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9-08-2015, 21:09

IMPERIAL GERMANY: ACHIEVEMENT AND EXCESS

Imperial Germany symbolised success. Created in three victorious wars, it had replaced France as the first military power in Europe. The Prussian spirit was seen to be matched by astonishing progress in other directions. In all branches of education and scientific discovery, the German Empire stood second to none. In manufacture, German industry grew by leaps and bounds. The secret of its success seemed to lie in the Prussian genius for organisation and in the orderliness and self-discipline of its hard-working people. There were a lot of them, too – nearly 67 million in 1913; this made the Germans the second most populous nation of Europe, well ahead of France and Britain, and behind only Russia. By the turn of the century Germany had become a predominantly industrial nation, with large cities. For every German working on the land, two were engaged in manufacture on the eve of the First World War. Once far behind Britain in coal production, by 1914 Germany had almost closed the gap and, after the US and Britain, was the third industrial power in the world. Coal, iron and steel, produced in ever larger quantities, provided the basis for Germany’s leap forward, challenging Britain’s role as Europe’s leader. Between 1871 and 1914 the value of Germany’s agricultural output doubled, the value of its industrial production quadrupled and its overseas trade more than tripled. Germany’s progress aroused anxieties among its neighbours, but there was also cooperation and a recognition that the progress of one European nation would, in fact, enrich the others. Germany was catching up with Britain, the pioneer of the industrial revolution, but Britain and Germany were also important trading partners. Unlike Britain, the German Empire was transformed in a relatively short time from a wellordered, mainly rural country to a modern industrial nation. In contrast with its industrial progress, the pace of Germany’s political development was slow, deliberately retarded by its ruling men. The government of the Prussian- German Monarchy after 1871 was a mixture of traditional mid-nineteenth-century institutions, together with an imperial parliament – the Reichstag – more in harmony with the new democratic age. But the old traditional Junker society found allies after 1871 among the big industrialists in its opposition to the advance of democracy. The cleavage so created between the powerful few and the rest of society, in the name of maintaining the power of the Crown, was responsible for the continuation of social and political divisions in Wilhelmine Germany down to the outbreak of war. The foundations of the empire were fashioned by Otto von Bismarck. He was aware of the dangers facing the recently unified country at home and abroad and juggled the opposing forces and contradictions with manipulative brilliance but ultimately without success. Internal unification was successful. Just sufficient autonomy was left to the twenty-five states, with the illusion of influence, to satisfy them. Prussia was by far the most powerful of all; the chancellor of Germany was usually also the prime minister of Prussia. The autonomy of the states also limited the degree of democratic control. The ‘English system’ of representative government was anathema to Bismarck. Democratic aspirations were satisfied by the elections of the Reichstag on the most democratic franchise in the world, every adult male had the vote and Germany was divided into equal electorates of one hundred thousand people. The trick was to limit the powers of the Reichstag by restricting its powers of taxation, and reserving taxes on income to the undemocratic state parliaments. Prussia’s was elected by three classes of electors, the wealthiest few electing as many representatives as the poorest masses. The chancellor of the empire, who appointed the ministers, was not dependent on the Reichstag but was appointed by the emperor. He could juggle the political parties and change horses to secure the majorities he needed to pass bills. It worked after a fashion, though corruptly under Bismarck. He was first a free trader, then a protectionist; he persecuted the Catholic Church and its political Centre party, then made his peace with them; he tried to destroy the Social Democratic Party, but failed. Bismarck was the pilot, the old emperor placed his trust in him. With his death and the accession of his volatile grandson Wilhelm II the strains of Bismarck’s system were beginning to show. By 1912 the Social Democratic Party had won a majority in the Reichstag. The Social Democratic Party was denounced as revolutionary, its members as ‘enemies of the state’ – an extraordinary and unwarranted attack on a party operating fully within the law. The defeat of social democracy was the main purpose of the Conservatives and the men surrounding the kaiser. They could not conceive of including the Social Democrats within the fabric of the political state. This was more understandable while the Social Democratic Party was indeed Marxist and revolutionary. But as the twentieth century advanced the great majority of the party members in 1913, led by the pragmatic Friedrich Ebert, had become democratic socialists working for gradual reform; their Marxist revolutionary doctrine was becoming more a declaration of outward faith than actual practice, or immediate expectation. In a number of the state parliaments, Social Democrats had already joined coalitions with Liberals to form a responsible base for governments, thus abandoning their revolutionary role. But in Prussia this was unthinkable. One consequence of the narrow outlook of the Conservatives was that they would never consent to constitutional change that would have made the chancellor and his ministers responsible to the Reichstag as the government in Britain was to Parliament. The Conservatives thus had no alternative but to leave power, in theory at least, ultimately in the hands of the kaiser. The kaiser’s pose as the ‘All Highest’ was ridiculous, and even the fiction could not be maintained when, after the kaiser’s tactless Daily Telegraph interview in 1908, he claimed that he had helped Britain during the Boer War. Kaiser Wilhelm II did not have the strength to lead Germany in the right direction. He was an intelligent man of warm and generous impulse at times, but he was also highly emotional and unpredictable. He felt unsure of his fitness for his ‘divine calling’, and posed and play-acted. This was a pity as his judgement was often intuitively sound. He did not act unconstitutionally, leaving control of policy to his ministers and military men. But when, in an impasse or conflict between them, the decision was thrust back to him, he occasionally played a decisive role. More usually he was manipulated by others, his vanity making him an easy victim of such tactics. He wanted to be known as the people’s kaiser and as the kaiser of peace; also as the emperor during whose reign the German Empire became an equal of the world’s greatest powers. His contradictory aims mirrored a personality whose principal traits were not in harmony