Erik Grimmer-Solem. Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 668 pp. $44.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-48382-7.
Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins (University of Toronto) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2021) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54896
An authoritarian Kaiser, saber-rattling officials, and tempestuous displays of militarism are familiar images for historians of imperial German foreign policy. The country’s “world policy” (Weltpolitik), inaugurated in 1897, is usually seen as an exercise in international aggression and diplomatic bungling, as an upstart Germany challenged the international order in the years before 1914. Erik Grimmer-Solem’s pathbreaking book, Learning Empire, questions the dominance of this master narrative in understanding the rise of Germany as a modern power after 1871. Deeply researched and clearly written, Learning Empire gives a fresh account of the origins and development of Weltpolitik by placing it in the context of global economic competition—what Germans in 1900 called Weltwirtschaft—rather than in the usual framework of national and domestic politics. The building of the German navy, the arms race with Britain, the rising tempo of international rivalry, and the country’s growing diplomatic isolation are set into a global frame, with particular emphasis placed on events in the Far East and the United States. In this way the author revisits classical terrain in the field of modern German history, tracing the foreign policy developments that led to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 while also breaking with past precedent. In its attempt to transcend the national and Eurocentric frameworks still so dominant in the telling of these histories, Learning Empire convincingly demonstrates that Weltpolitik—this most nationalistic of concepts—had “transnational origins” (p. 211).
To prove his point, Grimmer-Solem analyzes some of Weltpolitik’s most important practitioners—the internationally known political economist Gustav Schmoller and his students, Max Sering, Hermann Schumacher, Karl Rathgen, and Ernst von Halle—all of whom served as advisors and consultants to the German government. Exploring their writings and activities in China, Japan, and the United States, he details their influence on the making of trade and military policy. He makes two claims for the importance of these men and their writings, bringing them from the margins to the center and from the footnotes into the text. First was “their role defining Weltwirtschaft and Weltpolitik.” Second was “their remarkable influence on formal policy” (p. 23). In illuminating the wide scope of their expertise, he demonstrates the global framings embedded in their policy ideas. They believed that Germany’s expanding industrial economy demanded a more muscular diplomacy, and they thought hard about how best to achieve it. The traditional focus of studies on Weltpolitik, namely the building of the German navy, is thereby viewed through their global economic lens. They saw an expanded fleet as a necessary “political instrument” for successful international trade diplomacy. As did Germany’s naval secretary, Alfred von Tirpitz, they argued that Germany required a stronger naval presence to credibly assert its economic and diplomatic interests vis-à-vis Great Britain and the United States, and they pointed to the growing power of the US Navy as a case in point. Comparisons with the United States are one of the book’s strongest features.
Learning Empire is a revisionist work that expands the study of German empire beyond its traditional focus on colonies in Africa and the South Pacific and into the arena of international trade. Correspondingly, the book is arranged into three sections, each with the word “empire” in its title: “Absent-Minded Empire” for the years 1875-97, “Empire Imagined” for 1897-1907, and “Empire Lost” for 1908-19. The first section is unquestionably original. By following the travels and writings of Schmoller’s students—Hermann Schumacher’s promotion of German economic interests in China, Max Sering’s analysis of the US economy, and Karl Rathgen’s establishing of networks of German experts in Japan in the 1890s—the author analyzes the global context that fed Weltpolitik. These “professors of political economy specializing in the new subfield of Weltwirtschaft” the author writes, were also “leading authorities on globalization” (pp. 19-20). Their focus set out “much of the content of Weltpolitik well before it ever entered the political agenda” (p. 20). Through his close reading of their works (both published and unpublished), deft analysis of their political connections, and incisive assessment of the international networks they built and maintained, Grimmer-Solem details a world of conversation and connection revolving around the German economy. This was a bourgeois, middle-class world of trade officials, traveling professors, economic consultants, and business interests, rather than that of the Prussian military officials and Junker aristocrats that have traditionally dominated accounts on this topic.
In one of the book’s most original moves, what Grimmer-Solem calls the “Asian origins” of Weltpolitik are thus emphasized, focusing on the scramble for China in the 1890s and the rise of Japan to great-power status through the Russo-Japanese War. Global power was sea power, and the author notes the influence of the American naval officer and writer Alfred Thayer Mahan. Schmoller and his students saw the rising military power of the United States as a vital factor in Washington’s success in negotiating with London, and they wished the same for Germany. Their wish to expand the German navy to strengthen the country’s diplomatic force and prestige provided a view of the country’s forward path that harmonized with that of both chancellor Bernhard von Bülow and naval secretary Tirpitz.
