The best books on Imperial Germany before World War I

Who am I?

I am a historian of modern Germany at Vanderbilt University and have followed this field for more than thirty years. After a bit of respite, interest in Imperial Germany is suddenly chic again, as 2021 Germany looks back on the past 150 years of its unification in 1871. These five books, all published since 2000, are major recent contributions to the history of Imperial Germany’s prewar period; they also raise questions about the extent to which this conflict-ridden era represents a distant if imperfect mirror for our own contentious times.


I wrote...

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

By Helmut Walser Smith,

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

What is my book about?

With a wide array of sources, including oodles of maps and images, this book shows how the idea of the German nation developed and changed over half a millennium. Modern nationalism was a major, if extremely destructive part of the story of the German nation. But it was not the whole story. In Germany, as in other countries, nationalism was always only one possible way of imagining the nation.

The books I picked & why

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Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany

By Margaret Lavinia Anderson,

Book cover of Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany

Why this book?

People learn democracy by practicing it. The Germans practiced and practiced, and eventually got better at it. This is the main argument of Margaret Lavinia Anderson’s stunning book. Scrutinizing hundreds of contested elections, Anderson shows how Germans gradually reformed their authoritarian structures without significant constitutional reform. She demonstrates that the grassroots struggle for more democracy brought voters out of their narrow communities and helped form a wider civic culture. Alas, however, practice did not make perfect, and Germany was not saved from its own aggressive militarism.


Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany

By Isabel V. Hull,

Book cover of Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany

Why this book?

No one has dissected the military culture of the German Army with such a sharp analytical scalpel as Isabel Hull. This book, “a study in institutional extremism,” takes us deep into the mind of the German military. Hull argues that since the Franco-German War of 1870, German military leaders began to conceive of war as not over until complete military victory was obtained. This insight led her to the controversial contention that Germany’s large-scale slaughter of the Herero and Nama in Southwest Africa was not primarily a result of racism or of genocidal impulses in German culture generally, but of operational doctrine.


Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany

By David Ciarlo,

Book cover of Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany

Why this book?

Full with arresting interpretations of visual material, this book shows how modern advertising subtly influenced racist templates. The prose is carefully-wrought and elegant. The dissection of racist images is done with patience and subtlety. And in the process, we learn how,  in the age of high imperialism, advertising reinforced ordinary racism and white supremacy became a default position.


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

By James Retallack,

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

Why this book?

In this profound, masterfully conceived, and beautifully written study of authoritarianism and democracy in the state of Saxony, James Retallack reminds us of the political power of Imperial Germany’s anti-democratic forces. We see authoritarian elements intimidating, cajoling, and constraining the social-democratic opposition. We see them clipping voting rights where possible, bullying opponents when they could, and subverting democratic institutions when it suited their interests. Sound familiar?


Blood and Diamonds: Germany's Imperial Ambitions in Africa

By Steven Press,

Book cover of Blood and Diamonds: Germany's Imperial Ambitions in Africa

Why this book?

A brand-new gripping, revealing history of German colonialism, focused on the brutal diamond trade in Southwest Africa on the eve of World War I. With pellucid prose, Press tells how the Germans cordoned off a so-called “forbidden zone,” behind which rapacious explorers, colonial authorities, miners, and businessmen carted off these precious, if largely useless rocks, for which there was a huge, artificially created demand, especially in the United States.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Germany, World War 1, and colonies?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Germany, World War 1, and colonies.

Germany Explore 262 books about Germany
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Colonies Explore 41 books about colonies

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Germans Into Nazis, Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919, and Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863-1914 if you like this list.