The Second Empire until 1914 summary and notes



The Second Empire until 1914 summary and notes


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The Second Empire until 1914 summary and notes


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.").


B.2. World Politics and Domestic Challenges, 1890-1914

The "New Course": 
The situation changed with the accession to the throne of Wilhelm II in 1888 and his dismissal of Bismarck two years later. In light of later events, Bismarck's dismissal has appeared as a fatal mistake. Wilhelm II, however, had good reasons to dismiss the chancellor, who had become stubborn and self-righteous. The immediate cause of Bismarck's fall was his insistence on the renewal of the anti-socialist laws, but a clash between him and the new Kaiser could not have been delayed much longer. Wilhelm II, who initially seemed well-intended, was determined to use his constitutional rights to a larger extent than his grandfather had done. Wilhelm II found many allies in the state administration who had become angry at Bismarck's arbitrary and autocratic leadership. Not that popularity or parliamentary support mattered very much, but it did not help Bismarck that he had few friends in the Reichstag, which he had all too often spurned. He seems also to have become alienated from the people. For documents on this, see H-German: Bismarck's Fall from Power, 1890.

Bismarck's fall has been considered a landmark. An English caricature depicted him as the pilot leaving the German state ship, while he was being watched by a self-righteous Wilhelm II. Many books have had titles such as "Germany after Bismarck". Whereas Wehler claims that German history was following a fatal course since the failed revolution of 1848, many other historians see the decade after 1890 as the decisive period during which German history "went astray."

Indeed, some profound changes occurred, but at first they concerned foreign politics more than the domestic scene. For a short time Wilhelm II and his new chancellor Leo von Caprivi made some social concessions and pursued a more liberal policy by dropping the anti-socialist laws and by reducing protective tariffs. But after Caprivi's dismissal in 1894 the conservatives in the government gained the upper hand again, and Wilhelm II was so angry about the lack of popular gratitude for his policies that he considered a coup d'état in order to limit the Reichstag's rights even further. Domestic politics, however, did not change much during the 1890s.

Not so foreign politics. Bismarck's successors were neither able nor willing to handle the complex strings of his foreign policy. When the treaty with Russia needed to be renewed in 1890 they declined to do so, arguing that it contradicted some clauses of the Austro-German alliance. They were right concerning the letters of the treaties, but slight contradictions had never bothered Bismarck, who believed that ambiguities would refrain a nation from going to war and attached more importance to a good understanding with other nations than to the exact terms of treaties.

The Russians, who had hoped to renew the treaty with Germany, now negotiated an alliance with France, which was completed in 1894. The two most powerful nations bordering directly on Germany became allies. Should German tensions with the French or Russians escalate, Germany would face a two-front war. It remains open to doubt whether the German government could have prevented the Franco-Russian rapprochement for much longer. France was investing large sums in Russian industrialization and had so desperately been looking for an alliance partner that the fundamental difference of political systems did not matter (France was a democratic republic, Russia an autocracy). Moreover, mutual dislike, fanned by growing Slavic and Germanic racism, made the alliance of Russia and Germany increasingly unpopular in both countries.

To replace Russia with another alliance partner proved very difficult for German diplomacy. Caprivi sought an alliance with Britain, but Britain refused to give up its "splendid isolation" protected by the largest battle fleet in the world. Toward the end of the 1890s British diplomats sounded out the chances for an alliance with Germany, but the British did not want to commit themselves as closely as the Germans wanted. In both countries this alliance would have had powerful enemies, since Britain and Germany were fierce trade rivals. The Germans, moreover, wanted to be recognized as an equal partner to the British Empire in world and colonial politics, a status Britain was unwilling to grant. Conservative Germans, finally, resented the liberal political system in Britain and denounced the British national character as spoiled by commercial greed. In any case, the British diplomats were in no hurry, and the Germans did not believe that Britain, which almost went to war with France during an incident in East Africa in 1898, would ever come to terms with its main overseas rivals, France and Russia. By 1900 Germany was still allied to Austria-Hungary and Italy only (the Triple Alliance). The Triple Alliance faced only the Russian-French alliance, and under these conditions Europe could be considered roughly in a balance of power.


New factors in foreign policy: 
But a more fundamental change in foreign policy occurred around the turn of the century. It is hard to say when and where it happened first, but it was a European phenomenon that shaped foreign politics until 1914. First, foreign politics became more of a popular concern than it had ever been before. The proliferation of a daily newspaper press and the progress in communication technique (telegraph) made it possible for many Europeans even in remote areas to receive a recent update on the course of world politics. At the same time Europeans started to identify more with their nation states and considered its prestige a matter of highest interest. Although popular opinion could not everywhere articulate itself democratically, public concern with foreign policy and national prestige put more pressure on governments. A diplomatic defeat was considered as a national humiliation and thus endangered governments more than before. 
Second, nationalism in most countries became more aggressive and more antagonistic to members of other nations. It often blended with an arrogant racism. Many English people felt to belong to the supreme race in the world, so did many French, Germans, Russians, and Italians. This racism was imported into the political realm from biology and included Darwinist elements. The world appeared as a fighting ground of ruthless enemies, where only the fittest could survive. Compassion, morality, and forgiveness seemed inadequate forms of behavior between nations; instead readiness for war seemed the only appropriate attitude.

