Section 1: The Second Reich - society and government in Germany, c.1900-1919


The Kaiser and his Chancellors pt.1

  • Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended the throne of Prussia and the German Empire in 1888. He sought a dominant role in German politics and in 1890 moved against his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. He was often portrayed as an autocrat who developed aggressve and militaristic policies in the years preceding WWI.
  • Kaiser had a difficult upbringing, he was born with a withered arm and was troubled with this disability as well as having a strained relationship with his parents, Prince Frederick of Prussia and Victoria, Princess Royal of Britain.  

The 1890s

  • Historian John Rohl argued that the Kaiser created a personal rule in which he appointed minsters who would further his conservative political agenda. Bismarck's replacement, Caprivi, found the Kaiser interfering and difficult to work with. Caprivi's replacement, Hohenlohe, was ageing and controlled by the Kaiser and his ministers. 
1 of 14

The Kaiser and his Chancellors pt.2

Chancellor von Bulow, 1900-1909

  • In 1896-1897, the Kaiser exercised his powers of patronage to remove more progressive ministers and replace them with those who shared his conservative vision.
  • Von Bulow openly cooperated with the Kaiser, but often succeeded in sidelining or defeating him (e.g. the Tariff law in 1902). The Kaiser tried to reassert his authority once again by making a series of ministerial appointments in 1905-6.
  • Von Bulow sought to align conservative and centralist political forces in Germany by unifying them around foreign policy (Sammlungspolitik). Bulow created a bloc, to build Reichstag support, of all the non-socialist parties.
  • He also tried to appease socialist forces in a series of social reforms, such as measures relating to sickness insurance in 1903 and child labour in 1908. However, he received serious competition to his authority from the Reichstag during the budgetary crisis and the Hottentot election of 1906-7. In the end he resigned having lost the support of the Kaiser after the Daily Telegraph Affair.
2 of 14

The Kaiser and his Chancellors pt.3

Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, 1909-1916

  • Bethmann's chancellorship represents the lack of the Reichstag's control over the government. 
  • In 1913, folowin the Zabern Affair, Bethmann lost a vote of no confidence in the SPD-dominated Reichstag.
  • However, the Reichstag did not have the constitutional power to force him out of office and therefore he remained Chancellor.
  • Bethmann had more success with the Army Bill in 1913, where he gained SPD support for army expansion by agreeing to fund it through progressive taxation.
3 of 14

How did the political system work in practice? (Pt

Tensions in the German political system

  • By 1914, the political system did not work effectively. As the Kaiser appointed the government, they remained permanently conservative, upper class and Junker-dominated, whilst the largest Reichstag party was the SPD, which was working class. This caused the relationship between the government and the the Reichstag to be strained:

The Budgetary Crisis 1906

  • The budget had run into debt as the mounting costs of maintaining the army, expanding the navy and running the empire took effect. Substantial tax increases had to be introduced. Bulow realised that this was likley to cause a political divide, in 1905 he suggested a two-pronged attack on the defecit by proposing an increase in indirect taxes and an inheritance tax (the tax on an estate, or total value of the money and property of a person who has died).
  • At first the proposals came to nothing, because the Centre and the SPD voted down (the indirect taxes would have hit the working classes more severly) and the Conservatives and their allies weakend the inheritance tax proposals, making them insignificant.
4 of 14

How did the political system work in practice? (Pt

Hottentot Election, 1907

  • Bulow's government was also being attacked for its policy in the colony of German South West Africa (modern Namibia). The local population was crushed in 1904-5, and stories of awful brutality, corruption and incompetence in the administration of the colony were made public. The government's proposals of compensating the white settlers and of finding extra money for suppressing the rebels and for the new administration were not well received in the Reichstag.
  • The SPD and the Centre Party voted against the government, leading to its defeat. The Reichstag was dissolved to control the Centre Party. This election was anti-socialists, anti-catholic and nationalistic.
5 of 14

