The German Empire (German: Deutsches Reich or Deutsches Kaiserreich) was the historical German nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 to the rise of the National Party in 1933. Rapid industrialization in the 1880's and 1890's allowed it to become a great power, boasting a rapidly growing economy and the world's strongest army and its navy went from being negligible to second only behind the Royal Navy in less than a decade. After the removal of the powerful Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890, the young Emperor Wilhelm II engaged in increasingly reckless foreign policies that left the Empire isolated. Its network of small colonies in Africa and the Pacific paled in comparison to the British and French empires. When the great crisis of 1914 arrived, it had only two weak allies (the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires) left. Following World War I, Germany barely emerged victorious in August 1918. In October 1918, the Reichstag convened where a new democratic constitution for the German Reich was written, then adopted on October 28.
The ensuing period of liberal democracy lapsed by 1930, when Wilhelm II assumed dictatorial emergency powers to back the administrations of Chancellors Brüning, Papen, Schleicher and finally Hitler. Between 1930 and 1933 the Great Depression, even worsened by Brüning's policy of deflation, led to a surge in unemployment. It led to the ascent of the nascent National Party in 1933. The legal measures taken by the new Nationalist government in February and March 1933, commonly known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power), meant that the government could legislate contrary to the constitution. The constitution became irrelevant, therefore 1933 is usually seen as the end of the German Empire and the beginning of Fascism in Germany.
German nationalism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848, called Pan-Germanism, to Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck's pragmatic Realpolitik. Bismarck sought to extend Hohenzollern hegemony throughout the German states; to do so meant unification of the German states and the elimination of Prussia's rival, Austria, from the subsequent empire. He envisioned a conservative, Prussian-dominated Germany. Three wars led to military successes and helped to persuade German people to do this: the Second war of Schleswig against Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War against France in 1870–71.
The German Confederation ended as a result of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 between the constituent Confederation entities of the Austrian Empire and its allies on one side and the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies on the other. The war resulted in the Confederation being partially replaced by a North German Confederation in 1867 which included Prussia but excluded Austria and the South German states. During November 1870 the four southern states joined the North German Confederation by treaty.
The foundation of empire
On December 10, 1870 the North German Confederation Reichstag renamed the Confederation as the German Empire and gave the title of German Emperor to the King of Prussia as President of the Confederation. During the Siege of Paris on January 18, 1871 King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.
The 1871 German Constitution was adopted by the Reichstag on April 14, 1871 and proclaimed by the Emperor on April 16, which was substantially based upon Bismarck's North German Constitution. The new empire had a parliament called the Reichstag, which was elected by universal male suffrage. However, the original constituencies drawn in 1871 were never redrawn to reflect the growth of urban areas. As a result, by the time of the great expansion of German cities in the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century, rural areas were grossly overrepresented.
Legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the states. Executive power was vested in the emperor, or Kaiser, who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. The emperor was given extensive powers by the constitution. He alone appointed and dismissed the chancellor, was supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and final arbiter of all foreign affairs. Officially, the chancellor was a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs; in practice, the State Secretaries (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc.) acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. The Reichstag had the power to pass, amend or reject bills and to initiate legislation. However, in practice the real power was vested in the emperor and chancellor.
Although nominally a league of equals, in practice the empire was dominated by the largest and most powerful state, Prussia. It stretched across the northern two thirds of the new Reich, and contained three fifths of its population. The imperial crown was hereditary in the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling house of Prussia. With the exception of the years 1872–1873 and 1892–1894, the chancellor was always simultaneously the prime minister of Prussia. With 17 out of 58 votes in the Bundesrat, Berlin needed only a few votes from the small states to exercise effective control.
The other states retained their own governments, but had only limited aspects of sovereignty. For example, both postage stamps and currency were issued for the empire as a whole. Coins through one mark was also minted in the name of the empire, while higher valued pieces were issued by the states. But these larger gold and silver issues were virtually commemorative coins and had limited circulation.
While the states issued their own decorations, and some had their own armies, the military forces of the smaller ones were put under Prussian control. Those of the larger states, such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony, were coordinated along Prussian principles and would in wartime be controlled by the federal government.
The evolution of the German Empire is somewhat in line with parallel developments in Italy which became a united nation state shortly before the German Empire. Some key elements of the German Empire's authoritarian political structure were also the basis for conservative modernization in Japan under Meiji and the preservation of an authoritarian political structure under the Tsars in the Russian Empire.
One factor in the social anatomy of these governments had been the retention of a very substantial share in political power by the landed elite, the Junkers, resulting from the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban areas.
