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Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861-1871

by Michael Knox Beran, Free Press, New York, 2007, 496 pages, $30.

American audiences tend to put the decade in which the Civil War took place in a vacuum, but as author Michael Knox Beran shows in Forge of Empires, the global stage witnessed several other far-reaching events in the 1860s that were perhaps just as significant. Beran puts the life and times of Abraham Lincoln on a parallel course with those of two other notable contemporaries: Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia. All three statesmen transformed their respective nations with acts that at the time were regarded as extremely radical. In February 1861, Alexander overrode the objections of Russia’s aristocracy to free the serfs from their state of feudal servitude. In January 1863, amid a war over central government control and states’ rights, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially involved slavery in the Union’s war efforts, a measure almost as unpopular in the North as it was in the South. Bismarck, meanwhile, established a militaristic state in Prussia that in the course of three wars would form modern Germany—and inadvertently lay the groundwork for National Socialism and two more world conflicts.

The end was tragic for all three of Beran’s subjects. Both Lincoln and Alexander were assassinated, while Bismarck was relieved of his office by Kaiser Wilhelm II, depriving Germany of what could have been a moderating counterbalance to the kaiser’s course toward World War I. Of the three, however, the author regards Lincoln’s revolution as the more successful in the struggle between human rights and government coercion.

Tsar Alexander was rewarded for his bold reform by being disemboweled by a bomb thrown by a Socialist. His successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II, followed more reactionary policies, which only led to the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1918 and its replacement with an equally coercive Communist regime. Bismarck’s form of National Socialism ultimately succeeded beyond his intentions in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and Germany’s Götterdämmerung. The democracy that today flourishes in Germany and still struggles to find its way in Russia are part of the legacy left by the first of these statesmen to die: Lincoln.

Beran builds his case on an alternating succession of events involving his three reformers. The result will undoubtedly spark debate among historians, but it is a novel approach and certainly puts Lincoln and the American Civil War in a more global context. That said, one could argue that Beran misses an opportunity to expand his scope even further by leaving out a fourth figure from that decade: Emperor Mutsuhito, whose decision to adopt the Oath in Five Articles on April 7, 1868, set Japan on its Meiji (enlightened period) toward parliamentary government and a selective westernization that, among other things, would affect the histories of Russia and Germany as well as the United States. That omission notwithstanding, Civil War buffs with an interest in the politics behind the campaigns should find an invigorating new perspective in Forge of Empires.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.