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Bismarck and the German Right

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Robert Gerwarth looks at the ways in which Otto von Bismarck was turned into a mythical hero-figure of the right and shows how the ‘Bismarck myth’ contributed to the widespread hunger in German society for a towering leader.

Otto von Bismarck in August 1890Iearly July 1944, barely three weeks before the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leading members of the German resistance movement, Ulrich von Hassel, travelled through the war-torn Third Reich to visit the birthplace of Otto von Bismarck (1815-98) in the north German village of Friedrichsruh. Horrified by the destruction unleashed by Nazi Germany and convinced that Hitler would ultimately destroy Bismarck's proud Reich of 1871, von Hassel noted in his diary:

It was almost unbearable. I was close to tears most of the time at the thought of the work destroyed. ... During recent years I have studied Bismarck, and his Staline as a statesman grows constantly in my estimation. It is regrettable what a false picture of him we ourselves have given the world - that of the power-politician in soldier's boots - in our childish joy over the fact that at least someone had made Germany a name to reckon with again. In his own way he knew how to win confidence in the world; exactly the reverse of what is done today. In truth, the highest diplomacy and great moderation were his real gifts.

Von Hassel's anxiety over the 'Iron Chancellor's' distorted historical image as a war-mongering spiritual predecessor of Adolf Hitler contained a high degree of belated self-criticism. For much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, conservatives like von Hassel had helped to create and proliferate an image of Bismarck as the reckless promoter of a policy of 'Blood and Iron' and the archetype of a charismatic leadership that contrasted with the weakness of parliamentary rule. Bismarck's critics after 1945, on the other hand, both inside Germany and abroad, demonized the 'Iron Chancellor' as a ruthless ultra-conservative East-Elbian Junker whose autocratic policies had planted the seeds for the Nazi dictatorship.

Neither the image of Bismarck fostered by his acolytes nor that of his enemies had much in common with the 'real' Bismarck, whose character was far more complex than the crude stereotypes suggest. To be sure, the Reich that he created in 1871 after three victorious wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870) was hardly democratic in a modern sense, and the anti-Catholic and anti-Socialist legislation that he introduced unsuccessfully in the 1870s and 1880s left a devastating legacy of distrust and fragmentation in German political culture. However, Bismarck was certainly not a dogmatic ideologue or ardent nationalist. If anything, his rule was characterized by a high degree of ideological flexibility that allowed him swiftly to change alliances in order to play off his political adversaries against each other. He personally rejected anti-semitism and radical nationalism as irrational. He considered the latter a severe danger for lasting peace, which he saw as a precondition for Germany's economic prosperity. After establishing the Reich in 1871, Bismarck viewed Germany as a 'saturated nation' and was keen to maintain the new balance of power in Europe by forging a carefully thought-out alliance system aimed at isolating France, the only power Bismarck anticipated would wage war against Germany in order to compensate for its crushing defeat of 1870.

Bismarck's controversial domestic policies and his constant shifting of alliances certainly undermined his popularity, and his elevation to a demi-god of German politics would have been difficult to predict in 1890, when Kaiser Wilhelm II (r. 1888-1918) dismissed him as Chaneellor of the German Reich and Minister President of Prussia. To be sure, Bismarck's departure from Berlin on March 29th, 1890, was accompanied by cheering crowds; but neither the German Reichstag nor the press expressed much grief over the dismissal of one of the most pre-eminent figures in nineteenth-century European politics. Besides an overall lack of interest there was a certain degree of jubilation and relief: 'It is good fortune that we finally got rid of him', the novelist Theodor Fontane wrote in a letter to his friend Georg Friedlander. During his last years in office, Bismarck 'was really only a regent of long habit, who did what he wanted, made everybody wait, and demanded only ever-increasing loyalty'.

Considering these immediate reactions to Bismarck's fall and bearing in mind that he never enjoyed undisputed personal popularity while in office, it indeed seems surprising that within only a couple of years of his dismissal Bismarck was to become the most popular German statesman of all time, commemorated in hundreds of monuments and hailed by conservatives and national-liberals alike as the 'most German of all Germans'.

Bismarck's mystification after 1890 owed much to the growing popular discontent with Wilhelm II's 'personal regime' as well as the 'New Course' of Bismarck's successors which contributed to the retrospective idealization of the first Reich Chancellor by the conservative and national-liberal elites of Wilhelmine Germany. Set against the contemporary political world, and as his retirement from office retreated into the distance, Bismarck's achievements seemed all the more impressive, his shortcomings all the more forgivable.