Although authoritarian in many respects, the empire had some democratic features. Besides universal suffrage, it permitted the development of political parties. Bismarck's intention was to create a constitutional façade which would mask the continuation of authoritarian policies. In the process, he created a system with a serious flaw. There was a significant disparity between the Prussian and German electoral systems. Prussia used a highly restrictive three-class voting system in which the richest third of the population could choose 85% of the legislature, all but assuring a conservative majority. As mentioned above, the king and (with two exceptions) the prime minister of Prussia were also the emperor and chancellor of the empire – meaning that the same rulers had to seek majorities from legislatures elected from completely different franchises. As mentioned above, rural areas were grossly overrepresented from the 1890s onward.
Bismarck's domestic policies played an important role in forging the authoritarian political culture of the Kaiserreich. Less preoccupied by continental power politics following unification in 1871, Germany's semi-parliamentary government carried out a relatively smooth economic and political revolution from above that pushed them along the way towards becoming the world's leading industrial power of the time.
Year of three emperors
On March 9, 1888 Wilhelm I died shortly before his 91st birthday, leaving his son Frederick III as the new emperor. Frederick was a liberal and an admirer of the British constitution, while his links to Britain strengthened further with his marriage to Princess Victoria, eldest child of Queen Victoria. With his ascent to the throne, many hoped that Frederick's reign would lead to a liberalisation of the Reich and an increase of parliament's influence on the political process. The dismissal of Robert von Puttkamer, the highly-conservative Prussian interior minister, on June 8 was a sign of the expected direction and a blow to Bismarck's administration.
By the time of his accession, however, Frederick had developed incurable laryngeal cancer, which had been diagnosed in 1887. He died on the 99th day of his rule, on June 15, 1888. His son Wilhelm II became emperor.
Wilhelm II sought to reassert his ruling prerogatives at a time when other monarchs in Europe were being transformed into constitutional figureheads. This decision led the ambitious Kaiser into conflict with Bismarck. The old chancellor had hoped to guide Wilhelm as he had guided his grandfather, but the emperor wanted to be the master in his own house and had many sycophants telling him that Frederick the Great would not have been great with a Bismarck at his side. A key difference between Wilhelm II and Bismarck was their approaches to handling political crises, especially in 1889, when German coal miners went on strike in Upper Silesia. Bismarck demanded that the German Army be sent in to crush the strike, but Wilhelm II rejected this authoritarian measure, responding "I do not wish to stain my reign with the blood of my subjects." Instead of condoning repression, Wilhelm had the government negotiate with a delegation from the coal miners, which brought the strike to an end without violence. The fractious relationship ended in March 1890, after Wilhelm II and Bismarck quarreled, and the chancellor resigned days later. Bismarck's last few years had seen power slip from his hands as he grew older, more irritable, more authoritarian, and less focused. German politics had become progressively more chaotic, and the chancellor understood this better than anyone. But unlike Wilhelm II and his generation, Bismarck knew well that an ungovernable country with an adventurous foreign policy was a recipe for disaster. Wilhelm II and his advisers committed a fatal diplomatic error when they allowed the "Reinsurance Treaty" that Bismarck had negotiated with Tsarist Russia to lapse. Germany was left with no firm ally but Austria-Hungary, and her support for action in annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 further soured relations with Russia. Wilhelm missed the opportunity to secure an alliance with Britain in the 1890s when it was involved in colonial rivalries with France, and he alienated British statesmen further by openly supporting the Boers in the South African War and building a navy to rival Britain's. By 1911 Wilhelm had completely picked apart the careful power balance established by Bismarck and Britain turned to France in the Entente Cordiale. Germany's only other ally besides Austria was the Kingdom of Italy, but it remained an ally only pro forma. When war came, Italy saw more benefit in an alliance with Britain, France, and Russia, which, in the secret Treaty of London in 1915 promised it the frontier districts of Austria where Italians formed the majority of the population and also colonial concessions. Germany did acquire a second ally that same year when the Ottoman Empire entered the war on its side, but in the long run supporting the Ottoman war effort only drained away German resources from the main fronts.
World War I
Following the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke of Austria-Este, Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serbs, the Kaiser offered Emperor Franz Joseph full support for Austro-Hungarian plans to invade the Kingdom of Serbia, which Austria-Hungary blamed for the assassination. This unconditional support for Austria-Hungary was called a blank cheque by historians, including German Fritz Fischer.
