Bismarck was realistic enough to understand that he had achieved the most that was possible

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

Jared Diamond makes a few more observations (in Upheaval) about Germany:

Germany’s central geographic location surrounded by neighbors seems to me to have been the most important factor in German history. Of course, that location has not been without advantages: it has made Germany a crossroads for trade, technology, art, music, and culture. A cynic would note that Germany’s location also facilitated its invasion of many countries during World War Two.


The Thirty Years’ War, which was the major religious and power struggle between most of the leading nations of 17th-century Western and Central Europe, was fought mainly on German soil, reduced the population there by up to 50%, and inflicted a crushing economic and political setback whose consequences persisted for the next two centuries.


But we should not take for granted Germans’ rejection of the victim role and assumption of shame after World War Two, because it contrasts with the assumption of the victim role by Germans themselves after World War One and by Japanese after World War Two (Chapter 8).


But one can still argue that a World War Two instigated by Germany without Hitler would have been very different. His unusual evil mentality, charisma, boldness in foreign policy, and decision to exterminate all Jews were not shared by other revisionist German leaders of his era. Despite his initial military successes, his unrealistic appraisals led him repeatedly to override his own generals and ultimately to cause Germany’s defeat. Those fatally unrealistic decisions included his unprovoked declaration of war against the U.S. in December 1941 at a time when Germany was already at war with Britain and the Soviet Union, and his overriding of his generals’ pleas to authorize retreat by the German army trapped at Stalingrad in 1942–1943.


Once Germany had been unified in 1871, leaving millions of German-speaking peoples outside its borders, Bismarck was realistic enough to understand that he had achieved the most that was possible, and that other powers would not tolerate further German expansion.


Interestingly, recent German history provides four examples of an interval of 21–23 years between a crushing defeat and an explosive reaction to that defeat. Those four examples are: the 23-year interval between 1848’s failed revolutionary unification attempt and 1871’s successful unification; the 21-year interval between 1918’s crushing defeat in World War One and 1939’s outbreak of World War Two that sought and ultimately failed to reverse that defeat; the 23-year interval between 1945’s crushing defeat in World War Two and 1968’s revolts by the students born around 1945; and the 22-year interval between those 1968 student revolts and 1990’s re-unification.


  1. Kirk says:

    Y’all might want to make a quick scan over this post over at Powerline Blog…

    I’ve contended that Diamond is full of shiite, and apparently much smarter people than I agree with that assessment. In the comments, there’s a book mentioned that I need to go look up, called Technology and Empire, which may be where Diamond cribbed his notes.

    I’d also point out another comment that suddenly clarified something for me: There are no footnotes in Guns, Germs, and Steel. I’d missed that one, which leads into the general rule I’ve established when reading something like that: If it ain’t footnoted and the data’s not attributed to places I can check, then it’s almost certainly bullshit.

  2. Sam J. says:

    Kirk’s mention of “Technology and Empire” reminded me of two excellent books I read that are on just this sort of thinking in the large about history.

    William H. McNeill

    About technology and power. Very good. Don’t miss.

    “The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000″

    About, of course, plagues and the effect on history.

    “Plagues and Peoples”

    Both are excellent classics.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Everyone who bothers to write has an agenda, and the agenda isn’t necessarily to get the facts right. Poorly researched books are mainly a problem because some people believe everything they read.

    No, I haven’t researched this. It’s just my impression.

    I generally suspend disbelief even when reading nonfiction titles. Think of a pundit’s books as extended op-eds and enjoy them as such. Diamond, Taleb, Gladwell, Peterson… they make me think, but I’ll never let them do my thinking for me.

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