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Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861-1871 Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 16, 2007

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (October 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074327069X
  • ASIN: B0019MX79Y
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #425,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist and historian Beran (Jefferson's Demons) provides a lively and entertaining look at a pivotal decade, in which three revolutionary leaders took actions that, he says, would shape world events for a dozen decades: Lincoln's role in the emancipation of slaves and winning the Civil War; Bismarck's unification of Germany and the rise of that country's continental hegemony; and Tsar Alexander II's part in freeing the serfs and the short-lived moderation of czarist rule. Making superb use of short vignettes, Beran provides fascinating insights on the importance of these events, noting, for example, that had Lincoln not triumphed, the institution of slavery would have derived fresh strength from... 'scientific' racism, social Darwinism, jingo imperialism, [and] the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism. However, the book gives insufficient background on the events covered, and there is only cursory treatment of Reconstruction and the Polish revolt against Russian rule in 1863. Nonetheless, Beran captures the decade's importance in a style that is both informative and dramatic. (Oct. 16)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1


Saint Petersburg, January 1861

In the Winter Palace two court functionaries walked down a long gallery towards a pair of massive bronze doors. They tapped thrice with their wands, ebony batons surmounted with double-headed eagles. The doors were thrown open, and the Tsar of Russia emerged from the seclusion of his private apartments, together with his Tsaritsa.

As he passed through galleries of his palace, the Tsar acknowledged, with the merest nod of his head, the bows and curtsies of the court. Every so often he would catch the eye of some devoted servant of the state, dressed, after the fashion of the eighteenth century, in silk stockings and a coat heavy with gold embroidery. The happy courtier, his face flushed with pride, would look about to see whether those around him had observed the mark of imperial approbation.

The Tsar and Tsaritsa proceeded to the Nicholas Hall, blazing with the light of a dozen chandeliers and ten thousand candles. Diamonds and sapphires sparkled on aristocratic bosoms; the cross and star of Alexander Nevsky flashed on glittering uniforms; moiré sashes shimmered. The chevalier guards, specially selected, out of the immensity of Russia, for their good looks, stood to attention in white tunics and polished breastplates. It was a spectacle meant to impress; and it did impress. Foreign visitors struggled to do justice to the triple pomp of guards and grooms and gold-laced grandees that hedged this man whose Empire stretched from Poland to the Pacific, from the snows of Siberia to the vineyards of the Crimea, and encompassed a sixth of the land surface of the earth. Some thought the Winter Palace baroque, others likened it toa northern edition of the Arabian Nights. All sensed in the autocracy of which it was the symbol a refinement of coercion, the most opulent and at the same time most naked form of power. In the world struggle between freedom and oppression, Russia figured as the beau ideal of government by force.

The Tsar and Tsaritsa opened the ball with a polonaise. When the dance ended, the imperial couple mingled with their guests. Those who had never before attended an imperial ball were startled by the courtesy with which they were received by Their Majesties. A "certain democratic air prevailed," one diplomat thought. The Tsar was determined to put his guests at ease. His manner was amiable, even gentle. Nevertheless, an invisible veil hung about the person of the autocrat. An English visitor, watching the Tsar converse with an ordinary mortal, was reminded of "the Great Mogul addressing an earthworm."

Alexander II was forty-two years old at the beginning of 1861. He had for six years been the supreme ruler of Russia. His upbringing had in many ways fitted him for the exalted station he occupied. His father, Tsar Nicholas I, though of a strong and despotic nature, with acts of blood and cruelty to his name, had nevertheless been a serious and in some directions a large-minded man. The prospect of surpassing other monarchs in the education of an heir had been agreeable to his vanity, and he had taken pains to prepare little Alexander for the throne. The Tsarevitch's tutor, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, had labored to open the boy's mind. In a letter to Alexander's mother, the Empress Alexandra, Zhukovsky described the young Prince as "the beautiful poem on which we are working." To less sympathetic eyes, Alexander appeared in a different light. There "are times," one of his teachers said, "when he can spend an hour or more during which not a single thought will enter his head."

