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The Tragedy of the German Empire
What was the German Empire, where did it come from, and what led to its ruin? Many Americans don’t bother to ask these questions, equating all of their knowledge of Germany with Nazism, which was little more than a perversion of German ideals that sought to be an empire. The true German Empire was something far more complex and noble. Forged by the fiery will of the Kingdom of Prussia for a short period of time it came to dominate central Europe, and threaten the status quot so lovingly maintained by the British Empire. To understand the significance of the German Empire, we must first look back at its history and how it came to be. A brief but thorough analysis of its history up till the foundation of the Empire is a good first step, getting an idea of the character of the people who created this empire. This should be followed by the look at the history of the German Empire itself, and what it accomplished during its existence. It, without a doubt, accomplished a lot that sadly no one gives it credit for. We also need to analyze why the German Empire was destroyed in the wake of World War 1 by the victorious Entente, and its consequences. Finally there needs to be an analysis of the German Empire, its good and bad, and what significance it has had on world culture. History is very complex and it’s not very often that you come across a true hero or a true monster, and the German Empire was neither of these things. It was an empire forged in blood and iron, which sought to shake the very foundations of the earth.
The German people originally came out of northern Europe as a loosely connected group of tribes before recorded history. They spread out into the frozen lands of Scandinavia, and into the dense forests and infertile marshlands of what would eventually become Germany. They were known rivals of the Romans, and though they often lost, Germania was never officially conquered by the Roman Empire (Adams, Brown and Rogers 397). Eventually they would prove instrumental in the fall of their powerful neighbor by taking advantage of the weakening empire and invading Europe. They would take over vast stretches of land and intermingle with the local populations, though many tribes would still remain in Germania, forming many numerous kingdoms as time went on. These kingdoms would be united under the Holy Roman Empire, but this was not truly an empire, just a loose organization of various German states that often warred with themselves (Adams, Brown and Rogers 398).
Slowly Germany would begin to establish an identity for itself, even though it remained divided into many differing principalities each with their own unique identities. Germany contributed many scholars, artists, and thinkers to the medieval and even the Renaissance world. Germany would also be the birthplace of the Protestant reformation, and proved to be a hotbed of controversy and conflict (Ozment 107). Numerous battles were fought though it was eventually agreed that each member of the Holy Roman Empire could choose for themselves what breed of Christianity they wanted to follow. Though this stopped the fighting temporarily the reigning Hapsburg dynasty would prove to be completely ineffectual in handling the coming storm and how it affected the various principalities, that storm was the Thirty Years War (Ozment 107).
Thirty Years War
Thirty Years War
The Thirty Years War would prove to be a disaster for the German people, as the armies of Europe invaded their principalities and turned their homes into battlegrounds. Even the principalities got involved in the fighting as well, for pragmatic as well as religious reasons. This chaos had a powerful impact on the German psyche, instilling in them a need for someone strong and powerful to end the chaos (Ozment). After thirty years on nonstop pain and suffering, you cannot blame them for wanting a strong force to bring stability to their lands. The Hapsburg's still held power but they had been proven to be very impotent as the member states of the Holy Roman Empire suffered greatly during this conflict, striking out in frustrated rage at those who violated the sanctity of their lands and their homes. The call for absolutism and a true power began to gain momentum, though it would be a few centuries before this dream was realized. The nation that would realize this dream was a fierce militaristic German state from the northern marshlands of Europe, the Kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia, or Prussia, the kingdom of blood and iron (Ozment).
The Kingdom of Prussia was actually a joint effort between the Electorate of Brandenburg in Northern Germany, an old Germanic Kingdom, and the Duchy of Prussia above the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, conquered, christianized, and ruled by the descendants of the Teutonic Knights. This kingdom had become strong enough that it’s ruler got the right to call himself King, going against the traditions of the Holy Roman Empire, though he had to go by, the King in Prussian and not the King of Prussia (Clark). The reigning Hohenzollern Dynasty would prove to be capable competitors with the Hapsburg's for control of the German principalities. Slowly they would gain control over the German states, offering an alternative to the much maligned Hapsburg Dynasty in Austria. The Prussians crafted a fearsome military machine that was unlike anything Europe had ever seen before (Clark). Fighting numerous wars with the Austrian Hapsburg's such as the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, the Prussians would prove their strength and their worth to a Germany that was looking for a strong nation to unite them. The Prussian face a major setback during the Napoleonic wars, suffering a humiliating defeat as their outdated army and tactics were soundly defeated, but they came back with a vengeance to deliver the finishing blow to Napoleon’s forces at the battle of Waterloo, ending his dominion over Europe and securing Prussia’s rightful place as the leader of the German states (Clark). Prussia would unite the German states and principalities in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, a decisive victory that would bring forth the birth of the German Empire (Clark).
