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Bismarck, Prussia and German nationalism

Edgar Feuchtwanger assesses Bismarck's controversial career and legacy.

'In the beginning there was Bismarck'. This is how a leading German historian, Thomas Nipperdey, opens the second volume of his history of Germany from 1806 to 1918. 'In the beginning there was Napoleon' is the sentence opening the first volume. Few would dispute that Napoleon and Bismarck were the two most important personalities in the establishment of a modern German nation state, though it remains a matter of debate how much importance one can attach to single personalities in interpreting major historical events. Ideologies as well as material circumstances have to be part of the interpretation; and both the rise of German nationalism and the coming of industrial society were clearly necessary factors in the unification of Germany. Nevertheless it is paradoxical that Napoleon was not a German, while Bismarck was above all a Prussian, whose relationship with the idea of Germany was far from straightforward. It is the purpose of this article to explain why Bismarck, a member of the pre-industrial Prussian aristocracy, played so central a role in the creation of the modern industrial German state.

Bismarck’s Prussian apprenticeship

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