What first drew you to the Second Reich as a field of study?
I was born in Germany and have always found it difficult to make sense of my own national identity. In Germany, regional, cultural and historical differences do not just divide but shape the sense of who you are. I was born in East Germany, which added yet another layer of identity over the top. Does that make me a German, an East German, a Prussian, a Brandenburger? There was no national narrative. The very same history teachers who told me in the 1990s that Germany had finally arrived at its natural place as a Western European nation would have told the students a few years above me that Germany had finally defeated the evils of imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. My nation did not make any sense to me. So where better to look for answers than the beginning of the German nation state in 1871? The period has never lost its fascination for me, and I believe it is not just at the heart of German history, but Europe’s too. Yet the German Empire is curiously underrepresented in scholarly research today. In light of the 150-year anniversary of 1871 this year, it seemed the right time to write up my take of this fascinating period and encourage others to look back on it and reflect.
Was the unification of Germany in 1871 inevitable? Friedrich Wilhelm IV had opposed it and Wilhelm I seemed unenthusiastic, but was there a ‘tide of history’?
No, it was most definitely not inevitable, at least not in 1871. As late as 1868, Bismarck still admitted in private that, in his assessment, Germany would probably not become a unified state in the 19th century. But there was a ‘tide of history’ too. A liberal-nationalist movement has been growing since the effort to defeat Napoleon in 1812 had allowed Germans to share pride, victory and camaraderie. But the forging of a nation state required something more drastic and concrete in the face of opposition from the aristocracy and the southern states. Even Bismarck, the architect of German unification, was surprised when the opportunity finally arose unexpectedly in 1870. Franco-Prussian tensions had been mounting and if they could be escalated, conflict with the old arch-enemy might just bring back the collective national memories of 1812…
How did the unification affect the balance of power in Europe?
It knocked it out of kilter overnight. Thirty-nine individual states suddenly merged to form the single largest entity in Europe—both in terms of population as well as geographical area. And not only that, but it also had vast resources at its disposal. All the ingredients were there for a new European powerhouse to emerge.
People often say it’s harder to write less than more: did you make a conscious decision that Blood and Iron would be a manageable scale for general readers?
Absolutely. While German history from 1918 to 1945 is well-explored, and many people have a solid understanding of the period, the German Empire has remained in the shadows. It has mostly been studied in academic settings and therefore perhaps seems too dry and complex for wider audiences. I was keen to ensure that this book would be of use to anyone wishing to find out more about this fascinating period of history. I wanted it to be both academically solid and enjoyable.
In 1890, Bismarck opened negotiations with the Centre Party with a view to creating a coalition in the Reichstag. The Kaiser heard of the meeting second-hand and was furious. Eventually Bismarck was forced to resign as Chancellor. Is it fair to see Bismarck’s departure from office in 1890 as the decisive turning-point of the Second Reich?
I would go so far as to call it ‘era-defining’—the only argument to be had here is whether the turning point is in 1888 with the death of Wilhelm I and the ascension of his grandson, Wilhelm II, or in 1890 with Bismarck’s resignation. In any case, as Imperial Chancellor, Bismarck dominated policy in Germany for nearly two decades, and during the crucial teething stages of the young state at that. His foreign policy was entirely geared towards stabilisation in Europe, and he urged restraint where empire-building was concerned. Once a young and naïve Kaiser Wilhelm II insisted on ‘personal rule’ for himself and ‘a place in the sun’ for Germany, the country would take a very different path.
Was Germany’s quest for colonies and its “place in the sun” a mistake? Did it change her rivals’ attitude towards her?
Yes: the relationship with Britain, in particular, deteriorated as a result. In order to maintain an overseas empire, a sizeable navy was required. By 1914, the second-largest fleet in the world was sailing in and out of Europe, right past the British coast—a threatening spectacle that contributed much to mounting tensions in Europe. Having said that, Germans were by no means alone in the conviction that empires were a necessary part of being a political power in the world. Social Darwinism was a concept that was seeping from the elites right down to the lower classes and the idea that Germany had to fight for survival in the harsh political jungle of Europe was a powerful one.
How would you characterise German politics after 1900? There seems to have been a relatively liberal state overseen by an autocratic monarch: how do we square this circle?
I’m afraid we won’t. People at the time found it impossible. To speak of a ‘liberal state’ does perhaps go a bit too far, but the Reichstag, the German parliament, certainly contained an ever-increasing amount of social democrats and liberals. By 1912 the former had become the single largest party, and together they accounted for about half the seats. As the Reichstag held the purse strings of the military budget, and its approval was required in the legislative process, the clash between it and the elites quickly deteriorated into a grinding stalemate. It was in no small part this internal problem that made war an attractive prospect to some in the Kaiser’s inner circle.
To modern sensibilities, Wilhelm II seems a rather comical and absurd figure. Did he appear that way to contemporaries? What did his fellow monarchs make of him?
There were few voices in Germany who would have called for a republic before 1917, but the Kaiser was involved in a series of political scandals which weakened his authority and made him the perfect target for political satire. Biting cartoons were published in newspapers both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe that ridiculed his physique, mannerisms and lack of political acumen. Fellow monarchs, however, retained a formal respect for him, not least due to the coincidence that Kaiser, King and Tsar were all first cousins to each other. They still met in good spirits for the wedding of Wilhelm’s only daughter, Victoria Louise, in 1913.
