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History gave the world a German leader Putin reminds us of (and it’s not Hitler)

Now that Otto von Bismarck, he knew what he was doing. Jacek Turczyk/EPA

Karl Marx warned against conjuring up the past to explain the present, but really, we have been somewhere very like the Ukraine before. Benjamin Disraeli stood in the British parliament 150 years ago condemning a disaster in British foreign policy that bears striking resemblance to the situation in Ukraine today.

In 1864, on a similar issue of annexation, the Schleswig-Holstein Question, Britain encouraged Denmark to resist Germany’s claims to the region, which were based on it having cultural and ethnic ties to the Fatherland. But, when push came to shove, Britain hastily abandoned the issue to the militarist mercy of Otto von Bismarck.


This was more than just a national debacle. In 1864, Britain was Globocop, the world’s policeman. It had a universal vision of peace, progress and free trade, to be enabled by judicious little doses of hard power projection where truly needed. There seemed to be no geopolitical or ideological rival: Russia had been bloodily tamed in the Crimea, America was locked in its brutal Civil War, and relations with France couldn’t have been warmer.

Yet Britain now managed to gift a PR triumph to the man who would turn out to be the Svengali of a new rival with a very different ideology: Count Bismarck. The German statesman regarded liberalism as the devil and Britain as its fons et origo.

Like Putin in 2014, Bismarck in early 1864 was by no means all-powerful in his country, which was still comprised of many smaller kingdoms and duchies. He had bold and vocal internal enemies: his overwhelmingly liberal parliamentarians looked openly to Britain as their great model and voted down budget after budget.

Bismarck’s ministry survived only because he was backed by the army and personally controlled large sections of the press. Understandably wary of taking to the streets against the brutalised farm-boys of the Prussian Guard, urbane Rhineland liberals stuck to their lobbies. Bismarck’s press mocked them as “well-fed, big-mouthed bourgeois”, but by 1864 they were making life almost impossible for him.

Great power complacency

Meanwhile, liberal Britons of the time had been schooled by Lord Macaulay to believe that history moves in ineluctable stages of progress and that their game was the only one in town. They were as blithely confident of this as were Wolfowitz, Cheney and all those who so hastily applauded the so-called Arab Spring. To them, the impasse in Prussia could have only one result: the Prussian liberals would soon fulfil the role assigned to them by the late Prince Consort in the so-called “Coburg Plan”. Having married his daughter off to the heir to the Prussian throne, Albert intended that his new son-in-law join with the German liberals to throw off the backward, scar-faced, sabre-rattling Junkers, uniting all Germany in Great Britain’s beneficent image.

Then came Denmark and Bismarck’s opportunity. How would Britain react to the claim that the culturally German elements in southern Denmark needed rescuing from the dread threat of Danification – by force if needed? It was no simple call, for the Schleswig-Holstein question is still a by-word for complexity today.

There were certainly doubts as to the legality of the Danish king’s actions in November 1863, when he attempted to reintegrate Schleswig into Denmark. Similarly, any sane person would admit there to be grey areas about the legitimacy of the regime change in Kiev in February 2014.

Then as now, however, the overweening liberal world power did not pause to consider such historical and ethnic niceties, to gather thought-out international backing, or to consult, as with an equal, with the big local power. Britain’s leaders simply waded in with loud, off-the-cuff promises of support against partition. Lord Palmerston said it plainly: if the Germans used force, “it would not be Denmark alone with which they would have to contend”. Thus succoured, as they imagined, the Danes stuck to their guns rather than negotiating realistically. The result was Bismarck’s great chance, and he seized it like the gambler he was.

In this 1864 cartoon from the biggest-selling German satirical paper, “Kladderaddatsch”, the fabled British Lion is just a puppet-skin and a united Germany laughs out loud. Heidelburg University

The Prussian Guard went in – and Britain backed wretchedly down. Bismarck’s in-house press howled scorn and derision at liberal Britain, and at the idea that such a decadent land was any example for German liberals. They cried: “In Europe there is but one voice of scorn and derision at England … the Danes having been so perfidiously encouraged by English ministers into baseless hopes, people will at last see clearly what worth they may set on such friendship.”

And so, the Victorian Globocop achieved the worst possible result: it had treated a would-be regional hegemon as a non-player and then folded ignominiously when the ante was upped. On July 4 1864, Disraeli memorably called Britain’s policy “menaces never accomplished, and promises never fulfilled”. The result was an epochal boost for a quasi-dictator hoping to stymy his brave domestic opponents by showing that their Western model was a busted flush and that his militaristic path could re-unite their nation and restore its glory.

Bismarck then, Putin now: however wrong Marx may have been about most things, we had all better be hoping that history really does play out as farce, not tragedy, the second time around.

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