History of Germany

Imperial Germany

The German Empire--often called the Second Reich to distinguish it from the First Reich, established by Charlemagne in 800--was based on two compromises. The first was between the king of Prussia and the rulers of the other German states, who agreed to accept him as the kaiser (emperor) of a united Germany, provided they could continue to rule their states largely as they had in the past. The second was the agreement among many segments of German society to accept a unified Germany based on a constitution that combined a powerful authoritarian monarchy with a weak representative body, the Reichstag, elected by universal male suffrage. No one was completely satisfied with the bargain. The kaiser had to contend with a parliament elected by the people in a secret vote. The people were represented in a parliament having limited control over the kaiser.

As had been the tradition in Prussia, the kaiser controlled foreign policy and the army through his handpicked ministers, who formed the government and prepared legislation. The government was headed by a chancellor, also selected by the kaiser, who served in this post at the kaiser's pleasure and could be dismissed by him at any time. The Bundesrat (Federal Council) represented Germany's princes. About one-third of its seats were held by Prussians. Conceived as an upper house to the Reichstag, the Bundesrat, like the Reichstag, was required to vote on legislation drawn up by the government before it became law. The Reichstag had no power to draft legislation. In addition, the government's actions were not subject to the Reichstag's approval, and the government was not drawn from the Reichstag, as is ordinarily the case in parliamentary democracies.

The government needed the approval of the Bundesrat and the Reichstag to enact legislative proposals, and the kaiser and his chancellor had many means of securing this approval. Conservative in nature, the Bundesrat was usually docile and needed little wooing. Compliant in the early years of the empire, the Reichstag, by contrast, became less so with time. The easiest means of controlling the Reichstag was to threaten it with new elections in the hope of getting a legislative body more attuned to the intentions of the government. During elections the government campaigned for the parties it favored, sometimes cynically conjuring up fears of national catastrophe if particular parties won many seats. The government also bargained with parties, granting them what they sought in exchange for votes. A last means of taming the Reichstag was to spread rumors of a possible coup d'état by the army and the repeal of the constitution and universal suffrage. This technique was used repeatedly in imperial Germany and could even frighten the conservative Bundesrat. However little many of the Reichstag members might like the empire's political order, the prospect of naked despotism pleased them even less.

Although the Reichstag did not wield real power, elections to it were hotly contested, and Bismarck and later chancellors and governments were concerned with their outcome. As more-democratic parties came to dominate in the Reichstag, governing became more difficult for the kaiser and his officials. During the later decades of the reign of Wilhelm II (r. 1888-1918), the empire's governing system experienced such difficulties that some conservatives advocated scrapping it, and democrats argued for a new, truly parliamentary system. A fear of these drastic choices and their possible effects caused Germany to muddle through with the existing system until the disaster of World War I culminated in that system's abolition.

Political Parties

Six major political parties were active in imperial Germany: the Conservative Party, the Free Conservative Party, the National Liberal Party, the Progressive Party, the Center Party, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands--SPD). Only the SPD survived both the empire and the Weimar Republic (1918-33) and came to play a vital role in the Federal Republic. Even though the German Empire lacked a genuinely democratic system, the six main parties accurately reflected the interests and hopes of most of its people.

The most right-wing of the six parties was the Conservative Party, which represented Prussian nationalism, aristocracy, and landed property. Many of its members remained opposed to German unification because they feared Prussia's gradual absorption by the empire. The Conservatives also detested the Reichstag because it was elected by universal suffrage. The Free Conservative Party represented industrialists and large commercial interests. The views of this party most closely matched those of Bismarck. Its members supported unification because they saw it as unavoidable. The National Liberal Party was composed of liberals who had accepted Germany's lack of full democracy because they valued national unity more. They continued to favor a laissez-faire economic policy and secularization. In time, National Liberals became some of the strongest supporters of the acquisition of colonies and a substantial naval buildup, both key issues in the 1880s and 1890s.

