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Book Review: Bismarck

By (August 24, 2015) No Comment

Bismarck bismarck ullrich

by Volker Ullrich

translated from the German by Timothy Beech

The University of Chicago Press, 2015

Such is our publishing atmosphere in these allegedly post-literate days that a conspicuously short biography of a major historical figure is almost an object of suspicion. The closer such books dwindle to the 100-page range, the more tempted reviewers are to invoke the specter of Wikipedia, to talk about thumbnail outlines, and to imply a variety of accommodations with short attention spans and impatient publishers. What serious reader doesn’t look at the “Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford University Press, for instance, and think the booklets in the series are maimed in some way, truncated almost to the point of vitiating their worth as introductions to anything? If you’re approaching a complicated subject with enough dispatch to whittle it down to 110 pages, the lurking apprehension goes, isn’t it likely you’re leaving out so much that you might as well be writing a Wikipedia-style encyclopedia overview entry? And if that’s what you’re doing, is there a significant justification in doing it at all, when all of your potential readers will have instant access to such cursory overviews on their cellphones for free?

In other words, we like our enormously fat biographies. We take consolation in the impression that the author has left no archive unconsulted, no controversy unsettled, no aspect of their subject’s time unexplored. We don’t want to look at a biography so short that our first thought it “I could get that much online somewhere.”

And if this is true for historically marginal figures like Edwin Stanton or Brent Scrowcroft, how much more true must it be for a pivotal figure like the Second Reich’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck? His unification of Germany, his blitzkrieg wars of national assertion, his mixture of compassionate public policy and contempt for democracy – each of these and many other aspects of the man seem to call for lengthy, detailed treatment. And Bismarck has certainly received such treatment: his own memoirs are quite long, and biographies of him in the last century have run to two, three, and even five volumes. Surely, a reader might justifiably think, no really useful life of Bismarck could be written in a little over a hundred pages.

Which makes the appearance of Volker Ullrich’s 110-page 1998 biography of the man, translated by Timothy Beech, published by Haus Publishing as part of their “Life & Times” series, and distributed by the University of Chicago Press, a little pausing. Ullrich, a first-rate book reviewer and historian and long-time political editor of Die Zeit, is a smart, confident writer, and he and his editors here present the facts of Bismarck’s life, intersperse quotes from his own writings, and fill the production with illustrations. Ullrich has a mildly revisionist point to make about Bismarck not being the Root of All Evil:

Simple answers – such as the view that Bismarck was the ‘first demon’ in recent German history, whose hubris gave birth directly to the second, Adolf Hitler – are erroneous. Though the burdens that Bismarck left his heirs were a heavy debt, failure and collapse were certainly not the inevitable consequence. To be sure, Bismarck made every effort to permanently cement the conservative basis of the Prusso-German monarchy, and to prevent the system he had created from developing in liberal and parliamentary direction; but these structures were not so solid as to exclude all possibility of a change of course. The blame for the failure to use the opportunities there were can no longer be laid at Bismarck’s door.

And it’s a point made in this little book’s Foreword by Ferdinand von Bismarck (will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?), who quotes Nobel laureate Gustav Stresemann:

It would be good to write a book on the misunderstood Bismarck in which is it shown that he was the one who at the height of his power was actually the most careful in making use of it and how he asserted himself in 1866 and 1870 against those who could not get enough of it. He wanted to keep the peace in Europe. This would be a better image of him than the one generally created by legend which shows him as a man in cuirassier boots.

But even when Steresmann wrote that, a century ago, it was mostly a feint at a straw man, and all those very long one, three, and five-volume biographies of Bismarck dispense with it pretty quickly in favor of more complex discussions, Fifty years ago, in the shortest of such books, you could read Theodore Hamerow on the subject:

He liked to play the bluff Junker, strutting in military uniform and indulging in such rodomontade as: “We Germans fear God and nothing else in the world.” Actually, he was always careful to respect the vital interests of other nations, unless they conflicted directly with those of his own. Even his treatment of political opponents revealed a restraint which disappointed the extremists in his camp.

So if Ullrich in this volume covers no new ground and covers no old ground in new ways, what is there to recommend the book? Its very brevity, one suspects, will recommend it to readers dismayed by thousand-page behemoths. But such readers might train themselves for longer hauls, after all, and some excellent big Bismarck biographies remain untranslated.