The Saturday Essay: Germany's two fat men, and a lesson from history

Bismarck had great charisma and, a rarity in Germany, a gift for one-liners, something he shared with Hitler
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The Independent Culture
A HUNDRED years ago this summer, the greatest German statesman of all time, Otto von Bismarck, died. When he took over, in 1862, Germany consisted of several states, and when he went, in 1890, she was already a united empire and a world power. The later 19th century and the early 20th were dominated by Germany: Gladstone, as British Prime Minister, reviewed learned works of biblical scholarship in German, it was routine for cabinet ministers to have spent considerable time at one or other of the great German universities (usually Hanoverian Gottingen), and some of our greatest writers, Carlyle and George Eliot most obviously, took German philosophy very seriously indeed. British Wagnerians were early on the scene, too. "Inspirons-nous de l'Allemagne", had said that austere Swiss-Protestant lady, Madame de Stael, as the long, post-Napoleonic, German century began. Bismarck was the symbol of German greatness, and when he died, there were statues to him all over the place.

His centenary, however, has been an embarrassment. In view of what happened to his Germany, with the First World War and then Hitler, today's Germans, if they defend Bismarck, do so defensively. There is a drabber, more deserving figure to hand, if they need to thank anyone for German unification. It is Chancellor Kohl, who, in 1989-90, carried through today's unification without a shot fired or a life lost.

Oddly enough, it may be that Kohl will also have an anniversary soon. In September there will be elections, and it is quite possible that Kohl will lose them. For today's Germans are not really grateful for unification - it has been very expensive - and are not at all happy with their own culture. When the Wall came down in 1989, many Germans were rather embarrassed. The Lutheran churches did not ring their bells, and prominent writers muttered that a Fourth Reich would soon emerge. This was all nonsense, of course. When Bismarck took over Saxony, it was an industrial heartland. When Kohl took it over, it had been the heartland of the East German state, but it was a stricken, post-Communist ruin, a magnified version of the northern English cities as they were in the early Eighties.

Helmut Kohl has only two things in common with Bismarck. He united Germany, and he is also very fat. It is a fatness carried with gravitas, the sort that enables you to dominate a boring committee, and Kohl probably uses it as a prop in political science (in which he graduated). From time to time he goes on a diet, but it is the new-fangled, modern sort where you put pounds back on quite quickly. Bismarck dieted, too, but his doctor (who also treated Cosima Wagner, noted lover of animals and hater of Jews) complained that Bismarck might as well devise his own; it consisted of champagne, herring and cigars, but it did the trick, and Bismarck lived to an overripe old age, holding office until the age of 85, though with increasing cantankerousness. But Kohl, abroad, is a prosaic figure, not given to one-liners or small talk (it is said that, when he first came to Downing Street, as newly elected leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, in Margaret Thatcher's triumphant early Eighties, his conversation was so tedious that the interpreter, Alexander Lieven of the World Service, became rather bored, and started telling funny stories, forgetting to translate them for poor Kohl, who got lost; his relations with Margaret Thatcher never really recovered). Kohl is obviously a man of the people - the Rhineland people - jolly, given to overdoing the fatty food and beer, and, in politics, crafty rather than charismatic. Germany today is not a cultural model for anyone; Germans themselves often complain that the universities no longer count on the world level, and it has been years since their film or music or architecture held centre stage.

However, there is still a great deal that is admirable, especially from a British perspective. Will Hutton's famous The State We Are In is really a book about Germany, not England: properly controlled capitalism in which trade unions and bosses collaborate sensibly about levels of wages and employment; a bank that does not let inflation happen on the British scale, thus ruining any decent government project; schools that are not weapons in the class war; long-term investments as distinct from rip-off short- termism. You could not, in Germany, have a book like Melanie Phillips's All Must Have Prizes, because, although the Germans, have indeed monkeyed about with their educational system there are severe limits to the damage that can be done. In the Seventies,they did produce comprehensive schools, and did so with hours that might appeal to the working mother, whereas the traditional schools shut up shop at 1pm. But in Germany there is a real federal system. When the middle classes discovered that their children were doing badly in these new schools, they could just move a few miles into another federal state, where the comprehensives had not been introduced.

There was a time, five years ago, when everyone talked of "the German disease" - too much regulation, excessive taxation, inflexible labour costs. The world's bankers groaned at the prospect of a visit to Frankfurt ("yes, there is a night-life, but she goes back to see her auntie every Tuesday"). However, Germans save, their export surplus is enormous, they are adapting Frankfurt to make it Europe's financial capital, and the high unemployment they have was partly caused by an enormous restructuring of the big firms, which providential management and unions had seen to be needed some years ago. There are problems with Kohl's Germany, but the chief one strikes me just as boredom.

