BISMARCKS EWIGER BUND
Eine neue Geschichte des Deutschen Kaiserreichs
944pp. Theiss. 40 [euro].
BLOOD AND IRON
The rise and fall of the German Empire
256pp. History Press. 14.99 [pounds sterling].
DEUTSCHLAND ALS KAISERREICH
Der Staat Bismarcks--Ein Uberblick
478pp. Marix. 20 [euro].
Eine deutsche Affare
400pp. C. H. Beck. 26.95 [euro].
IN THE PAST QUARTER-CENTURY, central Europe has been overwhelmed with historical commemorations: of the revolutions of 1848 and 1918, in 1998 and 2018 respectively; the bicentenary in 2006 of the end of the Holy Roman Empire; and the competing commemorations a few years back of the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 200th of the Congress of Vienna and the Restoration. A general feature of these commemorations has been their positive reappraisals of the German past. The political and social initiatives stemming from the 1848 and 1918 revolutions have been emphasized, against older portraits of the two upheavals as farcical or sinisterly unsuccessful. Portrayals of the Holy Roman Empire as an early modern failed state have been replaced with praise for its flexibility and durability. In the light of Wolfram Siemann's massive biography of Klemens von Metternich (published in English in 2019; TLS, February 21, 2020), the Congress of Vienna and the Restoration emerging from it are no longer the playground of stubborn, oppressive reactionaries, but venues of the prudent policies of forward-looking statesmen. While a positive verdict on the First World War might be going too far, one strand of the history of its outbreak, exemplified by Christopher Clark's worldwide bestseller The Sleepwalkers (2012), has been a rejection of previous condemnations of German or Austro-Hungarian belligerence.
The year 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the German Empire. The Kaiserreich, as Germans call the realm lasting from 1871 to 1918, presents difficulties for reappraisal: authoritarian, militaristic, aggressively nationalist, sometimes in distinctly racist fashion, governed by an autocratic Bismarck and then by Wilhelm II--at best, eccentric, at worst, rather out of his mind--with distinct, if disputed, connections to both the First World War and the Nazi era. Unlike the revolutions of 1848 and 1918, or even the Holy Roman Empire, positive relationships between the Kaiserreich and today's peaceful, democratic, affluent and socially equitable Federal Republic of Germany are harder to discern. The authors of the four books under consideration, all implicitly or explicitly part of the commemoration of the founding of the German Empire, employ different intellectual strategies to achieve a favourable reappraisal of that regime and its place in the broader sweep of the past two centuries of European and transatlantic history. Their approaches to re-evaluation are evocative of both changes in judgements about the past and in appraisals of contemporary conditions.
Oliver Haardt's book, originating in a Cambridge doctoral dissertation under Christopher Clark's direction, is a constitutional history of the German Empire. The work revolves around the peculiar nature of the executive branch of government in the Kaiserreich. Formally, the empire's executive was...