4 - The Problem of Historical Connections
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4 The Problem of Historical Connections Bismarck and the German Empire In a heavily researched biographyof Otto von Bismarck (1815–­1898),the German statesman and architect of the German Second Empire, historian Jonathan Steinberg observes that his subject was an“irresistible political figure and a disastrous one.”1 According to Steinberg, “Bismarck’s legacy passed through [World War I German general and later president] Hindenburg to the last genius statesman that Germany produced, Adolf Hitler, and the legacy was thus linear and direct between Bismarck and Hitler.”2 The question that might be asked, but rarely is when the subject is modern Germany, is how “linear and direct” the connection was between Bismarck, who dominated politically the first twenty years of the German Empire, and the later Nazi regime. Together with other participants in the state-­ building process , Bismarck helped create a constitutional monarchy for the newly established Germany. This German empire was given less of a modern constitutional government than the one that existed in England, but it was nonetheless a regime that provided for religious and academic freedom. The imperial constitution also authorized a popular assembly elected on the basis of universal manhood suffrage , and the assembly that came out of this state building, the Reichstag, was given power over the purse. Steinberg leaves the impression that Bismarck’s insincere or inadequate devotion to nineteenth-­ century liberalism and his reliance on military power led ineluctably to Hitler’s savage tyranny.3 Bismarck, according to Steinberg, bullied his political opponents and never really accepted the principle of parliamentary supremacy. The German chancellor also made no secret of the fact that he had welded together a single German nation through wars, even if other countries, especially the French Second Empire under Emperor Napoleon III, had contributed to this course of events. Although his real métier was desk work, the 42 C H A P T E R four chancellor loved to prance around in military uniforms.Germany’s greatest social scientist, Max Weber, lamented the direction that he saw the imperial regime taking , and he criticized Bismarck’s highly personal style of rule for having“deprived Germans of a political education.”4 Presumably the chancellor should have stepped aside and allowed the parties in the Reichstag to determine the future of the German imperial state. Steinberg also suggests that before the appearance of his biography, historians were writing indulgently about his subject. It took his arduous work of scholarship to make us aware of Bismarck’s dangerous impact on German history. But this assertion may be difficult to square with the fact that critical biographies of Bismarck now abound.5 As a college student I was assigned two such works, one by Otto Pflanze6 and another by A. J. P. Taylor,7 neither of which could be accused of celebrating Bismarck’s stewardship of Prussia and later Germany. Both works examined Bismarck’s career in light of the Nazi catastrophe. A Bismarck biography published by Christian Graf von Krockow in 1997 and still widely quoted in Germany dwells on the failure of Germany’s unifier to push his country in the direction of a modern democracy.8 Graf von Krockow is fond of the German term Verhängnis, meaning an unpleasant fate, which is used to describe Bismarck’s legacy. Another recent work on the German Iron Chancellor, by Christoph Nonn, which came out, not coincidentally, on the two-­ hundredth anniversary of his birth, highlights Bismarck’s disparaging references to Jews.9 These gibes are thought to demonstrate Bismarck’s link to the racial policies of the Nazi regime. But the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung points out that Nonn’s “prelude to Auschwitz” was considerably less ominous than he intimates.10 Bismarck’s comments about Jewish parvenus were then widely heard among social elites throughout the Western world.Despite making remarks that would raise eyebrows today, Bismarck had close working and social relationships with German Jews. A more balanced biography of the Iron Chancellor in his home country only appeared a few months ago. This one, by distinguished diplomatic historian Hans-­ Christof Kraus, focuses on Bismarck’s achievements as well as failures and questions the attempt to treat his subject as Hitler’s forerunner.11 Kraus’s book is particularly thorough in explaining how after German unification Bismarck erected an alliance system in which the German Empire was made the cornerstone .12 Bismarck’s system was created not to aid German expansion but for the defensive purpose of preventing...


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Subject Headings

  • Conservatism.
  • Liberalism.
  • Right and left (Political science).
  • Political science -- Philosophy.
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