For the German Empire as proclaimed in March 1849, see Paulskirchenverfassung.
For German colonial territories, see German Colonial Empire.
Deutsches Reich
German Empire
Flag of the German Empire Wappen Deutsches Reich - Reichsadler 1889
Flag Coat of arms
Gott mit uns
(German: "God with us”)
Emperor's anthem: Heil dir im Siegerkranz
German Empire, Wilhelminian third version
Territory of the German Empire in Europe; 1914, prior to World War I
Capital Berlin
Language(s) Official: German
Unofficial minority languages: Danish, French, Frisian, Polish, Sorbian
Religion Lutherans~60%
Roman Catholics~30%
Government Constitutional monarchy
 - 1871–1888 William I
 - 1888 Frederick III
 - 1888–1918 William II
 - 1871–1890 Otto von Bismarck (first)
 - 8–9 Nov 1918 Friedrich Ebert (last)
Historical era New Imperialism
 - Unification January 18
 - Republic declared November 9
 - Formal abdication 28 November, 1918
 - 1910 540,857.54 km² (208,826 sq mi)
 - 1871 est. 41,058,792 
 - 1890 est. 49,428,470 
 - 1910 est. 64,925,993 
     Density 120 /km²  (310.9 /sq mi)
Currency Vereinsthaler, South German gulden, Bremen thaler, Hamburg mark, French franc
(until 1873, together)
Goldmark (1873-1914)
Papiermark (after 1914)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Flag of the German Empire North German Confederation
Flag of Bavaria (striped) Kingdom of Bavaria
Flagge Königreich Württemberg Kingdom of Württemberg
Flagge Großherzogtum Baden (1871-1891) Grand Duchy of Baden
Flagge Großherzogtum Hessen ohne Wappen Grand Duchy of Hesse
Flag of France Alsace-Lorraine
Weimar Republic Flag of Germany (2-3)
Republic of Alsace-Lorraine Flag of the Republic of Alsace-Lorraine
Free City of Danzig Gdansk flag
Second Polish Republic Flag of Poland
Klaipėda Region Flag of Lithuania 1918-1940
Saar (League of Nations) Flag of Saar 1920-1935
Hlučín Region Flag of Bohemia
Northern Schleswig Flag of Denmark
Eupen-Malmedy Flag of Belgium
Area and population not including colonial possessions
Area source:[1] Population source:[2]

The German Empire is the name commonly used in English to describe Germany from the unification of Germany and proclamation of William I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a German republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of Wilhelm II (28 November 1918). During its 47 years of existence, the German Empire emerged to become one of the most powerful industrial economies in Europe and a formidable great power, until it collapsed following its military defeat in World War I and the concurrent November Revolution.

The most important bordering states were the Russian Empire in the east, France in the west, and Austria-Hungary in the south.

Bismarck's founding of the empire Edit

Main article: Unification of Germany

Under the guise of idealism giving way to realism, German nationalism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848[citation needed] to Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck's authoritarian Realpolitik. Bismarck wanted to unify the rival German states to achieve his aim of a conservative, Prussian-dominated Germany. Three wars led to military successes and helped to convince German people to do this: the Second war of Schleswig against Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War against Austria in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War against the Second French Empire in 1870–71. During the Siege of Paris in 1871, the North German Confederation, supported by its allies from southern Germany, formed the German Empire with the proclamation of the Prussian king Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, to the humiliation of the French, who ceased to resist only days later.

Bismarck himself prepared a broad outline—the 1866 North German Constitution, which became the 1871 Constitution of the German Empire with some adjustments. Germany acquired some democratic features. The new empire had a parliament with two houses. The lower house, or Reichstag, 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 1900s, rural areas were grossly overrepresented.

Legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the states. Executive power was vested in the emperor, or Kaiser (Caesar), who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. 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. While the Reichstag had the power to pass, amend or reject bills, it could not initiate legislation. The power of initiating legislation rested with the chancellor.

Although nominally a league of equals, in practice the empire was dominated by the largest and most powerful state, Prussia. It contained three-fifths of Germany's territory and two-thirds of its population. The imperial crown was hereditary in the House of Hohenzollern, the kings 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.

While the other states retained their own governments, the military forces of the smaller states were put under Prussian control, while 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. Although authoritarian in many respects, the empire permitted the development of political parties.


Die Proklamation des Deutschen Kaiserreiches by Anton von Werner (1877), depicting the proclamation of the foundation of the German Reich (18 January 1871, Palace of Versailles).
Left, on the podium (in black): Crown Prince Frederick (later Frederick III), his father Emperor William I, and Frederick I of Baden, proposing a toast to the new emperor.
Centre (in white): Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of Germany, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Chief of Staff.

The evolution of the German Empire is somewhat in line with parallel developments in Italy which became a united nation state shortly before the German Empire. Some key elements of the German Empire's authoritarian political structure were also the basis for conservative modernization in Imperial Japan under Meiji and the preservation of an authoritarian political structure under the Tsars in the Russian Empire.

