Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II

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  • Created on: 10-04-13 12:58

Kaiser Wilhelm II

  • Wilhelm II was determined to play an active role in politics and "rule" rather than "reign". He aspired to be the "peoples emperor" and therefore wanted and increased role in policy making.
  • He therefore wanted a Chancellor who was loyal to him, yet one that would have decreased control and would not disagree with him. A "Yes man". 
  • Wilhelm II wanted ultimate power over Germany.

Upbringing and Personality:

  • Wilhelm was left with a withered arm at birth and  had an uneasy and tense relationship with his parents. He was subjected to a strict upbringing where he recieved strict military and academic education. 
  • Wilhelm suffered from deep personal insecurity and had fits of rage. 
  • He belonged to a new confident generation and was unaware of threats to Germany unity. 
  • Belived in the dive rights of kings - he wanted to be the "peoples emperor" whereas Bismarck had built Germany on division and confrontation.
  • His style of government - hectic, spectacular and shallow
  • Many of his opinions were rarely backed with fact. 
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Caprivi : Why was he appointed?

Caprivi 1890-1894

  • Wilhelm was looking for a chancellor with a more moderate approach (in comparison to Bismarck) about the problems raised by socialism
  • Wilhelm favoured a military figure. He selected Caprivi from a list of Generals.
  • Wilhelm believed he would be able to control and manipular Caprivi to his own direction. 
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Caprivi : His "New Course"

Caprivi 1890-1894

Caprivi's "new course" was basically a continuation of state socialism.

  • Anti-Socialist law was allowed to lapse.
  • Social reforms to win over workers: reduced working hours for women and children, ban on sunday work, industrial tribunals and wage disputes.
  • Better relations with the Reichstag, ministers were given more influence.
  • Lowered tariffs (wheat, rye) to improve export trade and allow industrial expansion.
  • Finance bill introduced progressive income tax.
  • Reconciliation with the national minorities in the empire, e.g the relaxation of the use of German in schools and government.

These measures were welcomed bu the working class as well as by the socialists, centre and liberals.

His abandonment of Bismark's economic protectionism lost him Conservative and Junker support. Some of these formed an opposition group called the federation of agriculturists which quickly gained 250,000 members. 

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Caprivi : Loss of Conservative support

Caprivi lost conservative support due to "His new course" in which tariffs were reduced. Conservatives had formed the Federation of Agriculturists to oppose caprivi.

Conservative hostility continued to increase:

  • 1893  - Caprivi's compramise agreement with the Reichstag. To gain the Reichstags approval, Caprivi agreed to reduce military service and make the discussion of the military budget more frequent. The conservatives saw it as a surrender and felt it was a humiliating defeat. 
  • They formed an alliance against caprivi, Agrarian League and the Camarillo vowed to do all they could to bring Caprivi down. Camarillo (including Eulenburg)- kaisers inner circle, members possesed considerable influence with the Kaiser.
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Caprivi : Resignition

The rise in conservative opposition to Caprivi and the fact that Caprivi found it increasingly difficult to work with the Kaiser led to his downfall.

Caprivi was more independant minded that the Kaiser wanted, when Caprivi tried to follow his own policies and tak initiative the Kaiser would intervene.

The Kaiser and Caprivi began to disagree over how to combat socialism. 1893 - Growth of SPD convinced the Kaiser of the need for an Anti-Socialist bill. Caprivi refused to introduce this legislation.  Wilhelm was encouraged by Eulenburg to present the bill to the Reichstag anyway and that if the Reichstag refused, he should rule without them. 

Although Caprivi managed to talk to Kaiser out of such a course of action, he resigned in October 1894.

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Caprivi : Conclusion

Successful - His introduction of a "new course" which was a continuation of state socialism introduced sucessful social welfare reforms. He won over industrialists, national liberals and intergrated the working classes.

Unsuccessful - His reforms alienated the conservatives, and conservative hostility and opposition continued to grown against him ( compromise agreement). Relations also weakened with the Kaiser as they continued to disagree and Kaiser thought that Caprivi was too independant.  

