The ceremony 150 years ago at which Germany was unified for the first time in its modern history was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the German empire’s proclamation on January 18 1871 took place abroad — at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. This was not just a way of rubbing France’s nose in the dirt after the war of 1870. Holding the event on domestic soil might have raised suspicions that one German region was being favoured over the others, jeopardising the empire’s untested unity.

Secondly, as depicted in the famous 1885 painting of Anton von Werner, everyone at the Versailles ceremony wore military uniform. There was not a civilian in sight. Recalling the idealism of the German revolutionaries of 1848, Katja Hoyer says in Blood and Iron: “This was a far cry from the democratic unification of which the liberals had dreamed.”

The themes of political fragility, social cleavages and pervasive militarism give an impressive depth and coherence to Hoyer’s tightly written narrative. She is rightly sceptical of the once fashionable notion of a Sonderweg in German history — a “special path” to modernity that supposedly distinguished Germany’s development from that of the US, Britain or France. Yet under Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was a country “whose patriotic fervour needed a constant diet of conflict to fill the holes torn in the social fabric by inequality, geographical separation and cultural differences”.

Hoyer, a German-born author who teaches history in the UK, praises Bismarck as “one of the greatest statesmen of all time”. However, by her own account, Bismarck sharpened domestic tensions by marking out Catholics, socialists, Poles and other national minorities as Reichsfeinde — “enemies of the empire”. Still, Germany under Bismarck led Europe in the 1880s with an early version of the welfare state that to a degree balanced the country’s explosive industrial growth.

Bismarck also exercised restraint in foreign policy up to his resignation in 1890. It was a different story under Wilhelm, whose “peculiar mix of swaggering overconfidence and obvious insecurity” combined with “a childlike outlook on the world that would become a dangerous vehicle for the expansionists and warmongers in his inner circle at court”.

As Hoyer writes, the heart of the problem lay in the way that the political system — authoritarian with democratic features — exacerbated conflicts inherent in the structure of German society. Governments were not answerable to the Reichstag, which was elected by universal male suffrage, but they needed the legislature’s approval to pass laws, including military budgets.

It became increasingly difficult for Bismarck’s successors to manage the Reichstag, where the Social Democrats became the largest party by 1912. The SPD, liberals, Catholics and conservative agrarians — all with strong roots in different strata of German society — squared off against each other. Outside parliament, governments were under pressure from powerful court factions of army officers and aristocrats, not to mention militant nationalist leagues.

To what extent did Germany’s domestic deadlock lie behind the reckless decision to offer unconditional support for Austria-Hungary in the July 1914 crisis and risk a general European war? Hoyer does not devote much space to this question. But she makes the telling point that, as the war unfolded, “the ease with which the German people had allowed their semi-democratic system to descend into a military dictatorship stood testimony to the fact that parliamentary culture was still in its infancy”. It is a judicious conclusion to a book that has the merit of treating imperial Germany as an era on its own terms rather than as an inevitable prelude to the horrors of 1933-1945.

Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918, by Katja Hoyer, The History Press, RRP£14.99, 253 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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