Imperial Germany

imperial germany unification
An artist’s rendition of the unification of the German kingdoms in 1871

The story of the Weimar Republic must begin with its predecessor. Imperial Germany was a place of distinct social hierarchies and powerful political values. These ideas not only contributed to the outbreak of World War I but also endured in the Weimar Republic, undermining its political system and contributing to its eventual failure.


Unlike Britain, France and other European powers, the German Empire was a comparatively young national entity. It was formed in 1871 after the unification of more than two dozen German-speaking kingdoms and duchies.

The men who instigated and led the unification of Germany were nationalist politicians and generals. Some had been pushing for German unification for years. They wanted a large, powerful, German-speaking state that could match or even exceed the territorial, industrial and imperial might of Britain, France and Russia.

The most powerful of these German-speaking states was Prussia, the Hohenzollern-ruled kingdom fixated with war and militarism. The Prussians were renowned for their military prowess: their army contained an elite officer corps leading ranks of highly trained soldiers. Prussia had Europe’s most skilled army of the 1800s, a fact born out by stunning victories over Austria (1866) and France (1871).

These victories paved the way for German unification, as the smaller German-speaking kingdoms began to see the political and economic advantages of falling in behind the powerful Prussian monarchy. The creation of the German Empire was finalised in Versailles, near Paris, in 1871.

The Bismarck years

bismarck spd
A cartoon depicting Bismarck taking aim at SPD and liberal politicians

From 1871 to 1890, Imperial Germany was guided by the firm but watchful hand of Count Otto von Bismarck. No single figure contributed more to shaping imperial and modern Germany – and indeed to pre-war Europe.

Though Bismarck was a nationalist at heart, he was also a realist who wanted to protect the new German state by preventing another major European war. His greatest fear was a two-front war with both France and Russia, Germany’s strongest military rivals in mainland Europe.

Bismarck adopted foreign policy methods later known as Realpolitik. Its most visible feature was the ‘Iron Count’s’ network of alliances and treaties. These diplomatic relationships furthered German interests without risking war against Germany’s neighbours.

Bismarck’s focus on maintaining the balance of power in Europe meant he had little interest in expanding or developing Germany’s foreign colonies, which remained small and under-utilised in comparison to those of Britain and France.

‘Benevolent authoritarianism’

A cartoon depicting Bismarck aligned with Catholics against socialists and democrats

At home, Bismarck’s domestic leadership was a study in what was described as ‘benevolent authoritarianism’.

Both Germany and its parent state, Prussia, had the trappings of a democratic state: constitutions, elected legislatures and multiple political parties. Despite this, limited voting rights and restrictive electoral systems ensured conservative elites maintained their grip on power. While Germany was nominally democratic, Prussian Junkers (land-owning aristocrats) dominated the imperial government and the military.

Bismarck and his ministers also adopted policies to unify Germany beyond the political arena. German was sanctioned as the empire’s official language; its use became compulsory in civil administration, business and schools.

Bismarck’s notorious Kulturkampf of the 1870s attempted to curtail the influence of the Catholic Church. Beginning in 1878, a series of anti-socialist laws banned unions, left-wing organisations and newspapers. The government also imposed a national system of law that overrode or replaced legal systems from pre-unification.

The industrial boom

imperial germany industrialisation
Germany’s industrial revolution of the late 19th century was both rapid and profitable

Economically, imperial Germany progressed and developed at a great pace under Bismarck’s government. Using British industrial growth as a model, German companies invested heavily in factory-building, engineering, motors, chemical research and electrification.

The government assisted trade and growth by commissioning large-scale railway and infrastructure projects. German capitalism boomed, generating increases in urban growth, employment and standards of living.

Bismarck’s attacks on unionism were offset by improvements for ordinary workers. During the 1880s, the national government introduced unemployment relief, old age pensions and protections for sick or injured workers.

These reforms, the first implementation of a modern welfare system, were popular with most Germans. They slowed emigration to the US and Britain and won the loyalty of ordinary Germans.

The Bismarckian state which, while authoritarian and largely undemocratic, appeared genuinely interested in protecting its people.

A new Kaiser

Things changed rapidly with the ascension of a new emperor. When 29-year-old Wilhelm II took the throne in 1888, it marked the beginning of the end for Bismarck, European Realpolitik and paternalist domestic policies.

The brash young Kaiser was uninterested in maintaining European stability. His ambition was to expand the German Empire, both in Europe and further abroad. This would be done by further modernising the military, increasing German naval power and adopting a more forceful international approach.

By 1890, Bismarck had been forced into retirement. The old chancellor’s cautious but pragmatic Realpolitik was replaced by the Kaiser’s Weltpolitik (‘world politics’), aimed at securing Germany’s “place in the sun”.

Powerful ideas

The German General Staff was dominated by Prussian Junkers (aristocrats)

Late 19th century Germany was already strongly defined by two powerful and interconnected ideas: nationalism and militarism.

Nationalism, an exaggerated form of patriotism, prioritised the needs of Germany over those of other countries. It hinted at Germany’s cultural supremacy, suggesting that Germany occupied a special place or status in European history.

Militarism emphasised the importance of military strength, not only for defence but as a manifestation of national power. Military commanders became de facto politicians or national leaders, influencing domestic policy, political strategy and foreign affairs. Militarism created an environment in which war or military action was seen as a legitimate action rather than a last resort.

The grand ambitions of Wilhelm II only intensified German nationalism and militarism in the 20th century. Together, these ideas contributed to the largest war in human history. When it assumed power in late 1918, the government of the Weimar Republic would also have to contend with them.

imperial germany

1. The nation-state of Germany was comparatively young. It was formed in 1871 by the unification of numerous German-speaking European kingdoms and duchies.

2. Imperial Germany was strongly influenced by conservative elites, particularly Prussian aristocrats, while government was dominated by the nationalist but pragmatic Bismarck.

3. From 1871 into the early 20th century, Germany underwent rapid industrial and economic growth, coupled with progressive social reforms, such as the creation of a welfare state.

4. The era of Bismarck ended with the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who pressured the old chancellor into retirement and set about expanding Germany’s naval and imperial power.

5. The new Kaiser’s imperialist ambitious fuelled an alarming growth in nationalism and militarism, ideas that led to the outbreak of World War I and endured into the Weimar Republic.

Citation information
Title: “Imperial Germany”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 4, 2019
Date accessed: Today’s date
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