There Are Better Role Models for Germany than Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815. 200 years after his birth, and 70 years after the end of World War II, the “Iron Chancellor” is no longer appropriate as a foundation for the collective German consciousness.

Understanding history is a long and slow process. Conclusions made right after an event are mostly wrong. Often, decades or even centuries must pass before emotions are calmed. Misunderstandings about the meaning of events often create new problems. The resulting maze of fact and fiction can nearly paralyze societies long after the original causes have been overcome.

Modern Europe presents an urgent example of this problem. European societies are still guided to a considerable extent by negative conclusions about the continent and its people drawn immediately after guns stopped firing in 1945. Today’s Europeans remain handi-capped by a sense of shame and loss, which has been passed on to each new generation for more than seventy years.

This burden of fear and self-rejection is hindering Europe severely in the effort to apply its considerable talents successfully in a world rushing forward in a dramatic technological revolution.

Many Germans in particular would argue that I have things backward. They would say that Europe has overcome its history and has moved beyond the need to reconcile the present with the past. They would argue that Europe has built a new sense of identity based on con-sensus, rule of law, and social equality. This, rather than the traditional values, will increas-ingly serve as a model for the rest of the world.

One might think so. But the rejection of traditional values is also a rejection of one’s own identity. Until they are confident in their ability to apply all of the values inherent in Eu-rope’s rich heritage, including those of self-defense, Europeans will lack the sense of inner strength necessary to meet new challenges confidently. To gain this confidence requires a more accurate narrative, which combines recognition of past disasters with celebration of Europe’s positive heritage.

Last year’s centennial of World War I began the difficult task of writing this new narrative. Another upcoming anniversary can be just as useful. The Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bis-marck, was born 200 years ago, on April 1. For nearly 150 years, he, more than anyone else, has formed the basis for Europe’s painful modern identity. Sending Bismarck back to the ar-chives, where he belongs, would be another useful step toward 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 end. He also generally believed to have ushered in a period of aggressive nationalism, which led to the near collapse of 1945. To a considerable extent, European political consciousness is still defined by Bismarck’s negative legacy.

Unfortunately, this is the message that today’s leaders continue to transmit to their young-er generations: That Europe nearly destroyed itself in the twentieth century. That the cause was nationalism, militarism, and unbridled capitalism. And that if Europeans do not over-come these bad traits and unify into a single European zone of peace, the old poison will reappear.

In other words, you—a 17-year-old German or the 20-year-old Spaniard—are potentially a very bad person. You have within your genes the virus of nationalism, colonialism, and war. Only by carefully adhering to the guidance of your elders can you be saved from yourself. European young people are increasingly ignoring this advice. Many leave Europe altogether. A large number go to America. But a frighteningly large number have also joined ISIS.

A better understanding of Bismarck may help to find a more useful narrative, which 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.

The Hambacher Fest and the Frankfurt Parliament were in reality more representative of nineteenth century Germany than Bismarck. He succeeded through the skillful use of war, nationalism, and internal social conflict to build a sense of threat, which only a strong na-tional 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 forces ultimately lost the battle, but they did not lose the war. They and many others made democracy possible. But even today, they are not celebrated in the European narrative, as they should be. That is why Germany and Europe urgently need a new narra-tive. The lesson we draw today from Bismarck’s legacy should be clear: Do not try to head off change by reopening negative chapters of European history. It is time for a new story of Europe, one that celebrates the culture, science, invention, and above all confidence in the inner-democracy that each European carries within him or herself. That is Europe’s greatest gift to the world.

A version of this article in German originally appeared on April 1, 2015 in Die Welt.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

John Kornblum

AICGS Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AICGS Board of Trustees.