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The German empire: 1871

The creation of the German empire, long a cherished intention of Bismarck's, is much eased by the Franco-Prussian war. When France declares war in 1870, the three independent south German states (Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria) place their armies under the command of the Prussian king, William I, in what is seen as an essentially German cause.

After the victory at Sedan, talks are held to discuss possible German unification. By November terms are agreed. Minor concessions to Bavaria are devised to give the impression of semi-independence, but essentially this is to be a single state under Prussian leadership.


William I is extremely reluctant to accept the title of emperor, but Bismarck contrives to persuade him. His proclamation in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (the symbol of French power and triumphalism) is sweet revenge for the humiliation of Prussia at Napoleon's hands in the early years of the century. In the treaty of Frankfurt France cedes Alsace and most of Lorraine to the new Germany, pays a masssive indemnity of 5000 million francs and suffers German occupation in part of France until the money is delivered (a precise echo of France's terms in 1807).

As an added twist of the knife, Bismarck imposes a victory march of Prussian troops through the streets of Paris.


The reconstitution of the ancient German Reich, in a modern, compact, national form, brings back the Reichstag as a parliament. Meeting in Berlin, with delegates elected from all over the new nation, it is only a legislative body with little control over the executive.

Now more firmly than ever, the executive is Bismarck himself - the first imperial chancellor. His German empire, like its medieval prototype, consists of clearly separate constituent states (4 kingdoms, 5 grand duchies, 13 duchies and principalities, and the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). But it is at last a nation, federal in kind but with strong central control. The story of Prussia becomes that of Germany.


The Iron Chancellor: 1871-1890

Bismarck acquires the name of Iron Chancellor partly because of his statement (as early as 1862) that a strong Prussia can only be achieved through a military policy which he describes, pithily, as one of Eisen und Blut (iron and blood).

But the phrase is also appropriate to the rigidly authoritarian manner in which he maintains control of Germany during his long period in office. He is an essentially conservative politician, ruling in the interests of his own class - the Lutheran land-owning aristocrats of Prussia who are known as Junker (country squires).


The natural enemies of the Junker are the Catholics of southern Germany, on religious grounds, and the emerging left-wing parties on political grounds. Either group, if presented as a threat to the German state, can be used to rally national and imperial sentiments. Bismarck targets the Catholics first, in the struggle of the 1870s which becomes known as the Kulturkampf (culture battle).

The battle is largely over education. The teaching orders have traditionally been in charge of schools in Catholic kingdoms, but Bismarck now insists that the state should train and license priests. The struggle escalates to the point where two Catholic archbishops and many lesser prelates find themselves in prison.


The disadvantage of Bismarck's religious policy is that anti-clericalism is associated with liberal policies. The National Liberals (the largest party in the Reichstag) become Bismarck's allies, and the 1870s see the introduction of several liberal measures - the removal of many existing restrictions on personal freedom, greater autonomy for municipal councils and even, in 1874, freedom of the press.

But these policies offend the Junker. Towards the end of the 1870s Bismarck changes tack. He mends his fences with Rome and introduces politically repressive measures. His target now is the Social Democrats, founded in 1875 as the first Marxist party of national significance in Europe.


In the election of 1877 the Social Democrats win eleven seats in the Reichstag. In 1878 there are two assassination attempts on the emperor. Bismarck takes the opportunity of dissolving the Reichstag and calling new elections on the issue of 'the social peril'.

A ban soon follows on Social Democrat activities. But Bismarck the paternalist is not above stealing some of their clothes to make his own bid for working class support. During the 1880s he introduces pioneering welfare policies, only later imitated in other countries. They include insurance for workers against accident and illness, and a state pensions policy.


In foreign affairs Bismarck is mainly concerned to preserve the European balance of power, of which Germany is now the central element. Elsewhere the most notable aspect of German foreign policy is the belated and hurried creation of a German empire in Africa. The purpose seems to be, as much as anything, to please nationalist feeling by competing directly with Britain.

Bismarck does not long survive the death of his own emperor, William I, in 1888 - followed a few months later by that of Frederick III. The emperor of the third generation, William II, is out of sympathy with the aged chancellor on almost every issue. Bismarck puts up a desperate fight to retain power, but in 1890 he is forced to resign.


Uneasy years: 1890-1914

For the quarter of a century after Bismarck's fall, the political system which he has put in place causes political paralysis in Germany. The reason is the dichotomy between the democratic Reichstag, the parliament of the new united Germany, which is elected by universal suffrage; and the parliaments of the individual states, most of which are largely unreformed.

By far the largest state is Prussia (30 million people compared to the next in size, Bavaria, with only 5 million), and Prussia is ruled on the most reactionary of systems. The electorate, voting in a non-secret ballot, is divided into three classes. This leaves all effective power in the hands of the Junker, the landed aristocracy.


By contrast the political complexion of the Reichstag becomes increasingly liberal. To the alarm of the ruling class, the party growing most steadily in strength is the Social Democrats. As Europe's leading Marxist party, they naturally provoke horror in Junker circles.

But as they become more successful, the Social Democrats also become less extreme - inclining now to the view that change can come through the democratic process rather than revolution. By the time of the election of 1912, which makes them the largest single party in the Reichstag, they are a conventional democratic party. But, like all other members of the national parliament, they are virtually powerless.


The reason is that Bismarck, eager to ensure the unchanging autonomy of Prussia, decreed that direct taxes (the only fiscal threat to the upper classes) should remain the prerogative of the state parliaments and that the Reichstag should have power only over indirect taxation on consumer goods, which bears most heavily on the poorer sections of society.

This intrinsic impasse contributes to the rapid downfall of several successive chancellors in the years after Bismarck. It also has the effect of leaving a great deal of power in the hands of the emperor, William II, and of his senior military advisers - a well-established but undemocratic group in the Prussian tradition.


The emperor himself, mainly interested in international affairs, is torn between a desire for peace and a determination to assert Germany's greatness in the wide world. By nature impulsive, his sudden gestures often rebound to Germany's disadvantage (as in his intervention in Morocco in 1904). But both he and his advisers are also to an extent trapped by the long-term strategies which they have devised to enhance and safeguard Germany's position among what are seen as inevitably hostile European neighbours.

These strategies are associated in particular with two men: an admiral, Alfred von Tirpitz, and a general, Alfred von Schlieffen.


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