This frame of mind reflected some of the fast transformations the industrial revolution had brought about. It was a crude upshot and -- at the same time -- denial of much nineteenth-century thinking. Marx and Engels had defined history as a great impersonal process dominated by economic forces. Friedrich Nietzsche had discredited much of Christian morality for the hypocrisy and weakness of character it often concealed. Sigmund Freud was just starting to advance a revolutionary theory that deconstructed the notion of the conscious individual and of humans being uncontested masters of their own will. Nationalism at the end of the 19th century absorbed much of the new thinking in crude fashion but also implied a desperate revolt against it. If Christian values were corrupt, maybe at least one's own nation could "civilize" the world by infusing it with its character; if history was shaped by impersonal forces, maybe one's own nation could leave an imprint on it at least for a while.

Although the new racism initially found most resonance among the middle classes, the workers succumbed to some of its notions, too. An unskilled English factory worker may have felt to stand at the bottom of his own society, but integrative nationalism told him that he was far superior to a laborer -- and even a prince -- in India. In Germany a popular socialist pamphlet synthesized Marx and Darwin by claiming that because of selection through harsh living conditions the proletariat was the fittest class and would survive the degenerate nobility and bourgeoisie. It became one of the most popular texts read by workers (Marx's obscurity sharing responsibility for this.) Although the Socialist parties everywhere proclaimed international proletarian solidarity, it became increasingly apparent that Marx was wrong when he said that the proletarian knows no fatherland.

In sum, people all over Europe identified more strongly with their nation and its prestige and started to watch the foreign policy of the diplomats more carefully than before. Impressed by Darwinist ideas they came to see the situation of their nations as a crude alternative of expansion or decline, hegemony or submission, and this ideology increasingly shaped foreign affairs.


The "place in the sun":
Let us now analyze these new factors of foreign policy in Germany. In 1890 Caprivi ceded some contested territory in East Africa to the British in exchange for Helgoland, an island off the German North Sea coast occupied by the British navy since the Napoleonic wars. Some radical nationalists got so infuriated about the loss of land in Africa that they formed a new organization to propagate colonial expansion. The Pan-German League, as the new organization was called, soon started to put forward integrative nationalism. Although its membership remained unimpressive in numbers (20-40,000 members, mostly industrialists, businessmen, lawyers, teachers, and some Protestant ministers), it became an influential pressure group for foreign political success and expansion due to the profile and influence of its members and supporters. Several powerful industrialists funded the Pan-German League and helped it to conquer a strong position in the press. Teachers tried to instill a new generation of students with arrogant nationalism. From now on every foreign political failure and every half-hearted diplomatic initiative was sure to be extensively criticized by this small but vociferous group.

A second incident indicating a departure from Bismarck's diplomacy was the inaugural lecture delivered by the sociologist Max Weber in 1895. Weber declared that the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 should be regarded not as a terminal achievement, but as a step in a continuing national history toward more glory and success. Weber was generally a reasonable and moderate politician far removed from the chauvinism of the Pan-Germans. He wanted to disturb what he considered a lazy mood in Germany. But his lecture, which incited enthusiasm, mirrored the widespread feeling of threatening decline through stagnation. More and more Germans felt that their nation had lost the contest for empire despite its impressive industrial advances. Britain and France owned huge colonial empires, and Russia had expanded southward and eastward, but Germany seemed stuck with some unconnected territories that nobody else had really wanted. This seemed unjust to Germans, since their industrial capacity was superior to either the French or Russian and was rapidly catching up with Britain. In sum, many Germans felt that something had to be done to avoid that their nation would lose all say in international matters.

The government and -- above all -- the Kaiser shared this feeling. They declared that Germany deserved a place in the sun and would start world politics (Weltpolitik). What Weltpolitik meant was not clear; it often was an emphatic claim to have a say in world matters on par with Britain and other powerful nations. Nationalist opinion became sensitive to questions of prestige and often assumed an irrational character.

In 1897 Wilhelm II appointed two ministers who represented a new quality of foreign politics: Bernhard von Bülow, an outspoken proponent of Weltpolitik, became foreign minister (in 1900 chancellor), and Alfred Tirpitz naval minister (later ennobled). Tirpitz promised to build up a battle fleet as the means of power for Weltpolitik. An excellent manipulator of the press and of parliamentarians, he won a Reichstag majority for a long-term shipbuilding program which made Germany a major sea power. (This plan is so intricate that it deserves special explanation in another lecture.)

Under Wilhelm II and Bülow German foreign politics assumed a different tone. Foreigners perceived it as nasty, swaggering, aggressive, and insensitive. My grandmother, who lived 1901-1984, used to tell a joke from this period characteristic for the tone of German diplomacy (see Joke). German foreign policy before 1914 did deserve caricature, but the image of plump diplomats following the genius Bismarck must be put into context. The premises of Bismarck's foreign policy after 1871 were defensive. He wanted to preserve, not change, the status quo, and this already required masterful diplomacy. His successors, however, were convinced that the status quo would lead to decline and that Germany had to expand in order to remain strong; this assumption -- however questionable -- made German diplomacy a no-win game.