How would the average German of the early 20th century have thought of him or herself? Was there a ‘German’ self-image?
Yes, that was beginning to emerge. You see this time and again in letters, diary entries and most strikingly in the response to the Kaiser’s call to arms in August 1914. It had much to do with a sense of national pride in what had been achieved. The economic success, technological advances and military build-up all contributed to a sense that Germans were building greatness together. Unfortunately, there was also an ugly undercurrent to this. Anti-semitism, so-called ‘ethnic movements’ and a certain cultural arrogance became ever more acceptable among all social classes.
The Liebenberg Circle was a group of ministers and advisers to Wilhelm II headed by the anti-imperialist diplomat Philipp Prince zu Eulenburg and characterised by artistic and liberal sensibilities. How does the Liebenberg Circle fit into the political and cultural life of Germany? Its values and identity – artistic, aesthetic, tacitly tolerant of homosexuality – seem at odds with the ethos of Wilhelm II.
In a way, this world, created by Wilhelm’s friend and confidant Philipp zu Eulenburg, provided a refuge to the young Kaiser. After he had pushed the old chancellor Bismarck out of office, he had very few advisers or mentor figures to turn to. His father and grandfather were both dead, and the court was full of scheming sycophants. At heart, Wilhelm was a very insecure man with an almost obsessive desire to be liked. Eulenburg, much older than his protegé, played right into this and created an emotional dependency that gave him enormous political influence. The environment at Liebenberg with its poetry, pleasure gardens and ‘softness’ was a haven to Wilhelm away from the threateningly masculine circles of his military ‘camarilla’ at court.
We tend now to see Germany as ‘sleepwalking’ into the First World War: is this fair? Was there a desire for war, or did Wilhelm II overplay his hand, especially with the “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary?
Speaking of the difficulty that lies in brevity! There is a body of work out there on this that spans decades. Any answer I could provide in a few sentences will probably get torn to pieces—and rightly so! Well, I like a challenge. In a very tiny nutshell then: I think Wilhelm knowingly accepted the possibility that the localised war in the Balkans, which he was pushing Austria into, might become a much larger conflict. But the problem with Wilhelm is the lack of a coherent train of thought. You will find him laughing at the idea of a dangerous Russian ‘steamroller’ one day and anxiously asking Moltke not to attack France the next. The tides that led to war were whipped up by those behind the scenes as much as by those on the stage, but there is no doubt in my mind that the lion’s share of the blame falls squarely on German shoulders.
When Germany admitted defeat at the end of 1918, was the fall of the Hohenzollern monarchy inevitable? Could the institution have been saved on the abdication of the Kaiser, or was it too unpopular?
It’s hard to see a way out for the Hohenzollerns for a number of reasons. A huge factor was that US President Woodrow Wilson had made the abdication an explicit prerequisite for an armistice. No abdication, no peace. This is what convinced the elites that Wilhelm and the Crown Prince had to go. Prince Max von Baden who had taken over as chancellor on 3 October 1918, himself no republican, simply announced the imperial abdication on 9 November, without the Kaiser’s approval. Ordinary people had begun to see in Wilhelm a symbol of their ongoing suffering. Many now agreed that he needed to go for the nightmare of war to end. The so-called ‘German Revolution’ played a significant role in the end of the German monarchy.
What can we learn about today’s Europe from the story of Germany after unification? How does it affect international relations in the 21st century?
I believe that many of the developments in 20th- and 21st-century history flow from the awkward power-shift created by German unification in 1871—that goes for the good, the bad and the ugly. There are valuable lessons here about the interplay of nations, about the fragility of democracy, about the forces of industrialisation and about nationalism. The biggest mistake we can make today is to think we are somehow wiser than the people of the 19th and early 20th century—as if we got over the age of major wars and conflict. By 1914, the last European war lay over four decades in the past, and it had been a confined and relatively short one. Social democracy, trade unionism and liberalism were all strong and confident movements—all collapsed with the advent of war, almost overnight. Democracies are no safer today than they were in 1914 and we should never take them for granted.
The serial and audiobook rights to Blood and Iron were bought up very quickly: is this how you see popular history evolving? Do we need to see it as a multi-platform genre now? How healthy is the publishing world for historians?
Yes, I think a multi-platform approach is one way to democratise history as a discipline, broadening the circle of debate and access to it. There was, and perhaps still is, a trend for visual and audio media to be seen as ‘lesser’ formats for debate and knowledge acquisition. I believe this is to be groundless intellectual snobbery. I personally hugely enjoy listening to audiobooks, lectures and podcasts, and they allow a degree of flexibility that books alone cannot provide. I can hardly run through the forest with a thick book in my hand nor can I hoover the house while reading. I think there is a huge and growing demand for accessible history in different formats, and absolutely no need to compromise academic credibility in order to meet it.
What’s your favourite fact in Blood and Iron that people might not know?
General Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler’s tragicomic death. Wilhelm II was still reeling from a bout of political scandals when Hülsen-Haeseler thought it would cheer up his Kaiser if he danced for him in a ballerina outfit—pink tutu, rose wreath and all. Mid-dance, the general suddenly clutched his chest and collapsed. He was pronounced dead on the scene, and staff had a bit of a task on their hands getting the man out of his pink dress and back into his uniform before this scandal, too, hit the press.
Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871 – 1918 is published today by the History Press.