One factor in the social anatomy of these governments had been the retention of a very substantial share in political power by the landed elite, the Junkers, due to the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban areas.

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 percent 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.

Germany emerges as an industrial powerEdit

Under the leadership of Prussia and Bismarck, Germany had emerged as a nation and as a world power. In 1871, her 39 separate states, after centuries of discord, had united at last. The kings of Saxony and Bavaria, the princes, dukes and electors, Brunswick, Baden, Hanover, Mecklenburg, Württemberg, Oldenburg, all paid allegiance to the king of Prussia, the Kaiser. This unity fulfilled a deep wish in German hearts; it gave them a sense of destiny, and with unity there came an extraordinary upsurge of energy and expansion.

In 1871, there were 41 million citizens in the German Empire. In 1913 there were nearly 68 million, an increase of more than half. And more than half of them were living in towns and cities.

But it was not merely an expansion of population. The foundations of economic strength at the turn of the century were steel and coal – Germany had made great strides with both:

  • Steel production multiplied by 12 in 30 years
  • Coal production multiplied by nearly five in 30 years
  • Manufactures multiplied by four
  • Exports multiplied by three
  • Exports of chemicals multiplied by three
  • Exports of machinery multiplied by five

In 30 years, Germany’s share in world trade had risen by a third. Now, in 1914, Germany was the most powerful industrial nation in Europe. The epitome of her industrial might lay in the firm of Krupp, whose first factory was built in Essen. By 1902, the factory alone had become “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.”

Germany delighted in the prowess of Krupp’s. When Alfred Krupp died in that year, the Kaiser attended his lavish funeral and called him “a German of the Germans.” In 1914, the firm employed 80,000 workers. They lived in Krupp houses, their babies were delivered by Krupp doctors, their children educated in Krupp schools, they bought at Krupp stores, borrowed books from Krupp libraries, married in the Krupp church and were buried in the Krupp cemetery. Under Bismarck, Germany had come closer than any other state to modern conceptions of social welfare. German workers enjoyed sickness, accident and maternity benefits, canteens and changing rooms and a national pension scheme before these were even thought of in more liberal countries. Yet the life of the workers was hard. The steel mills operated a 12-hour day and an 80-hour week. Neither rest nor holidays were guaranteed. In Germany, as in every industrial state, there was poverty and protest.

By 1912, the Marxist Social Democratic Party was the strongest party in the Reichstag, the German parliament. But the Reichstag did not rule Germany. The Kaiser ruled Germany through officials whom he personally appointed. “No one,” said Winston Churchill, “should judge Kaiser Wilhelm II without asking the question, ‘What should I have done in this position?’” “Imagine yourself brought up to believe that you were appointed by God to be the ruler of a mighty nation. Imagine succeeding in your twenties to the prizes of Bismarck’s three victorious wars. Imagine feeling the magnificent German race bounding beneath you in ever-swelling numbers, strength, wealth and ambition. And imagine on every side the thunderous tributes of the crowds and the skilled, unceasing flattery of the court.”

With this background, subjected to these pressures, trying to hide a left arm withered from birth, for 30 years Wilhelm II vexed and perturbed the peace of Europe—but always short of war. His first public utterance when he came to the throne was addressed not to the people but to the army:

We belong to each other, I and the army. We were born for each other and will indissolubly cleave to each other. I promise ever to bear in mind that from the world above the eyes of my forefathers look down on me, and that I shall one day have to stand accountably to them for the glory and honour of the army.[citation needed]

Those were not empty words. The German Kaiser was also the King of Prussia, and it was for the sake of Prussian strength that the other Germany—the Germany of the merchants, the industrialists, the musicians, the philosophers—had accepted its rule. The Prussian influence was seeping in through the whole nation. It was above all a military influence, well described by one of its advocates, then-General of Infantry Paul von Hindenburg:

The army trained and strengthened that mighty organising impulse which we found everywhere in the Fatherland. The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.

Constituent states of the Empire Edit

Deutsches Reich1

Member states of the German Empire (Prussia shown in blue).

German colonial

The German Colonial Empire in 1914.

See also: States of the German Empire (1871)

Before unification, German territory was made up of 26 constituent states. These states consisted of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory. The Kingdom of Prussia was the largest of the constituent states, covering some 60 percent of the territory of the German Empire.

Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Others were created as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Territories were not necessarily contiguous - many existed in several parts, as a result of historical acquisition, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling family trees.

Each component of the German Empire sent representatives to the Imperial Council (Bundesrat) and 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 German Emperor could, for example, intervene on occasions of disputed or unclear succession was much debated on occasion - for example with the Lippe-Detmold inheritance crisis.

