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”, “who would cut the Gordian knot of nationalistic aspirations”. 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 gro? eutshe historians”. As the kleindeutsche historians argued that the unification was a “natural birth”, the gro? deutshe viewed it as a “caesarean section”. 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, 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”. 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”, and thus following the unification in 1871 “there was a feeling of fulfilment amongst historians…the status quo had to be supported”. 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”. 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”, 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. 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. 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, 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.

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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”. The struggles of the German nation following the defeat in WWI and the social and political revolution resulted in Germany needing Bismarck “to provide courage and orientation”, and thus the manufactured interpretation of Bismarck was one of guidance and success. Publications throughout this time were limited; however the ability to understand Bismarck’s impact was extensively amplified as “new documents were released from the foreign office archives”. Thus as a result of the flourish of foreign policy research, the 1920 interpretation of Bismarck’s foreign policy portrayed it as “an example of modesty and wisdom”. The writings of Emil Ludwig, Geschichte eines Kampfers in 1928 substantiates this romantic and savour view of Bismarck, as “Bismarck’s life is portrayed as an ancient Greek drama with a Faustian hero”.

The historiography surrounding Bismarck was significantly altered following the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent rise of the Nazis, as the Nazi regime constantly utilised Bismarck to justify themselves. They “found willing executioners in historians like Marcks to interpret their value-system in Bismarckian terms”. The Nazis manipulated Bismarck and Bismarck’s historical legacy to benefit them as “on the ‘Day of Potsdam’, where he (Hitler) glowingly praised his predecessor’s work which had, in his view, started the ‘ascent’ of the German people”. Hitler aimed at creating links with Bismarck to justify his expansionary foreign policy, such as the Anschluss in 1938, and to gain credit and popularity through association with Bismarck. The influence of the rise of Nazism upon historiography is highlighted by Wilhelm Mommsen, originally a Republican, as he wrote Politische Geschichte von Bismarck bis zur Gegenwart 1850 – 1933, (1935), linking Bismarck to Hitler. Mommsen argued that “the first generation fulfilled the yearnings of the Germans and built the empire under Bismarck’s guidance,…. he second ossified…and the third grew up in the war and built a country that, though connected with Bismarck’s creation, also outgrew it in many ways”. Mommsen argued for the Third Reich to have completed the structural complexities of society and industry that Bismarck had created. The writings of Bismarck became linked to Hitler as a result of the context in which historians wrote, firstly in one of persecution and censorship, however, German historians were not opponents of Hitler, and thus manipulated the history of Bismarck to benefit the Nazi Regime, of which they favoured. Following the collapse of the Third Reich after the Second World War in 1945, “Bismarck, the creator of the nation, was bound to be seen differently”. Friedrich Meinecke argued that historians should adopt entirely new perspectives regarding Germany’s past, “the staggering course of the First, and still more the Second World War no longer permits the question to be ignored whether the seeds of later evil were not already present in the Bismarckian Reich”. Whilst there was a negative assessment of Bismarck’s role in the path of atrocities, German historians also “preferred to hark back to Bismarck’s greatness to show up the depth of failure among his successors”. Due to the actions of Hitler and the Nazi state, the role of Bismarck was investigated as to how far he enabled the dictatorial powers and influenced the structures of war, which were experienced throughout Europe and as substantiated by Hans Hallmann, “the question for German historians after the Second World War was, therefore: how should one write about Bismarck after Hitler? The criticism was largely influenced by the context of which the historians were writing in, as the collapse of the Reich signalled a supposed failure in Bismarck, and questioned his success intentions, as “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”. A. J. P. Taylor’s, Bismarck: the man and the statesman written in 1955, typified post war historical thought, questioning the role of Bismarck in the collapse of democracy.

Taylor contrasted the critical nature of Bismarck arguing for the general success of Bismarck. Taylor’s British context allowed him to keep “a healthy distance from the Bismarck myth”, which resulted in the influencing of many German historians, and thus enabled perspective. He argued for the understanding of Bismarck as a manipulator, due to his ability to avert problematic confrontations, as “on such occasions one can see not only Bismarck’s great intellectual gifts, but a manipulative emotional intelligence”. Taylor utilised psychoanalysis of Bismarck to explain the factors impacting upon his policies, and as argued by Urbach was “especially effective in describing Bismarck’s youth”. Through utilising a differing methodology of historical examination, Taylor received and portrayed a differing perspective of Bismarck and Bismarck’s role in Germany, portraying Bismarck as “a man who wanted peace for his country and helped to give Europe such peace for forty years”, whilst the majority of his countrymen would associate Bismarck with ‘iron, three wars and as the predecessor of Hitler’”. The “revival of respect and even veneration for Bismarck” was countered significantly in the “passionately partisan criticism of Bismarck’s work”, Bismarck and German Empire (1963) of Erich Eyck. Eyck was typically a liberal historian, and thus opposed Bismarck, from “the standpoint of iustitia fundamentum regnorum”, arguing that justice should be the major foundation of governance, as Eyck wrote “in the tradition of the great liberal opponents of Bismarck.

