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German Empire

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Map of the empire in Europe.
There is only one person who is master in this Empire and I am not going to tolerate any other.
—Wilhelm II, 1891.[1]
The white man's burden
Icon imperialism.svg
The empires strike back
Veni, vidi, vici

The German Empire, also sometimes known as the Second Reich or the Deutsches Kaiserreich, was the German state that existed between the unification of Germany in 1871 and the abdication of Wilhelm II after the German Revolution in 1918.

Before its existence, there was no unified Germany, as the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire left behind a swarm of small independent German monarchies. In 1871, most of the southern German states save for Austria and Switzerland joined with the North German Confederation under a new imperial constitution. This new unified state was ruled by the historical monarchs of the Kingdom of Prussia, the House of Hohenzollern. The traditional capital of Prussia in Berlin also became the capital of the new German state. Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who made unification possible, became the Chancellor.

Due to its high level of industrialization and urbanization, the newly-formed German Empire almost immediately became a world power. It entered into the race for colonies, beginning with the Scramble for Africa. It also worked to diplomatically isolate its enemy France and maintain friendly ties with the Russian Empire. Internally, Bismarck first allied with liberals against Catholics, but he later changed track to ally with the conservatives against the social democrats because every politician does a flip-flop now and then. This latter period saw Bismarck introduce significant reforms to the empire in order to gain the support of the working class against the liberals and socialists. These reforms included old-age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance, meaning that the German Empire became the world's first modern welfare state.

All eras come to an end, however, and Bismarck was eventually forced out of office by the new Kaiser of the German Empire, Wilhelm II, who had assumed the throne in 1888. Under Wilhelm II's leadership, the German Empire abandoned Bismarck's careful diplomacy in favor of a militant bellicosity that placed it into diplomatic conflict with the British Empire, Russia, and France. This helped raise tensions in Europe and contributed to the outbreak of World War I.

Despite its great military power, the German Empire could not handle the strain of being at war with Russia, France, and the British Empire all at once. Over the course of years, its strength was ground down due to the constant loss of soldiers and a harsh blockade inflicted by the British. These horrific conditions led to the German Revolution, where widespread mutinies among the German armed forces as well as uprisings from socialists forced Wilhelm II to abdicate and flee Germany. He left behind a shattered state which became an unsteady republic which eventually became Nazi Germany.

German unification[edit]

Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself… they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.
—Johann Gottlieb Fichte, German philosopher, 1806.[2]

North German Confederation[edit]

Within the loose confines of the Holy Roman Empire, there were two dominant powers: the Hapsburg Archduchy of Austria and the Hohenzollern Kingdom of Prussia. Austria had traditionally held the leadership of the Empire, but over the course of the eighteenth century Prussia rose to challenge its power by consolidating territory and building a professional military.[3] The two states were hostile to each other due to their rivalry over who would have the most influence over the smaller German states. Things came to a head in the Austro-Prussian WarWikipedia in 1866, when Prussia used its superior military and the good ol' Prussian goose step to overwhelm the Austrians and force them to concede Prussian dominance in northern Germany.

Bismarck with the captured Napoleon III

After the peace, Prussia directly annexed those northern German states which had opposed it while Prussia's allies joined the North German ConfederationWikipedia as theoretically equal partners. Despite that arrangement, these smaller states quickly found themselves unable to resist Prussia's superior population, military, and economic power. Consequently, the new north German state became more centralized than was originally promised. As Darth Vader would say, Prussia had altered the deal.

Franco-Prussian War[edit]

You'll notice, however, that Prussia had not managed to get the southern German states to join its Confederation. This was for a few reasons, including religious and cultural differences between the Catholic south and the Protestant north.[4] The south had always been more culturally similar to Austria, which is why most south German states sided against Prussia in the war. Thus, Prussian chancellor Bismarck would need a damn good reason to convince the south Germans to voluntarily hand over their rights to a unified German state.

St. Cloud, Paris in ruins after the Prussian siege.

The solution was France. France was threatened by Prussia's sudden rise in power, and they were further threatened when Prussia put forward a Hohenzollern candidate to occupy the vacant throne of Spain. The French feared that Prussia could attack them from two sides if they got control of the Spanish throne. Although Prussia agreed to withdraw their candidate, King Wilhelm I was very angry about the situation. Bismarck, seeing an amazing opportunity, edited a description of the king's subsequent actions to make it seem like the king had deliberately insulted the French ambassador, hoping it would incite the French "like a red rag to a bull".[5] Bismarck's goal was to engineer a war but make it look as if the other side were the bad guys. He was hardly the first person to have done this.

