Even before this peace had been imposed, King William of Prussia was proclaimed emperor of Germany. When a constitution for the new empire was adopted, it was simply an extension of the constitution of the North German Confederation of 1867.
As chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890, Bismarck became the leading statesman in Europe. As diplomat, he worked for the preservation of Germany’s gains against threats from abroad, especially by any foreign coalition against Germany. As politician, he worked for the preservation of the Prussian system against all opposing currents.
A multitude of economic and legal questions arose as a result of the creation of the new empire. Working with the moderate Liberal party in the Reichstag, Bismarck put through a common coinage and a central bank, coordinated and further unified the railroads and postal systems, and regularized the legal and judicial systems. In 1874 Bismarck, by threatening to resign, forced the Reichstag to fix the size of the army at 401,000 men until 1881; in 1880 he forced an increase to 427,000 until 1888. The privileged position of the army made a military career ever more attractive and served as a constant spur to German militarism.
But the great drama of the 1870s in Germany was furnished by Bismarck’s attack on the Roman Catholic church—the Kulturkampf (battle for civilization). A Syllabus of Errors published by the Vatican in 1864 had denounced toleration of other religions, secular education, and state participation in church affairs. Then in 1870 the Vatican Council adopted the dogma of papal infallibility. This dogma asserted that the judgments of the pope on questions of faith and morals were infallible. To many non-Catholics, this seemed to say that no state could count on the absolute loyalty of its Catholic citizens.
In Germany the Catholics were a large minority of the population. They had formed a political party, the Center, that quickly became the second strongest party in the Empire. The Center defended papal infallibility and wished to restore the pope’s temporal power, which had been ended by the unification of Italy. Catholic peasants, workers, priests, and nobles opposed the largely Protestant urban middle class and the Prussian military predominance in the state.
Bismarck identified his clerical opponents with nominally Catholic France and Austria, the two nations he had defeated in forging the new Germany. In collaboration with the Liberals, Bismarck put through laws expelling the Jesuits from Germany, forbidding the clergy to criticize the government, and closing the schools of religious orders. The pope declared these laws null and void and instructed Catholics to disobey them.
By declaring that he would not “go to Canossa,” Bismarck summoned up for Protestant Germans the picture of the German emperor Henry IV humbling himself before the pope in 1077. But in the 1880s Bismarck had to repeal most of the anti-Catholic measures he had passed in the 1870s, for by then he needed the support of the Center party against his former allies, the Liberals, whose demands for power he found exorbitant, and against the growing attraction of the Social Democrats, who were moderate socialists.
In 1877 and 1878 Bismarck had begun a gradual shift in policy, dictated at first by the need for more revenue. The empire obtained its money in part from indirect taxes imposed by the Reichstag on tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and the like. The rest came from the individual states, which controlled all direct taxation and made contributions to the imperial budget. As military costs mounted, the government’s income became insufficient, and Bismarck did not want to increase the empire’s dependence on the states by repeatedly asking them to increase their contributions. He wanted the Reichstag to vote higher indirect taxes.
Up to this point German tariff policy had basically been one of free trade, with little protection for German goods. But after a financial panic in 1873, the iron and textile industries put pressure on Bismarck to shift to a policy of protection that would help them compete with England. Moreover, an agricultural crisis led conservatives to abandon their previous support of free trade and to demand protection against cheap grain coming in from eastern Europe. In 1879 Bismarck finally put through a general protective tariff on all imports. The Catholic Center favored his protectionist policy. Bismarck thus secured the support of both the Center and the conservatives and was able to avoid making concessions to the Reichstag.
While he was swinging toward protection in 18781879, Bismarck also began to move against the Social Democratic party. Two Marxists, Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900) and August Bebel (1840-1913), had founded this small party in 1869; in 1875 they enlarged it, much to Marx’s disgust, by accepting the followers of Lassalle, an apostle of nonviolence.
The German Social Democrats were not nearly as revolutionary as their Marxist phraseology suggested. They were prepared to concentrate their efforts on improving working conditions rather than on revolution. But Bismarck needed an enemy against whom he could unify his supporters; besides, he had been deeply distressed by the Paris Commune of 1871 and feared that something similar might occur in Germany.
Using as a pretext two attempts by alleged Social Democrats to assassinate William I, Bismarck called a general election in 1878 and rammed through the Reichstag a bill making the Social Democratic party illegal, forbidding its meetings, and suppressing its newspapers. The Liberals supported this law, but they would not allow Bismarck to make it a permanent statute. He had to apply to the Reichstag for its renewal every two or three years; it was renewed each time, until just before Bismarck’s downfall in 1890. Social Democrats were still allowed to run for the Reichstag as individuals, and their votes increased during the years when they were suffering legal restrictions.
