German Empire

German Empire


The German Empire was the historical German
nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 to the defeat in World
War I in 1918, when Germany became a federal republic. The state was the predecessor of
today’s Germany. The Empire is sometimes called the German Reich.
The German Empire consisted of 27 constituent territories. While the Kingdom of Prussia
contained most of the population and most of the territory of the Reich, the Prussian
leadership became supplanted by German leaders and Prussia itself played a lesser role. As
Dwyer points out, Prussia’s “political and cultural influence had diminished considerably”
by the 1890s. Its three largest neighbours were rivals: first the Imperial Russia to
the east, secondly France to the west and thirdly ally Austria-Hungary to the south.
Germany industrialized rapidly after 1850, with a foundation in coal, iron, chemicals
and railways. From a population of 41 million people in 1871, it grew to 68 million in 1913.
From a heavily rural nation in 1815, it was now predominantly urban. During its 47 years
of existence, the German Empire operated as an industrial, technological and scientific
giant, receiving more Nobel Prizes in science than Britain, France, Russia and the United
States combined. It became a great power, boasting a rapidly
growing rail network, the world’s strongest army, and a fast-growing industrial base.
Its navy went from being negligible to second only behind the Royal Navy in less than a
decade. After the removal of the powerful Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890, the
young Emperor Wilhelm II engaged in increasingly reckless foreign policies that left the Empire
isolated. Its network of small colonies in Africa and the Pacific paled in comparison
to the British and French empires, and only a small number became profitable. When the
great crisis of 1914 arrived, it had only two weak allies, the Austro-Hungarian and
Ottoman Empires, later joined by Bulgaria. In World War I, German plans to quickly capture
Paris in autumn 1914 failed and the Western Front became a stalemate. The Allied naval
blockade made for increasing shortages of food, and Germany was repeatedly forced to
send troops to bolster Austria and Turkey on other fronts. However, Germany had great
success on the Eastern Front; as a result of the Communists’ determination to end Russian
involvement in World War I, it carved out large Eastern territories following the Treaty
of Brest-Litovsk. German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 was designed
to strangle the British; it failed because of the use of a trans-Atlantic convoy system.
But the declaration – along with the Zimmermann Telegram – did bring the United States into
the war, with its large reserves of money, food, armaments and soldiers. Meanwhile German
civilians and soldiers had become radicalised by the Russian Revolution. The high command
under Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff increasingly controlled the Reich as they
gambled on one last offensive in spring 1918 using large numbers of troops and guns withdrawn
from the Eastern Front. It failed and by October the armies had been in retreat since August,
the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire had collapsed, and the German people
had lost faith in the political system. The Empire collapsed overnight in the November
1918 Revolution as all the royals abdicated and a republic took over. Background The German Confederation was created by an
act of the Congress of Vienna on 8 June 1815 as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, after
being alluded to in Article 6 of the 1814 Treaty of Paris.
German nationalism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848,
called Pan-Germanism, to Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck’s pragmatic Realpolitik.
Bismarck sought to extend Hohenzollern hegemony throughout the German states; to do so meant
unification of the German states and the elimination of Prussia’s rival, Austria, from the subsequent
empire. He envisioned a conservative, Prussian-dominated Germany. Three wars led to military successes
and helped to persuade German people to do this: the Second war of Schleswig against
Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War against
France in 1870–71. The German Confederation ended as a result
of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 between the constituent Confederation entities of
the Austrian Empire and its allies on one side and the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies
on the other. The war resulted in the Confederation being partially replaced by a North German
Confederation in 1867 which included Prussia but excluded Austria and the South German
states. During November 1870 the four southern states joined the North German Confederation
by treaty. Foundation of the Empire
On 10 December 1870 the North German Confederation Reichstag renamed the Confederation as the
German Empire and gave the title of German Emperor to the King of Prussia as President
of the Confederation. During the Siege of Paris on 18 January 1871, King Wilhelm I of
Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. The 1871 German Constitution was adopted by
the Reichstag on 14 April 1871 and proclaimed by the Emperor on 16 April, which was substantially
based upon Bismarck’s North German Constitution. The new empire had a parliament called the
Reichstag, which was elected by universal male suffrage. However, the original constituencies
drawn in 1871 were never redrawn to reflect the growth of urban areas. As a result, by
the time of the great expansion of German cities in the 1890s and first decade of the
20th century, rural areas were grossly overrepresented. Legislation also required the consent of the
Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the 27 states. Executive power was vested
in the emperor, or Kaiser, who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. The
emperor was given extensive powers by the constitution. He alone appointed and dismissed
the chancellor, was supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces, final arbiter of all
foreign affairs, and could also disband the Reichstag to call for new elections. Officially,
the chancellor was a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs;
in practice, the State Secretaries acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. The Reichstag
had the power to pass, amend or reject bills and to initiate legislation. However, as mentioned
above, in practice the real power was vested in the emperor, who exercised it through his
chancellor. Although nominally a league of equals, in
practice the empire was dominated by the largest and most powerful state, Prussia. It stretched
across the northern two thirds of the new Reich, and contained three fifths of its population.
The imperial crown was hereditary in the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling house of Prussia.
With the exception of the years 1872–1873 and 1892–1894, the chancellor was always
simultaneously the prime minister of Prussia. With 17 out of 58 votes in the Bundesrat,
Berlin needed only a few votes from the small states to exercise effective control.
The other states retained their own governments, but had only limited aspects of sovereignty.
For example, both postage stamps and currency were issued for the empire as a whole. Coins
through one mark was also minted in the name of the empire, while higher valued pieces
were issued by the states. But these larger gold and silver issues were virtually commemorative
coins and had limited circulation. While the states issued their own decorations,
and some had their own armies, the military forces of the smaller ones were put under
Prussian control. Those of the larger states, such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony,
were coordinated along Prussian principles and would in wartime be controlled by the
federal government. The evolution of the German Empire is somewhat
in line with parallel developments in Italy which became a united nation state shortly
before the German Empire. Some key elements of the German Empire’s authoritarian political
structure were also the basis for conservative modernization in Imperial Japan under Meiji
and the preservation of an authoritarian political structure under the Tsars in the Russian Empire.