State Capital
Kingdoms (Königreiche)
Flag of Prussia 1892-1918 Prussia (Preußen) Berlin
Flag of Bavaria (striped) Bavaria (Bayern) Munich
Flagge Königreich Sachsen (1815-1918) Saxony (Sachsen) Dresden
Flagge Königreich Württemberg Württemberg Stuttgart
Grand duchies (Großherzogtümer)
Flagge Großherzogtum Baden (1871-1891) Baden Karlsruhe
Flagge Großherzogtum Hessen ohne Wappen Hesse (Hessen) Darmstadt
Flagge Großherzogtümer Mecklenburg Mecklenburg-Schwerin Schwerin
Flagge Großherzogtümer Mecklenburg Mecklenburg-Strelitz Neustrelitz
Oldenburg Flagge Oldenburg Oldenburg
Flagge Großherzogtum Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach (1813-1897) Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach) Weimar
Duchies (Herzogtümer)
Flagge Herzogtum Anhalt Anhalt Dessau
Flagge Herzogtum Braunschweig Brunswick (Braunschweig) Braunschweig
Flagge Herzogtum Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha (1826-1911) Saxe-Altenburg (Sachsen-Altenburg) Altenburg
Flagge Herzogtum Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha (1911-1920) Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha) Coburg
Flagge Herzogtum Sachsen-Meiningen Saxe-Meiningen (Sachsen-Meiningen) Meiningen
Principalities (Fürstentümer)
Flagge Fürstentum Lippe Lippe Detmold
Flagge Fürstentum Reuß jüngere Linie Reuss, junior line Gera
Flagge Fürstentum Reuß ältere Linie Reuss, senior line Greiz
Flagge Fürstentum Schaumburg-Lippe Schaumburg-Lippe Bückeburg
Flagge Fürstentümer Schwarzburg Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt Rudolstadt
Flagge Fürstentümer Schwarzburg Schwarzburg-Sondershausen Sondershausen
Flag of Germany (3-2 aspect ratio) Waldeck-Pyrmont Arolsen
Free Hanseatic cities (Freie Hansestädte)
Flag of Bremen Bremen
Flag of Hamburg Hamburg
Flag of the Free City of Lübeck Lübeck
Imperial territory (Reichsland)
Dienstflagge Elsaß-Lothringen Kaiserreich Alsace-Lorraine (Elsaß-Lothringen) Straßburg

Bismarck era Edit

Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck.

Template:History of Germany

Bismarck's domestic policies played a great 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.


Industrialization 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 United States. The German textiles and metal industries had by the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War surpassed those of Britain in organization and technical efficiency and usurped British manufacturers in the domestic market. Germany became the dominant economic power on the continent and was the second largest exporting nation after the US. By the turn of the century, the German metals and engineering industries would be producing heavily for the free trade market of Britain. By the time of World War I (1914–1918) the German economy had switched to supplying its military with the proper equipment needed to fight the war. This included the production of rifles (Gewehr 98), pistols (P08 Luger), machine guns (Maxim machine gun), mortars (Minenwerfer), and several other heavy and light artillery pieces. Additionally, Imperial Germany was leading in the sectors of physics and chemistry so that one third of all Nobel Prizes went to German inventors and researchers.


After achieving formal unification in 1871, Bismarck devoted much of his attention to the cause of national unity under the ideology of Prussianism. Conservative Catholic activism and emancipation, conceptualized by the conservative turn of the Vatican under Pope Pius IX and its dogma of Papal Infallibility, and working class radicalism, represented by the emerging Social Democratic Party, in many ways both reacted to concerns of dislocation by very different segments of German society, brought by a rapid shift from an agrarian-based economy to modern industrial capitalism under nationalist tutelage. While out-and-out suppression failed to contain either socialists or Catholics, Bismarck's "carrot and stick" approach significantly mollified opposition from both groups.

One can summarize Bismarck's ideology under four objectives: Kulturkampf, social reform, national unification, and Kleindeutschland.


Following the incorporation of the Catholic German states in the south and some areas in the east, Catholicism, represented by the Catholic Centre Party, was seemingly the principal threat to unification process. Southern Catholics, hailing from a much more agrarian base and falling under the ranks of the peasantry, artisans, guildsmen, clergy, and princely aristocracies of the small states more often than their Protestant counterparts in the North, initially had trouble competing with industrial efficiency and the opening of outside trade by the Zollverein. Roman Catholic institutions were obstructed and Catholic influence on society was fought by the Bismarck government. After 1878 however, the struggle against socialism would unite Bismarck with the Catholic Centre Party, bringing an end to the Kulturkampf, which had led to far greater Catholic unrest than existed beforehand and had strengthened rather than weakened Catholicism in Germany.

Social reformEdit

To contain the working class and to weaken the influence of socialist groups, Bismarck reluctantly implemented a remarkably advanced welfare state. 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.

National unificationEdit

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.