Caprivi had genuinely tried to steer a new course away from confrontation and division. Had he suceeded the course of German history may have been different. Caprivi's departure was Germany's loss/

His dismissal demonstrated the decline in power of the Chancellor since Bismarck.

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Hohenloe: Why was he appointed?

Hohenloe - Schillingfurst 1894-1900

Caprivi had shown himself to be too independant and not conservative enough. Wilhelm II did not want to make the same mistake again.

  • Wilhelm II appointed the 75 year old Hohenloe in 1894
  • He was a temporary solution appointded for his conservative views and support of the Kaiser
  • He was chosen not for his abilities but because he posed no political threat
  • He was seen as little more than a figure head chancellor who generally did what the Kaiser told him to do. 
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II even reffered to him as his "straw doll"
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Hohenloe: Kaisers personal rule

Hohenloe did what the Kaiser asked him to do and immediately attempted to get an anti-scoialist bill passes through the Reichstag. It proposed stiffer penalities against socialists and trade unions. 

However the bill was rejected in the Reichstag. The chances of getting anything passed were not helped by the decline in conservative seats in the Reichstag. 

In 1897 the Kaisers advisers led by Eulenburg proposed a number of new policies to break the deadlock:

  • The Kaiser should bypass the chancellor and appoint his own ministers into important positions (This marked the start of his "personal rule" )
  • Germany should pursue and expansionist foreign policy designed to unite the population and this over ocome the problms in the Reichstag (Welt politik and flottenpolitik)
  • A policy of Sammlingpolitik
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Sammlungspolitik - meant "rallying together" and was a policy indtented to arrouse German nationalism and unite landowners and industrialists together against the threat of Socialism.

Sammlungspolitik was succesful in gaining the support of many landowners and industrialists who the government hoped would form another alliance of "steel and rye". (Bismarck had previously formed this, Caprivi had broken down this alliance between industrialists and landowners with tariff reforms)

However in doing this the policy deliberately polorised German society between the forces of law and order and the forces of rradicalism and socialism. This polarisation would return to haunt future chancellors.

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Weltpolitik and Flottenpolitik


  • Germany began to pursue and expansionist foreign policy - Weltpolitik - designed to unite the population.
  • Weltpolitik -(world politics) to achieve power status through naval and empire expansion


  • As well as the importance of foreign policy uniting the Germans there was a drive to create a new naval fleet and increase naval power (flottenpolitik) Two naval laws were passed in 1898 and 1900 which commited Germany to to a construction of a large fleet. 
  • This was supported by the Navy League and a press campaign to win popular support for the programme.
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Hohenloe: Why did he resign?

Since 1897 Wilhelm II had bypasses Hohenloe appointing his own me and acting like his own Chancellor. 

He usually just consulted his "favourite" ministers such as Eulenburg, Von Bulow and Von Tirpitz (Members of the camarillo)

By 1900, Hohenloe was frustrated by the Kaisers lack of consultatioon with him on policu and he felt like an "office boy". 

Desperate to leave he used an excuse over foreign policy to resign in 1900

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Von Bulow: Why was he appointed?

Von Bulow 1900-1909 

  • Von Bulow had been groomed for many years as Hohenloe's successor by the Kaiser's inner circle particularly Eulenburg
  • Von Bulow was an aristocratic Junker, formally a member of the Prussian civil service and was a sycophant
  • His appointment was made more certain by his constant flattery of the Kaiser
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Von Bulow: Policies

  • Von Bulow maintaned Sammlungpolitik but removed the anti-socialist element. He hoped that Weltpolitik and Flottenpolitik would appal to German patriotism as well as the portrayal of the Kaiser as a great leader. 
  • The reintroduction of Bismarck's economic tariffs to help agriculture and industry. This pleased the conservatives. Industrialists were also set to benefit from naval expansion programme that was developing. This change in economic policy was important in maintaining the alliance of "steel and rye".
  •  It wasn't however popular with the socialists, they belived the reintroduction of tariffs would increase the price of food. SPD continued to grow and gained 81 seats
  • Von Bulow attempted to combat the growth of the SPD by introducing a number of social reforms including the extensiom of accident and health insurance. 
  • However Von Bulow was fundametally a conservative and a nationalist. This can be seen in his reversal of Caprivi's policies (relaxation of tariffs, and policy towards national minorities) He made German the only languag in Prussian schools.
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Von Bulow: Problems

