A Biography for New Year’s

For some, the New Year is a time for resolutions. A few among us might decide to tackle a historical biography. I know I will. I plan on reading a biography on the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898).

A few historians will say that biographies distort history. Some say biographies, by focusing on individuals, ignore the so called great forces of history. That history is shaped by ideas and by societies. That no individual can control his or her destiny. He or she is constrained by his or her surroundings.

It is true that we, as individuals, are constrained in our possibilities by our time. We are constrained by our surroundings.

For example, if this were not 2014/2015, I would not be writing this for a blog from the comfort of my own home. In 1914, I would be typing this from a typewriter, and, if I could afford it, send the text off to a newspaper via telegraph. In 1814, I would be using a printing press, and this would probably be a pamphlet. In 1714, in all likelihood, I would mostly likely be illiterate and plowing a field. I think you get the point. In short, you and I are products of our time.

Yet being a product of your time does not mean that you cannot influence it in some way. Individuals matter in history. It is a comforting to know that we will have an impact on the world in our short time on Earth, but it is the truth. Each and every individual, no matter how insignificant they, or others, may think they are, matters. People shape history. We would be hard pressed to find students of history who believe the world would be the same without Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., or Marie Curie, to name a few.

Individuals do matter, and so do biographies. In a sense they satisfy our curiosity. If they are ably written, biographies reveal the humanity of their subject. They reveal their faults. They reveal that as statesmen, freedom fighters or scientists achieved their greatest goals, they often doubted themselves. That, like all of us, they ate, they slept, and they loved.

This push to humanise can go into great intimacy. A short glance at the introduction of the biography I am planning to read on Bismarck reveals a unique testimony. In 1875, a man called Christoph Tiedemann visited the statesman at his estate. During his visit, Tiedemann glanced at Bismarck’s chamber pot while visiting the Chancellor’s bedroom. He eagerly recorded in his diary that “Everything about the man is great, even his shit!!” That might be pushing the concept of humanisation a bit far, but it does throw a new light on Otto von Bismarck. You certainly do not get this kind of information in general history books!

There will always be a conflict between those who favour the great forces versus the individuals approach to history. One is not better than the other. The two cannot act independently of one another. So in the New Year, why not read a biography? You will certainly learn more than you expect.

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