Reinterpretation of the Empire?

The road to decline began, if we are to believe the historian Rainer F. Schmidt, in 1890 with Bismarck’s departure from politics. Without a reinsurance treaty – Wilhelm II had not extended the neutrality agreement between the German Reich and Russia – the door out of isolation opened for France. The shifts in the foreign policy constellations initiated the formation of blocs in Europe, which determined the path to the First World War.

In his book, the author wants to correct what is allegedly still being misrepresented in German historiography and present a new interpretation. Large parts of the book are characterized by a classic politics-centric presentation.

There is little that is new about Schmidt’s portrayal, rather he follows the line of argument from the 1960s to 1980s, which is characterized above all by the criticism of Fritz Fischer’s theses of the “reach for world power” and Germany’s war guilt. Schmidt enriches this older position with more recent research results from the last ten years. However, these approach the question of the causes of the First World War from a much more multi-perspective perspective and, above all, also include the foreign policies of the other European powers.

Schmidt leaves no doubt as to where he is setting the accents: Firstly, in the inadequate foreign policy of the German Empire and secondly, particularly in the responsibility of France, Russia and England. At the end of July 1914, according to Schmidt, the warmongers were based in St. Petersburg, Paris and London, even if he put the German share of responsibility into perspective. Nevertheless, the change in British foreign policy around 1900 paved the way for the world war, and he considers French President Raymond Poincaré to be particularly bellicose.

In general, the highly personalized approach is striking: the author puts the main participants on the analytical couch and often characterizes them quite disparagingly. While this is sometimes enjoyable to read, it does little new to explain the deeper causes of the First World War and the course of events.

The Empire itself is portrayed in a mild light, which reflects the more differentiated research on it, but this is not a strong part of the book. Above all, potential for modernization is emphasized and some things are praised too much: The electoral system at the state level appears far more modern than it was before.

The author also made other technical mistakes, who should have researched one or the other instead of quoting from the literature. The criticism may seem petty, but a “reinterpretation” of the history of the empire between 1890 and 1918 cannot succeed in this way, especially since the core of the book, namely the path to the First World War, is not really reinterpreted, but subliminally refers to the – thesis of the sole or main guilt of the empire, which is hardly represented in historical science in this form. This leads to an overemphasis on those aspects that refute this. In other words: Schmidt argues for long stretches in the same way as he accuses the supposedly “orthodox reading” of the history of the empire, only with the opposite sign.

Review: Prof. Dr. Jens Jaeger

Rainer F. Schmidt
emperor twilight
Berlin, London, Paris, St. Petersburg and the road to decline
Verlag Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2021, 878 pages, € 38.00

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