Otto von Bismarck
The man who would prove instrumental in the creation of the German Empire would be the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, probably the greatest politician and diplomat of his age. He was absolutely instrumental in convincing all of the other German states that joining with Prussia would be beneficial, as well as limit the influence of the Hapsburg's on their affairs. The German Empire would not have come into existence without his guiding hand (Bohme). Even after his dream was realized with the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War, his work was not yet completed. He undermined the power of socialists in his new German Empire, rendering them impotent and powerless as he created and powerful central monarchy under the control of the Kaiser, the German Emperor, from the Hohenzollern Dynasty (Bohme). The administrative practices and internal infrastructure he set up modernized all of Germany brought the empire into the modern world. Education was instrumental in creating a literate and patriotic society, Bismarck was obsessed with nationalism. He also had an obsession with the weakening of France, viewing them as the greatest threat to a united Germany, it should be noted that he was once the Prussian ambassador to France (Bohme). He sought out an alliance with Russia and Great Britain, believing that Germany must always be allied with two of the five great European powers. There powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Great Britain, and this mentality would shape many of his foreign diplomatic efforts (Bohme). As we will discover later, Bismarck’s successors lacked his foresight and diplomatic skill. But none of this would have been possible without Prussia’s victory in the Franco Prussian War.
Anthropomorphic representation of Prussia
Prussian had created the North German Confederation in 1866, but that wasn't enough for them, they wanted the Germans to have a true Empire. In order to do this they needed an irrefutable demonstration of their power and their right to lead the German people. This need to prove their worth led to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 (Howard). While this war was something Bismarck wanted, he was not the aggressor, the French attacked first. If anything Bismarck was a wonderful judge of character and he knew the French well, and they would not want a united Germany on their border, leading to an attack that they hoped would crush that threat. Both sides viewed the war as inevitable, with France as a declining power seeing enemies everywhere and Prussia as a rising power wanting to find its place in the world (Howard). The war was over fairly quickly, with a series of resounding Prussian victories over the woefully inadequate French military. This victory proved Prussia’s dominance and right to rule over a united Germany, and on the 18th of January 1871 outside of Paris, the German Empire was created by Otto von Bismarck, the Hohenzollern Dynasty, and the Kingdom of Prussia. Germany was now an empire truly united for the first time in its history (Howard).
The German Empire would last from 1871 to 1918, and would actually contribute a lot to the world. German chemists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists would make astounding breakthroughs as German became the language of science, due to its straightforward and simplistic nature. This combined with the German Empire’s modern education system turned the nation into a well educated and literate society (Wehler). Internally the German Empire put a great focus on industrializing, building a large number of factories and mines, taking advantage of the abundant mineral resources it had under its control (Wehler). The German Empire also put a lot of time and effort into internal roadways and railways, connecting its empire and bringing civilization to previously uncivilized and backwards areas. The Polish lands that had fallen originally fallen under Prussian control were greatly modernized and brought out of its outdated level of development. The German Empire was also an autocracy, with the Junker class holding most of the political power. A Junker is essentially the German aristocrats, most often associated with Prussia, who were far more practical and down to earth than their counterparts in other nations in Europe (Wehler).
Wilhelm dismissing Bismarck
Externally the German Empire engaged in overseas empire building, though not to the same extend as the British and the French since they were a bit late to the game. Regardless they did get territories in Asia and Africa, whose inhabitants got fairly decent treatment from their new colonial masters. That’s not to say that imperialism is right, but the Germans weren't nearly as bad as the British, French, or especially the Belgians in the Congo (Wehler). Diplomatically the German Empire sought to assert itself on the world stage, and at first Bismarck’s plan appeared to be working. Unfortunately the second Kaiser, Kaiser Wilhelm, would prove to be far more disagreeable, severing ties with their British and Russian allies and forming a bond with the declining and decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was Bismarck’s worst nightmare come to life, especially when France joined with Great Britain and Russia (Wehler). Unfortunately he was dismissed by Kaiser Wilhelm, who would lead his nation into disaster.