One factor in the social anatomy of these governments had been the retention of a very
substantial share in political power by the landed elite, the Junkers, resulting from
the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban
areas. Although authoritarian in many respects, the
empire had some democratic features. Besides universal suffrage, it permitted the development
of political parties. Bismarck’s intention was to create a constitutional façade which
would mask the continuation of authoritarian policies. In the process, he created a system
with a serious flaw. There was a significant disparity between the Prussian and German
electoral systems. Prussia used a highly restrictive three-class voting system in which the richest
third of the population could choose 85% of the legislature, all but assuring a conservative
majority. As mentioned above, the king and the prime minister of Prussia were also the
emperor and chancellor of the empire – meaning that the same rulers had to seek majorities
from legislatures elected from completely different franchises. As mentioned above,
rural areas were grossly overrepresented from the 1890s onward.
Industrial power For 30 years, Germany struggled against Britain
to be Europe’s leading industrial power, though both fell behind the United States. Representative
of Germany’s industry was the steel giant Krupp, whose first factory was built in Essen.
By 1902, the factory alone became “A great city with its own streets, its own police
force, fire department and traffic laws. There are 150 kilometres of rail, 60 different factory
buildings, 8,500 machine tools, seven electrical stations, 140 kilometres of underground cable
and 46 overhead.” Under Bismarck, Germany was a world innovator
in building the welfare state. German workers enjoyed health, accident and maternity benefits,
canteens, changing rooms and a national pension scheme.
Constituent states Before unification, German territory was made
up of 27 constituent states. These states consisted of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies,
principalities, free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory. The free cities had
a republican form of government on the state level, even though the Empire at large was
constituted as a monarchy, and so were most of the states. The Kingdom of Prussia was
the largest of the constituent states, covering some 60% of the territory of the German Empire.
Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman
Empire. Others were created as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Territories
were not necessarily contiguous – many existed in several parts, as a result of historical
acquisition, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling family trees. Some of the existing
states, in particular Hanover, were abolished and annexed by Prussia as a result of the
war of 1866. Each component of the German Empire sent representatives
to the Federal Council and, via single member districts, the Imperial Diet. Relations between
the Imperial centre and the Empire’s components were somewhat fluid, and were developed on
an ongoing basis. The extent to which the Emperor could, for example, intervene on occasions
of disputed or unclear succession was much debated on occasion – for example with the
Lippe-Detmold inheritance crisis. Linguistic minorities About 92% of the population spoke German as
their first language. The only minority language with a significant number of speakers was
Polish. The non-German Germanic languages language
group like Danish, Dutch and Frisian were located in the north and northwest of the
empire, near the borders with Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Low
German was spoken throughout northern Germany and, though linguistically as separate from
High German as from Dutch and English, is considered “German”, hence also its name.
Danish and Frisian were spoken predominantly in the north of the Prussian province of Schleswig-Holstein
and Dutch in the western border areas of Prussia. Polish and other Slavic languages were spoken
chiefly in the east. A few spoke French, especially in the Reichsland
Elsass-Lothringen, where French-speakers formed 11.6% of the total population. Bismarck era Bismarck’s domestic policies played an important
role in forging the authoritarian political culture of the Kaiserreich. Less preoccupied
by continental power politics following unification in 1871, Germany’s semi-parliamentary government
carried out a relatively smooth economic and political revolution from above that pushed
them along the way towards becoming the world’s leading industrial power of the time.
Foreign policy Bismarck’s post-1871 foreign policy was conservative
and sought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. His biggest concern was France,
which was left defeated and resentful after the Franco-Prussian War. As the French lacked
the strength to defeat Germany by themselves, they sought an alliance with Russia, which
would trap Germany between the two in a war. Bismarck wanted to prevent this at all costs
and maintain friendly relations with the Russians, and thereby formed an alliance with them and
Austria-Hungary, the Dreikaiserbund. During this period, individuals within the German
military were advocating a preemptive strike against Russia, but Bismarck knew that such
ideas were foolhardy. He once wrote that “the most brilliant victories would not avail against
the Russian nation, because of its climate, its desert, and its frugality, and having
but one frontier to defend,” and because it would leave Germany with another bitter, resentful
neighbor. Bismarck once contrasted his nation’s foreign policy difficulties with the easy
situation of the U.S., saying “The Americans are a very lucky people. They’re bordered
to the north and south by weak neighbors, and to the east and west by fish.”
Meanwhile, the chancellor remained wary of any foreign policy developments that looked
even remotely warlike. In 1886, he moved to stop an attempted sale of horses to France
on the grounds that they might be used for cavalry and also ordered an investigation
into large Russian purchases of medicine from a German chemical works. Bismarck stubbornly
refused to listen to Georg Herbert zu Munster, who reported back that the French were not
seeking a revanchist war, and in fact were desperate for peace at all costs.
Bismarck and most of his contemporaries were conservative-minded and focused their foreign
policy attention on Germany’s neighboring states. In 1914, 60% of German foreign investment
was in Europe, as opposed to just 5% of British investment. Most of the money went to developing
nations such as Russia that lacked the capital or technical knowledge to industrialize on
their own. The construction of the Baghdad Railway, financed by German banks, was designed
to eventually connect Germany with the Turkish Empire and the Persian Gulf, but it also collided
with British and Russian geopolitical interests. Colonies Bismarck secured a number of German colonial
possessions during the 1880s in Africa and the Pacific, but he never considered an overseas
colonial empire valuable; Germany’s colonies remained badly undeveloped. However they excited
the interest of the religious-minded, who supported an extensive network of missionaries.
