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  • Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875–1919 by Erik Grimmer-Solem
  • Edward Ross Dickinson
Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875–1919. By erik grimmer-solem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 668 pp. ISBN 978-1-108-48382-7. $44.99 (hardcover).

Erik Grimmer-Solem's Learning Empire is a remarkable undertaking, a hybrid work that is at once an ambitious and sustained synthesis of the massive scholarly literature on German imperial policy (Weltpolitik) and a study, founded on extensive archival research, of the role in shaping that policy of a small network of academic economists interested in the emerging capitalist world economy (Weltwirtschaft), particularly students and associates of Gustav Schmoller. The argument of the book—one that reflects the findings of most of the recent scholarly literature but is also convincingly rooted in Grimmer-Solem's own primary research—is that imperialism in Germany was (1) primarily liberal in its political origins and affiliations and (2) fundamentally shaped by broad processes of capitalist globalization. The book is therefore an important contribution to and confirmation of the ongoing reassessment of German (and by extension European) imperialism. Rather than "a calculated bid by the Kaiser and an alliance of military and industrial elites to escape domestic crises by outward diversion to prevent democratic reforms," Weltpolitik was "a complex of ideas originally defined by the German educated bourgeoisie that were … profoundly shaped by the encounter with Weltwirtschaft in the Americas and East Asia" (pp. 602, 196). In particular, Grimmer-Solem explores in detail the role of the experience of economists who worked and traveled extensively in Asia and the Americas. As Grimmer-Solem putsit,"Weltwirtschaft and Weltpolitik were … a policy response based on real experiences and observations in the world" (p. 170). The book, then, aims to accomplish one of the most fundamental and important tasks of [End Page 820] the historian: to place the ideas and actions of historical actors in their concrete historical context—in this case, the widening "trans-national" experience of bourgeois Germans.

In that undertaking the book is a great success, in two senses. First, the book is a gold-mine of information about the experiences abroad of an influential network primarily of academic economists, but also of some key political figures who would come to play central roles in Weltpolitik. The collective picture that emerges here of a group of men influenced by their extensive international experiences is quite striking and persuasive. Second, Grimmer-Solem convincingly points to the "smoking guns" that link those figures to the evolution of German imperial policy—in private letters, in political and academic appointments, in memoirs, in the details of publication histories of studies of the economics of various parts of the world, and so on. One of the more satisfying aspects of the book in fact is the arc of the "story" it tells, beginning with the experience of some key figures as university professors in Japan in the 1870s or on study trips through the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, through the roles of some of those same men in German electoral politics and in the growing colonial-academic complex in the 1900s, to the ultimately disastrous foreign-policy conflicts generated by Germany's colonial ambitions in the 1910s. Also striking is the extent to which German imperialism is "normalized" here. German colonial and imperial ambitions are, in this study, fundamentally the same as colonial and imperial ambitions throughout the world in the same period—"an improvised response to the opportunities and challenges of globalization that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s" (p. 19). In fact, in Grimmer-Solem's account German imperial policy-makers appear often to be fairly obtuse, but "German foreign policy was … certainly much less aggressive and violent than other rising powers of the time, notably the United States"; and if there is a villain in this story it is the United Kingdom, which played the central role in creating a "menacing climate" of imperial rivalry through its "unprecedented and violent expansion" in the later nineteenth century and then destabilizing world politics by desperately defending its resulting imperial overreach (pp. 175...


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