.
I

n September of this year, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, announced her impending departure after 16 years of holding that office. In her nearly two decades in office, she saw four U.S. presidents, five UK prime Ministers, and nine Italian and Japanese premiers. Her tenure saw a remarkable period of political stability and economic growth—growing twice as fast as the UK, Canada, Japan, and France—despite multiple financial crises and increased pressure on the European Union—not the least of which came from Brexit and the rise of authoritarian tendencies in Poland and Hungary. 

Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire | Katja Hoyer | Pegasus Books | January 2021.

That this period of growth and stability occurred was far from guaranteed. Instead, it speaks to her leadership and the political consensus at which Germans have collectively arrived. For much of Germany, at least its leadership, Berlin’s national interest is defined by economic terms, and on this account, Merkel was overwhelmingly successful. At the same time, Berlin sought a consensus-driven and dialogue-focused foreign policy, forcing compromise when perhaps confrontation may have been more appropriate. Its geopolitical position and energy politics left it exposed to predations from Russia, best embodied by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. 

Yet, even this stability was far from guaranteed, and all the more impressive given that the Germany is a young country, having only been formed in its modern incarnation in 1871. While much of popular history has focused on World War II, the Third Reich, and Adolf Hitler, this was neither the beginning nor the end of German history. Here, Katja Hoyer offers a refreshing and fascinating look at the story of the German empire’s creation through to its collapse at the end of World War I in her new book “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German State”, a copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher. 

Hoyer’s book is an unexpectedly delightful find. On occasion, a book will pique my interest, particularly about a subject on which I know very little or which approaches a subject from a novel angle, and Hoyer’s book decidedly fits that category. Candidly, I had given little thought to Germany outside of the World Wars. This is almost certainly a product of what the American cable network, the “History Channel”, used to be—all World War II all-the-time, that is, of course, before it became curiously obsessed with “Swamp People” and alligator hunters. Yet, as Hoyer shows, the World Wars are woefully inadequate to understanding Germany today or at all, full stop. 

History itself is fascinating, but in the right hands, like Hoyer’s, it can bring even lesser considered (but nonetheless important) periods vividly to life. 

“Blood and Iron” is a rich book that, once it finds its flow, is exceptionally enlightening and thoroughly interesting. What Hoyer shows is how the state came into being, but more importantly, how Germany struggled to find its own national identity. Cobbling together one nation-state from 39 independent entities was never going to be easy. As Hoyer shows, Otto von Bismarck and others sought to unify Germany’s identity through “blood and iron”, to use conflict as a forge in which a country could be formed. The challenge is that such an identity is only sustainable through perpetual conflict and the identification of new enemies. His attempts at waging a culture war (Kulturkampf) sought to limit the reach of the Roman Catholic church and force greater loyalty to the new Germany, not the Vatican. Bismarck rolled back these measures and the war was largely after 1874, when the Roman Catholics increased their representation in parliament—an example, of sorts, of democracy in action. 

“Blood and Iron” takes a wide-lens view to the formation of Germany, and it is an exceptionally successful approach. Hoyer proceeds chronologically, but dives deeply into the socio-economic life of 19th century Germany, its politics, its people, and its dynamics. She effortlessly moves from the macro-level of Bismarckian politics through to the lives of the average German, particularly at a time of profound change during the industrial revolution. Hoyer’s description of the balancing act the government undertook to address demands for increased social programs and support, thereby satiating the social democrat parties, is particularly interesting. 

The pursuit of a German identity contributed to the country’s efforts to acquire colonies (Weltreich or world empire), a mark of power and prestige at the time, and the creation of a modern navy (Flottenpolitik)—a development that certainly provoked fears and unease in France and the United Kingdom. The former was driven by and contributed to the Kaiser’s vision of himself as a true emperor and his designs on self-rule at the expense of democracy. 

Reading Hoyer’s description of national identity in Germany, one can’t help but see tragic parallels in America, today. It would seem that Americans know each other and themselves less and less. Due in no small part to social media echo chambers and algorithmically driven search results, Americans are finding themselves in specific camps, camps which incentivize the villainization of the “other” whomever it may be. 

America seems locked in its own perpetual Kulturkampf, a situation that only serves to divide the citizenry further and accomplishes little—it is no longer a function of “I disagree with my neighbor, but we are still friends”. Now it is “my neighbor is wrong and evil for having that opinion, and I will have nothing to do with her”. This is both a dangerous and unsustainable dynamic for American democracy.

Hoyer also vividly illustrates the fragility of democracy. The system that Bismarck crafted and manipulated—hardly a democracy by today’s standards with its separate, but unequal branches—was still only as strong as those who believed in it and were committed to its perpetuation. When it no longer was palatable or convenient, the Kaiser sought to circumvent the fragile democratic processes and rule by fiat in 1914. 