Two visions of what the German Empire should territorially comprise were debated during Bismarck's tenure. One vision was of a Großdeutschland (Greater or Large Germany), and the other, preferred by Bismarck, was a Kleindeutschland (Lesser or Small Germany). Großdeutschland then especially espoused by German liberals and Pan-German nationalists was that Germany should be an all-encompassing state for all Germans including Austrian territory (some wanting all of Austro-Hungarian territory, some only wanting German Austrian lands). Kleindeutschland was an idea espoused by Bismarck and Prussian conservatives. While the Kleindeutschland concept included millions of non-Germans (mainly Poles) its believers thought that incorporating all of Austria-Hungary into Germany would result in the destabilization of the German state due to the even greater number of ethnic minorities in Austria-Hungary. Also, the largely Prussian supporters of Kleindeutschland feared that even the incorporation of German Austria alone excluding non-German territory, would weaken Prussia's control over the direction of Germany and substantially increase the number of Roman Catholics in a state which already had tensions with the Protestant north establishment and Catholic south which the state wanted to assimilate. Kleindeutschland was an important element of the German Empire's political affairs and stands in stark contrast to Nazi Germany[citation needed] which claimed itself to be a successor to the German Empire, even though Nazi Germany followed a Pan-German, Großdeutschland approach which dismantled Prussian hegemony in Germany in favour of a centralized and totalitarian state.


One of the effects of the unification policies was the elimination of the use of non-German languages from public life, schools and academic settings with the intent of pressuring the non-German population to abandon their national identity or leave the country in what was called "Germanization". The strict Germanization policies had often the reverse effect of stimulating resistance, usually in the form of home schooling and tighter unity in the minority groups.

The Germanization policies were targeted particularly against the significant Polish minority of the empire, gained by Prussia in the Partitions of Poland. Laws were made that denied Poles the right to build homes in territories acquired in the Partitions of Poland[3], restricted the right to speak Polish in public meetings, and in 1908 a law was made allowing for expulsion of Poles from their homes[3]. A Settlement Commission was set up and funded by the government in 1885, with a mission to distribute Polish owned land among German colonists. However, the Poles founded an organization of their own to defend themselves against the German settlement commission. In the 1880s mass expulsion of some 24,000 Poles to Russian Poland that weren't granted German citizenship were organized by German authorities. This act was heavily criticized by leftist German political parties and Bismarck himself was sceptical about it[citation needed] but he was concerned about possible "revolutionary elements" among the Poles from Russian Poland. Polish associations tried to fight for their rights without success[citation needed], and although some Polish deputies were elected to the Reichstag, they were greatly outnumbered by German representatives hostile to their cause.[citation needed]


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.

Year of three emperors Edit


Frederick III, emperor for only 99 days (9 March – 15 June 1888).

Main article: Year of Three Emperors

On 9 March 1888, William 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,[4] while his links to the United Kingdom 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 in the expected direction and a blow to Bismarck's administration.

However, by the time of his coronation, Frederick had developed incurable laryngeal cancer, which had been diagnosed the previous year on 12 November 1887 by British doctor Morell Mackenzie.[5] Frederick died on the 99th day of his rule, on 15 June 1888. The death of Frederick III led to the crowning of his son Wilhelm II as emperor. Due to the rapid succession of these three monarchs, 1888 is known as the Year of Three Emperors (German: Dreikaiserjahr).

Wilhelmine era Edit

Relegitimizing the royal chair and Bismarck's resignationEdit

Kohner - Kaiser Wilhelm II

William II, German Emperor.
Oil painting by Max Koner, 1890.

Wilhelm II intended to relegitimize the importance of the imperial throne at a time when other monarchies in Europe were being subordinated into figurehead positions. This decision led the ambitious Kaiser into conflict with Bismarck who was confident in his leadership and had no intention of relinquishing any powers to the young Kaiser and instead wanted Wilhelm II to be dependent on him.[6] A major 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."[7] Instead of repression being used, Wilhelm had the government proceed with negotiations with a delegation sent from the coal miners which resulted in the strike coming to an end without violence.[7] This was the beginning of a rift between Wilhelm II and Bismarck. Bismarck defied Wilhelm's demands for greater power by forming political coalitions with political parties which Wilhelm did not praise.[6] The fractious relationship ended after Wilhelm II and Bismarck had a dispute, and the latter resigned days later in March 1890.[6]

With the departure of Bismarck as chancellor, Wilhelm II became the dominant leader of Germany. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm I, who was satisfied with leaving government affairs to the chancellor, Wilhelm II wanted to be active in the affairs of Germany and wanted to be a knowledgeable leader, not an ornamental figurehead.[8] Wilhelm voluntarily received economics tutoring from the controversial Walther Rathenau. From Rathenau, Wilhelm learned about European economics and industrial and financial realities in Europe.[8]

In official appearances and photographs, Wilhelm II tried with some success to conceal his withered left arm which he had due to Erb's Palsy since his traumatic breech birth. Wilhelm would become internationally known for his aggressive foreign policy positions and strategic blunders which pushed the German Empire into political isolation and later into World War I.

Domestic affairsEdit


The Reichstag in the 1890s / early 1900s.

Under Wilhelm II, Germany no longer had long-ruling strong chancellors like Bismarck. The new chancellors had difficulty in performing their roles, especially their additional role as Prime Minister of Prussia that was assigned to them in the German Constitution. Reforms made by Chancellor Caprivi involving trade liberalization which brought about a reduction in unemployment were supported by the Kaiser and many Germans, except for Prussian landowners, who feared loss of land and power and set up a number of anti-Caprivi campaigns against the reforms.[9].