The edited telegram had exactly the result intended, as fiercely nationalist French crowds gathered in Paris to demand a war of honor against Prussia. French leader Napoleon III was also assured by his advisers that the war would be quick and it would bolster his popularity with the French people.[6]

France declared war on Prussia in 1870. As Bismarck had hoped, the southern German states regarded this as an attempt by France to extend its influence in the German region by force. They immediately sided with Prussia, reasoning that it was better to tolerate the dominance of a fellow German state rather than the French. Meanwhile, the French mobilized in their traditional manner, which was relatively slow and poorly organized. It didn't help things that the declaration of war had been so hasty. Prussia, on the other hand, was prepared. They used railroads and efficient organization to deliver 380,000 troops to the front lines in just over two weeks, while the French troops reached the front much later and were poorly-equipped.[6]

What ensued was one of the great curb-stomps in history, as the Prussians completely overwhelmed the inferior French military and thoroughly defeated it in just two months. At the Battle of Sedan, not only did France suffer a devastating loss, but Napoleon III was actually captured by the Prussian army.[7] Uncle would have been so disappointed. The war was basically decided by that point, although the Germans pressed on and laid siege to Paris.

The war was resolved by the Treaty of Versailles. No, not that one. The terms of the treaty included war reparations, a required German occupation of northern France, a requirement that France recognize the new German Empire; the terms also forced France to cede the border territory of Alsace-LorraineWikipedia to Germany.[8]

Foundation and government[edit]

Proclaiming the German Empire in Versailles' Hall of Mirrors.


After Paris surrendered in the Franco-Prussian War, the final step in Bismarck's plan became reality. Prussian troops paraded through Paris; parading through occupied cities is something Germans apparently really like to do. Prussian King Wilhelm I arrived at the Palace of Versailles, where the various German princes waited for him. Having hashed things out through 1870, the princes all participated in an 1871 ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors were they all recognized Wilhelm I as the first Emperor of the German Empire.[9] The United States was very quick to recognize the new German Empire, sending a chief diplomat and a letter of congratulations from President Ulysses S. Grant.[3]

Government and political parties[edit]

Having finished with the ceremonial crap, the German Empire's new leaders had to set about defining what exactly the German Empire would be. The Empire adopted a constitution in May of 1871. The constitution declared the Empire as a federation with the emperor as head of state; the German states were represented in the Bundesrat under the permanent presidency of Prussia and permanent chairmanship of the emperor.[10] The Bundesrat served as the upper house of the German legislature while the elected Reichstag served as the lower house. The emperor would also appoint the Chancellor of the German Empire, who would assist him in running the empire's affairs. The new government of the empire set about creating a single German citizenship for its people and standardizing legal codes.

States in the German Empire. Prussia is the big blue one on top.

The Reichstag, you'll notice, was democratically elected. Elections occurred with universal male suffrage, and representatives served five-year terms.[11] As a result, the German Empire had political parties.

The German imperial flag.

The most right-wing of these was the Conservative Party, which represented Prussian nationalists and the landed aristocracy.[12] Some of the Conservatives were even so reactionary as to oppose the formation of the empire itself, fearing that Prussian identity would be lost inside the greater German whole. The Free Conservative Party, meanwhile, represented industrialists and big business. It tended to support and have support from Chancellor Bismarck.[12]

The National Liberal Party supported laissez-faire economics and secularism, and it later became one of the chief political forces advocating for German participation in colonialism.[12] The Progressive Party desired reforms in the German government aimed at lessening the emperor and chancellor's authoritarian controls.[12] The Center Party was essentially a Catholic moralist party, and it was conservative on matters of monarchist authority but progressive when it came to social welfare reforms. It survived the fall of the empire and the later Weimar Republic to become the backbone of Germany's current conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union.[12] Last came the Social Democratic Labor Party, which represented Marxism and bizarrely advocated for both revolution and reformism.[12]

Due to its more democratic nature, the Reichstag grew increasingly disobedient towards the emperor while the Bundesrat remained docile.[13] Unfortunately, this also meant that the Reichstag had relatively little power. The Reichstag had no power to draft legislation, no power to dismiss the chancellor, and no power to force the government to seek its approval.[13] The emperor and chancellor, meanwhile, could threaten the Reichstag into compliance because they had the power to call for new elections. As the Reichstag became more and more liberal and more and more disruptive, it raised political questions in the empire. Some advocated for scrapping the body and others wanted to transition to a truly parliamentary system like the United Kingdom. Neither of those options ultimately came to pass.