Too few people at the time thought that democracy was worth defending, as Hoyer wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, and so, the German democratic experiment died. It returned in 1919, but again departed the stage in the 1930s with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. As Hoyer writes in the Post, it is insufficient to look at the WWI period of German democratic formation as a proto-Nazi regime. It was much more than that. 

“Blood and Iron” shows a German democracy that was far richer and more nuanced than most would have suspected. It had a vibrant free press, universal male suffrage—regardless of wealth, class, religion, or ethnicity. It had dynamic opposition parties who were not merely window-dressing or even tame opposition (a la Russian democracy, today). 

Here too there are parallels with America’s present situation. While there are overblown, hyperbolic claims that the democratic experiment in the United States is on the precipice of collapse, there are worrying trends. Too few Americans understand the basic tenets of democracy. This ignorance creates fertile breeding grounds for conspiracy and violence alike, leaving segments of the population to believe that the events of January 6th or violent urban riots are wholly acceptable and legitimate acts. Citizens’ willful ignorance creates space for charlatans and demagogues to find traction. The only cure for this is an informed and educated body politic, yet this seems more remote of a possibility than ever before. 

Beyond America today, the fragility of democracy is sadly seen in Europe. In both Hungary and Poland, the national leadership is sliding toward authoritarianism, in once success stories of Western democracy’s spread. Even in Great Britain, the home of Magna Carta, democracy seems to be in a far more weakened state than one would have thought possible only a few years ago. It is not without some irony that Germany is perhaps the most stable democracy today. 

“Blood and Iron” is a fascinating look at a period in history that has unexpected parallels with our own moment in time. Hoyer gives life to the creation of modern Germany and its first democratic experiment. Its timeliness can’t be understated, and her avoidance of contemporary commentary is welcome in that allows the reader to reflect on their own (the author of the review begs the reader’s forgiveness on this account). Democracy is the exception to the rule in history, and only with continued renewal, investment, and belief can it be sustained. Hoyer demonstrates what can happen when people stop this process, a lesson we would do well to take to heart.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Rise and Fall of the German Empire

Photo by Ansgar Scheffold via Unsplash.

December 18, 2021

Katja Hoyer's "Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire" takes a wide-lens view to the formation of Germany, depicting a rich and nuanced, yet fragile democracy—with similar dysfunctions to our democracies today.

I

n September of this year, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, announced her impending departure after 16 years of holding that office. In her nearly two decades in office, she saw four U.S. presidents, five UK prime Ministers, and nine Italian and Japanese premiers. Her tenure saw a remarkable period of political stability and economic growth—growing twice as fast as the UK, Canada, Japan, and France—despite multiple financial crises and increased pressure on the European Union—not the least of which came from Brexit and the rise of authoritarian tendencies in Poland and Hungary. 

Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire | Katja Hoyer | Pegasus Books | January 2021.

That this period of growth and stability occurred was far from guaranteed. Instead, it speaks to her leadership and the political consensus at which Germans have collectively arrived. For much of Germany, at least its leadership, Berlin’s national interest is defined by economic terms, and on this account, Merkel was overwhelmingly successful. At the same time, Berlin sought a consensus-driven and dialogue-focused foreign policy, forcing compromise when perhaps confrontation may have been more appropriate. Its geopolitical position and energy politics left it exposed to predations from Russia, best embodied by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. 

Yet, even this stability was far from guaranteed, and all the more impressive given that the Germany is a young country, having only been formed in its modern incarnation in 1871. While much of popular history has focused on World War II, the Third Reich, and Adolf Hitler, this was neither the beginning nor the end of German history. Here, Katja Hoyer offers a refreshing and fascinating look at the story of the German empire’s creation through to its collapse at the end of World War I in her new book “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German State”, a copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher. 

Hoyer’s book is an unexpectedly delightful find. On occasion, a book will pique my interest, particularly about a subject on which I know very little or which approaches a subject from a novel angle, and Hoyer’s book decidedly fits that category. Candidly, I had given little thought to Germany outside of the World Wars. This is almost certainly a product of what the American cable network, the “History Channel”, used to be—all World War II all-the-time, that is, of course, before it became curiously obsessed with “Swamp People” and alligator hunters. Yet, as Hoyer shows, the World Wars are woefully inadequate to understanding Germany today or at all, full stop. 

History itself is fascinating, but in the right hands, like Hoyer’s, it can bring even lesser considered (but nonetheless important) periods vividly to life. 