Unlike the members of the National Liberal Party, members of the Progressive Party remained faithful to all the principles of European liberalism and championed the extension of parliament's powers. This party was in the forefront of those opposed to the authoritarian rule of Bismarck and his successors. The Center Party was Germany's Roman Catholic party and had strong support in southern Germany, the Rhineland, and in parts of Prussia with significant Polish populations. It was conservative regarding monarchical authority but progressive in matters of social reform. Bismarck's brutal campaign against the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s--the Kulturkampf (cultural struggle), an attempt to reduce the church's power over education and its role in many other areas of German society--turned the Center Party against him. By the late 1870s, Bismarck had to concede victory to the party, which had become stronger through its resistance to the government's persecution. The party remained important during the Weimar Republic and was the forerunner of the Federal Republic's moderate conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union--CDU) and the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union--CSU).

The Marxist SPD was founded in Gotha in 1875, a fusion of Ferdinand Lassalle's General German Workers' Association (formed in 1863), which advocated state socialism, and the Social Democratic Labor Party (formed in 1869), headed by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, which aspired to establish a classless communist society. The SPD advocated a mixture of revolution and quiet work within the parliamentary system. The clearest statement of this impossible combination was the Erfurt Program of 1891. The former method frightened nearly all Germans to the party's right, while the latter would build the SPD into the largest party in the Reichstag after the elections of 1912.

Once Bismarck gave up his campaign against Germany's Roman Catholics, whom he had seen for a time as a Vatican-controlled threat to the stability of the empire, he attacked the SPD with a series of antisocialist laws beginning in 1878. A positive aspect of Bismarck's campaign to contain the SPD was a number of laws passed in the 1880s establishing national health insurance and old-age pensions. Bismarck's hope was that if workers were protected by the government, they would come to support it and see no need for revolution. Bismarck's antisocialist campaign, which continued until his dismissal in 1890 by Wilhelm II, severely restricted the activities of the SPD. Ironically, the laws may have inadvertently benefited the SPD by forcing it to work within legal channels. As a result of its sustained activity within the political system, the SPD became a cautious, pragmatic party, which, despite its fiery Marxist rhetoric, won increasing numbers of seats in the Reichstag and achieved some improvements in working and living conditions for Germany's working class.

The Economy and Population Growth

Germany experienced an economic boom immediately after unification. For the first time, the country was a single economic entity, and old impediments to internal trade were lifted. The federal chancellery published a new commercial code and established a uniform currency. The indemnity that France had to pay Germany after losing the 1870-71 war provided capital for railroad construction and building projects. A speculative boom resulted, characterized by large-scale formation of joint-stock companies and unscrupulous investment practices. This period of intense financial speculation and construction, called by Germans the Gründerzeit (founders' time), ended with the stock market crash of 1873.

Despite the crash and several subsequent periods of economic depression, Germany's economy grew rapidly. By 1900 it rivaled the more-established British economy as the world's largest. German coal production, about one-third of Britain's in 1880, increased sixfold by 1913, almost equaling British yields that year. German steel production increased more than tenfold in the same period, surpassing British production by far.

Industrialization began later in Germany than in Britain, and the German economy was not a significant part of the world economy until late in the nineteenth century. Germany's industrialization started with the building of railroads in the 1840s and 1850s and the subsequent development of coal mining and iron and steel production, activities that made up what is called the First Industrial Revolution. In Germany, the Second Industrial Revolution, that is, the growth of chemical and electrical industries, followed the enormous expansion of coal and steel production so closely that the country can be said to have experienced the two revolutions almost simultaneously. Germany took an early lead in the chemical and electrical industries. Its chemists became renowned for their discoveries, and by 1914 the country was producing half the world's electrical equipment. As a result of these developments, Germany became the continent's industrial giant.

Germany's population also expanded rapidly, growing from 41.0 million in 1871 to 49.7 million in 1891 and 65.3 million in 1911. The expanding and industrializing economy changed the way this rapidly expanding population earned its livelihood. In 1871 about 49 percent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture; by 1907 only 35 percent was. In the same period, industry's share of the rapidly growing workforce rose from 31 percent to 40 percent. Urban birth rates were often the country's highest, but there was much migration from rural areas to urban areas, where most industry was located. Berlin, by far the country's largest city and a major industrial center, grew from almost 1 million inhabitants in 1875 to 2 million in 1910. Many smaller cities, especially those in areas with much industry--such as the Ruhr region, the upper Rhine Valley, the Neckar Valley, and Saxony--tripled or quadrupled in size during this period.

