German Infantry advancing 1914.
Before 1890, elections in Imperial Germany could still appeal to a shared purpose of national community building. After 1890, elections turned primarily on concrete issues concerning, above all, reform of the Prussian electoral system and the achievement of social justice. The emergence of interest-based politics fragmented the electorate more than ever. It also sharpened a political rhetoric that was already drenched in militarism. This rhetoric, along with more sophisticated techniques of voter mobilization, placed added pressure on a Prusso-German authoritarian system, already under stress, by introducing new tensions and energies into the political arena. Voter mobilization in the countryside, for instance, engaged new strata of the rural population in agitation for such controversial measures as tariff protection, progressive taxation, and the abolition of the Reich’s restricted suffrage provision. Mobilization in the cities produced a number of anti-Semitic parties, which, although irrelevant by 1900, nonetheless testified to a society at odds with itself and a politics deeply tinged with the irrational. The introduction of other new voices into Germany’s political culture, including those of feminists, who demanded, however fruitlessly, access to the franchise, undermined even solid blocs of support, such as the Center Party had enjoyed, and made coalition politics difficult due to constantly shifting parliamentary majorities.
The greatest threat to the system and the most dramatic development in German politics after 1890 was the rise of the SPD as a dominant party with enormous support among unhappy urban voters. While the Conservative Party receded and both the National Liberals and Progressives stagnated, the SPD skyrocketed in electoral power. With the retirement of the Antisocialist Laws in 1890, the SPD sent 35 delegates to the Reichstag, a new high. By 1912, this number had grown to 110, as the SPD drew almost 35 percent of all ballots cast. The red tide of the SPD was dangerous because it mobilized public opinion hostile to the core institutions of political authoritarianism, even as its broader critique of the social order destabilized the status quo. The party’s insistence on the urgency of political and social reform would not go away. The Center Party and the left-of-center Progressives occasionally worked with the SPD in a parliamentary coalition on some reformist policies, but the right-of-center National Liberals and Conservatives, which represented the entrenched interests of the state, would not. This intransigence in the face of the SPD’s advance threatened, as early as 1909 but certainly after the elections of 1912, political stalemate, in which the government could not obtain parliamentary backing for its policies.
The gathering specter of political paralysis encouraged imperial elites to relieve domestic pressure by diverting public attention to foreign involvements. No one embraced the idea with greater ardor than Wilhelm II himself. Incapable of reforming the system he inherited from Bismarck, whom he unceremoniously dismissed from public service in 1890, he sought a way out of the crisis by demanding that Germany be recognized as a World Power. In this policy of Weltpolitik, he enjoyed broad-based popular support, voters for SPD candidates excluded, although patriotism was also lively enough among workers. Indeed, pride in the nation’s many economic and cultural achievements; regard for the army, which had an exceptional influence in determining national culture; and jingoist enthusiasm for an assertive foreign policy were the few matters on which there was parliamentary consensus. Naturally, national chauvinism was strongest in the military and naval leadership, in the Reich Foreign Office, and among Wilhelm’s court advisors. Transmitting nationalistic ideas to the population and often shaping elite opinion were a number of powerful extra-parliamentary pressure groups that whipped up the middle class for militarism, imperialism, and the notion of building a blue water navy as a platform for projecting German power abroad. These groups included the Colonial League, the Naval League, the Central Association of German Industrialists, and the Pan- German League, which was led by the vitriolic anti-Semite Heinrich Class.
Germany’s foreign policy under Wilhelm II left the country wreathed with enemies. Bismarck’s preoccupation had been to solve the strategic conundrum of a country located in Central Europe with few natural borders and faced on multiple fronts with the prospect of war against a coalition of forces. Accordingly, he sought alliances with the conservative empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia to the south and east and the isolation of Germany’s traditional enemy, France, in the west, in part by an understanding with Great Britain. These arrangements, already in disarray when Wilhelm assumed the throne, were abandoned by the kaiser’s foreign ministry. In 1890, Wilhelm refused to extend the Reinsurance Treaty that Bismarck had signed with Russia. This prompted a precipitous decline in relations with Russia, whose government now approached France, thus leaving Germany with only the weak Austro-Hungarian monarchy to the south as a principal ally. Wilhelm then alienated Britain in two grave respects. Bismarck had resisted colonialism as an unnecessary impediment to good relations with the British Empire but, in 1884, nevertheless gave in to gathering domestic pressure to establish colonies in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia. These possessions brought negligible economic benefit to the Reich yet alarmed the British, whom Bismarck had reassured repeatedly that Germany was satisfied territorially. Under Wilhelm, however, German colonialism expanded to include such possessions as Togoland, the Cameroons, German East Africa (Tanzania), German Southwest Africa (Namibia), a handful of islands in the Pacific, a strip of land on the Southeastern coast of New Guinea, and Kiaochow off the coast of China. Further irritating to the British was Wilhelm’s obsession with building a “deterrent fleet” to dissuade any power from attacking Germany or challenging the Reich’s colonial interests. Germany’s 1897 decision to build a large surface fleet, and the provocative Naval Bills subsequently passed through the Reichstag, drove Great Britain and France, themselves colonial rivals, closer together. In 1904, they concluded a series of friendly agreements known as the Entente Cordiale; Russia, in fear of rising German militarism, joined them in 1907 in the Triple Entente. With the exception of its alliance with Austria-Hungary, Germany was now isolated. Yet its foreign policy only became more erratic, as it attempted to exploit diplomatic crises in such places as Morocco and the Balkans to weaken the ties of the powers now arrayed against it.
