Germany 1866-1871 1890-1914

The Kaiserreich 1871-1890

Administration . Foreign Policy . Colonial Policy . Domestic Policy . The Economy . Demography . Social History . Cultural History

Kaiser 1871-1888 Wilhelm I., 1888 Friedrich Wilhelm I., 1888-1918 Wilhelm II. Chancellor 1871-1890 Otto von Bismarck. Capital Berlin. General Elections were held in 1871, 1874, 1877, 1878, 1881, 1884, 1887, 1890.

Foreign Policy
Before Bismarck was appointed chancellor in 1862, he had served as Prussia's ambassador in St. Petersburg. When the Poles rose against Russian rule in 1863, Bismarck closed Prussia's borders, refusing any aid to the rebels and thus winning Russia's gratefulness. In 1866 Bismarck treated Austria generously, demanding no territorial concession to Germany and only the cession of Venice to Italy, thus winning the gratitude of both Austria and Italy. Bismarck's harsh treatment of France in 1871 was meant to deepen the hatred between both nations, and to employ it as a means to unite Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons etc. and mold them into Germans.
In Europe after 1871, Britain continued its policy of splendid isolation, mistrusting the colonial expansion of both France and Russia. France was humiliated, but was isolated as it again had changed its form of government and had no allies yet. It was Bismarck's goal to keep it that way. He signed treaties with both Russia and Austria, promising to come to the partner's aid should he be attacked (Austria feared to be attacked by Russia and vice versa). In 1872 the League of the 3 Emperors was formed (Germany, Austria, Russia, extended in 1881), in 1882 the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria, Italy), which was joined in 1883 by Romania. Bismarck's network of treaties and alliances, although contradictory in many details, prevented France from forming an alliance directed against Germany.
Bismarck regarded colonies as not really desirable - Germany was a European power - and was happy to see France and Russia focus on colonial expansion; their forces were tied up outside of Europe. Bismarck was so much in control of European politics and beyond, that Bismarck was accepted as a neutral mediator in the Balkans Conflict of 1878 (Berlin Congress) and as a not quite so selfless mediator in the partition of Africa on the Berlin Conference 1885. In 1878, Bismarck gained the trust of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, an Empire finding itself the target of both imperial powers and small nationalist Balkan states (or states to be).

Colonial Policy
In parliament, Otto von Bismarck depended on the support of the national liberals, who demanded the acquisition of colonies in order to 'secure Germany's trade interests' and to create an outlet for Germany's population surplus. Bismarck regarded Germany a continental European power without colonial interests. However, his no-colonies-for-Germany stand was a minor issue on his agenda.
During the Scramble for Africa, Bismarck seized the opportunity and presided over the Berlin Conference of 1885, where all claimants received some shares, and Germany itself claimed it's first colonies, Togo (1884), Kamerun (1884) and German Southwest Africa (1884), where the basis for German acquisition had been laid by men such as Carl Peters, Lüderitz, Woermann. In 1885 Germany claimed German East Africa; in 1886 Germany and Britain signed a treaty recognizing mutual spheres of interest there. In 1884/5 Germany also acquired German New Guinea, bought from the New Guinea Co. (est. 1880) and the Marshall Islands.

