Modern history





Is it wrong to begin with Bismarck? On several levels, he was a key figure in the coming of the Third Reich. For one thing, the cult of his memory in the years after his death encouraged many Germans to long for the return of the strong leadership his name represented. For another, his actions and policies in the mid-to-late nineteenth century helped create an ominous legacy for the German future. Yet in many ways he was a complex and contradictory figure, as much European as German, as much modern as traditional. Here, too, his example pointed forwards to the tangled mixture of the new and the old that was so characteristic of the Third Reich. It is worth calling to mind that a mere fifty years separated Bismarck’s foundation of the German Empire in 1871 from the electoral triumphs of the Nazis in 1930-32. That there was a connection between the two seems impossible to deny. It was here, rather than in the remote religious cultures and hierarchical polities of the Reformation or the ‘Enlightened Absolutism’ of the eighteenth century, that we find the first real moment in German history which it is possible to relate directly to the coming of the Third Reich in 1933.1

Born in 1815, Otto von Bismarck made his reputation as the wild man of German conservatism, given to brutal statements and violent actions, never afraid to state with forceful clarity what more cautious spirits were afraid to say out loud. Coming from a traditional, aristocratic background, rooted both in the Junker landowning class and the civil service nobility, he seemed to many to represent Prussianism in an extreme form, with all its virtues and vices. His domination over German politics in the second half of the nineteenth century was brutal, arrogant, complete. He could not conceal his contempt for liberalism, socialism, parliamentarism, egalitarianism and many other aspects of the modern world. Yet this seemed to do no harm to the almost mythical reputation he acquired after his death as the creator of the German Empire. On the centenary of his birth, in 1915, when Germany was in the midst of fighting the First World War, a humane liberal such as the historian Friedrich Meinecke could take comfort, even inspiration, from the image of the ‘Iron Chancellor’ as a man of force and power: ‘It is the spirit of Bismarck’, he wrote, ‘which forbids us to sacrifice our vital interests and has forced us to the heroic decision to take up the prodigious struggle against East and West, to speak with Bismarck: “like a strong fellow, who has two good fists at his disposal, one for each opponent”.’2 Here was the great and decisive leader whose lack many Germans felt acutely at this crucial juncture in their country’s fortunes. They were to feel the absence of such a leader even more acutely in the years after the war ended.

Yet in reality Bismarck was a far more complex character than this crude image, fostered by his acolytes after his death. He was not the reckless, risk-taking gambler of later legend. Too few Germans subsequently remembered that it was Bismarck who was responsible for defining politics as ‘the art of the possible.’3 He always insisted that his technique was to calculate the way events were going, then take advantage of them for his own purposes. He himself put it more poetically: ‘A statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait and listen until he hears the steps of God sounding through events; then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment’.4 Bismarck knew that he could not force events into any pattern that he wanted. If, then - to adopt another of his favourite metaphors - the art of politics consisted in navigating the ship of state along the stream of time, in what direction was that stream flowing in nineteenth-century Germany? For more than a millennium before the century began, Central Europe had been splintered into myriad autonomous states, some of them powerful and well organized, like Saxony and Bavaria, others small or medium-sized ‘Free Cities’, or tiny principalities and knighthoods which consisted of little more than a castle and a modestly sized estate. These were all gathered together in the so-called Holy Roman Reich of the German Nation, founded by Charlemagne in 800 and dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. This was the famous ‘thousand-year Reich’ which it ultimately became the Nazis’ ambition to emulate. By the time it collapsed under the weight of Napoleon’s invasions, the Reich was in a parlous condition; attempts to establish a meaningful degree of central authority had failed, and powerful and ambitious member states such as Austria and Prussia had tended increasingly to throw their weight around as if the Reich did not exist.