Why Weltpolitik?
Earlier Marxist interpretations have explained the push to Weltpolitik by the importance of new overseas markets for a growing European industry. But the importance of an overseas empire was far overestimated already by contemporaries. The capital investment needed to make the German colonies a market for industrial goods would have vastly exceeded German resources. Export into foreign colonies and independent underdeveloped countries, moreover, proved a satisfactory alternative to a market in a protected national empire.

Some historians, including Wehler, have claimed that the German politicians adopted Weltpolitik primarily for domestic reasons. After the anti-socialist laws had failed, according to Wehler, the ruling elites wanted to reconcile the rising working class with the state and its social order through integrative nationalism, passion for overseas expansion, and concern for national prestige. This should undermine the workers' loyalty to the revolutionary socialist party and the trade unions and preserve the backward political system. In my opinion, economic interest of businessmen and the political manipulation of the workers did play a role in Weltpolitik, but I do not think that they explain all of it. The world was growing together. Improving communications and cheap transportation through the steamship made the globe a smaller place in which peripheral matters no longer existed. German industrialization reached the typical point at which the agrarian sector becomes so small compared to the industrial sector that a country becomes dependent upon imported foods and raw materials. This forced the Germans to take more interest in overseas affairs.


B.3. Fleet Building and International Conflicts

Basic options: 
By the late 1890s vast overseas trade and growing dependence upon food and raw material imports made Germany increasingly vulnerable. The weak German battle fleet was unable to protect the influx of essential imports in case of war with the Franco-Russian alliance or Britain. What should the leaders in Berlin do? One option was to keep the German fleet small but to ally with the power that owned by far the largest navy: Britain. But such an alliance would put Germany at the mercy of its most powerful economic rival, hardly an enviable situation. Since the British had no immediate interests on the European Continent, the diplomats in Berlin had little to offer in return. They therefore feared to become the junior partner of the British Empire and to be drawn into its colonial conflicts with other European powers.

A second option was to build a stronger fleet while trying to remain on good terms with Britain. If an alliance between London and Berlin materialized then, Germany would be more of an equal partner. But it remained doubtful whether the British would want to ally with a country embarking on an ambitious shipbuilding program that would create a powerful battle fleet within a days' trip of the English east coast - especially since this country was already the strongest trade rival of the British Empire and had the strongest army.

Another problem was that naval buildup was not easily made plausible to the German people. To ensure Reichstag majorities for high naval budgets would be difficult. The Social Democrats refused to grant military expenses on principle, and so did most left liberals. To make concessions to the Left in exchange for naval support, however, would have threatened the regime itself. So it needed to search support from the centrist and right-wing parties.

The Catholic Center Party was undecided, while the agrarian conservatives foresaw that large-scale fleet building would further increase industrial power at the expense of the already diminishing agrarian sector, their own economic base. Without pointing to a powerful naval threat -- Britain -- it seemed difficult to rally the right-wing and centrist parties behind naval rearmament. Anti-British feeling was notorious among the anti-liberal conservatives and the more radical German nationalists. To make fleet building plausible to this audience would not have been easy while Germany was in alliance with Britain. All of these factors made the second option -- building a German battle fleet while being allied with Britain -- problematic, but not impossible. It would have required extraordinarily farsighted and sensible politicians, whereas Wilhelm II appointed many mediocrities and only a few good though hardly extraordinary politicians, with Tirpitz as a possible exception.

The third option, fleet building without any commitment to Britain, involved a high risk. Historians have argued that fleet building against Britain made the encirclement of Germany and Austria by the other great powers a logical development. Probably it was not only fleet building itself, but the anti-British propaganda used by the German admirals, that made German naval buildup poisonous for the relations between London and Berlin. For a long time it seemed possible that the Royal Navy would destroy the German fleet within the five to ten years it needed to become strong enough to defend itself. Such British action would have represented an act of international piracy, but that did not prevent it from being discussed by high officials of the Royal Navy. Something like a precedent for such an action existed: in a surprise coup in 1807 the British had captured the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in order to prevent the French from taking it over. Denmark at the time was a neutral country but was about to be forced into the French orbit. Fears of a new "Copenhagen" were widespread among German leaders from 1904 to 1910. Some of them therefore repeatedly hoped to bargain naval limitations for a political rapprochement with London, thus to switch over to the second option. But alienation between Germany and Britain and British agreements with Germany's antagonists soon prevented this alternative.


Tirpitz's commitment to battleships: 
As mentioned before, fleet building was a delicate issue in German domestic politics, too. Until 1897, when Tirpitz was appointed naval minister, Wilhelm II and his advisors had tried to have the Reichstag approve money for as many ships as possible (the Reichstag still had yearly budgetary power over the navy; the army budget was determined only every fifth year). These efforts to enlargen the fleet all lacked success since the German navy had no convincing strategic concept for a role beyond coastal defense and because the army was considered the mainstay of German defense.