Domestic Policy
Federalism . During the Franco-German War, on January 2nd 1871, Germany's princes and heads of state (excluding Austria and Liechtenstein) assembled in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, where they elected Prussia's king Wilhelm emperor of a unified Germany.
The new German Kaiserreich was established as a federation of principalities. The federal states, especially the southern German states of Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg, insisted on a high degree of political autonomy, especially in cultural affairs - Bavaria had a Catholic population majority as opposed to Prussia's protestant majority. The Kaiserreich would take charge of diplomatic representation, national defense, financial policy. Economic policy, Internal affairs, justice were shared responsibilities. Bavaria and Württemberg enjoyed a higher degree of autonomy than the other federal estates, proudly expressed in both countries continued issuance of postage stamps (until 1919 respectively 1902).
The Kaiserreich experienced a combination of authoritarian centralism and federal particularism, in form of the Kulturkampf : the Catholic church found itself under attack in Prussia, a state making up both c. 70 % of the Reich area and population, while in Bavaria it continued to be the dominant and favoured religion.
B.) The Reichstag . The Kaiserreich consisted of 38 member states (mostly statelets), but Prussia alone accounted for ca. 70 % of the territory and population. So state autonomy was of minor importance, as it was applied only in a fraction of the Kaiserreich, while the larger part was administrated from Berlin - the capital of both Prussia and Germany. The personnel holding the key offices in Germany and in Prussia was, for most periods, the same.
Bismarck gave the Empire a seemingly modern constitution. The Reichstag (national assembly) was elected according to the principle one man-one vote (for comparison : Prussia voted according to the Three Class Franchise, 1/3 of the representatives elected by the payers of high taxes, 1/3 by the payers of a moderate amount of taxes, 1/3 by those who paid minimum taxes. Universal Manhood Suffrage was introduced However, the Reichstag was designed as a debate club with very limited competences. It had the right to approve taxes (or refuse to do so) abd to request the resignation of individual portfolio ministers, but not of the chancellor.
The Kaiser had the right to appoint a man of his choice chancellor; the chancellor would then appoint portfolio ministers, preside cabinet meetings and determine active policy. This constitution was modelled after the duo Kaiser Wilhelm I. and Bismarck himself - an Emperor who did not actively interfere in politics and wholeheartily trusted in his chancellor.
Germany's political parties were very young, still in their formation phase. While these parties did not actively participate in government, some, the National Liberals for instance, supported Bismarck. Other parties, the Catholic Zentrum and the Social Democratic Party, formed a constant opposition, with little prospect to actively participate in decision-making. Bismarck's attempt to combat both political camps, in the Kulturkampf, a campaign directed against the Catholic Church (1872-1886) and the Anti-Socialist Laws (1878-1890) led to a radicalisation of politicians, both in the left-wing socialist and in the imperialist camp. The constitution granted the Emperor great influence over government by leaving the appointment of the chancellor entirely up to him. Wilhelm's successor Friedrich Wilhelm died only months after having ascended to the throne; he was followed by Wilhelm II., an ambitious man convinced to be chosen by destiny.
Otto von Bismarck proved being a man with a vision when he, in less than 10 years, achieved what millions of Germans had dreamt of and the 1848ers had failed to achieve : unification. On the other hand, Bismarck was a conservative, a man of the generation of Metternich, who despised political parties and parliamentarism. His neglect to establish a system of checks and balances and his attitude to trust in the 'good old way' would cost Germany and the world dearly.
C.) Minorities . The provinces of Posen and Westpreussen had a clear Polish population majority; there were sizable Polish minorities in East Prussia and Upper Silesia. These Poles had felt comfortable as citizens of Prussia, for Prussia had not been a state German by definition. In a Kaiserreich proud of it's Germanness they felt displaced, and the Kulturkampf did not help either, for the Poles were mostly Catholics. The Polish representatives in the Reichstag opposed government policy.
Another faction in the opposition was the so-called Welfs, representatives from the Prussian province, former Kingdom of Hannover. They still resented the fact that Hannover was annexed by Prussia in 1866 after the Seven Weeks War.
Then there was Alsace-Lorraine (Elsass-Lothringen), a region without self-government; as Reichsland it was under military administration. The German government did not trust the Alsatians and Lorrainers, and many of them of them did not feel at home in the German Empire.

