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The period 1870 to 1914 In Germany Essay

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How Successfully in the period 1870 to 1914 did the ruling elites of Germany cope with the consequences of social and economic change?


The period 1870 to 1914 involved significant social and economic pressures for change, not least in Germany. This essay will analyse how both Bismarck and Wilhelm II responded to these pressures and will examine how successful their responses were in coping with this change.

A key change was the rapid industrialisation that put Germany ahead of Britain as Europe’s leading industrial power by 1914.

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This was reflected in the soaring of coal production, steel production, and the railway network, for example. Coal production grew from 89 million tons in 1890 to 277 million tons in 1914. However, it could be argued that Bismarck did not play an active role in economic policy, but did use it to his advantage. Historians such as Bohme point out that Bismarck “merely rode and steered” on the waves of Germany’s “economic life”.

The economic expansion had great implications for social and political change, as for instance an increase in the industrial workforce lead to demands for better working conditions, and an increase in Trade Union membership. As noted by Culpin & Henig, there were some 2.6 million German workers who were members of trade unions by 1914. Such developments had frightened Wilhelm, like Bismarck before him, as they saw such minority groups as “enemies of the state”.

Bismarck’s strategy to Change

Economic Change

Spurred on by unification and an abundance of natural resources such as iron ore, Germany saw its industrial production soar. With support from financial institutions, this transformed Germany from what had been a predominantly agrarian to a major industrial state. Iron ore production soared from 2.9 million tons in 1870 to 2.2 million tons by 1890, whereas in Britain production of iron ore was 14 million tons in 1870, and had not changed by 1890. Expansion of the railways coerced the industrial growth in Germany, rising from 19.5 km in 1870, to 43 km in 1890. Agriculture did still play a vital role, act as a stimulus, due agrarian mechanisation. Bismarck however took little interest in the economy. Culpin & Henig argue that this is ironic, as it was economic change that provided “the greatest challenge to the stability of the empire”.

Bismarck embraced these changes as an opportunity to gain co-operation from the National Liberal Party at first, (the largest party in the Reichstag at the time), and also to gain military advantage. The chancellor had no party of his own, had common aims with the liberals such as national unity. By offering the liberals piecemeal concessions that at least appeared to favour free trade for example, he was assured of their support. In fact Bismarck’s relationship with the Liberals was not insignificant. The so-called “liberal era” as Geoff Eley puts forward, produced “an impressive concentration of forward looking legislation [and] an elaborate framework of capitalist enabling laws”, hence promoting further economic development. Blackbaul and Ely portray Bismarck as very liberalising: “Germany benefits from Bismarck’s liberal and modernising tendencies”.

However, by the end of the 1870’s Bismarck wished to discontinue granting the liberals concessions. Also, as competition from foreign imports grew, Bismarck faced increased pressure by the landed elites (the Junkers) and the Industrialists to increase economic protectionism. Bismarck believed in “Real Politik”, or the politics of realism. He responded accordingly to the demands of the Junkers and Industrialists. The additional attraction was that Germany would receive extra income from tariffs and that the country would be more self-sufficient. This increase in protectionism effectively ended the “liberal era” of Bismarck’s chancellorship. Together with the system of Cartels already flourishing in Germany, the benefits of mass production remained with the Junkers and Industrialists, and were not passed on to the consumer.

Social Change

These intensive changes in Germany’s economy had a significant impact on the society. The massive influx of workers from rural areas to cities and towns, resulted in people discovering new freedoms. With this new found freedom came increased demands for better working conditions, for instance, which fuelled an increase in trade union membership. The very speed of this industrialisation meant that society was less able to adjust than in Britain.

Pulzer points to “the dissonance of the economic dynamism of the Reich and the relative stagnation of its social norms and political institutions”. Industrialisation did not usually involve social mobility, but a “stratification of existing structures” as S. Lee notes. For instance, the working classes increased in number and strengthened their identity, but this simply aggravated the suspicion of the social elites. The Prussian Junkers in particular felt threatened by these social changes (due to the decreasing role of agriculture in the economy), but as noted above, Bismarck took a change in direction to economic protectionism in an attempt to preserve their position. The middle classes were caught up between the working classes and the social elites. They had pressures below them from the working classes and from the Industrialists and Junkers above them. Their main aim was to maintain their position.

Unification had involved the imposition of Prussian ideologies throughout the newly united Germany, in which Prussia was the dominant state. This presented Bismarck with a number of problems, one of which he saw as the Catholics, whom he viewed as the “enemies of the state”, partly for their dislike of Bismarckian politics. The Kulturkampf, or “struggle for civilisation, was supported by the May Laws in 1873, which included the severing diplomatic relations with the Vatican and the removal of Catholic influence from society.

