German Empire

German Empire
   The German Empire was proclaimed on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, not far from where the Prussian army besieged Paris in the final days of the Franco-Prussian War. The German Empire, occasionally referred to as the Second Reich, also died in battle, on November 9, 1918, when Wilhelm II abdicated his throne in the final days of World War I. Strife-ridden at home because of unresolved institutional contradictions and provocative abroad as the result of an economically powerful and culturally volatile nation on the make, Imperial Germany was for the 50 years of its existence a source of instability in Europe and throughout the world. The regime’s tenuous compromise between monarchical privilege and constitutional provision, combined political authoritarianism with an industrialized social order that made Germany both the most admired and feared nation on the European Continent. Its history illustrates the critical dilemmas of political, social, and cultural upheaval in modern times and the folly of chauvinistic nationalism in the era of “total” war.
   The Foundation of the Reich
   The architect of the German Empire was Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. In the 1860s, Bismarck orchestrated a series of international crises, including wars with Denmark in 1864, the Austrian Empire in 1866, and France in 1870–1871. With these conflicts, Bismarck sought to marginalize Austria in Central European affairs and then to unite the many small states of Germany under Prussian leadership. With the leaders of these states, Bismarck established a federalist system of government capped by the Prussian hereditary monarchy. The constitution of the German Empire reflected the priorities of the Junkers, Prussia’s land-owning aristocracy, from whom Bismarck himself descended. The emperor alone directed foreign affairs and had the authority to declare war. He called and dissolved parliament and appointed imperial officials, who served at his sufferance independent of parliamentary oversight. His chancellor, almost always a Junker as well, had broad executive and legislative powers. The lower house or Reichstag was elected by universal manhood suffrage, but it had no ministerial responsibility and its decisions had to be approved by the upper house or Bundesrat, which was dominated by the delegation from Prussia. This arrangement gave Prussia and in particular its Junker elites de facto veto power over Reich legislation, guaranteeing a political authoritarianism that was out of step with a rapidly industrializing and modernizing German society.
   At the core of the German imperial government, then, was a fundamental contradiction. The system provided for mass political action in a parliamentary body, but such action, above all when it advocated socialism, was unwelcome. When parliament addressed foreign or military affairs, it was constitutionally enfeebled. The system possessed little flexibility for adapting to the complicated politics of an increasingly mobilized electorate and hampered the creation of a national political consensus. The basic institutions of the state - the emperor, the constitution, the Reich ministry, and the voting system - bore enormous stress as recurring topics of acrimonious debate. The country’s numerous divisions between workers and the middle class, urbanites and farmers, Catholics and Protestants, and Germans and ethnic “others,” such as Danes, Poles, Alsace-Lorrainers, and East European Jews, were neither resolved nor mitigated by democratic compromise. More dangerously imperial authorities attempted to generate popular support for the regime less by mollifying disagreement through meaningful political reform than by foreign policy adventurism and emotional appeals to aggressive nationalism that imperiled Germany’s strategic position. The temptation to overcome domestic squabbling through grand foreign undertakings assumed increasing importance in the planning of Reich officials in the military, ministry, and imperial court.
   Problems of National Integration
   In the early years of the empire, Bismarck attempted to solve the problems of national unity by marginalizing the two groups that seemed to menace the interests of his chief allies in the Protestant middle class and Junker aristocracy, socialists and Roman Catholics. From 1871 to 1890, German society experienced the tumults of rapid industrialization and urbanization. The agricultural base of the country, strong in rye, potato, and sugar beet production in the east, and dairy farming and winemaking in the west, was solid. But the increasing intensity of cultivation, resulting primarily from the growing use of artificial fertilizers and the mechanization of seed and processing work, expanded yields while reducing labor requirements, releasing rural inhabitants from the demands of the soil to seek employment elsewhere. These populations found work in heavy industry, above all in the teeming cities of central Germany, the Ruhr Valley, and along the Rhine River, such as Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Duisburg.
