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The best books on Nineteenth Century Germany

recommended by Richard Evans

The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914

The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914


At the beginning of the 1800s, Germany was a collection of independent states. By the end, it had been unified under Prussian political leadership into one of the world's great powers. Here, Richard Evans, Regius Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cambridge and Provost of Gresham College in the City of London, chooses five books on 19th century Germany that illustrate how that process unfolded and what the political, economic and social consequences of it were—intended and otherwise.

Interview by Benedict King

The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914

The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914

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Thanks very much for choosing five books about 19th century Germany. What criteria have you used to choose them?

Well, of course choosing five books on such a vast subject as 19th century German history, even if you count the 19th century from 1815 to 1914, is really an impossible task. So, there has to be a certain arbitrariness about it. In thinking about it I have a reader in mind who really doesn’t know very much about the subject or where to start.

Your first book is James Sheehan’s Germany 1770-1866. Why have you chosen this one?

James Sheehan, who is now retired, but was a professor for a long time at Stanford University in the US, is one of the most fluent writers and most readable historians of the period. He is just a wonderful stylist. In a way it’s a textbook. It’s a volume in the long-running Oxford History of Modern Europe, which takes a country-by-country approach. It was set up just after the end of World War II. The first volume to appear was A. J. P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, which came out in 1954. And there are still volumes coming out. Sheehan’s is the first of two volumes on 19th century Germany. The other one, by Gordon Craig, goes up to 1945 and is now seriously out of date—though Craig is also a wonderful writer.

“I have a reader in mind who really doesn’t know very much about the subject or where to start”

This book is over 900 pages, but it’s a delight to read and gives you a narrative spine of German politics in the period. But it also covers a lot of basic features of society, social change, culture, literature, religion, philosophy and, of course, the economy—this is the period of the beginnings of industrialisation. It’s very wide-ranging and it’s a wonderful book to read. It came out in 1989 so, of course, to some extent, in some small areas, it has been superseded by more recent research. But it’s still the book on the subject.

It ends just before the unification of Germany. I gather from reading reviews of this book that it investigates alternative possibilities or alternative forces of unity and division in Germany that existed prior to the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Traditional German nationalist or, as they’re sometimes called, Borussian historians, tended to look back and see the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century as an inevitable, predetermined process. The German Reich was founded in 1871 and up to then there were a number of developments, beginning with the 1848 revolutions, which failed to unify Germany on a liberal basis. What Sheehan does is to open up this whole process and show that it wasn’t inevitable that Germany was unified in 1871 in the way that it was.

He is the author of an earlier, very important study on German liberalism, which was really the driving force of German unity for most of the 19th century. So, he has an open-ended approach, which I think is very salutary.

Let’s move on to your next book on 19th century Germany, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: the Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. This is a much longer period. Tell us a bit about the story this book tells.

There are very few books that neatly cover the 19th century. Sheehan starts in 1770. Clark starts in 1600 and goes on until 1947. This is a much more recent book. Chris Clark—Sir Christopher Clark as he is now—is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University. He has spent a long time working on modern German history. This book was published by Penguin in 2006.

Prussia was the largest kingdom—the largest state—in Germany up to and beyond unification in 1871. It took up a good half of the whole area and comprised more than half the population of the country. It was under Prussian leadership that Germany was unified. Many of the institutions of the Empire—the Reich—from 1871 were, in fact, Prussian institutions translated onto a bigger scale. Other German states, like Bavaria, Württemberg or Saxony, had to follow Prussia’s lead.

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Prussia was abolished by the Allies in 1947 as part of the post-war settlement. And it was abolished because the Allies—that’s Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union—considered it a powerhouse of militarism, lust for conquest, authoritarianism, hostility towards democracy and everything bad about Germany that had given rise to Nazism. It was abolished to provide a more democratic foundation for post-war Germany.

That view was in contrast to the Borussian historians, who saw Prussia as a fountainhead of values that included duty, obedience, discipline and industry. In their view, Prussians were the source of the—clichéd—stereotype of the Germans as hardworking and law-abiding people.

