Paul Sullivan chats to historian Katja Hoyer about her debut book, the Rise & Fall of the German Empire (1871-1918)
“My best anecdote about Berlin is a family outing to the TV tower when I was a child. It was a public holiday and an unseasonably warm and sunny day. My mum and dad had the day off so we decided to make the most of it, driving into Berlin in the old Trabi. I remember being very excited when we went up in the elevator and reached the viewing platform of the TV tower.
Everyone on the streets seemed so little, like ants. I pointed down excitedly and shouted that there were more and more ants coming out of houses and side streets. When my dad saw what I was pointing at, he went white and said we had to go. He had spotted armed police among the mass gatherings in the streets around the Alexanderplatz and was afraid the situation might escalate.
This was the 7th October 1989 and the GDR regime had staged its celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany. Honecker had invited Gorbachev, and the atmosphere in Berlin was reaching fever-pitch with counter demonstrations gathering and armed police sent in to step in if things escalated. There was no telling what would happen. Would the protests turn violent? Would police and army be ordered to shoot? We drove home and watched the events unfold on the TV over the next days and weeks – there was a palpable feeling of history happening. That view from the TV tower has burnt itself into my mind like an old photograph.”
It was growing up in East Germany that made Katja Hoyer become a historian: “My country was wiped off the map practically overnight, and my generation has been urged to forget its history and legacy. When you grow up with a fractured sense of national identity, you have questions. In a way I am still grappling with the same problem that gave my 19th-century forebears headaches: Was ist deutsch?”
While Blood & Iron is not about the GDR or the Cold War, it certainly gets at the foundation of the problems of German national identity. It traces the history of the German nation state in 1871—“a game-changer in the history of modern Europe”—whereby Otto von Bismarck merged 38 individual states to create “a new power block right in the heart of the continent”. The book’s publication this year marks the 150th anniversary of the historic event.
The decades in question were not only hugely significant for Germany, but had major repercussions for European politics. While the book’s main emphasis is on the years 1871-1918, as per the subtitle, the initial chapters do a great job of sketching out the slow but gradual rise of German nationalism that led to unification.
This includes events such as Friedrich Wilhelm III’s famous 1813 ‘To My People’ speech (an appeal to rise up against Napoleon during the Wars of Liberation), the battle between Prussia and Austria for German dominance (the ‘small’ vs ‘big’ Germany question), and the growing political movement promulgated by a mix of student associations, intellectuals like Fichte and Hegel, and cultural aficionados such as the Brothers Grimm and the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Hoyer reminds us that 19th century ‘nationalism’ had liberal connotations, as opposed the right wing undertones the word carries today,
Then, of course, there was the 1848 revolution—“the turning point in German history that failed to turn”, according to historian A.J.P. Taylor. Hoyer digs into this, as well as the dithering of Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who was happy to be a Prussian king, but reluctant to be a Kaiser for a united Germany.
Ultimately, it was Otto von Bismarck, right-hand man of Wilhelm I (who came to power in 1861) who used his diplomatic savvy to make the dream of German unification a reality, drawing on the various threats to Germany from France and other countries as a crucial unifying factor.
Hoyer sketches out the background of “crazy Junker” von Bismarck, including his reputation as a drinker womaniser and hunter, and describes his quite spectacular arrival on the political scene, and the variety of smart, often manipulative tricks he used to get his own way—tantrums, threats to resign, actual tears.
His role in Germany’s development between 1861-1890, and especially following unification can’t be understated, and it’s fascinating to read about the ongoing battle between his defence of (conservative) monarchical rule and emerging democratic ideals (the fledgling Reichstag, the rise of women’s and worker movements and the SPD), the catastrophic Kulturkampf, and the more general industrialisation of the country and its blips: the recession of 1873, the subsequent squalor within rapidly expanding modern metropoles like Berlin.
Despite his missteps and often gnarly and sneaky character, Bismarck ultimately comes out of the book quite well, mainly for his undeniable skillset as a diplomat and as a tour-de-force regarding unification. “I strongly believe that historical figures must be viewed and judged within the context of their own period,” comments Hoyer.
“Bismarck’s political skill is undeniable and widely acknowledged; it is the moral judgement of his actions that has changed over time as political tastes fluctuated. I haven’t gone out of my way to ‘whitewash’ Bismarck as some have claimed. There are some reprehensible sides to his character such as his attitude towards the Poles, and I make no excuses about that in the book. But equally creating Germany and holding it together was an immense political feat and I have outlined this too.”