Bismarck era[edit]

Bismarck vs. Pius IX.


Bismarck had championed universal male suffrage out of a belief that the rural poor would reliably vote conservative.[14] This was a rare miscalculation from the statesman, as he hadn't counted on the rise of new political threats like the Center or Social Democratic Parties. Once these parties did rise, Bismarck denounced them as "Reichsfeinde", or "enemies of the empire".[14]

Bismarck perceived the Center as the major threat, and he allied with the liberals to crush them. This is because Bismarck was a committed Protestant, and he didn't trust the loyalty of Germany's Catholic population.[15] He was further disturbed by The Vatican's 1870 declaration of "papal infallibility", which he feared would make the Catholics even more likely to be loyal to the pope before the emperor.

Open conflict between Bismarck and the Church began right away in the summer of 1871 when Bismarck forbade priests from preaching politics at the pulpit; in 1872 he then made all religious schools subject to state inspection.[15] To Americans this just sounds like basic separation of church and state, but these policies were strongly resisted by Germany's Catholics. Bismarck redoubled his efforts, dissolving the Jesuit order, severing diplomatic relations with The Vatican, and making the Church's ecclesiastical appointments subject to state authority.[15]

A few things ended Bismarck's alliance with the liberals. First, he was shocked by the fact that all of his attacks on Catholicism had resulted in the Center Party winning more and more seats in the Reichstag.[15] Second, an economic slowdown in 1873 and subsequent depression pushed Bismarck to start focusing on tariffs, which were supported by the Conservatives rather than the liberals.[16]

Foreign policy[edit]

Berlin in the late Nineteenth Century.
Good strategists know when to stop shocking and awing; when to begin consolidating the benefits these strategies have provided… Otto von Bismarck replaced his destabilising strategy with a new one aimed at consolidation and reassurance — at persuading his defeated enemies as well as nervous allies and alarmed bystanders that they would be better off living within the new system he had imposed on them than by continuing to fight or fear it.
—John Lewis Gaddis, Cold War historian.[17]

As the quote above quite ably shows, Bismarck's main goal in dealing with other nations was preventing the forced reversal of all he had built. He didn't want to be like Napoleon Bonaparte, forging an empire only to have it torn down just a few years later. Thus, Bismarck devoted his energy to maintaining peace in Europe by carefully stabilizing the balance of power he had disrupted.

Bismarck was most worried about France, as the French were pissed about their defeat in the war and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. In fact, Bismarck had actually opposed the annexation of the border region because he feared that it would make France a permanent enemy of Germany.[18] Bismarck ended up being right, of course, and he had to spend much of his time covering for Germany's earlier mistake. Luckily for him, France wasn't strong enough on her own to take on Germany, and France's only real friend on the European stage was the Russian Empire.

Bismarck was able to neutralize the threat of a Franco-Russian alliance by improving relations with the Russians and forging his own alliance with them. He also repaired the hurt feelings between Germany and Austria. These diplomatic endeavors resulted in the three-way "League of Three Emperors" alliance between Austria, Russia, and Germany.[19] He also negotiated a separate non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia just for extra insurance.

Social reforms[edit]

Huge iron factory in Essen.
The social insecurity of the worker is the real cause of their being a peril to the state.
—Otto von Bismarck, all the way back in 1849.[20]

In between his foreign maneuverings, Bismarck would look back at Germany's domestic politics and notice that socialism was becoming increasingly influential. That was hardly surprising for the birth nation of Karl Marx, but this development distressed Bismarck to no end. Bismarck blamed the socialists for just about anything that went wrong in Germany, and he set out on a rabidly anti-leftist path. First he banned socialism from the press in 1874, and when that wasn't enough, he banned social democracy and socialism outright.[21] He then enforced that ban with a network of secret police. Even after the party was banned though, socialist candidates still found their way into the Reichstag as 'independents'. Clearly, Bismarck was missing something essential.

