James Retallack, Professor of history and German studies at the University of Toronto, takes his readers on a journey with the essay collection Germany's Second Reich: Portraits and Pathways. His well-known research on the German Right 1860–1920 (2006) has illuminated the inherent ambiguity of the "German right": authoritarian thinking and imperial thoughts of a German "place in the sun" (1897) had touched conservatives as well as liberals.
His challenging essays on "pathways" do not proclaim a new coherent "Sonderweg" of German history. Still, some chapters seem to be composed against recent research highlighting the "modern" aspects of Imperial Germany. Retallack illuminates that extreme political thinking such as anti-Semitism in the "German right" had continuities into the Weimar republic. Chapter seven reveals new sources and asks historians to remember the Janus-faced character of the years from 1860 to 1920. Chapter six reminds readers of the ever-present coincidences of history, explaining that both Friedrich Engels and German reactionaries "conceived the role of force in history in surprisingly similar ways." Consequences were "perplexed" German burghers. Here, Retallack's "long term" perspective of political and cultural changes from the 1860s onward [End Page 279] sets him apart from most of those researchers who define the 1890s as a cornerstone. The question arises if the book's title, Second Reich, is still indispensable for challenging recent research tendencies. Although Retallack argues that every subject of the book resonates with the periods before 1866 (the "First Reich") or after 1918 (the "Third Reich" from 1933 to 1945), he emphasizes already in the preface that not a single path directly led to Hitler, Nazism, or even the Holocaust in German history. A title without the strong "Reich"-tension would avoid implications of inevitable paths to the "Third Reich" and rather underline the book's new thesis.
Three headings of the book ("Pan," "Focus," "Twist") frame the reader's journey. Heading one ("Pan") gives a short overview of the modern melting pot that was established with the "Second Reich." With several excursions into contemporary politics, readers are forced to think of a modern understanding of history. Retallack declares the essay collection a stimulation for a new synthesized history of the German Kaiserreich which has to deal with all the new research perspectives of recent years. Chapter three challenges the historian as a critical author and as a moderator of the instantaneous feedback on his writings on the Internet. Furthermore, it illustrates why a historical "long term" perspective is crucial for taking into account militarism, industrialization, early air pollution, and the 1970s and 1980s "Green movement" at the same time. Those links are important because they illustrate that historians should raise their "long term" voice in today's discussion, as Jo Guldi and David Armitage pointed out in their recent History Manifesto (2015).
Readers will clearly understand why the sources from the "outside," e.g. British diplomats, are crucial for getting a better image of German history. A valuable addition to existent studies which focus on the Prussian territory are Retallack's sketches on Saxon's King Johann and Julian Hawthorne's "Saxon Studies" ("Focus"). The book's narrative is also stimulating for German historians. A debate on "democracy" is held in the last section, "Twist," where Emperor Wilhelm II is confronted with all shades of "democracy" and newer theses which argue that he was not isolated and "out of touch with reality." The last section demonstrates what a modern historical writing could look like. The examination of Imperial Germany with a modern understanding of "democracy" gives new insights on decisions, developments, or changes. Retallack's kaleidoscopic view on the "Second Reich" is a delightful reading experience and a vital example of modern historiography which brings together political commentators from the nineteenth century and critical historians from the twenty-first century. [End Page 280]