  • By 1905-6 relations between Von Bulow and Kaiser had decreased. Wilhelm held Von Bulow responsible for numerous foreign policy failures as well as his inabilty to control the Reichstag and increase military spending.
  • His attempts to raise taxation and government revenue through tariffs and taxes had proved unsuccessful, alienating political parties. 
  • "Bulow Bloc" To help him bypass the Reichstag von bulow negotiated a coalition consisting of Conservatives, members of the Agrarian league and Liberals, the coalition achieved great victory over the Centre and SPD parties.

Pressure on Von Bulow:

  • His Liberal allies contained left wing progressives who started to demand electoral reform as well as increased taxation on the rich
  • His right wing allies (Conservatives and Agrarian League) favoured increased taxation on consumer goods.
  • By 1908 the National Debt had doubled since 1900 due to increased military spending and the Naval Laws.
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Von Bulow: Fall from power

In 1909 Von Bulow fell from power

  • 1907 - His reputation had taken a knock when a scandal over his alleged homsexuality broke in the media
  • 1908 - He was blamed for the Daily Telegraph Affair where the Kaiser participated in an interview claiming that the British were anti-German. Von Bulow had allowed the publication of the interview which damaged the Kaisers reputation both at home and abroad. Wilhelms confidence in the Chancellor was dashed
  • 1909 - Von Bulow attempted to pass a finance bill to please both the Conservatives and Progressive Liberals which was rejected. He succeeded in uniting both the right and left against him as the bill had alienated them

He handed in his resignation and Wilhelm II accepted it

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Bethmann Hollweg: Why was he appointed?

Von Bethmann Hollweg 1909-1917

  • The end of Von Bulow also marked the end of Kaiser's attemps to conduct "personal rule" in domestic policy. 
  • He chose Bethmann Hollweg as the next chancellor as he was considered a good administrator and allowed the Kaiser to concentrate on foreign policy. 

Bethmann Hollweg soon faced problems including a difficult Reichstag and a demanding military. 

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Bethmann Hollweg : Attempted reform

  • 1910 - His first reform was an attempt to change the unfair three class voting system used in Prussia. This favoured the Junkers and ensured their domination of the Prussian parliment. Bethmann Hollweg attempted to strengthen the middle class vote. It was rejected, being too much for the Conservative and Centre party and not radical enough for the SPD
  • 1913 - Bethmann Hollweg gets defence tax on property through Reichstag to help pay for an increased army. But he angers the Conservatives
  • 1913 - Bethmann Hollweg tries to get another defence tax but this gets rejected 
  • Bethmann Hollweg attempts to get an army bill passed(increase army size) but this fails. 

These failed attempts at reform and new policy show that Bethmann Hollweg had clearly no/lost support of both the right and the left.

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Bethmann Hollweg: Growth of SPD and problems

1912 elections were a blow to Bethmann Hollweg's hopes of controlling the Reichstag. The SPD became the largest party in the Reichstag with 110 seats. The swing to the left had een created by rising living costs and taxation from Von Bulow's Chancellorship. Bethmann Hollweg didn't play on peoples patriotism and so this also increased left support. 

Problems for Bethmann Hollweg: 1912/1913

  • The Chancellor could not rely on majorities and had to lobby for support for each policy he wanted to pass.
  • He faced the impossible task of balancing the budget at a time when military spending was rapidly increasing
  • The Chancellor due to his failed policies had lost the support of both the right and left in the Reichstag

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Zabern Affair

  • The Zabern Affair futher increased Bethmann Hollweg's prblems. The German army were accused of heavy handedness in dealing with a French Protest in Alsace Lorraine. The Kaiser seemed to condone the action, letting the military act as they pleased. It demonstrated the position that the army had acquire in Wilhelmine Germany

Effects and Futher Problems:

  • The Zabern Affair caused a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor but he survived thanks to the support of the Kaiser.
  • Increased ill-feeling towards in the goverment in the Reichstag
  • Emergence of Marxist Revolutionaires in the SPD 
  • Debt crisis mounted
  • Futher problems were caused by industrial strikes and protests from ethnic minorities

It is easy to argue that the Kaiser went to war in 1914 to divert attention away from the problems at home and unite the nation in a common cause

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Why did militarism develop?

