The best books on the German Empire

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the German Empire and why they recommend each book.

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Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities

By Lenny A. Ureña Valerio,

Book cover of Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities: Race Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840-1920

While there are many treatments of the Polish-German borderlands, this pioneering work integrates borderlands and colonial history. Here medicine, migration, and colonization intersect in interesting ways. Among other things, it is striking to see how the colonized Poles, finding themselves in between the Germans and the native populations, also sought to be colonizers overseas. This is a shining example of transnational history.

Who am I?

I am a Harvard-trained historian of Central and Eastern Europe who focuses primarily on Poland. Although I am of Polish descent, my interest in Polish history blossomed during my first visits to the country in the 1980s. My initial curiosity quickly turned into a passion for Poland’s rich and varied past. Poles, who put great stock in their history, seem to have liked my books: in 2014 I was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. The books on Poland listed below, all by outstanding female historians, only scratch the surface of what is truly a rich field. Enjoy!


I wrote...

Poland: The First Thousand Years

By Patrice M. Dabrowski,

Book cover of Poland: The First Thousand Years

What is my book about?

Poland: The First Thousand Years is a lively and accessible introduction to Polish history, presented from its medieval beginnings up to the present.

My book is a sweeping account designed to amplify major figures, moments, milestones, and turning points in Polish history. These include important battles and illustrious individuals, alliances forged by marriages and choices of religious denomination, and meditations on the likes of the Polish battle slogan "for our freedom and yours" that resounded during the Polish fight for independence in the long 19th century and echoed in the Solidarity period of the late 20th century.

Absolute Destruction

By Isabel V. Hull,

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

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.


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 Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918

By Rod Paschall,

Book cover of The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918

Paschall brings to this book his insightful experience of army organizations and war as an infantry officer and veteran of the Vietnam conflagration. Readers can follow in detail the allied offensives of 1917, Germany’s last gasp effort to win on the Western Front in 1918 after Russia’s collapse in the east, and the retreat and breakdown of the once impressive German army in the waning months of the war.  


Who am I?

I retired from Drexel University in 2015 after thirty-six years as a professor of German and European History of the 19th and 20th Centuries. My sub-specialty in the History of Technology carried over into publications that over the years focused increasingly on the Prussian/German Army (The Politics of Technological Change in Prussia [1993] and The Kaiser’s Army [2001]) and naval conflict (Clash of the Capital Ships [2021]).  


I wrote...

The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918

By Eric Dorn Brose,

Book cover of The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918

What is my book about?

Contrary to contemporary and later historical opinion, the German army that entered World War One in 1914 was not a mega-machine-like juggernaut built to smash enemies under its wheels. In fact, older notions of combat stressing human strength and morale overcoming all technological and numerical odds had been so persistent in Germany since defeating France in 1870 that – despite the best efforts of modernizers in the decades before the World War – technological shortcomings factored mightily into Germany’s failure to win a quick and decisive victory on the western front in August and September 1914. The result: defeat in a longer war of attrition against a coalition of more powerful enemies.     

German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar

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

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

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. 


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.

Germany

By Helmut Walser Smith,

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

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. 


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.

Advertising Empire

By David Ciarlo,

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

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.


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.

Red Saxony

By James Retallack,

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

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.


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.

Germany and the Modern World, 1880-1914

By Mark Hewitson,

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

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.


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.

Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs

By Andrea G. Bonnell,

Book cover of Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863-1914

In the nineteenth century, no class culture was more prominent than the one by German Social Democracy. The German Social Democratic Party topped one million individual members before the outbreak of the First World War and about one-third of the electorate in Imperial Germany vote for its programme of revolution and democratization. This book is about the mental world of the party’s rank and file, their fears, wishes and desires, their dreams, and their beliefs. It talks powerfully about leadership cults, the tensions between nationalism and internationalism, working-class reading habits, and the ideals of republicanism. It is a powerful recreation of a constructed class identity with huge repercussions on politics in Germany.


Who am I?

I've been working on questions of identity and history for more than thirty years. It's a very personal topic for me, as I come from a working-class background – something that I was acutely aware of throughout my school and university education, where people of my background were comparatively rare. History in my view has the power to construct essentialist identities that exclude and are potentially deadly. But history also has the power to critically question this essentialism and contribute to a more tolerant, open-minded, and self-reflective society. Hence, as a historian, I've been trying to support and strengthen an engaged and enlightened historiography that bolsters a range of progressive identifications without leading to essentialist constructions of collective identities.


I wrote...

History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

By Stefan Berger,

Book cover of History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

What is my book about?

History-writing is often related to the formation of collective identities. Historians write the history of nations which answers questions about how those who think of themselves as belonging to a nation, developed over time. History has been, for many centuries, meaningful in the construction of collective identities.

This volume reflects on the ways in which professional historians have, since the 1980s become more self-reflective about their role in providing identities and identifications, and it analyzes the different ways in which they have attempted to stay clear of essentialisms. How did they manage to introduce more self-reflectivity and critical potential into their handling of identitarian questions in historical writing? The volume looks at a range of different histories, political, social, economic, cultural, the history of concepts, visual histories, material culture histories, historical anthropology, environmental history, big history, and global history to demonstrate, how across a range of different sub-disciplines we can speak of a self-reflective turn of historical studies in relation to collective identities.

Blood and Iron

By Katja Hoyer,

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

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.


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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