Stalemated politically at home and all but encircled on its borders, Germany faced a nightmare scenario. Imperial elites in the military and foreign ministry talked openly of resolving the desperate domestic and geostrategic situation through war. Other Germans, including leading intellectuals and religious authorities, believed that a war might put an end to materialism, decadence, and the malaise of cultural despair by elevating the atoning values of righteous suffering and heroic self-sacrifice. Although it cannot be said that these Germans intrigued to provoke a war—and they certainly did not get the war they wanted—it is true that when an unexpected event set the march toward military conflict in motion they chose escalation and defiance over moderation and restraint.
World War I (1914–1918) was a catastrophe for Imperial Germany and the German people. The general staff of the German army, led by Helmuth von Moltke, the nephew of the hero of the Seven Weeks’ War against Austria and the Franco- Prussian War, responded to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by running the calculated risk of a localized, short war that Germany could win by implementing the Schlieffen Plan. Drawn up by General Alfred von Schlieffen, the plan called for rapid mobilization to the west against France, which would be defeated in six weeks, followed by a rapid redeployment of forces to the east, by way of Germany’s dense railway network, to face Russia. Inflexible in its minute design, fantastical in its ignorance of the manpower and logistical requirements of moving massive armies burdened with tremendous strategic and tactical expectations and, above all, dismissive of the dreadful new realities of industrialized combat, the Schlieffen Plan broke down just miles outside of Paris. Its violation of Belgian neutrality triggered the Allied alliance system, bringing the full weight of the British Empire against Germany. The great trench and attrition battles on the Western Front against France, Britain, and eventually the United States—the Marne and Ypres in 1914, the Somme and Verdun in 1916, Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917, and the Ludendorff Offensives of the spring of 1918—in addition to its bloody engagements with Russia and its allies and Italy, cost the German Army an astonishing 6 million casualties, including 2,043,000 war dead
The Burgfrieden, or “civil peace,” that Wilhelm declared at the outbreak of the war—which was supposed to subordinate party politics to the exigencies of the national enterprise—could not hold up against these terrible losses. The war did not resolve the manifold tensions that had long afflicted Germany, and whatever enthusiasm there may have been in August 1914 dissipated rapidly. Morale at home sagged as casualties mounted, consumer goods disappeared, crime rose, strikes broke out, censorship was imposed, people starved as a consequence of Britain’s naval blockade, and children came down with typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and rickets. Unable to relieve the misery and unwilling to open up the political structure until October 1918, when the German Army had already lost the war and was streaming back dejected across the nation’s frontiers, the Reich collapsed in utter exhaustion and comprehensive defeat. The army, led by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, both of whom would figure prominently in the later rise to power of the war veteran and political crusader Adolf Hitler, blamed this defeat on civilian elites in the Reichstag, whose interminable squabbling had “stabbed the army in the back.” Wilhelm II abdicated his throne on November 9 and fled to Holland, there to spend the rest of his life splitting wood, dreaming of what might have been, and uttering vile anti-Semitic diatribes. The German people, meanwhile, staggered forward into revolution, massive debt, international opprobrium, and a future no less divisive—politically, socially, or culturally—than that of the ill-fated Empire.
FURTHER READING: Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000; Berghahn, Volker R. Imperial Germany, 1871–1914: Economy, Society, Culture and Politics. Providence, RI, and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1994; Chickering, Roger. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004; Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004; Röhl, John C. G. The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Smith, Helmut Walser. German Nationalism and Religious Confl ict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870–1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995; Smith, Woodruff D. The German Colonial Empire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.