Otto Von Bismarck and Bismarckian Germany

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The historical interpretation of Otto von Bismarck and Bismarckian Germany has undergone extensive transformation, as historians have had access to a wider variety of sources and evidence, and have held differing social and political presuppositions influencing their portrayal of the German unifier. The changing historical interpretations can be seen over time, as differing contexts and sources influence the portrayal, as early interpretations of Bismarck from the 1870s to the 1920s portrayed Bismarck as a man in charge and as a necessity for Germany to move forward. The interpretation of Bismarck continued to change throughout the 1930s and 40s as a result of Nazism and the collapse of the Third Reich, the interpretations shifted, and throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s the interpretation of Bismarck has become more balanced, not significantly influenced by political desires, whilst still influenced by social context. Through the study of historical debate focussing between the 1880s and 1980s, the changing interpretations of Bismarck can be illuminated and assessed.

Historiographical debate of Bismarck’s impact upon Germany began almost immediately following his rise to prominence, as the primary initial historiography within Germany demanded a “strong man”[1], “who would cut the Gordian knot of nationalistic aspirations”.[2] Thus, German historians and the public throughout the 1850s and 1860s desired Bismarck to be portrayed as a benefactor to the German society; however Bismarck was also criticised as being detrimental to the development of Germany. The differing interpretations of Bismarck throughout the 1980s were “between the kleindeutsche and groβdeutshe historians”.[3] As the kleindeutsche historians argued that the unification was a “natural birth”, the groβdeutshe viewed it as a “caesarean section”.[4] The kleindeutshe school of though was largely composed of nationalist historians Heinrich von Sybel and Treitschke. Treitschke argued that the subjection of Germany was an inevitable price of unification[5], countering Mommsen’s critique arguing that “the injury done by the Bismarckian era is infinitely greater than its benefits…the subjugation of the German spirit was a misfortune which cannot be undone”.[6] The nationalist-liberal interpretation of Bismarck was reflected significantly in the publications of the late 19th Century historians as for these historians, “Bismarck became the man with the masterplan”[7], and thus following the unification in 1871 “there was a feeling of fulfilment amongst historians…the status quo had to be supported”.[8] The impact of the historian’s context is clearly shown as “early biographies by German historians also show us the extent to which the political Zeitgeist made them distort the picture of Bismarck”.[9] The sources available to the historians of the 1880s and 1890s also influenced their interpretation of Bismarck as “the documents were chosen by Bismarck himself”[10], which has been clearly shown to have impacted upon the writings of the German nationalist historian, Sybel, as Sybel’s writings were checked by Bismarck prior to publication.[11] Thus, as a result of the impact of sources and context, Sybel portrayed Bismarck as a good servant who did his duty to his nation.[12] The writings of the late 19th Century, 1871 to the early 20th Century 1910 were significantly influenced by the nationalist-liberal interpretation of the time and context.

The German defeat in the First World War, in 1918 was expected to have created a revision in German historiography however, this was not the case[13], as the failures of WWI were averted and blamed on others through the “Stab in the back” ideology, the Bismarck myth did not become tainted. The roots of the myth of Bismarck were planted throughout the 1920s as “German historians of the twenties and thirties were driven by the idea of giving their countrymen an unchallengeable hero in Bismarck”.[14] The struggles of the German...
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