   As elsewhere in Europe, life for industrial workers was hard. In massive numbers, German workers joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), founded in 1875, and the labor unions affiliated with it to address concerns such as job safety and security, reduced working hours, protections for women and children, and the right to strike. To Bismarck, socialist criticism of the highly stratified industrial social order and aristocratic claims to political authority, combined with sympathy for laborers abroad, posed intolerable risks to the nation’s unity and long-term stability. Socialism threatened perpetual social unrest and undermined the national loyalty of industrial workers, the fastest growing segment of the population. In the late 1870s, he therefore disbanded the SPD and its unions, outlawed socialist propaganda, and criminalized associations that promoted socialist ideas. These Antisocialist Laws only drove more workers into the socialist camp and honed the parliamentary skills of SPD delegates, who, in the 1880s, pushed a government motivated both by fear of a radicalized working class and real humanistic concern to enact sweeping social welfare legislation, including national health and accident insurance. This legislation also established a social security system for the aged. In an 1890 political crisis that cost Bismarck his chancellorship, the Antisocialist Laws were officially retired, and the SPD emerged stronger and more politically astute than ever.
   Roman Catholics, the other major category of Reichsfeinde or “enemies of the Reich” in Bismarckian Germany, accounted for roughly one-third of the country’s 1871 population of 41 million inhabitants. They lived in regions such as Bavaria, Württemberg, and the Rhineland, which had either been annexed to Prussia early in the nineteenth century or had to be cajoled into joining the Prussian-dominated empire at the expense of cherished political and cultural traditions. Bismarck always mistrusted them. Their adherence to the “infallible” pronouncements of a foreign pope, their clericalism and dogmatic traditionalism, and their low social status clashed with the national consensus he was attempting to construct on the basis of liberal-Protestant anticlericalism, modern scholarly endeavor, and middle class social advancement. The participation of the clergy in mobilizing Catholic voters in the nation’s first elections emboldened Bismarck to strike against German Catholicism in the classic church-state confrontation of the nineteenth century, the Kulturkampf . Prussia led the way in this “struggle for culture” with legislation that expelled foreign Jesuits, imposed lay inspectors on Catholic-run schools, established civil marriage as compulsory in law, and dispatched state supervisors to seminaries and the houses of monastic orders. Priests in Prussia were even compelled to sit for “cultural” exams to test their knowledge of - and support for - the prevailing liberal-Protestant ethos. These measures galvanized Catholic support behind the Center Party, established in 1870 to defend Catholic interests against a hostile government. Led by the irrepressible Hanovarian Ludwig Windthorst, the Center became a thorn in Bismarck’s side and forced the Prussian government to rescind nearly all anti-Catholic legislation by the end of the decade.
   The Kulturkampf, however, was more than a Church-State struggle. It was also a conflict over the very definition of what it meant to be German in the infant national community. One reason nationalism had such powerful resonance in modern Germany was that Germans found defining a durable collective identity so difficult. Catholics and Protestants lived in different sociocultural “publics.” Better educated and more upwardly mobile, Protestants supported Imperial Germany’s official culture as articulated by the monarchy, the army, liberal business and academic elites, and their churches. This culture celebrated the ancient Germans and their revolt against the Roman Empire, as well as Martin Luther and his revolt against the Roman popes. It also respected modern knowledge and honored the philosophical contributions of Protestant titans like Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lastly, it promoted a middle class domestic experience of cultural attainment that shaped the personality through regular consumption of art, the Bible, the glorious histories of Protestant Prussia in arms, and the fiction of such giants of German literature and letters as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Roman Catholics, especially when antagonized by the Prussian state, reveled in an idealized medieval and pastoral past, when Church and State existed in harmony and society rested untroubled in organic integration. More modestly educated and provincial than urbanized Protestants, they welcomed the achievements of scientific learning but resisted the fragmentation of knowledge promoted by German universities and rejected any intellectual extremism that did not recognize the limits on science suggested by religion. Their philosophical champion remained the medieval Spanish saint Thomas Aquinas; their literary heroes still included venerable figures like the fourteenth-century Italian Dante Alighieri and the seventeenth-century Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes. They viewed the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century as a diabolical tragedy.
