On Sept. 30, 1862, the recently appointed minister president of the Kingdom of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, held a speech that gave a taste of things to come: “The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power. ... Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided … but by iron and blood.”
Some nine years later, after the victorious wars of unification against Denmark (1864), Austria-Hungary (1866), and France (1870-71), Bismarck oversaw the proclamation of the first German nation-state in the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. He would serve as chancellor of the largest and most economically powerful state in Europe for the next 19 years, longer than any other chancellor in German history. His creation, the German Empire, is the subject of a new book by Katja Hoyer, a German historian living in Britain, for which she chose Bismarck’s famous quip as both its title and analytical frame. For if militarism and war had been the catalyst for the creation of the Kaiserreich out of 39 independent states, it also proved to be its undoing nearly five decades later.
Hoyer’s brisk and eminently readable analysis manages to cover the complex history of modern Germany without the usual polemics that have shaped debates about the Kaiserreich in recent years. The history wars raging in Germany may be different in tone and focus from those in the United States, but they are no less intense. For the past few years, major public debates have reconsidered the German Empire’s colonial record, notably its violent treatment of the Herero and the Nama in today’s Namibia, and the relationship of Germany’s ruling family, the House of Hohenzollern, with the Nazi Party. Colonial street names have been changed, and there are grassroots initiatives demanding the removal of the towering Bismarck monument overlooking Hamburg's harbor. Trending under hashtags such as #OttoMustGo, campaigners insist that German colonialism started with Bismarck.
While acknowledging the very real shortcomings of the “Iron Chancellor,” Hoyer’s account is sober and balanced. She clearly emphasizes the semi-authoritarian nature of Bismarck’s creation, which, in her words, “was a far cry from the democratic unification of which the liberals had dreamed.” It excluded German-speaking Austria and looked a lot more like an enlarged Kingdom of Prussia than South Germany's liberals and Catholics would have liked. In order to alleviate the concerns over Prussian dominance among Bavarians and others, the new constitution established Germany as a federation in which each constituent state could keep its own royal houses and run its own regional government in addition to the Reichstag in Berlin.
Governments were not answerable to the Reichstag, which was elected by universal male suffrage, but they needed its approval to pass laws and budgets. Hoyer does justice to the complexity of German politics and society in this period by acknowledging the apparent paradox between a semi-authoritarian constitution and an ultra-dynamic economy that overtook Britain as Europe’s powerhouse by the turn of the century. The latter was partly driven by scientific innovation on a scale previously unseen in German history. Imperial Germany had its fair share of goose-stepping Prussian officers, but it was also the country where Albert Einstein and Max Planck revolutionized physics.
A major problem of the constitutional setup was that Bismarck had devised the constitution around himself. Although he could, in theory, be dismissed by the emperor, he managed to make himself virtually indispensable. With few exceptions, Kaiser Wilhelm I allowed Bismarck to do whatever he wanted. When the two did clash, the ultimate option for Bismarck was to threaten to resign. The trick always worked.
Hoyer praises Bismarck as “one of the greatest statesmen of all time,” but she also acknowledges his weaknesses. As a devout Protestant and pragmatic Conservative, Bismarck despised political Catholicism as much as he hated socialism. He fought both (unsuccessfully) during the Kulturkampf to limit Catholic influence on education and during the period of the anti-socialist laws of the 1870s. In order to weaken the appeal of socialism, he devised the most extensive social security system available in any major country of the time.
Outside domestic politics, Bismarck exercised restraint in foreign policy up to his resignation in 1890. He famously described politics as “the art of the possible,” the central creed of his "realpolitik," and focused on securing Germany’s hegemony on the European continent by dividing its enemies. Bismarck was concerned that Germany, situated in the middle of Europe with no natural boundaries to the West and East, might be simultaneously attacked by France and Russia, a “nightmare of coalitions” that was to be prevented at all cost.
Instead, Bismarck tried to establish himself as the “honest broker” of international politics, the man who would mediate between the other major powers, be it in relation to disagreements in the Balkans or in the colonial realm. He was never keen on colonial expansion, viewing colonies as mainly loss-making vanity projects with enormous potential for conflict between the great powers. The reason German colonial expansion did eventually start during Bismarck’s time as chancellor was that private businessmen disagreed with his assessment. To them, Africa offered the promise of natural resources. In 1883, the merchant Adolf Luderitz tricked a local Nama chief in today’s Namibia into selling him huge swatches of tribal land along the coast. Unsurprisingly, given that Luderitz had cheated the original owners into selling large parts of their land, he quickly found himself in trouble. Faced with a hostile indigenous population and suspicious British administrators in the neighboring Cape Colony, Luderitz asked Berlin for military support. Initially, Bismarck resisted. In the end, however, the pro-colonial lobby grew larger and Bismarck declared “South West Africa” to be a German “protection area.”
Bismarck’s hesitancy in colonial matters was one of the reasons for his downfall. The new young kaiser, Wilhelm II, wanted Germany to have its “place in the sun.” In 1890, Bismarck was replaced as chancellor by Leo von Caprivi who supported the new emperor's more aggressive foreign policy. For Hoyer, it was the kaiser's “peculiar mix of swaggering overconfidence and obvious insecurity” combined with “a childlike outlook on the world that would become a dangerous vehicle for the expansionists and warmongers in his inner circle at court.”
In the meantime, the political stratification of German political life continued to deepen. By 1912, the Social Democrats had become the largest party in Parliament, raising concerns among Conservatives that a Marxist revolution was on its way. Outside Parliament, the government came under pressure from powerful court factions of army officers, nationalist leagues, and industrialists.
In the older literature, a popular assumption was that the German decision to offer unconditional support for Austria-Hungary in the July 1914 crisis was a result of this political fragmentation, a “flight into war” to cover up the deep internal rifts in German society. Others have argued that Wilhelm’s decision to back Austria-Hungary at any cost was born out of overconfidence that the German military would beat France swiftly and decisively before dealing with Russia.
Hoyer does not devote much space to this issue. Instead, she is mainly concerned with the ease with which Germany descended into a military dictatorship, notably in the second half of the war when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg effectively bypassed both Parliament and the government. Hoyer blames the fact that “parliamentary culture was still in its infancy.” That said, she does not fall into the trap of reading history backward and treating the German Empire as a prehistory to Nazi Germany. Those looking for an up-to-date account of modern German history in this period that is both lucid and readable will find a reliable guide in Hoyer’s book.
Robert Gerwarth is a professor of modern history at University College Dublin and director of the Center for War Studies. He is the author of The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.