German history in the nineteenth century has long been one of my special interests. In fact, the "Henry Gorlitz" novels on which I am now working focus closely on Germany and its destiny during the years of its peak power and worst degradation.
It's therefore not surprising to note that today is the anniversary of the date on which Wilhelm I, "der greise Kaiser," was proclaimed German Emperor at Versailles. This was during the final phases of the Franco-Prussian War. Artistic depictions of this event depict Bismarck, the architect of both the war and of German unification under Prussian leadership, at the Emperor's side. Bismarck is shown as an impassive observer; in fact, he may have been thinking, "Well, I got what I was after. I hope no one else fouls things up."
That was the rub. The new state that came into being on January 18, 1871 was only half-formed. Under Prussian leadership, it had a very effective government, the strongest army in Europe, and would soon overtake Great Britain as the second-greatest industrial power in the world. What it didn't have was an internal sense of unity, of a common destiny. Forging that sense was largely the work of Herr Hitler.
That last-noted fact is, I think, a large part of the paradoxical role that Germany has played in the world in the last one hundred forty-two years. When Wilhelm II shoved Bismarck out of power in 1890, I think he sensed that the old gentleman couldn't do what he wanted to do - to make Germany a power to rival Great Britain. He himself couldn't do it. It took a half-educated Austrian jackanapes to give Germany her "place in the sun." The world has spent almost two-thirds of a century recovering from the results of his quest.
Paul Masson's advertising slogan used to be, "We will sell no wine before its time." Perhaps it's a basic point of statesmanlike wisdom to vow, "We will build no nation before it is ready." Doing so might spare the world a lot of anguish.