From the In Memoriam column of the September 2007 Perspectives
Otto Paul Pflanze
James M. Brophy, September 2007
Otto Paul Pflanze, an internationally recognized historian of 19th-century Germany and a biographer of Bismarck, died on March 3, 2007, at the age of 88 in Bloomington, Indiana. Pflanze was born in Maryville, Tennessee, where he received an undergraduate degree in history from Maryville College. After earning a master's degree from Yale University, he interrupted his graduate training in 1942 to serve as 1st lieutenant in the Air Corps of the U.S. Army until 1946. Following the war, Pflanze resumed graduate work at Yale under the tutelage of Hajo Holborn, who had himself fled Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife. While still a graduate student at Yale, Pflanze worked for a year with the Department of State in Washington, Berlin, and Whadden Hall (England), where he helped edit Documents of German Foreign Policy, 1918–45. After receiving his PhD in 1950, he served as instructor at New York University, assistant professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and assistant professor at the University of Illinois, before accepting professorships at the University of Minnesota in 1961 and Indiana University, where he served as editor-in-chief of the American Historical Review from 1977 to 1985. The following year, he joined the faculty of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson as Stevenson Professor of History until his retirement in 1992.
Pflanze's first work, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification 1815–71 was published in 1963 and quickly assumed the status of a standard work. A winner of the Biennial Book Award of Phi Alpha Theta, the book launched 30 years of passionate and tireless work, culminating in the revision and expansion of this volume, which Princeton University Press re-published in 1990 with the second and third volumes, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Consolidation, 1871–80 and Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Fortification, 1880–98. Pflanze's magnum opus, recognized by many of his contemporaries as the most balanced and comprehensive work on Bismarck and his era, was collectively named Most Outstanding Book in History, Government, and Political Science by the Association of American Publishers in 1991. The translation, Bismarck. Der Reichsgründer, Bd. I (Beck Verlag, 1997) and Bismarck. Der Reichskanzler, Bd. II (1998) earned Pflanze the Einhard Prize for European Historical Biography by the Einhard Stiftung in Seligenstadt, Germany, in 1999. In a crowded field of competitors, Pflanze's work distinguished itself for its chronological and interpretive balance. Whereas previous (and subsequent) Bismarck biographers typically emphasized his early triumphs during German unification, Pflanze examined Bismarck's entire career. The three volumes struck an equipoise between the first years of nation building and the subsequent decades when Bismarck consolidated Germany's domestic and international governing frameworks and furthermore struggled to retain the political leadership of the Prussian aristocracy. In doing so, Pflanze laid aside the regnant paradigms of Bismarck as a good or evil "genius"—a towering figure unique in German history. In place of an indomitable iron chancellor, Pflanze rendered a portrait—at once critical and sympathetic—of a brilliant but vulnerable and flawed political mind, whose constitutional and institutional compromises did not stand the test of time.
Although hailed principally as the foremost biographer of Bismarck, Pflanze never fully accepted this designation, since the scope of his work exceeded the chronicling the life and accomplishments of Germany's preeminent statesman. Rather, Pflanze's achievement consisted of revealing the interaction between social, political, intellectual, and institutional forces of German history and Bismarck's idiosyncratic character. Pflanze often noted that Bismarck saw himself as caught in the "stream of time," which "man can neither create nor direct." Consequently, Pflanze strove to provide interlocking macro- and microinterpretive frameworks with which to understand the economic, political, and sociocultural currents that Bismarck navigated in his public and private life. It is the breadth and depth of Pflanze's synthetic analysis of Bismarck's life and times that make his opus an enduring contribution to modern German historiography. Writing in an era that witnessed the ascendancy of social scientific models and theory, Pflanze reasserted the historian's obligation to weigh contingency alongside structure, personal motives alongside public pressures, and cultural attitudes alongside economic forces when categorizing the manifold contexts that constitute a life and an individual's claims to agency. When reviewing Pflanze's volumes for the Times Literary Supplement in 1991, the Stanford historian James Sheehan noted that, "He instinctively avoids single explanations: he believes in neither the autonomy of the international system nor the primacy of foreign policy; he accepts that economics are important but denies that political preferences flow directly from special interests; he knows that popular movements matter but does not doubt that statesmen can affect events. At heart, Pflanze is a pragmatist and an empiricist, who possesses in abundance the historian's characteristic virtues of skepticism, curiosity, and persistence." Sheehan concluded, "Thanks to Pflanze's extraordinary labors," we have "a biography worthy of its subject." In his review for the American Historical Review in 1992, David Blackbourn of Harvard University concurred: "comprehensive, confidently constructed, and commandingly written, it is the splendid summation of a lifetime's work."
Otto Pflanze was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a founding member of the Historisches Kolleg in Munich, and served on the board of editors for the Journal of Modern History and Central European History. He was also the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, ACLS, and McKnight foundations. His other publications included A History of the Western World: Modern Times (co-authored with Stanley Payne, 3rd ed., 1975), The Unification of Germany: Was there an Alternative? (editor, 1968) and Innenpolitische Probleme des Bismarck-Reiches (co-editor, 1983). In addition he contributed critical essays on 19th-century Germany to numerous anthologies and such journals as Historische Zeitschrift, the Journal of Modern History, and the American Historical Review. His professional affiliations included the German Studies Association as well as a 50-year membership to the American Historical Association.
In addition to his scholarly achievements, Pflanze was an outstanding lecturer, seminar teacher, and director of doctoral research. Those dozens of scholars who studied with him as a graduate student or worked under him at the American Historical Review remember not only his enormous learning, rigorous thinking, and brilliant editing but also the integrity of his judgment, the solidity of his advice, and the loyalty of his friendship. With the soft lilt of a faint Tennessee accent, an editor's flair for idiomatic cogency, and eyes that sparkled with intellect and wit, Pflanze's reputation as a teacher, advisor, editor, and general raconteur was celebrated. As Glenn Tinder, a colleague and friend, noted, "he was a large and heartening and intelligent presence in the world."
Pflanze is survived by his wife of 57 years, Hertha Maria Haberlander Pflanze; his three children, Charles, Stephen, and Katrine; a son-in-law, Graham Hatfull; two grandchildren; a sister; and nieces and nephews.
—James M. Brophy
University of Delaware