How did the political system work in practice? (Pt

The Daily Telegraph Affair, 1908

  • Conversations that the Kaiser had with a British colonel were published in the Daily Telegraph. The Kaiser made a series of unguarded comments, such as that the British were 'mad, mad as march hares' for thinking that Germany posed a threat to peace.
  • The Kaiser implied that the German naval build-up was directed at the Japanese. He was perceived in Germany as having exceeded his authority in talking to the foreign press in this way. The affair led to wider criticism of the Kaiser in the Reichstag and the press. They criticised his conduct and his dominance in foreign affairs. The Kaiser eventually agreed to guarantee to the Reichstag that he would not make similar pronouncements in future.
  • Kaiser Wilhelm avoided political interventons following this events but did pressurise von Bulow, whom he felt had been too support the Reichstag, to resign.
  • This event demonstrated that:
    • The Reichstag and the German press were prepared to criticise the Kaiser.
    • The Reichstag could gain concessions from the Kaiser.
    • The Kaiser could not always act in an autocratic manner.
    • The Kaiser could remove his Chancellors.
6 of 14

How did the political system work in practice? (Pt

The Zabern Affair, 1913

  • A German soldier based in Zabern, Alsace, made a derogatory comment about the Alsation locals. Tensions escalated between the German army and the local inhabitants, and matters came to a head when the soldier was acquitted by a military court of injuring a man who jeered at him. 
  • The Kaiser backed the military, while the Reichstag criticised the conduct of the army and of Chancellor Bethmann, eventually passing a vote of no confidence in him. Scheidmann of the SPD called upon Bethmann to resign but he refused, saying he depended only on the authority of the Kaiser. 
  • This event demonstrated that:
    • The army operated independently of civil authority in Germany and were accountable to the Kaiser who, by 1913, was very supportive of them.
    • The Reichstag were not able to hold the Chancellor to account: the Chancellor only needed the Kaiser's support.
    • The Reichstag could be ignored by the Kaiser and the army.
    • Tensions existed between different parts of the German system, especially between the army and the Reichstag.
7 of 14

The Second Reich by 1914 (Pt.1)

Historians debate how the political system of the Second Reich operated and where power lay in this system:

  • John Rohl suggests that the Kaiser built an autocratic semi-absolutist system within which his militaristic and conservative agenda was advanced, the Reichstag sidelined and liberal and democratic forces weakened.
  • The Second Reich could also be seen as a failing system that was unable to cope with the political and social challenges that a modernising economy had produced. Hans-Ulrich Wehler argued that Germany was dominated by powerful conservative forces, such as the army, that were not democratically accountable.
  • Christopher Clark argues that the system was too fluid and the Kaiser was too erratic for personal rule by Wilhelm to have been possible. Clark is more positive than Rohl or Wehler about the strength of liberal elements in Germany at this time. 
  • Geoff Eley and David Blackburn have emphasised the scale and range of political participation in the Second Reich: they focus upon the impact of politics from below rather than politics from above.
8 of 14

The Second Reich by 1914 (Pt.2)

Entrenched autocracy, elite dominance or a growing democracy?

Evidence that Germany was an autocracy

  • The Kaiser had the power to appoint the Chancellor and ministers and the power to dissolve the Reichstag. The Kaiser shaped the composition of the government 1896-7 and 1905-6, and dissolved the Reichstag in 1906. He also forced von Bulow to resign after the Daily Telegraph affair.
  • The Chancellor and ministers were not accountable to the Reichstag. Bethmann lost a vote of no-confidence in the Reichstag and remained as Chancellor.
  • The army was not accountable to the Kaiser and so was not affected by the Reichstag's criticisms following the Zabern Affair in 1913.
  • The country followed the Kaiser's political agenda, for example Weltpolitik.
9 of 14

The Second Reich by 1914 (Pt.3)

