Masterstrokes in the battle for headquarters

The Struggle for Mastery in Germany, 1779-1850
November 26, 1999

The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote: "Germany is the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery in Europe is fought." From this starting point, in opposition to recent social histories of the same period, Brendan Simms sets out to revise our view of late 18th and early 19th-century German history by restoring states and diplomacy to the centre of historical narrative.

Simms presents an original thesis rather than a comprehensive textbook. Despite occasional, almost wilful anachronisms, the book succeeds in revealing some of the baroque complexities of diplomacy, politics and society under the Holy Roman empire and German confederation.

In Germany, where dynasties, states, confederations and great powers all struggled for mastery, it was to be expected that policy-making monarchs, courtiers and bureaucrats would accept the primacy of foreign affairs. Simms emphasises the impact of diplomacy and war in 1792-1815 and 1848-49, effectively diminishing the significance of the French and German revolutions.

For the ruling elites of Berlin, Vienna, Munich and Dresden, the latent competition between Prussia and Austria-Hungary for ascendancy in Germany influenced most areas of policy-making. The period between 1815 and 1848 was marked by Prussian-Austrian dualism. According to Simms, this guaranteed the primacy of "external fears and ambitions not simply in the subjective consciousness of German governments, but also in determining objective developments".

This unequal relationship between state action and objective development is the principal weakness of the book. Concentrating on the modernising policies of states underestimates the impact of social and economic transformations, which often occurred independently of state policy.

Simms's contention that German states affected the lives of "ordinary people", whereas ordinary people "hardly affected" states, is contradicted by his own extensive study of "the breakthrough of the nation" into high politics. The attempt to deflect such criticism by pointing to the foreign-policy preoccupations of liberals is unconvincing.

The Struggle for Mastery in Germany oscillates between political history in the narrow sense, which investigates the context in which statesmen formulated "high policy", and political history in the broad sense. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the narrative ends in 1850 instead of 1871, which would better suit a thesis about the primacy of foreign policy.

It is possible to argue, however, that such vices are the obverse of the book's great and overriding virtues: imagination, erudition and ambition.

Mark Hewitson is lecturer in German politics, University College London.


The Struggle for Mastery in Germany, 1779-1850

Author - Brendan Simms
ISBN - 0 333 601 98 X and 0333 601 998
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50 and £12.99
Pages - 242

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