Book Review: Blood and Iron

Katja Hoyer’s new history of the German Empire is a fantastic primer on an understudied political entity, as well as a cracking good read.

The imperial dreams of more than half of Europe were crushed by the carnage of the First World War, a conflict which saw the destruction of several long-lasting imperial states. The Tsardom of Russia had survived, in one form or another, since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century; the Habsburg monarchy, represented in 1914 by Austria-Hungary, was around in the 13th century; and the Ottoman Empire, still hanging on by a thread at the turn of the 20th century, famously conquered its capital in 1453. None of these long-lived historic empires survived the Great War. Still, perhaps the most interesting imperial loss seen in the aftermath of that conflict was that of the most recent imperial creation – the German Empire. For too many years, the Second Reich (the First being the Holy Roman Empire) has been seen primarily through the lens of its eventual successor: the Nazi regime which promised an eternal Third Reich. This presentation is reductive, unfairly tars Imperial Germany with the stain of Nazi crimes, and flattens a truly fascinating and multi-dimensional polity into a cardboard cutout version of the real thing. Katja Hoyer’s new book, Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire, 1871-1918, serves as a long-overdue corrective to that dominant narrative and fleshes out Imperial Germany in a readable yet detailed fashion.

Read More »

“Rule, Britannia!”

The Union of Foreign and Domestic Politics in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain


“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.”[1] This verse, from the poem “Rule, Britannia” by the Scot James Thomson, has had immense resonance for Britons throughout the past two and a half centuries, yet the poem was never more relevant than when it was initially written and popularized in the mid-eighteenth century. With the help of music composed by Englishman Thomas Arne, this new patriotic song promoting British maritime destiny became widely beloved almost immediately after its public debut in 1745 (it premiered to a royal audience five years earlier). What about this tune so instantly enthralled the British public? More than any other jingoistic anthem, “Rule, Britannia” captured the zeitgeist of this turbulent time; feelings of British exceptionalism in the areas of personal liberties, political freedom, and mercantile economics, as well as antagonism towards the absolutist monarchies of the Continent, were running high within the populace. The lyrics of this song depict, with accuracy and rhetorical flourish, the feelings of the era from 1740 through 1760, particularly the intimate connection between foreign and domestic affairs.

Thomson’s word choice is critical, especially in the chorus of the song, which was quoted above. In said chorus, Thomson exhorts Britannia to “rule the waves”, as well as mentioning that “Britons never will be slaves”[2]; this wording depicts the tenuous nature of the times, as the eventual British dominance of the seas and the security of her people were not guaranteed in 1740. The author has a clear concept of the connection between naval supremacy and political and economic liberty, setting Britain in contrast with the absolutist powers, namely France, who would deny her both. These themes of interconnectedness and the special role of Britain and her people are echoed in many of the poem’s later stanzas. In the second verse, Thomson writes: “The nations, not so blest as thee, Must in their turns to tyrants fall; While thou shalt flourish great and free, The dread and envy of them all.”[3] This describes contemporary British attitudes with respect to the importance of their political liberty and constitutional monarchy. By comparing other nations with their absolute monarchies to the freedom of Britain after the Glorious Revolution, Thomson shows how distinct the island is; all other nations, mainly on the Continent, are “not so blest as thee” and thus “dread and envy”[4] the British system. In the fifth stanza, Thomson pens the words: “To thee belongs the rural reign; Thy cities shall with commerce shine; All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[5] This set of lyrics brings up the economic power of Britain and its quest for colonial possessions to expand its mercantile empire. This power is based both in rural and urban settings, but chiefly in the joint operation of the two, as rural and colonial products supplied and were exported from the cities. The economic power of the island nation is tied back to naval ascendancy in the second half of the verse, “All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[6]; the ‘main’ in this case was the oceanic realm, which would be controlled by the British, along with all of the coasts bordering thereon. These aspirations of colonial and economic hegemony would resound throughout the mid-eighteenth century.

Read More »