When, at the age of thirty-six, Alexander ascended the throne of his ancestors, many predicted that he would not prosper. "He does not give the idea of having much strength either of intellect or of character," Earl Granville wrote to Queen Victoria shortly after the Tsar's coronation in Moscow. The more superstitious noted how, when Alexander was crowned in the Kremlin, the heavy chain of the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from a pillow and fell to the floor -- an evil omen surely.*

* Did Saint Andrew foretell the sovereign's violent death? During the coronation, in 1896, of Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars, the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from Nicholas's shoulder and fell to the floor. Two decades later he was murdered.

No one knew better than Alexander himself the difficulty of his task. He had inherited from his father power and riches almost fabulous in extent; he was Tsar of all the Russias. But his Empire was troubled. Russia lay at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Over the centuries she had been oppressed by a succession of invaders. Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries a form of authoritarian government took hold in the land. The government of the nation that in time became Russia was modeled partly on the autocratic rule of the Byzantine despots, and partly on the tyrannical forms of the Mongolian Khans. Russia never knew the mixed constitutions which, in the Middle Ages, restrained the authority of the kings of Europe. The subjects of the tsars regarded themselves as "kholops, that is slaves of their Prince," and the tsars, in turn, looked upon the state as their personal patrimony.

Sensible that a nation of slaves will never realize the highest forms of greatness, Peter the Great, who acceded to the throne in 1682, reformed the patrimonial constitution of Russia. But he chose, as his models of civil polity, the régimes which, in France, in Spain, and in Germany, superseded the limited monarchies of the Middle Ages, and erected in their place absolute governments supported by large military establishments. In doing so Peter exchanged one form of despotism for another. Nor was his effort to break with his own patrimonial habits altogether successful. His preferred method was coercion; and in order to break the spirit of those who opposed his reforms, he made liberal use of the ancient implements of despotism, the ax, the wheel, and the stake.

Catherine the Great, who ascended the throne in 1762, relaxed somewhat the servile régime of Peter. Russia ceased, in the waning years of the eighteenth century, to be a slave state. But she did not become a free state. The country suffered from the contradiction. The decaying autocracy, strong enough to overwhelm men's energies, was too weak to suppress their hopes. The people were discontented, but they were no longer abjectly afraid. A crisis, it was evident, could not be far off.

Alexander ascended the throne determined to forestall the catastrophe. But how? Two courses of action presented themselves. One lay in a continuation of the policy of coercion, the other beckoned towards freedom. Free states like England and the United States had, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberated their peoples' energies, and were rapidly outstripping their rivals in trade, in industry, and in the accumulation of capital. Their entrepreneurial creativity produced a series of technological revolutions that were reshaping the world. For a time the institutions of freedom seemed poised to carry all before them. But a countervailing reaction set in. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives. In Russia, in Germany, in America itself, grandees with their backs against the wall met the challenge of liberty with a philosophy of coercion designed to protect their power.

The new philosophy of coercion was founded on two ideas. The first was paternalism, an idea which, in different forms and under various guises, proved to be a potent weapon in the reaction against the free state. Landowners in Russia and in the American South argued that their domestic institutions embodied the paternal principle; the bondsman had, in his master, a compassionate father to look after him, and he was therefore better off than the worker in the cruel world of free labor. In Germany, the most ingenious of the Prussian aristocrats sought to implement a paternal code designed to regulate the masses and make them more subservient to the state. In the new paternal theory of government, the state was to love its subjects as a father loves a child. So Lord Macaulay, the great historian of freedom, wrote. The new paternal régime would "regulate the school, overlook the playground, fix the hours of labour and recreation, prescribe what ballads shall be sung, what tunes shall be played, what books shall be read, what physic shall be swallowed...."

