The German Empire was an industrial, military, and technological giant which dominated central Europe from 1871-1918. With natural strengths in coal, iron, and railways, the empire’s strong industrial base made Germany an economic power. It operated as a scientific powerhouse, gaining more Nobel Prizes in science during its 47 years of existence than France, Britain, Russia, and the United States combined.
The empire’s domestic and foreign policy was increasingly determined by two men: Kaiser Wilhelm I’s careful strategist Otto von Bismarck, and the king’s son, Wilhelm II. Guided by Bismarck, the empire slowly secured its political and military influence through a complex series of alliances. Through key, strategic alliances with Russia and Austria-Hungary, Bismarck secured Germany’s eastern frontier and eliminated the possibility of a disastrous two front war. In a position of economic and military strength as a result of Bismarck’s complex diplomacy, the German Empire saw slow, but consistent growth.
However, when Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended to the throne, he fired Bismarck and pursued an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy that provoked Germany’s neighbors. As a result Russia canceled their alliance with Germany and joined France and Britain instead. Adamant that it was Germany’s right to conquer central Europe, Wilhelm II continued to antagonistically expand despite his exposed borders. In the resulting First World War, the German Empire was forced to fight a protracted, costly two front war against both France and Russia. Eventually the German army was worn down and defeated, resulting in the abdication of Wilhelm II and the dissolution of the German Empire. While Otto von Bismarck had brilliantly crafted the empire out of the divided German kingdoms and secured her borders, Wilhelm II’s reckless diplomacy led to the downfall of the nation.
The Kingdom of Prussia
During the first half of the 1800s there was no unified German country, with several German kingdoms competing for power. The strongest of the German kingdoms, Prussia, had a steady industrial base and strong military tradition, giving it significant influence on the continent. The Kingdom of Prussia was a great power, dwarfing the other German states and directly competing with France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. But while her regional rivals were unified nations, Prussia was limited in capability by internal conflict with other German kingdoms. Other German states, principally Austria, often disagreed with and hindered Prussia’s expansionary foreign policy.
Otto von Bismarck and realpolitik
Considered by modern Germans to be the “father of Germany”, Otto von Bismarck was instrumental in forging the German Empire. Although Wilhelm I was the Kaiser of Prussia, Bismarck handled much of the kingdom’s foreign and domestic policy. He held a privileged place among the king’s advisers, wielding significant influence in the kingdom.
A diplomatic genius, he invented a new political strategy called realpolitik based primarily on practical and material factors, rather than ideological notions. Instead of making decisions based off of moral or ethical factors, Bismarck relied upon economic and military analysis of his foes. Bismarck’s actions were careful, calculated, and effective. Known for his domineering and aggressive personality, Bismarck pledged to conquer his neighbors under a policy of ‘blood and iron’. An ardent German nationalist, he sought to establish Prussia as the leader in a new, unified German nation.
German wars of unification
To unify the German kingdoms, Bismarck engineered a series of wars to stir up nationalistic fervor. Under his leadership, Prussia led a coalition of German states against Denmark in 1851, defeating them and annexing territory. When Austria threatened to undermine Prussia’s control of the smaller German states, Bismarck defeated them as well. With his borders secure and Prussia’s position as the principal German kingdom solidified, Bismarck turned his sights to unifying the individual kingdoms into a single empire.
To do so, he cleverly created a diplomatic crisis with France, publishing a false note implying that Wilhelm I had insulted French dignitaries. When France responded by declaring war on Prussia, Bismarck played the victim to the other German states, who in turn pledged to support Prussia in the war. Led by the impressive Prussian military machine, the German coalition won a series of swift victories and decisively defeated France in just 9 months.
Bismarck imposed harsh peace terms on the French, annexing the resource rich border territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Using the resulting surge of German nationalistic fervor created by the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck declared the unification of Prussia and the other German states into the German Empire.
The German Empire
Unified in 1871, the German Empire had significant natural resources, a large domestic workforce, and a highly organized society. With both the German states and Prussia’s military might combined, the German Empire was a formidable country that threatened to upset the balance of power in Europe. With Austria and France defeated and defanged by Bismarck, Germany had unprecedented economic influence on the continent.
To consolidate their economic power, the German government heavily subsidized industrialization, increasing coal, steel, and iron production. Stressing the importance of high-speed, reliable transportation to stimulate economic and industrial growth, Bismarck ordered thousands of kilometers of railroads laid. From 1871 to 1913, the total length of German railroad tracks increased from 21,000 to 63,000 kilometers, making it the largest rail network in Europe.
