Bismarck’s Terrible Idea

Detail of portrait of Otto von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach, 1890. (Public domain/via Wikimedia)
The unification of the German nation-state brought us a world of trouble.

In light of my Corner post defending cancel culture earlier this week, it’s interesting to note that the German woke Left has launched a war on Otto von Bismarck, the architect of Germany’s unification into a single nation-state and its first chancellor. As Katja Hoyer, writing for Unherd, notes, Bismarck is coming under increasing criticism from public figures in Germany for the imperial, expansionist nature of his statecraft, which is seen by some as culminating in certain colonial atrocities committed by Germany in Africa at the turn of the 20th century.

As a general rule, it’s a sorry state of affairs when the people of a given nation turn against their own history on account of its imperfections with indignant and masochistic wrath.

But Germany is different.

If socialism (in all of its national and international permutations) tops the list of bad ideas to have emerged from the last 200 years of human history, the German nation-state is not much farther down. Before its unification in 1871, it had been a militarily, economically, and geopolitically unthreatening patchwork quilt of quaint principalities, loosely confederated by the Treaty of Verdun in the year 843. The peoples of the various principalities retained for many centuries a greater allegiance to their local prince than to the larger Holy Roman Empire of which they were a part. This fierce and obstinate attachment to local autonomy was called, rather delightfully, kleinstaaterei, or “small-statery,” a phrase and an idea sure to warm the cockles of anti-authoritarian hearts everywhere.

The Holy Roman Empire collapsed in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, leading to a mad scramble over disputed territory in central Europe. By the middle of the 19th century, Bismarck, as prime minister of Prussia, had begun to exploit this state of affairs by expanding Prussia’s authority over neighboring principalities. This led eventually to the formation of the North German Confederation in 1867 and then to the establishment of the Second German Reich in 1871 (part of a particularly inauspicious trilogy, one might add).

Bismarck’s Germany was born in war. Prussian victories in three successive wars of aggression against Denmark, Austria, and France in the 1860s and ’70s allowed him to lay the foundation of German nationhood on the corpses of well-established neighboring nation-states, all three of whom were unlikely soon either to collapse or to forget the cost that Bismarck had exacted from them in the course of his state-building. Aggression toward the French in particular was built into German identity from the start. In his memoirs Bismarck wrote that he “had no doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a united Germany could be realized.” The terms of the eventual peace treaty with France were punitive, as France was forced to cede Alsace and Lorraine and to pay an indemnity to boot. The French would not be able to resist retribution when the shoe was on the other foot at Versailles in 1918.

The antidemocratic bureaucracy of professional rulers that so plagues both the European Union and the U.S. federal government today is often described as “Bonapartist,” but in reality it was Bismarck who provided the template for how to bureaucratize a modern nation-state and insulate its rulers from the forces of democracy. The architecture of the German state was arranged in such a way as to ensure that it was technocrats drawn from the landed nobility in Prussia who ran the country, rather than representatives of the people.

We also have Bismarck and his fellow Prussians to thank for America’s incurably dirigiste and ineffective progressive government education system, geared as it is more toward social engineering than to the ennobling of the human spirit. Horace Mann, the godfather of American public education, was totally enamored of the Prussian education model. When he presented it to the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a model for the American public school, it was greeted with skepticism. A committee of the state legislature described Mann’s favored Prussian model as “more for the purpose of modifying the sentiments and opinions of the rising generation, according to a certain government standard, than as a mere means of diffusing elementary knowledge,” which was exactly what enthused early progressives, whose vision for education in this country eventually triumphed. From Bismarck’s Prussia flowed the current of modern state technocracy that eventually swelled into the deluge that would consume much of the 20th century.

The momentum of megalomania that drove Bismarck to forge the German nation-state was unabated by 1914. Kaiser Wilhelm and his court were anxious for the young German state to impress itself upon the nations of the earth and to assume a station equal to that of the powers surrounding it. Germany began a huge naval buildup, with the goal of supplanting the Royal Navy as the world’s dominant sea power. The French were also aware years before the outbreak of the First World War that the Germans were planning to attack them through Belgium.

The impetus behind all of this was the fever of nationalism that seized Western European states — especially, though not exclusively, Germany — at the turn of the 20th century. Germany’s well of achievements was, after all, not as deep as that of its neighbors. The French could trace their nationality back in some form to Charlemagne and the Frankish dominance of the Carolingian Empire. England could plausibly claim to be the oldest nation-state of all, having been unified in the ninth century by Alfred the Great, the mirror and the light of all Christian kings. The Germans had some catching up to do, and by 1914, they were spoiling for a fight.

It’s generally thought that the Treaty of Versailles, which brought the First World War to a close, was too harsh on Germany, and that its seizure of German territory guaranteed the aggrieved reaction that catapulted the National Socialists to power during the ’30s and thus allowed them to carry out their genocidal program during the ’40s. I beg to differ. Versailles did not go far enough. Following the conflagration of 1914–1918, the Allied powers ought to have broken “Germany” back up into the loosely confederated principalities it had been before 1871, perhaps with the League of Nations superintending (to replace the Holy Roman Empire). Maybe then we would have been spared the Second World War, the Cold War, and today’s more peaceful project of German expansion, which we call the European Union.

After all, the perfidy of the unified German nation-state is not yet a matter entirely historical. Right now, Angela Merkel appears intent on making room for Vladimir Putin at the head table of European politics. And it hasn’t been that long since Merkel’s Germany used the European Union to cripple Greece and consign it to an economic vassalage from which it is unlikely ever to escape. The “loans” made by German banks to “bail out” Greece following its financial meltdown a decade ago were, as everyone now recognizes, simply a way of laundering German money through Greek institutions. German banks loaned money to the Greek government so that the Greek government could pay back its debts to German bankers, as the Greek taxpayer bore the crushing burden of it all.

All of this is to say that, as squeamish as their radical impulses make me, I can’t help cheering on the would-be cancelers of the Iron Chancellor. The anti-Bismarckians ought not to waver in the execution of their principles. They should go the full nine yards and cancel the German state itself, Bismarck’s most lasting legacy. Bring back the principalities, bring down the EU in the process, and make kleinstaaterei great again.


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