But Bismarck felt that “a remedy cannot be sought merely in repression of Socialist excesses—there must be simultaneously a positive advancement of the welfare of the working classes.” As a result, during the 1880s the government put forward bills in favor of the workers: compulsory insurance against illness in 1882, and against accidents in 1884. The sickness insurance funds were raised by contributions from both workers and employers; the accident insurance funds were contributed totally by the employers. In 1889 old-age and disability insurance followed, with employers and employees contributing equally, and with an additional subsidy from the state.
Bismarck also moved away from the Liberals because he blamed them for the market crash of 1873. The rage for speculation that had swept Germany, especially after currency reform in 1871, had moved through railways and into the construction industry. The entire nation seemed caught up in the search for pleasure. When the market collapsed in 1873, the Liberals were blamed. With confidence weakened, a wave of selling on the stock exchange led to a serious collapse, followed by a depression throughout central Europe. Bismarck used the changed economic climate to justify protectionism and to shift the balance of political forces away from liberalism.
Anti-Semitic attitudes, which had been dormant in Germany since the 1820s, were rekindled by those who identified Jews with the Liberal party, and with stockmarket manipulation in general and unearned capital in particular. Thereafter, the myth of a Jewish conspiracy was a recurring theme of German politics, and neither Bismarck nor his successors did much to stop its growth. In 1880 Berlin had forty-five thousand Jewish residents (at a time when all of France had only fifty-one thousand).
The most respected historian of the time, Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), a father of modern German nationalism, declared in a much-quoted article late in 1879 that “the Jews are our national misfortune.” Though Treitschke based his argument on religious and nationalistic grounds, others were prepared to move to “racial” and ethnic arguments, for he had made anti-Semitism respectable; thereafter, it was never far below the surface of modernizing Germany.
When William I died at the age of ninety in 1888, his son, Frederick III, already mortally ill, ruled for only three months. The next emperor was Frederick’s son, William II (1859-1941), a young man of twenty-nine whose accession his grandfather had greatly feared because of his impulsiveness. William I had allowed Bismarck to act for him, but William II was determined to act for himself. This determination underlay the subsequent controversy between him and Bismarck.
Bismarck believed politics to be “the art of the possible.” Since further conflict in the future was inevitable, wisdom dictated moderation toward defeated enemies, for they might be needed one day as allies. Since life threw into conflict a shifting kaleidoscope of social classes, political parties, special-interest groups, sectional loyalties, intemperate individuals who had attained positions of power, and entire nations and states, one could not expect to predict with accuracy a nation’s future needs in terms of alliances. Therefore, a nation’s leaders must always have an alternative course of action ready, a course not too brutally contradicted by any former alliance, so that the middle ground might be credibly taken. After Bismarck, Germany appeared to lose sight of these principles.
On his accession, William proclaimed his sympathy for the workers. When the antisocialist law came up for renewal, the emperor supported a modified version that would have taken away the power of the police to expel certain Social Democrats from their homes. Bismarck, while hoping that the Social Democrats would indulge in excesses that would give him the excuse to suppress them by armed force, opposed the measure. He lost, and as a result there was no antisocialist law after 1890. Other differences arose between the chancellor and the emperor over an international workers’ conference, over relations with Russia, and over procedures in reaching policy decisions. Finally, in March 1890, William commanded Bismarck to resign.
Energetic but unsteady, pompous and menacing but without the intention or the courage to back up his threats, William was ill-suited to govern any country, much less the militaristic, highly industrialized imperial Germany, with its social tensions and its lack of political balance. Tendencies already present under Bismarck became more apparent.
The Prussian army, and especially the reserve officers, came increasingly to exercise great influence on William II. Party structure reflected the strains in German society. The Liberals, a party of big business, usually had little strength in the Reichstag. The Liberals were also divided by local and regional rivalries. The great landowners banded together in protest against a reduction in agricultural duties. In 1894 they organized an Agrarian League, which spearheaded conservative measures. In 1902 they forced a return to protection.
The electoral strength of the Social Democrats increased during William II’s reign. Freed from interference by the removal of the anti
socialist law, they organized trade unions, circulated newspapers, and successfully pressured the regime for more social legislation. The party had no immediate plan for a revolution, although its radical wing expected, especially after a Russian revolution in 1905, that a German revolution would come. The “revisionist” wing, which expected no open conflict between capital and labor, hoped that, by allying themselves with the middle class to attain a majority in the Reichstag, the Social Democrats might eventually overturn the militarist government peacefully.