While Prussian aristocrats challenged the demands of a united German state, in the 1890s, a number of rebellious organizations were set up to challenge the authoritarian conservative Prussian militarism which was instilled on the country. Some educators acted in opposition of the German state-run schools which taught military education and set up their own independent liberal-minded schools which encouraged individuality and freedom.[10] Nevertheless, the schools in Imperial Germany had a very high standard and dealt with modern developments.[11] Artists began experimental art in opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm's demands for traditional art in which Wilhelm responded "art which transgresses the laws and limits laid down by me can no longer be called art […]."[12] At the same time, a new generation of cultural producers emerged.[13] The most dangerous opposition to the monarchy came from the newly formed Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in the 1890s which advocated Marxism. The threat of the SPD towards the German monarchy and industrialists caused the state to both crack down on socialist supporters as well as initiating social reform to sooth tensions. 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 members of a trade union. Pensions, sickness benefits and even housing were provided to employees by the big industries to reduce social unease.[10]

Wilhelm II, unlike Bismarck, set aside differences with the Roman Catholic Church and put the government's energy into opposing socialism at all cost.[14] This policy failed when the Social Democrats won a third of the votes in the 1912 elections to the Reichstag (imperial parliament), 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 immigrate to the United States.

During World War I, the Kaiser's powers were devolved to a two-man dictatorship in 1916 led by the German High Command leaders, future President of Germany, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff. The Kaiser was no longer seen as a hero figure to Germans, while Hindenburg and Ludendorff were seen as the nation's true heroic leaders. The Kaiser remained a figurehead for the remaining two years of the war until his abdication in 1918.

Foreign affairsEdit

Main article: German colonial empire

Wilhelm II wanted Germany to have her "place in the sun", not unlike the British with whom he constantly wished to compete and often emulate. With German traders and merchants already engaged world-wide, he encouraged colonial efforts in Africa and the Pacific ("new imperialism"), in essence for the German Empire to stand up to other European powers for the remaining “unclaimed” territories. Germany acquired German Southwest Africa (todays Namibia), German Kamerun (Cameroon), Togoland, and German East Africa (the mainland part of current Tanzania). Islands were gained in the Pacific through purchase and treaties, as well as a 99-year lease for the territory of Kiautschou in north east China. Only Togoland and German Samoa (after 1908) became self-sufficient and profitable, all other territories required subsidies from the Berlin treasury for building infrastructure, school systems, hospitals and other institutions. With the financial backing of Deutsche Bank, the Baghdad Railway was constructed with the cooperation of the Ottoman Empire with the intention of gaining a foothold in the Middle East.[15] In an interview with Wilhelm II 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 grant Britain the unhindered completion of her Cape to Cairo pursuits.[16] Building the Baghdad Railway from 1900–1911 was initially supported by the United Kingdom. However, as time passed, the British increasingly saw Germany as a vigorous competitor in the region where it believed it alone should dominate and demanded retrenchment, a block to the expansion of the railway in 1911; this demand was acquiesced to by Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Colonial efforts were treated at first contemptuously by Bismarck; he engineered a Euro-centric foreign policy as shown by the treaty arrangements during his tenure in office. Since Germany was a latecomer to colonization, conflicts occurred with the established colonial powers on a number of occasions. Native insurrections in German territories became print media events, especially in Britain; the established powers had dealt with their uprisings decades before, often brutally, and had installed firm controls by then. The Boxer Rising in China with its later sponsorship by the Chinese authorities had its beginning in the Shandong province, in part because Germany, as colonizer at Kiautschou, was the sole untested power and only a short two years on the scene. When Wilhelm II spoke during departure ceremonies for the German contingent to the eight-nation international relief force in China, an impromptu, but intemperate and inopportune reference to the Hun invaders of continental Europe would later be resurrected by British propaganda to mock Germany during World War I and World War II. On two occasions, a French-German conflict over the fate of Morocco seemed inevitable.

Upon acquiring Southwest Africa, German settlers were encouraged to cultivate land held by the Herero and Nama. Herero and Nama tribal lands were used for a variety of exploitive goals (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 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) perished. The commander of the punitive expedition, General Lothar von Trotha,and Prince Pas'cal von der Cush, were eventually relieved and reprimanded for their usurpation of orders and the cruelties they had inflicted. These occurrences were sometimes referred to as "the first genocide of the twentieth 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.

German attitudes and inattention in letting the Bismarck designed treaties lapse, and Germany's support of her ally Austria-Hungary in occupying Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, caused diplomatic relations to deteriorate with Tsarist Russia, and a potential alliance with Britain to evaporate. By 1914, the nation’s erratic foreign policy left Germany isolated with one loyal ally, Austria-Hungary. Germany's other official treaty partner, the Kingdom of Italy, remained an ally only pro forma, and saw more benefit in entering into alliances which could take eventually the largely German-speaking territory of South Tyrol from Austria-Hungary in a future conflict, which did occur.

