The German Empire (German: Deutsches Kaiserreich), variously referred to as the German Reich/Realm, the Second Reich, or Imperial Germany, was the historical German nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 to the appointment of Adolf Hitler in January 1933, when Germany became a totalitarian dictatorship.
Upon its formation the German Empire consisted of 27 constituent territories, with most of them being ruled by royal families. While the Kingdom of Prussia contained most of the population and most of the territory of the empire, the Prussian leaders were supplanted by leaders from all over Germany, and Prussia itself played a lesser role. As Dwyer (2005) points out, Prussia's "political and cultural influence had diminished considerably" by the 1890s. The German Empire's three largest neighbours were all rivals: Imperial Russia to the east, France to the west, and Austria-Hungary, a rival but also an ally, to the south-east.
After 1850, the states of Germany had rapidly become industrialized, with particular strengths in coal, iron (and later steel), chemicals, and railways. In 1871, when the new German Empire was created, it had a population of 41 million people, and by 1913 this had increased to 68 million. A heavily rural collection of states in 1815, the united Germany became predominantly urban. During its first 50 years of existence, the German Empire operated as an industrial, technological, and scientific giant, gaining more Nobel Prizes in science than Britain, France, Russia, and the United States combined.
Germany became a great power, boasting a rapidly growing rail network, the world's strongest army, and a fast-growing industrial base. In less than a decade, its navy went from being a negligible force to one which was second only to the Royal Navy. After the removal of the powerful Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890 (following the deaths of two Emperors, Wilhelm I and Frederick III, in 1888), 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, the German Empire had only one ally, being Austria-Hungary, a great power at the time. They were later joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
Following World War I, Germany was on the verge of a socialist revolution in September 1918. In October, the Reichstag was granted full legislative authority, where a new constitution for Germany was written, then adopted on 11 August 1919. Over the next fourteen years, Germany faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremists (with paramilitaries – both left and right wing) and continuing contentious relationships with the war time enemies. However, this era successfully reformed the currency, unified tax policies and the railway system.
The ensuing period of liberal democracy lapsed by 1930, when the ageing Emperor Wilhelm II assumed dictatorial emergency powers to back the administrations of Chancellors Brüning, Papen, Schleicher, and finally Hitler. Between 1930 and 1933 the Great Depression, even worsened by Brüning's policy of deflation, led to a surge in unemployment. It led to the ascent of the nascent Nazi Party in 1933. The legal measures taken by the new Nazi government in February and March 1933, commonly known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power), meant that the government could legislate contrary to the constitution. The constitution became irrelevant, so 1933 is usually seen as the end of the German Empire and the beginning of the Third Reich.
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, comprising the 22 states north of the Main. The patriotic fervour generated by the Franco-Prussian War overwhelmed the remaining opposition in the four states south of the Main to a unified Germany, and during November 1870 they joined the North German Confederation by treaty.
Foundation of the Empire Edit
On 10 December 1870 the North German Confederation Reichstag renamed the Confederation as the German Empire and gave the title of German Emperor to William I, the King of Prussia, as President of the Confederation. During the Siege of Paris on 18 January 1871, William was formally 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 (which in practice was used by the emperor to rule the empire through him), 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 (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc.) 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 federal empire and 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 were also minted in the name of the empire, while higher valued pieces were issued by the states. However, 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 a decade earlier. 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 Tsar 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 (with two exceptions) 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. Universal suffrage was significantly diluted by the gross overrepresentation of rural areas from the 1890s onward. By the turn of the century, the urban-rural balance was completely reversed from 1871; more than two-thirds of the empire's people lived in cities and towns.
For 30 years, Germany struggled against Britain to be Europe's leading industrial power, though both fell behind the United States on the global stage. 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.
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.
Bismarck's "revolutionary conservatism" was a conservative state-building strategy designed to make ordinary Germans—not just the Junker elite—more loyal to state and emperor. According to Kees van Kersbergen and Barbara Vis, his strategy was:
- granting social rights to enhance the integration of a hierarchical society, to forge a bond between workers and the state so as to strengthen the latter, to maintain traditional relations of authority between social and status groups, and to provide a countervailing power against the modernist forces of liberalism and socialism.