The book gives due attention to the transitional years of 1888-1890, covering the events that led to the arrival of the young, dynamic, politically naive and fatally hot-headed Wilhelm II—not least the untimely death of his father, crown prince Frederick III from throat cancer. Bismarck’s career more or less ended with Wilhelm’s arrival and Germany’s destiny changed again dramatically from 1890 on.
In the chapters on Wilhem’s Reich (1890-1914) we are given a similarly balanced profile of the young Kaiser—his youthful impulsiveness and vanity, but also his love of modern technology and travel (he was known as the ‘Reise-Kaiser’), and his founding of institutions such as what is now the Max Planck society. According to Hoyer, he was initially popular, quickly coming to represent the fast-paced modernity of turn-of-the-century Germany.
“Imperial Germans were absolutely fascinated with technology and toyed around with it,” says Hoyer, “which gives us a fascinating window into the time period. The only known voice recording of Bismarck for example is of him reading silly poems in German, English, French and Latin to one of Edison’s employees to test the new phonograph device.”
But Wilhelm’s vision for Germany was complicated and increasingly bellicose, taking in emerging ideas around colonialism and social Darwinism, and growing obsessive with naval might (Flottenpolitik), and the prowess of his English relatives.
His camarilla (inner circle)—experienced but often cynical politicians like Caprivi, von Bülow, Hohenlohe, zu Eulenberg, Lüderitz—were not exactly helpful in this regard, lacking the delicate diplomatic skills of Bismarck. None were quite as bad in this realm as Wilhelm himself, however, whose clumsy and disastrous outbursts against neighbours like Britain and France are related here, as the narrative lumbers ineluctably towards war.
Hoyer’s outlining of the cynicism of World War One by Wilhelm’s military hawks and the Kaiser himself is striking. The Schlieffen Plan—essentially a preemptive strike on France—and the spinning of it to the German public as a necessary defence strategy was an echo of the same spirit of ‘defensive nationalism’ that had helped with unification but was this time used for aggression.
This cynicism continued as the country was plunged into a horrific war that it was not prepared for, and had not envisioned. The increasingly bleak news—there were already a million casualties by 1916—was deliberately withheld by a compromised media, even as ever greater sacrifices were demanded from the public.
Hoyer creates a personal bridge to the heartbreak of the war by including a section on artist Käthe Kollwitz, who reluctantly agreed to let her beloved teenage son Peter go to war. She sent him off with a pocket chess game and a copy of Faust; expecting him to be back within a few weeks. Instead she received a formal note saying he had been killed less than a week into battle. More than two million German soldiers had died in the war by its end in 1918.
Hoyer also reminds us of the additional brutalities suffered by German citizens at this time, from the Spanish Flu, which killed over 50,000 in Berlin alone (and 350,000 nationally), and the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-1917. This pain and suffering is contrasted harshly with the arrogance and heartlessness of the military personnel—Hindenberg, Moltke, Ludendorff—and the Kaiser himself, who refused to resign even when the war was obviously lost.
His eventual (forced) abdication, after which he fled undercover to the Netherlands and lived out the rest of years in relative peace and safety, is the end of the book—a 258-page rollercoaster that began with the promise and optimism of a united nation and ends with that nation in ruins…”The German Empire,“ notes Hoyer, “ended where it had started: in blood and iron.”
“I hope what sets (the book) apart is its accessibility and independence” says Hoyer. “I wanted to write a history of the Second Reich that everyone is welcome to dive into. Scope, style and structure are all designed to make it possible for everyone to learn more about this period. Independence from a political or institutional agenda is an important part of this. I have not approached the German Empire with a readymade view based in today’s political world but instead tried to give a balanced account which invites readers to form their own opinions.”
That said, one of the key narratives Hoyer is keen to dispense with is the Sonderweg theory, which links Wilhelmine Germany with the horrors of the Holocaust, and which has come under academic fire in recent decades.
“It has been pleasing to see that the book has triggered and renewed important discussions. While academic historians have begun to move away from the idea of the Second Reich as a quasi-dictatorship whose nationalism and militarism naturally led the way to two World Wars, public perception had not. I hope that my book has gone some way towards complicating the image we have of pre-WWI Germany. There were elements of democracy and modernity and there were alternative historical routes open to the country.”
Blood and Iron: the Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 is published by The History Press and is out now.