In addition to Germany’s rapid industrialization, Bismarck set out to redesign German society on the ideals of nationalism and efficiency. To encourage worker production and cultural unity, Bismarck turned the German Empire into the world’s first welfare state. He passed laws giving German workers health, accident, and maternity benefits, as well as a national pension scheme. Effective and popular amongst the working class, many of the social security systems installed by Bismarck are still used in modern day Germany.
League of the Three Emperors
With the world’s strongest land army, an expansive railway transport system, and a fast growing industrial base, the German Empire was a serious contender for European hegemony. However the Germans were sandwiched in central Europe between hostile countries which if allied together, could encircle Germany. Bismarck realized that for national safety, the German Empire must always be allied with either France or Russia in order to eliminate the disastrous possibility of a two front war.
Bismarck solved the problem diplomatically, forming the League of the Three Emperors, a military alliance to be renewed every 5 years between Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Now, with this eastern and southern borders secure, the German Empire could focus on domestic concerns without the fear of a two front war. While Bismarck’s strategic League of the Three Emperors stood strong, traditional powers such as France and Britain were unwilling to provoke Germany.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
However, when Bismarck’s friend and sponsor Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888, his liberalist son Wilhelm II took the throne. An old conservative, Bismarck was the ideological antithesis of Wilhelm II. Wilhelm II opposed Bismarck’s careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to enlarge the German Empire. Instead of slow but effective diplomatic tactics, Kaiser Wilhelm II favored massive military investment and direct confrontation with Germany’s enemies.
Bismarck was politically marginalized by the king, and eventually forced to resign at the age of 75 after a lifetime of service. Bismarck wrote a blistering letter of resignation, claiming that Wilhelm II’s reckless foreign policy would endanger the empire. Expecting the worst, Bismarck made an ominous prediction:
Expansion leads to conflict
Wilhelm II declared that Germany was on a “New Course” of militaristic expansion to secure her place in the sun amongst traditional European powers. He pursued an aggressive foreign policy, acquiring overseas colonies in Africa, China and south-east Asia. Wanting to protect his new colonies and enthusiastic about an expanded German navy, Wilhelm II authorized huge military naval spending. Seeing a powerful German navy as necessary to protect his strategic interests, Wilhelm II built numerous battleships, dreadnoughts, and submarines.
In just a few decades, the German navy went from being a negligible force to the second most powerful in the world:
But by creating and maintaining a large navy, Wilhelm II directly provoked the British. As world’s strongest naval power for centuries, Britain was shocked and intimidated by the rapid growth the German fleet. They saw the expansion of the German navy as a direct threat to their control of the Atlantic Ocean, crucial to their economic and domestic security. An Anglo-German naval arms race ensued, as Britain embarked on its own massive expansion to keep ahead of the Germans.
Britain, desperate to contain the new continental power, appealed to their historical rival, the French, for support. On the mainland, France was wearily eyeing the expansive growth of their fearsome neighbor. Recently shamed in the Franco-Prussian war and frightened by Germany’s growing strength, France was quick to agree to the alliance.
Triple Entente and Triple Alliance
Due conflicts of interest between Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans, the two empires threatened to let the League of the Triple Emperors lapse. Without Bismarck’s skillful political maneuvering, Wilhelm II was unable to convince Russia to renew the alliance and the League of the Triple Emperors fell apart. Because of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic ties with the German dominated Austria-Hungary, Wilhelm II supported their claims in the Balkans. The strategically crafted alliance with Russia forged by Bismarck to protect Germany’s eastern border was lost.
Russia, now faced with an antagonistic Austria-Hungary supported by Germany, sought new allies. Eager to strengthen their own position and encircle the German Empire, France and Britain appealed to Russia to join the Triple Entente. A military alliance that was created exclusively to contain German power on the continent, the Triple Entente was a diplomatic disaster for Wilhelm II. By 1907, the German Empire’s worst political nightmare had become a reality – Britain, France, and Russia were all allied against Germany.
In order to counter the Triple Entente, Wilhelm the II hastily formed The Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany used the Triple Alliance as a counterbalance to the Triple Entente, but Italy was a sore replacement for strategically positioned Russia. With both France and Russia poised to strike Germany from both sides, the German Empire was in a very disadvantageous position.
World War I
Europe was organized into two hostile camps: The Triple Entente, with Britain, France and Russia, and the Triple Alliance, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Nationalistic and aggressive, the two alliances competed for regional dominance, narrowly avoiding war numerous times throughout the 1910s.
