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Why Europe is blinded by Bismarck

Why Europe is blinded by Bismarck

Positive narrative needed to master technology revolution 

by John Kornblum

Wed 1 Apr 2015

Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor who forged the country’s first unification in 1871, was born 200 years ago, on 1 April 1815. For nearly 150 years, he more than anyone else has formed the basis for Europe’s painful modern identity. However, we should not get blinded by Bismarck. Sending the Iron Chancellor back to the archives, where he belongs, would be a useful step towards a more diversified picture of Europe’s past and above all of its future.

Bismarck is remembered as the creator of an authoritarian, aggressive unified nation which ultimately turned Europe on its end.  He is generally believed to have ushered in a period of nationalism which led to the collapse of 1945. To a considerable extent, European political consciousness is still defined by Bismarck’s negative legacy.

European societies are guided to a considerable extent by negative conclusions about the continent and its people drawn immediately after the guns fell silent in 1945. Today’s Europeans remain handicapped by a sense of shame and loss, passed on to each new generation for more than 70 years.

This burden of fear and self-rejection is hindering Europe’s efforts to apply its considerable talents in a world rushing forward to a dramatic technological revolution.

Many Germans, by contrast, would argue that Europe has overcome its history and has moved beyond the need to reconcile the present with the past.  They would say that Europe has built a new sense of identity based on consensus, rule of law and social equality. This, rather than the traditional values, will serve, they opine, as a model for the rest of the world.

Yet the rejection of traditional values is also a rejection of identity. Until they are confident in their ability to apply all of the values inherent in Europe’s rich heritage, including those of self-defence, Europeans will lack the inner strength necessary to meet new challenges.

Unfortunately, the Bismarckian message is one today’s leaders transmit still to younger generations. The narrative is that Europe nearly destroyed itself in the 20th century. That the cause was nationalism, militarism and unbridled capitalism.  And that if Europeans do not overcome these bad traits and unify into a single European zone of peace (which of course has to include a single currency), the old poison will reappear.

Young people are told they have within their genes the virus of nationalism, colonialism and war. Only by carefully adhering to the guidance of their elders can they be saved from themselves. European young people are increasingly ignoring this advice. Many are leaving Europe altogether. A large number go to America. Some (a sizeable, even frightening, total) have even joined the Middle East terror organisation Isis.

A better understanding of Bismarck can help Europe get back on track. Bismarck forcefully unified a collection of Germanic states, dispirited by Napoleon’s ravages, into Europe’s most powerful nation.  But his Germany was not the natural product of its time. And his successors perverted his legacy even more.

Through the skilful use of war, nationalism and internal social conflict, Bismarck built a sense of threat that only a strong national state could counter. But he and his successors throughout Europe were reactionaries trying to hold off freedom, rather than harbingers of a new European identity.

The positive non-Bismarckian forces behind Germany’s 19th and 20th century history ultimately made German democracy possible. But they are not celebrated in in the European historical framework as they should be.

Germany and Europe urgently need a new narrative. The lesson we should draw from Bismarck’s legacy should be this: Don’t try to head off change by reopening negative chapters of European history.

It’s time for a new story of Europe. One which celebrates the culture, science, invention and above all confidence in inherent democracy that each European carries within themselves. That is Europe’s greatest gift to the world. And that is a message that, on the bicentenary of Bismarck’s birth, needs to be preached with fervour and fortitude throughout Europe and beyond.

John Kornblum, member of the Advisory Board, is a former US Ambassador to Germany and Senior Counselor at Noerr LLP. This is the first of two articles on aspects of German history commemorating the 200th anniversary of Bismarck’s birth.

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