When the dust settled after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the European states set up a successor organization to the Reich in the form of the German Confederation, whose borders were roughly the same and included, as before, the German and Czech-speaking parts of Austria. For a while, the police system established across Central Europe by the Austrian Chancellor Prince Metternich successfully kept the lid on the boiling cauldron of liberal and revolutionary activity stirred up amongst an active minority of educated people before 1815 by the French. Yet by the middle of the 1840s, a new generation of intellectuals, lawyers, students and local politicians had grown dissatisfied with the situation. They came to believe that the quickest way to rid Germany of its many great and petty tyrannies was to sweep away the individual member states of the Confederation and replace them with a single German polity founded on representative institutions and guaranteeing the elementary rights and freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of the press and so on - which were still denied in so many parts of Germany. Popular discontent generated by the poverty and starvation of the ‘Hungry Forties’ gave them their chance. In 1848, revolution broke out in Paris and flashed across Europe. Existing German governments were swept away and the liberals came to power.5

The revolutionaries quickly organized elections in the Confederation, including Austria, and a national parliament duly assembled at Frankfurt. After much deliberation the deputies voted through a list of fundamental rights and established a German constitution along classic liberal lines. But they were unable to gain control over the armies of the two leading states, Austria and Prussia. This proved decisive. By the autumn of 1848, the monarchs and generals of the two states had recovered their nerve. They refused to accept the new constitution, and, after a wave of radical-democratic revolutionary activity swept across Germany the following spring, they forcibly dissolved the Frankfurt Parliament and sent its deputies home. The revolution was over. The Confederation was reestablished, and the leading revolutionaries were arrested, imprisoned or forced into exile. The following decade has been widely seen by historians as a period of deep reaction, when liberal values and civic freedoms were crushed under the iron heel of German authoritarianism.

Many historians have regarded the defeat of the 1848 Revolution as a crucial event in modern German history - the moment, in the historian A.J.P. Taylor’s famous phrase, when ‘German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn’.6 Yet Germany did not embark upon a straight or undeviating ‘special path’ towards aggressive nationalism and political dictatorship after 1848.7 There were to be many avoidable twists and turns along the way. To begin with, the fortunes of the liberals had undergone a dramatic transformation once more by the beginning of the 1860s. Far from being a complete return to the old order, the post-revolutionary settlement had sought to appease many of the liberals’ demands while stopping short of granting either national unification or parliamentary sovereignty. Trial by jury in open court, equality before the law, freedom of business enterprise, abolition of the most objectionable forms of state censorship of literature and the press, the right of assembly and association, and much more, were in place almost everywhere in Germany by the end of the 1860s. And, crucially, many states had instituted representative assemblies in which elected deputies had freedom of debate and enjoyed at least some rights over legislation and the raising of state revenues.

It was precisely the last right that the resurgent liberals used in Prussia in 1862 to block the raising of taxes until the army was brought under the control of the legislature, as it had, fatally, not been in 1848. This posed a serious threat to the funding of the Prussian military machine. In order to deal with the crisis, the Prussian King appointed the man who was to become the dominant figure in German politics for the next thirty years - Otto von Bismarck. By this time, the liberals had correctly decided that there was no chance of Germany uniting, as in 1848, in a nation-state that included German-speaking Austria. That would have meant the break-up of the Habsburg monarchy, which included huge swathes of territory, from Hungary to Northern Italy, that lay outside the boundaries of the German Confederation, and included many millions of people who spoke languages other than German. But the liberals also considered that following the unification of Italy in 1859-60, their time had come. If the Italians had managed to create their own nation-state, then surely the Germans would be able to do so as well.

Bismarck belonged to a generation of European politicians, like Benjamin Disraeli in Britain, Napoleon III in France or Camillo Cavour in Italy, who were prepared to use radical, even revolutionary means to achieve fundamentally conservative ends. He recognized that the forces of nationalism were not to be gainsaid. But he also saw that after the frustrations of 1848, many liberals would be prepared to sacrifice at least some of their liberal principles on the altar of national unity to get what they wanted. In a series of swift and ruthless moves, Bismarck allied with the Austrians to seize the disputed duchies of Schleswig-Holstein from the Kingdom of Denmark, then engineered a war over their administration between Prussia and Austria which ended in complete victory for the Prussian forces. The German Confederation collapsed, to be followed by the creation of a successor institution without the Austrians or their south German allies, named by Bismarck for want of a more imaginative term the North German Confederation. Immediately, the majority of the Prussian liberals, sensing that the establishment of a nation-state was just around the corner, forgave Bismarck for his policy (pursued with sublime disdain for parliamentary rights over the previous four years) of collecting taxes and funding the army without parliamentary approval. They cheered him on as he engineered another war, with the French, who rightly feared that the creation of a united Germany would spell the end of the predominance in European power-politics which they had enjoyed over the past decade and a half.8