Christopher Clark provides a much more balanced view than the hostile account from the Allies and the over-positive account from the Borussian historians—the great tradition beginning with Ranke and going on to Treitschke, a more dubious figure, Droysen and many others. What you’ve got with Iron Kingdom is a two-sided view in which you can see the pluses and minuses of Prussia. You can understand how these values worked, he relativizes them, and he is a wonderfully readable writer. His book is full of anecdote and wit, illuminating illustrations, examples and quotations.

“Borussian historians saw Prussia as a fountainhead of values that included duty, obedience, discipline and industry”

He covers many different sides of the history of Prussia. It’s not just the political side, or the military side. He covers the bureaucracy, religion and society. It’s a very readable book and it helps you understand, better than any other book, the role Prussia has played in modern German history.

What were the origins of Prussia as a country? Did it exist in the Middle Ages or did it emerge as a power in the post-Reformation landscape?

This is why Clark starts in 1600. Prussia itself—Prüsa—is outside Germany, believe it or not. It’s on the southeastern Baltic coast. And East Prussia is now divided among various eastern European countries, particularly Poland. But in the early modern period, you can’t really think of states as territorial. They were the hereditary possessions of particular monarchs. The key thing about Prussia is that it acquired, by war and by diplomatic settlements, a number of other territories. It acquired Brandenburg, which is a prosperous agricultural area in northern Germany. And then, in 1815, with the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it acquired the Rhineland, the more northerly areas around the river Rhine, to the south of Holland and east of France. That was part of a kind of security settlement to box in the French, should they try to ‘do a Napoleon’ again, as it were.

The Rhineland happened to be a very wealthy and soon-to-be industrialized mercantile, trading area. Traditional Prussia was rather poor and miserable, with large and middle-sized agrarian estates run by the famous ‘junkers’. But these new acquisitions were quite separate. They were separated by the Kingdom of Hanover in the middle which, of course, was under the English crown.

“Prussia itself—Prüsa—is outside Germany, believe it or not. It’s on the southeastern Baltic coast”

Part of the reason for the drive to German unification, which was spearheaded by the Prussians in the mid-nineteenth century, was a desire to join up all this territory, which required abolishing the Kingdom of Hanover. Fortunately for them, when Queen Victoria succeeded to the English throne in 1837, the Salic law in Germany prohibited a woman from becoming monarch and so her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, became King of Hanover. He was a rather nasty character, who became extremely unpopular because he was anti-liberal. That allowed the Prussians to absorb Hanover eventually, in the 1860s.

What are the roots of the Prussian militarism people often talk about? What was the nature of this military state, if it was one, and why did it emerge like that?

Somebody once said, “Where some states have an army, the Prussian army has a state.” It’s a social system, what’s been called the ‘second feudalism’. With all the wars and disturbances of the early modern period, beginning with the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648, the landed aristocracy were able to impose many more restrictions on the mass of peasants and small farmers. These groups had a lot of servile obligations, which continued until the effective abolition of serfdom in the 19th century. That was one of the big social changes of the period, with serfdom ending with the 1848 revolutions. One of these obligations was military service. The small farmers had to provide various agrarian services and work on the feudal landlords’ fields and so on. But they also had to put up their sons for the army.

Prussian monarchs came in two shapes. One was the military martinet, the general, who emphasized discipline and wanted to have a big army—like Friedrich Wilhelm I. Or they came as the slightly bonkers aesthete type like Wilhelm II or Friedrich Wilhelm IV. And it’s often said that the only one who combined both of these characteristics was Frederick the Great—although Tim Blanning, in his recent and brilliant biography, has made a case for him being a completely incompetent general.

In any case, he inherited a huge army from his father, whose hobby was building it up. His father’s military interests included collecting giants. He even got an Irish giant, who was about seven foot tall, to serve in his Grenadiers. His son disbanded the giants’ regiment and had a much wider range of interests. He was also a composer and a musician, knew Bach and corresponded with Voltaire. He tried to reform the system of serfdom, to loosen it up a bit, and to create modern judicial and administrative systems.

