Saturday, June 12, 2010


A review of Michael Knox Beran’s Forge of Empires—1861-1871—Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made (2007)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Once on a Star Trek documentary I heard Leonard Nimoy discuss an old Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times.’ In that documentary, Nimoy is referring to the 1960s. However, this book talks about times that may have been far more interesting, the 1860s. Often, we in the United States are so obsessed and fascinated with ourselves that we forget the rest of the world exists. Which is why are sports champions are always titled the ‘World Champions’ despite the fact that they are just playing in the United States*. I, myself, am certainly guilty of this. I often mark book reviews on historical events outside the United States with the labels ‘World History’ and ‘Western Civilization’ and inside the United States is labeled just ‘U.S. History.’ The U.S. Civil War has been a source of fascination for us ever since it ended, but often we ignore the wider world that our conflict played out. Moreover, we should not ignore it, for foreign affairs is a big part of why that conflict played out the way it did.

David Donald’s Lincoln played out the life of one man, Doris Goodwin’s book showed an administration, but Michael Beran’s book gives us the world that was. The focus is on the three legendary statesmen: Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States; Otto Von Bismarck, Prime Minster of Prussia and then Chancellor of Germany; and Tsar Alexander II, Emperor of Russia. Lincoln would hold his nation together that was being torn apart by the Civil War and would succeed in eradicating slavery from the Union. Bismarck would unify his county into a single nation, and Tsar Alexander sought to modernize his nation by liberating his nation’s serfs and providing for a constitutional monarchy.

(President Abraham Lincoln)

(Otto Von Bismarck)

(Tsar Alexander II)

Of the three leaders, only Lincoln would succeed in every way possible. Bismarck would unify Germany but he was always dependent on the patronage of his sovereign for unlike Lincoln, who served in a Republic, Bismarck served a King who he transformed into an Emperor. Bismarck would live to see a new Emperor come to the throne had he built and begin a process to ruin it all. Tsar Alexander was an emperor already, and in theory absolute. Unfortunately, after the centuries of serfdom, transforming the entire nation’s population from serfs to citizens would take some doing and when undermined by both conservative and radical elements it would become impossible.

Tsar Alexander was just following example that other monarchs, and Bismarck, were making with ‘Tory Democracy.’ For the monarchs and aristocrats of the mid-nineteenth century were a far more cleaver breed then their late eighteenth century counterparts. They would embrace popular reform as way of maintaining their hold on power.

“The free-state men were every day becoming more impatient with his rule. He imposed a censorship on the press; but this, he knew, was a shopworn tactic, and only strengthened the opposition. He must try something else. He had been intrigued by the way in which Europe’s craftiest politicians used (or proposed to use) the power of the lower orders against the liberal middle—against the bourgeois and professional classes. In France, Napoleon III organized mass plebiscites to ratify his power. In England, Benjamin Disraeli envisioned a union between the common people and the aristocracy, and alliance which Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was later to christen ‘Tory Democracy.’ Others called it ‘neofeudal paternalism’ or ‘English Tory Socialism.’

It was and ingenious strategy. Use democratic paternalism to subvert the institutions of freedom. Today, when democracy and liberty are practically synonymous, such a policy seems paradoxical. But it did not seem so in the nineteenth century. In England and the United States, the rule of law, bills of rights, independent judiciaries, and legislative control of the purse and the army developed before the advent of universal suffrage. When, during the nineteenth century, democracy grew up in England and America, the institutions of the free state were relatively stable; the broader franchise did not destroy free constitutions, it made them stronger. But in countries without such stable constitutions, it made them stronger. But in countries without such stable constitutions, unscrupulous leaders used democratic instruments—plebiscites and manhood suffrage—to subvert fledgling institutions of freedom.” p.175

This book also connects the dots on how these events all tied into each other. Generally, I and most other historians both professionals, and us amateurs, are aware of the British and French support for the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War. However, I do not believe that most are equally aware of the Prussian and Russian support for the Union. Bismarck could not support the South since he was trying to unify his own nation, and Alexander equally supported the Union in his outright refusal even to consider recognizing the Confederacy. This book also gives detail on how the United States, angry at the French for their support of the Confederacy, was able to play a role in the Franco-Prussian War.

“The advice of Philip Sheridan, General Grant’s cavalry master, made a deep impression upon him. Sheridan had come to the Prussian camp as an observer. He urged the Germans to embrace the policy of total war to which Lincoln and Grant had been driven to during the Civil War. ‘The proper strategy,’ Sheridan told Bismarck over dinner at Rheims, ‘consists in the first place of inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy’s army, and then in causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force their Government to demand it. The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war…’ ‘You know how to hit an enemy as no other army does, but you have not learned how to annihilate him. One must see more smoke of burning villages, otherwise you will not finish the French.’” (p.353)

(General Philip Sheridan)

This book opens a window into another time, one that sees all these dramatic events and actors great and small take part. The History Channel should a documentary based on it. For, I found this book more entertaining than a movie. This book has a brilliant narrative and I highly recommend to anyone.

*Now granted the amount of foreign player in our pro leagues might give those titles more legitimacy but we have always had those titles.

{Video was produced by the History Channel special Russia Land of the Tsars}

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