The crushing of the French armies at Sedan and elsewhere was followed by the proclamation of a new German Empire, in the Hall of Mirrors at the former French royal palace of Versailles. Built by Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, at the height of his power nearly two hundred years before, the palace was now turned into a humiliating symbol of French impotence and defeat. This was a key moment in modern German and indeed European history. To liberals, it seemed the fulfilment of their dreams. But there was a heavy price for them to pay. Several features of Bismarck’s creation had ominous consequences for the future. First of all, the decision to call the new state ‘the German Reich’ inevitably conjured up memories of its thousand-year predecessor, the dominant power in Europe for so many centuries. Some, indeed, referred to Bismarck’s creation as the ‘Second Reich’. The use of the word implied, too, that where the First Reich had failed, in the face of French aggression, the Second had succeeded. Among the many aspects of his creation that survived the fall of Bismarck’s German Reich in 1918, the continued use of the term ‘German Empire’, Deutsches Reich, by the Weimar Republic and all its institutions was far from being the least significant. The word ‘Reich’ conjured up an image among educated Germans that resonated far beyond the institutional structures Bismarck created: the successor to the Roman Empire; the vision of God’s Empire here on earth; the universality of its claim to suzerainty; in a more prosaic but no less powerful sense, the concept of a German state that would include all German speakers in Central Europe - ‘one People, one Reich, one Leader’, as the Nazi slogan was to put it.9 There always remained those in Germany who thought Bismarck’s creation only a partial realization of the idea of a true German Reich. Initially, their voices were drowned by the euphoria of victory. But with time, their number was to grow.10

The constitution which Bismarck devised for the new German Reich in 1871 in many ways fell far short of the ideals dreamed of by the liberals in 1848. Alone of all modern German constitutions, it lacked any declaration of principle about human rights and civic freedoms. Formally speaking, the new Reich was a loose confederation of independent states, much like its predecessor had been. Its titular head was the Emperor or Kaiser, the title taken over from the old head of the Holy Roman Reich and ultimately deriving from the Latin name ‘Caesar’. He had wide-ranging powers including the declaration of war and peace. The Reich’s institutions were stronger than those of the old, with a nationally elected parliament, the Reichstag - the name, deriving from the Holy Roman Reich, was another survival across the revolutionary divide of 1918 - and a number of central administrative institutions, most notably the Foreign Office, to which more were added as time went on. But the constitution did not accord to the national parliament the power to elect or dismiss governments and their ministers, and key aspects of political decision-making, above all on matters of war and peace, and on the administration of the army, were reserved to the monarch and his immediate entourage. Government ministers, including the head of the civilian administration, the Reich Chancellor - an office created by Bismarck and held by him for some twenty years - were civil servants, not party politicians, and they were beholden to the Kaiser, and not to the people or to their parliamentary representatives. With time, the influence of the Reichstag grew, though not by very much. With only mild exaggeration, the great revolutionary thinker Karl Marx described the Bismarckian Reich, in a convoluted phrase that captured many of its internal contradictions, as a ‘bureaucratically constructed military despotism, dressed up with parliamentary forms, mixed in with an element of feudalism yet at the same time already influenced by the bourgeoisie’.11


