I spent the weekend at a conference at Wiston House in Sussex, where you can’t help think about history. Wiston House is owned by Wilton Park, a foundation set up after the end of World War II that was originally based at an estate near Beaconsfield, where German POWs (including Helmut Schmidt) discussed democracy with British intellectuals. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, called it a “prisoners’ university” that was “the nucleus of what might become a new democratic Germany”. It was set up by Heinz Koeppler, a Jewish-German émigré and in 1948 was taken over by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hold conferences. In 1951 it moved to Wiston House, parts of which date back to the sixteenth century. In such surroundings, it’s hard not to think in historical analogies – especially when it comes to Germany.
The conference, organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was about Europe’s present and inevitably included discussion of Germany’s role as an actual or potential “hegemon” (a subject I discuss in this essay). Meanwhile, I was reading the historian Ludwig Dehio’s Germany and World Politics in the Twentieth Century (1955), which explores Germany’s two bids for hegemony in the twentieth century in the context of the European balance-of-power system. Dehio is particularly interesting on the relationship between Britain and Germany from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. His thesis is that while Britain was a global hegemon through its naval power, Germany was a (semi-)hegemon on the European continent. Both sought balance but meant something different by it. As Germany rose it challenged Britain’s supremacy at sea; Britain formed alliances that challenged Germany’s hegemony on the European mainland. The result, of course was World War I.
It is now 23 years since German reunification in 1990. Looking back over the transformation of Germany and its role in Europe since then (the subject of my book, The Paradox of German Power, which will be published next year) there are some thought-provoking similarities, as well, of course, as differences, with the events of a century ago. In the run-up to the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I next year, there has much discussion about the parallels between the world then and now (including about parallels between Europe’s past and Asia’s future). In particular, there have been two books published this year entitled 1913 – one by Charles Emmerson (an English writer – see also this essay of his on parallels with 2013) and another by Florian Illies (a German writer). As I left Wiston House, I wondered whether a book about 1894 – that is, 23 years after German unification in 1871 – could be even more interesting.