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Kaiserreich / Imperial Germany

The Rise of Prussia

The 18th and 19th Centuries were marked by the rise of Prussia as the second powerful, dominant state in the German-speaking territories alongside Austria, and Austrian-Prussian rivalry became the dominant political factor in German affairs. Successive Prussian kings succeeded in modernizing, centralizing, and expanding the Prussian state, creating a modern bureaucracy and the Continent's strongest military. Despite Prussia's emphasis on militarism and authority, Prussia also became a center of the German Enlightenment and was known for its religious tolerance, with its western regions being predominantly Catholic and Jews being granted complete legal equality by 1812. After humiliating losses to Napoleon's armies, Prussia embarked on a series of administrative, military, economic, and education reforms that eventually succeeded in turning Prussia into the Continent's strongest state.

Following Napoleon's defeat, the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna replaced the Holy Roman Empire with the German Confederation, made up of 38 independent states. A loose confederation, this construct had no common citizenship, legal system, or administrative or executive organs. It did, however, provide for a Federal Diet that met in Frankfurt -- a Congress of deputies of the constituent states who would meet to discuss issues affecting the Confederation as a whole.

The Path to Unification: The Customs Union and the 1848 Revolutions

Prussia led a group of 18 German states that formed the German Customs Union in 1834, and the Prussian Thaler eventually became the common currency used in this region. The Customs Union greatly enhanced economic efficiency, and paved the way for Germany to become a single economic unit during the 19th Century's period of rapid industrialization. Austria chose to remain outside the German Customs Union, preferring instead to form its own customs union with the Hapsburg territories--a further step down the path of a unified Germany that did not include Austria.

France's 1848 February Revolution that overthrew King Louis Phillipe sparked a series of popular uprisings throughout the German states. Panicking local leaders provided several political, social, and economic concessions to the demonstrators, including agreeing to a national assembly that would discuss the constitutional form of a united Germany, individual rights, and economic order. The assembly rapidly devolved into competing factions; meanwhile, the conservative leaders of the German states reconstituted their power. When the assembly finally determined that there should be a united, federal Germany (excluding Austria) with universal male suffrage, organized as a constitutional monarchy under an Emperor--and offered that emperor title to the King of Prussia--there was no longer any interest or political reason (least of all in absolutist, powerful Prussia) for the leaders to listen. The Prussian monarch rejected the assembly's offer, and the assembly was forcefully disbanded without achieving any of the stated goals of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Nevertheless, the 1848 Revolutions did leave a lasting legacy. The factions of the ill-fated national assembly went on to develop into political parties. Certain economic and social reforms, such as the final abolition of feudal property structures, remained. The idea of German unity was firmly established. And the revolutionaries' colors -- black, red, and gold -- became firmly ensconced as the colors of German democratic and liberal aspirations.

Unification and Imperial Germany

German nationalism developed into an important unifying and sometimes liberalizing force during this time, though it became increasingly marked by an exclusionary, racially-based definition of nationhood that included anti-Semitic tendencies. However, eventual unification of Germany was essentially the result of Prussian expansionism rather than the victory of nationalist sentiment. Prussia's economic growth outstripped Austria's during the latter half of the 19th Century and Prussia-controlled Germany became one of Europe's industrial powerhouses. Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia defeated Austria (1866) and France (1870) in wars that paved the way for the formation of the German Empire under Emperor Wilhelm I in 1871. Germany became a federal state, with foreign and military policy determined at the national level, but most other policies remained the purview of the states.

The German Empire--often called the Second Reich to distinguish it from the First Reich, established by Charlemagne in 800--was based on two compromises. The first was between the king of Prussia and the rulers of the other German states, who agreed to accept him as the kaiser (emperor) of a united Germany, provided they could continue to rule their states largely as they had in the past. The second was the agreement among many segments of German society to accept a unified Germany based on a constitution that combined a powerful authoritarian monarchy with a weak representative body, the Reichstag, elected by universal male suffrage. No one was completely satisfied with the bargain. The kaiser had to contend with a parliament elected by the people in a secret vote. The people were represented in a parliament having limited control over the kaiser.

As had been the tradition in Prussia, the kaiser controlled foreign policy and the army through his handpicked ministers, who formed the government and prepared legislation. The government was headed by a chancellor, also selected by the kaiser, who served in this post at the kaiser's pleasure and could be dismissed by him at any time. The Bundesrat (Federal Council) represented Germany's princes. About one-third of its seats were held by Prussians. Conceived as an upper house to the Reichstag, the Bundesrat, like the Reichstag, was required to vote on legislation drawn up by the government before it became law. The Reichstag had no power to draft legislation. In addition, the government's actions were not subject to the Reichstag's approval, and the government was not drawn from the Reichstag, as is ordinarily the case in parliamentary democracies.

The government needed the approval of the Bundesrat and the Reichstag to enact legislative proposals, and the kaiser and his chancellor had many means of securing this approval. Conservative in nature, the Bundesrat was usually docile and needed little wooing. Compliant in the early years of the empire, the Reichstag, by contrast, became less so with time. The easiest means of controlling the Reichstag was to threaten it with new elections in the hope of getting a legislative body more attuned to the intentions of the government. During elections the government campaigned for the parties it favored, sometimes cynically conjuring up fears of national catastrophe if particular parties won many seats. The government also bargained with parties, granting them what they sought in exchange for votes. A last means of taming the Reichstag was to spread rumors of a possible coup d'tat by the army and the repeal of the constitution and universal suffrage. This technique was used repeatedly in imperial Germany and could even frighten the conservative Bundesrat. However little many of the Reichstag members might like the empire's political order, the prospect of naked despotism pleased them even less.

Internally, Bismarck waged a struggle against Catholicism, which he viewed as an agent of Austria (ironically, this anti-Catholic move -- which eventually failed -- actually ended up consolidating a lasting political role for Germany's Catholics), and tried to both co-opt and repress the emerging socialist movement by passing the age's most progressive social insurance and worker protection legislation while clamping down on Socialist activities. Externally, Bismarck then moved to consolidate the stability of the new Empire, launching a string of diplomatic initiatives to form a complex web of alliances with other European powers to ensure that Germany did not become surrounded by hostile powers and avoid Germany's involvement in further wars.

Wilhelm I died on 9 March 1888 and was succeeded by his son who became Kaiser Friedrich III. Friedrich was already fatally ill when he ascended the throne and died on 15 June 1888. Friedrich was succeeded by his son who became Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although the Reichstag did not wield real power, elections to it were hotly contested, and Bismarck and later chancellors and governments were concerned with their outcome. As more-democratic parties came to dominate in the Reichstag, governing became more difficult for the kaiser and his officials. During the later decades of the reign of Wilhelm II (r. 1888-1918), the empire's governing system experienced such difficulties that some conservatives advocated scrapping it, and democrats argued for a new, truly parliamentary system. A fear of these drastic choices and their possible effects caused Germany to muddle through with the existing system until the disaster of World War I culminated in that system's abolition.

Emperor William II disagreed vehemently with Bismarck, sacking him in 1890. Wilhelm II had ambitious aspirations for Germany, including acquisition of overseas colonies. His dynamic expansion of military power and confrontational foreign policies contributed to tensions on the continent. Imperial Germany was driven by the fear that it would end up being encircled. Initially, Bismarck managed the problem well, but his successors reacted to their fear in such a clumsy and pushy way that they produced precisely such an encirclement through the alliance between Great Britain and France, on the one hand, and France and Russia, on the other hand. The fragile European balance of power, which Bismarck had helped to create, broke down in 1914. The Great War and its aftermath, including the Treaty of Versailles, ended the German Empire.




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