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From Belle Époque to Great Depression

Europe before 1914: An Interactive Map

Germany - James Greer

Before 1871 Germany was a collection of states, these states had their own kings and were independent of one another.  The largest and the strongest of these states was called Prussia, the ruler of Prussia was Otto Von Bismarck.  Prussia covered two thirds of Germany and housed sixty percent of the German population.  The dominance of Prussia was secured as the King of Prussia was head of the empire (Reich) and there was sufficient Prussian voting power to make sure Prussian beliefs and wishes were followed.

The states of Germany. Click on thumbnail to see full size.

In 1871 a number of states came together to form the German Reich, or empire.  The Prussian chancellor Otto Von Bismark mainly controlled this move, and came to Germany up until 1890. 

How Was Germany governed After 1871?

Germany was a federal state.  This meant that power was divided between the federal government, and the independent government of each of the 25 German states.  Although these states no longer had their own monarchies etc., they had their own police, education and health systems.  Each state had its own rulers and constitutions and parliaments. 

Germany was a democracy, the Reichstag, (government), was elected every five years by the German public.  This government had the power to create federal laws and had to approve the annual Imperial budget.  Whilst Bismarck was in power there were no exploitations of these powers, but Bismarck considered it necessary to maintain a political majority and so he kept in close cooperation with the leading parties.     

  Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm came to rule the whole of Germany in 1888.  He continued to be Kaiser up until 1918.  He was the ruler of the entire of Germany, the collection of all the 25 states.  This reign was at the same time as Otto von Bismarck ruled Prussia.  Many historians do not believe Kaiser Wilhelm did a very sufficient job of ruling Germany, seeing him as immature, self assertive, and prone to errors of judgement.  Many consider his life to be an endless whirl of state occasions, hunting trips and military manoeuvres.  A smaller number of historians believe him to have been an intelligent, conscientious enthusiastic and energetic ruler.  Otto van Bismarck was not a great follower of Wilhelm, he said “The Kaiser is like a balloon…If you do not hold fast to the string, you never know where he will be off to.”  Wilhelm was often found at court with strange characters, for example, a homosexual spiritualist.  Although no  major decision could be taken without the Kaiser’s agreement, many historians consider him to have had little professional involvement, and that most of his time was spent pursuing leisure interests.

During this period of time Germany saw a great number of social and economic developments.   A number of significant developments I have listed below:

  • Increased coal production of 200 per cent between 1870 and 1914

  • Steel production saw a massive increase

  • Between 1890 and 1914 there was a dramatic increase  in the electricity industry, by 1914 German electricity formed one third of the world’s electricity.

  • Advances in the chemical industry

  • Excellent education system

  • A population growth of 16 million between 1890-1914

  • Heavy investments in industry by the German banks

  • Good mineral resources

  • A thorough transport system with navigable rivers, railways and canals

  • Large amounts of cartels

Germany 1890-1914

It was not long before Wilhelm and Bismarck disagreed with one another on several important matters.  What to do about socialism was such a matter which both disagreed on.  Bismarck wanted to stand firm against them, Wilhelm, on the other hand wished to be seen as a ‘People’s Emperor’ and wanted to stop repressing them.  Bismarck resigned in 1890.  None of Bismarck's successors came close  to having the same amount of power and authority as he achieved.  The first successor of Bismarck was Caprivi, a Prussian soldier with very little political experience, who wished to stand above political parties and interests.  This very quickly became an impossible task.  For several years Wilhelm kept up with his support towards socialism, but in 1894 Wilhelm changed his mind, in fear of the growing strength of the SPD.  Caprivi refused to support this anti socialist bill and resigned.

Caprivi was successed  by a 75 year old called Chlodwig.  Choldwig did not oppose the Kaiser’s policies, and so for a few years Wilhelm dictated most aspects of the governments policy.   Wilhelm’s anti socialist efforts, however, were not very successful.  In 1900 Buluw became the chancellor of Germany.  Buluw and Wilhelm developed a close relationship.  Buluw extended worker’s concessions concessions, for example, extending worker’s entitlement to pensions and insurance benefits. 

A crisis arose in 1908 when the Kaiser told the ‘Daily Telegraph’ that he wanted to have closer relations with Britain.  The German Reichstag (government) questioned whether Wilhelm was in a position to make such statements, and for a few months talks commenced, discussing whether Wilhelm’s power should be reduced.  Nothing was done however as a suitable alternative to the Kaiser could not be found.  In 1909, Buluw, whose relationship with Wilhelm had worsened, had no majority in the Reichstag and resigned.  Buluw was replaced by Bethman-Hollweg. 

In 1912 the SPD became the largest party in the Reichstag, with over 30 per cent of the vote.  In 1913 there was a crisis over an incident at Zabern, a a town in Alsace.  Soldiers dealt with townspeople in a rough manner, and anyone who protested was punished by imprisonment.  It was only when the Alcase governor threatened to resign that Wilhelm did anything as an act of response.  Instead of punishing those soldiers concerned he sent them away on manouvres.  This incident in Zabern showed both the power of the army and also that the Kaiser could not completely ignore public opinion.