Book Review: 'Blood and Iron' History of German Empire
By: Sean Durns (National Review)
The 1860s were a tumultuous time. Many Americans associate the decade with the U.S. Civil War, which the historian Shelby Foote called “the crossroads of our being.” But while the United States was enduring its own fiery trial, the balance of power on the European continent was also shifting in ways that would change both Europe and the world.
The wars of German unification led to the establishment of Germany in 1871. However, the founding of the new state wasn’t declared on German lands. It was announced in France, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, following the brief and bloody Franco–Prussian War.
The birth of Germany fulfilled longstanding nationalist ambitions. But as Katja Hoyer notes in her new book, Blood and Iron, it was an uneasy existence from the very start. Hoyer, a German-British historian, documents the rise and fall of the Second Reich in a short volume written for a general readership.
Her beautifully written book is the most accessible account of the Second Reich’s history to date. The historian is thoughtful and dispassionate. The tale is compellingly told. The title, too, is apt; Germany’s history is a story of blood and iron.
Wars against Denmark, Austria, and France served as the binding experience that created a single nation out of 39 Germanic states, many with their own cultures, traditions, and beliefs. The new country, Hoyer observes, “had not been molded into one smooth whole over centuries but was really closer to a mosaic, hastily glued together with the blood of its enemies.” Indeed, while two-thirds of the new state was Protestant, the south was predominantly Catholic. Danes, Poles, and Jews figured prominently within its borders.
Class and economic differences loomed as well. Indeed, it was the middle class that, particularly since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, had wanted a single German nation. Spurred by the industrial revolution, the growing middle classes “saw the immense potential of the natural resources, favourable geography and work traditions of the German-speaking lands,” Hoyer writes.
By contrast, many of the elites, including the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, were skeptical. But in one of the many paradoxes that would define the new German state, he would serve as its first emperor.
He was guided by a brilliant, and thoroughly unconventional, politician. Otto Van Bismarck was born in 1815, a member of the Junkers, the wealthy and deeply conservative landed aristocracy. Bismarck spent his youth gambling, drinking, and chasing women, until fate intervened. He entered the Prussian parliament only in 1847 after another member had fallen ill. But from the start he was “utterly enthralled by the experience,” Hoyer writes, “enjoying the intrigue, plotting and oratory battles that came with political life.”
Bismarck’s support for the monarchy in the years after the upheaval of the 1848 revolutions gained him favor with the Prussian court, culminating in his appointment as minister president of Prussia in 1862. “Germany is not looking to Prussia’s liberalism, but to its power,” he declared in a speech on September 30, 1862. “Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden may indulge liberalism, and yet no one will assign them Prussia’s role. . . . It is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided . . but by iron and blood.”
And it would be by “iron and blood” that Bismarck would forge the new German nation, alternatively exploiting and provoking crises with neighboring powers to unify the various Germanic-speaking states into a whole. He “created a Germany whose only binding experience was conflict against external enemies,” Hoyer writes. She observes that he “was an astute politician, perhaps one of the greatest statesmen of all time.” And he would need all the skills that he could muster to keep the fledgling country together. The peculiar circumstances of Germany’s creation, coupled with the rising tide of socialism, threatened to undo the Iron Chancellor’s work.
From its inception, Germany upended the European order. German economic and military power, along with its population, posed a threat to established European powers, particularly Britain and France. Seeking to reassure them, Bismarck recognized that he could no longer count on foreign wars to unify his people. Instead, he sought to maintain the precarious balance through Kulturkampf, a policy of exploiting the religious tensions within the country. That strategy worked — for a time.
Bismarck’s achievements were the result of his brilliance and cunning. A true political genius, he skillfully played political groups off each other. His charismatic personality, and the power granted to him in the constitution that he helped create, aided him immeasurably.
He often seemed two steps — or more — ahead of his opponents. But as his biographer Jonathan Steinberg has convincingly argued, the chancellor’s triumphs were also the product of his unique relationship with a largely passive monarch. Bismarck’s success, like the Second Reich itself, was built on unsteady ground.
When Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888, he was briefly replaced by his son, Frederick III, a noted liberal who was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria of England. Less than a hundred days later, Frederick died from throat cancer. He was followed by the decidedly illiberal Wilhelm II, who abhorred Bismarck’s strategy of turning Germans against each other to keep the nation together.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had his own ideas for Germany’s future. Unlike his grandfather, he was not content to let Bismarck lead on policy issues. And unlike Bismarck, he advocated a muscular foreign policy abroad, advocating competition with other European powers by building up German colonies and naval power.
“Where Bismarck had urged caution and had stressed that Germany’s ambitions, financial or otherwise, were limited to central Europe,” Hoyer writes, “Wilhelm lifted the lid on this and let out nationalist calls for worldwide expansion.” Indeed, the new Kaiser ruled a Germany that was a growing economic and military power. “We do not want to put anyone in the shade,” one of Bismarck’s successors later declared, “but we demand a place for ourselves in the sun.”
Bismarck was made to resign in 1890. His first replacement as chancellor, Leo von Caprivi, lamented that “Bismarck was able to juggle with three balls, but I can only juggle with two.” Bismarck had established a careful order of alliances. It came undone under the impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II.
But as Hoyer makes clear, the foundations of the Second Reich were tenuous. It would be too easy to blame Bismarck’s departure, and the new Kaiser, for the tragedy to come. Perhaps no nation so oddly conceived, so reliant on strife and dependent on an odd relationship between monarch and chancellor, could have lasted indefinitely.
Nonetheless, Wilhelmine Germany did enjoy decades of peace and economic success. The country was a leading light for scientific progress and social-welfare programs. But just as the country was born in conflict, it would be shattered by war. In the end, as Hoyer notes, “the First World War proved to be too much blood and iron for the state. . . . The Second Reich would be destroyed where it was first proclaimed — in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.”