The Economy
Government expenditure widely exceeded government revenue, the large excesses in the early 1870es being explained by the wars of 1866 and 1870-71. Yet the German government could finance such a spending policy because of the Reparations paid by France, a total of 5 million Gold Francs, paid in rates since 1871.
The German economy went through a strong period of growth 1871-1874, when it (like economies all over Europe) was hit by the recession of 1873. In 1880 the economy began to slowly pick up; the boom excelled in 1888.
The period is called the Gründerzeit (founder's era, 1870-1900), as many of Germany's larger enterprises were founded in this period, which internationally is referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution. Werner von Siemens produced electric appliances, Krupp, Stinnes, Hoesch and Thyssen became leading steel producers.
The state pursued a mixed economic policy, a combination of interference and non-interference. In order to protect the domestic steel industry and agriculture, protective tariffs were raised from imports. The new currency, the Reichsmark, was based on a Gold Standard as opposed to the hitherto practised combined gold and silver standard; soon, most industrialized nations would follow Germany's example. The German Mark became a model for stability.
The state nationalized the infrastructure, such as railroads (federal control est. 1878/1887). Universities also were nationalized; schools, insofar they were not state-owned (most were run by the catholic resp. lutheran church) were regulated by the state administration.
Germany's economy, despite the crisis of 1873, generally expanded. The general standard of living improved. This is indicated by a significant drop in the numbers of emigrants leaving Germany for the United States.
As a result of a federalism lasting for centuries and the country's division in protestant and catholic regions, newly unified Germany disposed of a large number of universities, spread over the entire empire. The nation's most famous university was the Friedrich Wilhelm University at Berlin (now Humboldt University); university degrees were highly regarded. Unification in 1871 was more than just a political matter. In various regions of Germany, different sets of measurements were used, standardization was highly desirable. The matter was solved internationally at the Meter Conference in Paris 1875, in which Germany participated, adopting the Metric System. The German Empire was federalistic in structure. Although Prussia dominated, with ca. 70 % of the territory and population, other regions got their share in administrative functions. The Imperial Patent Office for instance was established in Munich (1877).

German Government Revenue and Expenditure, 1871-1890
Source : B.R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics 1750-1988, pp.797, 811, 890
figures in German Marks; NNP = Net National Product





Jan Lahmeyer gives population estimates for Germany as 41.0 million in 1871, 45.2 million (census 1880), 49.4 million in 1890.

Social History
Rapid industrialization since the 1840es, increased mobility due to the railways led to a fast growth of industrial urban areas. Within a few decades, hitherto agricultural regions were turned into industrial agglomerations, for instance in the Ruhr Area, at the Saar, in the region around Leipzig and Halle.
Living conditions for workers often were poor, as wages were low, working hours long, child labor common. Many workers were Kötter (cottagers, crofters), having a house with a small plot of land, a garden providing additional food to the meagre diet he could afford with his wage. Families often were large, sanitary conditions poor, social security non-existent.
With Germany's unification, the country's economy went through a boom, triggered in part by the Reparations of 5 billion Francs paid by France. The living standard of many working families improved slightly, yet it was still far beyond that of the middle class.
Workers began to organize themselves in Trade Unions which sought to improve workers' living conditions, through both negotiations and confrontation such as Strikes.
Bismarck's reaction was that of suppression. The Anti-Socialist Law outlawed social democratic parties and organizations. On the other hand he realized the necessity to address the social risks the workers faced. In 1883 Germany was the first country in the world to introduce compulsory Health Insurance, in 1884 Insurance against Accidents at the Workplace, in 1889 Retirement and Disability Insurance, legislation widely imitated.
Cholera and diphtery epidemics resulted in the construction of sewage systems in the cities, creating a healthier environment. The streets were widened to permit the fire brigade to quickly reach its destination. Streets were lighted, at first burning whale oil, later gas , before they were electrified.
The Anti-Socialist Law failed in achieving its objective. The labour movement and social democracy strengthened in defiance of the state administration's hostility. The administration's argument that workers living standards had improved (however slightly) was not incorrect; emigration figures peaked around 1880 and then declined considerably. Yet the achievements in the improvement of workers' living standards and working conditions were far from meeting expectations.