Tirpitz, however, had a long-term concept. First, he wanted to invest heavily in one form of vessel: the heavy battleship. Coal still being the essential ship fuel, shipbuilders had two options: they could build cruisers with large coal bunkers but fewer guns and thin armament. These cruisers could travel far without having to recoal. They were fast and mobile but vulnerable in a big sea battle. The other option was to concentrate on heavy battleships. With small coal bunkers but heavy armament and the most powerful guns, these vessels could destroy cruisers, but due to their limited range they had to remain near the home waters or coaling stations overseas. Tirpitz claimed that Germany, having few naval bases overseas, was best advised to concentrate battleships in the North Sea and the Baltic.

This decision was crucial because it created a concentration of sea power that, according to historian Paul Kennedy, would put a sharp knife right at Britain's throat. Although Tirpitz was reluctant to admit it in public, he made it clear in private that the German battle fleet should be a lever for colonial concessions by the British Empire and a deterrent for a British attack. To those critics who argued that Tirpitz's battle fleet could neither defend Germany's overseas commerce nor its colonies Tirpitz replied that the mere existence of a strong battle fleet indirectly shielded German colonies and trade all over the world despite the battleships' narrow range of operation.

Battleship building relied on two strategic assumptions widely shared at the time: first, that a modern sea war would lead to an all-out battle in an early phase of war. This would allow the victorious power to sweep the enemy from the seas and thus gain a decisive advantage in any war. Second, the Germans and most others expected that the British, in case of war, would establish a blockade near the German coast. A powerful battle fleet would thus give the Germans enough opportunity to attack the enemy piecemeal and slowly reduce his superiority. The expected all-out battle, moreover, would take place near the German bases, which would give the Germans strategic advantages.


The navy laws:
Unlike his predecessors, Tirpitz decided to organize naval buildup by law. He thought that only a law establishing the size of the German fleet by class of vessels and the number of ships to be built within the next years would ensure continuous and consistent fleet building and avoid the need to barter the money for each ship against other requests by the parties in the Reichstag. A long-term plan, moreover, could convince the Reichstag deputies that Wilhelm II did not simply want more ships because he was fond of them ("luxury fleet"). Rather, Tirpitz suggested a systematic plan.

The first naval law, presented to the Reichstag in late 1897, succeeded and showed that Tirpitz was a highly effective politician. He assembled around him a "brain trust" for all strategic questions, and he staffed a bureau for public relations with clever experts who started a propaganda campaign for the navy law. Unlike most other German politicians of his time, Tirpitz took the Reichstag and the public seriously. In long discussions with Reichstag members he won the support of a majority of the deputies, who were impressed with his competent, rational argumentation and his charisma. The first navy law passed the Reichstag against the votes of the Social Democrats and the left liberals in March 1898. The decisive factor in this success was the backing of the Catholic Center Party.

The combination of massive propaganda and intensive negotiations with Reichstag members remained successful. In 1900 Tirpitz made use of widespread anti-English feeling in Germany provoked by the Boer War to demand further naval increases. Under public pressure, the Reichstag passed a second navy law which prescribed a doubling of the German fleet by 1907. It was the Second Navy Law which started to worry Britain. In 1905 the British introduced a new, heavier battleship, the "Dreadnought," and embarked on ambitious fleet building programs themselves. Tirpitz reacted by convincing the Reichstag to vote for further increases of the German navy in 1906, 1908, and 1912. He limited the service of his ships to 20 years, so he could replace the older ships by the new Dreadnought types.

Tirpitz' goal was a fleet of sixty-one capital ships (battleships and large cruisers) to be built by 1920. Given the replacement age of twenty years, three capital ships would be built every year. The navy would thus keep up its strength and become independent of the Reichstag's budgetary rights. By building a navy through law Tirpitz hoped to take direct control over shipbuilding away from the Reichstag. Historian Volker Berghahn argues that this was an assault on parliamentary rights in general and that Tirpitz wanted to stabilize the semi-authoritarian political system against the challenge of socialists and democrats, whereas critics of Berghahn have argued that Tirpitz merely wanted to achieve for the navy what the army had always taken for granted since Bismarck's days: relative independence from parliamentary constellations.


Tirpitz's strategic program: 
Three terms are crucial for the strategic part of the Tirpitz plan: 'risk theory', 'alliance value', and 'danger zone.'

  • 'Risk theory:' Tirpitz oriented his naval strategy toward the major sea power of his period, Britain. He expected that Germany would not need to outbuild the Royal Navy in order to pose a threat to Britain, since British sea power was committed worldwide. If the Royal Navy accepted a battle with a numerically inferior but modern German fleet, it would probably win, but it would suffer such heavy losses that another sea power -- presumably an ally of Germany or a rival of Britain -- would then be able to destroy the victorious British fleet. Thus Britain would run a risk if it went to war with Germany, and its diplomacy would have to take a more supportive attitude toward German colonial aims. A comparatively small but efficient German battle fleet concentrated in the North Sea would represent a diplomatic lever and deterrent. Tirpitz assumed that the German ships would be superior to the British vessels and that their crews would be better trained.
  • The 'alliance value' of the fleet posited that a strong German fleet would make Germany an attractive ally for other rivals of Britain. Even if Germany's fleet-building program did not win new allies, Britain itself, for safety's sake, would maybe ask for an agreement with Germany. Tirpitz was sure that Britain would not be able to keep pace with Germany in a naval arms race. He believed that the strong influence of Parliament in London and, as he saw it, the selfish 'shop-keeper mentality' of the British people would refuse the great national sacrifice necessary to preserve naval hegemony. Thus fleet building would either win new allies for Germany or bring Britain around.
  • The 'danger zone' meant the period during which the German fleet would not yet be strong enough to make an attack by the British fleet a significant risk (Copenhagen). Tirpitz advocated cautious diplomacy toward Britain, but he was in a quandary because his naval building program drew much popular support and a plausible justification from anti-English sentiment.
  • No doubt, the fleet-building program was pointedly anti-English. Tirpitz was convinced that Germany could achieve world power only through rivalry with the British Empire. Since Germany had not many colonies and hardly any coaling stations cruiser warfare did not make sense. Germans could achieve world power only by concentrating a great battle fleet at a short distance from the strongest sea power.