For the many great things the German Empire did right, they also did a few things wrong. Today imperialism is pretty much condemned by everyone, even though everyone did it so it really wouldn't be fair to criticize them too much for that. The biggest criticism of this German Empire was the fact that the Kaiser held so much power. In truth, it had a very powerful legislative body that was instrumental in the governance of the empire, though its adversaries referred to the Empire as a brutal autocracy (Wehler). Enemies to the state, such as socialists and anarchists were brutally suppressed by the German Empire, either by direct means or more cunning strategies. Dissension and criticism was not appreciated (Wehler). German militarism is also heavily criticized in this more pacifistic age. Though personally I see nothing wrong with a strong military, it is still a modern criticism by many. The militarism itself is often connected with Nazism, though this connection would come appear later (Wehler). As we can see, the Empire was not without criticism, even though it did do much good.
Subtle British Propaganda
Shattered Empire, Shattered Dreams
Sadly the German Empire would be shattered in the aftermath of World War One by the victorious and vindictive Entente. Germany was dragged into this was by its alliance with its aging and unhinged ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the death of the Austrian Archduke led war with Serbia, which led to war with Russia that Germany had to join in on, which led to war with France and Great Britain. It also didn't help that the German Empire had also allied itself with the Ottoman Empire, another aging weak link (Valentin). So, here we have Germany fighting a war on two fronts with two decaying and outdated empires that had not modernized well and who proved to be liabilities. All things considered Germany did fairly well, storming through the Netherlands and Belgium to get to France, which did not make many people happy, and led to their characterization as baby killing rapist barbarians by the British propaganda machine for the American public (Valentin). The vicious British blockade which casually broke its own laws put massive economic pain on the German Empire and its citizens. When Germany lashed back at this with their submarines, they were derided as dirty cowards. It didn't help that Kaiser Wilhelm kept his brand new and powerful navy at port, afraid of losing it (Valentin). Despite these setbacks the Germans crushed the Russians, and got within shelling range of Paris, is they had managed to claim Paris they could have won the war, but the American intervention ruined their plans, finally breaking their spirit and leading to their ruin. The German Empire was dissolved by this war and replaced with the impotent and weakling Weimar Republic, which would in turn be replaced by Nazi Germany, who would shamelessly warp and twist German nationalism into a vile abomination (Valentin). I have often wondered what would have happened if the German Empire had won World War One. Surely it wouldn't have been as horrific as the nightmare that would eventually come into being.
Is Empire so bad?
In the end, the German Empire was complex entity. It was forged out of the fires of war, by a people who wanted a strong and stable nation to protect them and bring them glory. The collective damage to the German psyche from the Thirty Years War convinced them of this necessity. The German Empire wasn't evil, it wasn't even that bad. It did many good things, with science, education, music, and internal development for the German people (Valentin). It was also militant and nationalistic, but those are considered crimes by modern academics, not by a German citizen in 1871 who got to see a dream come true. It stopped the influence of socialists, though whether or not this is a good thing is up for the individual to decide, my hatred of socialism has me rooting for the German Empire all the way (Valentin). At the end of the day, the German Empire wasn't good or bad, it was just one of many empires, though it did differ in that it was the fulfillment of a dream, a united Germany that no longer had to fear foreign armies trampling across it for thirty years in endless bloodshed.
In conclusion, the German Empire isn't the monster that some people make it out to be. It did die young, but not without making many contributions to the world that no one gives them credit for. It has a rich history full of pride, initiative, and ambition. While these are sins to modern left wing scholars, they are not sins to me, but the signs of a strong culture and a strong people who only wanted to be taken seriously and find their place in the world. If anything, we should be more like the inhabitants of the German Empire. While it is tragic that it has fallen and has had its legacy tarnished by the Nazis, its true form still lives on in my heart, and will remain there forever.
What have you learned
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My Chicago style was acting wonky when I originally did this, so I received my Professors permission to do it in APA.
Adams, Fay, Walker Brown and Lester B. Rogers. Story of Nations. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1956.
Bohme, Helmut. The Foundation of the German Empire. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2006.
Howard, Michael. The Franco-Prussian War. New York: Collier Books, 1961.
Ozment, Steven. A Mighty Fortress. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
Valentin, Veit. The German People. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1946.
Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. The German Empire. New York: Berg Publishers, 1985.