The Kaiser himself, whose troubled relationship with Bismarck was no secret, began to appropriate Bismarck's growing popularity for his own ends soon after the former Chancellor's death in 1898. In the official publications of the court, the Iron Chancellor was celebrated as a model servant of the Hohenzollern dynasty who had completed Prussia's mission for national unity in a genuinely German way: from 'above'.

Bismarck's name was also invoked to justify Germany's acquisition of further colonies (something Bismarck himself had repeatedly critici/.ed in the later years of his life) and to attack those groups within the Reich that were dissatisfied with the political and social order of Wilhelmine Germany. Whoever dared to call into question the existing political regime was consequently accused of the worst possible crime: committing treason against the legacy of the Iron Chancellor. Writing retrospectively in 1935, the liberal ex-diplomat Harry Count Kessler noted that at the turn of the century the inclination of the majority of the German middle class to become 'Bismarckian' and to ostracize socially any critic of 'his' state had created a 'lethal atmosphere' to which 'every independent political character fell victim'.

The aggressive expansionism of late Wilhelmine Germany was reflected in an increasingly widespread image of Bismarck as the promoter of a policy of 'Blood and Iron'. Many of the Bismarck memorials erected after 1898, for example, carried Bismarck's phrase 'We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world'. Unsurprisingly, the second half of his famous quotation - 'and it is that fear of God that makes us love and cherish peace' - was never to be found on any of the memorials.

By 1914, when Europe went to war, even formerly staunch critics of Bismarck's policies subscribed to a glorified and militarized image of the 'Iron Chancellor'. As the liberal politician Friedrich Naumann put it:

Today all of the parties that he overcame agree on a political truce in order to protect his Reich. For his Reich has heroine everyone's Reich. ... He is no longer a figure of contention for us but a national possession. He is not the representative of a party but the foremost of all Germans.

The Bismarck myth even survived Germany's defeat in the Great War and the collapse of the state which Bismarck had founded in 1871. In the transition period from Kaiserreich to Republic, however, the Bismarck myth underwent a fundamental change of meaning and purpose. Up until 1918 the narrative asserted that the Reich was the culmination point of German history and that every form of criticism against it was an insult to the legacy of Bismarck, the 'father' of the nation-state. After the end of the Great War, however, prompted by military defeat and revolution, 'Bismarck' served as a reminder of what the German Reich had lost; namely its role as the leading economic and political power on the European continent. At the same time, the myth was designed to remind the German public that the Reich's former greatness was not owed to parliamentarianism, but to the existence of a towering leader. As the historian and conservative Reichstag MP, Otto Hoetzsch, phrased it in 1921, the memory of Bismarck:

... demands our faith in people and Fatherland, to toil for Fatherland and State ... in the hope that the spiritual and moral forces in our nation may give birth to the leaders whose lack we so desperately feel, and whom we, or those who come after us, will beprepared to follow to a new height, the height of a strong and creative German state.

Defeat and revolution helped to create a political climate in which such dangerous anti-democratic propaganda fell on fruitful ground. The lost war and the establishment of an allegedly 'un-German' democratic form of government was portrayed by right-wing organizations as a direct consequence of a 'stab-in-the-back' of the otherwise victorious German army, planned and executed by those political groups which Bismarck himself had stigmatized as the 'internal enemies of the Reich': the Catholic Centre Party, the Social Democrats, and the left liberals. These parties, so a prominent rightwingjournal suggested immediately after the end of the Great War, had committed treason against the spirit of Bismarck by signing the armistice. As 'wreckers of Bismarck's creation' and 'blasphemers against his holy name' they were the ones to blame.

To contrast the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic with the powerful Reich under Bismarck's rule remained a continuous theme in rightwing propaganda. During the general election of 1924, the conservative German Nationalist People's Party (DNVP) campaigned with a poster that contrasted the Iron Chancellor with the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, who had proclaimed the Republic in 1918. Against Bismarck, 'the statesman of the black, white, and red Germany', Philipp Scheidemann was disparaged as 'a mouthpiece of the black, red, and yellow Germany'. The juxtaposed portraits of the German bourgeoisie's most highly respected politician and one of the chief hate figures for the political right, were completed by the exhortation: 'Compare them, German voter!' Bismarck's rule was to act as a positive template - a period of national dignity and greatness - against which the unpalatable features of Weimar Germany could be set. In comparison to the Bismarckian era, the Republic was portrayed as transitional, a momentary nadir in history, which it was the self-appointed duty of the German right to surmount.