The Tariff Agreement of 1879 and Its Social Consequences

The crash of 1873 and the subsequent depression began the gradual dissolution of Bismarck's alliance with the National Liberals that had begun after his triumphs of 1866. In the late 1870s, Bismarck began negotiations with the economically protectionist Conservative Party and Center Party toward the formation of a new government coalition. Conservative electoral gains and National Liberal losses in 1879 brought a conservative coalition to power. Bismarck then abandoned his former allies in the National Liberal Party and put in place a system of tariffs that benefited the landed gentry of eastern Prussia--threatened by imports of cheaper grains from Russia and the United States--and industrialists who were afraid to compete with cheaper foreign manufactured goods and who believed they needed more time to establish themselves.

Bismarck's alliance with the Prussian landowning class and powerful industrialists and the parties representing their interests had profound social effects. From that point on, conservative groups had the upper hand in German society. The German middle class began to imitate its conservative social superiors rather than attempt to impose its own liberal, middle-class values on Germany. The prestige of the military became so great that many middle-class males sought to enhance their social standing by becoming officers in the reserves. The middle classes also became more susceptible to the nationalistic clamor for colonies and "a place in the sun" that was to become ever more virulent in the next few decades.

Bismarck's Foreign Policy

Bismarck sincerely regarded the new German Empire as "satiated," that is, having no desire to expand further and hence posing no threat to its neighbors. The chancellor held that the country had to adjust to its new circumstances and that this would take decades. For this reason, he sought to convince the other European states of Germany's desire to live in peace, hoping thereby to secure Germany against attack. He aimed to arrange this security through a system of alliances. Believing that France would remain Germany's enemy because of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, an action he had opposed because of the enmity it would cause, he turned to other states.

Bismarck arranged an alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879 and one with Italy in 1882. His triumph, however, was a secret alliance he formed by means of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887, although its terms violated the spirit of the treaty with Austria-Hungary. However much these agreements contributed to German security, Bismarck's plunge into the European scramble for overseas colonies ultimately weakened it by awakening British fears about Germany's long-term geopolitical aims. Subsequent feelers he put out with a view to establishing an understanding with Britain were rebuffed. In 1890 Bismarck was dismissed by young Kaiser Wilhelm over a dispute about antisocialist legislation.

Foreign Policy in the Wilhelmine Era

Foreign policy in the Wilhelmine Era (1890-1914) turned away from Bismarck's cautious diplomacy of the 1871-90 period. It was also marked by a shrill aggressiveness. Brusque, clumsy diplomacy was backed by increased armaments production, most notably the creation of a large fleet of battleships capable of challenging the British navy. This new bellicosity alarmed the rest of Europe, and by about 1907 German policy makers had succeeded in creating Bismarck's nightmare: a Germany "encircled" by an alliance of hostile neighbors--in this case Russia, France, and Britain--in an alliance called the Triple Entente.

The first brick to fall out of Bismarck's carefully crafted edifice was Germany's Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. Harmed by Prussian trade policies, Russia did not renew the treaty and instead turned to France for economic assistance and military security. The two countries formally allied in early 1893. Britain joined them in 1907, even though France and Britain had nearly gone to war over a colonial dispute in 1898. Britain's main reason for abandoning its usual posture as an aloof observer of developments on the continent was Germany's plan to build a fleet of sixty battleships of the formidable Dreadnought class.

The German naval expansion program had many domestic supporters. The kaiser deeply admired the navy of his grandmother, Queen Victoria of Britain, and wanted one as large for himself. Powerful lobbying groups in Germany desired a large navy to give Germany a worldwide role and to protect a growing German colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific. Industry wanted large government contracts. Some political parties promoted naval expansion and an aggressive foreign policy to win votes from a nervous electorate they kept worked up with jingoistic rhetoric.

The chief figure in promoting the naval buildup was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who is considered the founder of the modern German navy. Tirpitz was an effective spokesman for the program and had the ear of the kaiser and his advisers. In 1898, after the Reichstag passed the first Naval Bill, Anglo-German relations deteriorated. The Supplementary Naval Act of 1900 further strained relations with Britain, as did a proposed Berlin-Baghdad railroad through the Ottoman Empire, a project that threatened British as well as Russian interests in the Balkans. Two crises over Morocco, in 1905 and 1911, drove France and Britain closer together and made for a tense international atmosphere. The great powers remained neutral during the Balkan Wars (1912-13), a nationalist rebellion against Ottoman rule, but European tensions were increased still further, and the expectation that there would eventually be war on the continent became more certain.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, set off a series of diplomatic and military decisions that would end peace in Europe. The kaiser gave a so-called blank check to his ally, Austria-Hungary, saying that Germany would support any Habsburg measure taken against Serbia, which had backed the assassination. Austria-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia in late July was so harsh that war became inevitable. Within days, a set of interlocking alliances had Europe's great powers embroiled in what would become World War I.

