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Response to Review no. 110

During the 1998 Frankfurt bookfare it was reported that Helmut Kohl had read Otto Pflanze’s Bismarck biography ‘with great interest’. After recent events, I wonder whether he has perhaps studied it too carefully. Both Bismarck and Kohl were obsessed with secret funds to consolidate their power (though Kohl’s little black suitcases will probably outshine Bismarck’s reptile fund in the long run), but both were also – at short periods in their lives – ‘great men’.

We Germans are probably too much emotionally involved in the Kohl case to write about it objectively and can only hope that a perceptive foreigner (perhaps a British ambassador ?) will one day give us an objective analysis of the rise and fall of our former Chancellor. A historical precedent for this is already given in Odo Russell’s analysis of Bismarck. In his review of my book, Dr. Seligmann has rightly guessed my intentions when I started the project. Given the large literature on Anglo-German relations before WW I, there seemed nothing new to say. But to see German history through ‘British specatcles’ by using a neglected contemporary of Bismarck was as a way out of this impasse. It had the advantage that a) as a foreigner, Russell did not suffer from any feelings of either deference or hatred which Bismarck’s rule instilled in many Germans; and b) that Russell’s day to day assessments protected one from the trap of seeing Bismarck as the great creator who foresaw it all. I do admit however that my ‘fixation’ on Russell’s perspective had its traps. Every biographer fears the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and I myself was concerned that I might start to defend Russell’s actions or minimize his mistakes. Furthermore, was I in danger of overestimating his importance ? After all he seemed to be a man from the second row, not a major policy-maker but mainly an influential advisor. I soon realised however that Russell was not just a mediator and informant, but on many occassions acted as a policy-maker. During the Black Sea crisis, for example, the FO was to a great extent dependent on Russell’s suggestions to Bismarck and owed it to Odo’s famous bluff that the possibility of a conference was first aired. His long term influence on the British policy towards French-German relations up to 1875 is another example which puts Russell in the first row of the decision-makers.

The reviewer is right when he feels slightly confused about the ‘special relationships’ Bismarck has repotedly had with so many different people (Bleichroder, Malet, Russell or Bucher). Which one was genuine? Dr Seligmann quotes a recent article by W.A. Van’t Padje who claims that Russell’s predecessor in the 1850s, Alexander Malet, was ‘the chosen one’: ‘Bismarck delighted in unusually frank discussion with Sir Alexander.’ It is correct that they were old Frankfurt friends, but it was of course much easier to get on with Bismarck in the 1850s – when he was not ruling Germany – than in the more complex times of the 1870s and 80s. Apart from that, every Bismarck connaisseur knows that these ‘frank discussions’ were one of the great man’s greatest tricks. Bismarck gave everyone the feeling of being a ‘special confidante’. Odo was one of the few who soon realised this: The freedom or cynicism of his (Bismarck’s) language in regard to his own plans (…) are at all times startling, and partly no doubt serve to conceal the deep cunning of his nature (…) Even when giving vent to his violent temper he never says more that he intends and when he wishes to please or persuade, no one can be more irresistibly fascinating than Prince Bismarck.” I therefore think that Bismarck’s actions more than his words should be used as proof whether he trusted or distrusted someone. In the Russell-Bismarck case such favourable ‘actions’ are numerous. The Chancellor’s preferential treatment of Odo is for example evidenced by the fact that during the Kulturkampf, he forgave Russell his clear opposition and continued to treat him well (a rare thing if one considers what a good hater Bismarck could be). Also the chancellor did not for one moment believe during the war-in-sight crisis that Odo had deceived him. Instead he directed his anger against Lord Derby and the Russians.

In many respects I am grateful that Reviews in History chose Dr. Seligmann, a diplomatic historian, as a reviewer. He is aware of a problem that I have often encountered when I talk about diplomatic history: Colleagues who find this genre old fashioned and praise, for example, the beauty of economic history instead are amazed that Germany’s economic growth ‘escaped’ Russsell. I can only say, yes, I wish he had noticed it. Russell was, like many diplomats of his generation, not trained for this problem and only became aware of this deficiency slowly. In the end his special advisers, eg Sir Joseph Archer Crowe, had to come to the rescue. Another regrettable problem is that in writing about Germany, Russell mainly focused on Prussia and hardly showed any interest in what was happening in other parts of the country. His charge d’affaires in Munich or the Consul General in Düsseldorf were left ‘a free hand’ to cover their own areas. Yet despite these obvious disadvantages it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that Russell was a mediocre diplomat. When it came to high politics, he was an excellent analyst and this was what counted at the time.

As far as Russell’s evaluation of the domestic situation in Germany in general is concerned, Dr. Seligmann points out that Wehler as well as Nipperdey could claim this British ambassador for their schools. This is absolutely correct, and one has to add that Russell would have probably resented being used by any of them. Regarding Germany’s foreign relations, Dr. Seligmann states that it is hard to bring up any new material. Here I would disagree with him though. The chapters on the Eastern Question, the French Triangle as well as on the colonial issue, try to shed light on the devided FO perspective and its repercussions on the diplomats in the field. Still, I am aware of the fact that readers will be interested mainly in the topical aspect of this book: whether one can draw parallels between Bismarck’s unification of 1871 and the Kohl-situation of the 1990s. In this respect I can only reply with an Ernst Jünger quote: ‘No one dies before fulfilling his task, some survive the fulfilment of their task.’