The militarism came partly from the militarism of the kings and partly from the insecurities of Prussia and the Prussian territories themselves. They were surrounded by enemies in the 18th century. Berlin was even occupied for a time by the Russians. It was the whole system of serfdom and military service that boosted the military strength of the state. That’s where it came from and it was mixed up with these Prussian values where aristocrats were supposed not just to run their estates, but to serve in the army as well. There’s an endless series of wars in the 18th century, culminating in the Napoleonic Wars, in which Prussia took part.

And did the abolition of Prussia get rid of these malign influences or is your view that, actually, they weren’t particularly malign, and the abolition of Prussia was really an irrelevance?

I think Clark’s Iron Kingdom manages to strike a balance. It’s not uniformly hostile to the Prussians by any means at all. It points out, for example, the strong role of pietistic Protestantism in the state, which is attached to different kinds of values emphasizing suffering and patience and so on.

It also discusses the complete failure of Prussian militarism in the Napoleonic Wars, where the Prussians were roundly defeated and had a very bad time indeed. And then it covers the subsequent military reforms of the 19th century which enabled them, particularly as a result of the addition of the wealthy, industrializing Rhineland, to equip themselves with better guns, better equipment and railways. Railways were the key to moving troops about rapidly in the wars of German unification in the 1860s.

The abolition of Prussia was a rather symbolic act. The fact is that most of Brandenburg and Prussia—most of the territory apart from the Rhineland—was part of the Soviet zone of occupation and so became East Germany, the communist state of the German Democratic Republic. General de Gaulle actually used to refer to it as Prussia.

Interestingly, the East Germans, first of all under Walter Ulbricht, identified themselves as the heirs of the tradition of the German labour movement, the very large and powerful social democratic, and then, communist movement. But, later on, they switched and identified themselves much more as the heirs of Prussia. The East Germans actually restored quite a few Prussian monuments. For example, they restored some famous sculptures by Schinkel on the Schlossbrüke, a Berlin bridge.

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There was a reason for the switch. Claiming to be the heir of the German labour movement involved claiming to be part of the whole of Germany, which Ulbricht wanted to reunite on a socialist basis. But Honecker, who succeeded him, partly because the Soviets decided that that wasn’t a good line to take, wanted to emphasize the separate nature of East Germany and hence identified with Prussia and the Prussians. And, of course, you can see the communist values as practised by Honecker—discipline, obedience, all of that kind of thing—as Prussian in a different form.

The next of your books on 19th century Germany is Jonathan Steinberg’s biography, Bismarck: A Life. I don’t know how many biographies there are of Bismarck. There must be masses—A. J. P. Taylor wrote one. Why have you chosen this one in particular?

A. J. P. Taylor wrote a short book on Bismarck. There are others. There are a handful of great biographies, but they’re all very, very long. I suppose the field is held by the late Otto Pflanze, an American historian, born in Tennessee and descended from German immigrants. He wrote a huge three-volume biography of Bismarck, which is incredibly thorough. Then there’s a thematic study in two volumes by Lothar Gall, which is also available in English. There’s an extremely interesting biography, untranslated, by another great German historian, Ernst Engelberg. He was a communist and leading academic in communist East Germany. The first volume of his biography came out under the East German regime and the second after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s fascinating to read the two parts. Unfortunately, it never got translated into English. It’s a wonderful book.

Steinberg is a single volume and it’s only 500 pages, which is rather less than half the length of Sheehan and Clark. There’s something about German history that makes historians write very long books. I can plead guilty myself, having written a three-volume history of Nazi Germany!

Steinberg is American, but he spent most of his career in Cambridge, England. This is quite a recent book, so he was able to make use of these earlier great biographies. It was published in 2011, and he’s another very fluent writer, which is one of my criteria—Otto Pflanze’s biography is authoritative and exhaustive but you couldn’t call it an easy read. The same goes for Gall and Engelberg. A. J. P. Taylor’s is an easy read but it’s not thorough and it’s not exhaustive. It’s rather short and typical of Taylor, full of bons mots and so on. It’s also a prisoner of Taylor’s very negative view of German history, that the Third Reich is the inevitable culmination of the whole of German history up to that point.

