Imperial Germany (1868-1919)

Map of the North German Confederation (1866-1871).

Map of the North German Confederation
(1866-1871).

Information about this image can be found here.

Map of Imperial Germany (1878-1919).

Information about this image can be found here.

Imperial Germany

Unification

The seeds of German Unification were planted with the Revolution of 1848. In that year, a wave of violent revolutions swept the continent of Europe. They were the result of crop failure, the social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and discontent among the nobility and middle classes regarding absolutist governments. Political movements based on classical liberalism, nationalism, socialism, or communism were challenging traditional European social and cultural norms. Rioting broke out in many Germanic countries as the citizens demanded the rights associated with classical liberalism, such as freedom of the press, free speech, and universal male sufferage. The center of revolutionary activity was Frankfort, where an Assembly formed to create a constitution for a future united Germany. Some of the representatives were Jewish, marking the first time that Jews were involved in formal German politics. However, the political division between the delegates caused the eventual demise of the Assembly, as well as an inability to overcome regional differences. The revolution as a whole was also a failure and absolutism became more entrenched throughout the Germanic world.

Engraving of Otto von Bismarck.

Engraving of Otto von Bismarck.

The most important figure to emerge out of the Revolution of 1848 was Otto von Bismarck, a nobleman from Prussia. By the 1860s, parliamentary governments began to emerge in many of the German states, although they were still subordinate to the authority of the crown. This often led to conflict between the monarch and the parliament, which effectively deadlocked the political process. The legislature was also divided between traditional conservatives on the right and liberals and socialists on the left. In the case of Prussia, there were difficulties between the king and the parliament regarding the funding of the army, which the more liberal legislative body refused to fund to a level that would satifsy the crown. In 1862, the king of Prussia, Wilhelm I, appointed Bismarck prime minister to break the impasse, recoginizing the latter's "instinct for the politically possible." Bismark solved the military problem by engaging in underhanded fundraising activities.

Portrait of Prussian emperor Wilhelm I.

Portrait of Prussian emperor Wilhelm I.

After building the Prussian Army to a sufficent level, Bismarck began the process of unifying Germany. The Danish-ruled duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were occupied by soldiers from Saxon and Hanover, until a joint Austro-Prussian force defeated the Danes in October 1864. Although the Convention of Bad Gastein placed the duchies under joint Austro-Prussian control, Austria ceded administration to Prussia because of lack of funds. Austria tried to trade for parts of Silesia in exchange for the territories in question, but Bismarck refused; he rejected the entire Bad Gastein agreement and Prussian soldiers occupied Holstein. In retaliation, Austria and her allies in the Germanic world fought a battle (the largest of the nineteenth century) with Prussia at Koniggratz in 1866. The result was a decisive win for Prussia, thus effectively excluding Austria from the borders of Germany. The German Confederation was dissolved and a North German Confederation was born. This new entity included Prussia, Saxony, Schlewig-Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, and Frankfort.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) was the final step in the unification of Germany. Relations between France and Prussia had been fraught with tension since the Napoleonic Wars. Now that Prussia was becoming a world power, France sought to contain its influence. The war ended four months after it started,with Prussian troops storming Paris. Prussia gained the French territories of Alstance and Lorraine, both of which had sizable German populations.

Painting that depicts the establishment of the nation-state of Germany. Otto von Bismarck is in the center of the painting, dressed in white. The older man on the podium is Emperor William I of Prussia.

Painting that depicts the establishment of the nation-state of Germany. Otto von Bismarck is in the center of the painting, dressed in white. The older man on the podium is Emperor William I of Prussia.

As a result of Prussia's military victories against Denmark, Austria, and France, Bavaria and Wurttemberg scrambled to join the North German Confederation. In April 1871, the constitution of the North German Confederation was amended to create a unified German state. As the largest and most powerful state in the country, Prussia continued to wield its influence over the other states. The emperor of Prussia was by default the emperor of Germany. The political system was a hybrid system that mixed elements of monarchism and liberal democracy; there was universal sufferage for all men over twenty-five and a bicameral legislature, but the votes of nobles in the Bundesrat (upper house) overrode those of the elected officials in the Reichstag (lower house). The emperor remained the final authority, although there were still royal houses in many of the others German states.

German antisemitism persisted during the imperial era, but seldom resulted in violent acts. Although some Jews were enobled by German royalty, as a whole they were excluded from participating in formal politics and positions of authority in the military and civil service. Given the predominance of the Junkers (e.g., Prussian landholding military elites) and the importance of military service in German society, exclusion from the military ensured that Jews would be on the margins of society. One field in which Jews did dominate was academia, particularly in the physical and natural sciences. German Jewish pre-eminence in science during this period helped to build the foundation of Germany's research university system.

During this period, many urban Germans ceased to engage in organized religious observances. For the educated classes, religion was replaced by an adherence to Bildungsreligion, or "cultured religion" that celebrated the values of the German Englightenment: reason, skepticism, classical liberalism (e.g., representative government, free press, universal manhood sufferage), and high culture. Hence, for freethinking Jews, it was up to the individual to decide how often to go to synagogue, when one should fast, and to what extent Jewish dietary laws should be maintained. Many members of the working class became disillusioned with organized religion, believing it to be irrelevent to their everyday lives. Consequently, such individuals found fraternity and a sense of meaning by joining socialist, communist, or non-ideological trade union movements.

Works Cited

Blackbourn, David. The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.

Ozment, Steven. A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

http://www.germany.info/relaunch/culture/history/1848.html

Stern, Fritz. Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.