Building naval artillery in the Krupp factory, 1905.

He changed strategies and came up with a new plan: beat the socialists at their own game. Instead of suppressing socialists, he decided to bribe voters away from them by offering social reforms to improve the lives of workers. If the worker's weren't too unhappy with their lives, then they theoretically shouldn't support socialists anymore.

In 1883, Bismarck forced through the Health Insurance Law, which created the first national healthcare system in the world.[22] Both employers and employees paid into insurance funds, and the German government verified workers' enrollment by comparing employer records with fund membership lists, threatening employers of uninsured workers with fines.

Bismarck followed that up with an accident insurance law in 1884. In 1889, Germany became the first country to implement an old-age social insurance program, which even the United States Social Security Administration acknowledges as one of its primary models.[23]

Ultimately, the Social Democratic Party didn't accept Bismarck's offer of a welfare state, and they voted against his reforms time and time again. The reason was because they realized that Bismarck was trying to maintain Germany's conservative power structure by giving the people a basic level of security to keep them content. As a contemporary Social Democratic Party member Karl Kautsky put it, Bismarck's reforms were just a way to give people "bread for freedom."[24]

Berlin Conference and the colonialism question[edit]

Bismarck prepares to hand out slices of Africa.
See the main article on this topic: Scramble for Africa

In 1884, the Scramble for Africa was already underway, as the British had seized Egypt and the French were invading Tunisia. With so much competition over Africa, it was clear to everyone that Germany had to make the choice very soon: join the colonial race or stay out of it to focus on Europe. Bismarck favored the latter approach, saying, "[M]y map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia, and here… is France, and we're in the middle — that's my map of Africa."[20] He also said, "I am no man for colonies."[25]

However, public opinion was not with Bismarck. Most of the German people considered the acquisition of a colonial empire as the true way to gain glory; an empire without colonies was no empire. Eventually, Bismarck had no choice but to give in. He agreed to colonialism on the basis that it would help Germany protect its trade routes and secure raw materials, but he also chose not to have any personal involvement with what came next.[25] He instead focused on diplomacy.

Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference in order to ensure that the intense competition over African land wouldn't cause a European war that Germany would get sucked into. In Berlin, diplomats from the major colonial powers arrived to hash it out over who would get what chunks of Africa.[26][27] The colonial powers agreed that, among other things, freedom of trade and shipping would be allowed in all African colonies, no nation could claim land they didn't occupy, and no nation could claim any land without formally announcing it to the other powers.[28] The Berlin Conference succeeded in ensuring that no European countries would end up shooting each other over the right to rule black people, and Germany was safe to join to colonial race.

The conference was, of course, not a great thing for the people who actually lived in Africa, as their land had been divided up by people who didn't even know or care that they existed. As you'll see below and in other articles, Germany and the rest of Europe inflicted a great amount of brutality on the people of Africa.

Colonial empire[edit]

The German colonial empire in 1914 at its greatest extent (dark areas plus areas in red lines)


German Togoland[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Togo

Germany started by taking a narrow cut of the western African slave coast in 1884, where the older colonial powers had historically purchased many slaves. They acquired the land by kidnapping some local African leaders and forcing them essentially at gunpoint to sign treaties ceding their rights to the German Empire.[29] Germany then parked a gunboat off the coast of the new territory and hoisted the imperial flag over Africa for the first time.

The Germans quickly sent colonists down to Togoland to establish plantations growing the cash crops of cotton, coffee, and cacao.[30] These plantations were staffed with Africans working as forced laborers. Since the colony was so small and only used for agriculture, Germany never considered it a huge priority for defense. In World War I, British and French forces were able to seize the colony unopposed because it was only guarded by ten German officers and a few hundred local policemen.[31]

German Kamerun[edit]

African laborers load fruit onto an export ship.

The Germans also annexed the region of Cameroon in 1884, and they quickly spread their influence inland to take advantage of its natural resources. Once again, the Germans established plantations and filled them with Africans forced to work. These Africans were subjected to harsh conditions and bad treatment, and many of them perished.[32] The German Empire also tried to eliminate local languages by banning them from schools and ordering that all official business be conducted in the German language.[33]

German colonial officials also created a situation in which the health conditions of the African population were completely neglected. Partially due to budgetary reasons, the colony had very few medical facilities or personnel.[34] Such resources were extremely necessary to help the Africans deal with the horrible treatment the Germans were inflicting upon them, and the lack of medical care contributed to the colony's extremely high death rate among African workers.