Germany began the war by targeting its chief rival, France. Germany saw France as its principal danger on the European continent as it could mobilize much faster than Russia and bordered Germany's industrial core in the Rhineland. Unlike Britain and Russia, the French entered the war mainly for revenge against Germany, in particular for France's loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871. The German high command knew that France would muster its forces to go into Alsace-Lorraine.
Germany did not want to risk lengthy battles along the Franco-German border and instead adopted the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy designed to cripple France by invading Belgium and Luxembourg, sweeping down towards Paris and encircling and crushing the French forces along the Franco-German border in a quick victory. After defeating France, Germany would turn to attack Russia. The plan required the violation of Belgium's and Luxembourg's official neutrality, which Britain had guaranteed by treaty. However, the Germans had calculated that Britain would enter the war regardless of whether they had formal justification to do so. At first the attack was successful: the German Army swept down from Belgium and Luxembourg and was nearly at Paris, at the nearby River Marne. However the French Army and the British Army put up a strong resistance to defend Paris at the First Battle of the Marne resulting in the German Army retreating.
The aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne was a long-held stalemate between the German Army and the Allies in dug-in trench warfare. Further German attempts to break through deeper into France failed at the two battles of Ypres (1st/2nd) with huge casualties. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn decided to break away from the Schlieffen Plan and instead focus on a war of attrition against France. Falkenhayn targeted the ancient city of Verdun because it had been one of the last cities to hold out against the German Army in 1870, and Falkenhayn knew that as a matter of national pride the French would do anything to ensure that it was not taken. He expected that with proper tactics, French losses would be greater than those of the Germans and that continued French commitment of troops to Verdun would "bleed the French Army white" and then allow the German army to take France easily. In 1916, the Battle of Verdun began, with the French positions under constant shelling and poison gas attack and taking large casualties under the assault of overwhelmingly large German forces. However, Falkenhayn's prediction of a greater ratio of French killed proved to be wrong. Falkenhayn was replaced by Erich Ludendorff, and with no success in sight, the German Army pulled out of Verdun in December 1916 and the battle ended.
While the Western Front was a stalemate for the German Army, the Eastern Front eventually proved to be a great success. Despite initial setbacks due to the unexpectedly rapid mobilisation of the Russian army, which resulted in a Russian invasion of East Prussia and Austrian Galicia, the badly organised and supplied Russian Army faltered and the German and Austro-Hungarian armies thereafter steadily advanced eastward. The Germans benefited from political instability in Russia and its population's desire to end the war. In 1917 the German government allowed Russia's Communist Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin to travel through Germany from Switzerland into Russia. Germany believed that if Lenin could create further political unrest, Russia would no longer be able to continue its war with Germany, allowing the German Army to focus on the Western Front.
In March 1917, the Tsar was ousted from the Russian throne, and in November a Bolshevik government came to power under the leadership of Lenin. Facing political opposition to the Bolsheviks, he decided to end Russia's campaign against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria in order to redirect Bolshevik energy to eliminating internal dissent. In 1918, by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik government gave Germany and the Ottoman Empire enormous territorial and economic concessions in exchange for an end to war on the Eastern Front. All of the modern-day Baltic states were given over to the German occupation authority Ober Ost, along with Belarus and Ukraine. Thus Germany had at last achieved its long-wanted dominance of "Mitteleuropa" (Central Europe) and could now focus fully on defeating the Allies on the Western Front. In practice, however, the forces needed to garrison and secure the new territories were a drain on the German war effort.
Germany quickly lost almost all its colonies. However, in German East Africa, an impressive guerrilla campaign was waged by the colonial army leader there, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Using Germans and native Askaris, Lettow-Vorbeck launched multiple guerrilla raids against British forces in Kenya and Rhodesia. He also invaded Portuguese Mozambique to gain his forces supplies and to pick up more Askari recruits. His force was still active at war's end.
Defeating Russia in 1917 enabled Germany to transfer hundreds of thousands of combat troops from the east to the Western Front, giving it a numerical advantage over the Allies. By retraining the soldiers in new storm-trooper tactics, the Germans were to unfreeze the battlefield and win a decisive victory. The Spring Offensive brought the Allies to exhaustion with the Second Battle of the Marne by August 7, 1918. This battle proved to be pivotal in the Allies request for an armistice which came into effect on August 11.
The concept of "total war", meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces and, with German commerce being temporarily stopped by the Allied naval blockade, German civilians were forced to live in increasingly meagre conditions. First food prices were controlled, then rationing was introduced. During the war about 750,000 German civilians died from malnutrition.
