The Social Democrats: 

The anti-socialist laws had strengthened but also radicalized and ostracized the socialist workers’ movement. The fall of the anti-socialist laws in 1890 allowed the SPD to build up a centrally organized mass party. Membership grew impressively: 100,000 in 1890; 1.1 million in 1914. Votes rose as well: 1.4 million in 1891, 4.25 million in 1912 – from 19 to 34 percent of the overall vote. The SPD drew its strength from the big cities and industrial areas such as the Ruhr, Saxony, and Berlin. In Berlin 75% voted for the SPD in 1912. The SPD was underrepresented in rural and Catholic areas. The free (socialist) trade unions had 2.5 million members in 1914, more than twice the party’s membership.

The SPD was a distinctive party. Whereas most bourgeois parties were rather informal associations with few permanent members and a minimal bureaucracy, the SPD became a home to its members and, together with the trade unions, formed a state within the state. The SPD and the socialist trade unions built up an extensive bureaucracy and formed an alternative cultural and social network. Working men and women joined Socialist clubs, sports teams, men’s and women’s choirs, and poetry groups; socialist associations and institutions existed for almost everything, from party or union-sponsored child care centers to funeral homes; working-class people read the party newspaper and many of the theoretical works by their leaders printed by socialist publishing houses; whenever they felt that the state-supported social security system proved insufficient they could join the union’s health and accident insurance or draw from the union’s poverty funds.

This alternative structure was made possible because members of the SPD and the free trade unions were generally disciplined and willing to sacrifice time and money for the sake of the whole organization. It mirrored the exclusion of the Socialists from the regular channels of political power in the Second Empire. The bourgeois parties formed alliances against the SPD, the Conservatives mobilized the countryside against them, and the Catholic Center Party attacked them as a godless party. Wilhelm II and his government chastised them for allegedly denying and betraying their fatherland, and careers in the bureaucracy and army were almost impossible for Socialists.

Even when the SPD became stronger in the Reichstag and local parliaments, there was no question of letting it participate in government. Discrimination was widespread, but one must also admit that the SPD’s own revolutionary rhetoric and internationalist posture often antagonized the bourgeois parties and state authorities. Nevertheless, one could only wish that the bourgeois parties would have opposed the Nazis in 1930-33 as tenaciously as they resisted Socialist influence before 1914!

To some ironic observers, the SPD seemed like a mirror image of the Prussian state: bureaucratically organized, disciplined, hierarchic (though more democratic), with a venerated leader at the top. August Bebel, the party chief, was often called the “Workers’ Kaiser.” The goals of his party, however, were contradictory. The party program (1891) had two parts, a declaration of principle and a practical plan. These parts, written by different party leaders, contradicted each other, at least in political practice.

The first was Marxist. It aimed at the socialization of the means of production and a classless society. The second part was pragmatic and demanded social and democratic reform, a democratic constitution and women’s suffrage. It was unclear whether or not the reform path was meant to lead to a classless society implied by the first part — and would thus make a revolution superfluous — or if it aimed at creating a social welfare state within the framework of a still capitalist society. Marx considered revolution necessary for the overthrow of bourgeois society, but a “revisionist” group of Socialists around Eduard Bernstein disagreed. The discrepancy between the revolutionary and reformist path became the party’s main inner conflict. The left wing considered revolution indispensable and wanted to prepare for it (although this would have led the party into illegality). The right wing believed that reforms were possible in the Wilhelmine Empire and that a gradual improvement of the legal, political, and social situation of the proletariat might result from peaceful political work. The party’s impressive electoral success and the growth of the socialist trade unions supported this view. A centrist group, finally, used the revolutionary rhetoric to distance themselves from the existing state and to increase the cohesion of the SPD while pursueing a reformist course in their everyday activity.

Socialists, not only in Germany, did not agree on what to make of the development of modern industrial societies. Many of them thought that Marx and Engels believed in inevitable immiseration of the proletariat leading automatically to revolution. After the end of a long depression in 1896, however, the situation of the working people grew better. Combined pressure of party and trade unions could help to improve conditions without revolution. Marx had claimed that this reformist path would fail because the capitalists would be unable to make the necessary concessions in the long run. Unions, so Marx, would be able to wring wage increases from the employers up to a certain point; then the whole system would turn against them and only revolution could prevent the workers from falling back into bondage. Marx’s most loyal heirs feared that successful reformism would mitigate class conflicts and thus give the doomed capitalist systema new lease on life.

