Germany before World War I

germany before world war one
A map of Germany prior to unification in 1871.

Germany is the first port-of-call in any study of the origins of World War I. Germany before World War I was imperialistic, militaristic and autocratic, a nation struggling to assert its place in the world. In 1914 Germany had been a unified state for less than half a century. Prior to 1871 she had been nothing more than a cluster of 25 German-speaking states, city-states and duchies, sandwiched between France, Russia and the North Sea coast. The road to unification and statehood was a long and sometimes difficult one, fuelled by a rise in German nationalism in the first half of the 1800s. The rallying points for German nationalists were race, culture, language and power. They dreamed of a united Germany, its people infused with patriotism, its government manned by decisive leaders and its economy at the technological forefront of the world. At the vanguard of this new Germany would be its army and navy, a gift to the new nation from its most powerful member-state: Prussia.

The process of German unification began with the turmoil of 1848, when a series of revolutions swept through western Europe. Movements in Prussia, Bavaria, Baden and Saxony all demanded change and political transformation, one of which was German unification. The nationalist movement grew through the mid-1800s, aided by political pamphleteers and populist journalists. The final flashpoint for German nationalism was the brief but gloriously successful Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Peace negotiations after this six-month conflict were held at Versailles, outside Paris. There, German delegates – guided by the brilliant Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck – negotiated and formalised the long-awaited unification of Germany. This heralded the birth of the so-called ‘Second Reich’, under its new kaiser, Wilhelm I. The new Germany was given a constitution, a strange mix of authoritarian monarchical power and liberal individual rights. The emperor retained absolute power over ministers and government decisions: he could hire and fire the chancellor (prime minister), determine foreign policy and was commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

germany before world war i
Otto von Bismarck

Despite his extensive powers, Wilhelm I generally left matters of policy to Bismarck, his trusted chancellor. For 17 years Bismarck, a brilliant statesman with an astute understanding of European politics, skilfully steered Germany through a quagmire of tensions and pressures. Bismarck’s main aim was to give the new Germany ‘breathing space’ by avoiding war, particularly a two-front war where she might be confronted by both France and Russia. To accomplish this, Bismarck engaged in a foreign policy chess game, managing and manipulating diplomatic relationships between European powers. He sought an alliance with Austro-Hungary and fostered good relations with Russia, while working to isolate the increasingly belligerent France. This maneuvering laid the foundation for the prominent alliance system that often foots the blame for World War I.

The crowning of the young Wilhelm II spelled trouble for Bismarck and his foreign policy regime. The new kaiser was brash, ambitious and full of grand designs for building German prestige and expanding her empire and foreign influence. He believed that new colonies could be obtained in Africa and the Pacific, while European influence could be boosted by taking advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s weakening hold over the Balkans and eastern Europe. Bismarck viewed these grand ambitions with concern. His interests had always been continental, not imperial. The count was certainly not interested in meddling in Balkan matters, something he believed could only worsen the tensions in Europe. He once famously declared that a future European war between the Great Powers would begin with “some damned foolish thing” in the Balkans. The old chancellor’s limited world view rankled with that of the newly-crowned young kaiser; within two years Wilhelm had elbowed Bismarck from the chancellorship.

“Germany’s domestic politics owed its immaturity to Bismarck’s ‘dictatorial’ determination to prevent the growth of democratic institutions. German foreign policy owed its restless dynamic to the influence of a militarist spirit and the moral neutrality of Realpolitik, as practised by Bismarck in the 1860s. German society owed its willingness to discriminate against minorities to Bismarck’s campaigns against Poles, Catholics, socialists and left liberals (all designated at one time or another as ‘enemies of the Reich’). And German capitalism, despite its rapid flowering, served only the interests of employers’ groups, industrialists and agrarian interests.”
Gordon Martel,historian

Bismarck’s departure in 1890 heralded the start of the Wilhelmine era, which was so named because of the kaiser’s active, hands-on role in deciding domestic and imperial policy. Germany’s foreign policy approach of this period was called Weltpolitik; it was more confident, assertive, some might say aggressive, and its stated aim was to deliver to Germany “our place in the sun”. It did not take long for Weltpolitik to generate tensions and fears of a European conflict. Berlin allowed its 1887 treaty with Russia to expire, and its aggressive diplomacy pushed the Russians into an alliance with France – a situation which Bismarck had long feared and worked to avoid. Germany also began to expand her empire, acquiring new colonies or possessions in Africa, East Asia and the Pacific.

Domestically, Germany rode an economic and technological boom for most of the late 1800s. The unification of Germany boosted industrial growth and railway construction. Coal production, iron ore mining and foreign investment all spiked during the mid-19th century. The government adopted policies to encourage industrial growth, while unification removed the border tariffs and trade duties which existed before 1871. German banks formed and grew quickly, providing credit and investment for new ventures. With its large and rapidly growing population (40 million in 1880, 58.5 million by 1910) Germany was able to meet the labour needs of industrialisation. By 1900 German steel production exceeded Britain’s, and was second only to the United States. Agricultural production did not grow in line with the industrial sector, but nevertheless remained steady and efficient, and was able to meet Germany’s food needs.

germany before world war one

1. Germany was a relatively new nation, formed by the unification of several German-speaking kingdoms in 1871.
2. The catalyst for this was German nationalism, which grew rapidly through the mid-1800s, fuelled by propagandists.
3. Prussia’s victory over France in 1871 precipitated unification and the creation of Imperial Germany under Wilhelm I.
4. The German government was largely left to Count Otto von Bismarck, who oversaw economic and social reforms.
5. Imperial Germany was technologically and industrially advanced, with some progressive social policies – however it was also strongly shaped by militarism, nationalism and government authoritarianism.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Germany before World War I” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].