The campaign in the main failed and was abandoned at the end of the 1870s, as Bismarck turned his attention to what he viewed as the menace of socialism and sought an defensive alliance with Austria. As C Grant Robinson put it, “Bismarck deliberately sacrificed victory in the Kulturkampf to victory in other issues, more important in his judgement”. This change of direction has often been referred to as “political opportunism”. With this change of direction Bismarck in the main severed his alliance with the German Liberals. This alliance had not lived up to the expectations of several influential groups in the Reich, which prompted Bismarck to switch towards economic and political conservatism. Agatha Ramm describes these changes as a “coherent and systematic revision of policy in relation to the economic, social and financial needs of the Reich”.

Bismarck, partly looking to the events of the Paris Commune, took on a very anti-Socialist stance, as he saw the Socialists as the new “enemies of the state”. He sought to repress the Socialist movement, but this only seemed to serve to increase the popularity of the Socialist Workers Party. Bismarck tried to curtail this growth by means of legislation, which included the banning of socialist newspapers and meetings in Germany. Bismarck, realising that socialism could not be conquered by repression alone, introduced a programme of “state socialism”, which included medical insurance and sick pay. W.M Simon argues that this did not convince the workforce and hence they gave their support to the left. However, AJP Taylor suggests that this was not the case, indicating that workers had taken on an understanding that the more they co-operated with the state, the more rewards they would receive: “the workers seemed to have received social security as the price of political subservience”.

Political Change

There were political implications from the social diversity of Germany. There was an intention to rally to lower orders, by promoting nationalism “through patriotism rather than socialism through internationalism” as S Lee puts it. The elites put pressure on Bismarck to pursue an active foreign and colonial policy to promote this stance, to turn the lower orders’ attention away from the domestic social problems. The elites did their utmost to impose constraints to curtail any political expansion to the lower orders.

Overall, Bismarck did all he could to stifle the development of parliamentary democracy in Germany. Whilst the Reichstag could comment on legislation, Bismarck had the power to veto anything. The parties in the Reichstag were more like sectional pressure groups, with membership centred around social class origins. Max Weber supports this viewpoint, noting that the German political system was merely “sham constitutionalism”. AJP Taylor sums up Bismarck’s stance to democracy very effectively, in stating that “Bismarck lived in an age of democracy and German power and he devoted his life to making these forces as harmless as possible”. This did not bode well for the future, as Weber comments, “Bismarck left behind him as political heritage a nation without any political education”. He also emphasised that the country was accustomed that the statesman at its head would look after all policy for it.

Bismarck wanted to be aware of potential threats to the state he had created, and once himself stated “when we have arrived at good harbour, we should be content to cultivate and hold what we have won”. In order to protect what he had achieved in a unified Germany, and in response to European pressure, Bismarck used his unique negotiating skills to forge a number of alliances, in an attempt to ensure European peace and avoid war on two fronts. A number of alliances were attempted to preserve peace in Europe, beginning with the “dreikeiserbund”, or league of 3 emperors in 1873, (involving alliances with Russia and Austria), and later a separate dual alliance with Austria alone, with Italy coming into the Fray in the late 1880s. Whilst these alliances in the main failed to run smoothly, they did at least restore order in Europe and ensure that the changes taking place in Germany were not impeded by an outside conflict.

Wilhelm II’s Strategy to Change

Wilhelm II stated that he wanted to appeal to all elements of society, and in doing so he pursued a number of random, ad hoc policies that appeared to be ill thought out indicating, lack of central direction and did not necessarily harness change to his advantage.

Economic Change

The spectacular pace of industrialisation, aided by significant population growth, served to propel Germany to the status a major industrial power in the years to 1914. The population increased from 49 million in 1890 to 65 million by 1910. Coal production increased from 89 million tons in 1890 to 277 million tons in 1914, whilst steel production over the same period increased from 2.3 million tons to 14 million tons. Advances in the railway network, and new industries such as chemicals and electricity coerced this economic expansion. Overall income per capita increased substantially relative to European peers , increasing living standards as a result.

However, this economic prosperity was not shared by German agriculture, which had to be supported by substantial internal tariffs just to keep the Junker farmers solvent. Conversely, Wilhelm promoted greater economic liberalism, under his first Chancellor Caprivi, reducing certain tariffs in an effort to bolster free trade, but upsetting the Junkers in the process by reducing their income from agricultural tariffs. Wilhelm II harnessed this growth in economic power to build up Germany’s military might, which included the merchant navy, to make it comparable to Britain’s. Volker Berghahn notes that the development of the navy was more “for popular, patriotic emotion, rather than as a strategic weapon in its own right”, inciting that it promoted national unity. With economic expansion on such a massive scale, it was bound to have deep social and political implications, which the Kaiser failed to realise. Germany became increasingly in such a strong position that could have frightened other European countries into defensive alliances against it.

Social Changes

The population of Germany increased rapidly, rising from 49 million in 1890 to 65 million by 1914 and many people found themselves living in cities close to their new industrial workplaces. Anti-socialist laws were allowed to lapse under Wilhelm, but as the 1890s progressed, under the influence of Industrialists and Junkers, the Kaiser became concerned at the number of concessions Trade Unions were winning. Working conditions improved significantly as a result, with reforms such as restricted Sunday hours.

