A Look at Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 by Katja Hoyer

Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871–1918 by Katja Hoyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The history of Europe, and the obviously outsized role that the nation of Germany has played in that history, has been the subject of much historical writing. Historian Katja Hoyer has written a short book that covers the development of the German nation through the First World War. While the title references 1871-1918 the period covers 1815-1918.

I was a bit apprehensive about the book, doubting that so much history could be packed into 240 pages. That apprehension was misguided. Hoyer takes us through the end of the Napoleonic wars to the Congress of Vienna, to the rise of the Prussian State as a major European power. She manages to give us a good look at the master strokes of Bismarck, who created the German nation and made the Prussian King the German Kaiser. Bismarck essentially baited the French into attacking Prussia, and used this war, a relatively easy win for Prussia, to stoke enough German nationalism to overcome resistance to consolidation of the German states as the German Empire.

Hoyer gives us a look at the governing style of Bismarck, greatly abetted by the non-interest of the Kaiser in day to day governmental affairs. There has been plenty written about Bismarck and this overview gives us a good look at his domestic politics as well as his foreign policy. He is acknowledged as a true master of statecraft, both for his role in the creation of the German nation as well as his ability to keep that German nation out of conflict in Europe.

“In the famous Kissingen Dictation of 1877, in which Otto Von Bismarck laid out the principles of his foreign policy, he tellingly spoke of a ‘cauchemar des coalitions’ -a nightmare of coalitions-the fear of which underpinned everything. Right from the outset, the creation of a German Empire in the heart of continental Europe bore the risk of uniting the surrounding powers into an opposing coalition that would at best limit the scope of Germany’s ability to act and at worst destroy it.”

Blood and Iron The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 Hoya, Katja pg 111-112

Bismarck never lost site of that fact, and built a foreign policy that kept potential adversaries off balance through an intricate set of alliances, counter-alliances, and treaties that made a grouping of nations against Germany difficult. But Bismarck’s success was not just due to sleight of hand. He recognized the deep distrust of German motivations, including the French hostility over the loss in 1870. Accordingly he was willing to subordinate German territorial ambition, including a desire for colonies, to the larger diplomatic effort to avoid encirclement and potential destruction. Many have said that only Bismarck could have kept the complexity of this effort going, but I believe that it was not the complexity of Bismarck’s diplomacy that became the issue after his retirement but rather the change in attitude over German ambitions that occurred with the death of Kaiser Wilhem I and the ascension of Wilhelm II, after the short tenure of Friedrich III.

With Wilhelm II the relationship between the Iron Chancellor and his King changed dramatically. The young Kaiser had a different vision for the German Empire, one with a strong desire for Germany to be recognized as a major nation, and to take its place as an imperial power, regardless of the fears that such a posture might engender. Bismarck was dismissed in 1890, and the slow slide to disaster began right there.

Some concise military history, including the pre-war German plans for a two-front war against France and Russia, are detailed. But before the advent of World War I Hoyer shows us the clumsy, and counter-productive “diplomacy” of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser managed to create enemies through diplomatic efforts that could generously be described as obtuse. While Wilhelm II has not been treated well by history it is my view that his treatment has not been harsh enough. His vanity, his arrogance, and his third rate mind brought the German nation to the disaster of World War I, which led us to the even greater disaster of the Second World War. French General Ferdinand Foch said of the Treaty of Versailles ending the first World War: “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Hoyer’s characterization of the actions of Kaiser Wilhem II is not kind, nor should it be. For those wanting to understand how the German nation was created, and the immediate strains on the European balance of power that flowed as a result this book is an excellent place to start. Highly recommended.

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