Germans had dreamed of colonial imperialism since 1848. Bismarck began the process, and
by 1884 had acquired German New Guinea. By the 1890s, German colonial expansion in Asia
and the Pacific led to frictions with Britain, Russia, Japan and the U.S. The largest colonial
enterprises were in Africa, where the extermination of the Nama and Herero in what is now Namibia
in 1906–07 led to Herero and Namaqua Genocide Economy
Railways Lacking a technological base at first, the
Germans imported their engineering and hardware from Britain, but quickly learned the skills
needed to operate and expand the railways. In many cities, the new railway shops were
the centres of technological awareness and training, so that by 1850, Germany was self-sufficient
in meeting the demands of railroad construction, and the railways were a major impetus for
the growth of the new steel industry. However, German unification in 1870 stimulated consolidation,
nationalisation into state-owned companies, and further rapid growth. Unlike the situation
in France, the goal was support of industrialisation, and so heavy lines crisscrossed the Ruhr and
other industrial districts, and provided good connections to the major ports of Hamburg
and Bremen. By 1880, Germany had 9,400 locomotives pulling 43,000 passengers and 30,000 tons
of freight, and forged ahead of France. The total length of German railroad tracks expanded
from 21,000 kilometers in 1871 to 63,000 kilometres by 1913, establishing the largest rail network
in the world after the United States, and effectively surpassing the 32,000 kilometers
of rail that connected Britain in the same year. Industry
Industrialisation progressed dynamically in Germany and German manufacturers began to
capture domestic markets from British imports, and also to compete with British industry
abroad, particularly in the U.S. The German textiles and metal industries had by 1870
surpassed those of Britain in organisation and technical efficiency and superseded British
manufacturers in the domestic market. Germany became the dominant economic power on the
continent and was the second largest exporting nation after Britain.
Technological progress during German industrialisation occurred in four waves: the railway wave,
the dye wave, the chemical wave, and the wave of electrical engineering. Since Germany industrialised
later than Britain, it was able to model its factories after those of Britain, thus making
more efficient use of its capital and avoiding legacy methods in its leap to the envelope
of technology. Germany invested more heavily than the British in research, especially in
chemistry, motors and electricity. Germany’s dominance in physics and chemistry was such
that one-third of all Nobel Prizes went to German inventors and researchers.
The German cartel system, being significantly concentrated, was able to make more efficient
use of capital. Germany was not weighted down with an expensive worldwide empire that needed
defense. Following Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it absorbed parts
of what had been France’s industrial base. By 1900, the German chemical industry dominated
the world market for synthetic dyes. The three major firms BASF, Bayer and Hoechst produced
several hundred different dyes, along with the five smaller firms. In 1913, these eight
firms produced almost 90% of the world supply of dyestuffs and sold about 80% of their production
abroad. The three major firms had also integrated upstream into the production of essential
raw materials and they began to expand into other areas of chemistry such as pharmaceuticals,
photographic film, agricultural chemicals and electrochemicals. Top-level decision-making
was in the hands of professional salaried managers; leading Chandler to call the German
dye companies “the world’s first truly managerial industrial enterprises”. There were many spinoffs
from research—such as the pharmaceutical industry, which emerged from chemical research.
By the start of World War I, German industry switched to war production. The heaviest demands
were on coal and steel for artillery and shell production, and on chemicals for the synthesis
of materials that were subject to import restrictions and for chemical weapons and war supplies.
Consolidation The creation of the Empire under Prussian
leadership was a victory for the concept of Kleindeutschland over the Großdeutschland
concept. This meant that Austria-Hungary, a multi-ethnic Empire with a considerable
German-speaking population, would remain outside of the German nationstate. Bismarck’s policy
was to pursue a solution diplomatically. The effective alliance between Germany and Austria
played a major role in Germany’s decision to enter World War I in 1914.
Bismarck announced there would be no more territorial additions to Germany in Europe,
and his diplomacy after 1871 was focused on stabilizing the European system and preventing
any wars. He succeeded, and only after his ouster in 1890 did the diplomatic tensions
start rising again. Social issues
After achieving formal unification in 1871, Bismarck devoted much of his attention to
the cause of national unity under the ideology of Prussianism. He opposed conservative Catholic
activism and emancipation, especially the powers of the Vatican under Pope Pius IX,
and working class radicalism, represented by the emerging Social Democratic Party.
Kulturkampf Prussia in 1871 included 16,000,000 Protestants,
both Reformed and Lutheran, and 8,000,000 Catholics. Most people were generally segregated
into their own religious worlds, living in rural districts or city neighborhoods that
were overwhelmingly of the same religion, and sending their children to separate public
schools where their religion was taught. There was little interaction or intermarriage. On
the whole, the Protestants had a higher social status, and the Catholics were more likely
to be peasant farmers or unskilled or semiskilled industrial workers. In 1870, the Catholics
formed their own political party, the Centre Party, which generally supported unification
and most of Bismarck’s policies. However, Bismarck distrusted parliamentary democracy
in general and opposition parties in particular, especially when the Centre Party showed signs
of gaining support among dissident elements such as the Polish Catholics in Silesia. A
powerful intellectual force of the time was anti-Catholicism, led by the liberal intellectuals
who formed a vital part of Bismarck’s coalition. They saw the Catholic Church as a powerful
force of reaction and anti-modernity, especially after the proclamation of papal infallibility
in 1870, and the tightening control of the Vatican over the local bishops.
The Kulturkampf launched by Bismarck 1871–1880 affected Prussia; although there were similar
movements in Baden and Hesse, the rest of Germany was not affected. According to the
new imperial constitution, the states were in charge of religious and educational affairs;
they funded the Protestant and Catholic schools. In July 1871 Bismarck abolished the Catholic
section of the Prussian Ministry of ecclesiastical and educational affairs, depriving Catholics
of their voice at the highest level. The system of strict government supervision of schools
was applied only in Catholic areas; the Protestant schools were left alone.
Much more serious were the May laws of 1873. One made the appointment of any priest dependent
on his attendance at a German university, as opposed to the seminaries that the Catholics
typically used. Furthermore, all candidates for the ministry had to pass an examination
in German culture before a state board which weeded out intransigent Catholics. Another
provision gave the government a veto power over most church activities. A second law
abolished the jurisdiction of the Vatican over the Catholic Church in Prussia; its authority
was transferred to a government body controlled by Protestants.