In World War I, British and French troops invaded the colony and managed to occupy it by 1916. Much of their success is attributable to the fact that the neighboring British and French colonies were able to muster much larger colonial forces than the German colony.[35]

German South West Africa[edit]

Herero men in chains.
Cold – for the nights are often bitterly cold there – hunger, thirst, exposure, disease and madness claimed scores of victims every day, and cartloads of their bodies were every day carted over to the back beach, buried in a few inches of sand at low tide, and as the tide came in the bodies went out, food for the sharks.
—Fred Connell, British witness.[36]

After some hasty diplomacy between Germany and the British Empire, Germany was able to annex what is now known as Namibia unopposed while the British held on to the Walvis Bay area, which was part of Namibia's coastline.[37] Of course, the silliest border of Namibia is the Caprivi Strip, a weirdly narrow bit of land that awkwardly juts inland over Botswana. It exists because Germany forgot that the world's largest (albeit not tallest) waterfall was a thing that existed.

Packing up the skulls of murdered Namibians for display and study.

You see, Germany wanted access to the Zambezi River, which ran from the Indian Ocean into central Africa. That river would allow them to ship goods and troops between their holdings in eastern Africa and western Africa. Since the river was too far inland, Germany needed at least a narrow strip of land to reach it. After some negotiation, the British agreed to give it to them as part of a deal where Germany recognized British claims in Zanzibar in exchange for HeligolandWikipedia island.[38] The problem was that having river access was useless because the Zambezi River becomes non-navigable further east due to Victoria Falls, the world's largest waterfall. Oops.

On a much darker note, Germany also ended up committing genocide in response to a series of anti-colonial uprisings. Between 1903-1904, the increasing number of German settlers in the area were straining the arid landscape's resources and causing discontent among the native tribes.[39] Some of the tribes, most notably the Herero and Namaqua decided that it was time to kick the Germans out. The Germans didn't like that plan, and they quickly put down the rebellion.

In order to ensure that no rebellion could happen again, German colonial troops drove the tribes out of their homes and into the unlivable Namibian desert before confining them to concentration camps where the survivors were either worked or beaten to death.[40] It is estimated that about 80% of the Herero and Nama population were exterminated.[41] In terms of hard numbers, that was about 100,000 people murdered.[42]

If that's not chillingly Nazi-esque enough, German scientist Eugen Fischer set up shop in the concentration camps to conduct evil medical experiments on the helpless prisoners.[42] He went on to train Nazi scientists and to write Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene, which shaped Nazi eugenics policies. Oh, and he took 300 Herero skulls back home to Germany with him as souvenirs because the man was a fucking creep.

These colonial crimes in Namibia ably demonstrate that the Holocaust was a crime that Germany had long been capable of committing.

German South West Africa was later conquered by the Entente in World War I and annexed to South Africa. The white South African regime then implemented apartheid there.[37]

German East Africa[edit]

German Askari soldier holds the colonial flag.
Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean.
—German officer in East Africa, writing in 1905 to justify the deliberate starvation of the colony's natives.[43]

Roughly corresponding to the modern-day nations of Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania, German East Africa proved to be the most resilient of the empire's colonies during the First World War. Germany established a protectorate over the region in order to protect the interests of its colonial companies. The empire, like other colonial powers, also claimed to be fighting for the abolition of slavery. Unlike other colonial powers, Germany never substantiated that claim and preferred instead to regulate the existing slave trade.[44]

Germany also colluded with the British Empire to divvy up the Sultanate of Zanzibar, with Germany taking the inland regions of Tanzania and the British seizing the actual Zanzibar islands.[45] The sultan had no choice but to allow his lands to be taken by the colonial powers. His relative powerlessness would later be proven in the 1896 Anglo-Zanzibar War, which the British won in just 38 minutes.[46]