The winter of 1916–1917 was known as the "turnip winter", because the people had to survive on a vegetable more commonly reserved for livestock, as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were increasingly scarce. Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry, who grumbled that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves. Even the army had to cut the soldiers' rations. The morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink. Many Germans wanted an end to the war and increasing numbers began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party, which demanded an end to the war. In October 1918, Hindenburg and the senior generals lost confidence in the Kaiser and his governments ability to contain the spread of left wing ideology. Under pressure from all sides Wilhelm II reluctantly appointed Prince Maximilian of Baden as chancellor and proclaimed a new democratic constitution.
The German economy suffered severe setbacks after the end of World War I, partly because of the financial burdens of linking its puppet states to the German economy. The government printed money to make the payments and to repay the country's war costs; the resulting hyperinflation led to inflated prices for consumer goods, economic chaos and food riots. Widespread civil unrest was the result.
The German National People's Party (DNVP; National Party) was the renamed successor of the German Fatherland Party founded in 1917, one of several far-right political parties active in Germany at the time. The party platform included removal of the democratic constitution, enforcement of the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and anti-Bolshevism. They promised a strong central government, formation of a national community based on race. The Nationalists proposed national and cultural renewal based upon the Völkisch movement.
When the stock market in the United States crashed on October 24, 1929 the impact in Germany was dire. Millions were thrown out of work, and several major banks collapsed. Hitler and the DNVP prepared to take advantage of the emergency to gain support for their party. They promised to strengthen the economy and provide jobs. Many voters decided the DNVP was capable of restoring order, quelling civil unrest, and improving Germany's international reputation. After the federal election of 1932, the Nationalists were the largest party in the Reichstag, holding 230 seats with 37.4 per cent of the popular vote.
Nationalist seizure of power
Although the Nationalists won the greatest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not have a majority, so Hitler led a short-lived coalition government formed by the DNVP and the Centre Party. Under pressure from politicians, industrialists, the business community, and his own son, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. This event is known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power). In the following months, the DNVP used a process termed Gleichschaltung (coordination) to rapidly bring all aspects of life under control of the party. All civilian organisations, including agricultural groups, volunteer organisations, and sports clubs, had their leadership replaced with Nationalist sympathisers or party members. By June 1933, virtually the only organisations not in the control of the DNVP were the army and the churches.
On the night of February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building was set afire; Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist, was found guilty of starting the blaze. Hitler proclaimed that the arson marked the start of a Communist uprising. Violent suppression of Communists was undertaken all over the country, and four thousand Communist Party of Germany members were arrested. The Reichstag Fire Decree, imposed on February 28, 1933 rescinded most German civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges or a court order. The legislation was accompanied by a propaganda blitz that led to public support for the measure.
In March 1933, the Enabling Act, an amendment to the October Constitution, passed in the Reichstag by a vote of 444 to 94. This amendment allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws — even laws that violated the constitution - without the consent of the kaiser or the Reichstag. As the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, the Nationalists used the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to keep several Social Democratic deputies from attending; the Communists had already been banned. On May 10 the government seized the assets of the Social Democrats; they were banned in June. The remaining political parties were dissolved, and on July 14, 1933 Germany became a de facto single-party state when the founding of new parties was made illegal. Further elections in November 1933, 1936 and 1938 were entirely Nationalist-controlled and saw only the Nationalists and a small number of independents elected. The regional state parliaments and the Reichsrat (federal upper house) were abolished in January 1934.
In this period, Germany was still in a dire economic situation; millions were unemployed and the balance of trade deficit was daunting. Hitler knew that reviving the economy was vital. In 1934, using deficit spending, public works projects were undertaken. A total of 1.7 million Germans were put to work on the projects in 1934 alone. Average wages both per hour and per week began to rise. Most German people were relieved that the conflicts and street fighting of the democratic era had ended. They were deluged with propaganda orchestrated by future chancellor Joseph Göbbels, who promised peace and plenty for all in a united, Marxist-free country.
The passage of the Enabling Act of 1933 is widely considered to mark the end of the democratic era and the beginning of the Greater German Reich. It empowered the cabinet to legislate without the approval of Reichstag or the Emperor, and to enact laws that were contrary to the constitution. Before the March 1933 elections Hitler had persuaded Wilhelm II to promulgate the Reichstag Fire Decree using Article 48, which empowered the government to restrict "the rights of habeas corpus [...] freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications" and legalised search warrants and confiscation "beyond legal limits otherwise prescribed". This was intended to forestall any action against the government by the Communists. Hitler used the provisions of the Enabling Act to pre-empt possible opposition to his dictatorship from other sources, in which he was mostly successful.