Steinberg is readable, but very thorough. The unusual thing about him is that he makes very considerable use of other people’s views of Bismarck, using diaries and letters, not just of other Germans, but British and American contemporaries. You get to see Bismarck from inside and outside and that’s quite a new angle.

“He said the art of statesmanship was ‘to listen to the rustle of God’s cloak as he crosses the stage of history and seize hold of the hem’”

Bismarck, of course, was a rabid conservative in the 1840s, during 1848, and in the 1850s. He was a Prussian aristocrat, but also descended from a bureaucratic family. Another important feature of Prussia is its bureaucracy. It had a huge civil service, which was very hardworking and very prestigious alongside the military. Bismarck really came to prominence in the 1860s because in 1862 the liberals, who had failed to unify Germany in 1848, were resurgent, particularly because of the unification of Italy in 1859. The German liberals and nationalists, thought, ‘Well, goodness, if the Italians can do it, surely we can do it.’ And so they blocked the budget in the Prussian parliament.

One of the rarely-mentioned successes of the 1848 revolution was that it forced the Prussian monarchy to set up a parliament with quite substantial powers. The Liberals got a majority, even with a very limited franchise, and in 1862 they blocked the budget. The king, Wilhelm I, in desperation, summoned the toughest, most ruthless, most conservative politician he could think of, Bismarck, and made him head of the government. And that’s where unification started. He gave a famous speech that absolutely terrified the Liberals, arguing to the effect that the way to unify Germany was not through speeches and resolutions and parliamentary debates, but through iron and blood. Terrifying—although he apparently had rather a squeaky voice, so it may not have been the thunderous thing that it looks like on paper.

Although he believed in preserving as much as he could of the Prussian institutions and the independence of the monarchy, the independence of the army, and limiting the powers of the parliamentary assemblies, he was a realist who knew that the force of nationalism, of national unity, was unstoppable, that this was the way history was going. He expressed this rather poetically, saying that the art of statesmanship is “to steer the ship of state on a course on the stream of time”. In other words, not to fight against the stream of time, but to go with it and steer it the way you want. Another way he put it was that the art of statesmanship was “to listen to the rustle of God’s cloak as he crosses the stage of history and seize hold of the hem”.

So, he was a realist and he knew that the idea of ‘a big Germany’ including Austria was not workable because the Habsburg monarchy included not only parts of the old German Reich—the German Confederation—like Austria and Bohemia, but also large chunks of territory outside, like Hungary, which the Habsburgs could never give up. So, the Habsburgs had to be kicked out of Germany. There were three wars, 1864 against Denmark because the Danes were nationalists as well and there was a territorial dispute with them; and then against the Austrians, which was the big, important one, to push them out of Germany; then, of course, against Napoleon III, the Emperor of France in 1870.

Napoleon III resisted German unification and was tricked by Bismarck into declaring war. It was a war that everybody expected the French to win, but they lost thanks to General von Moltke, the great Prussian general, who used railways to great effect to move masses of troops about very quickly. In 1871 the Reich was founded. Bismarck was very ruthless and, to rub salt into the wound, he actually held the foundation ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles—just to tell the French they’d had it.

He set up a constitution which he thought achieved what he wanted, which was to preserve the autonomy of the king and his powers as German Emperor. The German Emperor was always to be the King of Prussia, keeping the Prussian civil service as the most important administrative centre of the Reich, limiting the powers of parliament quite severely.

