It’s easy for modern commentators to regard the German Empire as no more than a violent chapter in European history. Consider Otto von Bismarck, Imperial Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” who stated before a parliament that “it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided . . . but by iron and blood.” 

It’s clear by the title of her book, Blood & Iron, that the author Katja Hoyer considers Bismarck’s declaration to be of great importance. Bismarck, the cunning statesman and leader of Prussia, had indeed rallied neighboring German states to unification after a series of bloody victories against rivals such as the Danes, the Austrians, and the French. Yet after unification had been achieved, the chancellor advised a young Emperor Wilhelm II that further expansion would unite Germany’s rivals against it. History shows that Wilhelm, a far less calculating man, failed to heed Bismarck’s advice, eventually thrusting Germany’s Zweites Reich (“Second Realm”) into oblivion.

Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian, chronicles an empire forged and destroyed by war. Wilhelm’s great-grandfather, King Friedrich-Wilhelm III of Prussia, planted the seed of unification when he led the German states in their effort to expel Napoleon and the French in 1813. Cohesion between the independent German states continued after the war with an Austrian-led confederacy in 1815, a Prussian-led trade bloc in 1834, and an elected assembly in 1848.

Otto von Bismarck was the final ingredient in the quest for German unification. A scion of lower nobility, Bismarck overcame an indolent youth to become a skilled diplomat. Promoted as the king’s chief minister in 1862, he steered Prussia toward military readiness ahead of expected conflict with wary neighbors. Prussia won a string of victories, seizing territory from the Danes, Austrians, and French between 1864 and 1871. Each victory brought more German states behind the Prussian cause, culminating in formal unification in 1871. Ever the romantic, Bismarck held the imperial inauguration in the Palace of Versailles, establishing the German Empire upon the ruins of the French Second Empire.

Unification brought challenges, including that of organizing dozens of states into a federal system. Despite the impression of a single national identity, imperial Germany fostered a diverse population with various faiths, languages, and politics—some strands quite radical. In its first decade alone, the Reich contended with a terrible economic depression, strikes and riots, and multiple attempts on the emperor’s life. 

Though he charted a clear course toward unification, Bismarck wrestled with volatile currents in a heterogenous Germany. The chancellor had no choice but to compromise with political blocs, advancing policies he abhorred to preserve those—mostly centered on the military—that he prized. His nineteen-year chancellorship thus produced an odd mix of repression, as seen in anti-Catholic and anti-socialist policies, and progressive measures, demonstrated by pensions for the elderly and mandatory sick pay for workers. 

Vociferous as he was, Bismarck knew Germany had reached its continental limit. Further conquests in Europe risked uniting other powers against Germany. To mitigate foreign threats, Bismarck undermined a united anti-German front with a complex series of pacts and treaties, exploiting mistrust among potential rivals.

The ascent of Wilhelm II to the throne in 1890 signaled the end of Bismarck’s Realpolitik. The young emperor detested the aging chancellor’s political gamesmanship at home and his caution abroad. Though susceptible to vanity and insecurity, Wilhelm had genuine compassion for his subjects, whether monarchist, democrat, or socialist. He also welcomed technological and industrial progress, touring the country to see new factories and other infrastructure. Where Bismarck saw risk overseas, Wilhelm saw grand opportunities to cement Germany’s place in the world. 

Hoyer, to her credit, does a fine job adding human layers to this much-maligned emperor. But even she acknowledges that Wilhelm’s faults helped lead imperial Germany into catastrophe. Bismarck accepted the bitter pill of parliamentary compromise; Wilhelm thought himself above it, touting the mantra suprema lex regis voluntas (“the will of the king is the highest law”). Obsessed with creating a massive navy, Wilhelm had little interest in the fiscal implications of such a project and even less patience for parliamentary pushback—of which he faced plenty. 

Wilhelm, tired of the political deadlock, insulated himself with a coterie of sycophants, including Prussian generals. Wilhelm thus limited himself to a myopic view that reinforced his grandiose faith in German might. That same coterie of generals sidelined the emperor during the First World War. By 1918, Wilhelm’s relevance had diminished so much that he only learned of his “abdication” after his chancellor’s announcement on November 9, 1918. The dethroned Wilhelm snuck into exile in Holland, where he remained until his death in 1941. He had no say when the German Empire was dismantled in the very place it was born: Versailles. 

Hoyer doesn’t blame Wilhelm, his generals, or any revolutions for the disintegration of the second German Reich. Instead, she argues that the root of the empire’s demise lay in its foundation. “The German Empire did not fall to visions of democracy or socialism,” she writes. 

“Neither was it brought down by the German people or the Allies. The system fell because it was flawed from the outset, built on foundations of war, not fraternity. The maintenance of national unity required a diet of conflict, the constant hunger for which grew until catastrophe loomed in 1914. The German Empire had come full circle. It ended where it had started: in blood and iron.”

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