In The German Empire, one of Europe's great historians and men of letters chronicles one of history's most fateful transformations--Germany's rise from new nation to prime mover in the chain of events that sent it hurtling into two world wars.
In 1871, Otto von Bismarck fused with "blood and iron" a motley collection of principalities, Free Cities, and bishoprics into one Reich. In England, Benjamin Disraeli observed that the world was witnessing "a greater political event than the French revolution of last century. . . . [T]here is not a diplomatic tradition which has not been swept away. . . . The balance of power has been entirely destroyed." Disraeli's powers of prophecy, in this as in much else, were formidable.
The Age of Bismarck saw Germany become the dynamo of Europe--its preeminent economic and military power, its scientific and educational nerve center, and a place of tremendous artistic ferment. But there would be no simple spell to return to their bottles the genies unleashed by these vast forces, and Michael Sturmer traces the convergence of people and events that sent Europe's fragile balance of power over the brink and into conflict. No war was fought for less purpose or with greater slaughter than the First World War which, in Michael Sturmer's assured hands, arrives as the next-to-last act of an epic drama all the more tragic for the blazing brilliance of its opening scenes. Though the drama's final horrible act, the Second World War, takes place offstage from The German Empire, it is impossible to understand its origins without the history Michael Sturmer tells here with such elegance and insight.
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August 05, 2002
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Excerpt from The German Empire by Michael Sturmer
In the ancient city of Koblentz where the Moselle flows into the Rhine there is, in front of the Romanesque church of St. Castor, a neoclassical fountain with a plaque. The inscription celebrates the passage of Napoleon's grande armee through the city en route to Russia to crush the Tsar's despotism. It is signed, "Jules Doazan, sous prefet de la ville de Coblentz." Underneath there is a second inscription which reads, "Vu et approuv? par nous le commandant Russe de la ville de Coblentz."* The first inscription is dated 1812, the second one 1813. This plaque encapsulates the German question.
Germany is situated at the heart of Europe where all the peninsulas and lands forming the European continent are linked to Eurasia. Germany, whether its citizens are aware of the fact or not, determines through its history and geography the destinies of most countries in Europe; and, in turn, the fate of Germany is, for better or for worse, of the utmost importance for these countries. This has been the conditio Germaniae ever since Europe began to evolve a thousand years ago. Strategic and cultural interdependence made the Holy Roman Empire for many centuries the center of the European system, but far from being the imperial master of Europe's destinies, the German lands proved time and again to be a peacetime chessboard or a wartime arena for the competition of the European powers who were rising to modern statehood and sovereignty and fighting for influence. The German constitution, forever organized in an uneasy equilibrium between the Emperor and the territorial rulers, became more "Europeanized," and less nationalistic in outlook and intent: today's map of Europe, the result of the changes that took place in the 1990s--Germany unified within the framework of NATO followed by a quantum leap in European integration through economic and monetary union--is nothing but a modern and more enlightened variation upon a very old theme.
This book traces the rise and fall of the German Empire from its inception after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to its demise, in defeat and revolution, in 1918. Otto von Bismarck, its creator, put an end to the age-old European role of Germany by excluding the vast and unwieldy Habsburg lands. But even so the new German nation-state was, almost inevitably, a dramatic challenge to the established balance of power. "Europe has lost a mistress and won a master" was a complaint heard around London after France's defeat. Benjamin Disraeli, later the Earl of Beaconsfield, pointed out in the House of Commons in 1871 that this war--referring to the recent Franco-German war--was "a German revolution," and "a greater political event than the French revolution of last century. I don't say a greater, or as great a social event. What its social consequences may be, is in the future . . . there is not a diplomatic tradition which has not been swept away . . . What has really come to pass? The balance of power has been entirely destroyed." There was an ominous tone of warning in his analysis, and it was heeded by the contemporary generation of German leaders, especially by Bismarck--whose epithet of the "Iron" Chancellor disguised his heroic pessimism--and by his successor Count Caprivi. But by the end of the century the European stage had been superseded by a global one. The United States and Japan had become world powers in their own right and markets, resources, battle-fleets and sea-lanes had become vital components of national power and identity in Europe, Germany being no exception. And there was no longer Bismarck to sound the alarm.