A swift, lucid chronicle of the first Reich.
Stürmer (History/Univ. of Erlangen-Nürnberg) is sympathetic to the German people, although not to most of their leaders in the years framing this study. Emperor William II comes off poorly (he displayed “unlimited banality of thought and action” in his years of exile). But the author notes that “history . . . has been kinder to Bismarck.” He demonstrates that the lands that are now Germany have always “seemed to play the role of chessboard in peace and battlefield in war,” offering snapshots of the Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, and then segues smoothly into the Bismarck years, observing that as long as he “kept his influence over the King of Prussia and the German Emperor,” he was “in all but name, the ruler of Germany.” Stürmer reminds readers that in 1870 there was no “Germany”—at least not in the contemporary sense of a unified nation-state. The territory was highly fragmented, with wide variety in “bread and beer, in costume, language and local law.” He expresses some regret at Germany’s lost opportunities: its work force, technology, and natural resources could have made the last 100 years “the German century.” Instead, Germany wrote the century’s bloodiest chapters. When Bismarck exited the political stage, William II made some catastrophic miscalculations and adopted military policies that were “bound to lead to disaster.” Stürmer questions the extent of Germany’s responsibility for WWI. In a short work such as this (part of Random House’s Chronicles series), the author cannot expatiate, but he does include some arresting details (an “enigma” is the German custom of carving hearts into the doors of outhouses). And he can turn a phrase: “For William II, the whole of Germany was nothing but a giant toy.” At the close, he includes some very useful maps, a lengthy chronology, and a dramatis personae.
Clear, concise, and compelling—a welcome corrective to the view that a principal task of historiography is to assign blame. (3 maps)