Pre 1890 factors:

  • High status of the army before Wilhelm II
  • Prussian military tradition
  • Role in unification - victories against France and Austria

Wilhelm II:

  • Passionate supporter of the army, Zabern Affair - shows this
  • Encourages militarism and pushes the policy of welt politik, which increased naval, empire and army expansion

Welt Politik: - a cause and result of militarism

  • Pan German league spread the influence of the army in German society
  • Naval laws 1898, 1900, 1906  - expansion of the navy

Break down in Government

  • Division/ polarization in the Reichstag
  • Kaiser dominates domestic policy - personal rule
  • Decline in Chancellorship post Bismarck
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Results of growing militarism

Increasing Independance of the army :

  • 1913 Zabern Affair. Kaiser condoned the armys actions. It caused outrage in the Reichstag, despite a vote of no-confidence in the government nothing more was done. This demonstrated the immunity of the Army from political control
  • 1904 Schlieffen Plan. The military plan involved marching through Belgium in order to defeat France yet Prussia had previously guaranteed Belgiums neutrality (Treaty of London) this would break an international agreement. Yet the army got away with it

By 1914 the army had reached 4 million men and military spending in the period reached £60 million. It now overrode civilan government and thus undermined the democratic principles of the 1871 constitution. The army had dominance in the government.

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Why did Germany industrialize so rapidly?

  • Unification and State Involvement  - gave a boost to economic growth. Bismarcks tariffs helped protect Germany from foreign competition. Matters of economic development were kept at the forefront of politics. Unifcation brought more raw materials.
  • Availability of raw materials - coal, iron ore, potash. Materials were used to manufacture goods, creat engery and build railways.
  • Geographical advantages - navigable rivers, canal and river system stimulated ship building industry, flat plains for railways. Railways hlped transport goods to ports
  • Expansion of Overseas Trade - penetrated markets for other continents. Germany sold products abroad to pay for imported food and raw materials. Provided markets for expanding German industry. 
  • Development of new industries - Germany became world leader in newer industries. Production of electrical energy, and chemical products. 
  • German Banking System - Banks free from state control and were involved in industrial development as they invested in new industries. Links between buisnesses and banks increased. 
  • Education System - Elementary education was the best in the world. Higher education development of technical skills, many science graduates.
  • Population Growth - Provided the market and labour force for an expanding economy.
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Evidence of German Industrialisation

  • Population Growth - 1871-1910, 41-65mil
  • New Industries - Chemical and electrical industries expand, (Potash from alsace-lorraine)
  • Heavy Industry Growth - Coal rivals Britain, steel in 1910 double of Britains
  • Urbanisation - Shift of where population live, 1871- 64% rural, 36% urban, 1910 - 40% rural 60% urban
  • Railway length - largely increased, triples from 1871-1913, transport from and to ports which helps expansion of overseas trade
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Social Impact of Industrialisation

  • Wealth of the Reich had increased, this had an impact on the per capita income and decreased emigration. There was a large increase in living standards.
  • Urbanisation with the growth of many cities.
  • Many Germans moved to industrial regions, which saw an upsurge in population.
  • However, Urban areas became overcrowded which created primative sanitary conditions which caused outbreaks of disease
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Social Impact of Industrialisation

Different classes were affected differently:

  • Middle Classes - Gained the most from industrialisation. Industrialists gained more influence. White collar workers were in demand in industries. Lower middle classes were less secure as they were more likely to be hit by a downturn of the economy.
  • Working Classes - Greatly expanded in this period. Their standard of living increased as did their job promotion oppurtunities. Increased welfare schemes, medical improvements and leisure oppurtunities. But living and working conditions were still bad as well as bad wages and hours.
  • Landowners - Junkers were threatened by the decline in agriculture and many landowners fell intoo debt and were forced to sell their land. Junkers still maintained political dominance as did their hold on Prussian local government.
  • Peasants - In some areas many moved to urban areas for work. In areas that produced dairy products and vegetables they stayed and flourished. The spread of education and communication boosted literacy and helped improve life in rural areas.
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Impact on the Right

Industrialisation meant there was a growth of right wing groups. Junkers, army and industrialists wanted to reduce the influence of socialism and extend their own wealth and power and they formed pressure groups which attempted to influence government policy.

