Breadth

The Germans missed it. So did the Italians and Belgians.

The Italians made a half-baked attempt by invading Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) and establishing a mini-empire, while the Belgians couldn’t agree at all on a colonial policy, so Leopold II took it upon himself to establish a personal empire in the Congo—a truly bloodthirsty and vile affair that resulted in fifteen million deaths.

The Germans also missed the boat. Kaiser Wilhelm made a last-ditch effort to obtain an empire, at a time when the colonial world was already carved up between the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese—together, these nations controlled all of Asia, Africa, and South America.

More mature readers of these pages will remember seeing this kind of map (dated 1910) on the wall of the classroom.

One hundred ten years ago, the world was a vastly different place. At the start of the XXth century, the combined population of Britain (40 million), France (39 million), Spain (19 million), Holland (5 million), and Portugal (5 million) was 108 million people—together, they ruled over empires with five times that number of people.

Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a couple of aces short of a full deck, desperately wanted empire—the Germans ended up with Tanganyika and Namibia, and they also secured the city of Qingdao, in NE China. The present-day consequence for the Middle Kingdom is TsingTao (which is just an alternate spelling for Qingdao, or Green Island) beer—China’s best beer, made in the classic pilsner tradition.

There’s quite a lot of evidence that Wilhelm was as gay as a Mexican handbag; in addition, he was obsessed with uniforms, dressing up as a British admiral whenever he ate plum pudding. The Kaiser loved pranks—a favorite was smacking men on the butt, often with the flat of his sword, an indignity suffered by the tsar of Bulgaria.

His sycophants dreamed up all kinds of stuff to entertain him, including my favorite—his military cabinet chief dressed up in a pink tutu, performed a dance for the emperor, and promptly died of a heart attack in front of him.

The most obvious reason why Germans and Italians missed the boat when it came to empire-building was their own internal (dis)organization—both territories were a fragmented arrangement of city-states and regional fiefdoms. Collectively, the German states were known since the time of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Empire, but by the late XVIIIth century, Voltaire noted it was neither holy, Roman, or an empire.

From 1862 onward, Bismarck used three wars to unify the country, ending with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870—the conflict with the French was a precursor of World War I. The fragmentation of Germany made it miss the empire-building stage other European nations embarked on, starting with the Portuguese in the XVth century.

As a result, Germany invested in other things—apart from coal, Prussia didn’t have a wealth of natural resources, so it turned to infrastructure, education, engineering, and science. These became national priorities, and led to key initiatives such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. These institutes were independent from the state, and led by names such as Einstein, Haber, and Hahn—all of them Nobel Prize winners.

During the First World War, Haber, who was Jewish, became infamous for his work on poison gases—he was the first to use chlorine against Allied troops in the trenches.

But Fritz Haber’s real achievement was the development of a process to make ammonia from the air that we breathe—in particular from the eighty percent of that air that is composed of the inert gas nitrogen.

All these guys have two things in common—crazy mustaches and absolute genius. Marie Curie is the one without the facial hair. Other names include Nernst, Solvay, Lorentz, Poincaré, Planck, de Broglie, Rutherford, and Einstein. The meeting took place at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels, my personal favorite.

Prior to Haber’s success, which led to the huge expansion of the German company BASF, and the building of huge factories to apply the Haber-Bosch process, soil could only be fertilized with nitrogen from organic sources such as manure, and extracted from deposits of saltpeter, guano, and other materials.

As intensive agriculture developed to accompany the growth of world population through the second half of the XIXth century, so the land became progressively more barren as the nutrients within became depleted—the use of cover crops, rotation, and other traditional approaches just wasn’t sufficient to produce the volume of food required.

Wars were fought in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile over the nitrate mines, and places like the Atacama desert were the stuff of boom and bust economies, drawing engineers, prospectors, miners, carpetbaggers, saloons, and whorehouses in the best tradition of the Klondike.

German science, spurred on by the creation and national support of large research institutes, and their close connection to the industrial heartland of the new nation, is responsible for giving us the key for turning breath into bread.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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