World War I

Germany's leadership had hoped for a limited war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. But because Russian forces had been mobilized in support of Serbia, the German leadership made the decision to support its ally. The Schlieffen Plan, based on the assumption that Germany would face a two-front war because of a French-Russian alliance, required a rapid invasion through neutral Belgium to ensure the quick defeat of France. Once the western front was secure, the bulk of German forces could attack and defeat Russia, which would not yet be completely ready for war because it would mobilize its gigantic forces slowly.

Despite initial successes, Germany's strategy failed, and its troops became tied down in trench warfare in France. For the next four years, there would be little progress in the west, where advances were usually measured in meters rather than in kilometers. Under the command of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the army scored a number of significant victories against Russia. But it was only in early 1918 that Russia was defeated. Even after this victory in the east, however, Germany remained mired in a long war for which it had not prepared.

Germany's war aims were annexationist in nature and foresaw an enlarged Germany, with Belgium and Poland as vassal states and with colonies in Africa. In its first years, there was widespread support for the war. Even the SPD supported it, considering it a defensive effort and voting in favor of war credits. By 1916, however, opposition to the war had mounted within the general population, which had to endure many hardships, including food shortages. A growing number of Reichstag deputies came to demand a peace without annexations. Frustrated in its quest for peace, in April 1917 a segment of the SPD broke with the party and formed the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany. In July the Reichstag passed a resolution calling for a peace without annexations. In its wake, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was forced to resign, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to exercise a control over Germany until late 1918 that amounted to a virtual military dictatorship.

Military leaders refused a moderate peace because they were convinced until very late in the war that victory ultimately would be theirs. Another reason for their insistence on a settlement that fulfilled expansionist aims was that the government had not financed the war with higher taxes but with bonds. Taxes had been seen as unnecessary because it was expected that the government would redeem these bonds after the war with payments from Germany's vanquished enemies. Thus, only an expansionist victory would keep the state solvent and save millions of German bondholders from financial ruin.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, Russia and Germany began peace negotiations. In March 1918, the two countries signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The defeat of Russia enabled Germany to transfer troops from the eastern to the western front. Two large offensives in the west were met by an Allied counteroffensive that began in July. German troops were pressed back, and it became evident to many officers that Germany could not win the war. In September Ludendorff recommended that Germany sue for peace. In October extensive reforms democratized the Reichstag and gave Germany a constitutional monarchy. A coalition of progressive forces was formed, headed by SPD politician Friedrich Ebert. The military allowed the birth of a democratic parliament because it did not want to be held responsible for the inevitable armistice that would end the war on terms highly unfavorable to Germany. Instead, the civilian government that signed the truce was to take the blame for the nation's defeat.

The political reforms of October were overshadowed by a popular uprising that began on November 3 when sailors in Kiel mutinied. They refused to go out on what they considered a suicide mission against British naval forces. The revolt grew quickly and within a week appeared to be burgeoning into a revolution that could well overthrow the established social order. On November 9, the kaiser was forced to abdicate, and the SPD proclaimed a republic. A provisional government headed by Ebert promised elections for a national assembly to draft a new constitution. In an attempt to control the popular uprising, Ebert agreed to back the army if it would suppress the revolt. On November 11, the government signed the armistice that ended the war. Germany's loses included about 1.6 million dead and more than 4 million wounded.

Signed in June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles limited Germany to an army of 100,000 soldiers. The treaty also stipulated that the Rhineland be demilitarized and occupied by the western Allies for fifteen years and that Germany surrender Alsace-Lorraine, northern Schleswig-Holstein, a portion of western Prussia that became known as the Polish Corridor because it gave Poland access to the Baltic, and all overseas colonies. Also, an Allied Reparations Commission was established and charged with setting the amount of war-damage payments that would be demanded of Germany. The treaty also included the "war guilt clause," ascribing responsibility for World War I to Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Germany History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress