B: The Second Empire until 1914

B.1. The Bismarckian Empire, 1871-1890

The constitutional order:
Bismarckian Germany represented many compromises. First, it was a mixture of Prussian-dominated and confederate state. Prussia, with about two thirds of its territory and people, was by far the most powerful state in it (especially with the territories annexed in 1866), but the others had ways to make their interests felt. Second, the German Empire was not fully German. It had foreign minorites and it did not include many Germans outside it. Bismarck wanted to preserve Austria-Hungary (since 1867 a dual state under joint rule of the Austrian emperor, who was also Hungarian king), where most Germans outside his empire lived. He feared that the disintegration of Austria-Hungary would bring its Slavic population into the Russian orbit. On the other hand, including its Germans in the Second Empire would increase the weight of the Catholic population and thus increase religious conflict and strengthen the centrifugal tendencies in the Second Empire. This would have seemed to Bismarck too much like re-creating the German Confederation.

The Constitution of 1871, although it granted universal and equal manhood suffrage for the Reichstag and gave the Reichstag the right to approve or reject the budget, contained many conservative safeguards. Most important was the Bundesrat, the assembly of fifty-one representatives from the twenty-five single states. With its seventeen delegates, three more than were necessary for a veto, the Prussian Bundestag delegation alone could abort all legislation coming from a potentially more democratically inclined Reichstag. The representatives to the Bundesrat were appointed by their governments, and none of these governments was democratically constituted. In most states, parliaments continued to be elected by a restricted franchise that privileged property owners and excluded large segments of the population. The Prussian lower diet, for example, was elected by a property-based three-class suffrage, which allowed the richest men of the state to elect two thirds of the representatives. Most states also had an upper chamber, whose members were appointed by the kings or owed their seat to the privileges of old aristocratic families. These upper chambers, usually loyal to the rulers, were able to check the influence of the lower (popular) chambers.

In addition to this, the selection of mostly conservative people to work in the bureaucracy, the army, and the educational system was meant to ensure stability. The state discriminated against socialists, democrats, and (partly) Jews. The army, in Prussia as well as in the other states, had an almost extra-constitutional position and, subject to the emperor, could largely defy parliaments if necessary.

The conservative attitude of the army was of predominant importance. Universities and schools — like the administration — worked efficiently but aspired to remain as “non-political” as possible, with their non-political attitude usually clouding an authoritarian and conservative bias.

In short, the German constitutional order after 1871 differed significantly from American and French political culture in which constitutions were directed “by the will of the people.” Bismarck saw the German constitution and the Reichstag as granted by the German princes, a “gift” they could always take back. Whenever the Reichstag majority failed to support his policies he toyed with the idea of a coup d’état. This happened increasingly often in the years before 1890, as the social changes associated with the rise of a large industrial working class made a durable containment of the democratic forces appear increasingly difficult.

How united was the new empire?
Did Germans give up their former state loyalty for the sake of a new adherence to the empire? After all, the war of 1866 can be seen as a German civil war with Bavarians, Saxons and many others fighting Prussians. How much did things change with the foundation of the Second Reich?

Apart from the long-term developments in support of unification (economic and cultural), the empire was founded during a war with France. As Germans were fighting next to each other against the same enemy as in the wars of liberation in 1813-14, they felt a sense of common destiny forged in war. Prussia’s military effectiveness and economic prowess to many non-Prussians dwarfed the appeal of Austria, Prussia’s former rival in Germany. Although regional identities mattered (and to some extent still matter in Germany today), strong separate nationalisms never came into existence. If Germans expressed nationalist feelings, they usually displayed a German rather than Prussian, Hessian, or Württembergian nationalism. This sense of unity, however, proved more fragile than wartime enthusiasm and the joy of victory suggested.

The Junkers:
One group critical of the new settlement was the Prussian landed aristocracy (to which Bismarck belonged). Although the Junkers, who dominated Prussia itself, had strong influence on national politics as well, they only gradually reconciled themselves with Bismarck’s foundation of the new state; they always considered universal suffrage for the Reichstag a dangerous precedent for further democratization and — at least initially — saw their power threatened by the South Germans. Their Prussian loyalty, moreover, blended only reluctantly with German nationalism and never lost its distinctive flavor even when many Junkers adopted German chauvinism after the turn of the century.

The South Germans:
Another potential division in the new Reich came from the more liberal and democratic South of Germany. Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg had all adopted more liberal constitutions than Prussia, and the democratic movement held a far stronger position south of the Main River than north of it. Universal suffrage, however, gave Southern democrats an opportunity to vent their anti-authoritarian feeling by sending democratic deputies to the Reichstag.