The process of bringing all major organisations into line with government principles and into the service of the state was called Gleichschaltung. Gleichschaltung is usually translated as "coordination", but sometimes as "forcible coordination". It is a compound word, consisting of gleich, meaning alike, and schaltung, which means switching. The DNP meant to imply a particular mechanical meaning of the word: a certain means of wiring an electrical generator and electric motors, so that when the generator is made to turn at a given speed or turned to a certain angle, each motor connected to it will also turn at that speed, or to the same angle—in other words, synchronisation. The DNP was thought of as the generator, and other civil groups as motors wired to it.
Hitler's cabinet issued many decrees for the purpose of Gleichschaltung in the weeks following the passage of the Act. It removed Jews from the civil service (at Wilhelm II's request, an exception was made for Jews who had served at the front during World War I). It banned all trade unions and eventually outlawed all other political parties. After the exiled SPD published its new weekly Neuer Vorwarts in Prague, Hitler banned the party, confiscating its assets and abolishing its parliamentary representation, by decree of June 22.
However, opposition was frequently not addressed by legislation at all. The process of Gleichschaltung was often voluntary, or in any event not mandated by a formal decree. Most other parties had dissolved before being officially banned. By the time the formal decree banned the creation of new parties, there were none left except the DNP.
Willing Gleichschaltung was termed Selbstgleichschaltung or "self-coordination". There was a rush to join the DNP, overrunning the party's ability to process applications: on May 1, the party announced that it was suspending the admission of new members. The party's membership had increased to 2.5 million, from about 900,000 at the end of January. Many prominent intellectuals allied themselves with the new government: the country's most famous philosopher, Martin Heidegger and its most prominent constitutional scholar, Carl Schmitt, spoke in favor of it, and Heidegger became the sponsor of a manifesto of German professors pledging allegiance to "Adolf Hitler and the Nationalist State". Lists were prepared of writers whose works were unacceptable in the "New Order", including Freud, Einstein and Brecht. On the evening of May 10, under the leadership of the German Students' Association and without substantial protest by the university faculties, some 20,000 volumes were burned at Berlin's Opernplatz.
The Reichswehr had, however, remained mostly untouched by Gleichschaltung. It was not until Wilhelm II's death in June 1941 that all military personnel swore an oath of loyalty directly to the government, instead of to the constitution or the Emperor. Thereafter, the military came under gradually increasing pressure to align itself with DNP ideology, but it never entirely capitulated. Likewise, the holdings of industrialists and aristocratic "Junker" landowners remained for the most part untouched, whilst the administrative and judicial machinery was only very slightly tampered with. The Nationalist efforts to "coordinate" the Christian churches (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) were mostly unsuccessful, and were largely abandoned. However, the churches as a whole did not present any serious opposition to Hitler.
Before unification, German territory was made up of 27 constituent states. These states consisted of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory. The free cities had a republican form of government on the state level, even though the Empire at large was constituted as a monarchy, and so were most of the states. The Kingdom of Prussia was the largest of the constituent states, covering two-third of the empire's territory.
Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and had been de facto sovereign from the mid-1600s onward. Others were created as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Territories were not necessarily contiguous – many existed in several parts, as a result of historical acquisition, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling family trees. Some of the existing states, in particular Hanover, were abolished and annexed by Prussia as a result of the war of 1866.
Each component of the German Empire sent representatives to the Federal Council (Bundesrat) and, via single member districts, the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). Relations between the Imperial centre and the Empire's components were somewhat fluid, and were developed on an ongoing basis. The extent to which the Emperor could, for example, intervene on occasions of disputed or unclear succession was much debated on occasion – for example with the Lippe-Detmold inheritance crisis.
After the territorial gains of the Treaty of Pankow and the 1918–1919 aftermath of the First World War, Luxembourg was annexed into Germany but retained its administrative authority. The Ernestine duchies merged to form the state of Thuringia in 1920, except for Saxe-Coburg, which became part of Bavaria. Alsace-Lorraine was finally given rights as a full member state of Germany in 1921.
These states were gradually de facto abolished under the Nationalist regime via the Gleichschaltung process, as the states were largely re-organised into Gaue. However, the city-state of Lübeck was formally incorporated into Prussia in 1937 following the Greater Hamburg Act—apparently motivated by Hitler's personal dislike for the city. On August 23, 1990--with some revisions--Germany reconstituted the Länder.