He created the modern welfare state in Germany in the 1880s and enacted universal male suffrage in the new German Empire in 1871. He became a great hero to German conservatives, who erected many monuments to his memory and tried to emulate his policies.
Bismarck's post-1871 foreign policy was conservative and sought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. British historian Eric Hobsbawm concludes that he "remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [devoting] himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers." His chief concern was that France would plot revenge after its defeat in 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 (as would ultimately happen in 1914). 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 (which by the 1880s was being slowly reduced to a German satellite), the Dreikaiserbund (League of Three Emperors). 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. (the only strong power in the Western Hemisphere), 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 (ambassador to France), 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.
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 (Kiauchau in China, Tientsin in China, the Marianas, the Caroline Islands, Samoa) led to frictions with Britain, Russia, Japan and the U.S. The largest colonial enterprises were in Africa, where the Herero Wars in what is now Namibia in 1906–07 resulted in the Herero and Namaqua Genocide.
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.
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 textile 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 (1877–86), the dye wave (1887–96), the chemical wave (1897–1902), and the wave of electrical engineering (1903–18). 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 (known as Konzerne), 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 (1914–18), 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.
The creation of the Empire under Prussian leadership was a victory for the concept of Kleindeutschland (Smaller Germany) 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.
After achieving formal unification in 1871, Bismarck devoted much of his attention to the cause of national unity. 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.
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.
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 (health care in 1883, accident insurance in 1884, invalidity and old-age insurance in 1889) 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.
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 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 (1822–1893). 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.
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 (which was adapted for the Empire and, with great modifications, is still in effect today), there was little similarity in laws otherwise.
In 1871, a common Criminal Code (Reichsstrafgesetzbuch) was introduced; in 1877, common court procedures were established in the court system (Gerichtsverfassungsgesetz), civil procedures (Zivilprozessordnung) and criminal procedures (Strafprozessordnung). In 1873 the constitution was amended to allow the Empire to replace the various and greatly differing Civil Codes of the states (If they existed at all; for example, parts of Germany formerly occupied by Napoleon's France had adopted the French Civil Code, while in Prussia the Allgemeines Preußisches Landrecht of 1794 was still in effect). 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 (BGB), 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.
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 emperorsEdit
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.
Reaffirmation of prerogative monarchy, and Bismarck's resignationEdit
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 (2004) 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 (such as the Tangier Crisis), which pushed the German Empire into growing political isolation and eventually helped to cause World War I.
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 (SPD), 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, 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.
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 ("new imperialism"), 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 (today Namibia), German Kamerun (Cameroon), Togoland and German East Africa (today Tanzania). 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 (after 1908) 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. 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 exploitative goals (much as the British did before in Rhodesia), 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 (80% of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50% of the total Nama population) 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.
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 (310 mi) 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.
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.
Ethnic demands for nation states upset the balance between the empires that dominated Europe, leading to the World War, which started in August 1914. Germany stood behind its ally Austria in a confrontation with Serbia, but Serbia was under the protection of Russia, which was allied to France. Germany was the leader of the Central Powers, which included Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and later Bulgaria; arrayed against them was the Entente, consisting chiefly of Russia, France, Britain, and in 1915 Italy.
In explaining why neutral Britain went to war with Germany, historians recognized it was critical for war that Germany become economically more powerful than Britain, but many downplay the disputes over economic trade imperialism, the Baghdad Railway, confrontations in Central and Eastern Europe, high-charged political rhetoric and domestic pressure-groups. Germany's reliance time and again on sheer power, while Britain increasingly appealed to moral sensibilities, played a role, especially in seeing the invasion of Belgium as a necessary military tactic or a profound moral crime. The German invasion of Belgium was not important because the British decision had already been made and the British were more concerned with the fate of France. British historians argue that by far the main reason was London's fear that a repeat of 1870 — when Prussia and the German states smashed France — would mean that Germany, with a powerful army and navy, would control the English Channel and northwest France. British policy makers insisted that would be a catastrophe for British security.