The domestic goals of the Tirpitz Plan: 
Berghahn sees the Tirpitz Plan as a deliberate strategy to divert demands for democratic reform and to counteract the rise of Social Democracy. The boom of heavy industry should enable employers to satisfy trade union demands without too much disadvantage, and fleet building might create a wave of national pride that would woo at least some workers away from socialism. I am not sure how much Tirpitz himself believed in this goal. He mentioned it often enough, but it is possible that he just expressed it to win the support of the Conservatives, who initially disliked fleet building because it strengthened industry and drew resources away from the army.

More important than the anti-Socialist bias of the navy laws was their effect on the alliance of iron and rye, which had been badly shaken in the Caprivi years. In the course of the debates about the two navy laws Tirpitz helped to restore the alignment of the Prussian agrarian nobility with the parties of the upper bourgeoisie and the industrialists as well as the Center Party. The government, with the help of Tirpitz and Bülow, won the Conservatives over by reintroducing protective agricultural tariffs. The first and second navy laws indeed helped the creation of a long-lasting governmental bloc in the Reichstag and thus enhanced political stability in Germany.

The failure of the Tirpitz Plan:
In the long run, the Tirpitz Plan reached almost none of its declared goals. If the risk theory had made sense in 1897, it became questionable as Britain concluded agreements with one rival sea power after the other (1902: treaty with Japan; 1904: Entente Cordiale with France; 1907: agreement with Russia). It was hard to imagine which fleet would now have an interest in destroying the remainders of the Royal Navy after its battle with the Germans. German fleet-building was an important factor in bringing about Germany's diplomatic isolation. British governments took up negotiations with Germany in 1908 and 1912, but they just wanted to stop the naval arms race and were not willing to conclude an alliance.

The idea to use the German fleet as a lever to receive colonial concessions from Britain also failed, since the British succeeded to preserve and even increase their naval superiority between 1904 and 1914. The German fleet never even became strong enough to leave behind the 'danger zone.' The British alliances, moreover, allowed the Royal Navy to concentrate most of its ships in home waters, and it became likely by 1911 that Britain would establish a far blockade instead of a narrow one. The German admiralty could not even take for granted that the British fleet would attack and seek the decisive battle in the first days or weeks of war. Thus not even a battle on conditions favorable to the German fleet seemed likely any more.

In its domestic aims the Tirpitz Plan was hardly more successful. The Social Democrats increased their vote in the elections of 1898 and 1903. In 1907 they were beaten after an electoral campaign which had centered on extreme nationalism and imperial expansion, but their loss was due more to their revived radicalism in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1905 than to nationalist propaganda. In 1912, however, the SPD reached its best result (with about a third of the vote) and became the largest party in the Reichstag. The Socialist trade unions grew even more in the period of fleet-building.

But the most serious threat to domestic stability arose from the cost explosion in ship building. Tirpitz broke all his estimates, and fleet-building could not be financed any more from tax revenues after 1902. The government resorted to loans and tolerated a disturbing increase of the state deficit, particularly after Germany began to build Dreadnoughts in 1906. By 1911 the naval program threatened the pro-governmental alliance it had helped to bring about. It was clear that new taxes had to be introduced, but the tax question opened rifts among the parties which had supported fleet-building. Industrialists did not want to augment the tax load of the workers because that measure would have given additional fuel to Social Democratic propaganda. Moreover, the Conservatives and large groups within the other center to right parties felt that too many resources were diverted to the fleet at the expense of the army. To get a majority for the supplementary naval bill of 1912, Tirpitz for the first time had to make substantial concessions.

All in all, the Tirpitz Plan did not reach its declared aims and partly produced the opposite effects. When in December 1912 the German leadership began considering to wage a war at the next international crisis, Tirpitz had to admit that the fleet would not be ready for a war with Britain in the near future. Although he knew that British superiority would increase in the following years, he did not push for a start of war as soon as possible. It became clear to Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the General Staff, that German war plans for the immediate future had to disregard the fleet, and Tirpitz lost much of his prestige within the German leadership. When war broke out in August 1914 little more than half of the commissioned German ships were ready for combat. Although Tirpitz felt that the war was coming too early, he did not do anything to prevent it, which he could have tried, given the good information he had about the diplomatic negotiations.

