Germany History: Bismarck’s Heyday and The First World War

By | October 28, 2021

On January 18, 1871, the Second Reich was proclaimed in Versailles. According to, it had an extension of 544,000 km² and a population of 41 million residents, destined to rise in 1910 to 65 million. The decisive authority in it was the Council of the Empire, an expression of the governments of the states. The Reichstag represented the instance from below, but with little powers of initiative. Bismarck directed its politics until 1890, manipulating political parties and economic forces. At first it carried out a free-trade economic policy with the support of the liberal-nationals, but with repressive measures against internal forces considered adverse and dangerous for the Reich. Such Catholics were considered faithful to the pope, declared infallible in the First Vatican Council, and frowned upon for their claims of equality in the Lutheran state. Such were also considered the socialists for their Marxist program, for the workers’ organizations promoted, for the demands put forward and the inspired agitations. Emergency measures were published for Catholics and Socialists which suspended freedom of the press, assembly and association. But the anti-socialist laws failed to do so, even if at the same time Bismarck tried to empty the socialist opposition with an advanced social legislation, which, on the other hand, responded to the strong increase in industrialization. In a second phase, he approached the conservatives with the proposal of protectionist measures, withdrew from the Kulturkampf against the Catholics, renouncing from 1878 the anti-ecclesiastical laws of May 1873, he supported the formation of German colonies in Africa (1883-85). The foreign policy of the new Reich was directed with the Double and the Triple Alliance to the preservation of the status quo in Europe. A new course was started with the accession to the Prussian throne, and therefore to the direction of the Empire, of William II. Jealous of Bismarck’s prestige, he provoked his resignation.

This marked the transition of Germany to a world politics with the activation of the internal economy and with the German penetration in Europe, in the Near East, in the Balkans. This policy of great power both on the economic-commercial and on the diplomatic and naval-military level, inspired by personalities of the army and big industry, however, led to new economic crises, similar to those of 1873 (bankruptcies, large companies engaged in public works, increase in prices of basic necessities), which had wide unfavorable repercussions on public opinion. Chancellor von Bülow (1900-1909) tried to mitigate the discontent with concessions to landowners, with subsidies to companies in crisis, he developed social legislation, without however renouncing military spending. The Reichstag in 1912 it counted as many as 110 Social Democrats, however (Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, 1909-17), albeit with criticisms and reservations, approved the further development of land and naval armaments and the taxes to provide for them. Industrial development had ensured a position of political strength for the bourgeoisie with the expansion of bank credit, internal and international trade, but it too, like high culture, was conquered by Pan-Germanist ideas which only weakly resisted the internationalism of the socialists. At the same time, the Germanization policy of Prussian Poland and the assimilation policy of Alsace-Lorraine had substantially failed, thus creating open problems also in foreign policy. Wilhelminian Germany thus embarked on an active foreign policy caused crisis or aggravated tensions with its needs for the Balkans (1908-1909) and Morocco (1905 and 1911), without being able to secure new solid agreements.

The German General Staff had prepared plans for a conflict to the west with France and to the east with Russia, and land and naval armaments were deemed adequate for the often threatened war test. Germany entered the war 1914-18 out of solidarity with Austria-Hungary, and for the game of opposing alliances, she found herself facing France, England, Russia in superior logistical-strategic conditions that allowed her to soon take the front beyond her borders both to the west and to east, also securing the alliance of Turkey and, later, Bulgaria, maintaining the strategic direction of the Quadruple and trying to keep Italy in neutrality. The war of position (which already in 1915 stopped the war of movement in Europe) transformed the conflict into an operation of attrition of men, means, resources that put internal life and the war apparatus in crisis. Submarine warfare had the negative effect of US intervention, Peace of Brest-Litovsk, March 1918). German circles of Catholics and Socialists called for peace, but the Reich government was unwilling to make the concessions requested by the other side; even with regard to the proposals of Benedict XV (April 1917) he spoke elusively, even if urged by the new emperor of Austria who could not dominate the centrifugal movement of the Slavic, Polish and Italian nationalities.

Bismarck's Heyday and The First World War