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The Reich Stuff

Bismarck—Preussen, Deutschland und Europa August–November 1990

an exhibition at the Deutsches Historische Museum, Berlin,

Bismarck—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 man to his time and to delineate the reciprocal relationship between his policies and the circumstances in which they were developed. It is not surprising, then, that the hundredth anniversary of his dismissal from office should see the appearance of three new attempts of this nature: the long awaited three-volume work of Otto Pflanze, the Charles Stevenson Professor of History at Bard College; the second and final volume of the biography by the East German historian Ernst Engelberg; and a major exhibition on Bismarck and his times under the auspices of the new German Historical Museum in Berlin.


The fact that the Berlin Bismarck exhibition opened its doors just as the process that united the two parts of Germany came to fruition may have struck some observers as portentous. In fact, it was an accident. When the planning committee began its work in 1987, the changes that were expected to take place in Western Europe in 1992 were much in the news, and this inspired its members to think of an exhibition on the transformation of Europe in the nineteenth century and the part played by Germans in it. A natural focus seemed to be Bismarck’s life, which extended from 1815 to 1898, but there was never any intention of building another monument to the chancellor. As Lothar Gall, himself a Bismarck biographer of distinction3 and the historical director of the Ausstellung, writes in the introduction to the catalog, the intention was rather to demythologize Bismarck by

leading [him] back into the nineteenth century, that is into an epoch that through its conditions, its compulsions, and its interconnections left even the cleverest and most influential individual only a relatively limited freedom of action. That is one of the goals of this exhibition. Another is to place those conditions, compulsions and interconnections themselves into the center of the picture and to illuminate the individual and his work through them….

The emphasis on Europe was evident in both the plan and the contents of the exhibition. The Austrian architect Boris Podrecca designed it so that visitors would come first into a central courtyard, or Lichthof, in which they would move by way of an ascending ramp past images and artifacts that represented the development, changes, and internal and external tensions of European society from the battle of Waterloo to the apocalypse of the First World War, which opened a new age. The outer rim of the exhibition was divided into smaller rooms devoted to special themes, such as the age of Metternich, the revolutions of 1848, seen in their European dimension, the national wars of the 1850s and 1860s, and the unification of Germany and its new European role.

Thanks to the energy and diplomacy of the exhibition’s director, Dr. Marie-Louise Gräfin von Plessen, 280 museums and special collections collaborated in sending exhibits to Berlin, including the Museum of the Army in Paris, the National Historical Museum in Frederiksborg, Denmark, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, and museums in Florence, Vienna, Versailles, and London. As a result visitors were privileged to see under one roof such masterpieces of historical painting as Lanfredini’s powerful representation of the execution of the revolutionary priest Ugo Bassi by Austrian troops in Bologna in 1849, Flandrin’s portrait of Napoleon III, and the large canvas that dominated the central court, Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo’s Fiumana, a study for his monumental painting The Fourth Estate. Foreign contributions also added to the variety and scope of the exhibition’s portrayal of the political life of the age, the progress of industrialism, and the emergence of the social problem and, in the case of the Prussian military victories of the 1860s, enabled visitors to see these conflicts from the other side of the hill. Particularly striking in this respect were Alphonse de Neuville’s painting of the dogged French defense in the churchyard of Saint-Privat in 1870 and a desolate photograph showing the results of the German bombardment of Strasbourg in the same year.

Through this century of political transformation, material progress, and mounting violence, Otto von Bismarck made his way, first exploiting the forces of revolutionary change, later, in his years as imperial chancellor, seeking, not without success, to direct them in ways that would serve his country, and in the end, like many another European leader, becoming a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice, overwhelmed by forces that he had helped to release. The exhibition illuminated every phase of this progress. There were theme rooms devoted to Bismarck’s Prussian ancestry and his life as a landed proprietor, his diplomatic debut in Frankfurt in the 1850s, and his foreign policy as Prussian minister president (which led him later to confess, “If it hadn’t been for me, there wouldn’t have been three great wars, 80,000 men would not have died, and parents, brothers, sisters and widows would not be mourning. But that I have had to settle with God”).4

Other rooms contained materials that illustrated the various shapes of his contorted relationship with the Reichstag, his savage offensive against socialism and political catholicism, his social insurance policies, which were trailblazing but fell so short of his own objectives that he never even mentioned them in his memoirs, his ventures into overseas colonialism, and finally—in one of the most interesting of these rooms—his transformation, after his dismissal by William II in 1890, into a national cult figure.

For those interested in the inner life of the great man, a vestibule between the central court and the theme rooms provided, among other things, family portraits, pictures of him on horseback and with his dogs, two felt hats and a hunting cap, a pair of the gigantic boots that he customarily wore, which extended far above the knee and so impressed contemporaries that Anton von Werner painted a picture of them, a portrait of his doctor Ernst Schweninger, a pill box from the King Solomon Pharmacy in Berlin with powders to be taken daily, a postcard from Bad Kissingen showing the Prince Bismarck Weighing Machine and the variations in the chancellor’s weight between 1874 and 1893, and a collection of his favorite reading, the Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare in twelve volumes, the collected works of Schiller and Heine, and the poems of Uhland, Chamisso, and Rückert.

Whether intended or not, the topicality of the Bismarck exhibition was not in doubt. Even the rooms dedicated to periods and subjects that might ordinarily seem remote had something to say to the present. In his introductory essay in the exhibition’s informative catalog, splendidly illustrated with dozens of color plates, Lothar Gall makes the point that the history of the revolutions of 1848 reveals agencies and provisional alliances, as well as moods, symbols, and hopes, that Europeans who remember the tumultuous events of 1989 will recognize in their own immediate experience. At the same time, the presence in the exhibition of forms and structures of history that have long since disappeared—such things as Prussia itself, the institution of monarchy, and the nobility as a political and social force—may have suggested to reflective visitors that that disappearance was not an unalloyed gain but one that has revealed problems and deficits in modern society.

Of immediate contemporary relevance, finally, was one of the most interesting features of the exhibition, an inner gallery flanking the central court that was dedicated to what the catalog called the “deutschen Seelensuche” and what we may call the German search for identity. Here were grouped symbolic representations of Germanness, German Sehnsucht (longing), and German national aspiration—Schloss Marienburg, the home of the Teutonic Knights; Luther in his study; Cologne Cathedral; the Kyfhäuser, where Frederick Barbarossa lies sleeping; a barrow or megalithic grave under an ancient oak that invokes the memory of Klopstock’s poem about Hermann the Cherusker; the Lorelei; Hagen consigning the hoard of the Niebelungs to the Rhine; and several portraits of Germania in full armor.

  1. 1

    Thomas Mann, “Die drei Gewaltigen,” Reden und Aufsätze, Vol. I (Oldenburg, 1965), pp. 62–63.

  2. 2

    Mann, “Die drei Gewaltigen,” p. 65 ff.

  3. 3

    See my article “The Way to the Wall,” The New York Review, June 28, 1990, which describes his two-volume biography, Bismarck, The White Revolutionary (Unwin Hyman).

  4. 4

    Otto Vossler, “Bismarck’s Ethos,” Historische Zeitschrift, Vol. CLXXI, p. 286.

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