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Bismarck and the making of modern Germany.

The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor. Robert Gerwarth. Oxford University Press. [pounds sterling]45.00. xii + 216 pages. ISBN 0-19928184-X.

There are few better ways of comprehending the spirit that motivates any country at a particular period in its history than looking at the way it views its great historical figures from the recent past. It is hardly surprising that in today's uncertain Britain, there was a much hyped publicity stunt by the BBC to find the 'Greatest Briton'. This at least provided welcome income for a gaggle of fading celebrities to promote, replete with numerous amusing errors, their own favourite historical characters along with their own careers.

Of all Western countries none has one such dominating figure more than Germany has in Prince Otto von Bismarck. Of course there are far more famous or rather infamous figures in the history of the last two centuries. Bismarck's claim to fame is secure: alone he unified the German states into one Empire, led it remarkably successfully for several decades and finally gave up control of the ship of state in a peaceful, if not entirely voluntary, manner, in 1890. (One of the most famous of all Punch's political cartoons, 'Dropping the Pilot', shows his departure as a triumphant Wilhelm II looked on: this is often reused in somewhat similar circumstances in other countries.)

The German-born Oxford historian, Robert Gerwarth, has performed a real service by showing with a telling eye for colourful details, how Bismarck or rather the myth of Bismarck has been used by different factions in Germany's difficult history from the Prince's dismissal up to the reunification of the country a century later. Indeed the sweep of the book is a far longer period than the misleading subtitle indicates. The propagandists were often as skilful and as devious as the great Prussian Junker himself. Thus the first exploiters of Bismarck's reputation used him as a way to attack his successful foe, the young Wilhelm II, the erratic Kaiser who was himself soon busy using his dead enemy as a prop for his disastrous policies. Meanwhile it became popular throughout the Kaiserreich to celebrate its founder, Bismarck, with numerous statues usually adorned with his most celebrated quote: 'We Germans fear God but nothing else in the world'. Sadly none of the massive monuments finished the quotation of the canny statesman: 'and it is fear of God that makes us love and cherish peace'.

The Weimar Republic, which, as Dr Gerwarth rightly argues, lacked both stability and legitimacy, saw Bismarck's words being cited by every faction for its own ends. This is the most useful section of this well researched and well written (save for a penchant for split infinitives) book. Hitler did not start by exploiting Bismarck but soon found his name a convenient rallying cry. 'The Bismarck myth helped to create a political climate which smoothed the way for Hitler's success' by extolling the national longing for a 'great man' in such pre-war controversies as the attempt to create a customs union between Germany and Austria.

Hitler's 'skilful demagogic use of historical myths' eventually focused on Bismarck and that other equally unpleasant Prussian, Frederick the Great. Yet, strangely, once Germany plunged into the Second World War with its seemingly Bismarckian series of early lightning victories, Bismarck was dropped from most Nazi propaganda. Indeed he began to be used by Hitler's enemies such as the admirable conservative aristocrats who found solace in some of Bismarck's more provident sentiments. The Russians also used Bismarck by distributing an effective cartoon showing the massive 'Iron Chancellor' peering contemptuously downward at his midget successor. The Russians also used one of Bismarck's descendents, a captured officer, to broadcast anti-Nazi messages to increasingly disillusioned German soldiers.

Twenty years after Hitler's suicide, the West German Chancellor, Ludwig Erhard (who had played such a huge, virtually Bismarckian, role in Germany's 'economic miracle') saw Bismarck as 'the symbol of the Germans' desire to be one nation'. Yet once that reunification occurred Bismarck seems to have disappeared from the German public consciousness and Dr Gerwarth concludes that Bismarck's mythic role 'is irrevocably over'. (It is therefore somewhat symbolic that the statue of Bismarck that used to stand outside the Reichstag now stands in Berlin's zoo.) Sadly the main reason for his eclipse is the shameful historical ignorance that prevails throughout the West: a poll in 1998 showed that over half of Germans had no idea who Bismarck was. So as in so many things, ignorance may have killed historical myths because myths require some vestige of historical knowledge, however faulty that might be.
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Title Annotation:The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor
Author:Wild, Ambrose
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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