“Helmut Schmidt, the chancellor of West Germany in the 1970s, said he admired Bismarck not for what he did before 1871, but for keeping the peace in Europe after 1871”

Bismarck took a leaf out of Napoleon III’s book—Napoleon III was the inventor of modern dictatorship—and gave the vote to all adult males, universal manhood suffrage. Napoleon III thought the mass of peasants in France were conservative. Bismarck thought the same of the German peasantry, so he introduced universal manhood suffrage, too. But that was an enormous miscalculation because he didn’t reckon on the speed and force of industrialization, which created a huge and growing working class that voted for the Socialists. By the time of Wilhelm II in the 1900s, the Socialists were the biggest party in the Reichstag and that was creating increasing problems.

Wilhelm I, the first German emperor, once said, “It’s really difficult being Kaiser under Bismarck.” Wilhelm II had no intention of playing that kind of role. He wanted to run the show, so he kicked Bismarck out.

Bismarck was a realist, not only in the way that he ruthlessly unified Germany without Austria, but also in realizing that the task from 1871 was to bed down, keep things quiet, and stop other powers uniting and attacking Germany; generally behaving decently so that other countries would accept the German Empire. Wilhelm II had no idea about the precariousness of Germany’s situation in the world of established great powers. He just wanted to throw his weight around.

In the 20 years that Bismarck was chancellor of Germany did he manage to maintain that pacific stance in foreign policy?

Absolutely, yes. Helmut Schmidt, the chancellor of West Germany in the 1970s, said he admired Bismarck not for what he did before 1871, but for keeping the peace in Europe after 1871.

When did Bismarck actually die? Did he die soon after leaving office or did he hang on for a while?

No, he hung around and that was rather unfortunate. He died in 1898. He was around for long enough after he was kicked out to become a figurehead for the hard right. The younger generation of German nationalists and conservatives remembered him for what he had done in the 1860s as the ‘Iron Chancellor’, the wielder of military power, crushing opposition. That was a mistake, but he encouraged it and he became a central focus of the ultra-right.

As a result of unifying Germany, the society over which Bismarck presided was more diverse. Was Bismarck forced, when he was in power, to become less of a hardline conservative simply as a result of his own success?

No, not at all. Ironically, he ended up steering the ship of state against the stream of time. He didn’t really understand industrialization. He lived in Friedrichsruh, just outside Hamburg, which became the biggest seaport in Germany and a major industrial centre with a huge working class. When he went to open some new harbour facilities there in 1888, he looked around and saw the steam cranes and the machinery and the shipbuilding yards and turned to the merchant princes and said, “Gentlemen, this is a world I no longer understand.”

He’d expected the mass of ordinary Germans to vote conservative, but with the industrialization of the country, they voted socialist and that was something he didn’t understand either. He tried to ban the Socialists. From 1878 to 1890 the Social Democratic Party was outlawed, although you couldn’t stop individuals from standing for parliament, which they certainly did.  It was a very unsuccessful policy and alienated the working class.

Let’s go on to the next book you’re recommending on 19th century Germany, David Blackbourn’s Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Bismarckian Germany. It’s about another section of society that Bismarck alienated, I think. Tell us the story of this book.

You’ve got Christopher Clark and James Sheehan giving rounded, comprehensive surveys of German society and Prussian society and politics, then you have Jonathan Steinberg’s book, focusing on the most important person, without a doubt, in 19th century Germany—Otto von Bismarck.

I wanted to take it down a bit to another level and there are so many choices I could have made. There are a lot of wonderful books about the Social Democrats and working class society and so on, but very few of them are very readable. David Blackbourn’s book was published in 1993, and it’s a very unusual and imaginative take on 19th century German society.

He’s a British historian, who has been teaching in America, first of all at Harvard and then at Vanderbilt, which has become a major centre of German historical scholarship in recent years.

His book is a narrative of what happened in 1876 with three eight-year-old girls in Marpingen, a village in the far west German state of Saarland, then ruled by Prussia. They claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. Not long before, in 1858, Saint Bernadette had had her great visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes; she was eventually canonized as a result.

This is a time when the Catholic Church was being persecuted by Bismarck. Bismarck thought that Catholics and, later on, socialists, were enemies of the Reich. Catholics were about 36% or 37% of the population of the newly unified Reich and they were centred in states like Bavaria that had fought against Prussia in the war of 1866.

