The German Empire consisted of 29 constituent territories (most of them ruled by royal families). While the Kingdom of Prussia was the largest German state both in the term of territory and population within the Empire, the Prussian leadership became supplanted by German leaders and Prussia itself played a lesser role. Its three largest neighbors were rivals Russian Empire to the east and France to the west and ally Austria-Hungary to the south.
German Confederation (1815-1871)
The German Confederation was created by an act of the Congress of Vienna on 8 June 1815 as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, after being alluded to in Article 6 of the 1814 Treaty of Paris. The German Confederation then abruptly ended as a result of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 between the constituent Confederation entities of the southern Austrian Empire under Habsburg Dynasty and its allies on one side and the northern Kingdom of Prussia under Hohenzollern Dynasty and its allies on the other. As result, the Confederation being partially replaced by the 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.
After the 1868 Glorious Revolution in Spain, a tension between Prussia and its bitter rival, France, heightened following the election of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen as new King of Spain in 1870. France was feared the installation of a relative of the Prussian king would result in the expansion of Prussian influence and the encirclement of France (which later proved to be true). However, Minister-President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, who wanted to drag the French into war with Prussia was able to convince Leopold to approve his candidacy. Unable to tolerate this matter, France then declared war to Prussia in July 1870, resulted to the Franco-Prussian War.Activating the German alliances put in place after the Austro-Prussian War, the German states came together with Prussia and swiftly defeated France. On December 10, 1870, the Reichstag of North German Confederation 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, the German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles outside of Paris, while the French capital was still under siege. King William became the first emperor of a unified Germany. This new empire comprised 25 states, three of which were Hanseatic free cities. Bismarck, again, was appointed to serve as Chancellor.
Bismarck era (1871-1890)Bismarck's domestic policies as Chancellor of Germany were characterized by his fight against perceived enemies of the Protestant Prussian state. Through the policy of Kulturkampf (1872–1878), he tried to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and of its political arm, the Catholic Centre Party, through various measures, like the introduction of civil marriage, but without much success. The Kulturkampf antagonized many Protestants as well as Catholics, and was eventually abandoned. Millions of non-Germans subjects in the German Empire, like the Polish, Danish and French minorities, were discriminated against, and a policy of Germanization was implemented.
Bismarck's post-1871 foreign policy was conservative and basically aimed at security and preventing the disastrous scenario of a Franco-Russian alliance, which would trap the Reich in a two-front war. The League of Three Emperors (Dreikaisersbund) was signed in 1872 by the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the German Empire. In 1879, Dual Alliance was formed between the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, with the aim of mutual military assistance in the case of an attack from Imperial Russia, which was not satisfied with the agreement reached at the Congress of Berlin. In 1882, Spain and Italy joined the Dual Alliance to form a Quadruple Alliance.
For a long time, Bismarck had refused to give in widespread public demands to give the Reich "a place in the sun" through the acquisition of overseas colonies. In 1880, Bismarck gave way, and a number of colonies were established overseas. In Africa, these were Togoland, the Cameroons, German South-West Africa, and German East Africa; in Oceania, they were German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Marshall Islands. In fact, it was Bismarck himself who helped initiate the Berlin Conference of 1885. He did it to "establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory". This conference was an impetus for the "Scramble for Africa" and "New Imperialism".
In 1888, the old emperor William I died at the age of 90. His son Frederick III, the hope of German liberals, succeeded him, but was already stricken with throat cancer and died three months later. Frederick's son Wilhelm II then became emperor at the age of 29. Unlike his predecessors, the ambitious and aggressive Wilhelm wanted to be very active ruling the Empire, led him into a conflict with Bismarck. After Bismarck failed to marginalize the new Kaiser, he finally resign in March 1890.
Wilhelminian era (1890-1918)Unlike Bismarck, Wilhelm II wanted his Empire to have its "place in the sun" and sought aggressively to increasing German Empire's influence in the world. By the 1890s, German colonial expansion in Asia and the Pacific (Kiauchau in China, New Guinea, Samoa) led to frictions with the British Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Japanese Empire. Germany's growing influences in Asia led to Japanese failed preemptive invasion to the Philippines, the possession of Imperial Germany's ally, Spain, in 1898.
In 1901, Germany purchased the Caroline Islands and the Mariana Islands in the Pacific from its ally, Spain, following the Spanish-Japanese War (1898–1901) for the strategic purposes to contain the influences of Japan and the United States in the Pacific. These islands then separated from the Spanish East Indies and became a protectorate that were administered from German New Guinea. The Marshall Islands were added in 1906.
Wilhelm II also pursued a policy of massive naval construction which viewed as a threat for the British Empire. As result, Anglo–German relations cooled and the British refused to join the formal alliance with the Germans, leading to German Empire's increasing isolation and its dependence on the Quadruple Alliance, which brought together the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Spain, and Italy. The Quadruple Alliance was undermined by differences between Austria-Hungary and Italy, and by 1915, Italy switched its sides.