The German Empire (1871-1918) Part II

By | October 20, 2021

Break with the Bismarck alliance system

That of Wilhelm II and Chancellor L. von Caprivi (1890–94) embarked on the »New Course« aimed at disentangling the complicated Bismarck system of alliances and at achieving an alliance with Great Britain; at the same time, despite Russian offers, the renewal of the reinsurance contract (1890) was waived. Russia then turned to France and concluded a military convention with him in 1894. In response to this, the peacetime strength of the German army was increased to 479,000 men. Although the imperial government had achieved a certain balance in colonial questions with the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of July 1, 1890, the German-British relationship deteriorated more and more. Economic competition, the new German world politics (demonstrative support of the Boers in South Africa 1896, acquisition by Kiautschou in 1897, A. von Tirpitz forced expansion of the German navy deeply worried Great Britain.

The British government formed an entente with France in 1904 and also came to an understanding with Russia in 1907. Thus the British-French-Russian combination of powers (Triple Entente) directed against the German Reich was formed, while at the same time the Triple Alliance lost value.

Domestic political developments under Wilhelm II.

The domestic policy of the Wilhelmine era was determined on the one hand by the political inability to reform in the Reich and in Prussia and on the other hand by the rapid modernization of the economy and culture. This imbalance triggered tensions and distortions, which among other things at the outbreak of the First World War contributed. The SPD had a political upswing since 1890 and in 1912 had the largest parliamentary group in the Reichstag (34.8%; 110 members). The left-wing parties SPD and Progressive People’s Party (FVP; 12.3%; 42 members of parliament) had a strong position in the Reichstag in 1912, but the political system was not parliamentarized. Even the bourgeois collection policy after 1900 did not lead to a permanent parliamentary bloc formation that a government could support. The attempts at reform initiated with the introduction of the BGB (January 1, 1900), the “Reich Insurance Code” (May 30, 1911) and the constitution for the Reichsland Alsace-Lorraine (May 26, 1911) were not continued (Reich Chancellor 1909–17: T. Bethmann Hollweg ).

In Prussia, the three-class suffrage remained, and Saxony also tightened its suffrage in 1896 in the fight against the SPD. With the armament of the navy (1st Naval Law 1898, 2nd Naval Law 1900, Naval Submission 1912), the military developed into a center of its own power and withdrew from political leadership. The Chief of Staff of the Navy A. von Tirpitz successfully operated modern lobbying with his news office. Nationalist mass associations such as the German Fleet Association and the Pan-German Association under H. Claß further fueled this climate. There was also resistance to the overvaluation of everything military, as in the Daily Telegraph affair over the “personal regiment” of Wilhelm II (October 1908) and in the Zabern affair (1913). Learn more about Germany and Europe, please click

Isolation of Germany and First World War

In the Moroccan crises of 1905/06 and 1911, the German Reich found itself increasingly isolated. With the growing fear of “encirclement” the willingness to adopt a risk policy grew on the German side. The conviction that war “the sooner the better” was waged was the result of both the internal political reform blockades and the fear of foreign policy threats. The murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand (June 28, 1914) triggered a series of aggressive chain reactions in Vienna and Berlin, which resulted in the declaration of war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3) (First World War). In Germany, the war initially produced an internal political solidarity effect (“truce” of the parties), which covered up internal contradictions; a radical war nationalism shaped public opinion (First World War).

Under the 3rd Supreme Army Command (OHL) under P. von Hindenburg and E. Ludendorff, Germany was in fact a military dictatorship. However, the trade unions were officially recognized for the first time in the “Auxiliary Service Act” (December 5, 1916). For a long time, the opposition to the war and truce policy was limited to protests within the SPD (Spartakusbund, 1916; USPD, 1917). In 1917/18 there were major strikes in the armaments factories. Parliamentary resistance against the de facto military dictatorship was organized in the Intergroup Committee of the Reichstag. The reform majority of 1912 pushed for a parliamentarization of the Reich and on July 19, 1917 called for a peace without annexations and contributions (“peace resolution”).

After initial successes in all theaters of war, the stiffening of the French resistance, the pressure of the British blockade and the intervention of the USA led to the collapse of the Central Powers. Russia withdrew from the war after the October Revolution of 1917 and had to bow to the dictates of the Central Powers in the Peace of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918). Militarily, the war was lost after the failure of the last offensive in the west (beginning of the French counter-offensive, July 18, 1918; “Black Day of the German Army”, August 8, 1918). In the First World War 1.8 million German soldiers were killed, 4.2 million were wounded and 600,000 were taken prisoner. In addition, 750,000 people died in Germany due to a lack of food as a result of the blockade. On September 29, 1918, the OHL demanded the immediate initiation of armistice negotiations. To this end, the empire should, as in the Fourteen Points of American President T. W. Wilson (8.1.1918) demanded to be parliamentarized. Behind this was the intention of the OHL to shift responsibility for the defeat to the civilian Reich leadership (stab in the back legend).

Since October 3rd, 1918, the empire was a parliamentary monarchy under the cabinet of Prince Max von Baden.

The German Empire (1871-1918) 2