The 150-year-old ceremony at which Germany united for the first time in its modern history was unusual for two reasons. First, the proclamation of the German empire in January 1871 took place abroad – at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. This was not just a way of fooling France after the war of 1870. Holding events on domestic soil may have raised suspicions that one German territory was favored over another, jeopardizing the untested unity of the empire.
Second, as depicted in famous painting of 1885 Anton von Werner, everyone at the Versailles ceremony is wearing military uniform. No civilians in sight. In light of the idealism of the German revolutionaries of 1848, Katja Hoyer said deeply Blood and Iron: “This is very far from the democratic unification liberals dream of.”
The themes of political fragility, social divisions and pervasive militarism lend impressive depth and coherence to Hoyer’s tightly-written narrative. He was rightly skeptical of once fashionable idea from a Special way in German history – the “special road” to modernity that is supposed to differentiate German development from the US, UK, or France. Yet under Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm IIGermany is a country “whose patriotic fervor requires a constant diet of conflict to fill the holes torn in the social order by inequality, geographic separation and cultural differences”.
Hoyer, a German-born writer who taught history in England, praised Bismarck as “one of the greatest statesmen of all time.” However, by his own admission, Bismarck heightened domestic tensions by calling Catholics, socialists, Poles and other national minorities as Enemies of the empire – “enemy of the empire”. However, Germany under Bismarck led Europe in the 1880s with early versions of the welfare state which to some extent balances the country’s explosive industrial growth.
Bismarck too exercise restraint in foreign policy until his resignation in 1890. It was a different story under Wilhelm, whose “strange mixture of exaggerated belief and obvious insecurity” was combined with “a childlike view of the world that would become a dangerous vehicle for expansionists and warmongers in inner circle in the Court “.
As Hoyer wrote, the crux of the problem lies in the way the political system – authoritarian with a democratic style – exacerbates the conflict inherent in the fabric of German society. The government is not in charge of the Reichstag, which is elected by universal male suffrage, but they need legislative approval to pass laws, including the military budget.
It became increasingly difficult for Bismarck’s successors to run the Reichstag, of which the Social Democrats became the largest party in 1912. The SPD, liberals, Catholics and conservative agrarian – all with deep roots at different strata of German society – faced each other. Outside parliament, the government is under pressure from a powerful court faction made up of military officers and aristocrats, not to mention the militant nationalist league.
The extent to which Germany’s domestic impasse was behind a reckless decision to offer unconditional support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914 and take the risk of a common European war? Hoyer didn’t devote much room to this question. But he made the point that, as the war progressed, “the ease with which the German people allowed their semi-democratic system to descend into a military dictatorship was testament to the fact that parliamentary culture was still in its infancy”. This is a wise conclusion for a book that has the benefit of treating imperial Germany as an era in its own way and not as the inevitable beginning of the horrors of 1933-1945.
Blood and Iron: Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918, by Katja Hoyer, The History Press, RRP £ 14.99, 253 pages
Tony Barber is the European FT editor
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