The Bismarck Problem


There perhaps few figures from (relatively recent) history whom I find more fascinating that Otto von Bismarck. I remember being riveted hearing and reading about his exploits in my high school Modern Western Civ class. I’ll spare you the details (and therefore give you a gross oversimplification), but in a nutshell the aristocratic Bismarck moved over the course of a couple decades in the 19th Century to unite most of the Germany-speaking peoples outside of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the German Empire – a state that was dominated by the landed classes of Prussia (i.e.: people like him). What made this accomplishment remarkable was that there were all sorts of powers working against Bismarck: German liberal and nationalist movements that would have preferred a more liberal and democratic state, Russia, France, Austria, Denmark, and a number of the smaller German states that Prussia absorbed. By the 1870s Bismarck had a united German Empire and was well-practiced in the skills needed to manipulate politics and diplomacy in Europe to ensure that German Imperial (read: Prussian) interests were protected. He did this from the position of Chancellor – one that he had more or less crafted to suit his needs.

The problem with Bismarck’s system was that it required Bismarck. The eventuality that his German Empire was not well suited for was the inevitable end of his time in the role of Chancellor. A weaker or less calculating or less intelligent person filling the role in the German Empire would be ill-equiped to handle the machinery of this state. In effect one of the major factors that led to World War I – and by extension the unravelling of the German Empire was that a succession of weaker men held the position of Chancellor at the same time as the Hohenzollern line produced a rather erratic and temperamental Emperor. Bismarck appeared to have a solution to every eventuality except for the possibility that there might not always be a Bismarck.

I’m thinking about this in the wake of Mark Driscoll rage-quitting his church only to have the whole thing implode. Churches and movements that make one human being indispensable are likely doomed when that person leaves. Does your church or network or denomination have a Bismarck problem? You may want to look into that question.