Bismarck thought they were disloyal because Catholics owed their allegiance to the Pope, not to the Emperor. This is a time when, across Europe, the Pope, because he had lost his territorial sovereignty over the middle of Italy in the process of Italian unification, was tightening his grip on the Catholic community, with papal infallibility and The Syllabus of Errors. In general, he was trying to rally Catholics worldwide as a substitute for being able to rule over central Italy.

“Catholic priests were arrested for refusing to obey the state. Lots of them were imprisoned”

You have these struggles going on in France, Italy, Germany and, to a degree in Austria, between the newly founded states or renewed states, Germany and the French Third Republic, and the Catholic Church. David Blackbourn’s book really brings home the sheer severity of what was called by the Liberals, who supported Bismarck in this, the Kulturkampf—the clash of civilizations, something we’ve heard about more recently with reference to Islam.

Catholic priests and bishops had to get the approval of the state for their appointments. They resisted, so bishoprics were left vacant. Catholic priests were arrested for refusing to obey the state. Lots of them were imprisoned. It’s a really desperate period for the Catholic Church. And, in this context, the Catholic community in Saarland was incredibly keen to gain prestige, because they felt they were excluded from the main institutions of German society and persecuted to a quite extraordinary degree.

So, when the eight-year-old girls in Marpingen went back to the village in Saarland and said they’d seen the Virgin Mary, the whole Catholic community said, ‘Great. Fantastic. The French can do it; we can do it.’ It was a slight echo of Liberals saying, ‘If the Italians can unify, the Germans can unify.’ Before long, you had mass demonstrations, with people coming in thousands from all over Germany to pay homage to these girls.

There are other elements. Saarland is an industrial area, a mining area. It’s not a backward part of Germany. It’s an area that industrialized rapidly and was fast-changing. People there were connected to the wider world. Bismarck and the Prussian state responded with massive repression. They sent in the army. They sent in the police, who broke up the demonstrations. The book gets you into the operations on the ground of the Prussian state and the police. The Prussian state hired a detective who, rather wonderfully, was called Marlow which, of course, is not just the name of Raymond Chandler’s sleuth—it’s also the name of the man in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, who goes up river to see the heart of darkness in colonial Africa.

The novel came later, but that’s what the Prussians thought they were doing. They were penetrating and trying to control a hotbed of superstition and rebellion, of resistance to the Prussian state and modern rationality. It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written and it’s very carefully researched—a lot of original sources. The Prussian state was bureaucratic and the police left loads of records. There were plenty of testimonies, including from the Catholic Church’s investigators.

This is not as long a book as some of my other choices, although it’s still about 400 pages long. It’s an absolutely fascinating story that lifts the lid on many different aspects of Imperial Germany.

Were these demonstrations spontaneous, or were they very much supported by the Catholic hierarchy in Germany, or even the Papacy?

Nothing is really spontaneous, but these demonstrations were not supported by the Catholic hierarchy or by the Pope. And—spoiler alert—the girls eventually confessed they’d made it all up. The way in which they described the visions was confused. They didn’t have that luminous clarity or simple faith that made Bernadette such a powerful figure in France and Lourdes. It was a much more compromised account. They said they’d done it for fun and they were completely shocked by this huge outburst of support. Eventually the Catholic Church didn’t back them.

When was the Catholic Centre Party set up in Germany? Was it there from the origins of the Reich or was it set up in response to the Kulturkampf?

It was in response to the Kulturkampf. That was the way the Catholic community organised itself to have a political voice in the Reichstag. It became a very successful party because the Liberals, who had the majority in the 1860s, were a middle-class vote. The peasants and the workers were very slow to take up the franchise. But the Catholic community mobilized itself through the Centre Party, which became very large and very successful, the largest party in the Reichstag until the Social Democrats overtook it in 1912.