Eyck argues that Bismarck was the “hero of violent genius”, through his 3 volume biography of which is greatly influenced by his liberal standpoint and historical context of persecution by Hitler, and his background as a lawyer as he “despised Bismarck’s lack of respect for the rule of law”. Eyck continually criticised Bismarck’s detrimental impact upon liberalism within Germany and “passionately condemned Bismarck’s cynicism towards liberal, democratic and humanitarian ideals”, which he states to have “incapacitated the people”. Bismarck and German Empire influenced the historiography of the Bismarckian topic among German and international historians, presenting “an interpretation neoconservative in nature”. This criticism of Bismarck has influenced the German historian, Hans Rothfels, whom followed Eyck, arguing that “Eyck’s belief in a ‘liberal option’ for a united Germany was not justified, that no one but Bismarck could have united Germany”. Fritz Fischer’s Germany's Aims in the First World War (1968) signalled the “first significant German historian to blame Germany for starting the war”.

Fritz Fischer’s publication significantly demonized Bismarck and Bismarck’s Germany, arguing for the path that Bismarck had essentially led the path to the German cause of the First World War. Fischer’s writings and interpretation of Bismarck largely contradicted the mainstream views of Bismarck and Bismarck’s Germany, and as substantiated by Feuchtwanger, “It contradicted much of the work done in Germany on the war guilt question and caused great controversy”.

The controversial nature of Fischer’s publication resulted however in a flow of reassessments of his original publications, still maintaining the criticism of Bismarck and resulting in a “massive attack on Bismarck’s creation”. The flow of secondary publications created a Fischer school of historical thought, which “stood on the political left and its opponents on the political right”.

Through the publication of Fritz Fischer’s Germany's Aims in the First World War, the German historian utilized “political, economic, social and cultural evidence”, to persuade and research, thus creating a revision of historiography. The debate between Fischer and the right created significant disruption within the history fraternity, as “The left, who believed in critical social history, felt cheated because…the historical establishment strongly resisted their new and much more critical view of German history”. The Fischer school of historical thought was extensively revised in the 1980s, of which Bruce Waller refers to as the ‘conservative 1980s’. Edgar Feuchtwanger claims, “Revisionism provokes further revision”, as “German historians and the population in general began to view the past more reverently”. The political complexities of the Bismarckian era influenced and resulted in a change of interpretations of Bismarck Bismarck’s Germany, as moves to the more political right occurred, and thus a return to a more approving view of Bismarck was undertaken.

Through one of the most revered and respected historians on Bismarck, Otto Pflanze’s trilogy Bismarck and the Development of Germany (1963, but reprinted and reassessed in 1990), significant in grounds have been made to the overall historical value of the Bismarckian era. Bismarck’s assessment was, as argued by Kraehe, “taking into particular account the work of Helmut Bohme” whom Pflanze critiques, “Bohme’s account of the relationship between economic and political forces in domestic politics during the period of unification also appears overstated”. Pflanze argues against the typical liberal-nationalist interpretation arguing “the primacy of political and individual action”, continuing against the nationalist sentiment of early German historians in arguing that “the war of 1866 was neither inevitable nor necessary”. Pflanze significantly impacted upon historiography, contrasting the Fischer approach to German and Bismarckian history, although still remaining critical of Bismarck and Bismarck’s Germany. Kraehe argues that to Pflanze, “Bismarck was always larger than life”, due to the immense coverage and detail provided in Pflanze’s trilogy.

Pflanze uses differing concepts of investigation to outline the Bismarckian era, as outlined by Waller, “Pflanze uses psychological insight and works with Freudian concepts”. Pflanze in essence portrays a structuralist interpretation of Bismarck’s unification and impact, arguing that Bismarck took taking advantage of certain opportunities, “Pflanze stresses Bismarck’s flexibility, his concern to keep options open”. Pflanze’s changed views of Bismarckian historiography can be seen due to his “return to the sources”, and thus uses a “psychological history”, hich as Urbach concludes, enabled him to “analyse in detail”. Pflanze openly argued for the structuralist interpretation of Bismarck, within the nature of Bismarck’s opportunism and manipulation of events, rather than intentionally staging events. The 1980s biography Bismarck: The White Revolutionary, by Lothar Gall significantly impacted upon the historiography of Bismarck and Bismarck’s Germany, as Waller describes, “It is probably the most searching biography we have”. Lothar Gall portrays Bismarck as a revolutionary, however conservative in nature. As highlighted by Bruce Waller, Gall wrote Bismarck: The White Revolutionary “to counter the school of historians whom the individual matters little”, and thus like Pflanze investigated the implications of an individual upon a society. Whilst, “unlike Pflanze, Gall did not uncover new sources” he utilised the analysis of existing Bismarckian sources to investigate the true impact of Bismarck upon 19th Century Germany.