The power of the military and in particular of the Prussian officer corps was not simply the product of times of war. It derived from a long historical tradition. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the expanding Prussian state had organized itself along largely military lines, with the neo-feudal system of landowners - the famous Junkers - and serfs, intermeshing neatly with the military recruiting system for officers and men.12 This system was dismantled with the ending of serfdom, and the traditional prestige of the army was badly dented by a series of crushing defeats in the Napoleonic wars. In 1848 and again in 1862 Prussian liberals came close to bringing the military under parliamentary control. It was above all in order to protect the autonomy of the Prussian officer corps from liberal interference that Bismarck was appointed in 1862. He immediately announced that ‘the great questions of the day are not decided by speeches and majority resolutions - that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood’.13 He was as good as his word. The war of 1866 destroyed the Kingdom of Hanover, incorporating it into Prussia, and expelled Austria and Bohemia from Germany after centuries in which they had played a major part in shaping its destinies, while the war of 1870-71 took away Alsace-Lorraine from France and placed it under the direct suzerainty of the German Empire. It is with some justification that Bismarck has been described as a ‘white revolutionary’.14 Military force and military action created the Reich; and in so doing they swept aside legitimate institutions, redrew state boundaries and overthrew long-established traditions, with a radicalism and a ruthlessness that cast a long shadow over the subsequent development of Germany. They also thereby legitimized the use of force for political ends to a degree well beyond what was common in most other countries except when they contemplated imperial conquests in other parts of the world. Militarism in state and society was to play an important part in undermining German democracy in the 1920s and in the coming of the Third Reich.

Bismarck saw to it that the army was virtually a state within a state, with its own immediate access to the Kaiser and its own system of self-government. The Reichstag only had the right to approve its budget every seven years, and the Minister of War was responsible to the army rather than to the legislature. Officers enjoyed many social and other privileges and expected the deference of civilians when they met on the street. Not surprisingly, it was the ambition of many a bourgeois professional to be admitted as an officer in the army reserve; while, for the masses, compulsory military service produced familiarity with military codes of conduct and military ideals and values.15 In times of emergency, the army was entitled to establish martial law and suspend civil liberties, a move considered so frequently during the Wilhelmine period that some historians have with pardonable exaggeration described the politicians and legislators of the time as living under the permanent threat of a coup d’état from above.16

The army impacted on society in a variety of ways, most intensively of all in Prussia, then after 1871 more indirectly, through the Prussian example, in other German states as well. Its prestige, gained in the stunning victories of the wars of unification, was enormous. Non-commissioned officers, that is, those men who stayed on after their term of compulsory military service was over and served in the army for a number of years, had an automatic right to a job in state employment when they finally left the army. This meant that the vast majority of policemen, postmen, railwaymen and other lower servants of the state were ex-soldiers, who had been socialized in the army and behaved in the military fashion to which they had become accustomed. The rule-book of an institution like the police force concentrated on enforcing military models of behaviour, insisted that the public be kept at arm’s length and ensured that, in street marches and mass demonstrations, the crowd would be more likely to be treated like an enemy force than an assembly of citizens.17 Military concepts of honour were pervasive enough to ensure the continued vitality of duelling among civilian men, even amongst the middle classes, though it was also common in Russia and France as well.18



Map 1. The Unification of Germany, 1864-1871

Over time, the identification of the officer corps with the Prussian aristocracy weakened, and aristocratic military codes were augmented by new forms of popular militarism, including in the early 1900s the Navy League and the veterans’ clubs.19 By the time of the First World War, most of the key positions in the officer corps were held by professionals, and the aristocracy was dominant mainly in traditional areas of social prestige and snobbery such as the cavalry and the guards, much as it was in other countries. But the professionalization of the officer corps, hastened by the advent of new military technology from the machine gun and barbed wire to the aeroplane and the tank, did not make it any more democratic. On the contrary, military arrogance was strengthened by the colonial experience, when German armed forces ruthlessly put down rebellions of indigenous peoples such as the Hereros in German South-West Africa (now Namibia).20 In 1904-7, in an act of deliberate genocide, the German army massacred thousands of Herero men, women and children and drove many more of them into the desert, where they starved. From a population of some 80,000 before the war, the Hereros declined to a mere 15,000 by 1911 as a result of these actions.21 In an occupied part of the German Empire such as Alsace-Lorraine, annexed from France in 1871, the army frequently behaved like conquerors facing a hostile and refractory population. Some of the most flagrant examples of such behaviour had given rise in 1913 to a heated debate in the Reichstag, in which the deputies passed a vote of no-confidence in the government. This did not of course force the government to resign, but it illustrated none the less the growing polarization of opinion over the role of the army in German society.22