The Catholics:
Religious division posed another problem to national unity. The south German states were predominantly Catholic, as were the Rhineland and Ruhr provinces that only recently (1815) had become part of Lutheran Prussia. Many Catholics felt uneasy about living in a state whose highest administration was so clearly dominated by Prussian Protestants. The Vatican increased their difficulties by condemning the encroachment of states on educational and church affairs. Challenged by growing anti-clericalism (hostility to the political role of the Church), the Vatican also issued a dogma of Papal infallibility. In order to defend the Church and its influence over education, Catholic politicians in Germany formed a new party, the Center Party.

Bismarck, in turn, saw Catholicism as a threat to the Reich’s unity and started to impose legal restrictions on Catholic education and worship (Kulturkampf). He expelled the Jesuit order and refractory bishops. The liberals, who considered the papacy backward and unenlightened, supported Bismarck’s legislation, thus completing a remarkable rapprochement with the politician the liberals had hated when he became Prussian prime minister in 1862. By the end of the 1870s, however, repressive measures seemed incommensurate to the threat Catholicism posed to the Reich. The fight against Catholicism also appeared to become counterproductive because it strengthened the Center Party. Apart from church issues, Bismarck and the Center Party agreed on many questions, so Bismarck abandoned the Kulturkampf and tried to win parliamentary support from the Center Party.

The liberals:
As Geoff Eley argues, national unification fulfilled the main political vision of the German liberals. Given the reluctance of the Junkers to support the new Reich, Bismarck, though a conservative Junker himself, sought support from the liberals and some moderate conservatives throughout most of the 1870s. Liberal majorities in the Reichstag helped pass his anti-Catholic legislation and welcomed his free trade policy. In 1879, however, big business and Junkers together demanded protective tariffs to ward off the effects of a global depression. Frenetic industrialization in Germany and elsewhere had made industrial production outgrow demand. Cheaper transportation, moreover, made grain from Russia and the United States competitive on the German market, thus threatening the precarious economic position of the slightly backward Junker domains. The tariff question and the issue of long-term military spending split the liberals into an outspokenly nationalist wing dominated by heavy industry and a democratic left.

The workers:
Another group not easily integrated into the empire were the workers. Intensive industrialization since the 1850s had increased the size of Germany’s industrial proletariat. In 1869 workers started to organize a socialist party and trade unions. Although the Socialist Party remained small and — to Karl Marx’s dismay — moderate during the 1870s, Bismarck and the state administration felt threatened by a potentially revolutionary force that was likely to grow with industrial progress. In opposition to many liberals, but with the support of the Center Party and the Conservatives, Bismarck issued repressive laws against socialist organizations from 1878 to 1890 (Anti-Socialist Laws). Socialist meetings and propaganda were forbidden, but the Socialist Party was still allowed to participate in elections and to keep its Reichstag group.

At the same time, Bismarck tried to woo the workers away from socialism by introducing social legislation. As he had tried to win over the poor masses by an almost revolutionary concession — universal and equal manhood suffrage — he now offered them health, old age, and accident insurance by the state. The German social welfare system became the most advanced in the world, but the workers had no interest in alms from the state. They wanted to be equal partners of the employers and to dictate social progress themselves. Bismarck’s patriarchal tutelage only radicalized socialist rhetoric, if not practice. Driven into partial illegality, the Socialist Party gained more and more support from the workers.

The national minorities:
One group never reconciled to the Reich were the non-Germans within its borders. They had the same political and civil rights as Germans, but administrative pressure tried to force them to minimize the importance of their non-German culture. These repressive policies often strengthened group cohesion among the minorities. Some inhabitants of Alsace and Lorraine spoke French, and many of those who spoke German as a first language considered themselves French rather than German. As a province administered by the Reich government and — until 1911 — without representation in the Federal Council, Alsace-Lorraine remained only half integrated. When the area became French again in 1918 the local population drove out the German troops in triumph. The national administration in Berlin as well as the civilian and — worst of all — the military authorities on the spot proved insensitive to the identity of Alsatians and Lorrains, particularly when they discovered that the German-speakers there were not happy about being reunited with their German relatives from across the Rhine.

A non-German minority existed also in the north of Schleswig, the province Prussia had occupied in 1864. The Danish population there formed its own party in the Reichstag but resented being governed by Berlin.

The Poles constituted by far the largest non-German minority in the Reich. Through the partitions of independent Poland in the 18th century, Prussia had acquired some provinces populated mostly by people who spoke Polish and increasingly felt some common bonds with each other and their relatives under Russian and Austrian rule. An independent Polish national state, however, would have claimed many Prussian, ergo German, territories and made Germans living there a foreign minority. Bismarck and even the German liberals, who had once considered Polish nationalism an admirable cause, therefore felt that strivings for a free Poland had to be repressed. Bismarck and his successors at times tried to “Germanize” the Poles in Prussia by declaring German the only language that could be spoken in offices and classrooms. (For a document on this, see H-German: Bismarck and the “Polish Question.”).