The second idea the grandees lighted on was militant nationalism. Shorn of the romantic rhetoric in which its apologists couched it, this form of nationalism meant the right of certain (superior) peoples to impose their will on other (inferior) peoples. Planters in the American South dreamt of enslaving Central America and the Caribbean. Germany's nationalists aspired to incorporate Danish, French, and Polish provinces in a new German Reich. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, romantic nationalists with Pan-Slav sympathies yearned to rout the Ottoman Turks and impose Russia's will on Byzantium. By creating an enticing jingo-spectacle, the nationalists hoped to divert the imaginations of oppressed populations at home. At the same time, they sought to open new fields of exploitation -- what in Germany came to be called Lebensraum (living space). Not least, the nationalists worked to reinforce racial chauvinism, that convenient prop of the oppressor; they argued that certain races (white, German, Slav) were superior to other races. Militant nationalism, like authoritarian paternalism, rested on the premise that all men are not created equal; some men are more equal than others.

The easiest course for Tsar Alexander would have been to follow the path of coercion. He had only to place himself at the head of the great Slav nation and burnish the messianic eagles Russia had inherited from Byzantium. He could then hope to rout the Turk and seat himself on a golden throne in Sancta Sophia, the jewel of Constantinople...

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Customer Reviews

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I encourage you to pick this book up.
David Roy
Like Lincoln, Bismarck engaged in a project of national consolidation; like Alexander II, Lincoln was a liberator who freed millions of human beings.
This book has a brilliant narrative and I highly recommend to anyone.
Jeremy A. Perron

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Daniel A. Kunesh on December 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Beran convincingly makes the argument that Abraham Lincoln saved the free-state ideal not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world. Alongside his gripping potrayal of the Civil War, Beran carries on a simulaneous dialogue covering the failed free-state "revolution" in Russia, and the expansion of the German "coercive state" that evenutally led to two world wars. All of these tales are interwoven throughout the years 1861-1871. Beran keeps the readers interested by jumping from tale to tale, often making connections between players involved.

I couldn't put the book down. My one complaint is that Beran is not always easy to read. He likes to flourish his writing with colorful, yet obscure references that might well be lost on most readers. While the reading is sometimes slow, I couldn't stop reading. It is a fascinating look at the rebirth of our nation and how, at the same time, Europe was headed in the other direction.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By David Roy on May 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The 1860s 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: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 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 one 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.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Peter Leavitt on August 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Michael Knox Beran has a fine grasp of the forces involved during the period of Lincoln, Alexander, and Bismarck, as well as the springs of their character. One learns a lot about the history of this period of romantic revolution that actually explains much about contemporary times.

Beran, even better than David McCullough, has a masterful gift for narration based on solid, creative scholarship. The book is chalk full of such devastating remarks as:

"That a scion of the [Enlightenment] luminaries should now become a policeman and a torturer might at first seem a historical irony; but the inquisitorial vocation comes easily to those who have embraced Voltaire's faith in the virtues of enlightened despotism."

It's interesting that Beran, a lawyer, is sensibly not involved professionally in the coils of sterile academia, though he has a solid background at Groton, Columbia, Cambridge, and Yale law.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Machiavelli on March 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Creating an American historical narrative that integrates events and ideas into the broader global story is the most urgent task facing American historians today. Forge of Empires is a substantial contribution to this emerging literature and deserves the close attention of every student of American affairs and of every working historian. Beran combines vast erudition and great narrative gifts to create a mosaic that not only illuminates the stories of the statesmen he follows (Abraham Lincoln, Otto von Bismarck, Tsar Alexander II, and, to a lesser degree, Napoleon III) but also provides readers with new insights into the ways world events affected the United States. Beran's narrative strategy is a gamble that pays off. Sweeping pictures emerge from short mini-narratives that function like pebbles in a mosaic -- or like the dramatic brushstrokes of the impressionist painters active in the era he so brilliantly portrays. Like Lincoln, Bismarck engaged in a project of national consolidation; like Alexander II, Lincoln was a liberator who freed millions of human beings. In Beran's skilled hands, the similarities and differences between the situations these statesmen faced and the consequences of their decisions gradually build up to form a revealing and insightful portrait of a vital historical era that will increase American readers' understanding of the relationship between U.S. domestic history and events in the rest of the world.
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