In the west, Germany sought a quick victory by encircling Paris using the Schlieffen Plan. But it failed due to Belgian resistance, Berlin's diversion of troops, and very stiff French resistance on the Marne, north of Paris.
The Western Front became an extremely bloody battleground of trench warfare. The stalemate lasted from 1914 until early 1918, with ferocious battles that moved forces a few hundred yards at best along a line that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The British imposed a tight naval blockade in the North Sea which lasted until 1918, sharply reducing Germany's overseas access to raw materials and foodstuffs. Food scarcity became a serious problem by 1917.
More wide open was the fighting on the Eastern Front. In the east, there were decisive victories against the Russian army, the trapping and defeat of large parts of the Russian contingent at the Battle of Tannenberg, followed by huge Austrian and German successes. The breakdown of Russian forces – exacerbated by internal turmoil caused by the 1917 Russian Revolution – led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Bolsheviks were forced to sign on 3 March 1918 as Russia withdrew from the war. It gave Germany control of Eastern Europe. All of the modern-day Baltic states were given over to the German occupation authority Ober Ost, along with Belarus and Ukraine. Germany had at last achieved its long-wanted dominance of "Mitteleuropa" (Central Europe).
By defeating Russia in 1917 Germany was able to bring hundreds of thousands of combat troops from the east to the Western Front, giving it a numerical advantage over the Entente. By retraining the soldiers in new storm-trooper tactics, the Germans expected to unfreeze the Battlefield and win a decisive victory before the end of the year. However the spring offensives, while tactically successful, as the Entente fell back 60 kilomets from Paris, the Germans lacked the reserves necessary to advance further and hold their new gains. By the summer, with the Entente regrouping, and the German reserves exhausted, the OHL (Supreme Army Command) feared that any serious Entente offenses could destroy the German army.
Unexpectedly Germany plunged into the World War (1914–1918). It rapidly mobilized its civilian economy for the war effort, the economy was handicapped by the British blockade that cut off food supplies. Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated rapidly on the home front, with severe food shortages reported in all urban areas. Causes involved the transfer of many farmers and food workers into the military, an overburdened railroad system, shortages of coal, and the British blockade that cut off imports from abroad. The winter of 1916–1917 was known as the "turnip winter," because that vegetable, usually fed to livestock, was used by people as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were increasingly scarce. Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry people, who grumbled that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves. Even the army had to cut the rations for soldiers. Morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink.
1918 was also the year of the deadly 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which struck hard at a population weakened by years of malnutrition.
The end of August 1918, in Versailles, saw the beginning of the end of the war. Commanders of the Entente armies discussed the possibility for a last, large-scale operation in a war which many saw as good as lost. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of soldiers and civilians began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party. With the fear of internal revolution and the front lines barely holding Hindenburg and the senior commanders agreed to persue peace.
On 6 September, the Avesnes armistice was signed, ending the war. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed on 28 June 1919. Germany was to cede Moresnet to Belgium. The future of Luxembourg, which had been occupied since 1914, was to be decided by plebiscite to allow the people the choice of the territory either remaining with Germany or restoring their independence. Following a plebiscite, the territory was voted for Germany on 28 September 1919. The legitimacey of the vote was questioned since the country remained under German control during the vote. All German colonies were to be restored minus islands in the north Pacific Ocean that had been part of German New Guinea along with Kiautschou Bay. The industrially important Saar basin and its coalfields were to be administered by France for 15 years. Germany was also required to pay a share in reparations for all civilian damage caused during the war.
Years of crisisEdit
On 28 October 1918 the constitution was heavily amended, transforming the authoritarian Empire into a parliamentary democratic monarchy on the British model. On 30 December 1918, the Communist Party of Germany was founded by the Spartacus League, who had split from the Social Democratic Party during the war. It was headed by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and rejected the parliamentary system. They believed, correctly, that the amendments did not introduce social reforms for workers and the middle-class but merely the potential for them.
