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03 June 2018


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I read that the first thing Wilhelm I did when getting back to Berlin was throw the Napoleonic standards captured at Sedan down in front of statues of his parents. Apparently, when he was a boy right after Jena, his mother took him and his brother (the late Friedrich Wilhelm IV) aside as the royal family fled to East Prussia, explained that their country was "no more", and had them vow to expunge the humiliation. It took him over 60 years, but the elder Wilhelm fulfilled his promise in the end. Though at what cost to Germany in the long run...

The more I think about it, the more 1870-1871 stands out to me as the year where the center of gravity in Europe shifted from Paris-where it had been since Louis XIV-to Berlin, where it would remain until 1945. The world which had previously revolved around France began to revolve around Germany, in everything from science to art to military/political developments. The scale of industrialization in Germany during the Second Reich is absolutely nothing short of mind-boggling, and lead to a fascinating situation in Germany in the early 1900s-an idiosyncratic mixture of east and west, conservative and progressive, social and political contradictions that the war would bring to a head. (I know it's inaccurate in so many regards, but what this kind of breakthrough social development of a land power under a somewhat authoritarian regime is what China has gone through in the past few decades.) As Joachim Fest noted in his biography of Hitler when discussing the context of the Second Reich:

"In the previous twenty-five years it had more than doubled its gross national product. The proportion of the population earning the minimum income subject to taxation had risen from 30 to 60 per cent. Steel production, for example, which had amounted to only half of British production in 1887, had attained nearly double the British production. Colonies had been conquered, cities built, industrial empires created. The number of corporations had risen from 2,143 to 5,340, and the tonnage handled in the port of Hamburg had moved up to third place in the world, still behind New York and Amsterdam, but ahead of London."

Bearing this in mind: it'd be cool if Mike Duncan could do a compact mini-series (July Revolution style) on the German Revolution of 1918-1919, if he has time, between Mexico and Russia. It was a failed revolution, sure, but one critical to understanding why the Weimar Republic turned out the way it did. And ultimately, how a certain destructive artist manque and war veteran with no prospects-he wasn't even a German citizen-whatsoever in 1919 could have managed to eventually bring an final, unequivocal end to old Europe.



On Mr. Duncan's tweet on Bismarck vs. Talleyrand back in late April (I'm such a loser), the two greatest politicians of the 19th Century... two men who spent their entire lives knowing how much more brilliant they were than everybody else and using that to their advantage.

I have to go with Bismarck as the more influential of the two: only Napoleon himself beats Bismarck, influence-wise, in my opinion, in terms of historical impact. Which should make sense-unlike Talleyrand, Bismarck was, for all intents and purposes, the ruler of his nation for 25 years, with full control of domestic policy. But the superior statesman award goes to Talleyrand. Everything about Bismarck was larger than life, from his chamber pots to his ambitions, and that included his flaws. The biggest manifestation of this showed up in the fact that Bismarck created a system that required a Bismarck to steer it: aka, the same trap another political genius, Diocletian, wandered into 1600 years earlier. It also rather delayed political maturity in Germany, as Steinberg pointed out in his biography of Bismarck. Though Talleyrand had his moments of blundering arrogance-the XYZ affair-I have a hard time seeing Talleyrand make a similar mistake when it came to fundamental systems of governance.

But generally speaking, what stands out to me is that Bismarck just wasn't as good at restraining his emotions as Talleyrand was, and prone to moments of crudity that Talleyrand wasn't. Bismarck's overwhelming will to dominate was apparent from when he was young, and this sort of crucial ability to *overpower* people through the raw energy behind him also meant that he lacked the ability to be quite as subtle as Talleyrand. Bismarck was as cold and calculating as Talleyrand, but had fits of anger and emotion that could dominate him in a way that never happened with Talleyrand. Could you imagine Talleyrand refusing to sit down to a dinner with a queen he didn't personally like, even if her husband was his ultimate patron? And while Talleyrand believed that France had a natural right to dominate Europe, he was always aware that domination involved rather subtler treatments of defeated countries and advancing France's interests within a general framework. (For what it is worth, this point seemed to be lost on Napoleon, too.) I'll point to one concrete example: Talleyrand's courtly treatment of Queen Louise after the Treaty of Tilsit might have been one of the most unappreciated calculating pieces of diplomacy in world history-that ensured his own good name in the rest of Europe in the long run. As charming as Bismarck could be-look at how he handled Disraeli-I have a hard time seeing him doing that.

