Blood and Iron: the rise and fall of the German Empire 1871-1918

Just over halfway through her excellent new book on Germany between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, Katja Hoyer tells the story of the ‘Captain of Köpenick’ incident.

In 1906, an petty criminal called Wilhelm Voigt went around town buying second-hand clothes that made up a captain’s uniform. Dressed in his new attire, he marched into a local barracks and led several unsuspecting soldiers to Köpenick, a Berlin suburb, where he ordered them to occupy the town hall.

Such was the respect held by the country for the military that Voigt managed to fool the local police, get the town mayor arrested, and make off uncaptured with 4,000 marks. This respect arose from the fact that the country had been created quite literally through warfare. Under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, victory over France in 1871 brought an array of statelets and princedoms together to form the modern nation.

Like Voigt, Bismarck got people to follow him by showing them who was boss. Physically and politically imposing, he ran the fragile new democratic system to meet his own demands and even intimidated Kaiser Wilhelm I, installed as monarch of what was now the largest European power.

But Bismarck was also cautious, particularly with foreign policy, fearing a ‘nightmare of coalitions’ that would surround Germany with hostile neighbours.

So in 1888, when Wilhelm I died and power passed to his grandson (a dying Friedrich III reigned for just three months between them), the nation’s course changed ominously. Bismarck himself feared that the hot-headed new Kaiser could plunge Germany into war ‘without knowing what he was doing’.

But two massive egos could not rule jointly. Bismarck was soon dimissed.

Whether intentional or not, Hoyer draws some quite startling comparisons between Wilhelm II and a certain blustering politician of our own time. The new Kaiser quickly developed a reputation for exhaustive nationwide tours, an obsession with his own media coverage, and penchant for rambling speeches that frequently went off the cuff. Remind you of anyone?

Like so many aspiring dictators, however, Wilhelm II actually cut a pathetic figure. As Bismarck had foreseen, the Kaiser was outsmarted by underlings and frustrated by the Reichstag. And his ‘place in the sun’ policy – a ludicrous euphemism for a blood-soaked dash for colonies in what was left unconquered in Africa – led to nothing but international isolation.

In the muggy, pre-war atmosphere of the early 1910s, sensible observers could already see the nightmare of coalitions coming together across the Continent. Wilhelm II was not one of them.

Hoyer stresses the point that the Kaiser did not intentionally take Germany into war in 1914 (he was on holiday at the time of the Serbian crisis). But this almost accidental war briefly gave Wilhelm what he had long craved: a true dictatorship. In the crisis, parliament, the trade unions, and the people all looked to him for guidance.

Yet after the war inevitably went wrong, the man’s innate weaknesses came once again to the fore. He stood back from day-to-day military planning and was increasingly overshadowed by generals like Hindenburg.

Even in the midst of the German revolution, his abdication was organised for him. He lived out the last of his days as a lumberjack in the Dutch forests.

Yet Germany itself was not destroyed. Its battered people now looked back fondly on Bismarck, a mighty figure who had instilled in his people a misguided belief that they needed a strongman to lead them. Hoyer leaves the story there, because the lesson is clear: nostalgia is a dangerous thing.

Blood and Iron: the rise and fall of the German Empire 1871-1918, Katja Hoyer, The History Press, £14.99 (hbk), ISBN 978-0750996228.
Review by Calum Henderson.