Blood and Iron - a new look at Germany's Second Empire

Historian Katja Hoyer has written an entertaining, nuanced account of the complicated period from 1871 through World War I - in English.

A painting by <a href="">Anton von Werner</a>&nbsp;depicts the proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles.
A painting by Anton von Werner depicts the proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles.imago images/Rust

Berlin- On 18 January, 1871 the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, was proclaimed Kaiser in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace. The German Empire - a new state comprising myriad German-speaking states with Prussia at the helm - would exist through the end of World War I. The historian Katja Hoyer, originally from Brandenburg but now based in the UK, has written a new account of what she considers a misunderstood period of German history, titled Blood and Iron.

2021 is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Second Empire. I guess that’s why you wrote the book now.

That’s certainly why I wrote it now. I wouldn’t have expected a celebration but I think there should have been some form of conversation about it. It’s got such a complex legacy. If you take the Nazis and the Second World War, it’s just evil and needs to be dealt with in that way. People don’t know quite know what to do with the pre-World War I stuff. There were elements of democracy, as people like Hedwig Richter have discussed really well, but equally there is this whole question of whether it led to the events that followed. I think it’s the complexity of it that makes it more difficult to explore.

Why did you write the book in English?

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I’ve lived and worked in England for 10 years. There’s a special place for German history in the English psyche. There have been a lot of publications on the Second World War and the First World War and Weimar but not a lot on this topic, so I felt there was room for something new. I feel it fits into a wider understanding of where we’ve come from as Europe in terms of this German state bringing a new entity to the scene in Europe. I wanted to make sure it was as widely accessible as possible.

The book is titled Blood and Iron. What does that refer to?

It comes from a speech that Bismarck delivered to parliament in 1862. It was in the context of a debate on the military. The Prussian king, Wilhelm I, was trying to reform the military: make it bigger, and abolish the Freikorps elements, volunteer regiments which were loyal to a greater idea of Germany rather than Prussia as a state. Parliament was liberal so it wanted to keep them because they felt it was a guarantee that the Prussian king would never have too much power, so they had a part of the Prussian military on their side, with liberal values. For Bismarck, it was blood and iron that would make first Prussia and later Germany great. It’s a foundational idea of this first incarnation of Germany in 1871. I take that and ask whether that is really the case through the book. You could argue that it comes full circle with the First World War also being the ultimate case of “blood and iron” to unite the Germans under one flag and one nation state, if you will.

The History Press

Whose blood is meant?

By “blood” Bismarck means conflict. And by “iron” he means might. He’s says Prussia needs to be militarily a powerful nation. And so war will decide the future of the nation rather than debate and democracy.

Some argue that that sort of rhetoric paved the way for the Nazis and the Second World War.

The militarism wasn’t new by the time Bismarck came in. It was already engrained to some extent in Prussia. The problem they always had was that they needed to protect themselves on a scale that couldn’t be state-funded because of where they were. Think about Prussia in the middle of Europe, surrounded by enemies, without natural boundaries. The idea has always been that Prussia needs to be armed to the teeth if it wants to exist. They were able to survive because they had these militia forces. Arming the people themselves kept Prussia alive as an entity over the centuries. Which meant militarism crept into society.

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Katja Hoyer is an Anglo-German historian and journalist. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society, and her essays have appeared in History Today and BBC History Extra. She was born in Germany and now lives in Sussex, UK. Her first book, Blood and Iron, was published by The History Press in January 2021.

In your book you make understandable the complex story of Prussia phasing itself out and becoming Germany. How Prussian was the greater Germany that emerged from this complicated process?

Bismarck wasn’t a nationalist. He didn’t set up Germany because he had this ideal of a German state. That’s what the liberals wanted. They would have liked to have seen Prussia dissolve itself into a larger Germany and eventually fade away as the German states merged together into a bigger thing. Bismarck sold it to the king as an extension of Prussian power. To him it was about adding to Prussia as opposed to annexing the other states into a Germany. Federalism was a counterbalance to that, so the southern states like Bavaria and Baden and Württemberg accepted it, because they had a lot of freedoms within this system that was set up by Prussia.

James Hawes, the author of The Shortest History of Germany and no admirer of the Prussians accused you of “whitewashing Bismarck”.          

