Monday, 2 January 2017

The German Empire

The Proclamation of the German Empire
Public Domain

New Germany, new Europe

The German Empire (Reich) was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, on 18 February 1871, with Wilhelm I, the King of Prussia, as its Emperor (Kaiser) and Otto von Bismarck as its Chancellor.

Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia
and Chancellor of German
Public Domain

The Kingdom of Prussia had been transformed into the German Empire through three wars: against Denmark, Austria, and France. Contemporaries had no doubt that a new Europe, dominated by Germany, had come into being. The British politician, Benjamin Disraeli wrote: 
‘The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French. There is not a single diplomatic tradition that has not been swept away.’
Not all Germans were happy with this. Wilhelm I had only reluctantly assumed the title of Emperor (Kaiser). His liberally-minded son, Crown Prince Friedrich, had grave misgivings.
‘We are no longer looked upon as the innocent sufferers of wrong, but rather as the arrogant victors…Bismarck has made us great and powerful, but he has robbed us of our friends, the sympathies of the world, and – our conscience.’
The German Empire, 1871-1918

The constitution of the Empire

The constitution of the Empire came into being on 16 April 1871. It was a federal system, though in practice it was dominated by Prussia, which contained sixty per cent of the population of Germany. However, larger states such as Bavaria and Saxony remained separate kingdoms with their own governments and military forces.

The Empire had a two-chamber parliament. The lower house, the Reichstag, was elected on manhood suffrage. The upper house, the Bundesrat, was composed of deputies from the twenty-seven states. Imperial laws were enacted with the simple majority of both Houses and took precedence over the laws of the individual states.

Executive power was vested in the Emperor, who was also King of Prussia, the head of the Hohenzollern dynasty. He appointed, and could dismiss, the Chancellor, who was answerable only to him. For most of the Empire’s existence, the Chancellor was usually also the  Minister-President of Prussia. The Reich was always Prussian-dominated.

Emperor Wilhelm I
Public Domain

In the formal sense, the Empire did not have a national government, merely civil servants. In practice the government needed the Reichstag, and political parties were quickly formed. In the early years, the dominant party were the pro-Bismarck National Liberals. 

The powers of the Reichstag gradually increased, as it took over the responsibility for the railways, the administration of the national debt, the post office, justice, and colonial affairs. The State Secretaries who administered these functions became, in effect, ministers in a national government, even though they were not elected, and power drained away from the states. Germany was increasingly governed from Berlin.

The Empire was a complex body, with many potential tensions. The Catholic states of the south were frequently unhappy at the dominance of Protestant Prussia. Germany’s rapid industrialisation turned her into the economic powerhouse of Europe, it threw up social and political problems for the Reich government. Two rapidly growing parties came into existence to reflect these concerns: the Catholic Centre Party in 1870 and the SPD (Social Democrats) in 1875.

How democratic?

There were many attempts to rig the system by putting obstacles in the way of opposition parties. In the early years, voters had to bring their own ballot papers, and increasingly these were supplied by the parties. Landlords and factory owners could examine these papers and penalise those who voted the wrong way. 

But after 1903, following a long campaign, the voters were supplied with opaque envelopes. In 1913 standardised ballot boxes were introduced. By then German elections were conducted with reasonable fairness and with less corruption than in many other parts of Europe. In many ways, Wilhelmine Germany was an authoritarian state, but it was not a dictatorship.

Where did power lie?

Germany had manhood suffrage (unlike Britain) and a Reichstag that could be assertive. However, power was increasingly centred in Berlin. In any potential battle of wills between Emperor and Chancellor, it was not always clear where power lay. 

Until 1888 Bismarck was in more or less undisputed control of Germany, the weakness of his position was exposed when he was dismissed by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890. To her great regret, Wilhelm's grandmother, Queen Victoria, did not the power to dismiss ministers she did not like!

The German economy

Even before unification the German economy was growing, with the Rhineland (acquired by Prussia in 1815) the power-base of its industrialisation. The pharmaceutical company Bayer was founded in Wuppertal in 1863. Siemens & Halske was founded in Berlin by Werner von Siemens and Johann Georg Halske on 12 October 1847. In 1848, the company built the first long-distance telegraph line in Europe; 500 km from Berlin to Frankfurt am Main. 

With the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, Germany gained more industrial resources. By the end of the nineteenth century, industry was dominated by metallurgy, electronics, engineering, and chemicals. For example, in 1881 a Siemens AC Alternator driven by a watermill was used to power the world's first electric street lighting in  Godalming. The company continued to grow and it diversified into electric trains and light bulbs.

First electric locomotive, built in 1879 by company founder
Werner von Siemens.
Public Domain

The German economy  differed in one fundamental respect from the British: German banks were ready to finance industry in the long term. To safeguard their assets they set up cartels, such as the Rhenish-Westphalian Coal Syndicate founded in 1893. By 1904 it controlled 98 per cent of Germany’s coal production. By 1900 there were 275 cartels in operation. In 1887 Emile Rathenau founded Allgemeine Elektricit√§ts-Gesellschaft (AEG), funded by the Deutsche Bank. No British bank lent to industry on such a scale.

In 1913 German chemical companies were producing 28 per cent of the world’s exports in that field and a massive 90 per cent of synthetic dyestuffs. Between them Siemens and AEG accounted for 75 per cent of Germany’s elector-technical production.


  1. The German Empire was founded on war and in its early years it believed it had a great deal to fear from potential enemies. (This theme will be explored later.)
  2. Germany was a new country, built up of older states with long histories of acting independently. For this reason, the Empire had a federal system of government.
  3. There were always tensions – between Prussia and the rest of Germany, between Catholics and Protestants, and between workers and employers.
  4. The German economy was growing fast. German industrialists were the most innovative and best-educated in Europe.

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