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Hans Delbrück on Bismarck's Legacy (April 1890)

To many contemporaries Bismarck's resignation on March 20, 1890, constituted a momentous event; it certainly produced a flood of commentaries. In this extended analysis, published in the Preußische Jahrbücher [Prussian Yearbooks] in April 1890, the historian, journalist, and Free Conservative Reichstag deputy Hans Delbrück (1848-1929) tries to strike a balance between praise for Bismarck's great achievements and confidence in Germany's future after his departure. As he writes, Germany's soul has been “deeply moved, but without political distress.” Nevertheless, Delbrück seems certain that Germany's present constellation of political parties will not survive Bismarck's dismissal unchanged. He suggests that the left-liberal Radical Party has the most to lose unless it gives up sterile opposition to great “national” goals.

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In the passage in his World History [Weltgeschichte] where [Leopold von] Ranke relates the end of St. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, one reads: “It is the fate of highly talented people: with their deepest and innermost thoughts they seek to intervene in the world. In doing so, though, they get caught up in the machinery of the battles taking place around them; they manage to have a great impact, but in the process they become dispensable. By recommencing his mission without the same support he had had in the past, Boniface was killed, [he was] sullen and disgruntled about his external circumstances, yet enthusiastic in his mission, unshaken, magnanimous, and courageous in his soul.”

Has the tragic muse ever spoken more movingly? It is the fate and, in fact, the greatness of a great man that he eventually makes himself dispensable through his own achievements. Are we witnessing once again a world historical phenomenon, which thus places before the sorrowful eye the utmost in human creative power and the limitations of mankind in their unrelenting unity?

Triviality is able to regard this “making himself dispensable” as a disparagement or at least a diminishment of respect. We do not intend to let that deter us from examining the event of Prince Bismarck's dismissal from this very perspective, for this dispensability – though it certainly cannot explain the catastrophe – made it possible in the first place. It is the perspective of optimism; we want to profess it courageously.

Years ago, Herr von Bismarck started out with foreign policy; this ought to be the point of departure now. The great tension of war with Russia and France, which has kept Europe on tenterhooks for the past decade, has not been overcome, and by its very nature can never be overcome, except in that the tension itself reaches a breaking point. For over a year, though, a situation has gradually arisen that represents the best possible outcome, namely, that the crisis is no longer regarded as imminent. No one knows how long this relative calm will last, how soon that eerie nervousness of anticipation will reawaken, both in the politicians and in public opinion; but it is clear that the change of chancellors in Germany was possible only during such a lull, and that it is none other than Bismarck himself whom we can thank for that lull, momentary as it may be. The Triple Alliance, Great Britain's moving closer to this alliance, and the steadfastness of the alliance through three administrations* are all his doing. The drastic

* Under the reigns of three Kaisers: Wilhelm I (1861-1888), Friedrich III (1888), and Wilhelm II (1888-1918) – ed.

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