The themes of political fragility, social cleavages and pervasive militarism give an impressive depth and coherence to Hoyer’s tightly written narrative. She is rightly sceptical of the once fashionable notion of a Sonderweg in German history — a “special path” to modernity that supposedly distinguished Germany’s development from that of the US, Britain or France. Yet under Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was a country “whose patriotic fervour needed a constant diet of conflict to fill the holes torn in the social fabric by inequality, geographical separation and cultural differences”.
The collapse of the German Empire, for all its flaws, was no more inevitable than the rise of Nazism. A confluence of many other factors – the personality of Wilhelm II, not to mention the decisions taken by other nations – all played their part. Yet Hoyer is right to see a link between the outcome of the First World War and the outbreak of the Second. “The despair and humiliation of 1918 and 1919,” she writes, “was met with shared defiance and anger… instead of destroying the defensive nationalism that Bismarck and Wilhelm had cultivated, it augmented it.” Fluently written and convincingly argued, Blood and Iron is a brilliant account of an important period of history, and one that marks the arrival of a major new talent.
Her thesis is bold and simple. It is also one fit for these days, when the great nations seem to be putting up the shutters again. There was an original sin at the heart of Bismarck’s empire. What enabled him to create it as he did was the ‘spirit of defensive nationalism’ which took hold of Germany in 1813-5. Born in the uprising against generations of French cultural hegemony and Napoleonic occupation, that spirit became inappropriate to the economic and military behemoth that was Prussia-Germany by 1914, and was fatally rammed home by defeat in 1918, which completed German unification, but in quite the wrong way.
The consequence of this is to pretty well whitewash Otto von Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor becomes the mere agent of this allegedly irresistible national mood, a tactical genius and a responsible European diplomat after 1871, rather than the ‘demonic’ figure our ambassador, Lord Odo Russell, considered him.
Inevitably many things are missing or too lightly touched on, from Germany’s colonial genocides to the details of Bismarck’s Reinsurance treaty with Russia and the 1892 cholera epidemic in Hamburg, the formative trauma of modern pandemic management. Complex scholarly debates over questions such as the Schlieffen plan and the causes of the First World War are sometimes concertinaed more than I would like. These forgivable shortcomings aside, Hoyer has mastered an intimidating jungle of material and written a balanced and hugely accessible introduction to the age when Germany became Germany. Its legacy is neglected, but ubiquitous.
Hoyer’s title, Blood and Iron, makes the German Empire sound like a precursor to the Third Reich. Is this fair? Not really. It’s true that Germany was forged in three wars — against Denmark, Austria and France — and that the army played a central part in the new nation. But this is true of almost all new nations. It’s also true that the Germans conducted themselves very badly in South West Africa, exterminating thousands of Herero and Nama people. But were they worse than the British, who pioneered concentration camps in the Boer War, or the Belgians, with their appalling atrocities in the Congo? Again, not really.