As German intelligence reports had foretold, the Royal Navy remained in home waters and established a distant blockade in the Channel and the North Sea between Norway and Scotland. It was too dangerous for the German fleet to provoke a battle far from its bases, and the British, on their side, saw no advantage in risking battle by sending all their ships near the German coast.

Tirpitz almost had a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of the war. While it looked as if the army was on its way to a decisive victory, the fleet lay inactive in its ports. The irrelevance of the German fleet in this short war, he thought, would make it impossible for him to get funding for ships after the war.

German governments operated in a precarious situation between an erratic, idiosyncratic Kaiser, a hostile, partly revolutionary, Left, and a Right that demanded success in foreign policy and advocated a kind of demonstrative nationalism that made it hard for German diplomats to find friends abroad. Failure to push forward a demanding foreign policy would have alienated the Right and threatened the political system, as would concessions to the Left. The Kaiser had to be tolerated in order to conserve the political and social order and political stability, but his influence and often pretentious, arrogant behavior made him more of a liability than an asset for German politics.


B.4. Socialists, Jews, and Women in the Prewar Years

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 EduardBernstein 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.

C: The First World War, 1914-1918


See also documentary archive of World War I.

C.1. German Responsibility for the Outbreak of the War

The importance of the war 1914-1918: 
Maybe the war that broke out in 1914 was more of a break in world history than even the Second World War with its unprecedented mass annihilation. The First World War marked the dramatic beginning of the end of European predominance over the globe, which had lasted for five centuries. While the European nations remained locked in a murderous struggle, nations in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Australian continent started to make up for the absence of European imports and lessened their dependence upon European products and know-how. New competitors for business and power emerged overseas (for instance in Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada - in addition to the already competitive United States and Japan), and Europe never regained its superiority in those fields. For the first time the United States mobilized its enormous industrial potential and intervened outside the American continent. Toward the end of the war a radical socialist group seized power in Russia and started to transform society in totally new ways, leading to a long and often painful process whose effects we still feel today.

The First World War was fought by armies whose size was unprecedented in history. At the same time, new weapons appeared such as machine guns, tanks, poison gas, airplanes, submarines. The civilian population became a target of war; while the British blockade tried to starve the Germans and their allies into submission, German submarines tried to cut Britain off from its supplies. The new weapons created new horrors of war. Eight million soldiers died on the front lines or at sea. Millions of wounded soldiers remained handicapped, and millions never came to terms with the trauma of war. A single battle could claim hundred thousands of lives on both sides.

More than before, the war effort depended on the support and willingness to sacrifice of whole peoples. Women and children often took over the jobs of men in industry and agriculture. In Germany and Austria food became so scarce that famines occurred from 1916 on. To support more than four years of industrialized warfare, national governments almost everywhere faced tasks of an unexpected nature and magnitude. They had to ensure industrial production for the fighting while millions of able-bodied men between age 18 and 55 served in the military; they had to organize the food supply and keep up morale at home and in the front lines; new administrative offices were created, and the state bureaucracy reached into new realms. All this was only partially reversed after 1918.

In short, the war was a catastrophe for Europe. That it had such a terrible impact was an effect of its sheer duration. Until the fall of 1918 both sides remained stuck in deadlock. Neither side could force a decisive victory and neither seemed so superior that the other would have been tempted to give up. Moreover, to conclude a truce and return to the status quo seemed intolerable to most people, as the war had demanded enormous sacrifices (human and material) already during the first few months.

Given these momentous changes and the high blood toll, the question of war guilt assumed special emotional and moral importance. The victors of the war, the United States, Britain, France, and Italy, forced Germany and its allies to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war in the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans, however, reacted with indignation; up to the 1960s they considered the claim that Germany was the culprit of the war an outrage. Most Germans at the time claimed either that the war was a logical outcome of an aggressive encirclement of Germany by the allies or supported the opinion of Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who had said: "the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war." We therefore need to ask how such a dramatic historical event occurred and who was responsible for it.

Germany in 1914: 
In foreign politics, Germany was effectively isolated together with its last faithful ally, Austria-Hungary. In domestic politics, governing had become more difficult for the Imperial Governments because the Social Democrats had grown in strength and because Tirpitz's costly fleet-building program had eroded much of the other parties' solidarity. Although they always feared the possible revolutionary consequences of an international conflict, German leaders had sometimes considered war as a panacea for foreign and domestic problems; war should split the alliances against Germany and unite the people in a wave of nationalism or even initiate some form of dictatorship based on the military.

Although pacifism existed both as an independent movement and as an idea attached to the socialist movement, most leaders and much of public opinion did not consider war necessarily as an evil thing, particularly if it meant to continue politics by other means. (This was true for all European countries.) However, nobody really knew what kind of war they had to expect. Since the Napoleonic period (one hundred years ago) no war had ever affected large areas of Europe. The Franco-German war of 1870-71 had been the last violent conflict between industrially advanced nations in Europe. It had been decided within a few weeks. Fast mobilization, massive gun power, fast communications (telegraph), and the support of railroads seemed to have made war between industrialized nations a short affair. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 confirmed this.