   So, whereas the social divide in Bismarck’s Germany had to do with disputes over economic structure and access to power, the confessional divide touched on core historical narratives and bedrock cultural commitments that originated from and reinforced competing identities. The polemics generated by this cleavage poisoned every aspect of public life. Middle class Protestants saw in the mass of lower-class rural, small-town, and working class Catholics a hostile population, whose alleged intellectual backwardness and cultural impoverishment thwarted the upward drive of the nation. Consequently, they discriminated against Catholics in all areas of civil society, from university and military appointments to job promotions and access to positions of cultural leadership, such as the boards of provincial museums and libraries. As late as 1914, only 18 percent of all civil servants were Catholics - half their percentage of the total population. This inequality and the ugly confessional rancor it generated, not least among Catholics who deeply resented their lack of parity with Protestant Germans, was a perpetual irritant to social relationships at the national and local levels and testifies that, despite national political unification, the German Empire was still building a German nation well into its history. The problems of national identity only intensified under the reign of the young Emperor Wilhelm II (r. 1888–1918), who proved inept at reforming a political system headed toward institutional paralysis and unable to establish a popular consensus behind the regime any more durable than the visceral fears and impulsiveness of patriotic nationalism.
   Society and Culture in Wilhelmine Germany
   Many historians have argued that the German Empire’s uneasy commingle of authoritarianism and democracy, as well as its forestalled national integration resulting from the persistence of premodern social relations and strident religious argument, explains Germany’s political catastrophe in the twentieth century. Germany followed a Sonderweg, or “special path,” to modernity, the thesis holds, which led from the Bismarckian constitution to world war and to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1930s. This picture of Germany under Wilhelm II as a stagnant and stifled, “misdeveloped” nation can be drawn too tightly. If imperial authorities felt constrained in their rule, it was because civil society in Wilhelmine Germany was so dynamic, the cultural voices within it so diverse and divergent, that it impinged on the monarchy’s maneuverability and undermined the government’s efforts in moving legislation to sustain the system and thereby to reassert its legitimacy. The élan of this civil society derived principally from the German middle class. The expansion of the German economy in the years 1888–1914 was striking. Annual growth ran at a brisk 4.5 percent. The heavy industries of mining and steel production increased in size and scope of enterprise, and metalworking took off owing to the rapidly expanding need for specialized parts, precision tools, and finely calibrated measuring instruments. German industrial research and applied science created new industrial sectors as well. Germany led the way in the lucrative electrical and heavy chemical industries. In 1891, the production of electricity contributed about 45 million marks to the economy. By 1913, this figure had risen to 1.3 billion. Thanks to innovations in pharmaceuticals and electrochemical production, Germany had become the world’s leading exporter of synthetic dyes by 1900. Germany was also a major European exporter of capital through an impressive network of banks centered in Berlin. The country’s enormous fleet of merchant ships, operating out of the ports of Hamburg, Kiel, and other maritime sites, helped increase Reich exports of manufactured goods and textiles 81 percent from 1889 to 1910. “Made in Germany” became a prestigious and highly coveted label in European and world markets, broadcasting Imperial Germany’s arrival as a major economic powerhouse.
   The occupational profile of German workers changed just as dramatically as the economy that shaped it. The percentage of workers employed in industry and craft production, as well as in trade, commerce, and transportation, rose to 55 percent by 1907; those involved in agriculture fell to less than 30 percent. As the economy diversified and as labor became more specialized, many new types of jobs appeared. These included legal and health aides, government service work in building code inspection, postal and railroad administration, and fishery management, as well as positions in the booming “white collar” sector of the economy, which offered employment - to women as well as men - as clerks and typists, small business assistants, and teachers and officials in Germany’s large public school system. Most German workers saw their real wages increase between 1885 and 1913, sometimes as high as 30 percent. National unemployment rarely exceeded 3 percent, and the average workweek fell from more than 70 hours in the late 1870s to 60 hours or less in the years before the war.