In Germany, unlike France and Britain, women were generally given little role to play in the reform movement. Denied the right to vote, they were usually barred from membership in political organizations and trade unions. Whereas in France women had traditionally been leaders in the arts, in Germany they were denied access to professional training, and there were no secondary schools for women comparable to the excellent and rigorous Gymnasium educational system established for males.
Until the turn of the century, the only women admitted to German universities were foreigners, and until after World War I no women were permitted to work for higher degrees. The goal set for women was to provide their husbands with “a proper domestic atmosphere.” Those few women who were active politically usually joined socialist associations, since the socialists advocated equal pay for equal work. By 1900 there were over 850 associations working for women’s rights in Germany, but during the empire few of their stated goals were achieved. Though the Progressive party endorsed the
principle of suffrage for women in 1912, it did nothing to achieve that end. Many women worked in the textile industry, and in 1878 women were admitted to the German civil service—a move prompted not so much by feminist efforts as by the need for people who could operate the telegraph, telephone, and typewriter. Women of the upper middle class were thus brought into the work force, though they were paid less than men.
Women were assigned, or accepted, roles in childhood nurturing which in time led to careers in teaching, especially in the kindergarten movement which had its origins in Germany. Though suppressed in Prussia, in part because kindergartens were viewed as too progressive, the movement took root elsewhere in western Europe and later in Germany once again. The feminist movement in Germany embraced child care as a profession, held that the sacred role of women was to be mothers of the nation, and argued that women must take the lead in agitating for legislation by which the state would recognize its obligation to care for women and children, protecting them against abusive husbands and fathers and from homelessness.
Germany prepared a uniform civil code that, in 1896, permitted women to become guardians over children, and motherhood was seen as a career. Women also led the way in the campaign against infant mortality, initiated widespread debates about reproductive rights and the concept of population quality, and launched the new profession of social work. One leader, Frieda Duensing (1864-1933), studied law in Switzerland, entered the field of child welfare services, and helped to put female social workers at the heart of Germany’s growing juvenile court system.
Meanwhile, issues of military, colonial, and foreign policy began to complicate the tense internal politics of Germany. After Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) became minister of the navy in 1897, the emperor and Tirpitz planned a high-seas fleet to replace the naval forces that had originally been designed for coastal and commercial defense. But the army and navy were only the most obvious weapons of world power.
The Colonial Society, founded to support the case for overseas expansion, grew rapidly in membership as Germany acquired territories in the Far East and in Africa, despite the drain on the budget (for the German colonies were never profitable). Pan-Germans planned a great Berlin- Baghdad railway to the Near East and cried for more adventure and more conquest.
However, William’s naval and colonial policies embittered Germany’s relations with Great Britain. So long as Bismarck was in control, the British hoped Germany would limit its goals to altering the existing order of power in Europe; after 1890 it seemed clear that Germany also intended to alter the world balance of power, and the British felt their interests directly threatened. Foreign policy in both nations was shaped by a complex mixture of social, economic, political, and ideological factors ranging from religious and cultural connections through the changing attitudes of parties, the press, pressure groups, and the bureaucracies. Leaders in business and politics in both countries worked for a harmonious relationship between the nations, but in the end they failed.
Britain had other than diplomatic and military reasons to be apprehensive of German power. By the turn of the century Germany had clearly overtaken Britain industrially. This surging development of Germany made its militarism possible, while its militarism in turn fed industrialism. Beginning later and with fewer advantages than England, Germany recognized that it lagged behind commercially and made an early commitment to sophisticated technology. As in Britain, railroads provided the first surge of activity, followed by the opening of the Ruhr Valley. Germany soon forged ahead in steel, organic chemistry, and electricity.
Economic issues were always close to the surface in all German political debate. When the Ruhr proved to be rich in coal, and transportation costs were moderate, a mixture of private initiative and state assistance industrialized the region almost before political debate could take shape. Agriculture became more efficient. Assisted by an active cooperative movement and by state- supported agricultural schools and experimental stations, German grain growers exported food until 1873.
Thereafter, as cheap grain from eastern Europe began to enter Germany, economic policy turned toward protectionism. National efficiency—whether in the growth of larger and larger factories, firms, and cartels, or in more productive agriculture—became a goal on which nearly all parties could agree. By 1914 Germany was largely self-sufficient in many significant areas of industry.