Cultural History
In München, the Deutsches Museum, was opened in 1903. Late in the 19th century, Germany's universities were leading centers of research. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the x-rays. Among the inventions made in Germany in those days were Nicolaus Otto's improvement (1875) of the internal combustion engine, Carl Benz's invention of the car 1886. Robert Koch (1843-1910) discovered the virus causing tuberculosis. Justus von Liebig (1803-73) identified the three basic food elements, carbohydrates, fats and proteins and came up with the first synthetic fertilizers, establishing agrochemistry. Konrad Duden published the first volumes of his dictionary (since 1880), standardizing German orthography (which hitherto varied from region to region). Richard Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) had premiere in 1874, Parsifal in 1882; he died in 1883. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner's patron, by his policy of lavish expenditure on the construction of buildings like Neuschwanstein (1869-1886), had driven Bavaria into ruin, was deposed in 1886 and died the same year in mysterious conditions. In 1871-1873, Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy. In 1876 Felix Dahn published Ein Kampf um Rom. In 1883-1885, Friedrich Nietzsche published Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Historical Encyclopedia Entries on Bismarck 1878-1886

Articles from Wikipedia : Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm I., Frederick III., William II., Kulturkampf, Anti-Socialist Laws, Category : Political Parties in Germany, Elections in Germany, Gründerzeit, Richard Wagner, Ludwig II. of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, Heinrich Schliemann, Felix Dahn, Konrad Duden, Karl Benz, Nicolaus Otto, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Robert Koch, Friedrich Nietzsche
Bismarck and the Catholics, from historyhelp
Bismarck and the Liberals/Socialists, from historyhelp
SSV's historie i Slesvig-Flensborg (History of the South Schleswig Electoral Union; i.e. the political organization representing the Danish minority), from SSV, in Danish
German Railway History, from DB Museum
DOCUMENTS 7 October, 1879 : The Dual Alliance Between Austria-Hungary and Germany, from World War I Document Archive
18 June, 1881 : The Three Emperors League, from World War I Document Archive
20 May, 1882 : The Triple Alliance (First 8 Articles), from World War I Document Archive , click here for the French original
18 June, 1887 : The Reinsurance Treaty between Germany and Russia, from World War I Document Archive
Bismarck on Colonial Policy : Excerpt of a letter to von Roon, 1868, from psm-data; Bismarck on Colonial Policy in an interview given traveller Eugen Wolf 1888, from psm-data
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Berlin Congress 1878
Treaty of Berlin between Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey, from ANN, July 13, 1878
Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation and Consular Convention, between Hawaii and the German Empire, 1879, from Hawaiian Independence Home Page
George Makepeace Towle, Bismarck in the Reichstag and at Home, 1880. from Modern History Sourcebook
Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, Eisenacher Programm, 1869; Gothaer Programm, 1875, posted by Marxists' Internet Archive; in German
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Assault on Bismarck's Life; Assault on Bismarck's Life, July 13th 1874; Ferdinand Lasalle; Banner of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-Verein, founded by F. Lasalle in 1863; Banner of the 1st International
Quod Numquam, Encyclical by Pope Pius IX., Feb. 5th 1875, On the Church in Prussia; Iampridem, Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII., Jan. 6th 1886, On Catholicism in Germany
Article Antisemiten, Kulturkampf, from Meyers Konversationslexikon, 1888-1890 edition, in German
Moncure D. Conway, An Iron City besides the Ruhr, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1886 pp.495-518, from Cornell Digital Library Collection
Edwin A. Curley, Social Democrats in the Reichstag, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine August 1885 pp.343-350
Documents from psm-data geschichte :
Working Women by Profession, in Relation to Total Number of Workers, 1882 and 1907
Oberschlesien (Upper Silesia), Percentage of Coal Miners who work in a shift of up to 8, 8 to 10, 10 to 12 hours per shift
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Electric-powered streetcar, Berlin 1881
REFERENCE Article Germany, in : Statesman's Year Book 1878, pp.93-189 (data on 1877) [G]
Article : Germany, in : Appleton's Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events 1886 pp.385-392 [G]
M.G. Norton, In and Around Berlin (1889), posted by Gutenberg Library Online

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First posted in 2000, last revised on November 11th 2007

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