The SPD and the socialist trade unions, however, had too much to lose to build up a radical revolutionary party like the Russian Bolsheviks, a party run in exile and in the underground by a handful of dedicated revolutionaries. The German Social Democrats were caught in the dilemma between successful reformism and revolutionary principle. Karl Kautsky, the party’s chief ideologue, put it as follows: “the SPD is a revolutionary party, but not one that organizes revolutions.” Although this conflict was never resolved, the inherent dualism did not do as much harm to the SPD as could have been expected. Until 1914 it proved to be more of an integrating than a splitting force. The revolutionary appeal attracted frustrated workers, while the reformist program steadily and visibly increased the party’s wealth and parliamentary strength. Many socialists, moreover, needed the revolutionary legitimation for their reformist practice.

This became clear in the party debate on Bernstein’s revisionism. In opposition to Marx, Bernstein advocated a socialism that allowed for cooperation with left-wing liberals and, if feasible, for participation in government. He suggested that the SPD drop the revolutionary claim and integrate itself into the existing state, trying to democratize it from within. This was too much for the party doctrinaires, however. Bernstein’s revisionism caused a party scandal. But after the party had condemned revisionism one of the party leaders told Bernstein in private: “Look, dear Ede, we all practice reformism. Always do it, but never speak about it!”

That the reformists did not stand up more forcefully and failed to win control of the party was to a large degree the effect of continuing pressure from the political system and the right-to-center parties. Threats of renewed repression of the SPD never ended, and many other parties tried to build a stable block against Social Democrats, excluding the SPD from all political influence.

The dualism within the party became more accentuated in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1905. After the Russian armed forces had lost the war with Japan social and political tensions erupted in the Tsarist Empire. Bourgeois liberals together with socialists fought for a constitutional system and a national parliament, the Duma. The workers went on a general strike, and the Tsar, left without much armed support, made concessions, most of which he withdrew in the following two years. The outburst of revolutionary activity in Russia nevertheless inspired socialists all over the world. German socialists, in particular, thought about the general strike as a means of political struggle. But while reformists wanted to use it merely as a defensive weapon in case Wilhelm II tried to carry out a coup d’état, the radicals on the Left hoped to use the general strike as a prelude to revolution. This alienated the trade unions, which did not want to risk their achievements and funds in a revolutionary gamble for power. The conflict was not resolved when the First World War polarized the socialist movement further, pitting a patriotic majority against an initially small pacifist and revolutionary minority.

It also remained unclear how the reformists would hope to win power in the state. A socialist Reichstag majority would not have been able to bring down the chancellor and to change the constitution – it would probably have provoked more repression. Moreover, the SPD’s doctrinarianism set limits for its growth at the polls. The Social Democrats, for instance, never managed to appeal to the farmers, not even to the poor rural laborers on the estates of the Junkers. Marxist theory predicted that the agrarian sector would be mostly absorbed by the industrial sector. After the proletarian revolution large agricultural collectives would ensure the essential supplies. This program — help up by the SPD — could not appeal to farmers, who felt that the SPD threatened their property rights. Altering the program, however, would have shaken the SPD’s theoretical foundation.

Altogether, despite its limitations, the rise of organized labor in Wilhelmine Germany was an impressive success story. Germany had by far the strongest worker party and free trade unions in the world. The debates within the SPD were closely followed by all socialists in the entire world. Bebel was an authority venerated or at least respected by socialists around the world, and the Second International, the organization of all socialist parties, was virtually dominated by the SPD. But international observers could not help but wonder whether the SPD’s revolutionary and internationalist rhetoric was serious. Josef Stalin, later the dictator of the Soviet Union, once watched German workers getting ready to board a train ready to take them to a neighboring city in which a big workers’ demonstration was scheduled. However, the railroad official whose duty it was to invalidate the train tickets before people could board the train was not on his post. The German workers got upset but remained outside the gate until the train left. Nobody broke through the gate without an invalidated ticket or stormed the train. Stalin watched with amazement and wondered how such workers would ever be able to undertake a revolution.