The extent to which Bismarck managed to control the army’s wilder impulses and restrain its desire for massive territorial annexations in the wake of its military victories was not realized by many at the time. Indeed, particularly after his enforced resignation in 1890, the myth emerged - encouraged not least by the disgruntled ex-Chancellor and his followers - of Bismarck himself as a charismatic leader who had ruthlessly cut the Gordian knots of politics and solved the great questions of the day by force. It was Bismarck’s revolutionary wars in the 1860S that remained in the German public memory, not the two subsequent decades in which he tried to maintain the peace in Europe in order to allow the German Reich to find its feet. As the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, a leader of the conservative resistance to Hitler in 1944, confided to his diary during a visit to Bismarck’s old residence at Friedrichsruh:

It is regrettable how false is the picture which we ourselves have created of him in the world, as the jackbooted politician of violence, in childish pleasure at the fact that someone finally brought Germany to a position of influence again. In truth, his great gift was for the highest diplomacy and moderation. He understood uniquely how to win the world’s trust, the exact opposite of today.23

The myth of the dictatorial leader was not the expression of an ancient, ingrained aspect of the German character; it was a much more recent creation.

It was fuelled in the early twentieth century by the public memory of Bismarck’s tough stance against those whom he regarded as the internal enemies of the Reich. In the 1870s, reacting against the Pope’s attempts to strengthen his hold over the Catholic community through the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and the Declaration of Papal Infallibility (1871), Bismarck inaugurated what liberals dubbed the ‘struggle for culture’, a series of laws and police measures which aimed to bring the Catholic Church under the control of the Prussian state. The Catholic clergy refused to co-operate with laws requiring them to undergo training at state institutions and submit clerical appointments to state approval. Before long, those who contravened the new laws were being hounded by the police, arrested and sent to gaol. By the mid-1870s, 989 parishes were without incumbents, 225 priests were in gaol, all Catholic religious orders apart from those involved in nursing had been suppressed, two archbishops and three bishops had been removed from office and the Bishop of Trier had died shortly after his release from nine months in prison.24 What was even more disturbing was that this massive assault on the civil liberties of some 40 per cent of the population of the Reich was cheered on by Germany’s liberals, who regarded Catholicism as so serious a threat to civilization that it justified extreme measures such as these.

The struggle eventually died down, leaving the Catholic community an embittered enemy of liberalism and modernity and determined to prove its loyalty to the state, not least through the political party it had formed in order, initially, to defend itself against persecution, the so-called Centre Party. But before this process was even complete, Bismarck struck another blow against civil liberties with the Anti-Socialist Law, passed by the Reichstag after two assassination attempts on the aged Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1878. In fact, Germany’s fledgling socialist movement had nothing to do with the would-be assassins and was a law-abiding organization, putting its trust in the parliamentary route to power. Once more, however, the liberals were persuaded to abandon their liberal principles in what was presented to them as the national interest. Socialist meetings were banned, socialist newspapers and magazines suppressed, the socialist party outlawed. Capital punishment, previously in abeyance in Prussia and every other major German state, was reintroduced. Mass arrests and the widespread imprisonment of socialists followed.25

The consequences of the Anti-Socialist Law were, if anything, even more far-reaching than those of the struggle with the Catholic Church. It, too, completely failed in its immediate aim of suppressing supposed ‘enemies of the Reich’. The socialists could not legally be banned from standing in parliamentary elections as individuals, and as Germany’s industrialization gathered pace and the industrial working class increased ever more rapidly in numbers, so socialist candidates won an ever-growing share of the vote. After the law was allowed to lapse in 1890, the socialists reorganized themselves in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. By the eve of the First World War the party had over a million members, the largest political organization anywhere in the world. In the 1912 elections, despite an inbuilt bias of the electoral system in favour of conservative rural constituencies, it overtook the Centre Party as the largest single party in the Reichstag. The repression of the Anti-Socialist Law had driven it to the left, and from the beginning of the 1890s onwards it adhered to a rigid Marxist creed according to which the existing institutions of Church, state and society, from the monarchy and the army officer corps to big business and the stock market, would be overthrown in a proletarian revolution that would bring a socialist republic into being. The liberals’ support for the Anti-Socialist Law caused the Social Democrats to distrust all ‘bourgeois’ political parties and to reject any idea of co-operating with the political supporters of capitalism or the exponents of what they regarded as a merely palliative reform of the existing political system.26 Vast, highly disciplined, tolerating no dissent, and seemingly unstoppable in its forward march towards electoral dominance, the Social Democratic movement struck terror into the hearts of the respectable middle and upper classes. A deep gulf opened up between the Social Democrats on the one hand and all the ’bourgeois’ parties on the other. This unbridgeable political divide was to endure well into the 1920s and play a vital role in the crisis that eventually brought the Nazis to power.