Whilst Waller points out that “most historians, but not the majority of students, have now consigned the view of Bismarck as a reactionary to history’s dust bin”, Gall’s major investigation was to highlight the reactionary nature of Bismarck’s role as chancellor. Gall’s 1980 biography was aiming to “describe the circumstances the chancellor faced and then to see the way he reacted to them”, and as highlighted by Urbach, “Gall wanted to show how Bismarck, when faced with developments he had not created himself, turned them to his advantage”. Thus, due to Galls idealisation that Bismarck was a reactionary, he “portrayed him after 1871 as the Zauberlehrling (sorcerer’s apprentice)”, arguing that he had lost his magic touch, an argument that may have been “the most devastating criticism of the man yet”.  Thus Gall portrayed Bismarck as a chancellor that “was not the great genius who knew and guessed it all well in advance”, as “Gall argues that the iron chancellor conjured up powers – nationalism, liberalism, and economic modernisation – which spun out of control and that therefore what he achieved was not what he had striven for”. Gall’s interpretation of Bismarck has been seen as largely critical, however still remains a significant German interpretation, countering the initial nationalist-liberal interpretations portraying Bismarck as totally in charge, whilst also countering the arguments that Bismarck’s planning was the leeway for Hitler’s ascendancy and dictatorship. In essence Gall identified Bismarck’s accomplishment as “imperfect and – to a point – unintended”. As noted by Urbach, Bismarck himself hinted at his own imperfection, “one cannot possibly make history, although one can always learn from it how one should lead the political life of a great people in accordance with their development and their historical destiny”.

The Bismarckian historical debate was notably influenced by the writings of Ernst Engelberg, writing in the 1980s, and proposing an altered interpretation of Bismarck. Engelberg as a Marxist “interpreted the Reichsgrundung as a phase of social progress that helped the working class to develop from a national base”. Whilst Waller argues that “Engelberg was a life-long communist and one of East Germany’s leading historians who in the past had insisted on strict Marxist history”, he argues that his biography of Bismarck is not fully weighted on Marxist ideology, “it additionally gives full weight to psychological and religious as well as to political and economic factors”. Engelberg, like Gall, did not utilise his own research and discover new sources, as stated by Urbach, “Engelberg used much of the old research of Erich Marcks and A.

O. Meyer”, however she continues by stating Engelberg “includes more analysis”. Engelberg’s argument of Bismarck is similar, yet differing to Gall’s, as both historians “see Bismarck as someone who tried to control the current of the time and not as a creator”, and thus to some extent was critical of Bismarck’s power, however Engelberg also defended the power of Bismarck stating that “despite the machinations, Bismarck was far from acting like an adventurer…On the contrary his preparations…proved to be prudent”. Waller states that Engelberg’s argument was influenced by “Prussianism”, highlighting Engelberg’s biography to be “Prussian to the extent of disparaging the attitudes and actions of other Germans, especially those who attempted to thwart Bismarck’s initiatives”. Engelberg proposed a favourable interpretation of Bismarck in his 1980s biography, arguing that whilst his control was not always complete, his ability was.

Engelberg critiqued the post war historiography arguing that Bismarck’s successors were “responsible for gambling away the inheritance”, and thus links made between Bismarck and the collapse of democracy were perverse. The historical interpretations of Otto von Bismarck have undergone an extensive change, due to changing social and ideological contexts of historians that have assessed the chancellor and his impact upon Germany.

The historical writings throughout time, from the early historians on Bismarck, such as Heinrich von Sybel, historians writing in the times of Nazism, and following the collapse of Nazism have all succeeded in assessing the personality and his impact, however were unable to emancipate themselves from their social and political contexts, and thus the interpretations of Bismarck have reflected these influences. The most recent assessments of Bismarck have also significantly transformed the historiographical debate; however have successfully avoided being overly impacted upon by context, and thus present an emancipated history of Bismarck and his impact upon Germany. The flourishing debate over the Bismarckian era will result in continual changing interpretations of the statesman; however the discovery of new sources and evidence highlights the sequential move towards the objective portrayal of Otto von Bismarck and Bismarckian Germany.