Moreover, no nation in Europe seemed capable of surviving a long war. Industrialization and the concomitant reduction of agriculture had made national economies so dependent upon imports and international trade that a long war -- to contemporaries -- could only end in chaos, likely to be followed by a socialist revolution. Many people in Europe and in Germany, in particular, thus thought that war would be short, and that not all should be done to avert it. War might as well come as a violent but short event, a heavy thunderstorm, and clear the air from the year-long tensions and problems. It was not uncommon among European intellectuals to think that their peoples had become lazy and -- in a Darwinist sense -- unfit, as they had enjoyed peace and material progress for so many decades. For a document showing how this thought also influenced some generals - though not necessarily official German policy, see H-German: Bernhardi: The Next War.

The German government, in particular, felt under increasing pressure from the generals and from right-wing opinion to wage war at the next feasible opportunity. Diplomatic means to counteract the encirclement of the country had proven counterproductive and seemed exhausted. Russia, moreover, was industrializing rapidly, its population grew at a pace that alarmed Germans, and their concern heightened when Russia, with French money, began to build railways to the German border and alongside it. Germans now feared that they could be crushed within a few weeks if France and Russia decided to wage a two-front war against their common antagonist.

The unfolding of events, 28 June to 4 August 1914: 
On 28 June 1914 the Austrian heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand, was murdered in Sarajevo, the capital of the province Bosnia-Hercegovina, occupied by Austria since 1878 and annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. Murders of princes and princesses or heads of state were not unusual, but this one arose special anger in most of Europe, particularly since suspicions existed that the Serb government had had contacts with the terrorist group responsible for the assassination. (These suspicious were confirmed later. Although the Serb government knew about the plans, it did not condone them; it even tried to warn Vienna in clouded language. The warning, however, was not understood, and the embarrassing ties of the Serb government to the terrorists would have been enough of an embarrassment.)

The Austro-Hungarian government, angered by continued Pan-Slavic agitation within its borders, decided to react to the murder by crushing Serbia or at least by curbing Serb agitation within the Habsburg Empire. The German government gave Vienna green light for a punitive action against Serbia and even encouraged it. The German government of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, made it clear that Germany would stand by Austria-Hungary even if an attack on Serbia provoked Russia, Serbia's ally, to declare war on Austria-Hungary.

A punitive strike by the Austro-Hungarians would maybe have been tolerated by other European governments (who all were outraged at the assassination) if it had happened right after the murder. But Austro-Hungarian military preparations and diplomatic procedures were notoriously inefficient and time-consuming. The Hungarian and Austrian governments rarely agreed on anything, and the military of the Habsburg monarchy was poorly organized and coordinated. The mobilization order appeared in some twenty different languages - testimony to the tolerance but also to the unpracticality of the empire. It took the Austro-Hungarian government four weeks to send an ultimatum to Belgrade, demanding far-reaching powers to investigate the murder and the implication of the Serb government.

The Serb government accepted most clauses but rejected some, knowing well that this would mean war with Austria. Russia had encouraged Serbia not to give in completely. Austria-Hungary was unwilling to consider a compromise and declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Russia now mobilized first on its borders with Austria, but soon ordered general mobilization. This made the German generals extremely nervous, as their only plan for a two-front war with France and Russia rested on the condition that Russia would mobilize slowly and with great delay. The German government, under increasing pressure from the generals, sent an ultimatum to St. Petersburg, demanding that mobilization be stopped. The Russian government did not bother to reply. This prompted the German declaration of war to Russia on 1 August. One day later the Germans, who knew that the French would not stand by in a German-Russian war, also declared war on France.

The German war plans urged a fast knockout of the French army and then a turn to the eastern front. But to win quickly in the west the German armies needed to surround the French, which they could only do by marching through Belgium. The German government therefore tried to receive permission from Belgium to march through its territory, which the Belgians rejected. The Germans then sent an ultimatum to Belgium and invaded the country after Belgium rejected it. When the Germans entered Belgium, whose neutrality they had recognized, Britain demanded a German withdrawal and, when that condition was not met, declared war on Germany on 4 August. War declarations followed between Russia, France, and Britain on the one side and Austria-Hungary on the other.

Origins of the war:
Why did the murder in Sarajevo lead to a general European war? Long-term causes have often been suggested: nationalism, militarism, imperialism, the fatalist mood of 1914, armaments, and mobilization plans. But what were the particular goals of the governments involved in the crisis of July 1914?

Austria-Hungary was worried about the possible dissolution of its empire. It desired to crush Slav nationalism, the main factor of instability. The Austro-Hungarian attitude to Serbia was also dominated by the antagonism to Russia in the Balkans. The government in Vienna felt concern about a loss of face after the murder of Franz Ferdinand.

The Serb government was involved in underground and terrorist activities serving its designs for a greater Serbia on the lines of future Yugoslavia. Like Austria-Hungary, Russia was concerned about a loss of face after several diplomatic or military defeats (war against Japan in 1904-5, Bosnian crisis in 1908). The Russian government was also worried about domestic instability (revolutionary activity, worker unrest). Russia hoped to score a foreign political success; its ultimate goal was to open the Dardanelles to Russian warships. Pan-Slavism and the feeling of an inevitable clash with the Germanic race also played a role in making war acceptable to St. Petersburg.