At the same time, however, the party was determined to do everything it could to remain within the law and not to provide any excuse for the oft-threatened reintroduction of a banning order. Lenin was once said to have remarked, in a rare flash of humour, that the German Social Democrats would never launch a successful revolution in Germany because when they came to storm the railway stations they would line up in an orderly queue to buy platform tickets first. The party acquired the habit of waiting for things to happen, rather than acting to bring them about. Its massively elaborate institutional structure, with its cultural organizations, its newspapers and magazines, its pubs, its bars, its sporting clubs and its educational apparatus, came in time to provide a whole way of life for its members and to constitute a set of vested interests that few in the party were prepared to jeopardize. As a law-abiding institution, the party put its faith in the courts to prevent persecution. Yet remaining within the law was not easy, even after 1890. Petty chicanery by the police was backed up by conservative judges and prosecutors, and by courts that continued to regard the Social Democrats as dangerous revolutionaries. There were few Social Democratic speakers or party newspaper editors who had not by 1914 spent several terms of imprisonment after being convicted of lèse-majesté or insulting state officials; criticizing the monarch or the police or even the civil servants who ran the country could still count as an offence under the law. Combating the Social Democrats became the business of a whole generation of judges, state prosecutors, police chiefs and government officials before 1914. These men, and the majority of their middle- and upper-class supporters, never accepted the Social Democrats as a legitimate political movement. In their eyes, the law’s purpose was to uphold the existing institutions of state and society, not to act as a neutral referee between opposing political groups.27

The liberals were certainly of no help in remedying this situation. They themselves lost heavily in terms of votes and seats in the Reichstag in the course of the 1880s and 1890s, though they managed to retain a good deal of support in Germany’s towns and cities. Not the least of their problems was the fact that they had repeatedly split in the course of the late nineteenth century, and, even after the more left-oriented groups had joined forces again in 1910, this still left two mainstream liberal parties, the National Liberals and the Progressives, whose differences went back to the refusal of the latter to forgive Bismarck for collecting taxes in Prussia without parliamentary authorization in the 1860s. Things were just as divided on the right of the political spectrum, however, where there was not one Conservative Party but two, since those who had supported Bismarck’s merging of Prussian particularism into the institutions of the Reich in 1871—anathema to the die-hard Prussian nobility, the Junkers - maintained a separate identity as the so-called ‘Free Conservatives’. Moreover, these two largely Protestant, north German parties had to contend with an even larger political party of the right, the Centre, whose antimodernism and support for the Reich were tempered by its advocacy of social welfare and its critical attitude towards German colonial rule in Africa. Thus Germany before 1914 had not two mainstream political parties but six - the Social Democrats, the two liberal parties, the two groups of Conservatives, and the Centre Party, reflecting among other things the multiple divisions of German society, by region, religion and social class.28 In a situation where there was a strong executive not directly responsible to the legislature, this weakened the prospect of party-politics being able to play a determining role in the state.


Far from causing a general disillusion with politics, the competition of all these rival political parties helped heat up the political atmosphere until it reached positively feverish dimensions by 1914. Universal manhood suffrage in Reichstag elections, backed by a more or less secret ballot and strict rules of electoral propriety, gave voters confidence in the electoral system. Voter participation reached the astonishing figure of 85 per cent of those eligible to cast their ballot in the Reichstag election of 1912.29 All the evidence goes to show that voters took their duty seriously, and thought carefully about how to reconcile their ideological position with the broader political scenario when it came, as it often did, to voting a second time in run-off ballots under the system of proportional representation adopted by the German constitution for elections to the Reichstag. The electoral system, guaranteed by legal provisions and safeguards, opened up a space for democratic debate and convinced millions of Germans of many political hues that politics belonged to the people.30 Moreover, the daily press in Imperial Germany was almost entirely political, with each newspaper explicitly tied to one or other of the various parties and putting its point of view in almost everything it published.31Politics were not just the staple diet of conversation amongst the elites and the middle classes, but formed a central focus of discussion in working-class pubs and bars and even governed people’s choice of leisure activities.32

