- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

Abraham Lincoln is rightly revered as both a great liberator and a great statesman. While his efforts to expand freedom have received considerable study and acclaim, they have sometimes eclipsed the important work done by other leaders during that era.

“Forge Of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made” is an ambitious attempt to close that knowledge gap. By studying the lives and careers of Lincoln, Russian Tsar Alexander II and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Michael Knox Beran analyzes the ideas and events that shaped the spread of freedom during that seminal period of world history. His portraits of all these leaders are balanced, though he clearly is a bigger fan of Lincoln than of the others.

This prodigiously researched and well-written book is an engaging vehicle through which to learn a vast amount of political and cultural information. Though the study of history often involves swallowing literary medicine, Mr. Beran, a lawyer and independent scholar, includes some sugar. Tales of political infighting and military maneuvers are interspersed with descriptions of important books and musical compositions by men such as Leo Tolstoy, Richard Wagner and Walt Whitman. We are also treated to some juicy gossip about private lives of the leaders of that era.

Tsar Alexander’s freeing of the serfs and his liberalization of the Russian legal system were important steps in moving that society ahead, even though his efforts were at times undermined by his reactionary underlings and by cultural traditions. Mr. Beran’s narrative does a great job at contextualizing the obstacles to reform.

“In 1861 the secular ideals of Alexander’s liberal revolution collided with the millennial aspirations of ‘Holy Rus.’ To a peasant who believed that he was living on the verge of paradise, the Tsar’s liberal revolution was incomprehensible,” he writes.

Bismarck’s military and political maneuverings to unify the German empire and his domestic reforms (he created the model for Social Security) set the stage for that nation’s strong position on the world stage during the next several decades. He was imperious and paternalistic and often tempered the excesses of others.

Consider Mr. Beran’s description of the chancellor’s thought process while devising a strategy for punishing the French after their defeat in the 1870 war that helped unify Germany and strengthen its empire. Mr. Bismarck split the difference between his own instincts to go easy and his military’s desire to punish the losers.

“They must drink of the vinum daemonium [wine of the demons]. They need not drain the cup — if they did, they would invite European retribution. But if their revolution were to succeed, they would not suffer it to pass untasted,” he writes.

This is one of several passages in which the author’s gift of descriptiveness borders on, and sometimes spills into, overwriting and an attempt to show off his intellectual prowess. Mr. Beran is such a talented scholar and writer that he need not have made his prose so precious.

As for the section on Mr. Lincoln, one almost feels sorry for anyone tackling that subject. The Civil War and Reconstruction have been discussed so extensively that one is reminded of the adage that “everything that can be said, has been said, just not everyone has said it.” With that caveat, Mr. Beran has done an admirable job of synthesizing information elegantly handled in works such as James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” and Doris Kearns “Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.”

Mr. Beran does, however, find some areas on which to shine a brighter light. An especially interesting section is the discussion of Mr. Lincoln’s relationship with Tsar Alexander. Russia was the only major foreign country that backed the North during the Civil War, and the Tsar took some risks in doing so.

“While England and France found ways to encourage the South, Alexander was true to his word: he steadfastly supported the Union,” Mr. Beran writes. “The enemy of my enemy, the Tsar reasoned, is my friend.”

Those kinds of descriptions and analyses make “Forge Of Empires” a joy to read and a valuable way to learn about events that are still shaping the world’s political culture.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist and author of a chapter on media and politics in the recently published book “The Sixth-Year Itch,” edited by Larry Sabato.

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