On January 18th, 2021, what was left of Germany after World War II and finally reunited on October 3rd, 1990, could and should have celebrated that 150 years ago, on January 18th, 1871, Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck (1815–1890), nicknamed the “Iron Chancellor”, finally had the chance to establish a German nation-state.
Aside from a few conservative student fraternities, for the majority of the population of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the process of the founding of the Second Empire “is either no longer present in the collective memory” or “no longer relevant as an identity-forming factor.”
The Social Democratic President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (born 1956) was very clear about it: “We Germans feel as unrelated to Imperial Germany today as we are to the monuments and statues from that era. It seems to be a mere backdrop that no longer means anything to most people.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel (born 1954) and the President of the German Parliament Wolfgang Schäuble (born 1942), both Christian Democrats, remained silent. There was no special parliamentary session, and not even an anniversary stamp issued, like 50 years ago.
Back in 1971, Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt (1913-1992), not all suspicious of being a Nationalist, still praised Bismarck as “one of the greatest statesmen of our people”. With around 700 monuments all over the country, Bismarck is nowadays by far the most honored German.
Why do Germans find it so difficult to commemorate such an important event with dignity, when their ruling cast rejoices in celebrating defeats and all kinds of deplorable acts committed by their countrymen?
Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8th, 1945, a total and absolute defeat, could easily be compared to the sad destiny of the Carthaginians after the Third Punic War in 146 BC at the hand of the Romans.
It was followed by a strict, decade-long Allied reeducation program, in the course of which every concept somehow related to national interest was gradually regarded as suspicious in the two separate German states that emerged in 1949, at the mercy of the victors.
The final historical-political break came with the radical reinterpretation of German history in the wake of the ‘68 Movement in the FRG, which sparked a Cultural Revolution comparable to the one that haunted China for ten years, and was based on the fundamental rejection of national history and the concept of nation as a historical value.
The Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), basically a Soviet satellite, also abandoned the idea of reunification in the early 1970s and from then on treated West Germans citizens as foreigners.
Despite its bad reputation overseas, often the result of vicious propaganda by its archenemies France and Great Britain, the German Empire born after the victorious Franco-Prussian War became one of the most modern states in the world.
As much as Bismarck was originally an arch-conservative Junker, a powerful member of the landowning Prussian aristocracy, he had realized that the conventional structures were no longer able to cope with the fast-changing economic, social and political developments and Prussia had to take the initiative in organizing a feasible German statehood under the existing conditions.
As a result of massive industrialization, broad masses of workers in the Empire lived in poor conditions and were dependent on handouts from the municipalities in case of illness or when they grew too old to make a living on their own.
Bismarck wanted to counter the increasingly threatening social question and stop further radicalization of the working masses by the ongoing Socialist agitation.
Health and accident insurance were introduced in 1883 and 1884, respectively, and the Invalidity and Old Age Insurance Law passed in 1889. The cornerstone of a statutory pension insurance was laid in 1891. In neighboring countries, such measures were later much later.
In spite of their dubious colonial legacy and centuries of bloody conflict, often fighting each other like the French and English did, they don’t hesitate to celebrate comparable occasions.
In the case of Germany and its seemingly everlasting National Socialist burden, heavily exploited by certain interest groups, neither uncritical glorification nor boundless condemnation are appropriate.
As a matter of fact, no nation can deny its own past, including its errors, mistakes and, often enough, crimes. At the same time, it should be proud of its successes.
Therefore, it’s a pity that the current German government, led by a person who grew up in a totalitarian environment and has little understanding of democratic participation, decided to basically ignore the birth of a nation that has shaped Europe for one and a half centuries-mostly for good.