The left fiercely opposed such anti-democratic propaganda and maintained that the Weimar Republic had returned to the democratic traditions of the German past which they saw embodied in the revolution of 1848 and the subsequent Paulskirche parliament. Bismarck's rule, on the other hand, was portrayed as a terrible deviation from democratic traditions, a deviation that had led into the catastrophe of the Great War and to which the Republic itself was the correction. During the more stable years of the Weimar Republic, most notably between 1923 and 1929, the Republicans could indeed point to a number of successes: the peaceful reintegration of several million soldiers into German postwar society, the introduction of one of the world's most democratic constitutions, as well as some significant foreign policy successes in the era of Gustav Stresemann. In 1928 this democratic self-confidence found expression in one of the largest political demonstrations in Weimar's history. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Bismarck's first antisocialist law passed on October 18th, 1878, the ruling Social Democratic Party instigated a large-scale demonstration in Berlin. Almost 100,000 people gathered in the Lustgarten park to celebrate the SPD's historical victory over Bismarck. 'Bismarck is dead', read the slogan on their banners, 'but Social Democracy is alive!'

Yet, with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the idea that Weimar offered the German people a viable alternative to Bismarck's Reich became increasingly questionable. With the growing political and economic crisis of the Depression era, the public's perception of Weimar democracy as a total failure intensified the belief that only a charismatic leader, a 'second Bismarck', could solve Germany's problems. As the Munich historian Karl Alexander von Müller publicly exclaimed in 1929, it was Bismarck's image 'which appears in front of us, when we hope' for the 'future leader'. When this future leader of the German people emerges, Müller concluded, he will greet Bismarck 'as his relative and predecessor'.

No one exploited this belief with greater demagogic skill than Adolf Hitler. Hitler suggested himself as the only politician willing and able to follow in Bismarck's footsteps. In order to recapture Germany's freedom of action, he promised to run the same degree of risk as the great leaders of Germany's past in performing exceptional deeds:

Was Frederick the Great's decision, for instance, to participate in the first Silesian war not linked with a risk? Or did Germany's unification by Bismarck entail no dangers? No, a thousand times no!

By taking risks similar to those taken by Frederick II and Bismarck, Hitler promised to bring what they had begun to a triumphant conclusion. The Nazis 'blood and soil' ideology was consequently presented as the logical continuation of Bismarck's policies, adapted to the present situation. 'If Bismarck were to return with his political comrades', Hitler declared in January 1931, 'they would all stand on our side today!'

The growing popular belief in Hitler as a new 'saviour' of Bismarckian quality was no secret to his contemporaries. Confronted with an increasing number of calls for a 'second Bismarck', the chief editor of the left-liberal journal Weltbühne and 1935 Nobel Peace Laureate, Carl von Ossietzky, denounced Hitler's attempts to present himself as a Bismarckian leader. Ossietzky emphasized that despite all due criticism of his domestic policy, Bismarck had been one of the most important figures of the past century. 'But', he continued,

... who is Adolf Hitler? How intellectually deprived a people must he to see a leader, a personality worthy of emulation, in this absurd poltroon! How big their psychological incapacity must he, how impoverished their instinct for the genuine and the false! Well, Hitler will never proclaim the 'Third Reich', Hitler will meet his end.

Ossietzky's assumption proved to be premature: despite significant losses in the second Reichstag elections of 1932, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as German Chancellor in the early hours of January 30th, 1933. How little Hitler's chancellorship would actually have in common with Bismarck's rule should have been obvious to anyone who had read Mein Karnp for who had listened to any of Hitler's speeches. Hitler made no secret of his determination radically to break with all of the parliamentary and constitutional traditions that had characterized Bismarck's Reich. For the moment, however, the critical reasoning of a minority, who warned against the analogies being drawn between Hitler and Bismarck, faded into the background. Heinrich Mann's verdict that Hitler's references to Frederick the Great and Bismarck could not legitimize his political actions, since neither would have accepted him as German Chancellor, found no echo in the public debate after January 30th, 1933. Instead, the majority of Germans greeted Hitler as the man who would revive and expand Bismarck's Reich. In a speech delivered shortly after the Nazis' seizure of power, the historian Otto Westphal triumphantly proclaimed the end of the period during which 'Bismarck's enemies' had ruled over Germany. According to Westphal, the Nazi seizure of power constituted a 'simultaneous revolution and recreation of Bismarck's Reich'.