The Socialists in Germany were comparatively moderate, as the German workforce enjoyed a relatively high standard of living, which continued to improve. For instance, over the period 18895 to 1907, wages increased by some 100 percent, whilst the cost of living only rose 22 percent in the same period. Hence real wages and disposable income were outstripping the cost of living, which served to dampen Trade Union demands. It was because of this increase in affluence that support for Socialists grew, it could be argued. By 1912, the Socialists were the largest party in the Reichstag, which served to increase the Kaiser’s paranoia. Wilhelm himself commented, following these elections, “the German Parliamentarian becomes daily more of a swine”.

Wilhelm’s attempts to curtail Socialism reflected “Sammlung’s politik”, which was a policy of bringing together. This policy involved the bringing together under a common set of ideas, all grouping in Germany, with the exception of Socialists, and also the use of an active foreign policy. The main exponent of Sammlung Politik was Chancellor Bulow, who upset groups in the Reichstag, such as the Progressives, which pushed such groups towards Socialism. The next Chancellor, Hollweg, tried to stop this trend of an increase in support for the Socialists, and used many means that were at his disposal, such as the army and civil service, but his success in this respect was very limited. All the changes convinced the ruling elite that Socialism was a danger, but historians are divided on this point.

For instance, when World War One broke out, the Socialists offered support, not typical of a revolutionary behaviour. In addition, to what uses would German workers turn their power, should they win it? The Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) suffered from lack of political education, as was evident in the fact they did not remove the Kaiser. So the attempt by the regime to crush socialism was not well thought out, as it did not pose any serious threat. The Kaiser’s campaign against Socialism at the beginning of the century offered no political concessions and is this respect was likely to spark domestic conflicts. Wilhelm’s attitude to the working classes contrasted sharply from that of the Junkers and Industrial elites, whose pleas he was very receptive to. This seems very contradictory, as the Kaiser in 1894 had proclaimed that he wanted to be the “King of Beggars”.

Political Changes

In effect, none of the four Chancellor’s under Wilhelm held any significant power, as Wilhelm would interfere in the business of the state, as his second Chancellor pointed out: “if I cannot get the Kaiser’s consent for measures I regard as necessary, then I have no authority”. Politically, Wehlr has described Wilhelm as being at the “mercy of navy league nationalists, Junkers and industrialists”. Whilst it was recognised that the Kaiser made all the decisions, he was greatly influenced by the Junkers, the Industrialists, the civil service and the army.

This was against a background of democracy pretence in the Reichstag, which was effectively and constitutionally a “talking shop”. The Reichstag was not central or integral to the policy making process. There was immense resistance to political change, particularly in moves towards democracy. Wilhelm embraced conservative ideas that were so right wing they were almost fascist. Whilst there were major economic and social changes taking place inside and outside Germany, the political structure remained static. However, as time progressed there is evidence that the Reichstag began to fight back, for instance in 1912 the Kaiser tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill, intended to jail anyone stopping any man from working, or encouraging strikes. This was not the first occasion that the Reichstag had refused to pass anti-socialist and anti-union legislation.

Above all, the Kaiser wanted “a place in the sun” for the Germans. The problem was that there was very little room left for new colonisation in the early part of 1900. Bulow suggested that the pace of economic expansion forced the need for colonisation: “Our need for national development, mainly in the industrial sphere, forced us to cross the ocean”. In spite of the fact that Germany was planning colonisation very late compared to other powers, the Kaiser built up the German military machine and under the Tirpitz Plan, and built a naval fleet to rival that of Great Britain. The term “saber rattler” sums up his politics as well as his personality. Historian Barbara Tuchman put it appropriately when she referred to the Kaiser as “possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe”. The Kaiser clearly wanted a world role for Germany, but the physical results of Weltpolitik were somewhat meagre.


The reaction on the part of both Bismarck and Wilhelm to the increasing but modest demands for social and political reform was to try to repress the forces of change, as both saw socialism as a significant threat to the regime. The key difference between Bismarck and Wilhelm was that Bismarck realised that he could not defeat socialism by repression alone.

Comparing the policy styles of Bismarck and Wilhelm, it appears that in spite of Bismarck’s adherence to “real politik”, he still maintained a clearer sense of direction than Wilhelm, whose policies seemed ill thought out and lacking direction. As noted by Mosse, “although Bismarck played his hand with great skill, it was a good one in the first place”. Sturmer supports this argument by stating that “Bismark was good at diplomatic games”. It is clear then that when the regime fell into the hands of Wilhelm, who according to Rhal “dreamt up policies, pursued and made a mess of policies”, there were socio-political implications for Germany, which it seemed by 1914 could only be alleviated by a short, sharp, victorious war.


Culpin, C & Henig, R ( 1998). Modern Europe 1870-1945. Longman Advanced Hisory.

Lee, S (19??). Germany 1870-1918

Morris, TA, (1995). European History 1848-1945. University Tutorial Press Limited.

German News Magazine, (1998). Otto Von Bismarck, Founder of the German Empire.

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