In August 1978, when French newspapers were going through one of their recurrent spells of worrying about signs of renascent Nazism in West Germany, the dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, not usually an admirer of great men, wrote a curious essay in the influential weekly news magazine Der Spiegel entitled “Bismarck the Classic,” in which he roundly criticized German historians for their inadequate appreciation of Germany’s greatest statesman. He reminded them that an English historian had called Bismarck’s memoirs “an unexcelled memoir of statecraft” and “the most authoritative statement about the art of governing since Machiavelli’s The Prince.” He pointed out that the chancellor’s social insurance laws antedated by at least sixty years any comparable legislation in the United States; and he described the three volumes of Bismarck’s Table Talk (Gespräche), which he said should be required reading for his countrymen, as “the only books in the German language whose human and political stature (the rarest combination that there is) places them on the level of Shakespeare’s historical plays.”
This view of Bismarck as a combination of social reformer, political scientist, and humanist may strike students of the Iron Chancellor’s career as being selective and arbitrary, but the fact is that most German judgments of Bismarck since the end of the Second World War tend to be either arbitrary or ambivalent. At those times when they are feeling frustrated by their reduced role in the world or are irritated by foreign criticism, Germans are apt to invoke his name as if to reassure themselves with the memory of a time when they possessed a Zauberkünstler who knew the answers to all foreign political conundrums and who made his country respected and feared abroad. In more reflective moments, if they think of him at all, they wonder whether there may not be some connection between his policies and their present perplexities. It is not irrelevant to note that, in the days when the Allensbach Institut für Demoskopie used to ask its respondents, “In your opinion which great Germans accomplished most for Germany?” Bismarck’s share in the vote was never higher than 35 percent (in 1950) and declined steadily, reaching a low point of 13 percent in December 1966. It would probably be no higher today.
One of the chancellor’s greatest admirers, the historian Friedrich Meinecke, wrote sadly in 1948 that it was time for Germans to face up to the fact that Bismarck’s contribution to German history had “a night side” as well as “a day side.” The latter was his founding of the German Reich in 1871, which released energies that had lain dormant for decades and, by doing so, brought benefits not only to the German people but, if one thinks of the achievements of German science and industry and art and scholarship during the empire, to the rest of the world as well. The “night side” was represented by the fact that the Reich was as much the creation of …