Interestingly, the Kulturkampf was, to some degree, a success. By the time it was relaxed, Bismarck wanted to renew the ban on the Socialists in 1890, who had taken over from the Catholics as his bugbear. And that’s why he was kicked out by Wilhelm II, because the new Kaiser did not want to renew the ban. The anti-Catholic provisions were relaxed bit by bit; deals were done. The Catholic Centre Party became very strongly nationalist and supported the Empire. They wanted to show that they were real Germans. They were more German than the Germans, almost. They still had this Achilles heel, of being heavily influenced by the Pope. There was no way Bismarck could have changed that.

In 1933, they agreed to dissolve themselves when Hitler promised—a promise as worthless as all of Hitler’s other promises—to respect their institutions and the Church’s autonomy, if the Centre Party abolished itself. They weren’t always uncritical of the Reich and its policies. After the turn of the century, particularly in 1905-06, the Catholic Party led the charge in the Reichstag, with the Socialists, against the colonial atrocities, which were being committed by the German army in Namibia in South West Africa. But by the early 1930s, they had lost this oppositional character.

That moves us very neatly on to your last book on 19th century Germany, which is Helmut Bley’s Namibia under German Rule. I don’t really know why the Germans ended up in South West Africa and how their imperial experience differed from the French or British one. What story does this book tell us about that?

It’s often forgotten—outside Germany at least—that the Germans, too, had an overseas Empire, founded in the 1880s. Bismarck was against acquiring colonies. The British and French had colonies, the Italians were doing their best to acquire them. The Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish all had colonial empires in other parts of the world. This is an era when Europe was, uniquely in history, supreme in the world. There were a number of different reasons for that—command of the seas, technological advances, weaponry, all of those sorts of things.

German nationalists—particularly the Liberals—in the 1870s were clamouring and saying, ‘Why haven’t we got an Empire? The French and Italians have an Empire. We need an Empire!’ And Bismarck famously said, ‘I don’t want an Empire. We don’t need colonies.’ And, in a meeting, he strode up to a map of Europe and, pointing to Europe, said, “Here is my Africa. What’s important to us is what goes on in Europe.” But the pressure from the Liberals was difficult to resist and in the early 1880s the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ began. It’s a complicated story, but it was triggered by the British effectively taking over Egypt. That then led quickly to a number of other annexations.

Testimony to the new-found importance of the united Germany in European international politics was the congress held in Berlin in 1884 to divide up Africa. The participants drew a lot of imaginary lines across Africa, which remain the borders, even today, between now-independent African states. Bismarck was reluctant, but gave in to pressure from the Liberals and from traders and merchants who had got into trouble in various parts of Africa. They required support from the German state when they were attacked by tribes, kingdoms and other states that were well-organized militarily.

Germany got, as it were, the ‘leftovers’: Togo and Cameroon, which are fairly insignificant as imperial possessions, they got East Africa, which is now Tanzania, and in 1890 they did a deal with the British where they recognised British control of Zanzibar in return for a barren but inhabited rock in the North Sea called Heligoland. German East Africa was fairly prosperous. Then they had South West Africa, Namibia as it is now, which was mostly desert, but where it turned out there were some diamonds. They also had part of Melanesia, of group of islands which is called the Bismarck Archipelago, as well as the top righthand corner of New Guinea.

“This really was genocide. It’s a very, very shocking book and a powerful story”

If you go to Namibia—I haven’t, but I’d love to, it’s on my bucket list—you can still see abandoned railway stations with their names in Gothic script. There’s still a German community there, there’s still a German language newspaper there. But, of course, it was inhabited by native Africans and the German settlers in South West Africa just took over their land and chucked them out. There was a rebellion by the Herero and Nama tribes. This is the subject of Helmet Bley’s book, which first appeared in 1976 and has been reworked and reissued since. It was an absolutely revelatory book. This really is the dark side of German history because, when the Hereros attacked settlers and farmers who had seized their lands, the government in Berlin sent out an army under General Lothar von Trotha, who openly declared that his aim was to exterminate the Hereros. He fought them, kicked them out and drove them into the desert and left them to starve there. He opened up a concentration camp for the Herero and Nama people, where they were appallingly badly treated and many thousands of them died.