That's because he’s completely on the other side in terms of what happened with German unification. In my point of view, Bismarck took charge of a movement that already existed. As an ideology, nationalism stems almost entirely from the liberals, and goes back to the Napoleonic Wars. Bismarck’s nod to liberalism was the constitution with universal male suffrage and all the rest of it. In my own view it’s very much a halfway house between Bismarck and the elites trying to salvage as much power as they can but acknowledging the liberals are going to come back with force, because 1848 nearly led to a revolution in Germany that would have changed everything and potentially got rid of the rule of the aristocracy. They were worried about that. This halfway house that Bismarck set up ended up being fairly democratic because he knew that it had to be, not because he wanted it to be.

We don’t associate liberalism with nationalism anymore, do we?

The idea was that if you have a nation state, an actual legal construct that exists outside of the monarchy, that would have to be bound to the rule of law. You have a constitution, a law system in place, rules and regulations in place that even the monarchy is tied to. It takes the arbitrary nature of dynastic rule away from the elite and hands it to the people, which is why nationalism and the idea of the nation state was originally pushed by the liberals and by the middle classes.

The two main characters of your book – which represent the two main periods of the Second Reich – are Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II. They ran the empire very differently.

Bismarck set up the system. He wrote the constitution that was put in place in 1871. As the first German chancellor, he carved out a hugely important role for himself. If you imagine the political system as a web, he was the spider at the centre of it and all power flowed from him. The only caveat was he was a monarchist himself, a traditional Juncker who believed in aristocracy. But he knew that ruling with Wilhelm I, who was Wilhelm II’s grandfather, would work out just fine, because Wilhelm I never wanted to be German Kaiser. This was entirely Bismarck’s project. With a few exceptions, Kaiser Wilhelm I let Bismarck do his own thing as chancellor and just run the country for him, which also meant Bismarck was indispensable to Wilhelm. When the two did clash, the ultimate nuclear option for Bismarck was to threaten to resign and then Wilhelm wouldn’t know what to do without him. That always worked. He’d plead and beg him to come back and Bismarck could carry on with whatever he was doing.

You seem to have quite a bit of admiration for Bismarck…

He was certainly a skilful politician. I admire his political skill. I don’t see all the decisions he made as the right decisions. Ideologically, there’s a lot to be criticised there, but his actual skill in getting stuff done was admirable, as well as the amount of political intrigue and out-manoeuvring of enemies. In foreign policy terms, certainly the complexity of the network of diplomatic relations he built up was astonishing compared to what happened afterwards, when it all fell apart. He ran a system where the chancellor is the central element, whilst when Wilhelm II came to power in 1888, from the outset he wanted personal rule, that the Kaiser was the central element. In the end Wilhelm said he wanted to get rid of the chancellorship altogether. He just wanted to run the country directly, which was at that point, of course, completely anachronistic.

This was at a time when the socialists and the SPD were getting bigger and bigger….

Absolutely. So, this wasn’t going to happen. Even staunchly conservative people in his inner circle told him he had to work with representatives of the people, including parliament. His utter contempt for that became apparent when he called the Reichstag an “ape house” and compared it to monkeys bickering.

Wilhelm II was completely obsessed with his public image. He wanted to be loved. He held speeches around the country and was obsessed by what journalists wrote about him. In that sense, he was very modern.

Yes, possibly the first media politician. He sat over breakfast, scouring the papers and would either be absolutely elated if they said something nice or, more often, absolutely furious about what they wrote about him. There was some control over the press, especially during the First World War, but actually during the later part of the 19th century, they became relatively free of censorship and were certainly allowed to sharply criticise the Kaiser. Cartoons in magazines like Simplicissimus made very sharply worded jokes about him. He was genuinely upset about that. I think that came down to a deep-seated insecurity within him. He wanted to be that unifying element to close all the rifts in German society that Bismarck hadn’t managed to close - the Kaiser for all Germans.

Going back to Bismarck, Germans like to talk about how he set up the beginnings of the welfare state: worker’s insurance, sick pay and so on. How important was that for Bismarck? Was that just a cynical move to appease the workers?

Fairly cynical. He didn’t have sleepless nights because workers were living in horrible conditions. But he realised that that’s what fed the SPD and socialism, so he came up with this concept of “state socialism”, which took the wind out of the sails of the SPD a little bit. Introducing those things was a move to placate the working classes. Having said that, he went further than he needed, it was quite radical compared to other states. The fact that pension insurance, sickness insurance, accident insurance get introduced went quite far. It was quite progressive. It’s an example of the wider policies he introduced, always with one side looking towards the more progressive elements for his own political gain, and on the other side trying to preserve as much power as he possibly could for the old system.