Political discussion and debate turned increasingly after the beginning of the twentieth century to the topic of Germany’s place in Europe and the world. Germans were increasingly aware of the fact that Bismarck’s creation of the Reich was incomplete in a number of different ways. To begin with, it included substantial ethnic and cultural minorities, the legacy of previous centuries of state aggrandisement and ethnic conflict. There were Danes in the north, French-speakers in Alsace-Lorraine and a small Slavic group called the Sorbs in central Germany; but above all there were millions of Poles, inhabiting parts of the former Kingdom of Poland annexed by Prussia in the eighteenth century. Already under Bismarck the state increasingly tried to Germanize these minorities, attacking the use of their languages in the schools and actively encouraging settlement by ethnic Germans. By the eve of the First World War, the use of German was mandatory in public meetings throughout the Reich, and land laws were being reformed in such a way as to deprive the Poles of their fundamental economic rights.33 The notion that ethnic minorities were entitled to be treated with the same respect as the majority population was a view held only by a tiny and diminishing minority of Germans. Even the Social Democrats thought of Russia and the Slavic East as lands of backwardness and barbarism by 1914, and had little or no sympathy for the efforts of Polish-speaking workers in Germany to organize in defence of their rights.34

Looking beyond Germany and Europe to the wider world, the Reich Chancellors who came into office after Bismarck saw their country as a second-class nation when compared with Britain and France, both of which had major overseas empires that spanned the globe. A latecomer on the scene, Germany had only been able to pick up the scraps and crumbs left over by European colonial powers that had enjoyed a head start on them. Tanganyika, Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, New Guinea, assorted Pacific islands and the Chinese treaty port of Jiaozhou were virtually all the territories that made up Germany’s overseas empire on the eve of the First World War. Bismarck had thought them of little importance and lent his assent to their acquisition with great reluctance. But his successors came to take a different view. Germany’s prestige and standing in the world demanded, as Bernhard von Bülow, Foreign Secretary in the late 1890s, then Reich Chancellor until 1909, put it, a ‘place in the sun’. A start was made on the construction of a massive battle fleet, whose long-term aim was to win colonial concessions from the British, lords of the world’s largest overseas empire, by threatening, or even carrying out, the crippling or destruction of the main force of the British Navy in a titanic confrontation in the North Sea.35

These increasingly ambitious dreams of world power were articulated above all by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, a bombastic, self-important and extremely loquacious man who lost few opportunities to express his contempt for democracy and civil rights, his disdain for the opinions of others and his belief in Germany’s greatness. The Kaiser, like many of those who admired him, had grown up after Germany had been united. He had little awareness of the precarious and adventurous route by which Bismarck had achieved unification in 1871. Following the Prussian historians of his day, he thought of the whole process as historically preordained. He knew none of the nervous apprehension about Germany’s future that had led Bismarck to adopt such a cautious foreign policy in the 1870s and 1880s. Admittedly, the Kaiser’s character was too erratic, his personality too mercurial, for him to have any really consistent effect on the conduct of state affairs, and all too often his ministers found themselves working to counter his influence rather than implement his wishes. His constant declarations that he was the great leader that Germany needed merely served to draw attention to his deficiencies in this respect, and played their part, too, in fostering the nostalgic myth of Bismarckian decisiveness and guile. Many Germans came to contrast the ruthlessness of Bismarck’s amoral statesmanship, in which the end justified the means and statesmen could say one thing while doing, or preparing to do, another, with Wilhelm’s impulsive bombast and ill-considered tactlessness.36

