Bismarck: Bruce Waller Looks at Recent Debate about Modern Germany's Greatest Statesman. (Talking Points)

By Waller, Bruce | History Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview
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Bismarck: Bruce Waller Looks at Recent Debate about Modern Germany's Greatest Statesman. (Talking Points)


Waller, Bruce, History Review


Historians strive to accumulate and record the facts of the past: with diligence they can obtain a high degree of accuracy. They also attempt the more difficult task of interpreting that past; here certainty, if it is more than banal, is an ungrateful and resourceful captive, yearning to escape. We know a great deal about Bismarck, but each of us sees him differently. Our own individuality is important, but so is our place in time, in society or on the globe.

The Bismarck debate

Before the First World War most Germans looked on the founder of their empire with admiration, though not necessarily with love. But there were also those who thought that he had robbed Germans of liberty. After the war the voice of criticism was muted. Germans blamed defeat in World War I on his successors and jealous foreigners. Bismarck's work was seen as `creative' in the 1860s and as peaceful afterwards. In the late 1930s and early 40s his 19 years of peace embarrassed the authorities who preferred to honour Frederick the Great, a man small in stature but large in warlike endurance. The first breath of criticism therefore occurred under National Socialism. This upsetting fact was to facilitate the post World War II revival of respect and even veneration for Bismarck: if the Nazis did not honour the iron chancellor, then he must have been worthy!

During the 1950s criticism of Bismarck centred rather unrealistically on the problem of deciding whether a German nation-state or a German-dominated Central Europe should have been created. The problems inherent in the second alternative were so apparent that Bismarck's creation assumed the mantle of inevitability. A united Central Europe would have needed to be sufficiently strong to function smoothly at home but too weak to upset its neighbours -- an impossible configuration. Most people were therefore prepared to accept Bismarck's creation, warts and all, as necessary and therefore welcome. The flickers of criticism under Nazism cooled until 1955, when something happened to re-ignite them and then to fan the flames as never before.

This was the appearance of an article in a German historical journal, leading to publication of a substantial book by Fritz Fischer on the origins of World War I. Not only was he the first significant German historian to blame Germany for starting the war, but he called it an attempt to gain world-wide power and linked it to Hitler's more ambitious effort -- thus labelling the Germans as consistently belligerent. Fischer substantiated this with political, economic, social and cultural evidence. It amounted to a massive attack on Bismarck's creation and initiated a furious debate on the character and consequences of it. The larger-than-life image of the man was not so much questioned as demonised. So Fischer's book, which was not even on Bismarck, made the greatest impact in the debate on the man and his work. His student Helmut Bohme took up the economic argument and in a book published in German in 1966 maintained that economic matters, largely uncontrolled by Bismarck, were in fact much more important than his political manoeuvring. Hans-Ulrich Wehler took this argument further and, in addition, insisted that Bismarck's empire was fatally flawed from birth. So what one might call the Fischer school contended that not so much the chancellor but the iron and rye economy was central; the state apparently created by Bismarck was doomed from the outset and led ultimately but also inexorably to Hitler.

The `Fischer controversy' -- the argument between his supporters and his enemies -- raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Since the Fischer school stood on the political left and its opponents on the right, the dispute was political as well as historical. There was also the generational gap. Fischerites were, as a rule, young men (Fischer himself however belonged to the older generation). The dispute was especially bitter, partly because the opponents were separated by age and politics.

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