The Germans, of course, faced native resistance. Colonial authorities used tribal rivalries to their advantage in putting down the revolts, allying with those tribes which were the historical enemy of the rebels. In 1891, the Hehe people rose up against the Germans and fought a protracted guerrilla conflict which lasted until their chief was forced to commit suicide in 1898.[47] The most significant uprising was the Maji Maji rebellion, where pagan and Muslim Africans allied each other to fight against the German policy of forcing them onto plantations to grow cotton.[43] Germany retaliated by marching troops into the rebel areas to destroy farms, homes, and cropland. The colonial governors then deliberately allowed famine to take hold as a means of depriving the rebels of their will to fight, in a manner similar to the Soviet Holodomor.[43] It's estimated that the famine killed about 200,000 people.[42]

As a means of reducing the military burden of ruling the colony, Germany made heavy use of so-called askari troops. These were native Africans trained and paid by Germany; although they were harshly disciplined, they were well paid to ensure loyalty.[48] These soldiers formed the backbone of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's guerrilla force during World War One. This unit managed to stay in action throughout the duration of the entire war despite fighting against vastly numerically superior Entente forces. The colony was later annexed by the British Empire and the Belgians.

Of course, there's also a sad epilogue to the story of German East Africa. In areas like Rwanda which were too far inland to rule effectively, Germans relied on local authorities. In Rwanda specifically, Germans explicitly favored the minority Tutsi ethnic group over the majority Hutu ethnic group, in part because the Tutsis had more European-ish facial features.[49] Thus, Tutsis were given more privileges and were generally chosen to be local administrators and rulers. This turned into a rigid racially-based class system, which the Belgians also adopted after taking over the Rwanda-Burundi region.[50] This inequality caused extreme resentment among the Hutus which continued to intensify even after independence. These racial tensions eventually resulted in the Rwandan Genocide. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, about 70% of the country's Tutsi population.[51]


German New Guinea[edit]

In 1884, Germany seized a northwestern portion of present-day Papua New Guinea as well as neighboring islands, such as the Caroline Islands. In 1906, the Germans also annexed the Marshall Islands, which they previously made into a separate protectorate in 1885.[52] During their administration, the Germans imposed a policy of forced labor on the indigenous population to expand profitable plantations. In response to the forced labor policy, a group of Micronesian chiefs on Sokehs Island near Pohnpei in the Caroline Islands organized a rebellion against the Germans, which was eventually suppressed by the colonials, resulting in the expulsion of all the locals.[53]

After Germany's defeat in World War I, the islands south of the equator were annexed by Australia to form the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, while the northern islands were acquired by Japan as part of the South Seas Mandate.[54][55]

German Samoa[edit]

After a territorial dispute between the Germans, British and Americans during a series of two civil wars taking place in Samoa, the islands were partitioned into two colonies in accordance with the Tripartite Convention of 1899, with the west governed by Germany and the east governed by the United States. During Wilhelm Solf's governorship over the islands, he came to accept the traditional customs of the Samoan people and treated them with decency for the most part, though he did occasionally banish rebels when his authority was challenged.[56] The islands eventually became economically self-sufficient, thanks to the schools, hospitals and infrastructure introduced by Solf.

Solf's successor, Eric Schultz-Ewerth imposed a ban on interracial marriage during a Reichstag debate in 1912. During the outbreak of World War I, Schultz-Ewerth was captured by the New Zealand Army as a political prisoner until he was released in 1919 and the colony was annexed by New Zealand.

Wilhelmine era[edit]

The problem was that Wilhelm II was a prick.

Bismarck's downfall[edit]

That young man wants war with Russia, and would like to draw his sword straight away if he could. I shall not be a party to it.
—Bismarck comments on Wilhelm II's foreign policy ideas.[57]

Wilhelm I died in 1888, and he was succeeded by his son Frederick III. This presented something of a missed opportunity for the German Empire. Frederick was a fan of the UK's parliamentarian system, and he apparently planned to reform the empire to give the elected Reichstag more influence.[58] Unfortunately, Ol' Freddy got laryngeal cancer and died.

Disastrously, Frederick was succeeded by his son, Wilhelm II. And Wilhelm II was an asshole. The new Kaiser had ideas, and he didn't appreciate being puppet to Otto von Bismarck. Wilhelm also had various yes-men telling him that he'd be a greater monarch than Frederick the Great if only he could get rid of Bismarck.[59]

Interestingly, Wilhelm actually started off as the good guy. He stopped Bismarck from sending in the army to crush a coal miners' strike, saying, "I do not wish to stain my reign with the blood of my subjects."[60] But the two men clashed most fiercely over the issue of foreign policy. Bismarck's foreign policy always focused on appeasing Germany's neighbors and ensuring that no war would break out. Wilhelm was always scornful towards this idea, as he thought that Germany should prove its might as a great power by throwing its weight around.