World War I and the end of the Empire Edit

Main article: History of Germany during World War I

German Empire 1871-1918

Following the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke of Austria-Este, Francis Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, Kaiser Wilhelm II offered Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph full support of Austro-Hungarian plans to invade the Kingdom of Serbia, which nation Austria-Hungary blamed for the assassination. This unconditional support for Austria-Hungary was called a blank cheque by historians. Subsequent interpretation - for example at the Versailles Peace Conference - was that this "blank cheque" licensed Austro-Hungarian aggression regardless of the diplomatic consequences, and thus Germany bore responsibility for starting the war, or at least provoking a wider conflict.

The German perspective at the time was different, in that the German government expected Serbia to buckle under pressure from Austria-Hungary; and even if a war were to take place it would remain regional in that Russia, Serbia's main supporter, would not dare declare war on Austria-Hungary if it knew that this would mean war with Germany as well[citation needed]. These assumptions backfired when Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, in which Germany backed Austria-Hungary. France and Britain went to the side of Russia, as the Triple Entente and the German Empire and Europe faced a massive war.

Germany began the war by targeting its major rival, France. Germany saw France as its principal danger on the European continent as it could mobilize much faster than Russia and bordered Germany's industrial core in the Rhineland. Unlike Britain and Russia, the French were principally involved in the war for revenge against Germany, in particular, for France's loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871. The German high command knew that France would muster its forces to go into Alsace-Lorraine. Germany did not want to risk lengthy battles along the French-German border and instead adopted the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy designed to cripple France by invading Belgium and Luxembourg, sweeping down towards Paris and encircling and crushing the French forces along the French-German border in a quick victory. After defeating France, Germany would turn to attack Russia. The plan required the violation of Belgium's and Luxembourg's official neutrality. At first the attack was successful: the German army swept down from Belgium and Luxembourg and was nearly at Paris, at the nearby Marne river. However the French army put up a strong resistance to defend their capital at the First Battle of the Marne resulting in the German army retreating.

The aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne was a long-held stalemate between the German army and the Allies with the use of dug-in trench warfare. Further attempts to break through deeper into France failed at the two battles of Ypres with huge casualties. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn decided to break away from the Schlieffen Plan and instead focus on a war of attrition against France. Falkenhayn targeted the ancient city of Verdun because Verdun had been one of the last cities to hold out against the German army in 1870, and Falkenhayn knew that as a matter of national pride, the French would do anything to ensure that Verdun would not be taken. Falkenhayn anticipated that with correct tactics, French losses would be more than the Germans and that continued French recruits being sent to Verdun would cause the French army to "bleed white" and then allow the German army to take France easily. In 1916, the Battle of Verdun began, with the French positions in Verdun under constant shelling and poison gas attack and taking large casualties under the attack of an overwhelmingly large German forces. However Falkenhayn's prediction of a greater ratio of French killed proved to be wrong. With Falkenhayn's replacement by Erich Ludendorff and no success in sight at Verdun, the German army retreated in December 1916.

Map Treaty of Brest-Litovsk-en

Borders drawn up in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

While the western front was a stalemate for the German army, the eastern front proved to be a great success. The badly organized and supplied Russian army faltered and the German and Austro-Hungarian armies steadily advanced eastward. The Germans benefited from political instability in Russia and a desire to end the war. In 1916, the German government allowed Russia's communist Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin to travel through Germany from Switzerland into Russia. Germany believed that if Lenin could create further political unrest, Russia would no longer be able to continue its war with Germany, allowing the German army to focus on the western front.

In 1917, the Tsar was ousted from the Russian throne and later a Bolshevik government was created under the leadership of Lenin. Facing political opposition to the Bolsheviks, Lenin decided to end Russia's campaign against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria in order to redirect its energy to eliminating internal dissent. In 1918, at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik government gave Germany and the Ottoman Empire an enormous territorial settlement in exchange for an end to war on the eastern front. This settlement including all of modern-day Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) which were given to the German occupation authority Ober Ost, and Belarus and Ukraine also were given to Germany. As a result, Germany had at last achieved the long-wanted land of "Mitteleuropa", and now could fully focus on destroying the Allies on the western front.

On the colonial front, German results were mixed. Much of Germany's colonies fell to the British and French armies, however in German East Africa, an impressive campaign was waged by the colonial army leader there, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would remain long respected as a military commander then and after by the native Askaris whom he commanded. Lettow-Vorbeck used guerilla raids against British forces in Kenya and Rhodesia as well as invading Portuguese Mozambique to give his forces supplies and to pick up more Askari recruits. Upon his return to Germany, in March 1919, Lettow-Vorbeck led his repatriated soldiers through the decorated Brandenburg Gate in Berlin giving the defeated nation her only victory parade.

