BERLIN (Reuters) - Two hundred years after Otto von Bismarck was born, Germans are still struggling with the legacy of their first leader: was he a war-mongering villain, or a benevolent hero who united Germany in 1871 and created the world’s first welfare state?
Their diametrically opposed views reflect forces that still tug on Berlin as it grapples with leading but not dominating in Europe. German President Joachim Gauck and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble both alluded to that conflict on Wednesday when they spoke at a ceremony in Berlin marking Bismarck’s 200th birthday.
Germany’s longest-serving chancellor, Bismarck ruled from 1871 to 1890. He turned Germany into a major European power after starting and winning three wars, against Denmark, Austria and France between 1864 and 1871. Those victories led to German unification.
“Unlike in Bismarck’s times, leaders in Berlin now at least try make it appear as if Germany isn’t a big power,” Jochen Staadt, a historian at Berlin’s Free University, told Reuters.
“It’s hard to draw parallels between Bismarck’s Germany and today, but there are some similarities: Germany is a reunited, powerful country in the middle of Europe that exerts a lot of influence on its neighbours. And like under Bismarck, Germany plays the role as a mediator between the West and Russia.”
But Bismarck’s reputation suffered after World War Two. Although he presided over an unprecedented era of industrial growth and waxing German influence, he was also a conservative, aristocratic Prussian whose name the Nazis usurped for nationalist propaganda.
“Bismarck, Prussia, the Kaiser’s empire -- aren’t those all part of a long-forgotten era out of the Dark Ages?” asked Gauck before pointing out that Bismarck’s reign was actually not that far removed from modern Germany and its post-war leaders.
“We’re facing some questions today that are similarly as important as they were in his era,” Gauck said, referring to gaps in Germany dividing cultures, religions and income groups. “We’ll need to find different answers. But we can learn from his courage, verve and optimism in tackling these challenges.”
German media have been filled with reports about Bismarck, who was until now a vague recollection from school history lessons for many Germans. A century ago, Bismarck was considered a hero and great German patriot, with streets and squares across the country named after him.
“All the attention on Bismarck surprises me,” said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling institute. “He’s an ancient fossil for most people who united the country a long time ago, created the pension system and battled the Socialists.”
Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Larry King