Grimmer-Solem’s decision to place the making of German policy more firmly into the context of global competition is a strong move. It effectively de-pathologizes German developments, which is the book’s central point. The author traces a story of policy decisions that are less singular than earlier studies allowed. “It is worth being reminded,” he writes, “that Germany was hardly alone in deciding to build a battleship navy in these years” (p. 195). In contrast to older views, which focused overwhelmingly on the Anglo-German antagonism to the exclusion of much else, Grimmer-Solem also traverses a larger landscape. Weltpolitik, as he asserts, “was never focused on Britain, much less bent on attaining Britain’s naval hegemony or seizing its colonial empire.” In the view of his actors, “it was focused on establishing Germany alongside the Americans, Japanese, Russians, French, and British.” Germany, for them, was “one of a number of newer and established world powers with interest in China and the rest of the world that deserved to be respected” (p. 196). Nor was Britain solely a force for peace in this world; the aggression of British imperial policy receives its due here, as does the extensive planning for economic warfare against Germany, which existed long before 1914.
This first third of the book—giving a new framing of the origins and initial course of Weltpolitik—is its strongest contribution. Over its next two sections, the national framework of analysis reasserts itself and the story devolves more toward the familiar. Grimmer-Solem traces Germany’s growing diplomatic isolation as a result of the Russo-Japanese War, hitting all of the crisis points on the road toward 1914. Here the book sits on more familiar terrain and draws more directly from the author’s areas of expertise in colonial knowledge and colonial policy. These sections discuss Germany’s African empire, its violence and corruption, the colonial scandals it unleashed, and the revisionist project—the “new imperialism” of the period after 1907 led by colonial secretary Bernhard Dernburg—to which it gave rise. He is particularly good at tracing the institutional networks that supported and generated imperial policy such as the Roosevelt Professorships between elite US private universities and Germany, and the Hamburg Colonial Institute, a forerunner of the city’s university (founded in 1919).
In sum, Imperial Germany’s rise to power on the back of its booming economy and growing wealth posed a challenge to the other European powers, particularly Great Britain. This is well known. It is a central piece of the historiography on the outbreak of the 1914 war and the responsibility Germany bears for it. Moreover, ever since the controversy over Fritz Fischer’s book on Germany’s war aims—Griff nach der Weltmacht, published in 1961—the history of Imperial Germany (Kaiserreich) has had a central place in analyses of Germany as a twentieth-century power. The Kaiserreich led to the Third Reich, as Fischer put it; the outbreak of the 1914 war prefigured the defeat of 1918 and the rise of Adolf Hitler. The militaristic and power-hungry Kaiserreich was the seedbed of both.
Grimmer-Solem demonstrates the narrowness of the traditional interpretation. Learning Empire undoes much of it, providing a broader and deeper analysis in the process. “The intention,” he writes, “is to highlight how misleading it is to treat Imperial Germany purely endogenously and its later imperial gambits as emanating from the metropole outward” (p. 8). He shows his actors “defining new objectives" and "identifying the challenges to German foreign policy at a time of unprecedented international expansion of German ideas, capital, ships and goods” (p. 197). This is a major accomplishment, and this reviewer finds Learning Empire to be one of the most important books to appear in the German field in the last twenty years. It revises and re-envisions many of the turning points that defined foreign and domestic policy, but it also has its flaws. The reimposition of the national framework for the years after 1905 returns the book to the national narrative. The global perspective of its first third is largely lost, and the narrative follows familiar contours. Analysis of Germany’s place in events in the Near East—in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in “European Turkey” (the Balkans)—are not given the benefit of a less Eurocentric perspective. The Balkan Wars are analyzed as solely a European squabble when they were an Ottoman tragedy. The Ottoman Empire—as a subject rather than an object of this history—is largely missing.
This return of the Eurocentric and national perspective leads to the second problem, namely the writing of a history of foreign policy in which the German Foreign Office is largely absent. Ever since the Fischer Controversy it has become acceptable to write a history of foreign policy that does not draw on Foreign Office documents, which this book also largely leaves to the side. The German Foreign Office was deeply involved in decisions involving global trade, yet one would never realize that fact from this book, in which diplomats appear largely as inept and idiotic (when not dangerous). Given that the global frameworks highlighted so successfully by Grimmer-Solem should receive more attention in future, it will be necessary to return some gravitas to the histories—and documents—of German foreign policy. Showing these officials as forever bumbling, ham-handed, and inept is funny, but it does not advance our understanding of how these diplomats actually functioned on a global stage. However, here, as in many other places in the book, Grimmer-Solem may have been reflecting the views of his middle-class actors, who had little love lost for the aristocratic institution.
Jennifer L. Jenkins is associate professor of German and European history and Canada Research Chair in Modern German History at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Provincial Modernity: Local Culture and Liberal Politics in Fin-de-Siècle Hamburg (Cornell University Press, 2003) and the co-editor, with Geoff Eley and Tracie Matysik, of German Modernities from Wilhelm to Weimar: The Contest of Futures (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). She is currently finishing Germany’s Great Game: The Reich and Iran in the Age of Empire, on German diplomacy in the Middle East before 1914.
Citation: Jennifer Jenkins. Review of Grimmer-Solem, Erik, Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54896This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.