BACK WHEN I WAS a history grad student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a notion circulating among many (tenured) historians that all the real research into the recent past had already been done and now the thing to focus on was the "meta level." Mind you, this was the age of "post-modernism" and "the end of history." But as recent years have shown, we've still got a lot of history in us, and as far as post-modernism is concerned, how can you call an era without either high-speed Internet or widespread email even "modern"?
But I digress. The fact is, there still is a lot out there to be discovered. A case in point: The only recording ever made of the voice of "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck, the father of the German Empire and, eventually, of the united nation we know today. A representative of Thomas Edison's company made it in 1889, one year before the quarrelsome statesman was dismissed by his new and even more ambitious boss, the upstart Kaiser Wilhelm II. A researcher discovered the cylinder in the Edison archive in West Orange, NJ, and a German scholar by the name of Thomas Puille has restored it and made it available to the public.
The recording (or what is left of it - the quality of the approximately minute-long sample is dreadful) is intriguing in two ways. First, Bismarck's voice turns out to be much higher than I, at least, had expected. Somehow I had imagined that the man who once told the Prussian parliament: "Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided - that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood!" would have a gruff, booming voice befitting a founder of empire. Instead, Bismarck sounds positively... well, ordinary, rather like my corner baker. Of course, we know that Jefferson and Lincoln also had relatively high voices, but it still might shock us to hear them. Don't great men by definition have great voices? It makes one wonder what else was ordinary about them.
The other point that interested me is the actual content of Bismarck's first and only foray into the world of sound recording. Does he make any memorable statements to the afterworld? For example, does he explain to us why he did it all? Does he muse about how Europe and Germany might look 123 years in the future, and maybe even throw in a couple of suggestions for solving the euro crisis? No, his message is no time capsule. After his interlocuter states the date and location of the recording (at the Chancellor's private residence of Friedrichsruh near Hamburg), Bismarck proceeds to quote from old American and Latin songs, then throws in scraps of German poetry and some threadbare advice to his son. The rest is silence.
Why didn't he say more? The answer appears to lie in the Chancellor's blend of admiration and skepticism about the new invention. This ambivalence was apparently shared by his young nemesis, Wilhelm II, as well. You see, Edison's German-born collaborator and agent, Adelbert Wangemann, was traveling around Europe securing audio testimonials from the most famous men of the time. They were hoping to market the recording device as a music player - the iPod of its era. Despite Wangemann's best efforts, Wilhelm categorically refused to speak into the funnel. It appears he didn't want to say anything that could be used against him later on.
While he was a fool in so many ways, Wilhelm showed wisdom in this point. Already in 1889 he could foresee the baneful impact of Youtube and other modern media on many a politician's career. Would that he had remained so wise. Yes, Wilhelm had a lot of history ahead of him - and so do we.