For the text of the Socialist International Hymn, see H-German: Die Internationale (1888)

The Jews:
In the light of the Nazi crimes Jews in Wilhelmine Germany have received special attention. Most German Jews had become highly assimilated. This often resulted in a conspicuous modernity of their forms of life. Jewish families had few children, the women were relatively emancipated, and some Jews showed a predilection for modern art and technology. Assimilation went so rapidly that Jews often seemed the epitome of modernity to outsiders. Conservatives with their cultural criticism of modernity therefore singled out the Jews as a target. Although many Jews remained traditionalist, those who became “modern” were more conspicuous than the others. (Assimilation did thus not lead to “normalization” of the Jews.)

Latent and open anti-Semitism existed. Toward the end of the long depression, in the early 1890s, an anti-Semitic party was founded that drew its support mostly from rural areas. But it received no more than 3.4% at the Reichstag elections of 1893 and faltered not much later. Other manifestations of anti-Semitism, however, forced many Jews reluctantly to identify themselves as a group again, much as they wanted to be German and consider religion and descent a private matter. Exclusion from fraternities, for instance, compelled Jewish students to found their own organizations. Like Social Democrats, Jews had limited access to the administration, the highest academic rank, and the officer corps, although it proved possible for some of them to reach the rank of a state secretary (which would have been impossible for a Social Democrat).

All separate Jewish organizations, however, always stressed that German Jews had no political agenda in common with non-German Jews. Jewish ethnic ties, they argued, were no more than an historical memory and did not matter in the present. Politically, German Jews predominantly adhered to the liberals, mostly to their left wing. Some Jews supported the Social Democrats, but the conspicuous position of Jewish intellectuals in the SPD’s leadership made Jewish support for socialism look much bigger than it was. Zionism did not find many followers; in any case, the German Zionists until shortly before 1914 regarded Palestine as a homeland for Eastern European Jews rather than for themselves.

German Jews shared the patriotic enthusiasm triggered by the outbreak of the war in 1914. They were particularly inspired by the fight against the Jew-baiting Tsarist autocracy. Almost exactly the same proportion of the Jewish and non-Jewish population fought in the German front lines, and the death toll was comparable, too. In Eastern Europe, Jews greeted the advancing German troops as liberators from Russia. Germans, in turn, “discovered” Yiddish as a language related to an older form of German. But the strains of war after 1916 fanned anti-Semitism mainly on the Right and, in particular, among the Pan-Germans. Rightist newspapers started questioning the Jews’ commitment to national defense, and popular resentment of war profiteers often mixed with anti-Semitism. Later, under the “threat” of democratization and socialist revolution, rightists denunciated democracy and socialism as “Jewish inventions” meant to undermine the strength of the German people. Many Jews were alarmed at the rise of anti-Semitism but hoped that it would calm down after the war. During the Weimar Republic, the Zionist movement thus gained momentum and centered on Germany, while more Jewish intellectuals emphasized a Jewish culture separate from Germany. The majority of German Jews, however, continued to identify with Germany. Even after 1933 many German Jews, having emigrated after the first wave of anti-Jewish terror in early 1933, returned to Germany.

In any case, it would be wrong to see German-Jewish relations only under the aspect of the Holocaust. There was confrontation, but there was also a lot of productive coexistence. There were many mixed marriages: Tirpitz’s wife was half-Jewish, and Stresemann and General Seeckt, both important figures of the 1920s, were married to Jewish women. Altogether, German (and Austrian) Jews made some of the greatest cultural and intellectual contributions to world history, if one considers the achievements of Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Albert Einstein, Max Reinhardt, Theodor Adorno, and many, many others.

No doubt, anti-Semitism did exist in Wilhelmine Germany, but I see no reason to point to German anti-Semitism as having been any more prevalent, nasty, or eliminationist than anti-Semitism in other countries. In many ways, France, Austria, and Russia seemed more openly anti-Semitic than Germany. The Dreyfus Affair in France sparked some of the worst tirades against Jews. Vienna elected an anti-Semite as city mayor in the late 1890s (one should mention, however, that the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph disliked anti-Semitism and refused to counter-sign the appointment of the elected mayor for several years). There was a lot of anti-Jewish feeling in the non-German parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, too. Pogroms were common, moreover, in the Russian Empire, where they often received support from state officials. The “Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion,” an alleged plan for a Jewish world conspiracy, was a vicious Russian forgery that at times received governmental support in Russia. Pogroms continued in Eastern Europe even after the First World War; I once found a protest of the German women’s movement against a Polish pogrom in early 1919. The protest also contained an admonition to Germans not to let anti-Semitism thrive in their own country.