Evidence that Germany was dominated by a conservative elite

  • The agenda of the conservative elite was following in naval, militaristic and colonial expansion. This was reflected in colonial policies and in the Naval Bill of 1906.
  • Conservative pressure groups like the Argarian League and the Central Association of German Industrialists successfully lobbied for increased agricultural tariffs in 1902.
  • The power of the Bundesrat meant that the government was dominated by conservatives.
  • A conservatives Prussian elite dominated the state in the army, judiciary, civil service and government. 
10 of 14

The Second Reich by 1914 (Pt.4)

Evidence of democracy and liberalism in Germany

  • The Reichstag was democratic in the sense that all classes of men had the vote and was able to reject legislation and did so in 1906 when they rejected colonial policy.
  • The Reichstag were increasingly assertive, as can be seen from their stance on the 1906 budget, their criticisms of the Kaiser in the wake of the Daily Telegraph Affair in 1908 and their censure of Bethmann in 1913.
  • The ruling elite had to respond to pressure from below (from left-wing political movements and the working classes) for social reform.
  • The press criticised the Kaiser, for example after the Daily Telegraph affair. 
  • Political participation was high: the trade union movement was large, pressure groups influential and women participated in movements despite not having the vote.
  • There was a plurality of interests in the state: Catholics had the Centre Party; workers had the SPD and the farmers had the Argarian League.
11 of 14

The impact of the First World War on Germany (Pt.1

Initially the war appeared to have united Germans but, as the strain of fighting heightened, tensions and disagreements resurfaced.

The economic impact of the war

  • Fighting the war was an enormous economic strain, only 16% of the £8.4m cost of the was was met by taxation. War bonds were also used and money printed. Printing money led to inflation: the mark declined in value by 75% between 1913 and 1918. The KRA, War Raw Materials Department, had some success in supplying the German army but German agriculture was not mobilised effectively and there were food shortages. 

The social impact of the war

  • The impact of the war was often severe. 2m soldiers were killed, 6.3m were injured. With inflation and tight controls on wages, living standards fell by 20-30%. Shortages caused by the war effort and by the British blockade of German ports led to the 'Turnip Winter' of 1917. Food and fuel shortages caused misery and starvation and exacerbated the impact of the Spanish flu pandemimc in 1918.
12 of 14

The impact of the First World War on Germany (Pt.2

The political impact of the war

Initial unity

  • At the start of the war, Germany appeared politically unified, a Burgfriede, or political truce, was declare and the Kaiser, addressing the Reichstag, announced that 'I know no parties anymore, I know only Germans'. However, this situation did not last: the view of the left that only defensive war was justified was not compatible with the aim of many on the right for a war of expansion and conquest (a Siegfriede).

Growing disunity

  • By 1917, 42 SPD deputies had broken away to form the anti-war and radical socialist USPD. Mounting concern about the war led to a Reichstag vote, the 'peace resolution', which urged the government to try to negotiate a peace settlement.The left and the centre won the vote by 212 to 126.
13 of 14

The impact of the First World War on Germany (Pt.2

Growing disunity (continued)

  • The war saw the formation of the communist Spartacist League who agitated for social revolution and an end to the war. Discontent among German workers rose from 1916, as workers were prevented from freely changing jobs under the Auxiliary Service Law of December 1916. There was, by 1918, widespread discontent and in January 1918 there were significant strikes in many areas, such as one in Berlin for 5 days involving half a million workers. The war had started by unifying the political scene but, by 1918, political polarisation was greater than it had been before the conflict.

The 'silent dictatorship'

  • During the war, the government became increasinhly authoritarian and militaristic. The Kaiser was sidelined by the military and, by 1916, Supreme commanders General Hindenburg and Ludendorff were essentially in charge of the country, running what has been characterised as a 'silent dictatorship'. An isolated Bethmann was forced out of office by the Generals and Georg Michaelis and then Georg von Hertling became Chancellors.
14 of 14


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all From Kaiser to Fuhrer: Germany, 1900-1945 resources »