  1. Urbach, Karina, (1998). Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. Pp 1143
  2. Ibid. , p. 1143. Ibid. , p. 1144. Jaspers, Karl, (1960). Freiheit und Wiedervereinigung. Munich. Pp. 42
  3. Heinrich v. Treitschke. (1867 – 97) Historische und politische Aufsatze. 4 volumes. Leipzig, (1874 – 79) Zehn Jahre deutscher Kampfre: Schriften zur Tagespolitik 1865 – 1879). 2 volumes. Berlin.
  4. Kohn, Hans, (1961). The mind of Germany: education of a nation. London. Pp 188
  5. Urbach, Karina, (1998). Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. Pp 1144 [8] Wehler, Hans-Ulrich, (1976). Bismarck und der Imperialismus. Munich. Pp. 15 [9] Ibid. , p. 1144.
  6. Seier, Helmut, “Heinrich v Sybel”, in Wehler, Deutsche Historiker. Pp. 144
  7. Ibid. , p. 144.
  8. Urbach, Karina, (1998). “Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. , p. 1145.
  9. There were only a few critical voices emerging. For example: Johannes Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutschen Kaiserreiches (3 volumes. Frankfurt. 1925 – 1930); Ulrich Noack, Bismarcks Friedenspolitik (Leipzig 1928).
  10. Zmarzlik. Das Bismarckbild. Pp. 19.
  11. Urbach, Karina, (1998). “Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. , p. 1148.
  12. Ibid. , p. 1148.
  13. Rothfels, Hans, (1924). Bismarck’s englische Bundnispolitik. Berlin.
  14. Urbach, Karina, (1998). Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. , p. 1149.
  15. Ibid. , p. 1150
  16. Ibid. , p. 1150
  17. Meaning he was in favour of the Weimar Republic, which collapsed in 1933, resulting in Hitler’s ascendancy
  18. Mommsen, Wilhelm, (1935). Politische Geschichte von Bismarck bis zur Gegenwart 1850 – 1933. Frankfurt. Pp. 252
  19. Urbach, Karina, (1998). “Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 998 Cambridge University Press. , p. 1151.
  20. Quoted from Gall, ed. , “Geschiechtsschreibung”, pp9
  21. Meinecke, Friedrich (1946). “Die deutsche Katastrophe: Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen”. Wiesbaden. Pp.
  22. Feuchtwanger, Edgar (2001) Imperial Germany 1850-1918. New York and London: Routledge
  23. Hallmann, Hans (1972). “Revision des Bismarckbildes : die Diskussion der deutschen Fachhistoriker 1945-1955”. Darmstadt
  24. Waller, Bruce (1998). “Bismarck: Bruce Waller looks at recent debate about modern Germany’s greatest statesman”. History Review. March 1st. p. 41.
  25. Urbach, Karina (1998). Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. Pp 1154
  26. Ibid. , p. 1154.
  27. Ibid. , p. 1154.
  28. Taylor interview with the Westdeutscher Reundfunk, 31 March 1965
  29. Urbach, Karina (1998). “Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. Pp 1154
  30. Waller, Bruce (1998). “Bismarck: Bruce Waller looks at recent debate about modern Germany’s greatest statesman”.
  31. History Review. March 1st. [35] Sturmer, Michael (1971). “Bismarck in Perspective”, Central European History 4. Vermont.
  32. Feuchtwanger, Edgar (2001) Imperial Germany 1850-1918. New York and London: Routledge
  33. Footnotes 11 of Michael Sturmer [38] Urbach, Karina (1998). “Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. Pp 1142
  34. Ibid. , p. 1142. [40] Quoted in Schoeps, Hans-Joachim (1964). “Unbewaltigte Geshichte: Stationen deutchen Schicksals seit 1793”. Berlin.
  35. Pp 108
  36. Urbach, Karina (1998). “Historiographical Review, Between Saviour and Villain: 100 years of Bismarck Biographies”. The Historical Journal. Printed in the United Kingdom. 1998 Cambridge University Press. Pp. 1142
  37. Sturmer, Michael (1971). “Bismarck in Perspective”, Central European History 4. Vermont.
  38. Journal of Modern History 40. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. , p. 125. [55] Kraehe, Enno, (1990). ‘Review Article on Otto Pflanze’s Bismarck Trilogy’, Central European History, 23, 4. Emory University Press, Atlanta. , p. 369.
  39. Ibid. , p. 369.
  40. Ibid. , p. 369.
  41. Waller, Bruce (1998). “Bismarck: Bruce Waller looks at recent debate about modern Germany’s greatest statesman”. History Review. March 1st.
  42. Ibid. , p. 43.

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