   Germany’s highly integrated and robust industrial economy also created yawning social inequalities. Industrial workers, for example, experienced rising real wages, greater job security, and shorter hours but also suffered from squalid living conditions, high food prices, and, unlike their comrades in other industrialized nations such as Britain and France, strained social and political segregation that limited their ability to improve their circumstances. There was very little social mobility between the classes in Germany and great gulfs of wealth and income distribution. Doomed to perennial penury, German industrial laborers grew increasingly frustrated with a social order that offered greater opportunities to slide down than move up. The winners in this economy were male members of the middle class - propertied and educated men who occupied positions of social and cultural influence. They were doctors, lawyers, professors, and other credentialed experts; writers, journalists, and cultural producers; and industrial captains and other business elite. Although a highly differentiated and ideologically fragmented stratum, they were united socially by their distance from the Junker aristocracy above and the impecunious wage laboring classes below, and culturally by the values of hard work, thrift, competition, and enterprise. Intensely nationalistic and concerned for the diffusion of German literary Kultur as an integrating force in a fractious polity, they valued public education and popular literacy; manners in a well-regulated everyday life; conspicuous consumption of approved art, books, and music; and the celebration of the nuclear and patriarchal middle class family. They presided over a vigorous civil society, which demonstrated their dynamic capacity for self-mobilization and social leadership. Wilhelmine Germany produced an extraordinarily rich artistic culture. New styles developed in painting, drama, poetry, opera, literature, and architecture. Publishing elites took advantage of mass literacy to create, by 1912, some 4,000 journals and newspapers addressing all audiences and interests, as well as an explosive pulp fiction market that filled leisure time with romance novellas, serialized crime stories, escapist travel accounts, tabloid spectacle, and an alarming volume of nationalist tracts that proclaimed Germany’s national and ethnic superiority over other European and world populations. Creative energy channeled into other pastimes as well, including cinemas, dance halls and cabarets, theaters, zoological gardens , convivial societies of every kind, such as hiking, choral, and gymnastics groups, and spectator sports, which drew massive weekend crowds. Complemented by aristocratic and court ceremonial; thousands of faith-based social, cultural, and charitable voluntary associations; and proletarian institutions that shaped the everyday experience of the working class, the sociability of Wilhelmine Germany supported a wide and colorful spectrum of cultural voices that lent essential substance to public opinion. When this opinion mobilized in Germany’s numerous elections, the flux, incoherence, and instability of German society became only more evident.
   Politics, Foreign Policy, and War
   Before 1890, elections in Imperial Germany could still appeal to a shared purpose of national community building. After 1890, elections turned primarily on concrete issues concerning, above all, reform of the Prussian electoral system and the achievement of social justice. The emergence of interest-based politics fragmented the electorate more than ever. It also sharpened a political rhetoric that was already drenched in militarism. This rhetoric, along with more sophisticated techniques of voter mobilization, placed added pressure on a Prusso-German authoritarian system, already under stress, by introducing new tensions and energies into the political arena. Voter mobilization in the countryside, for instance, engaged new strata of the rural population in agitation for such controversial measures as tariff protection, progressive taxation, and the abolition of the Reich’s restricted suffrage provision. Mobilization in the cities produced a number of anti-Semitic parties, which, although irrelevant by 1900, nonetheless testified to a society at odds with itself and a politics deeply tinged with the irrational. The introduction of other new voices into Germany’s political culture, including those of feminists, who demanded, however fruitlessly, access to the franchise, undermined even solid blocs of support, such as the Center Party had enjoyed, and made coalition politics difficult due to constantly shifting parliamentary majorities.