You don’t spend much time in the book on the overseas colonies of the German Empire. There’s been a lot of focus on it recently, especially the way the Germans acted in Nambia, with some historians saying the slaughter of the Herero and Nama people was a forerunner of what came later in the Holocaust. Is there a reason that you didn’t focus so much on the colonial aspect?

There is a chapter in there, but it’s largely focussed on the impact it had on Germany because the focus of my book is the creation of the German nation state as such. When you talk about the atrocities that were committed, it’s worth pointing out that people found this outrageous at the time and that there was a lot of political anger about it. By the beginning of the 20th century, the SPD had a fair amount of power in the Reichstag and were indeed trying to do something about it, at least by blocking the budget for the naval reforms which would have allowed more military forces to be sent to suppress those uprisings. That was the point that the SPD was making: you want money for what exactly? So that you can go and commit more atrocities? The problem was that the empire was an integral part of German pride in the nation at the time. The vast majority of people were absolutely intrigued and fascinated by it rather than appalled - with the idea of all these exotic locations and Germany’s power expanding. Even the German workers, who the SPD couldn’t entirely rely on in that respect, voted for parties that passed naval budgets and helped with the colonial cause.

Bismarck himself wasn’t too interested in overseas colonies, but organised the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, where the “scramble for Africa” was negotiated.

He was trying to establish Germany as the honest broker between the other powers. It was the same with the Balkan conference, which was held in Berlin as well. It was the idea that whenever there’s conflict between other European nations, Germany’s role could be to sit peacefully in the centre of Europe rather than as a world power. He was adverse to Germany being a colonial power. The reason colonialism started under him was that German industrialists, private people, went and bought land in Africa. Adolf Lüderitz bought land [in modern day Nambia] and then effectively couldn’t defend it so he ran into problems with the local population who were trying to rebel. He called on Bismarck to help. Initially Bismarck resisted. In the end, the pro-colonial lobby in parliament grew larger and he sent German protection troops down there and that’s the first instance of state colonialism.

Kaiser Wilhelm II favoured colonialism….

He saw it as necessary if Germany was to survive. Social Darwinism had become a fairly accepted idea among the German elites, including Wilhelm himself. The idea was that Germany needed to fight for its right to exist with the other European nations. If Germany fell behind, so went the narrative, eventually it would be crushed again and perish. Bearing in mind how young Germany was as a nation state, there was a huge amount of insecurity about whether it would be allowed to exist in the long run. Wilhelm was convinced it needed a world empire and sea power, in particular, to try to establish its place in the world.

That all fell to pieces in World War I. This might be a naïve question, but who’s to blame for the Great War?

It’s such a complex question. I certainly don’t think Wilhelm ran knowingly and willingly into a world war. I don’t think he was planning for that at all. I think that’s obvious in that way that in the summer of 1914 he still thought that Britain was going to stay out of it because he couldn’t believe that the royal family in Britain would wage war against him.

Queen Victoria was his grandmother…

He saw them as his family. He spent a lot of time there as a child and young man and never anticipated that this could escalate into war between Britain and Germany. He saw it as a continental conflict that Britain would surely not get involved in. In fairness to him there was a huge amount of debate in Britain, even after war had been declared on Russia on whether Britain should send troops in. I think Wilhelm was hoping for a relatively localised war in the Balkans. They did bully Austria after the assassination of the archduke, by pushing Austria to respond to that and then effectively war in the Balkans was on the cards. Wilhelm never expected it to be much bigger than that, as he spent most of July on a cruise in Norway as he always did. Bearing in mind that Germany hadn’t been in a war since 1871, when he was still a boy.

What is the takeaway from this chapter of German history for us today?

My main focus would be democracy and why the first German incarnation of democracy failed, because I think too often and too easily, the Second Reich has been brushed off as a dictatorship that’s not really worth studying from that point of view. That’s where the lack of commemoration comes from as well. Say we did have some sort of commemorative event this year, what would it say? “150 years of Germany?” People don’t really want that legacy to be there and to point out continuities, but I think it’s worth looking at why a parliament that was as strong as it was in 1914, with the SPD and the liberals holding half of the seats, rolled over in 1914, at the beginning of the war and allowed an enabling act to be passed for Wilhelm to effectively run the country as a dictatorship throughout the war. How come German democracy was destroyed so easily? Other states also passed emergency laws, but they were never completely destructive towards the systems they were passed by.