The History of the German Empire in the 20th Century

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the German Empire was a powerful newcomer to the European diplomatic environment.  Within twenty years, it was gone, replaced by a republic that was fraught with even greater challenges than the German Empire had faced.  Ultimately, the German Empire had been built around the person and talents of Otto von Bismarck, and with his departure, it was no longer capable of functioning as intended.

The turn of the century is arbitrary; the more important transition took place in 1890, when Bismarck stepped down as Chancellor.  This event followed quickly after the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888.  His grandfather, Wilhelm I, had always depended heavily on Bismarck’s ability, and his father, Friedrich, had not lived long enough to make an appreciable mark.  Wilhelm II, however, was a young and vigorous monarch with definite ideas about how the Empire should be run.  He is generally considered to be a throwback to the age of absolutism, and in some respects, this is correct; at the same time, it should be noted that many of his ideas reflected the spirit of his time, and that it was Wilhelm II who considered Bismarck to be hopelessly old-fashioned.  The tragedy is that Wilhelm failed to appreciate the full ramifications of Bismarck’s policies.  They were all fashioned with the total picture in mind, including both foreign and domestic policy in all cases.  Dismantling many of those policies brought unforeseen consequences.

Domestically, Bismarck ensured that the Kaiser’s government, with himself at its head, retained its freedom of action in spite of opposition, most notably from Catholics and Socialists.  To this end, he undertook to suppress their political parties, the Center and the SPD respectively.  At the same time, he had tried to undermine support for the SPD through innovations in the arena of social welfare; ultimately, however, this effort failed, and the Socialists remained important players in the German political environment.

In foreign affairs, Bismarck had contended adroitly with the implacable hostility of France, ensuring that Germany was friendly with all of its other neighbors.  Alliances were maintained with Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy, while England remained neutral to all European entanglements.  Foreign affairs were closely linked to domestic policy, as Germany and all of its partners contended with ethnic minorities.  Germany had a large Polish population in its eastern provinces, for example, while large numbers of Germans lived within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Moreover, domestic disputes with the Center Party and the SPD took on international dimensions, as the Catholic Church and the socialist movement were both transnational forces.

The new Kaiser undercut Bismarck’s policies in numerous ways, many of them well-meaning.  He objected to the suppression of his opponents, and in particular he thought that it was possible to win over the socialists.  This effort failed, and so the long-term effect of his change in course ensured that an implacably hostile SPD became a large and powerful bloc in the Reichstag.

Similarly, in foreign affairs, he responded to specific challenges without realizing their broader meaning.  One example of this is his decision to allow the alliance with Russia to lapse.  In part, there was sense to it.  Russia and Austria-Hungary were coming increasingly into conflict over the Balkans, and the Kaiser was concerned that a disastrous series of crises could bring Germany onto both sides of a conflict, compelled by treaties to support both Austria-Hungary and Russia, despite their own conflicts with each other.  He failed, therefore, to appreciate the delicate balance that Bismarck had struck in the first place; by letting Russia go, he permitted the French to woo them, and set up precisely the risk of a two-front war that Bismarck had worked so hard to avert.

Wilhelm had one overarching goal that was meant to resolve both domestic and foreign policy crises: to join the other Great Powers in the creation of an Empire overseas.  At home, he thought, it would increase the well-being of his subjects and improve their satisfaction with the State, while abroad, it would raise the esteem in which Germany was held.

In the final analysis this program was entirely about prestige, which was one of the Kaiser’s primary weaknesses.  Its negative consequences were very real, however.  The acquisition and maintenance of an overseas Empire required the creation of a modern fleet; this course inevitably brought Germany into conflict with Great Britain.  While this policy guaranteed conflict, it was unable to bring that conflict to a favorable conclusion.  A relatively small stretch of coastline limited the number of ships that Germany could build, and so this was one arms race that Germany was doomed to lose.  All that it really accomplished was the creation of a secret English orientation towards France and Russia.

At the beginning of 1900, the Chancellor was the elderly Prince Hohenlohe, but he stepped down in October, and the government passed to Bernhard von Bülow.  An unabashed sycophant to the Kaiser, he eagerly embraced Wilhelm’s global policy; he even thought that the naval construction program could bring agricultural and industrial interests together in a way that negated the power of the Socialists.  In the short term, this was successful, as demonstrated by his electoral victories in the 1907 elections.  The ballots had hardly been counted before trouble came to his coalition.

In his efforts to sideline the Center Party and the SPD, he drew the liberals into his coalition, but at the cost of promises that he could not afford to keep.  In this way, he failed to keep their support for long, but the mere fact of these promises, which included electoral as well as educational reforms, alienated others in his core constituencies.  Later in 1908, he even managed to alienate the Kaiser as a result of an international scandal over the Kaiser’s comments in an interview.  While the comments themselves were irresponsible, the Kaiser had exercised due diligence in legal terms, sending a copy of the interview to the Chancellor before permitting publication.  Bülow had simply failed to read it.  In the ensuing crisis, however, Bülow laid the blame at Wilhelm’s feet, and thereby lost his most important supporter.  Unable to get his programs passed, Bülow resigned in June, 1909.

Bülow was succeeded by Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.  Selected by Bülow, Bethmann Hollweg was an able administrator, but wholly out of his depth in two key areas: international relations and military matters.  He made up for his shortcomings by relying heavily on military officers for guidance in these areas; this served to increase the military’s involvement in government.

Until 1912, the Army had not sought much in the way of resources from the government, but Col. Erich Ludendorff began to agitate for expansion.  He did so independently of his superior, Moltke, and despite Moltke’s efforts to deflect him, Ludendorff succeeded in mustering significant parliamentary support for his program.  In October of 1913, Ludendorff was able to win the support even of the Socialists for a major military expansion.

1914 brought the Great War.  It was initially the result of Balkan tensions, and among the Great Powers, Austria-Hungary and Russia bore the main responsibility, but Germany had contributed by its assurances of unqualified support to Austria-Hungary.  At home, the war was met with the same general support as the 1913 army expansion.

The war brought a naval blockade to Germany, and the new Navy had failed in any way to mitigate it.  This brought increasing hardship to the German people and their efforts on the home front as the war dragged on.  Secondly, the war claimed millions of lives without much in the way of success.  The first few months of war brought Germany some victories, but soon stalemate took over.  German strategy was to hold onto the gains they had made until a favorable peace could be made, but not even the end of Russian involvement in the war at the end of 1917 inspired the Western Allies to seek such a peace.  Meanwhile, the blockade made it ever harder for the Germans to hold out.

In 1918, support for the government waned, with many Germans gravitating towards extremes on both the left and the right.  Strikes and other forms of unrest contributed to the official collapse of the civilian government on November 9.  That same day, the Kaiser abdicated and went into exile in the Netherlands.


Craig, Gordon A.  Germany 1866-1945.  Oxford, 1978.

Detwiler, Donald S.  Germany: A Short History.  Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

Wehler, Hans-Ulrich.  Das Deutsche Kaiserreich 1871-1918.  Kleine Vandenhoeck-Reihe, 1988.

Questions on German History.  W. Kolhammer GmbH, 1984.


© 2011, 2013.  All rights reserved.