The Leadership Secrets of Bismarck

Imperial Germany and Competitive Authoritarianism

Over the last two decades, a distinctive regime type has emerged across the developing world, one that scholars have come to call competitive authoritarianism. This sort of political system allows for the contestation of power among different social groups, but with so many violations of electoral fairness and so little regard for liberal norms that it cannot be called a true democracy. From Russia to Peru, Cambodia to Cameroon, such regimes are now located in almost every region of the world, and how they develop will determine the shape of the twenty-first century.

One of the best ways to gain insight into the future paths of these political systems, ironically, is to look backward rather than forward, because the past can be prologue. Wilhelmine Germany is a particularly interesting point of comparison, because it had many similar characteristics. Like many of these regimes, it, too, experienced late, rapid growth and social transformation. It, too, developed a competitive form of politics that fell short of full-blown democracy. And potentially like some of today's emerging powers, Germany had a domestic political crisis that was capable of shaking the world.

The larger-than-life figure who presided over Germany's rise was Otto von Bismarck, foreign minister and minister-president of Prussia during the 1860s, architect of German unification in 1871, and chancellor of a unified German empire from 1871 to 1890. Given Bismarck's role in German history, a vast amount has already been written about him, so one might question what more there is to say. However, in Bismarck: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg, a respected historian with a long career at Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, has produced a first-rate biography that combines a standard historical narrative with an intriguing account of Bismarck as a personality.

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