Despite success on the Eastern Front in 1918, Germany was not making progress on the western front for three reasons. The first was war exhaustion; German soldiers had been on the battlefield constantly without relief and, after failing to break the British and French armies in offensives in March and April 1918 despite the transfer of large numbers of troops from the Eastern Front, had lost hope in the chance of a victory. The second was civil unrest because of the war effort. The concept of "total war" in World War I, meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces and, with German commerce being stopped by the British naval blockade, German civilians were forced to live in increasingly meagre conditions. Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced. The winter of 1916–17 was called the "turnip winter". During the war, about 750,000 German civilians died from malnutrition.[17] Many Germans wanted an end to the war and increasing numbers of Germans began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party which demanded an end to the war. The third reason was the entry of the United States into the war. With a surprise attack by a German U-Boat (submarine) against the liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 which was carrying American civilians (though the Germans suspected it was bringing supplies to Britain) and Germany's subsequent declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain in 1917, American public sentiment moved from neutrality to interventionism. While U.S. involvement was smaller than that of World War II, the American entry was devastating to the Germans because unlike Britain, France or Germany itself, the United States forces were not worn down by the war attrition which had affected the other countries.

In November 1918, with internal revolution, a stalemated war, Austria-Hungary falling apart from multiple ethnic tensions, and pressure from the German high command, Emperor William II, who was by this time merely a figurehead, abdicated the throne along with the German high command, leaving the disastrous scenario to be blamed on the new government led by the German Social Democrats which called for and received an armistice on 11 November 1918 which marked the end of World War I and the end of the German Empire. It was succeeded by the democratic, yet flawed, Weimar Republic.


The German Empire left a legacy of mixed fortunes for Germany and Europe. Under Bismarck, a united German state had finally been achieved, however, it remained a Prussian-dominated state and it did not have German Austria within it as Pan-German nationalists had desired. Influence of Prussian militarism, the Empire’s colonial efforts and its vigorous, competitive industrial prowess caused a negative view of the state. The German Empire enacted a number of progressive firsts, such as establishment of a system of public welfare (still in place today), other social reforms, as well as guaranteeing freedom of press. There was also a modern election system to the federal parliament, the Reichstag, which represented every adult man by one vote. This enabled the Socialists and the Catholic Centre Party to play remarkable roles in the empire's political life.

The history of the German Empire is well remembered in Germany as a period when academic research and university life flourished as well as arts and literature. Thomas Mann published his novel Buddenbrooks in 1901. Theodor Mommsen was awarded the Nobel prize for literature a year later for his Roman history. Painters like the groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke made a significant contribution to modern art. The AEG turbine building in Berlin by Peter Behrens from 1909 can be regarded as a milestone in classic modern architecture and an outstanding example of emerging functionalism. The social, economic, and scientific successes of this Gründerzeit, or founding epoch, have led the Wilhelmine era to sometimes be regarded as a golden age.

In the field of economics the "Kaiserzeit" lay the foundation of Germany being one of the world's leading economic powers. Especially the iron and coal industry of the Ruhr area, at the Saar Bassin and in Upper Silesia contributed much to that process. The first motorcar was constructed by Karl Benz in 1886. The enormous growth of industrial production and industrial potential also led to a rapid urbanisation of Germany, which turned the Germans into a nation of city dwellers.

The empire's support of Austria–Hungary's invasion of Serbia against Russia's opposition has been seen by a number of historians as a major influence in what caused the clash of alliances in Europe which resulted in the massive war later known as World War I. The defeat and aftermath of World War I and the territorial and economic losses imposed by the Treaty of Versailles caused enormous ramifications for the new German republic, such as defining what the German state was and how it should operate. Conservatives, liberals, socialists, nationalists, Catholics, and Protestants all had their own interpretations, which led to a fractious political and social climate in Germany in the aftermath of the empire's collapse.

There is a considerable historical debate over the Sonderweg question, concerning whatever the nature of German politics and society during the German Empire made Nazi Germany inevitable. Some historians, such as Fritz Fischer, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Wolfgang Mommsen, have argued that during the German Empire, a "pre-modern" aristocratic elite became entrenched in German society and thus doomed the Weimar Republic to failure before it was even born. Other historians, such as Gerhard Ritter, have argued that it was only World War I and its aftermath that opened the doors to Nazism.

Territorial legacy Edit

In addition to present-day Germany, large parts of what comprised the German Empire now belong to several other modern European countries:

German name Country Region
Elsass-Lothringen France The then-German-speaking départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin (Alsace region) and Moselle (north-eastern part of the Lorraine region)
The Eupen und Malmédy area
(intentionally spelled with é only then)
Belgium Eupen and Malmedy, two towns and surrounding municipalities in the province of Liège, on the German border
Nordschleswig Denmark South Jutland County
Hultschiner Ländchen (The Sudetenland which stretched along the border to Germany belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire) Czech Republic Hlučín Region, on the border to Poland in Silesia, from which Germans were deported following WWII (as from the whole Sudetenland)
Central and eastern Pommern, Schlesien, Ostbrandenburg, Ermland, Masuren, Westpreußen, Southern Ostpreußen
Also Posen (Wartheland).
Poland the northern and western parts of the country, including Pomerania, Silesia, Lubusz Land, Warmia and Masuria, from all of which Germans were deported following WWII.
Northern Ostpreußen with Königsberg Russia Kaliningrad Oblast exclave on the Baltic, from which Germans were deported following WWII.
Memelland with Memel (city) Lithuania Klaipėda Region, including the Baltic coastal city of Klaipėda, from which Germans were deported following WWII.