“Blood and Iron” is a rich book that, once it finds its flow, is exceptionally enlightening and thoroughly interesting. What Hoyer shows is how the state came into being, but more importantly, how Germany struggled to find its own national identity. Cobbling together one nation-state from 39 independent entities was never going to be easy. As Hoyer shows, Otto von Bismarck and others sought to unify Germany’s identity through “blood and iron”, to use conflict as a forge in which a country could be formed. The challenge is that such an identity is only sustainable through perpetual conflict and the identification of new enemies. His attempts at waging a culture war (Kulturkampf) sought to limit the reach of the Roman Catholic church and force greater loyalty to the new Germany, not the Vatican. Bismarck rolled back these measures and the war was largely after 1874, when the Roman Catholics increased their representation in parliament—an example, of sorts, of democracy in action. 

“Blood and Iron” takes a wide-lens view to the formation of Germany, and it is an exceptionally successful approach. Hoyer proceeds chronologically, but dives deeply into the socio-economic life of 19th century Germany, its politics, its people, and its dynamics. She effortlessly moves from the macro-level of Bismarckian politics through to the lives of the average German, particularly at a time of profound change during the industrial revolution. Hoyer’s description of the balancing act the government undertook to address demands for increased social programs and support, thereby satiating the social democrat parties, is particularly interesting. 

The pursuit of a German identity contributed to the country’s efforts to acquire colonies (Weltreich or world empire), a mark of power and prestige at the time, and the creation of a modern navy (Flottenpolitik)—a development that certainly provoked fears and unease in France and the United Kingdom. The former was driven by and contributed to the Kaiser’s vision of himself as a true emperor and his designs on self-rule at the expense of democracy. 

Reading Hoyer’s description of national identity in Germany, one can’t help but see tragic parallels in America, today. It would seem that Americans know each other and themselves less and less. Due in no small part to social media echo chambers and algorithmically driven search results, Americans are finding themselves in specific camps, camps which incentivize the villainization of the “other” whomever it may be. 

America seems locked in its own perpetual Kulturkampf, a situation that only serves to divide the citizenry further and accomplishes little—it is no longer a function of “I disagree with my neighbor, but we are still friends”. Now it is “my neighbor is wrong and evil for having that opinion, and I will have nothing to do with her”. This is both a dangerous and unsustainable dynamic for American democracy.

Hoyer also vividly illustrates the fragility of democracy. The system that Bismarck crafted and manipulated—hardly a democracy by today’s standards with its separate, but unequal branches—was still only as strong as those who believed in it and were committed to its perpetuation. When it no longer was palatable or convenient, the Kaiser sought to circumvent the fragile democratic processes and rule by fiat in 1914. 

Too few people at the time thought that democracy was worth defending, as Hoyer wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, and so, the German democratic experiment died. It returned in 1919, but again departed the stage in the 1930s with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. As Hoyer writes in the Post, it is insufficient to look at the WWI period of German democratic formation as a proto-Nazi regime. It was much more than that. 

“Blood and Iron” shows a German democracy that was far richer and more nuanced than most would have suspected. It had a vibrant free press, universal male suffrage—regardless of wealth, class, religion, or ethnicity. It had dynamic opposition parties who were not merely window-dressing or even tame opposition (a la Russian democracy, today). 

Here too there are parallels with America’s present situation. While there are overblown, hyperbolic claims that the democratic experiment in the United States is on the precipice of collapse, there are worrying trends. Too few Americans understand the basic tenets of democracy. This ignorance creates fertile breeding grounds for conspiracy and violence alike, leaving segments of the population to believe that the events of January 6th or violent urban riots are wholly acceptable and legitimate acts. Citizens’ willful ignorance creates space for charlatans and demagogues to find traction. The only cure for this is an informed and educated body politic, yet this seems more remote of a possibility than ever before. 

Beyond America today, the fragility of democracy is sadly seen in Europe. In both Hungary and Poland, the national leadership is sliding toward authoritarianism, in once success stories of Western democracy’s spread. Even in Great Britain, the home of Magna Carta, democracy seems to be in a far more weakened state than one would have thought possible only a few years ago. It is not without some irony that Germany is perhaps the most stable democracy today. 

“Blood and Iron” is a fascinating look at a period in history that has unexpected parallels with our own moment in time. Hoyer gives life to the creation of modern Germany and its first democratic experiment. Its timeliness can’t be understated, and her avoidance of contemporary commentary is welcome in that allows the reader to reflect on their own (the author of the review begs the reader’s forgiveness on this account). Democracy is the exception to the rule in history, and only with continued renewal, investment, and belief can it be sustained. Hoyer demonstrates what can happen when people stop this process, a lesson we would do well to take to heart.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.