The Reich Stuff

Preussen, Deutschland und Europa August–November 1990

an exhibition at the Deutsches Historische Museum, Berlin,

Preussen, Deutschland und Europa

catalog of the exhibition
Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 526 pp., DM 29.80

Bismarck and the Development of Germany, Vol. I: The Period of Unification, 1815–1871

by Otto Pflanze
Princeton University Press, 518 pp., complete set, $95.00

Bismarck and the Development of Germany, Vol. III: The Period of Fortification, 1880–1898

by Otto Pflanze
Princeton University Press, 474 pp., complete set, $95.00

Bismarck: Das Reich in der Mitte Europas

by Ernst Engelberg
Siedler Verlag, 731 pp., DM 58

In an article written in 1949, Thomas Mann quoted an observation by Nietzsche to the effect that a people (Volk) was Nature’s roundabout way of producing three or four great men. This was a very German saying, Mann wrote, and one to which the Germans would be more willing to assent than any other people in the world, because

in Germany greatness inclines to an undemocratic process of hypertrophy; and between it and the masses there is a gulf, a “pathos of distance,” to use Nietzsche’s favorite saying, that is not so sharp elsewhere, in lands where greatness does not create servitude on the one hand and an overgrowth of absolutistic egotism on the other. 1

The greatest embodiments of the German spirit, Luther, Goethe, and Bismarck, were, in Mann’s view, figures of such “exorbitant and increasingly isolated greatness” that their fellow countrymen were all too willing to assume that their very existence proved that “humanity in its most noble and powerful form was possible only in Germany.” This was an illusion in itself, but it had the additional effect of defeating any possibility of viewing truly outstanding talents with objectivity, the tendency being rather to mythologize or demonize them. Mann himself was guilty of this in a passage about Bismarck that has been often quoted:

This phenomenon of a political genius of German stock, who in three bloody wars created the Prussian-German realm of power and for decades secured for it the hegemony in Europe—a hysterical colossus with a high voice, brutal, sentimental, and given to nervous spasms of weeping;…a giant of fathomless cunning and…cynical frankness of speech,…contemptuous of people and overwhelming them with charm or force, careerist, realist, absolute anti-ideologist, a personality of excessive and almost superhuman format who, filled with himself, reduced everything about him to adulation or trembling….

At the mere mention of a political opponent, his look was that of an angry lion. Gargantuan in his appetites, he devoured half a henturkey at dinner, drank half a bottle of cognac and three bottles of Apollinaris with it, and smoked five pipes afterwards…. Like Luther, he took a passionate joy in hating, and with all of the European polish of the aristocratic diplomat he was, like him, Germanic and anti-European…. Revolutionary and at the same time the product of the enormous powers of reaction, he left liberal Europe, thanks to the success of his seasoned Machiavellianism, in the most complete disarray and in Germany strengthened the servile worship of power to the same degree as he weakened faith in tenderer, nobler human ideas and values.2

This is a description rather than an explanation, a portrait without background which all but suggests that no background is needed because its subject is self-contained and invulnerable to external influence. However permissible to the man of letters, this is not a view that commends itself to the historian, and the greatest students of Bismarck’s life and statecraft have always sought to relate the…

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