The Biographical Approach to History: Strengths and Weaknesses in the Context of Bismarck’s Germany

The Biographical Approach to History: Strengths and Weaknesses in the Context of Bismarck’s Germany

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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 situat...

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...e, if one is seeking to obtain knowledge of the European political climate in general, then an account such as Hobsbawm’s is vastly more helpful in understanding the bigger picture; likewise, Fulbrook’s account on German history as a whole provides a similar level of big picture understanding but in a uniquely German setting. However, if one already has a grasp on the bigger picture, then Waller’s Bismarck is most likely the best option to advance one’s knowledge to a new level. Thus, biographical approaches to history are only truly helpful once one understands the events taking place outside of the life of the figure in question.

Works Cited

Bruce Waller, Bismarck, (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997)
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989)
Mary Fulbrook, A Concise History of Germany, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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