In January, the Spartacist League and others in the streets of Berlin made an armed attempt to establish communism, known as the Spartacist uprising. A rift developed between the Chancellor and Reichstag after the Kaiser called upon the OHL for troops to put down the uprising. Bloody street fights culminated in the beating and shooting deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests on 15 January. In 1920, about 300,000 members from the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany joined the party, transforming it into a mass organization. The Communist Party had a following of about 10% of the electorate.
These units used against these rebellions, many of which were situated on the extreme right, resulted in the growth of far-right movements and organisations in Germany, including Organisation Consul, the Nazi Party, and societies of exiled Russian Monarchists. Sporadic fighting continued to flare up around the country. In eastern provinces, militias of Polish nationalists fought for independence: Great Poland Uprising in Posen. Other cities were shaken by strikes and rebellions, which were bloodily suppressed.
When Germany defaulted on its reparation payments, French and Belgian troops began to mobilise. The German government began to mobilse in response. The threat of renewed hostilities proved effective, insofar as the British did not support the French government. But the attempt to rapidly build-up the German Army also led to hyperinflation, and many who lost all their fortune would become bitter enemies of the Reichstag, and voters of the anti-democratic right.
In November 1923, the deteriorating economic conditions led Chancellor Gustav Stresemann to introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark (later: Reichsmark), together with other measures to stop the hyperinflation. In the following six years the economic situation improved. In 1928, Germany's industrial production even regained the pre-war levels of 1913. The national elections of 1924 led to a swing to the right. In October 1925 the Treaty of Locarno was signed by Germany, France, Belgium, Britain and Italy; it normalised relations between Germany and the Entente powers.
Economic collapse and political problems, 1929–1933Edit
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the worldwide Great Depression, which hit Germany as hard as any nation. In July 1931, the Darmstätter und Nationalbank – one of the biggest German banks – failed. In early 1932, the number of unemployed had soared to more than 6,000,000.
On top of the collapsing economy came a political crisis: the political parties represented in the Reichstag were unable to build a governing majority in the face of escalating extremism from the far right (the Nazis, NSDAP) and the far left (the Communists, KPD). In March 1930, the Kaiser appointed Heinrich Brüning Chancellor, invoking article 48 of Weimar's constitution, which allowed him to override the Parliament. To push through his package of austerity measures against a majority of Social Democrats, Communists and the NSDAP (Nazis), Brüning made use of emergency decrees and dissolved Parliament.
The Nazi Party was the largest party in the national elections of 1932. On 31 July 1932 it received 37.3% of the votes, and in the election on 6 November 1932 it received less, but still the largest share, 33.1%, making it the biggest party in the Reichstag. The Communist KPD came third, with 15%. Together, the anti-democratic parties of far right and far left were now able to hold the majority of seats in Parliament, but they were at sword's point with each other, fighting it out in the streets. The Nazis were particularly successful among Protestants, among unemployed young voters, among the lower middle class in the cities and among the rural population. It was weakest in Catholic areas and in large cities. On 30 January 1933, pressured by former Chancellor Franz von Papen, other conservatives and even the Crown Prince, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. The Reichstag fire on 27 February was blamed by Hitler's government on the Communists. Hitler used the ensuing state of emergency to obtain the imperial assent of the Kaiser to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree the following day. The decree "indefinitely suspended" a number of constitutional protections of civil liberties, allowing the Nazi government to take swift action against political meetings, arresting and killing the Communists.
