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...

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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Margaret Lavinia Anderson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

What happens when manhood suffrage, a radically egalitarian institution, gets introduced into a deeply hierarchical society? In her sweeping history of Imperial Germany's electoral culture, Anderson shows how the sudden opportunity to "practice" democracy in 1867 opened up a free space in the land of Kaisers, generals, and Junkers. Originally designed to make voters susceptible to manipulation by the authorities, the suffrage's unintended consequence was to enmesh its participants in ever more democratic procedures and practices. The result was the growth of an increasingly democratic culture in the decades before 1914. Explicit comparisons with Britain, France, and America give us…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Isabel V. Hull,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In a book that is at once a major contribution to modern European history and a cautionary tale for today, Isabel V. Hull argues that the routines and practices of the Imperial German Army, unchecked by effective civilian institutions, increasingly sought the absolute destruction of its enemies as the only guarantee of the nation's security. So deeply embedded were the assumptions and procedures of this distinctively German military culture that the Army, in its drive to annihilate the enemy military, did not shrink from the utter destruction of civilian property and lives. Carried to its extreme, the logic of "military…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David Ciarlo,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

At the end of the nineteenth century, Germany turned toward colonialism, establishing protectorates in Africa, and toward a mass consumer society, mapping the meaning of commodities through advertising. These developments, distinct in the world of political economy, were intertwined in the world of visual culture.

David Ciarlo offers an innovative visual history of each of these transformations. Tracing commercial imagery across different products and media, Ciarlo shows how and why the "African native" had emerged by 1900 to become a familiar figure in the German landscape, selling everything from soap to shirts to coffee. The racialization of black figures, first…

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

Why did I love 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?

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 Blood and Diamonds: Germany's Imperial Ambitions in Africa

Why did I love 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.

By Steven Press,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Diamonds have long been bloody. A new history shows how Germany's ruthless African empire brought diamond rings to retail display cases in America-at the cost of African lives.

Since the late 1990s, activists have campaigned to remove "conflict diamonds" from jewelry shops and department stores. But if the problem of conflict diamonds-gems extracted from war zones-has only recently generated attention, it is not a new one. Nor are conflict diamonds an exception in an otherwise honest industry. The modern diamond business, Steven Press shows, owes its origins to imperial wars and has never escaped its legacy of exploitation.

In Blood…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Germany, World War 1, and the German Empire?

9,000+ 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 the German Empire.

Germany Explore 423 books about Germany
World War 1 Explore 826 books about World War 1
The German Empire Explore 11 books about the German Empire