   The greatest threat to the system and the most dramatic development in German politics after 1890 was the rise of the SPD as a dominant party with enormous support among unhappy urban voters. While the Conservative Party receded and both the National Liberals and Progressives stagnated, the SPD skyrocketed in electoral power. With the retirement of the Antisocialist Laws in 1890, the SPD sent 35 delegates to the Reichstag, a new high. By 1912, this number had grown to 110, as the SPD drew almost 35 percent of all ballots cast. The red tide of the SPD was dangerous because it mobilized public opinion hostile to the core institutions of political authoritarianism, even as its broader critique of the social order destabilized the status quo. The party’s insistence on the urgency of political and social reform would not go away. The Center Party and the left-of-center Progressives occasionally worked with the SPD in a parliamentary coalition on some reformist policies, but the right-of-center National Liberals and Conservatives, which represented the entrenched interests of the state, would not. This intransigence in the face of the SPD’s advance threatened, as early as 1909 but certainly after the elections of 1912, political stalemate, in which the government could not obtain parliamentary backing for its policies.
   The gathering specter of political paralysis encouraged imperial elites to relieve domestic pressure by diverting public attention to foreign involvements. No one embraced the idea with greater ardor than Wilhelm II himself. Incapable of reforming the system he inherited from Bismarck, whom he unceremoniously dismissed from public service in 1890, he sought a way out of the crisis by demanding that Germany be recognized as a World Power. In this policy of Weltpolitik, he enjoyed broad-based popular support, voters for SPD candidates excluded, although patriotism was also lively enough among workers. Indeed, pride in the nation’s many economic and cultural achievements; regard for the army, which had an exceptional influence in determining national culture; and jingoist enthusiasm for an assertive foreign policy were the few matters on which there was parliamentary consensus. Naturally, national chauvinism was strongest in the military and naval leadership, in the Reich Foreign Office, and among Wilhelm’s court advisors. Transmitting nationalistic ideas to the population and often shaping elite opinion were a number of powerful extra-parliamentary pressure groups that whipped up the middle class for militarism, imperialism, and the notion of building a blue water navy as a platform for projecting German power abroad. These groups included the Colonial League, the Naval League, the Central Association of German Industrialists, and the Pan-German League, which was led by the vitriolic anti-Semite Heinrich Class. Germany’s foreign policy under Wilhelm II left the country wreathed with enemies. Bismarck’s preoccupation had been to solve the strategic conundrum of a country located in Central Europe with few natural borders and faced on multiple fronts with the prospect of war against a coalition of forces. Accordingly, he sought alliances with the conservative empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia to the south and east and the isolation of Germany’s traditional enemy, France, in the west, in part by an understanding with Great Britain. These arrangements, already in disarray when Wilhelm assumed the throne, were abandoned by the kaiser’s foreign ministry. In 1890, Wilhelm refused to extend the Reinsurance Treaty that Bismarck had signed with Russia. This prompted a precipitous decline in relations with Russia, whose government now approached France, thus leaving Germany with only the weak Austro-Hungarian monarchy to the south as a principal ally. Wilhelm then alienated Britain in two grave respects. Bismarck had resisted colonialism as an unnecessary impediment to good relations with the British Empire but, in 1884, nevertheless gave in to gathering domestic pressure to establish colonies in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia. These possessions brought negligible economic benefit to the Reich yet alarmed the British, whom Bismarck had reassured repeatedly that Germany was satisfied territorially. Under Wilhelm, however, German colonialism expanded to include such possessions as Togoland, the Cameroons, German East Africa (Tanzania), German Southwest Africa (Namibia), a handful of islands in the Pacific, a strip of land on the Southeastern coast of New Guinea, and Kiaochow off the coast of China. Further irritating to the British was Wilhelm’s obsession with building a “deterrent fleet” to dissuade any power from attacking Germany or challenging the Reich’s colonial interests. Germany’s 1897 decision to build a large surface fleet, and the provocative Naval Bills subsequently passed through the Reichstag, drove Great Britain and France, themselves colonial rivals, closer together. In 1904, they concluded a series of friendly agreements known as the Entente Cordiale; Russia, in fear of rising German militarism, joined them in 1907 in the Triple Entente. With the exception of its alliance with Austria-Hungary, Germany was now isolated. Yet its foreign policy only became more erratic, as it attempted to exploit diplomatic crises in such places as Morocco and the Balkans to weaken the ties of the powers now arrayed against it.