By contrast, Bismarck was a man of colossal charisma, and had a gift, rare in Germany but also shared with Hitler, for one-liners ("the Bavarian is a cross between the Austrian and the human being"). Everyone remembered a Bismarck speech, or a Bismarck meeting, and when, at the end, the Emperor dismissed him, hoping to make the pill more palatable by granting him a title, Prince Lauenstein, Bismarck answered that he was most grateful, and would use it when travelling incognito. His memoirs belong in German literature. He was also a genius in foreign policy, managing to unify Germany without causing that fatal combination of the Western powers and Russia to stop the process. Just the same, his legacy was an exceedingly dangerous one, and the myth he launched was full of poison. Prussia, when he took over, was the smallest of the main European powers, and so poor that her king used to mark the wine decanter after his dinner glass-or- two, so that no one would be tempted to steal a drink before the decanter reappeared the following evening. Germany, in 1980, was overtaking Great Britain economically. Success on this scale went to the heads of Bismarck's successors, and they ended up fighting the world. If you ask the question, what went wrong with Germany? it makes sense to start with Bismarck.

His foreign policy was a masterpiece. He always knew that he must keep on good terms with Russia - no adventures in the Near East to provoke trouble. He also did not want trouble with Great Britain, and remarked that for Germany to have a fleet and colonies would be "Polish nobleman behaviour", buying a sable coat to cover rags. His successors threw away this caution, challenging both the Russians over the Near East and the British over the high seas. However, they got away with this because they were not really checked at home by a proper parliamentary system. And that was really Bismarck's fault. The Germany that he set up in 1871 was a managed autocracy, and she had to wait until 1949 to become parliamentary and democratic. Bismarck's constitution had been a piece of crazy paving, designed to keep all parties at odds with each other, in particular the Catholics and the socialists, but also the minorities, especially the Polish one in the eastern provinces. Where British governments tried manfully to make up for the historic grievances of the Irish, German governments found ways to evict Poles from their own land (and it is curious that it took Poles in Germany four generations to integrate, a process that seems to be happening today with all too many of the Turks). There was universal suffrage for the central parliament, but it was not given much power, nor did central finances amount to much. Real money was held by the individual states, and they were not democratic. The kingdom of Saxony even managed to be the only European state in this century where a universal- suffrage parliament abolished universal suffrage; the Catholic party, in 1904, did a deal whereby it lost some (peasant) votes in order that the socialists would lose even more (proletarian) ones, and, in effect, vanish from the parliament. Saxony, perhaps not surprisingly, also acquired, in 1923, the first properly elected but partly Communist government in Europe. Bismarck shrank from proper centralisation, liberalisation and democracy; his Reich was run by irresponsible elites pursuing contradictory policies that, in the end, provoked into existence a world-wide coalition against Germany. The 19th-century German culture that had had the world in thrall has never recovered from the disaster of 1945, when the fantasy finally exploded as Germany's cities collapsed into rubble.

The oddity is that German unification eventually came about again, but this time with a government dominated by the people who had consistently been Bismarck's greatest enemies - the Catholics. Catholics had not been an equal part of Bismarck's empire. In his day - the background to Max Weber's Protestantism and Capitalism - the Catholics were poorer, more inclined to live in villages, less adept at education; they also faced discrimination when it came to appointments, particularly military ones (the only Catholic officer in the Prussian Guard was Franz von Papen, the man who finessed Hitler into power and he had got his position mainly through a rich wife, the heiress of the firm Villeroy & Boch which, as it happens, is still the chief manufacturer of urinal porcelain in Germany). Most of the time, the Catholic third of the country concentrated on local matters, sometimes forming unstable coalitions with Protestant liberals or conservatives who did not like or trust them. In the later Forties, when West Germany was being established, the Catholics became the dominant element in politics, supplying Germany with her indisputably greatest figure, Konrad Adenauer, as with Helmut Kohl. These Catholics gave Germany a sensible constitution, felt strongly that their proper allies were in western Europe, and feared any resurgence of the old, Bismarckian Germany. In 1990-91, they even connived at a rather unworthy piece of legislation, to stop the old Prussian estate-owners from getting their estates back, even though the constitution guaranteed this to them. In political life, they have often been maddeningly tedious, and they have no vision at all about Germany that might go it alone, bringing civilisation to the east as in days of yore. Margaret Thatcher, at the time of unification, worried publicly and privately that we were going to see all those Germanic characteristics coming to the fore again - arrogance, cupidity, militarism and marching in step.

She was, of course, wrong about the nationalistic side of things; that sort of nationalism ended in 1945, and there is really no serious sign that it will ever recover. Just the same, maybe she was right in another way. There is that terrible German tendency to conform; to ignore the great matters of world politics (as over the Gulf War) and to drive "Europe" forward as a way of stopping Germans from being German. Helmut Kohl has been a very lucky man, and in most ways a deservedly lucky man. It would be ingratitude on the part of the German electorate to get rid of him now. But why do they themselves not rebel against the euro, for which they will have to pay, and which supplants the deutschmark that has served them, these past 50 years, so well? It is necessary to fly from the Bismarckian example - but that far?