Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-Speaking Peoples since 1500 
By Peter H. Wilson. 
Belknap Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 976 pages, $39.95. 

Reviewed by Jesse Russell

“Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.”Otto von Bismarck.

The late roguish classicist Nicholas Horsfall, a prolific scholar of Virgil and Roman culture, once remarked that life outside of classics included many things: “food and wine, cats, military history, cricket, music of discontinuous periods, chess problems and crime fiction.” Indeed, if spy novels are a notorious “dad hobby,” then military history (along with model trains, wood working, and tinkering with mechanical engineering) is a “grandpa thing.” In the Anglophone world, there are two key areas of popular interest in military history: 19th century (the Napoleonic era and, in the United States, especially, the American Civil War) as well as World War II. American grandpas, notably those who had served in the Second World War or whose fathers had served in it, have traditionally fixated on the European theater of the war. Decorated with eerie German castles, quaint French villages, and snowy Belgian forests, the European theater of World War II is cast as an enchanting, almost medieval, world in which tough as nails American grit conquered sophisticated but ultimately arrogant and evil German militarism. 

Like most popular narratives, this story is based on a sound reality. Mid-twentieth century American culture was, broadly speaking, more egalitarian and “rougher” than that of the more educated and historically older Germany. Moreover, despite the flaws of Western liberal democracy, it traditionally has been morally superior to the cruel and arrogant genocidal impulses of German National Socialism. However, in recent decades many scholars have dispelled the myth of “the American victory.” In his 2006 Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory, Norman Davies argues that the European theater of World War II was primarily won by the allies in Eastern, not Western Europe. Moreover, works like Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction (also 2006) have attempted to dispel the myth of Nazi Germany as a technological and economic juggernaut brought down by American and British pluckiness and Russian resolve; rather German war production—despite some technological marvels—was often outmatched by superior quality American products. 

In his recent work, Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German Speaking Peoples since 1500, Oxford military historian Peter H. Wilson attempts to take aim at another popular narrative about World War II: that Germans are essentially militant people whose history inevitably led to World War II and National Socialism. The title of Wilson’s book, of course, is drawn from Otto von Bismarck’s September 30, 1862 “Blood and Iron” speech to the Prussian diet’s budget committee. As Wilson notes, Bismarck’s speech was a reminder to the liberals he was addressing of realpolitik and the reality of violence when the rubber meets the road. Bismarck’s speech was, further, based upon an early poem by Max von Schenkendorf called “The Iron Cross.” Von Schenkendorf had fought in the 1813 War of Liberation against Napoleon, and his poem, as Wilson notes, refers to the military and religious history of Germany as well as the German landscape. The poem is a quintessential Romantic poem, which was, of course, later (mis-)appropriated by the Nazis. Bismarck’s speech, based on von Schenkendorf’s poem, has come to serve as a symbol for an inherent German militarism. Surrounded by alleged enemies, this view suggests, Germans have traditionally had to fight their way for survival using the infamous Blitzkrieg and advanced military technology. Professor Wilson spends much of Blood and Iron attempting to refute this view (although his frequent admission that much of the world has traditionally viewed Germans as a militaristic people, and much of the past several hundred years has seen Germany at war, tends to provide a counterargument to Wilson’s thesis). 

Wilson further seeks to refute the Prussian-centered vision of modern German military history. Wilson notes that prior to the fall of the German Confederation, Prussia had only fought two minor wars—“The Cow War” fought against the Palatinate in 1651 and an intervention in the Dutch Patriot Revolt (1787). Moreover, Wilson argues that Prussia did not become the primary German power until the late 1800s. The emphasis on alleged Prussian militarism has, Wilson suggests, neglected the importance of Austria and German-speaking Swiss in modern German military history. Iron and Blood is a massive book and covers a sprawling history of Germany that includes the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the rise of Frederick the Great in addition to the horrific carnage of World War I and II.     

Wilson pinpoints the eighteenth century as a time when armies became “permanently embedded in society.” The rise of the standing army coincided with the rise of the state, and armies were one of the most pronounced symbols of the state’s power. The rise of the power of the army and the ensuing carnage in the subsequent wars of the nineteenth and twentieth century appear to chafe against the Enlightenment vision of human progress. At the same time, military matters in the eighteenth century drew public interest and admiration—Wilson notes that Frederick II was more admired for his military successes than his role as the enlightened monarch. However, war drew criticism from some intellectuals—German thinkers objected, for example, to German auxiliaries sent to fight in the American Revolutionary War, a war that was perceived as being outside the scope of German interest. There has always been a moderate and even anti-war faction in modern Germany—a reality which continues to this day.                                                                 

While much of Iron and Blood is a discussion of German history leading up to the Second War World as well World War II’s fallout into the Cold War, Wilson also poses another important question in the book: what is the future of Germany? Since adopting a post-1945 role as a “civilian power,” Germany famously has been attempting to build an economic empire in Europe (as well as around the globe). However, this economic empire has only been achieved as a result of American (and wider NATO) military might. The current war between Russia and the Ukraine has raised the specter of potential (but, admittedly, unlikely) war in central Europe, a war for which, for the first time in its history, Germany would be completely unprepared. Moreover, the German economy is beginning to flounder. Germany, like America and the rest of the West, is in a state of malaise and decline. National Socialism showed Germany (and the world) the evils and failures of fetishizing race. However, the current decline of Germany and the West is showing us the limits and ultimate hollowness of consumerism. What is needed, more than an economic and cultural revival, is a deeper spiritual rival. It is not militarism nor money that built Germany and the West, but a religious foundation that respects patriotism while ultimately transcending it. 

Jesse Russell has written for publications such as Catholic World Report, The Claremont Review of Books Digital, and Front Porch Republic.

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