   Stalemated politically at home and all but encircled on its borders, Germany faced a nightmare scenario. Imperial elites in the military and foreign ministry talked openly of resolving the desperate domestic and geostrategic situation through war. Other Germans, including leading intellectuals and religious authorities, believed that a war might put an end to materialism, decadence, and the malaise of cultural despair by elevating the atoning values of righteous suffering and heroic self-sacrifice. Although it cannot be said that these Germans intrigued to provoke a war - and they certainly did not get the war they wanted - it is true that when an unexpected event set the march toward military conflict in motion they chose escalation and defiance over moderation and restraint.
   World War I (1914–1918) was a catastrophe for Imperial Germany and the German people. The general staff of the German army, led by Helmuth von Moltke, the nephew of the hero of the Seven Weeks’ War against Austria and the Franco-Prussian War, responded to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by running the calculated risk of a localized, short war that Germany could win by implementing the Schlieffen Plan. Drawn up by General Alfred von Schlieffen, the plan called for rapid mobilization to the west against France, which would be defeated in six weeks, followed by a rapid redeployment of forces to the east, by way of Germany’s dense railway network, to face Russia. Inflexible in its minute design, fantastical in its ignorance of the manpower and logistical requirements of moving massive armies burdened with tremendous strategic and tactical expectations and, above all, dismissive of the dreadful new realities of industrialized combat, the Schlieffen Plan broke down just miles outside of Paris. Its violation of Belgian neutrality triggered the Allied alliance system, bringing the full weight of the British Empire against Germany. The great trench and attrition battles on the Western Front against France, Britain, and eventually the United States - the Marne and Ypres in 1914, the Somme and Verdun in 1916, Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917, and the Ludendorff Offensives of the spring of 1918 - in addition to its bloody engagements with Russia and its allies and Italy, cost the German Army an astonishing 6 million casualties, including 2,043,000 war dead.
   The Burgfrieden, or “civil peace,” that Wilhelm declared at the outbreak of the war - which was supposed to subordinate party politics to the exigencies of the national enterprise - could not hold up against these terrible losses. The war did not resolve the manifold tensions that had long afflicted Germany, and whatever enthusiasm there may have been in August 1914 dissipated rapidly. Morale at home sagged as casualties mounted, consumer goods disappeared, crime rose, strikes broke out, censorship was imposed, people starved as a consequence of Britain’s naval blockade, and children came down with typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and rickets. Unable to relieve the misery and unwilling to open up the political structure until October 1918, when the German Army had already lost the war and was streaming back dejected across the nation’s frontiers, the Reich collapsed in utter exhaustion and comprehensive defeat. The army, led by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, both of whom would figure prominently in the later rise to power of the war veteran and political crusader Adolf Hitler, blamed this defeat on civilian elites in the Reichstag, whose interminable squabbling had “stabbed the army in the back.” Wilhelm II abdicated his throne on November 9 and fled to Holland, there to spend the rest of his life splitting wood, dreaming of what might have been, and uttering vile anti-Semitic diatribes. The German people, meanwhile, staggered forward into revolution, massive debt, international opprobrium, and a future no less divisive - politically, socially, or culturally - than that of the ill-fated Empire.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000;
    Berghahn, Volker R. Imperial Germany, 1871-1914: Economy, Society, Culture and Politics . Providence, RI, and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1994;
    Chickering, Roger. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 . Rev. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004;
    Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004;
    Röhl, John C. G. The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996;
    Smith, Helmut Walser. German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914 . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995;
    Smith, Woodruff D. The German Colonial Empire . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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