Monday, 13 January 2014

Germany and Bismarck

Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire. James Wycliffe Headlam, 1899.

This review was written on January 12th 2012

This was the third book I ordered on the Kindle. It was free and had been contributed by volunteers because it was out of copyright. I had been searching for a suitable biography to read and found it immediately on the Kindle list. I had never read of Bismarck and I knew little about the formation of modern Germany apart from being aware of the crucial role Bismarck played in its formation.

The Bismarck family was first heard of in the 13th century in Northern Germany in that part of the country which eventually became part of Prussia. They claim to have been always part of the aristocracy. They were big land owners and had a long military tradition. The subject of this review, Otto Edward Leopold Von Bismarck, was born in Brandenburg in 1815. He was popular in his youth and early adult life but until the age of 30 or so his career varied while at this stage he became responsible with his brother for the care of some of his family’s properties. He was obviously well educated, and capable, even if somewhat given at times in his early days to the normal escapades and drinking habits of his contemporaries.

During Bismarck’s earlier years before 1850 there were 37 different German States, including Austria and Prussia. The latter states were the most populous and powerful. The mid-1800s were greatly disturbed by the urge to bring all these states together as a German nation but this was opposed by Austria and by some others of the smaller states and by some leading figures in politics and close to the King of Prussia. This early section of the book is much involved with the attempts to provide this union of states and it is, I must confess, difficult for the reader to understand the author’s chapters on this period. It is clear that the union of the states was ultimately achieved some years later, and that Bismarck played a crucial role in achieving this end.  The Austrian Empire remained outside the confederation (until it was absorbed by Hitler in 1937). During these earlier years and after Bismarck joined the diplomatic section of the Prussian government, he played a very conservative if somewhat peripheral part in the proposal for union but he was to support radical policies in later years.

In 1848 an assembly of the states passed a German constitution and the King of Prussia was elevated to the Kingdom of Germany but a union of states was to await some more years before Germany was fully united. In the following years until 1860 Bismarck remained without any direct political power although he was active as one of the minority of leaders who espoused conservative views about his country’s policies on Germanic union. He became influential as a diplomat representing his country, rubbing shoulders firstly in Frankfort with the representatives of Austria and the other smaller Germanic states. Later he represented Prussia in St. Petersburg. At this time he became close to the King of Prussia (and later the Czar) and he was not infrequently consulted by King William whose power and decisions according to the Prussian constitution were binding on his subjects.

After some years in the diplomatic service and as his relationship with the King became closer he was appointed the chief of state and from then on he shared the power of the King in fact if not in theory. The setting up of the North German Federation in 1862 and the introduction of universal suffrage was the first step in German unification and was the first major step in his progressive and enlightened policies. The southern states of Germany were to wait some further years before they, with the exception of the Austrian Empire, were to form the modern Germany which exists to this day. Although the Prussian King was constitutionally all powerful and did not always agree with his chief minister, almost invariably Bismarck, if he was seriously committed to any policy, eventually got his way. He was responsible for the decision to go to war with France and Napoleon in 1870 when the French were humiliated by the Prussian forces and when both Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to Germany. At this time too he welcomed the enthusiastic application of the southern German States, dominated by Bavaria and the more Catholic areas.

Kaiser Wilhelm I
During his 20 years or more as the power beside the throne he showed a passionate interest in Prussia and in the unification of all the German states. His influence and power were not infrequently maintained against a hostile parliament and the political parties. Parliament became more influential at the time of unification. He was always conscious of the important role of the Prussian army in relation to foreign affairs and he appeared to have been influential in establishing the later militarism of Germany in the next century. He also played a crucial part in later years in encouraging German industry, in encouraging international trade and in improving the social circumstances of the workers and of families. He tended to be anti-Catholic but these sentiments were provoked by interference by the Vatican in religious and educational affairs in his country and by the pope’s declaration of infallibility.

Both in internal and external matters Bismarck dominated German politics from his appointment as chief minister until the death of King William in 1888 and the death a few months later of his son and successor, Frederick. The latter’s son, Wilhelm, was still a young man when he ascended the throne. Unlike his two predecessors, he was less than happy with Bismarck and the latter was soon aware that the new king was seeking advice from others without consultation with his chief minister. Bismarck was humiliated and angry with the new monarch and, on subsequently asking the King if he was out of favour, the latter confirmed his lack of support.

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Bismarck very reluctantly resigned in 1889 but, although he was revered by the public and by many of his colleagues, and he received many honours during the last ten years of his life, he failed to reconcile himself to his dismissal by the monarch and his loss of power. He continued to interfere inappropriately in national and political affairs almost until his death ten years later in 1898. He was never reconciled to this loss of influence in German affairs and remained ungracious in his rejection by the King until his relatively lonely death. He must be held up  to the present day as one of the great statesmen of the world and, no doubt, if he had accepted his retirement from affairs with humility and with thanks for the many things he achieved for his country and the many honours bestowed on him , he would surely remain  the greatest.

It is said that politicians always finish their careers as failures. The transition from fame to the loss of public recognition leaves a lacuna in the politician’s mind which can be hard to accept philosophically. And this applies to other people who have been prominent in the public mind. In my advice to older  people who  wish to enjoy the third stage of life I urge them to respond to lost fame and public recognition with a sense of pride and satisfaction that they have made their contribution, however small, to the betterment of humanity.

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