Westphal's speech indicates how successful Nazi propaganda was in nurturing conservative illusions about the true character of the Third Reich. Bismarck's Germany was not 'resurrected' after January 1933. The new rulers only appropriated the myths surrounding Germany's past in order to give their rule the appearance of historical legitimacy. As soon as National Socialist rule was consolidated by the establishment of the one-party state on July 14th, 1933, and the subsequent elimination of internal party opposition in the 'Night of the Long Knives' of June 30th, 1934, the old nationalist myths were pushed into the background. The Bismarck myth, so it seemed, had fulfilled its role for Germany's new rulers and in the summer of 1934, shortly after the Rohm purge, public Bismarck celebrations were declared illegal.

To be sure, Bismarck did not disappear completely from public life, but the myth was appropriated by an all-embracing totalitarian regime which could not allow Hitler to be overshadowed by the memory of other 'great men'. Both Bismarck and Frederick the Great were reinvented as Hitler's spiritual predecessors, whose work was about to be completed by Hitler as the 'greatest leader of all times'. This quasiofficial reading of history found its first expression in a postcard printed in millions on the occasion of Hitler's forty-fourth birthday on April 20th, 1933. Three men - each with his own caption - were pictured on the postcard: Frederick the Great,

... brought about Prussia's powerful position through his military successes, the protection of acquisitions, the improvement of the army and the legal system, reorganizing the administration and establishing new settlement areas, and thus laid the foundations for the German Reich.

Otto von Bismarck,

... founded first the North German Federation and then the German Reich, created the Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy, acquired colonies and thus made Germany into a great power.

Adolf Hitler finally,

... put an end to the destruction of the German Reich by Marxism and Bolshevism, restored German national self-belief, re-awoke the spirit of Potsdam and completed Bismarck's work - the unified nation-state.

The Anschluss of Austria in 1938 provided Hitler with the welcome opportunity to present himself as the leader who had kept his promise to enlarge Bismarck's Reich. A few months after the Anschluss, the 'founder of the Greater German Reich' travelled to Friedrichsruh to visit the grave of the 'creator of the Smaller German Reich'. On February 13th, 1939, Hitler laid a laurel wreath on Bismarck's sarcophagus. The following day, the Führer attended the launching of the Bismarck, the world's largest battleship, in Hamburg. He explained his reasons for choosing the battleship's name to the 50,000 invited guests including the majority of Cabinet members and many senior military officers - by saying:

As Führer of the German people and Chancellor of the Reich I can give this ship no finer name from our history than the name of the man who as a true knight, without fear and without reproach, was the creator of that German Empire whose resurrection from the direst misery and whose wonderful enlargement has been granted to us by Providence.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Bismarck disappeared almost entirely from National Socialist propaganda and it is telling that the Bismarck monument in Frankfurt was melted down for arms production soon after the outbreak of the war. While the Nazis abandoned Bismarck as a political propaganda device, the founder of the Reich was rediscovered by the German anti-Hitler resistance. In the propaganda of the National Committee for a Free Germany and the equally Moscow-based German Officers' League (BDO), German soldiers were reminded of the beneficent results of good Russo-German relations in the Bismarckian era and asked to compare them with the misery caused by Hitler's megalomania. On January 18th, 1944, the seventythird anniversary of Bismarck's foundation of the Reich, Otto Korfes, a Major General in the Sixth Army defeated at Stalingrad, told his compatriots on the radio station Freies Deutschland that

Germany fell into the misfortune of the First World War because we deviated from Bismarck's clever and cautious policies. The gamble by which Adolf Hitler forced the German Reich into this war is an act which Bismarck would class as a crime against the nation. Every German should be aware of the gap which separates the demagog)' of Adolf Hitler from the statesmanlike intelligence and thoughtfulness of Otto von Bismarck.

Most Germans, however, believed in the Nazi war propaganda of final victory until the bitter end. For some of them it took until May 1945 to realize that Hitler was not a 'second Bismarck', but the man who would destroy the Reich that Bismarck had created in 1871.

Robert Gerwarth is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and editor of Twisted Paths: Europe 1914-45 (OUP, 2007).

Further reading: 

Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (Allen Lane, 2006);

Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin, 2004); Lothar Gall, Bismarck. The White Revolutionary, 2 vols. (Routledge, 1986);

Robert Gerwarth, The Bismarck Myth/Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor (OUP, 2005, pb, 2007);

Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany, 3 vols. (Princeton UP, 1990).



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