kissinger in the canon of realist scholars of the early Cold War, one could also interpret his experiences and historical sensibility within the intellectual milieu of European emigree historians who wrote on the history of the twentieth century, such as Fritz Stern, Walter Laqueur and Arno Mayer. Kissinger’s early writings underscore the attributes of causality to Europe’s twentieth-century struggles seemingly more than they do history’s analogical applicability; a foundational element missing from his place in the contemporary discourse around applied history.

The respect Kissinger held for Bismarck has been extrapolated out through decades of commentary and biography to a more profound affinity:  an intellectual companionship of German realism for the new superpower of the Cold War. Throughout his career Kissinger saw Bismarck’s traits in the likes of Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle and even Mao — each their own form of ‘white revolutionary’. Yet Niall Ferguson, the only other scholar to use the unpublished Bismarck biography, tacks drastically in the other direction, proclaiming Kissinger ‘The Anti-Bismarck.’ He argues that ‘the significance of “The White Revolutionary” is therefore very definitely not that Kissinger identified himself with Bismarck. On the contrary: Kissinger deplored the “demoniac” Bismarck at least as much as he admires him.’

Neither side of these interpretations quite capture Kissinger’s framing of Bismarck, however. A focus on the question of Kissinger’s normative judgment of political leaders misses the fundamental transience of history that lay at the heart of his conception. Before entering office, Kissinger approached history as an explanation for modern circumstances, and, from his undergraduate thesis, The Meaning of History, onwards, he stressed the constant flow of events and the diminutive capacity of individuals. Kissinger’s esteem for historical leaders was always undergirded by an awareness of the ephemerality of their contribution, and that the force of history would inevitably topple even the most solid of orders. ‘Life is suffering, transitoriness is the fate of existence. No civilisation has yet been permanent, no longing completely fulfilled,’ Kissinger wrote in The Meaning of History, and he believed that in the ‘repetition of cataclysmic war the civilisation petrifies and dies’. Service in government only reinforced that belief. ‘The public life of every political figure’, Kissinger recalled in his memoirs, ‘is a continual struggle to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstance.’

There is an implicit religiosity to Kissinger’s theory of history, with humanity ultimately incapable of reaching an ancient place lost by an original sin manifested in centuries of war and destruction. In an early draft of his doctoral dissertation — originally conceived of as a study of the whole nineteenth century — Kissinger emphasises the ultimate fallibility of even those who have achieved a status as ‘great men’. ‘The description of the efforts of Castlereagh, Metternich and Bismarck to harmonise the just with the possible and international legitimisation with the domestic one is their story as statesmen,’ he writes. ‘Their failure to achieve permanence for that which they held most dear is their story as men.’ Bismarck could be both a great man and the augur of future devastation; the reciprocal virtues of ‘genius’ and the ‘demoniac quality’ were the engine of his rise and his empire’s fall. From the heights of Bismarck’s mastery of Europe came the continent’s prolonged, painful stumble through the horrors of the twentieth century.


Angus Reilly