The conflict between the two men was unresolvable, and Bismarck angrily resigned in 1890. The new Kaiser was free to do his will.


Part of the massive Imperial German Navy.

Wilhelm quickly set about redefining Germany's place in the world. In 1890, Wilhelm terminated the non-aggression treaty with the Russian Empire, an act which permanently damaged relations between the two countries.[61] Wilhelm II's toxic personality also pissed off his cousin Tsar Alexander III. With both Russia and France in the "fuck Germany" camp, the two powers signed an alliance with each other in 1894.[62] Wilhelm had successfully sandwiched himself in between two enemies.

Germany began a rapid expansion of its navy, motivated by the idea that a great navy was the key to global power. The British saw it as a threat, and the two powers quickly entered into a feverish naval arms race that increased tensions between them and brought them closer to war.[63]

Colonialism, which was much more favored by the Kaiser, also contributed to geopolitical tensions. In 1904, Wilhelm II interfered with France's acquisition of Morocco just for funsies, kicking off a crisis that helped further alienate the British and increase France's hatred.[64] France and the UK went on in the same year to sign the "Entente Cordiale" promising to support each other's colonial ventures against Germany.[65] In other words, Wilhelm II was such an asshole that he managed to reverse about a thousand years of constant Anglo-French hostility.

End of the empire[edit]

Wilhelm with Ludendorff and Hindenburg.
See the main article on this topic: World War I

During the July Crisis following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany's diplomats helped obscure the diplomatic landscape by lying repeatedly to France, Russia, and Britain. These lies were meant to convince those powers that Austria was unlikely to go to war when Germany and Austria were in reality already planning the invasion of Serbia.[66] This meant that none of the powers had time to honestly negotiate a way to peacefully end the crisis. When Austria declared war, the German ambassador to Russia recounted that the Russian Foreign Minister "now saw through our whole deceitful policy, he no longer doubted that we had known the Austro-Hungarian plans and that it was all a well-laid scheme between us and the Vienna Cabinet."[67] The other powers jumped in after that, and the war was on.

The war did not go well for Germany, as its armies failed to deliver the planned knockout punch to France. The front lines instead settled into the war's infamous trench tactics. During the war, the Kaiser increasingly delegated his power to his two lead generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.[68] By the middle of the war, the empire had effectively transformed from a monarchy to a military dictatorship. With Germany stuck between one superpower to the east and two superpowers to the west, its defeat rapidly approached. The British blockade of Germany's ports, which Germany's great navy had been unable to breach, made matters much worse. The winter of 1916-1917 was horrific; German civilians called it the "Turnip Winter" as the potato crop had failed and they were forced to eat rutabagas instead.[69]

Things came to a head in 1918, when sailors in Kiel refused to take part in a planned final strike.[70] Protests spread around the entire empire, and socialists managed to take over the state of Bavaria.[71] With growing numbers of people calling for an end to the war and an end to the oppressive monarchy, Chancellor Max von Baden announced the Wilhelm II's abdication, entirely to the kaiser's surprise.[72] The Kaiser eventually accepted the inevitable, however, and he fled by train to the Netherlands. With the Kaiser gone, the Social Democratic Party maneuvered its way into power and declared Germany a republic.[72]

See also[edit]


  1. Wilhelm II, German Emperor. Wikiquote.
  2. Johann Gottlieb Fichte: Address to the German Nation (1806).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Issues Relevant to U.S. Foreign Diplomacy: Unification of German States. US State Department.
  4. James Minahan. One Europe, Many Nations: A Historical Dictionary of European National Groups. Greenwood Publishing Group, Ltd., 2000. P. 106.
  5. Howard, Michael. The Franco-Prussian War. New York: Dorset Press. 1990 (originally published in 1961). ISBN 0-88029-432-9 p. 55.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Franco-German War. Britannica.
  7. Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Treaty of Versailles (1871).
  9. Proclamation of the German Empire, 1871. Chateau de Versailles.
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