It’s a really shocking incident. It’s not the only one. There was a campaign against another revolt in German East Africa and, of course, the British, French and, above all, the Belgians in the Congo—which was the private possession of the King of Belgium—also committed many atrocities. But this, I think, outdid them all. This really was genocide. It’s a very, very shocking book and a powerful story, but because of that, it’s compulsively readable as you go through all these horrors.

Was German South West Africa settled in the way that Rhodesia was, in that lots of Germans went out there to farm and stay there?

Yes. The conditions weren’t quite as good as they were in German East Africa because there’s a lot of desert, but along the coast there are some reasonably fertile areas. It was mainly grazing, whereas in East Africa there were more cash crops.

You mentioned concentration camps. Did this imperial experience in what is now Namibia in any way lay the groundwork for what happened in the 1930s?

As I mentioned, there were very powerful critiques of these atrocities by the Social Democrats and by the Catholic Centre, the two largest parties in the Reichstag. And it is indicative of the limited nature of parliamentary authority in Bismarck’s and Wilhelm II’s Germany that those critiques really didn’t get anywhere. There was a huge amount of publicity, but it didn’t really change the system. A kind of proto-apartheid was set up in South West Africa, with limitations on marriage between whites and blacks and so on.

The parallels with the Nazi genocide are pretty obvious, although the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews was a very different kind of thing—it wasn’t ruthlessly clearing out inconvenient populations. That was more like the way they treated the Poles, the Belarussians and the Ukrainians. For the Nazis the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ as Goebbels, the propaganda minister, put it. They were an existential threat to Germany everywhere.

“The Herero in South West Africa were seen as subhumans whose lives weren’t worth anything”

The Herero in South West Africa were seen—particularly by the German military—as subhumans whose lives weren’t worth anything. Any colonial administrators, like the original Governor, Theodor Leutwein, who thought differently and wanted more peaceful dealings with the Herero, were sidelined or thrown out. You can’t really, in the end, show either ideological or personal continuities between the Germans in South West Africa and the Nazis. You can pick out one or two. Hermann Göring’s father, for example, was an important figure in South West Africa, but that’s really the exception. The Nazis themselves weren’t interested in overseas colonies, hardly at all. They wanted their empire within Europe.

The German colonies were all taken away by the peace settlement at the end of World War I. The League of Nations mandated these territories to other countries. The South Africans took over South West Africa. The French and the British chopped up Cameroon between them. The British took over Tanzania—Tanganyika as it was then.

There was a movement in the Weimar Republic to restore the German colonies. When Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of the Nazi Party, undertook his madcap lone flight to Scotland in May 1941 with so-called ‘peace terms’—which he claimed came from Hitler, but were actually his own invention—he included restoring the German colonies among them. But that was really a non-starter. I don’t think you can see any continuity, really.

When these atrocities were committed was there outrage from the French or the British? Or did it go fairly unremarked upon in the international arena?

There were some critical remarks from the newspapers and from the media. It was very widely criticized, particularly in Germany itself. One always has to remember in German history that there are always currents of opposition: currents of opposition to Bismarck, currents of opposition to the Kaiser. It’s never a one-way street. Some historians have fallen victim to the temptation to link up the Herero massacres with the Third Reich, but it doesn’t really work. You can show some sort of continuities with German atrocities in August 1914 in north-east France and Belgium, where recent work has shown that they really were shooting quite large numbers of innocent civilians in those areas. But it’s a step too far linking it up with the Nazis.

Interview by Benedict King

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Richard Evans

Sir Richard Evans is a British historian known for his work on German and European history. He is Regius Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cambridge and Provost of Gresham College in the City of London. He is also a Fellow of the British Academy.

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Richard Evans

Sir Richard Evans is a British historian known for his work on German and European history. He is Regius Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cambridge and Provost of Gresham College in the City of London. He is also a Fellow of the British Academy.