The best recent books on Bismarck and Imperial Germany (1871-1918)

Matthew Jefferies Author Of Contesting the German Empire, 1871 - 1918
By Matthew Jefferies

Who am I?

I have been studying this period of German history for more than 40 years and teaching it at Manchester since 1991. I have no family connections to Germany, but I went on a school exchange to Hannover when I was 14 and became fascinated by the country and its history. I chose to do my PhD on this period because it seemed less researched than the Weimar and Nazi eras which followed. Contesting the German Empire was an attempt to show how historians’ views of Imperial Germany have changed over time, and to give a flavor of their arguments. Reading it will save you from having to digest 500 books yourself! 

I wrote...

Contesting the German Empire, 1871 - 1918

By Matthew Jefferies,

Book cover of Contesting the German Empire, 1871 - 1918

What is my book about?

This book provides an engaging and accessible guide to current thinking on Imperial Germany. It offers a historiographical overview, spanning more than a century of works on the German Empire guides readers through the main approaches, from ‘personalist’ to ‘structuralist’ and ‘post-structuralist’; presents varying perspectives on gender, cultural history, international relations, colonialism, and war; explores the controversial reputations of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II; and reflects the wide range of opinions on Imperial Germany held by historians today.

As the book shows, history is never static. Since it appeared, some debates have moved on and exciting new works have appeared. This list highlights five recent books which I would certainly look to include in any new edition.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Germany and the Modern World, 1880-1914

Why did I love this book?

I really like the work of Mark Hewitson, a historian based at University College London. This book appeared in 2018 and is one of his most ambitious to date. It looks at how Germans conceived of themselves and their place in the world in the years before the First World War. Although historians sometimes talk about the late 19th century as the first phase of globalization—and the German language certainly gained lots of new compound nouns starting with Welt (or world) Hewitson shows that most contemporaries’ interactions and horizons remained intra-European or transatlantic rather than truly global.

By Mark Hewitson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Germany and the Modern World, 1880-1914 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The German Empire before 1914 had the fastest growing economy in Europe and was the strongest military power in the world. Yet it appeared, from a reading of many contemporaries' accounts, to be lagging behind other nation-states and to be losing the race to divide up the rest of the globe. This book is an ambitious re-assessment of how Wilhelmine Germans conceived of themselves and the German Empire's place in the world in the lead-up to the First World War. Mark Hewitson re-examines the varying forms of national identification, allegiance and politics following the creation and consolidation of a German…

Book cover of Red Saxony: Election Battles and the Spectre of Democracy in Germany, 1860-1918

Why did I love this book?

When historians write about Imperial Germany, they tend to focus on the largest of its 25 states, Prussia. One of the many merits of Retallack’s work is its focus on the less-studied Kingdom of Saxony, which sought to stem the rise of socialism by introducing a series of restrictive electoral laws. Here the prime movers behind attempts to limit democracy were not reactionary Junkers with vast country estates, or army officers in spiked helmets, but urban liberals, whose fear of socialism often outweighed any egalitarian impulses. The story of electoral politics in the German Empire is complex and controversial, but Retallack—from the University of Toronto—shines new light on the bourgeois face of German authoritarianism.

By James Retallack,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Red Saxony as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Red Saxony throws new light on the reciprocal relationship between political modernization and authoritarianism in Germany over the span of six decades.

Election battles were fought so fiercely in Imperial Germany because they reflected two kinds of democratization. Social democratization could not be stopped, but political democratization was opposed by many members of the German bourgeoisie. Frightened by the electoral success of the Social Democrats after 1871, anti-democrats deployed many strategies that flew in the face of electoral fairness. They battled socialists, liberals, and Jews at election time, but they also strove to rewrite the
electoral rules of the game.…

Book cover of Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000

Why did I love this book?

As the title suggests, Smith’s recent book is not about the imperial era alone, but it is an important and thought-provoking text for anyone with an interest in modern German history. I particularly admire the book’s erudition, breadth of scope, and bold ambition, which I know I could never match. The book makes impressive use of literary and visual sources (most notably a fascinating array of maps). As with any attempt at a ‘grand narrative,’ it is relatively easy to pick small holes in the argument, but there is no doubt that this is a book that will be read and discussed for many years to come. 

By Helmut Walser Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Germany as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For nearly a century, conventional historians have depicted Germany as a rabidly nationalist land, born in a sea of aggression, its nineteenth-century ascent accompanied by militarism and brought to a murderous apex in the Third Reich. Not so, asserts Helmut Walser Smith, who, beginning in 1500, reveals pacific conceptions of the nation and allows us to see the Nazis' extreme form of nationalism not as the dark culmination point of German history but as an essential episode in Germany's centuries-long history of continually conceiving the nation in radically different ways. Whether chronicling the Thirty Years War, the German Enlightenment, the…

German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar: A Contest of Futures

By Geoff Eley (editor), Jennifer L. Jenkins (editor), Tracie Matysik (editor)

Book cover of German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar: A Contest of Futures

Why did I love this book?

Essay collections are usually rather variable in quality, but this volume on the multiple ways in which modernity was staged, debated, and contested in Germany between the 1890s and the 1930s, is consistently good. The individual essays are all rich in interesting detail, yet it is the collectively written introduction that is likely to find the widest readership, offering not only a succinct summary of ways in which global discussions about the concept of modernity can help us to understand the course of German history, but also some pointers on how the German case can contribute to global historical discussion. 

By Geoff Eley (editor), Jennifer L. Jenkins (editor), Tracie Matysik (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What was German modernity? What did the years between 1880 and 1930 mean for Germany's navigation through a period of global capitalism, imperial expansion, and technological transformation?

German Modernities From Wilhelm to Weimar brings together leading historians of the Imperial and Weimar periods from across North America to readdress the question of German modernities. Acutely attentive to Germany's eventual turn towards National Socialism and the related historiographical arguments about 'modernity', this volume explores the variety of social, intellectual, political, and imperial projects pursued by those living in Germany in the Wilhelmine and Weimar years who were yet uncertain about what…

Book cover of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire; 1871-1918

Why did I love this book?

I have selected a non-academic title which has gained a lot of attention over the past year or so. Its author is a journalist (for titles such as The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, and The Washington Post) and podcaster (Tommies & Jerries), but her Anglo-German background, storytelling flair, and social media presence have made her an important new voice in interpreting German history for the English-speaking world. This book is a handy starting point for those who want a concise chronological narrative of the period.

By Katja Hoyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blood and Iron as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before 1871, Germany was not yet a nation but simply an idea. Otto von Bismarck had a formidable task at hand. How would he bring thirty-nine individual states under the yoke of a single Kaiser? Once united, could the young European nation wield enough power to rival the empires of Britain and France - all without destroying itself in the process? In a unique study of five decades that changed the course of modern history, Katja Hoyer tells the story of the German Empire from its violent beginnings to its calamitous defeat in the First World War. This often-startling narrative…

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