Claims to continued existence Edit

Since 1985, a number of German fringe groups and individuals – collectively labeled Kommissarische Reichsregierungen (KRR) – assert that the Empire continues to exist in its pre-World War II borders and that they are its government.[18]

References Edit

  1. "German Empire: administrative subdivision and municipalities, 1900 to 1910" (in German). Retrieved on 2007-04-25. 
  2. "Population statistics of the German Empire, 1871" (in German). Retrieved on 2007-04-25. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Imanuel Geiss, Der polnische Grenzstreifen 1914-1918. Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Kriegszielpolitik im Ersten Weltkrieg, Hamburg/Lübeck 1960
  4. Kitchen, Martin (2000). Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany. Cambridge University Press. pp. 214. ISBN 978-0521794329. 
  5. Judd, Denis (1976). Eclipse of Kings. Stein & Day. pp. 13. ISBN 978-0685701195. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Kurtz, Harold (1970). The Second Reich: Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Germany. McGraw-Hill. pp. 60. ISBN 978-0070356535. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Stürmer, Michael (2000). The German Empire: 1870–1918. New York: Random House. pp. 63. ISBN 0679640908.. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kurtz, Harold (1970) 63
  9. Kurtz, Harold (1970) 67
  10. 10.0 10.1 Kurtz, Harold (1970) 72
  11. Lüke, Martina G.: Zwischen Tradition und Aufbruch. Deutschunterricht und Lesebuch im Deutschen Kaiserreich. Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 978-3-631-56408-0.
  12. Kurtz, Harold (1970) 76
  13. Jefferies, Matthew: Imperial Culture in Germany, 1871–1918. New York and London: Palgrave, 2003.
  14. Kurtz, Harold (1970) 56
  15. Stürmer, Michael (2000) 91
  16. Louis, Ruanda-Urundi 1884-1919, p. 163
  17. German Historical Museum. "1914–18: Lebensmittelversorgung" (in German). 
  18. Thiriet, Maurice (11 March 2009). "«Reichsführerschein» im Thurgau nicht gültig" (in German). Tages-Anzeiger. Retrieved on 2009-03-25. 

Further reading Edit

  • Aronson, Theo. The Kaisers. London: Cassell, 1971.
  • Blackbourn, David and Eley, Geoff. The Peculiarities Of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics In Nineteenth-Century Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984 ISBN 0-19-873058-6.
  • Craig, Gordon. Germany: 1866-1945, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1978 ISBN 0-19-822113-4.
  • Fischer, Fritz. From Kaiserreich to Third Reich: Elements of Continuity in German History, 1871-1945. (translated and with an introduction by Roger Fletcher) London: Allen & Unwin, 1986. ISBN 0-04-943043-2.
  • Fischer, Fritz. War of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914. (translated from the German by Marian Jackson) New York: Norton, 1975. ISBN 0-393-05480-2.
  • Geiss, Imanuel. German Foreign Policy 1871-1914. USA: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. ISBN 0-7100-8303-3
  • Jefferies, Mattew. Imperial Culture in Germany, 1871-1918. New York and London: Palgrave, 2003. 1-4039-0421-9.
  • Louis, Wm. Roger. Ruanda-Urundi 1884-1919. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1963.
  • Lüke, Martina G.: Zwischen Tradition und Aufbruch. Deutschunterricht und Lesebuch im Deutschen Kaiserreich. Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 978-3-631-56408-0.
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang. Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture, and Society in an Authoritarian Sate. (translated by Richard Deveson from Der Autoritäre Nationalstaat) London: Arnold, 1995. ISBN 0-340-64534-2.
  • Nipperdey, Thomas. Deutsche Geschichte 1800 - 1918. Arbeitswelt und Bürgergeist. Machtstaat vor der Demokratie. 3 vols. Beck: München, 1998, ISBN 978-3-406-44038-0.
  • Retallack, James. Germany In The Age of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire : Macmillan ; New York : St. Martin's Press, 1996 ISBN 0-312-16031-3.
  • Ritter, Gerhard. The Sword and the Scepter; the Problem of Militarism in Germany. (translated from the German by Heinz Norden) Coral Gables: University of Miami Press 1969-73.
  • Schollgen, Gregor. Escape into War? The Foreign Policy of Imperial Germany. UK: Berg, 1990. ISBN 0-85496-275-1.
  • Stürmer, Michael. The German Empire, 1870-1918. New York: Random House, 2000. ISBN 0-679-64090-8.
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. The German Empire, 1871-1918. (translated from the German by Kim Traynor) Leamington Spa, Warwickshire: Berg Publishers, 1985. ISBN 0-907582-22-2.
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