Nearly all German bishops, clergy, and laymen rejected the legality of the new laws, and
were defiant in the face of heavier and heavier penalties and imprisonments imposed by Bismarck’s
government. By 1876, all the Prussian bishops were imprisoned or in exile, and a third of
the Catholic parishes were without a priest. In the face of systematic defiance, the Bismarck
government increased the penalties and its attacks, and were challenged in 1875 when
a papal encyclical declared the whole ecclesiastical legislation of Prussia was invalid, and threatened
to excommunicate any Catholic who obeyed. There was no violence, but the Catholics mobilized
their support, set up numerous civic organizations, raised money to pay fines, and rallied behind
their church and the Centre Party. The government had set up an “Old-Catholic Church,” which
attracted only a few thousand members. Bismarck, a devout pietistic Protestant, realized his
Kulturkampf was backfiring when secular and socialist elements used the opportunity to
attack all religion. In the long run, the most significant result was the mobilization
of the Catholic voters, and their insistence on protecting their religious identity. In
the elections of 1874, the Centre party doubled its popular vote, and became the second-largest
party in the national parliament—and remained a powerful force for the next 60 years, so
that after Bismarck it became difficult to form a government without their support.
Social reform Bismarck built on a tradition of welfare programs
in Prussia and Saxony that began as early as in the 1840s. In the 1880s he introduced
old-age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance that formed
the basis of the modern European welfare state. He came to realize that this sort of policy
was very appealing, since it bound workers to the state, and also fit in very well with
his authoritarian nature. The social security systems installed by Bismarck at the time
were the largest in the world and, to a degree, still exist in Germany today.
Bismarck’s paternalistic programs won the support of German industry because its goals
were to win the support of the working classes for the Empire and reduce the outflow of immigrants
to America, where wages were higher but welfare did not exist. Bismarck further won the support
of both industry and skilled workers by his high tariff policies, which protected profits
and wages from American competition, although they alienated the liberal intellectuals who
wanted free trade. Germanisation
One of the effects of the unification policies was the gradually increasing tendency to eliminate
the use of non-German languages in public life, schools and academic settings with the
intent of pressuring the non-German population to abandon their national identity in what
was called “Germanisation”. These policies had often the reverse effect of stimulating
resistance, usually in the form of home schooling and tighter unity in the minority groups,
especially the Poles. The Germanization policies were targeted particularly
against the significant Polish minority of the empire, gained by Prussia in the Partitions
of Poland. Poles were treated as an ethnic minority even where they made up the majority,
as in the Province of Posen, where a series of anti-Polish measures was enforced. Numerous
anti-Polish laws had no great effect especially in the province of Posen where the German-speaking
population dropped from 42.8% in 1871 to 38.1% in 1905, despite all efforts.
Antisemitism Antisemitism was an endemic problem in Germany.
Before Napoleon’s decrees ended the ghettos in Germany, it had been religiously motivated,
but by the 19th century, it was a factor in German nationalism. The last legal barriers
on Jews in Prussia were lifted by the 1860s, and within 20 years, they were well represented
in the white-collar professions and much of academia. Despite the often crude antisemitism
of German elites, many of them utilized the services of Jews, such as Bismarck’s banker
Gerson Bleichroder. In the popular mind Jews became a symbol of capitalism and modernity,
two things that were resented by the Prussian aristocracy, who were finding their power
and prestige rapidly diminished in the new, unified Germany. On the other hand, the constitution
and legal system protected the rights of Jews as German citizens. Antisemitic parties were
formed but soon collapsed. Law
Bismarck’s efforts also initiated the levelling of the enormous differences between the German
states, which had been independent in their evolution for centuries, especially with legislation.
The completely different legal histories and judicial systems posed enormous complications,
especially for national trade. While a common trade code had already been introduced by
the Confederation in 1861, there was little similarity in laws otherwise.
In 1871, a common Criminal Code was introduced; in 1877, common court procedures were established
in the court system, civil procedures and criminal procedures. In 1873 the constitution
was amended to allow the Empire to replace the various and greatly differing Civil Codes
of the states. In 1881, a first commission was established to produce a common Civil
Code for all of the Empire, an enormous effort that would produce the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch,
possibly one of the most impressive legal works of the world; it was eventually put
into effect on 1 January 1900. It speaks volumes for the conceptual quality of these codifications
that they all, albeit with many amendments, are still in effect today.
Constitution The Empire’s constitution was based on two
houses of Parliament, the Bundesrat and the Reichstag. There was universal male suffrage
for the Reichstag, however legislation would have to pass both houses. The Bundesrat contained
representatives of the states, in which the voting system was based on classes and wealth.
This meant that wealthier classes always had a veto over any legislation.
Year of three emperors On 9 March 1888, Wilhelm I died shortly before
his 91st birthday, leaving his son Frederick III as the new emperor. Frederick was a liberal
and an admirer of the British constitution, while his links to Britain strengthened further
with his marriage to Princess Victoria, eldest child of Queen Victoria. With his ascent to
the throne, many hoped that Frederick’s reign would lead to a liberalisation of the Reich
and an increase of parliament’s influence on the political process. The dismissal of
Robert von Puttkamer, the highly-conservative Prussian interior minister, on 8 June was
a sign of the expected direction and a blow to Bismarck’s administration.
By the time of his accession, however, Frederick had developed incurable laryngeal cancer,
which had been diagnosed in 1887. He died on the 99th day of his rule, on 15 June 1888.
His son Wilhelm II became emperor. Wilhelmine era
Reaffirmation of prerogative monarchy, and Bismarck’s resignation Wilhelm II sought to reassert his ruling prerogatives
at a time when other monarchs in Europe were being transformed into constitutional figureheads.
This decision led the ambitious Kaiser into conflict with Bismarck. The old chancellor
had hoped to guide Wilhelm as he had guided his grandfather, but the emperor wanted to
be the master in his own house and had many sycophants telling him that Frederick the
Great would not have been great with a Bismarck at his side. A key difference between Wilhelm
II and Bismarck was their approaches to handling political crises, especially in 1889, when
German coal miners went on strike in Upper Silesia. Bismarck demanded that the German
Army be sent in to crush the strike, but Wilhelm II rejected this authoritarian measure, responding
“I do not wish to stain my reign with the blood of my subjects.” Instead of condoning
repression, Wilhelm had the government negotiate with a delegation from the coal miners, which
brought the strike to an end without violence. The fractious relationship ended in March
1890, after Wilhelm II and Bismarck quarrelled, and the chancellor resigned days later. Bismarck’s
last few years had seen power slip from his hands as he grew older, more irritable, more
authoritarian, and less focused. German politics had become progressively more chaotic, and
the chancellor understood this better than anyone. But unlike Wilhelm II and his generation,
Bismarck knew well that an ungovernable country with an adventurous foreign policy was a recipe
for disaster. With Bismarck’s departure, Wilhelm II became
the dominant ruler of Germany. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm I, who had been largely
content to leave government affairs to the chancellor, Wilhelm II wanted to be fully
informed and actively involved in running Germany, not an ornamental figurehead, although
most Germans found his claims of divine right to rule amusing. Wilhelm allowed politician
Walther Rathenau to tutor him in European economics and industrial and financial realities
in Europe. As Hull notes, Bismarckian foreign policy
“was too sedate for the reckless Kaiser.” Wilhelm became internationally notorious for
his aggressive stance on foreign policy and his strategic blunders, which pushed the German
Empire into growing political isolation and eventually helped to cause World War I.
Domestic affairs Under Wilhelm II, Germany no longer had long-ruling
strong chancellors like Bismarck. The new chancellors had difficulty in performing their
roles, especially the additional role as Prime Minister of Prussia assigned to them in the
German Constitution. The reforms of Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, which liberalized trade and
so reduced unemployment, were supported by the Kaiser and most Germans except for Prussian
landowners, who feared loss of land and power and launched several campaigns against the
reforms. While Prussian aristocrats challenged the
demands of a united German state, in the 1890s several organizations were set up to challenge
the authoritarian conservative Prussian militarism which was being imposed on the country. Educators
opposed to the German state-run schools, which emphasized military education, set up their
own independent liberal schools, which encouraged individuality and freedom. However nearly
all the schools in Imperial Germany had a very high standard and kept abreast with modern
developments in knowledge. Artists began experimental art in opposition
to Kaiser Wilhelm’s support for traditional art, to which Wilhelm responded “art which
transgresses the laws and limits laid down by me can no longer be called art […].” It
was largely thanks to Wilhelm’s influence that most printed material in Germany used
blackletter instead of the Roman type used in the rest of Western Europe. At the same
time, a new generation of cultural creators emerged.
From the 1890s onwards, the most effective opposition to the monarchy came from the newly
formed Social Democratic Party of Germany, which advocated Marxism. The threat of the
SPD to the German monarchy and industrialists caused the state both to crack down on the
party’s supporters and to implement its own programme of social reform to soothe discontent.
Germany’s large industries provided significant social welfare programmes and good care to
their employees, as long as they were not identified as socialists or trade-union members.
The larger industrial firms provided pensions, sickness benefits and even housing to their
employees. Having learned from the failure of Bismarck’s
Kulturkampf, Wilhelm II maintained good relations with the Roman Catholic Church and concentrated
on opposing socialism. This policy failed when the Social Democrats won ⅓ of the votes
in the 1912 elections to the Reichstag, and became the largest political party in Germany.
The government remained in the hands of a succession of conservative coalitions supported
by right-wing liberals or Catholic clerics and heavily dependent on the Kaiser’s favour.
The rising militarism under Wilhelm II caused many Germans to emigrate to the U.S. and the
British colonies to escape mandatory military service.
During World War I, the Kaiser increasingly devolved his powers to the leaders of the
German High Command, particularly future President of Germany, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg
and Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff. Hindenburg took over the role of commander–in–chief
from the Kaiser, while Ludendorff became de facto general chief of staff. By 1916, Germany
was effectively a military dictatorship run by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, with the Kaiser
reduced to a mere figurehead. Foreign affairs Wilhelm II wanted Germany to have her “place
in the sun,” like Britain, which he constantly wished to emulate or rival. With German traders
and merchants already active worldwide, he encouraged colonial efforts in Africa and
the Pacific, causing the German Empire to vie with other European powers for remaining
“unclaimed” territories. With the encouragement or at least the acquiescence of Britain, which
at this stage saw Germany as a counterweight to her old rival France, Germany acquired
German Southwest Africa, German Kamerun, Togoland and German East Africa. Islands were gained
in the Pacific through purchase and treaties and also a 99-year lease for the territory
of Kiautschou in northeast China. But of these German colonies only Togoland and German Samoa
became self-sufficient and profitable; all the others required subsidies from the Berlin
treasury for building infrastructure, school systems, hospitals and other institutions.
Bismarck had originally dismissed the agitation for colonies with contempt; he favoured a
Eurocentric foreign policy, as the treaty arrangements made during his tenure in office
show. As a latecomer to colonization, Germany repeatedly came into conflict with the established
colonial powers and also with the United States, which opposed German attempts at colonial
expansion in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. Native insurrections in German territories
received prominent coverage in other countries, especially in Britain; the established powers
had dealt with such uprisings decades earlier, often brutally, and had secured firm control
of their colonies by then. The Boxer Rising in China, which the Chinese government eventually
sponsored, began in the Shandong province, in part because Germany, as colonizer at Kiautschou,
was an untested power and had only been active there for two years. Eight western nations,
including the United States, mounted a joint relief force to rescue westerners caught up
in the rebellion; and during the departure ceremonies for the German contingent, Wilhelm
II urged them to behave like the Hun invaders of continental Europe – an unfortunate remark
that would later be resurrected by British propagandists to paint Germans as barbarians
during World War I and World War II. On two occasions, a French-German conflict over the
fate of Morocco seemed inevitable. Upon acquiring Southwest Africa, German settlers
were encouraged to cultivate land held by the Herero and Nama. Herero and Nama tribal
lands were used for a variety of exploitive goals, including farming, ranching, and mining
for minerals and diamonds. In 1904, the Herero and the Nama revolted against the colonists
in Southwest Africa, killing farm families, their laborers and servants. In response to
the attacks, troops were dispatched to quell the uprising which then resulted in the Herero
and Namaqua Genocide. In total, some 65,000 Herero, and 10,000 Nama perished. The commander
of the punitive expedition, General Lothar von Trotha, was eventually relieved and reprimanded
for his usurpation of orders and the cruelties he inflicted. These occurrences were sometimes
referred to as “the first genocide of the 20th century” and officially condemned by
the United Nations in 1985. In 2004 a formal apology by a government minister of the Federal
Republic of Germany followed. Middle East
Bismarck and Wilhelm II after him sought closer economic ties with the Ottoman Empire. Under
Wilhelm II, with the financial backing of the Deutsche Bank, the Baghdad Railway was
begun in 1900, although by 1914 it was still 500 km short of its destination in Baghdad.
In an interview with Wilhelm in 1899, Cecil Rhodes had tried “to convince the Kaiser that
the future of the German empire abroad lay in the Middle East” and not in Africa; with
a grand Middle-Eastern empire, Germany could afford to allow Britain the unhindered completion
of the Cape-to-Cairo railway that Rhodes favoured. Britain initially supported the Baghdad Railway;
but by 1911 British statesmen came to fear it might be extended to Basra on the Persian
Gulf, threatening Britain’s naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Accordingly they asked
to have construction halted, to which Germany and the Ottoman Empire acquiesced.
Europe Wilhelm II and his advisers committed a fatal
diplomatic error when they allowed the “Reinsurance Treaty” that Bismarck had negotiated with
Tsarist Russia to lapse. Germany was left with no firm ally but Austria-Hungary, and
her support for action in annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 further soured relations
with Russia. Wilhelm missed the opportunity to secure an alliance with Britain in the
1890s when it was involved in colonial rivalries with France, and he alienated British statesmen
further by openly supporting the Boers in the South African War and building a navy
to rival Britain’s. By 1911 Wilhelm had completely picked apart the careful power balance established
by Bismarck and Britain turned to France in the Entente Cordiale. Germany’s only other
ally besides Austria was the Kingdom of Italy, but it remained an ally only pro forma. When
war came, Italy saw more benefit in an alliance with Britain, France, and Russia, which, in
the secret Treaty of London in 1915 promised it the frontier districts of Austria where
Italians formed the majority of the population and also colonial concessions. Germany did
acquire a second ally that same year when the Ottoman Empire entered the war on its
side, but in the long run supporting the Ottoman war effort only drained away German resources
from the main fronts. World War I Origins
Following the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke of Austria-Este, Franz Ferdinand
by Bosnian Serbs, the Kaiser offered Emperor Franz Joseph full support for Austro-Hungarian
plans to invade the Kingdom of Serbia, which Austria-Hungary blamed for the assassination.
This unconditional support for Austria-Hungary was called a blank cheque by historians, including
German Fritz Fischer. Subsequent interpretation – for example at the Versailles Peace Conference
– was that this “blank cheque” licensed Austro-Hungarian aggression regardless of
the diplomatic consequences, and thus Germany bore responsibility for starting the war,
or at least provoking a wider conflict. Germany began the war by targeting its chief
rival, France. Germany saw France as its principal danger on the European continent as it could
mobilize much faster than Russia and bordered Germany’s industrial core in the Rhineland.
Unlike Britain and Russia, the French entered the war mainly for revenge against Germany,
in particular for France’s loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871. The German high command
knew that France would muster its forces to go into Alsace-Lorraine. In the East the German Empire planned to annex
up to 35,000 square kilometers of pre-war Congress Poland and ethnically cleanse between
2 to 3 million Poles and Jews out of these territories to make room for German settlers.
Western Front Germany did not want to risk lengthy battles
along the Franco-German border and instead adopted the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy
designed to cripple France by invading Belgium and Luxembourg, sweeping down towards Paris
and encircling and crushing the French forces along the Franco-German border in a quick
victory. After defeating France, Germany would turn to attack Russia. The plan required the
violation of Belgium’s and Luxembourg’s official neutrality, which Britain had guaranteed by
treaty. However, the Germans had calculated that Britain would enter the war regardless
of whether they had formal justification to do so. At first the attack was successful:
the German Army swept down from Belgium and Luxembourg and was nearly at Paris, at the
nearby River Marne. However the French Army and the British Army put up a strong resistance
to defend Paris at the First Battle of the Marne resulting in the German Army retreating.
The aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne was a long-held stalemate between the German
Army and the Allies in dug-in trench warfare. Further German attempts to break through deeper
into France failed at the two battles of Ypres with huge casualties. German Chief of Staff
Erich von Falkenhayn decided to break away from the Schlieffen Plan and instead focus
on a war of attrition against France. Falkenhayn targeted the ancient city of Verdun because
it had been one of the last cities to hold out against the German Army in 1870, and Falkenhayn
knew that as a matter of national pride the French would do anything to ensure that it
was not taken. He expected that with proper tactics, French losses would be greater than
those of the Germans and that continued French commitment of troops to Verdun would “bleed
the French Army white” and then allow the German army to take France easily. In 1916,
the Battle of Verdun began, with the French positions under constant shelling and poison
gas attack and taking large casualties under the assault of overwhelmingly large German
forces. However, Falkenhayn’s prediction of a greater ratio of French killed proved to
be wrong. Falkenhayn was replaced by Erich Ludendorff, and with no success in sight,
the German Army pulled out of Verdun in December 1916 and the battle ended.
Eastern Front While the Western Front was a stalemate for
the German Army, the Eastern Front eventually proved to be a great success. Despite initial
setbacks due to the unexpectedly rapid mobilisation of the Russian army, which resulted in a Russian
invasion of East Prussia and Austrian Galicia, the badly organised and supplied Russian Army
faltered and the German and Austro-Hungarian armies thereafter steadily advanced eastward.
The Germans benefited from political instability in Russia and its population’s desire to end
the war. In 1917 the German government allowed Russia’s communist Bolshevik leader Vladimir
Lenin to travel through Germany from Switzerland into Russia. Germany believed that if Lenin
could create further political unrest, Russia would no longer be able to continue its war
with Germany, allowing the German Army to focus on the Western Front.
In March 1917, the Tsar was ousted from the Russian throne, and in November a Bolshevik
government came to power under the leadership of Lenin. Facing political opposition to the
Bolsheviks, he decided to end Russia’s campaign against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman
Empire and Bulgaria in order to redirect Bolshevik energy to eliminating internal dissent. In
1918, by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik government gave Germany and the
Ottoman Empire enormous territorial and economic concessions in exchange for an end to war
on the Eastern Front. All of the modern-day Baltic states were given over to the German
occupation authority Ober Ost, along with Belarus and Ukraine. Thus Germany had at last
achieved its long-wanted dominance of “Mitteleuropa” and could now focus fully on defeating the
Allies on the Western Front. In practice, however, the forces needed to garrison and
secure the new territories were a drain on the German war effort.
Colonies Germany quickly lost almost all its colonies.
However, in German East Africa, an impressive guerrilla campaign was waged by the colonial
army leader there, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Using Germans and native Askaris, Lettow-Vorbeck
launched multiple guerrilla raids against British forces in Kenya and Rhodesia. He also
invaded Portuguese Mozambique to gain his forces supplies and to pick up more Askari
recruits. His force was still active at war’s end.
1918 Defeating Russia in 1917 enabled Germany to
transfer hundreds of thousands of combat troops from the east to the Western Front, giving
it a numerical advantage over the Allies. By retraining the soldiers in new stormtrooper
tactics, the Germans expected to unfreeze the battlefield and win a decisive victory
before the army of the United States, which had now entered the war on the side of Britain
and France, arrived in strength. However, the repeated German offensives in the autumn
of 1917 and the spring of 1918 all failed, as the Allies fell back and regrouped and
the Germans lacked the reserves needed to consolidate their gains. Meanwhile soldiers
had become radicalised by the Russian Revolution and were less willing to continue fighting.
The war effort sparked civil unrest in Germany, while the troops, who had been constantly
in the field without relief, grew exhausted and lost all hope of victory. In the summer
of 1918, with the Americans arriving at the rate of 10,000 a day and the German reserves
spent, it was only a matter of time before multiple Allied offensives destroyed the German
army. Home front
The concept of “total war”, meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces
and, with German commerce being stopped by the Allied naval blockade, German civilians
were forced to live in increasingly meagre conditions. First food prices were controlled,
then rationing was introduced. During the war about 750,000 German civilians died from
malnutrition. Towards the end of the war conditions deteriorated
rapidly on the home front, with severe food shortages reported in all urban areas. The
causes included the transfer of many farmers and food workers into the military, combined
with the overburdened railway system, shortages of coal, and the British blockade. The winter
of 1916–1917 was known as the “turnip winter”, because the people had to survive on a vegetable
more commonly reserved for livestock, as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were
increasingly scarce. Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry, who grumbled
that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves. Even the army had to cut the soldiers’
rations. The morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink.
Revolt and demise Many Germans wanted an end to the war and
increasing numbers began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic
Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party, which demanded an end to
the war. The entry of the U.S. into the war in April 1917 changed the long-run balance
of power in favour of the Allies. The end of October 1918, in Kiel, in northern
Germany, saw the beginning of the German Revolution of 1918–1919. Units of the German Navy refused
to set sail for a last, large-scale operation in a war which they saw as good as lost, initiating
the uprising. On 3 November, the revolt spread to other cities and states of the country,
in many of which workers’ and soldiers’ councils were established. Meanwhile, Hindenburg and
the senior generals lost confidence in the Kaiser and his government.
Bulgaria signed the Armistice of Solun on 29 September 1918. The Ottoman Empire signed
the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918. Between 24 October and 3 November 1918, Italy
defeated Austria-Hungary in the battle of Vittorio Veneto, which forced Austria-Hungary
to sign the Armistice of Villa Giusti on 3 November 1918. So, in November 1918, with
internal revolution, the Allies advancing toward Germany on the Western Front, Austria-Hungary
falling apart from multiple ethnic tensions, its other allies out of the war and pressure
from the German high command, the Kaiser and all German ruling princes abdicated. On 9
November, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a republic. The new government
led by the German Social Democrats called for and received an armistice on 11 November.
The war was over; the history books closed on the German Empire. It was succeeded by
the democratic, yet flawed, Weimar Republic. Those opposed, including disaffected veterans,
joined a diverse set of paramilitary and underground political groups like the Freikorps, the Organisation
Consul, and the Communists, and Germany headed towards troubled times.
Legacy The defeat and aftermath of World War I and
the penalties imposed by the Treaty of Versailles shaped the positive memory of the Empire,
especially among Germans who distrusted and despised the Weimar Republic. Conservatives,
liberals, socialists, nationalists, Catholics, and Protestants all had their own interpretations,
which led to a fractious political and social climate in Germany in the aftermath of the
empire’s collapse. Under Bismarck, a united German state had
finally been achieved, but it remained a Prussian-dominated state and did not include German Austria as
Pan-German nationalists had desired. The influence of Prussian militarism, the Empire’s colonial
efforts and its vigorous, competitive industrial prowess all gained it the dislike and envy
of other nations. The German Empire enacted a number of progressive reforms, such as Europe’s
first social welfare system and freedom of press. There was also a modern system for
electing the federal parliament, the Reichstag, in which every adult man had one vote. This
enabled the Socialists and the Catholic Centre Party to play considerable roles in the empire’s
political life despite the continued hostility of Prussian aristocrats.
The era of the German Empire is well remembered in Germany as one of great cultural and intellectual
vigour. Thomas Mann published his novel Buddenbrooks in 1901. Theodor Mommsen received the Nobel
prize for literature a year later for his Roman history. Painters like the groups Der
Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke made a significant contribution to modern art. The AEG turbine
building in Berlin by Peter Behrens from 1909 can be regarded as a milestone in classic
modern architecture and an outstanding example of emerging functionalism. The social, economic,
and scientific successes of this Gründerzeit, or founding epoch, have sometimes led the
Wilhelmine era to be regarded as a golden age.