France was concerned about the possibility of German aggression. It wanted to make sure that Russia remained diplomatically tough. The French hoped to win back Alsace-Lorraine and realized that this would not be possible without a major war, but except for their encouragement of Russian intransigence their attitude in July 1914 was mostly defensive (wait and see). The headlines of the French press in July were preoccupied with a murder committed by the wife of a minister and rarely discussed the Balkan crisis.

Britain continued to be concerned about the rise of German naval power and feared German predominance on the Continent. The British, facing severe domestic unrest (an Irish rebellion and a miners' strike), remained uncommitted for most of the crisis, but the German invasion of Belgium forced them to enter the war.

In Germany, fear of growing isolation dominated. Austria-Hungary was Germany's last ally and thus seemed to deserve support at all cost (Italy was no longer committed to its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary). The Germans wanted Vienna to wage war on Serbia in order to prevent the breakdown of the Habsburg Empire. The Germans feared, moreover, that the modernization, population explosion, and industrial growth of Russia would transform their eastern neighbor into a superpower that would sooner or later crush Germany. This appeared all the more threatening to the German General Staff, since their only war plan would not work any more once the Russian railroads were completed.

The German generals saw only one way to survive a two-front war, the Schlieffen Plan: quickly mobilized German troops should encircle the French army by breaking into neutral Belgium and Luxembourg (initially even the southernmost part of the Netherlands was considered essential for the passage of the German army), moving through Belgium into Northern France, and turning back toward Alsace-Lorraine in a big pincer movement around Paris. Within a few weeks, the French army should thus be pressed against the Franco-German border and forced to surrender. Next, the bulk of the German army should be sent eastward by railroads to defend East Prussia against the Russians, who were expected to mobilize at a much slower pace than either the Germans or the French.

Schlieffen or his successor as chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, did not consider a war with Russia winnable in the short run, so they decided that France needed to be knocked out as fast as possible. Given the strength of the French fortifications on the Franco-German border, the march through Belgium appeared as the only way to overcome a true two-front war. Through the violation of Belgian neutrality, however, the Schlieffen Plan proved a diplomatic catastrophe and showed how badly military and diplomatic planning were coordinated in the German government (to a large degree a failure of the Kaiser). In any case, the German General Staff claimed to have no alternatives and feared that even the Schlieffen Plan would become obsolete once the strategic railroads in Russia would be finished in 1917. The German generals therefore advocated a "preventive war;" they accepted war as inevitable and believed the military situation to become increasingly unfavorable.

German war guilt?
In the 1960s a German historian, Fritz Fischer, argued that Germany had to bear the main responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Fischer's three main theses were: 1) that the German government under the Kaiser's direction deemed a European war inevitable since 1911/12, prepared for war, and decided to seize the next opportunity to start it. Fischer points out the expansive aims of the industry and Junkers; 2) that the German government and general staff precipitated an escalation of the Austro-Serb crisis in order to launch what they considered a preventive strike against Russia and France. If war did not come about, Germany at least hoped to weaken the Entente and win a moral victory that would increase the prestige and stability of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. Bethmann embraced a calculated risk of escalation; 3) that a long-term continuity existed in German aims for expansion, leading right up to the Second World War: an eastern empire, predominance over Belgium and France.

Argument 2) is widely accepted, although it would be wrong to exculpate Austria-Hungary and Russia. Argument 1) lacks proof with regard to war preparations and 3) needs a lot of specification because it makes too much of superficial similarities between German war aims in the two world wars (the racial agenda, for instance, played no significant role in 1914-1918). In any case, the German government, as all others, did not expect a war of attrition. Domestic calculations, occasionally mentioned by Fischer, played a limited role: Bethmann tried to draw Russia into the war as the aggressor in order to overcome the SPD's antiwar feeling, but no immediate domestic crisis existed from which he would have had to escape. More severe domestic crises existed in Russia, Austria, and even in Britain.

To sum up, the German government's responsibility for the outbreak of the war was certainly larger than that of the French and British governments, but particularly in the light of aggressive Austro-Hungarian and Russian moves it would be wrong to blame Germany alone. The causes for the war are highly complex. Earlier crises could have led to a major escalation, and in that sense it has been asked: why did the First World War come only in 1914 and not already in 1905, 1908, or 1911? To me, it seems decisive that fatalism had been growing among European peoples and decision-makers; many believed war to be inevitable and had become tired of the recurring diplomatic crises, which usually worked to the disadvantage of Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Russia. When a new crisis approached in 1914, the governments in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and St. Petersburg were less willing than before to finding a frustrating compromise.

The German government, ridden by long-term domestic concerns (more than by an acute crisis) and hoping to overcome the encirclement by the Entente, opted for the risk of war in July 1914, which was wanted by the German generals. Austria-Hungary, however, played its own part in driving the crisis to escalation. The Austro-Hungarian government chose to risk a punitive strike against Serbia to stabilize the crumbling empire; it knew well that this would probably mean European war. Russia failed to restrain its ally, Serbia, and its mobilization almost represented an act of war since early mobilization at the time gave powers a nearly decisive advantage. One ought never to forget, however, that no responsible statesman or general in July 1914 anticipated (and willed) the war that actually came.


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