The 1860’s decade was tumultuous in many ways, though for many Americans the only thing that comes to mind is the Civil War. However, as Michael Knox Beran explores in his book Forge of Empires, much more was going on around the world than just that. The foundations of the 20th century in both Germany and Russia, as well as the rest of Europe, were also being forged at this time. In his excellent book, Beran gives readers a running narrative that often compares and contrasts the three main revolutions going on at this time, how they were different but also how they were similar.
Abraham Lincoln, of course, was forcing American society to change drastically, with the effect not only of freeing the slaves but also transforming Southern aristocracy from wealthy land-owning based on slavery to a much different class system. Otto von Bismarck, in turn, was in the process of accumulating power for his native Prussia (and for himself, of course) by uniting the various German states into an empirical power under one ruler, thus stamping his mark on the European balance of power for generations to come. Finally, Russian Tsar Alexander II was implementing policies to end serfdom, throwing Russian society into such upheaval that eventually that sniff of freedom turned into just another dictatorship.
Beran explores these three revolutions not only through the eyes of these great and powerful leaders but also through those people caught up in these momentous events. Walt Whitman, Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Chesnut, Napoleon III and his empress Eugenie - all of them play a great role in illustrating the consequences of various actions. While Lincoln frees the slaves and goes to war to save the union, Mary Chesnut, the wife of a Southern landowner, shows us how her society crumbles as the ravages of war reach the Confederacy and obliterate the society that she knew. The rise of Germany and Bismarck’s thirst for power results in huge transformations in France as well, culminating in the Franco-Prussian war that finally solidifies the power of the new German state.
Beran uses a form of narrative history in Forge of Empires, with the book going from short section to short section, sometimes encompassing a month, sometimes a few months, and jumping from the U.S. to Germany to Russia and back again. Beran sometimes leaves a section with a “cliffhanger” of sorts, which makes the narrative even more gripping but isn’t truly necessary. Structuring the book this way allows Beran to highlight the similarities and differences between the various revolutions, mostly by illustration, but occasionally Beran comes right out and compares/contrasts two or even all three.
Forge of Empires is not dry at all, making an interesting read for even the non-historian. The narrative includes many details about the lives of all the people involved, from Lincoln’s quiet determination to Alexander’s affair with a young Russian girl who eventually becomes his bride. He makes these influential men human, detailing not only Bismarck’s thirst for power but also his relatively innocent love for a young woman who is the wife of a friend. We see the collapse of Napoleon III as he goes to war despite being extremely ill, because a Napoleon cannot lead from a tent behind the lines, and how his wife then takes over the government and presides over the final fall of the Napoleon family. Beran’s writing style is such that it never gets boring, and he never spends so much time on one figure or area that the reader gets bored.
As months and years progress, Beran shows us Alexander was a man with big ideas yet without the inability to “sell” these ideas to the Russian people. Rebellion is widespread and there are many attempts on his life, which results in a crackdown and even less freedom. The mechanism of freeing the serfs results in many serfs suffering even more greatly than they did under serfdom, and the revolution that Alexander started swiftly spins out of his control. Meanwhile, we see the effects of Lincoln’s revolution as it affects countries all over Europe. Will England and France recognize the Confederacy, or will Lincoln and the Union army be able to achieve a military victory that will keep them to the sidelines? And what’s Bismarck doing during all this?
The only major fault with Forge of Empires, and it’s a personal thing for me, is once again the notation system. Bibliographic notes are stuck in the back, but there aren’t even any superscript numbers on the pages telling us that there’s a note. Instead, each note has a sentence fragment that identifies what the note is talking about. You only see this if you explore the notations section, though, as there’s no indication on the page itself that there is one. Thankfully, Beran seems to have limited his notes to what the source for this information is, thus it’s merely interesting rather than mandatory.
One minor thing is that, in exploring the lives of the other people (not Lincoln, Bismarck, or Alexander), Beran occasionally seems to go off on a tangent about their romantic lives, or other parts. I realize that Beran is using these instances to illustrate how society is changing, but it just sometimes seems too much. He doesn’t do it often, and most of the time it does meet his goal. But there were times that I simply wanted him to move on.
Overall, though, Forge of Empires is a masterpiece with a little bit of everything. While it’s not a detailed account of the Civil War or the Franco-Prussian war, there is enough military information to give an idea of what was going on, and to perhaps go find a detailed history of the war itself. We see not only the revolutions as they unfold; Beran ends the book wrapping up the lives of all his “characters,” giving us a brief synopsis of what happened in the rest of their lives. He also gives an overview of the far-reaching effect each revolution had on society and world politics, such as how German extreme nationalism eventually ended up with World Wars I and II.
I encourage you to pick this book up. It’s interesting, you’ll find out a lot about things you may not have known (I’m a history buff, and I had no idea that Prussia and Austria fought a brief war in the mid-1860s). The best thing is that you will get a foundation for much of what happened in the world in the 20th century, told in a fashion that will keep you reading to the final page.