The conflict finally ignited in 1914, when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Serbia. Austria-Hungary used the incident to assert their past claims to Balkan territory, demanding that Serbia agree to join the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia, desperate to hold onto their regional influence in the Balkans and thwart their rival, pledged to support Serbian independence. Both Russia and Austria-Hungary appealed to their alliances for support, and within weeks the major powers were at war.
The Schlieffen plan
Even Wilhelm II knew that Germany couldn’t survive a protracted two front war against both France and Russia. He put his hopes in the ambitious Schlieffen plan, which concentrated 80% of German troops and armor on western front in order to deliver a quick knockout blow against France. German armies would invade France through northern Belgium, then move south to Paris. Once France had been defeated, German armies would rapidly redeploy to the east on Germany’s effective railway network. Wilhelm II gambled that with Russia’s urbanized population and lack of railway transportation the country would be slow to mobilize, giving Germany time to defeat the French.
Initially the Germans were successful, quickly advancing through northern Belgium and crossing France’s weakly fortified Belgian border. Just as they had 43 years before, German troops streamed into France, threatening to completely overrun the French army. The French retreated in disarray before the Germans, who pushed within 10 miles of Paris.
The French hastily organized a defense at the Marne River, where reserve infantry were famously ferried to the frontlines in Parisian taxicabs. Bolstered by British troops who arrived by the thousands, the French held their ground and stopped the German drive.
The Germans retreated 40 miles and dug in, constructing an impressive array of trenches across northern France. When it became clear that they would have to fight an extended two front war, numerous divisions of the German army were redeployed to the eastern front.
Two front war
For 3 long, costly years, Germany was bled dry by brutal trench warfare. While a large component of the army was tied down fighting in Russia, millions of Germans died on the western front. Unable to bring her full military might against either opponent, Germany was trapped in a long war of attrition. Suffering from the consequences of a two front war, increasing numbers of young Germans were drafted and extreme rationing began. Millions of Germany’s best and brightest were slaughtered, decimating the next generation. In addition to the destruction at the frontlines, an effective British naval blockade had slashed imports, resulting in widespread discontent and famine.
Russia was even worse off than Germany. Woefully unprepared for the highly industrialized Germany war machine, Russia suffered staggering losses as peasants were used by Russian nobility as cannon fodder. By 1917, beleaguered Russian populace overthrew the government in the Russian Revolution and surrendered to Germany. With her eastern border finally secure, Germany was finally able to deploy across northern France in full force.
In a race against time against the Americans who had recently joined the allies and declared war, the Germans planned to overwhelm the weary French and British with an all-out assault. Massing their armies, Germany overran allied trenches and advanced towards Paris. Once again, Germany seemed to be on the brink of defeating France and realizing their dreams of a German-dominated Europe.
But on the verge of defeat, France and Britain were supported just outside Paris by American troops who arrived in exceeding numbers. Together, the allies stopped the German drive at the Second Battle of the Marne, the same river where the Germans had been thwarted in 1914. Counterattacking across France, allied troops inflicted huge casualties as German armies retreated back towards their trenches.
Downfall of the empire
With their armies retreating after such a horrific four years, the German people had had enough of war. Starved working class citizens, soldiers, and sailors took to the streets and demanded an end to the devastation. The anti-war sentiment swept through the empire and Wilhelm II was overthrown overnight in the November 1918 Revolution. Bismarck’s ominous prediction 20 years earlier was fulfilled, with the Kaiser’s abdication and empire’s downfall almost exactly 20 years to the day after Bismarck’s death.
The remnants of Germany’s once great empire formed the Weimar Republic, which immediately surrendered to allied leaders. Seeing the First World War as a war of German aggression, the allied powers imposed harsh, humiliating peace terms at Versailles. The treaty forced Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions, and pay severe reparations. The once powerful German Empire was dismantled, leaving a weak republic burdened with debt. With her military annihilated, her economy ravaged, and significant territory in eastern Prussia given to Poland, the Weimar Republic had little political influence.
World War I saw the intimidating German Empire make an attempt for European hegemony, only to be defeated and defanged. The driven, industrialized nation that had achieved so much under Otto von Bismarck’s realpolitik was turned into a reckless, antagonistic empire obsessed with military expansion. Ignoring political delicacy, Wilhelm II directly threatened his neighbors and alienated his allies. The resulting war saw the German Empire decimated, with her military, political, and economic influence significantly limited.