Passage of the Enabling ActEdit
The Reichstag convened on 23 March 1933, and in the midday opening, Hitler made a historic speech, appearing outwardly calm and conciliatory. Hitler presented an appealing prospect of respect towards Christianity by paying tribute to the Christian faiths as "essential elements for safeguarding the soul of the German people". He promised to respect their rights and declared that his government's "ambition is a peaceful accord between Church and State" and that he hoped "to improve [their] friendly relations with the Holy See". This speech aimed especially at the future recognition by the named Holy See and therefore to the votes of the Centre Party addressing many concerns Ludwig Kaas had voiced during the previous talks. Kaas is considered to have had a hand therefore in the drafting of the speech. Kaas is also reported as voicing the Holy See's desire for Hitler as bulwark against atheistic Russian nihilism previously as early as May 1932.
Hitler promised that the Act did not threaten the existence of either the Reichstag or the Reichsrat, that the authority of the monarchy remained untouched and that the Länder would not be abolished. During an adjournment, the other parties (notably the Centre) met to discuss their intentions.
In the debate prior to the vote on the Enabling Act, Hitler orchestrated the full political menace of his paramilitary forces like the storm division in the streets to intimidate reluctant Reichstag deputies into approving the Enabling Act. The Communists' 81 seats had been empty since the Reichstag Fire Decree and other lesser known procedural measures, thus excluding their anticipated "No" votes from the balloting. Otto Wels, the leader of the Social Democrats, whose seats were similarly depleted from 120 to below 100, was the only speaker to defend democracy and in a futile but brave effort to deny Hitler the ⅔ majority, he made a speech critical of the abandonment of democracy to dictatorship. At this, Hitler could no longer restrain his wrath.
In his retort to Wels, Hitler abandoned earlier pretence at calm statesmanship and delivered a characteristic screaming diatribe, promising to exterminate all Communists in Germany and threatening Wels' Social Democrats as well. He did not even want their support for the bill. "Germany will become free, but not through you," he shouted. Meanwhile, Hitler's promised written guarantee to Kaas was being typed up, it was asserted to Kaas, and thereby Kaas was persuaded to silently deliver the Centre bloc's votes for the Enabling Act anyway. The Act—formally titled the "Act for the Removal of Distress from People and Reich"—was passed by a vote of 441 to 94. Only the SPD had voted against the Act. Every other member of the Reichstag, whether from the largest or the smallest party, voted in favour of the Act. It went into effect the following day, 24 March.
The passage of the Enabling Act of 1933 is widely considered to mark the end of the German Empire and the beginning of the Nazi era. It empowered the cabinet to legislate without the approval of the Reichstag or the Kaiser, and to enact laws that were contrary to the constitution. Before the March 1933 elections, Hitler had persuaded Wilhelm II to promulgate the Reichstag Fire Decree using various emergency articles, which empowered the government to restrict "the rights of habeas corpus [...] freedom of the press, the freedom to organise and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications" and legalised search warrants and confiscation "beyond legal limits otherwise prescribed". This was intended to forestall any action against the government by the Communists. Hitler used the provisions of the Enabling Act to pre-empt possible opposition to his dictatorship from other sources, in which he was mostly successful.
The Nazis in power brought almost all major organisations into line under Nazi control or direction, which was termed Gleichschaltung. The constitution was never formally repealed, but the Enabling Act meant that it was a dead letter. Those articles of the constitution (which dealt with the state's relationship to various Christian churches) remain part of the German Basic Law.
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 two-third of the empire's territory.
Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and had been de facto sovereign from the mid-1600s onward. 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 acquisitions, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling families. Some of the initially 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 (Bundesrat) and, via single-member districts, the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). 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 in the inheritance crisis of the Lippe-Detmold.
Map and tableEdit
|Grand Duchies (Großherzogtümer)|
|Alsace-Lorraine (Elsass-Lothringen) – Imperial Territory 1871–1921||Straßburg|
|Luxemburg – annexed in 1919||Luxemburg|
|Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha)||Coburg|
|Reuss-Gera (Junior Line)||Gera|
|Reuss-Greiz (Elder Line)||Greiz|
|Waldeck and Pyrmont (Waldeck und Pyrmont)||Arolsen|
|Free and Hanseatic Cities (Freie und Hansestädte)|