Blood & Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1971 - 1918 by Katja Hoyer


A very enjoyable read, it came second in the ‘History Teacher Book Club’ vote but I was so keen to get it read I read it alongside the first choice (Empireland – post to come). I've been teaching the causes of the First World War my whole career without really understanding the complexities or origins of Imperial Germany. This filled in a whole lot of blanks!


Below are the notes.


German states were previously Habsburg and a group of interlocking, overlapping and transitory agreements about trade and defence. The largest state was Prussia which sought influence over the rest but had most luck with the protestant northern states and less over the southern Catholic states. The other big boy in the region was Austria and the future of the region was very much a tug of war between these two states vying to be the leader of the Germanic people. Bismarck was a wild and reckless young man, the son of middle ranking aristocrats, who got into politics by accident. He was a Prussian nationalist who sought a strong role for Prussia. He was against the growing Liberal movements that were pushing for democracy and freedoms, even Republicanism. The Liberals adopted the red, yellow and black tri-colour which became a nationalist theme during the 1810s when Prussian volunteer soldiers wore these colours in their tunic when fighting back Napoleon's army. Bismarck oversees the creation of a Northern states coalition. In 1871 Bismarck engineers a war with France by recognising a Hapsburg to the Spanish throne (France warned them that to surround France with Hapsburgs would destabilise Europe and lead to war - they weren't bluffing). In this war Prussia calls on the Southern States and they rally to the joint Germanic cause, just as Bismarck had hoped. The combined German forces beat back the French and seize control of Alsace Lorraine. The French capitulate and Bismarck declares the formation of a German Empire, with Wilhelm I (called Kaiser Wilhelm, as he himself was uncomfortable with assuming the title of German Kasier on behalf of all the states). Interestingly this coronation ceremony took place in the Palace of Versailles. This served two purposes, one it proved that the joint efforts of Germany could humiliate France, but also because it would have been politically insensitive to hold the ceremony in Prussia as the smaller states were still wary of a too mighty Prussia. (Interestingly the Allied occupied forces dissolved the Prussia political area in the 1940s as they saw it too closely aligned with the German right and their nationalist movements). Bismarck forced through a series of clumsily executed laws to secularise the country. Primarily aimed at the Catholic South and dampening their loyalty to Rome. Called the Kulturkampf they were wide enough to also target the Protestant North and soon the Catholic Central Party were picking up vote Share and threatening Bismarck's alliance with the National Liberals in Parliament. In the end he had to reverse course but many of his reforms remained - state inspection of religious schools, secular marriage contracts etc. He had broken the back of religious power in Germany and cemented the nation as the ultimate benchmark of identity. Economic reform was sudden and successful. Upon unification Bismarck and the NLs worked to remove internal trade barriers and create a lucrative market in the middle of Europe. Abundant farm lands, natural resources and large rivers for movement were all unleashed. However. By 1873 a financial crash caused large unemployment in the fast industrialising cities and a turn against free market rules. Bismarck, ever the opportunist then ditched the NLs and switched to working with and backing the...Centre Party! The one he had essentially propelled to power in opposition to his religious controls. They were happy to work with him to introduce tariffs to protect German industry from competition. Economic growth in Germany continued to grow and the "Made in Germany" brand emerged, a sign of quality and technical genius. While it lacked access to its own large imperial markets, like its British and French rivals, the exploitation of its own newly formed internal markets provided the boom needed to keep up with and even overtake its neighbours. The free market policies encouraged railway building for heavy industries, connecting ports to mines and factories etc, but they did not have a developed passenger service. Soon rural areas began to feel excluded from the new economic boom and distrust of city elites set in among the conservative country folk (what could possibly go wrong eh?). The middle classes at the same time began to value old aristocratic and military titles and uniforms, having lost much wealth in the 1873 crash they reacted by seeking titles (and the "von" in their title). Out went business attire and in came military uniforms. The new German Empire included many other nationalities like French, Polish, Danish etc. This complicated and threatened the idea of what it was to be German. Bismarck got to work. German was the official language to be used in all schools - school inspections, especially of Polish schools, were intensified. Loans were given to Germans to buy land and settle in East Prussia to 'dilute' the Polish minority there. Military service, schools and universities had policies of deliberately mixing up groups. Policies were brought in to assist French families who wanted to leave Alsace-Lorraine. By 1914 400,000 people had opted to do so. Military service of two years for all men is mentioned as having a positive impact on forging a new sense of shared values and togetherness. However, despite all these measures the German Empire still needed constant conflict and threats to bind the people together. In 1878 Bismarck used two assassination attempts on the Kaiser by anarchists with lose connections to the growing socialist parties to force through a law that banned trade unions, socialist parties and their literature. This was his stick. The carrot came in the form of social welfare reform. Sickness insurance and accident insurance funded by employers was introduced - suddenly health and safety mysteriously improved... and in 1889 the Old Age and Disability Act, which gave pensions to people who could not work. Incredible: So Wilhelm I was the 'Kaiser' who took over and was crowned at Versailles. His son, a noted liberal, was waiting his turn but his father lived to be 90! in the meantime he himself developed throat cancer and was terminal when the old Kaiser died in 1888. The son, Friedrich III (whose wife was Victoria - the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria), ruled for just 99 days before he too died... leaving the grandson... Wilhelm II (Queen Victoria was his maternal grandmother). Wilhelm II, young, brash and confident, fires Bismarck. His youth and energy embodied that of the nation. He became known as the ',Traveling Emperor' for all the time he spent touring the country and meeting his subjects. He took a keen interest in innovation and new machinery, pushing the German image for technical excellence. The economy grew but also became highly uneven, even by the standards of the day. Workers had few rights, pay grew by only 1% in real times during the Wilhelm II period compared to 4% in Britain. Workers movements, strikes and protests were met with overwhelming force. Most industries quickly turned into monopolies. Lots of money ended up in investment banks and a new super rich elite emerged- fusing with antisemitism... Trade union membership did grow and the SDP became the biggest in the Reichstag. Meanwhile discontent grew in rural areas as food prices fell and machinery made men redundant. The Kaiser began to see *imperialism* - the growth of a German Empire - as key to the future. The industrial growth of Germany required growing supplies of natural resources and markets to sell to. Deals were set up in China to host German ports and Naval spending ramped up. This made both Britain and France uneasy. In 1904 Britain and France created the Entente Cordial. Worse was to follow for Germany, the Kaiser attempted a clumsy attempt to split the two allies but only entrenched their positions. In 1905 *The first Moroccan Crisis* saw the Kaiser visit Morocco and tell its people he supported their bid for independence. He then arranged a conference in Spain the following year to settle the matter, hoping he would get British support as they'd spy an opportunity to weaken France in N Africa. Instead the opposite, the two came together and criticised Germany. The war kicks off. Wilhelm when told of the FF shooting went to his office and wrote a statement to the extent that Germany supported AH's right for justice - and then went on holiday on his yacht around Norway! He did not envisage it becoming a larger conflict. The Schlieffen plan was undone by tougher than expected Belgian resistance, accurate rifle and Vickers machine gun fire from the Brits and then the French army using taxis to reposition itself to block the road to Paris. The race to the sea that followed set the frontlines for the next 4 years. In Germany itself things changed dramatically. The military used emergency powers to dissolve democracy. The military districts used for recruitment became the new political units with the commanding officer in charge of each area's supplies, schools and other fields usually done by business or politicians. The left found itself in turmoil, caught between supporting a government they didn't like and being branded as unpatriotic. They initially agreed to zero strikes and complete support. This began to change in 1916