Personalities aside, all of these features of the Germany that Bismarck created could be observed to a greater or lesser degree in other countries as well. In Italy the charismatic example of Garibaldi, leader of the popular forces that helped unite the nation in 1859, provided a model for the later dictator Mussolini. In Spain, the army was no less free of political control than it was in Germany, and in Italy, as in Germany, it reported to the sovereign rather than to the legislature. In Austria-Hungary, the civil service was just as strong and parliamentary institutions even more limited in their power. In France, a Church-state conflict raged that was not far behind that of the German ‘struggle for culture’ in its ideological ferocity. In Russia, a concept equivalent to that of the Reich was also applied to domestic politics and Russia’s relations with its nearest neighbours.37 The Tsarist regime in Russia repressed the socialists even more severely than did its German counterpart and did not yield an inch to the German authorities in its drive to assimilate the Poles, millions of whom were also under its sway. Liberalism, however defined, was weak in all the major states of Eastern and Central Europe by 1914, not just in the German Reich. The political scene was still more fragmented in Italy than it was in Germany, and the belief that war was justified to achieve political aims, in particular the creation of a land empire, was common to many European powers, as the outbreak of the First World War was to show with such terrible clarity in August 1914. All over the Continent, the growing forces of democracy threatened the hegemony of conservative elites. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the age of nationalism not just in Germany, but everywhere in Europe, and the ‘nationalization of the masses’ was taking place in many other countries as well.38

Yet in no nation in Europe other than Germany were all these conditions present at the same time and to the same extent. Moreover, Germany was not just any European country. Much has been written by historians about various aspects of Germany’s supposed backwardness at this time, its alleged deficit of civic values, its arguably antiquated social structure, its seemingly craven middle class and its apparently neo-feudal aristocracy. This was not how most contemporaries saw it at the time. Well before the outbreak of the First World War, Germany was the Continent’s wealthiest, most powerful and most advanced economy. In the last years of peace, Germany was producing two-thirds of continental Europe’s output of steel, half its output of coal and lignite and twenty per cent more electrical energy than Britain, France and Italy combined.39 By 1914, with a population of around 67 million, the German Empire commanded far greater resources of manpower than any other continental European power with the exception of Russia. By comparison, the United Kingdom, France and Austria-Hungary each had a population of between 40 and 50 million at this time. Germany was the world leader in the most modern industries, such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals and electricity. In agriculture, the massive use of artificial fertilizers and farm machinery had transformed the efficiency of the landed estates of the north and east by 1914, by which time Germany was, for example, producing a third of the world’s output of potatoes. Living standards had improved by leaps and bounds since the turn of the century if not before. The products of Germany’s great industrial firms, such as Krupps and Thyssen, Siemens and AEG, Hoechst and BASF, were famous for their quality the world over.40

Viewed nostalgically from the perspective of the early interwar years, Germany before 1914 seemed to many to have been a haven of peace, prosperity and social harmony. Yet beneath its prosperous and self-confident surface, it was nervous, uncertain and racked by internal tensions. 41 For many, the sheer pace of economic and social change was frightening and bewildering. Old values seemed to be disappearing in a welter of materialism and unbridled ambition. Modernist culture, from abstract painting to atonal music, added to the sense of disorientation in some areas of society.42 The old-established hegemony of the Prussian landed aristocracy, which Bismarck had tried so hard to preserve, was undermined by the headlong rush of German society into the modern age. Bourgeois values, habits and modes of behaviour had triumphed in the upper and middle reaches of society by 1914; yet simultaneously they were themselves being challenged by the growing self-assertion of the industrial working class, organized in the massive Social Democratic labour movement. Germany, unlike any other European country, had become a nation-state not before the industrial revolution, but at its height; and on the basis, not of a single state, but of a federation of many different states whose German citizens were bound together principally by a common language, culture and ethnicity. Stresses and strains created by rapid industrialization interlocked with conflicting ideas about the nature of the German state and nation and their place in the larger context of Europe and the world. German society did not enter nationhood in 1871 in a wholly stable condition. It was riven by rapidly deepening internal conflicts which were increasingly exported into the unresolved tensions of the political system that Bismarck had created.43 These tensions found release in an increasingly vociferous nationalism, mixed in with alarmingly strident doses of racism and antisemitism, which were to leave a baleful legacy for the future.

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