(I should add that there's one other aspect to the personality difference between the two men I mention: for all his cynicism, I have a very hard time envisioning Bismarck ever doing anything but going down with the Hohenzollerns. He was genuinely loyal to Wilhelm I in a way that Talleyrand never was with anything except France as a whole. Part of this was probably cultural differences between France and Prussia, but I got the impression that Bismarck was genuinely attached to the Junker ethos in a way Talleyrand never was to the French nobility. Bismarck's sense of historical pessimism partially stemmed from his awareness of the long-term doom his class faced.)

As for throwing punches, let's be real: Bismarck would have shredded Talleyrand to pieces in anything remotely resembling a fair fight. Bismarck was 6'3 and over 250 pounds: and up until his forced retirement, it was mostly pure muscle. Talleyrand was a cripple. This wouldn't have even been close. Not a man to be trifled with was the Iron Chancellor: he nearly broke one of Wilhelm's attempted asassins like a twig. Bismarck was also inhumanly durable when it came to going without sleep or drinking, so using the wine cellar, as I saw suggested on Twitter, wouldn't have worked. Talleyrand would have to resort to his mind and provoking Bismarck through his Achilles heel-his temper-to win. If he succeeds, he wins, if Bismarck catches onto him and keeps his cool, Bismarck wins. I give that one a 50/50 shot of succeeding.

Only fellow reactionary and similarly bearishly built Tsar Alexander III would have stood a chance against Bismarck if we're going to talk about physical fights. Now that would have been... interesting.



I mean in the 19th Century. Yes, I screwed up. Mea culpa. Need to get back to my code now.

As interesting as the Paris Commune is, I *really* can't wait for the Mexican Revolution.


After a late start getting into your podcasts and years of listening to Rome and now Revolutions I'm finally caught up! It's a strange feeling to have to wait for the next one, like shifting from a Netflix binge to linear cable. I'll try to be patient ;)

I love this series because of the context and details that I had little knowledge of prior to this podcast, such as the Haitian revolution and the current 19th century upheavals. I've read a ton of history of WW1 and WW2 but until now have never really grasped why Germany became such an aggressive nationalistic power and the French were looking for revenge for their Franco-Pussian war humiliations. It also has clicked for me why the mid-west America grew socialist communities after the leftist German diaspora of the failed revolutions. I'm from Detroit and grew up in an area of strong auto unions and German culture and it was interesting to see the connection.

Thanks for all you do, good luck on the move to Paris!


decent documentary about Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWI
Die Deutschen (The Germans) S02E10 'Gustav Stresemann und die Republik' (Eng Sub)



There's a decent alternate history floating out there positing a surviving Gustav Stresemann keeping the Weimar Republic afloat. It's been several years since I read it, but from what I recall, it leads to an organization somewhat like a far more "muscular" EU that achieves superpower status. Stressemann and Briand essentially realize that if they are to avoid being dominated by the Americans/British and/or the Russians in the long run (as happened OTL), they have to put aside the old rivalries and collaborate. The results are interesting. The nature of this proto-EU is different, demographics are drastically different, the city of Berlin is *very* drastically different, the history of a lot of the rest of the world (take the Middle East for example) is different, the history of the USSR is different, European culture and mindset as a whole is different...

The main spin-off I remember is that without the Nazis, the Germans are posited to end up getting the atom bomb first. There's a huge scare about Stressmann setting off a war race when Meitner discovers what the Prussian generals are planning, but having regained state control over the military by this point (one of Bismarck's under-appreciated aspects was his ability to keep the military out of political decision making for the most part, at home and especially abroad. When he was gone, that changed, big time.) Stressemann ends up hammering out a "gentlemen's agreement" where France can develop their own nuclear weapons and they agree to tacitly aim them against the outside hegemons.


There was a fourth reason why Bismarck wanted to annex Alsace-Lorraine: in the 1870s it was more than 80% German speaking.

Even today you will still find a Southern German dialect spoken by some of the locals, although since WW2 it’s become much less popular.


What this series is doing for me is finally answering the question of how a mob in Paris imagined it could declare a commune and impose its will upon the entire country. Now I begin to understand as much as anyone can understand, After months of starvation and being literally shell shocked, judgement was warped by stress. Add to that a history where it must have seemed that Paris HAD imposed its will upon the country, and well, you begin to understand how people could have been so deluded.

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