with each other. The kaiser, and the Conservative–industrial alliance, were most to blame for the divisiveness of German society and politics. There was constant talk of crisis, revolution or pre-emptive action by the Crown to demolish the democratic institutions of the Reich. Much of this was hysterical. But the Wilhelmine age in German development was not entirely bleak. The judiciary remained substantially independent and guaranteed the civil rights of the population and a free press; there was a growing understanding among the population as a whole that Kaiser Wilhelm’s pose as the God-ordained absolute ruler was just play-acting. Rising prosperity was coupled with the increasing moderation of the left and the growth of trade unions. The political education of the German people proceeded steadily, even if inhibited by the narrowly chauvinistic outlook of so many of the schoolmasters and university professors, by the patronage of the state as an employer, and by the Crown as a fount of titles, decorations and privileges. Significantly, the anti- Conservative political parties on the eve of 1914 commanded a substantial majority, even though they could not work together. The deep political and social divisions never really threatened Germany with violence and civil war in the pre-war era. Over and above the military pact four years later. It was the beginning of the process that split Europe into two opposing camps. Britain tried to assume the mantle of honest broker but too many imperial interests of its own, which brought it into conflict with Russia, stood in the way. Germany added to its problems by being blinded by a vision of Weltpolitik, worldwide power; a latecomer in the colonial carve-up, Germany was now demanding its place in the sun. Unless a world power, the inheritor of the British Empire, its chauvinist leaders thought, Germany’s eventual decline was certain. German foreign policy swung from apprehension at the growing menace of the French–Russian alliance with a nightmare vision of a Russian army of millions marching into East Prussia while the French massed in the West, to bold strokes making its weight felt when it came to sharing out the remaining dishes of the imperialist dinner. The two sides of this policy were forcing France and Britain to make concessions in West and East Africa while building up Tirpitz’s battleship fleet and drawing up the Schlieffen Plan to cope with a two-front war. France would be invaded first riding roughshod over Belgian neutrality and then Russia. Its foreign policy turned Britain from the path of seeking an alliance at the turn of the century to forming military defensive arrangements and imperial settlements with France and Russia in 1904 and 1907. Meantime Germany became more and more reliant on a weakening ally, the Habsburg Monarchy beset by the problems of keeping a multinational state going. The year 1912 was fateful for Germany at home and abroad. Its bullying tactics had gained it just small prizes in Morocco and Africa while causing great friction. Bismarckian diplomacy was turned on its head. In the Balkan cauldron, Germany even feared that Russia and Austria might reach an amicable accommodation and then Germany would lose its reliable ally. Italy had long ceased to be completely loyal. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, imperial Germany’s last peacetime chancellor, tried hard to evade the dark clouds gathering, but he had to deal not only with growing conflicts in the Balkans, but also with the powerful army chiefs at home who had the kaiser’s ear and were urging a preventive war before Russia grew too strong. Bethmann Hollweg could still count on Tirpitz and his ever-unready navy to aid him in urging a delay in bringing about conflict. The desirability of launching a preventive war against France and Russia was discussed by the kaiser and his principal military advisers, meeting in a socalled war council, in December 1912. The kaiser had had one of his periodical belligerent brainstorms, this time brought about by a warning received from Britain that it would not leave France in the lurch if Germany attacked it. Nothing aroused the kaiser to greater fury than to be scorned by Britain. But the secret meeting of 8 December 1912 did no more than postpone war. A consensus among all those present was achieved in the end; Admiral Tirpitz had opposed the army, which urged that war should be unleashed quickly; after debate all agreed to wait but not much beyond 1914. They were also agreed that Germany would lose all chance of defeating Russia and France on land if the war was longer delayed. Speedier Russian troop movements to the German frontier along railway lines financed by the French would make the Schlieffen Plan inoperable because Russia would be able to overwhelm Germany’s weak screen of defence in the east before the German army in the west could gain its victory over France. The most sinister aspect of the meeting of December 1912 was the cynical way in which the kaiser’s military planned to fool the German people and the world about the true cause of the war. It was to be disguised as a defensive war against Russia in support of the Habsburg Empire. In the coming months, they agreed, the German people should be prepared for war. Still, a war postponed is a war avoided. Bethmann Hollweg was not yet convinced or finally committed. Wilhelm II could and, in July 1914, actually did change his mind. As the German chief of staff rightly observed, what he feared was not ‘the French and the Russians as much as the Kaiser’. Nevertheless, in 1913 the needs of the army did become first priority; a bill passed by the Reichstag increased the hitherto fairly static standing army by calling up an additional 136,000 conscripts. This measure was designed to bring the peacetime strength of the army to nearly 800,000 men by the autumn of 1914. Bethmann Hollweg scored one success. The abrasive Weltpolitik overseas was downgraded. Instead, Germany now pushed its interests in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia and developed its new friendship with Turkey. The projected Berlin-to- Baghdad railway was to be the economic artery of this, Germany’s new imperial commercial sphere. The intrusion of German interests in the Middle East was not unwelcome to Britain since Germany would help to act as a buffer against Russian expansion. In the Balkans, where a second Balkan war had broken out in 1913, Bethmann Hollweg and the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, worked together to localise the conflict and to ensure a peaceful outcome. The kaiser’s conference of December 1912 had at least made it much easier for Bethmann Hollweg to follow a pacific policy in 1913 and he could show some success for it, though not a weakening of Britain’s support for France, his main objective. Nevertheless, the drift to war in Germany was unmistakable. Its leaders were accustoming themselves to the idea of a war, persuaded by the seemingly irrefutable logic of the military. In the end, in the summer of 1914, Bethmann Hollweg too would be carried forward with the kaiser over the brink.

 

 

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