The women’s movement:
With some roots going back to the revolution of 1848, a German women’s movement constituted itself in the last decade of the nineteenth century. As in other maturing industrial states, women got increasingly involved in work within the “tertiary sector” (office clerks, administrative jobs). They started to gain economic power while the law still subordinated them strictly to husbands and fathers. Bourgeois women, mostly schoolteachers, believed that women in these new professions needed to be protected and organized. A broad range of women’s clubs was founded, many of which joined an umbrella organization, the League of German Women’s Associations (Bund deutscher Frauenvereine; BDF). The BDF advocated equal rights and better access of women to education. Some of its member associations wanted female suffrage. But the BDF also contained non-political organizations who hoped to provide support for women in the new professions or to organize women for voluntary auxiliary work in society.

Outside the BDF a vocal socialist women’s movement emerged, but it saw women’s liberation more as an ultimate outcome of a socialist revolution rather than a goal that it could pursue together with bourgeois women in the BDF. To the right of the BDF existed a spectrum of patriotic women’s associations, for instance a Navy League of German Women hoping to instill German women with enthusiasm for Tirpitz’s fleet building. The Navy League of German Women organized, for example, a savings campaign for the building of a new battleship. A women’s colonial league tried to prevent inter-racial marriages of German men in the colonies by sending German women there. Other women’s organizations did voluntary social work or prepared for auxiliary services in war (nursing, supplies). Both Catholic and Protestant women’s organizations emerged as well. Some of them tried to broaden the opportunities of women to work within the church and the local administration (mostly in stereotypically female roles, for example as providers of poor relief), but many of them saw the question of women’s work only as an issue for unmarried women. (There was a surplus of roughly one million women in Germany in 1914, and it more than doubled during the war.) The confessional women’s leagues sometimes combined moderate feminism with outspoken nationalism.

Altogether, the Socialist women and the BDF were the most visible and openly political parts of the German women’s movement, particularly after a reform in 1908 legalized political activity of women (party membership, attendance of party meetings). But the quiet majority of German women shared more conservative attitudes than the SPD women and the BDF. Nevertheless, Germany had a thriving and complex women’s movement by 1914 on a scale comparable only to the United States and England. The German women’s movement has been bashed for being less political, feminist, and demanding than its Anglo-Saxon sister movements, but this criticism often downplays the context in which the German women’s movement worked. Until 1908 all political activity of women was forbidden, and the undemocratic structure of the German states made political reform look rather hopeless (unlike in the United States or in Britain). Improving educational and social welfare opportunities for women thus appeared as a more feasible and promising immediate goal that might lead to greater rights later on.

The Wilhelmine Empire on the eve of the First World War appears as both a modern and conservative society. It had a thriving industry, a flourishing intellectual and artistic life, and probably the best universities and schools of the world. On the other hand, access to education and upper-level jobs was restricted to men of middle and upper-class background, many of the new approaches in the arts were rejected by the state authorities (which often made them more notable), and there was some discrimination. The landed nobility of the regions east of the Elbe River held privileged positions in the army and the state apparatus and enjoyed a degree of political power incommensurate with its numerical and economic importance. Elections to the diet of the single states privileged property owners, and the democratically elected Reichstag had little power. But there was much talk of suffrage reform above all in Prussia, and the Reichstag became more vocal and influential after 1890 by making better use of its powers. In an age of millions of industrial workers and mass armies it was probably impossible to maintain a semi-autocratic government system in the long run. But how would change have come about? Could the Second Empire have become more constitutional and democratic through peaceful reform, as the moderate SPD members and the liberals hoped? Or was a violent clash inevitable, as the more radical socialists and some conservatives believed? Historians still disagree. The Empire was reformed in October 1918, but democratic concessions were made under the threat of military defeat and revolution.

Compared to other states around 1914, however, living conditions in Germany were safe and stable. There was rather little repression, and the Wilhelmine Empire seemed a livable place for the vast majority of the population. Diplomatically, Germany was not in an enviable position (having no strong allies), and politically it became clear that at some point a reform of the system would be hard to postpone. Many conservative critics were alarmed at the new trends in the arts, in thinking, and in the development of the socialist and the women’s movements. But to see Wilhelmine Germany as a state in severe crisis intent on “escaping” into war, as some historians have done, would probably have seemed strange to most contemporaries.

Go on to C.1.