German Colonial League, Pan German League, Navy League and Imperial League are examples, these groups mainly called for military and naval expansion and the introduction of tariffs.

They used modern techinques such as advertising to win support. They would claim their opponents were unpatriotic to gain support

How much influence did these groups have?

  • These groups had a direct influence on policy making. They shared similar ideas with the Kaiser and group leaders were influential as they often had wealth and contacts. 
  • Despite the differences between industrialists and agriculturists they shared the same interests of maintaining their own positions, therefore attracting conservative elements of society - middle classes
  • The government and the Kaiser followed many of their policies which suggests they had signifcant influence. However it could be that they reflected rather than formulated policies.
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Impact on the Left

Increased Growth of the SPD, this was despite Bismarck's and Wilhelm II's attempts to crush the socialist movements. This suggested Sammlungspolitik had failed. 

Despite Marxist origins the SPD was commited to revisionism rather than revolution, seeking to work with the system to bring down capitalism. This meant the SPd had a willlingness to make electoral pacts with the liberals to seek increased power in the Reichstag

The SPD leader (Bebel) encouraged his party to work with the Reichstag rather than against it. The party gained popularity not just because it promised to advance the working class cause but because it maintained a working class identity:

  • It created local clubs, organised festivals and holidays.
  • SPD organised well attented conferances and rallies
  • Continued to press for social reform and constitutional changes
  • Promoted progressive taxes and resisted taxes harmful to the working classes
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Was the SPD a threat?


  • The SPD still had a revolutionary wing depite its move to "revisionism"
  • The 1912 election results meant that the SPD was the largest party in the Reichstag and ensured domestic political tension.
  • Industrialisation led to an increase in trade union membership. These generally supported the SPDs moderate policies.


  • The SPD failed to press for fundamental constitutional change in the Reichstag, and in 1914 accepted a political truce to help vote for funding the war
  • Many working classes remaind outside the trade union movement. Many thought the SPD were too moderate whilst others didn't get involved in politics.
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How far was Wilhelm II a Shadow Emperor?


Personal Rule: - According to the 1871 constitution he had huge powers

  • He had control over foreign policy
  • He had personal control over armed forces
  • He could appoint people to key positions
  • He could appoint and dimiss chancellors, could choose those he could manipulate
  • King of Prussia

Shadow Emperor: 

  • The Reichstag continues to hold a very important influence over German politics. The Kaiser needed it to pass legislation so he had to compramise
  • The constitution gave the Chancellor power, although Kaiser manipulated most, Caprivi did exert influence
  • States had rights and political partis and elite groups and power and influence
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How far was Wilhelm II a Shadow Emperor?


Personal Rule:

  • The Kaisers love for the army was a reason for militarism in Germany, this shows his influence.
  • Wilhelm II was a powerful symbolic individual and had supporters amongst the German population.

Shadow Emperor:

  • His social life was too busy and he became bored with making decisions, he was open to the influence of others (The camarillo) 
  • He had a lack of concentration and his knowledge of politics was superficial.
  • His "personal rule" was merely interferance.
  • He had a temper and often had fits of rage which made him an unstable ruler
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How far was Wilhelm II a Shadow Emperor?


Personal Rule:

  • Period between 1897 and 1908 marked his "personal rule" he acted unconstitutionally by dictating domestic policy.
  • Many major decisions and policies were the result of Kaisers wishses. E.g His attitude to socialism - Sammlungspolitik. His jelousy of the British navy and empire drove Weltpolitik forward

Shadow Emperor:

  • The elite groups such as industrialists had real power and dictated policy. They feared the growth of socialism and for this reason carried out sammlungspolitik to unite German societ through expansion and nationalism.Flottenpolitik was also to consolidate the groups position as it would boost the economy reduce unemployment and pursuade the working class to remain loyal to the Reich. The Kaiser was merely a mouthpiece for this
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