In the field of economics, the “Kaiserzeit” laid the foundation of Germany’s status as
one of the world’s leading economic powers. The iron and coal industries of the Ruhr,
the Saar and Upper Silesia especially contributed to that process. The first motorcar was built
by Karl Benz in 1886. The enormous growth of industrial production and industrial potential
also led to a rapid urbanisation of Germany, which turned the Germans into a nation of
city dwellers. More than 5 million people left Germany for the United States during
the 19th century. Sonderweg Many historians have emphasized the central
importance of a German Sonderweg or “special path” as the root of Nazism and the German
catastrophe in the 20th century. According to the historiography by Kocka, the process
of nation-building from above had very grievous long-term implications. In terms of parliamentary
democracy, Parliament was kept weak, the parties were fragmented, and there was a high level
of mutual distrust. The Nazis built on the illiberal, anti-pluralist elements of Weimar’s
political culture. The Junker elites and senior civil servants used their great power and
influence well into the twentieth century to frustrate any movement toward democracy.
They played an especially negative role in the crisis of 1930–1933. Bismarck’s emphasis
on military force amplified the voice of the officer corps, which combined advanced modernization
of military technology with reactionary politics. The rising upper-middle-class elites, in the
business, financial, and professional worlds, tended to accept the values of the old traditional
elites. The German Empire was for Hans-Ulrich Wehler a strange mixture of highly successful
capitalist industrialization and socio-economic modernization on the one hand, and of surviving
pre-industrial institutions, power relations and traditional cultures on the other. Wehler
argues that it produced a high degree of internal tension, which led on the one hand to the
suppression of socialists, Catholics, and reformers, and on the other hand to a highly
aggressive foreign policy. For these reasons Fritz Fischer and his students emphasized
Germany’s primary guilt for causing World War I.
Hans-Ulrich Wehler, a leader of the Bielefeld School of social history, places the origins
of Germany’s path to disaster in the 1860s–1870s, when economic modernization took place, but
political modernization did not happen and the old Prussian rural elite remained in firm
control of the army, diplomacy and the civil service. Traditional, aristocratic, premodern
society battled an emerging capitalist, bourgeois, modernizing society. Recognizing the importance
of modernizing forces in industry and the economy and in the cultural realm, Wehler
argues that reactionary traditionalism dominated the political hierarchy of power in Germany,
as well as social mentalities and in class relations. The catastrophic German politics
between 1914 and 1945 are interpreted in terms of a delayed modernization of its political
structures. At the core of Wehler’s interpretation is his treatment of “the middle class” and
“revolution,” each of which was instrumental in shaping the 20th century. Wehler’s examination
of Nazi rule is shaped by his concept of “charismatic domination,” which focuses heavily on Adolf
Hitler. The historiographical concept of a German
Sonderweg has had a turbulent history. Nineteenth century scholars who emphasized a separate
German path to modernity saw it as a positive factor that differentiated Germany from the
“western path” typified by Great Britain. They stressed the strong bureaucratic state,
reforms initiated by Bismarck and other strong leaders, the Prussian service ethos, the high
culture of philosophy and music, and Germany’s pioneering of a social welfare state. In the
1950s, historians in West Germany argued that the Sonderweg lead Germany to the disaster
of 1933–1945. The special circumstances of German historical structures and experiences,
were interpreted as preconditions that, while not directly causing National Socialism, did
hamper the development of a liberal democracy and facilitate the rise of fascism. The Sonderweg
paradigm has provided the impetus for at least three strands of research in German historiography:
the “long nineteenth century”, the history of the bourgeoisie, and comparisons with the
West. After 1990, increased attention to cultural dimensions and to comparative and relational
history moved German historiography to different topics, with much less attention paid to the
Sonderweg. While some historians have abandoned the Sonderweg thesis, they have not provided
a generally accepted alternative interpretation. Territorial legacy
In addition to present-day Germany, large parts of what comprised the German Empire
now belong to several other modern European countries:
See also List of German monarchs
Kingdom of Germany German colonization of the Americas
German East Africa Company German New Guinea Company
List of former German colonies Reichskolonialbund
Wilhelminism German Army
Luftstreitkräfte Imperial German Navy
German General Staff House of Hohenzollern
References Further reading Historiography
Berghahn, Volker Rolf. “Structure and Agency in Wilhelmine Germany: The history of the
German Empire, Past, present and Future,” in Annika Mombauer and Wilhelm Deist, eds.
The Kaiser: New Research on Wilhelm II’s Role in Imperial Germany pp 281–93, historiography
Chickering, Roger, ed. Imperial Germany: A Historiographical Companion, 552pp; 18 essays
by specialists Dickinson, Edward Ross. “The German Empire:
an Empire?” History Workshop Journal Issue 66, online in Project MUSE, with guide to
recent scholarship Eley, Geoff, and James Retallack, “Introduction”
in Geoff Eley and James Retallack, eds. Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism,
and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930 online Jefferies, Matthew. Contesting the German
Empire 1871 – 1918 excerpt and text search Müller, Sven Oliver, and Cornelius Torp,
ed. Imperial Germany Revisited: Continuing Debates and New Perspectives
Reagin, Nancy R. “Recent Work on German National Identity: Regional? Imperial? Gendered? Imaginary?”
Central European History v 37, pp 273–289 doi:10.1163/156916104323121483
Primary sources Vizetelly, Henry. Berlin Under the New Empire:
Its Institutions, Inhabitants, Industry, Monuments, Museums, Social Life, Manners, and Amusements
online volume 2 External links
Ravenstein’s Atlas of the German Empire, Library.wis.edu Administrative subdivision and census results,
Gemeindeverzeichnis.de Brandenburg Historica. “Gott, Kaiser, Vaterland:
Military and Patriotic Music of Imperial Germany, 1903-1915”. Updated January 27, 2008.

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