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The Biographical Approach To History: Strengths And Weaknesses In The Context Of Bismarck’s Germany

1032 words - 5 pages

The understanding of European politics during the latter half of the extended nineteenth century, particularly from 1848 onward to the First World War, is as much about the European political climate as a whole as it is about the key figures within this climate. For example, one cannot fully understand the multitude of independence and nationalist movements in the Balkans during this time without first understanding the outside pressures placed on these movements by the three competing empires of the Russians, Habsburgs, and Ottomans; and only then delving into the multitude of persons whom inspired the individual movements. Likewise, understanding the German situation at this time is just as much about the European picture as a whole, as it is about the people within the German system itself; of which, Otto von Bismarck is clearly the synonymous figure. With that said, it follows that a purely biographical approach to this turbulent time in German politics, focused on Bismarck, will leave one largely without the knowledge of the greater European situation; however, this same biographical approach also helps to understand the political interworking and personal relationships that forged a unified Germany, something that the study of the European climate as a whole fails to do.
The biographical approach to German unification in Bruce Waller’s Bismarck leaves the reader without much information on the European political picture as a whole and by no means provides a plethora of information on many of the political power players outside of Bismarck’s Germany. For example, Waller’s approach to Bismarck’s economic foreign policy is clearly lacking an explanation of outside factors, and those factors of the European economic situation as a whole; therefore, Waller writes, “Initially free trade seemed to win, but by the end of the 1870s protection overtook it.” This approach leaves one wondering what global economic factors, instead of German political factors, led to Germany’s, as well as the majority of Europe’s, favoring of protectionism instead of free trade. When discussing Germany’s economic foreign policy Waller briefly mentions French protectionism, but fails to mention the underlying cause for widespread European protectionism as a whole at this time. However, if a more global approach, rather than a biographical one, is taken then it is much easier to see that Germany’s turn to protectionism is by no means unique. In fact, Eric Hobsbawm states that, “Starting with Germany and Italy (textiles) in the late 1870s, protective tariffs became a permanent part of the international economic scene,” and he furthers this point with, “Of all the major industrial countries only Britain held fast to unrestricted free trade, in spite of powerful occasional challenges from protectionists.” Thus, it is clear that protectionism was not uniquely German, and indeed any industrializing economy during this time that still possessed a large agrarian sector...

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