Repression tightened in the 1880s when the ratio between Poles and Germans changed in favor of the Poles because more Germans than Poles moved westward to Berlin and the industrial areas of the Ruhr. In spite of the national tensions, however, eastern Germany remained peaceful. Many Germans, mainly in the towns, disliked the Germanization policy of the central government in Berlin, and many Poles remained lukewarm toward Polish nationalism.

The Jews in Germany, about one percent of the population, can hardly be considered a national minority, as the great majority of them was assimilated. Having received full emancipation right before the foundation of the Reich, the Jews became a successful intellectual and academic elite. Anti-Semitic prejudice made careers more difficult but did not prevented them. Social problems arose when increasing numbers of mostly orthodox Jews from the Russian Empire migrated into Germany after 1880. The newcomers were unwelcome to many Germans and assimilated Jews alike. Philanthropy toward the mostly poor immigrants often consisted of a ship ticket to the United States or another European country.

Living in the Empire:
Although Wehler sees the Bismarckian Reich as a rather repressive country dominated and held together by the shrewd intrigues of Bismarck and the preindustrial elites, most contemporaries considered it a moderately tolerant, safe, and livable place. Everywhere one could count on justice and a capable, if often somewhat pedantic, administration. Although Germany was affected by the world-wide economic slump from 1873 to 1896, the national economy continued to grow. Discoveries in chemistry and electricity even made Germany a leader in these new fields of the industrial revolution.

The German workers and their families remained poor and often lived in crowded flats in dark, polluted industrial districts, but so did their European and American comrades, who had no social security net to rely on in case of an accident, sickness, or in old age. Altogether conditions for the German working class improved slowly, so that by 1914 the proletarian in Germany had more to lose than his chains, to echo the Communist Manifesto of 1848.

The farmers had either too small plots (as in the west of Germany) or too antiquated methods of production (in the case of many Prussian landlords) to defend their position on the market against the influx of food from Russia and the United States. Although the tariffs introduced in 1879 protected them for a while, the share of agricultural production in Germany declined rapidly in comparison to industrial output. But that was a typical symptom of the advanced stage of industrial revolution, and one must grant that agricultural production in Germany, though never fully competitive with foreign production, became much more effective during the Second Empire. Although poverty and social misery persisted just as in other industrialized countries, the basic food supplies were good enough to prevent large-scale hunger, and Germans in general enjoyed some measure of basic rights and protection.

Foreign policy:
After national unification Germany was the strongest military power on the Continent and probably in the world. But Bismarck was always worried about Germany’s dangerous geopolitical position between other great powers against which no natural protective walls existed. His foreign policy therefore remained cautious and peaceful. He considered Germany a saturated state. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine and the humiliating defeat in 1870 made French hostility to the German empire a constant element of European diplomacy. Bismarck thus always tried to keep France isolated. In 1879 he concluded a secret alliance with Austria-Hungary (Dual Alliance), and two years later he signed a defensive treaty with Russia and Austria. In 1882 Italy joined the German-Austrian alliance (Triple Alliance). Of the five other major powers in Europe three were now allied with Germany and one, Britain, was not interested in European alliances for the time being. The main rivals of the British were the French (in Africa) and the Russians (in Iran and the far East).

Although most of Bismarck’s agreements represented only informal commitments rather than strict alliances, he succeeded in staying on good terms with all powers except France. This was a remarkable achievement, particularly as all of Germany’s allies had significant conflicts among each other: Russia and Austria were the main rivals on the Balkans, and Italy wanted to “redeem” Austria’s Italian-speaking areas.

To secure Germany’s European position, Bismarck tried to stay out of the race for the colonization of African and Asian territories, which reached a new intensity in the 1880s. He saw that colonies led to many tensions between European nations and that most of the more developed and rich areas had long been claimed by other nations anyway. Only under strong domestic pressure did he agree to seize some lands in Africa and several Pacific islands. He made sure, however, that these acquisitions did not overly strain German relations to the other European states and seems to have been willing to trade away the colonies for other concessions by European powers at an opportune moment. Altogether, German foreign policy under Bismarck — in spite of the ambivalence and confusion of his treaties — looked reliable and stable. Although many European powers had only grudgingly tolerated the unification of Germany, they knew that they did not have much to fear from the new state under Bismarck’s leadership.

Go on to B.2.