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German History Journal

Wilhelmine Germany: realities and interpretations*

The Montreal Review, January, 2010

The historians often think about Wilhelmine Germany through the lens of the great wars of the XX century, and the question on which they quarrel is was the pre-war German political, social and economic system responsible for both the outbreak of the First World War and the coming of the Nazis? The historical debate over these questions helps the character of the Second Reich to be illuminated layer after layer.


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How did German politics change with Wilhelm II? There are two equally valid answers: it changed a lot, and it stayed the same - Wilhelm II had abandoned the traditional cautious politics of Bismarck that elevated German nation to the level of a Great Power, but preserved its Prussian martial spirit that Bismarck's political genius had kindled. He wanted to be a "social Kaiser," or a leader of all Germans, but succeeding of being such a leader, Wilhelm preserved the rigidity of the German social and political system, inherited by the Bismarck's anti-democratic domestic policy.

 

In 1890, the emperor dismissed Bismarck from the office of Chancellor and announced: "The ship's course remains the same. "Full steam ahead" is the order." 1 The last sentence shows how imprudent and dangerously self-confident would be the politics of the new emperor without the constraint of Bismarck's powerful and cold-blooded personality.

In the time of Wilhelm II, Germany was already a powerful state and it necessary needed gifted politicians and politically mature society in order to continue its economic advance and to influence in right direction the international politics. Unfortunately, as the majority of historians after the 1960s have been arguing, following the historical interpretations of Fritz Fischer on Wilhelmine Germany, prudent politicians and mature civil society Germany did not have in the end of XIX century and beginning of XX century.

The XIX century European international system was still working on the Metternich's principles - balance of power, concert actions to prevent major conflicts and diplomacy, but because of the lack of cautiousness, Wilhelm and his ministers were not the appropriate men for such a skilful politics. After Bismarck, Germany did not renew the alliance with Russia, it engaged with Austro-Hungary in defence of the Habsburgs' interests in Balkans, and broke up the balance of power that kept France and Russia in different camps. Its foreign policy was chaotic and irrational. I think that this irrationality is the main factor that creates disagreements among the historians. The historians naturally want to find a rational explanation of the reasons that led the world to the First World War. They cannot accept Loyd George's simplistic and actually not far from the truth explanation of the causes of the war: "The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay...   The nations backed their machines over the precipice... not one of them wanted war; certainly not on this scale..." 2

Well in the fashion of the time, the Germans, like most of the European nations, allowed to be deluded for decades by a boasting national propaganda that unnoticeably had turned from a tool for management of domestic policy into a real foreign policy. Perhaps there is no better book depicting the absurdity of the national propaganda and the comic appearance of the social and political moods in Wilhelmine Germany than Heinrich Mann's novel "Der Untertan" (or "The Patrioteer"). 3

In the domestic front, the Kaiser succeeded in attracting as supporters of his national and foreign policy nearly all parties including the Roman Catholics and Social Democrats - the parties of the masses. The long consequence of this inclusion was the shared responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914. Not only the political Right, but also the Center was supporter of the war. German Social Democrats had the biggest socialist party in the world and their leaders, although generally opposing to war, felt that if Germany win a European war their influence would raise and with it, they would influence the growth of the socialist movements in other industrialized countries. The pre-war support for the imperial foreign policy would fuel the mistrust of the Germans to the traditional parties after the war and this would be one of the reasons behind the political instability in the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. In his " Course of German History " A. J. P. Taylor says "the Centre and the Social Democrats became the political mouthpiece of the army, the defenders of the great estates and of great industry, and the upholders of the 'national' cause." 4

The historians often think about Wilhelmine Germany through the lens of the great wars of the XX century, and the question on which they quarrel is was the pre-war German political, social and economic system responsible for both the outbreak of the First World War and the coming of the Nazis? The historical debate over these questions helps the character of the Second Reich to be illuminated layer after layer.

| 1 OF 2 | NEXT

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Related articles:

The Origins of the Second World War

First World War and Versailles - The Lessons

The Peace that led to War

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* This article doesn't pretend for historical accuracy. It is based on dilettante notes on German history readings.

1 Taylor, A. J. P., Course of German History, The: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1815 (Taylor & Francis, 2001),

2David Lloyd George, War Memoirs (1934)

3 Mann, Heinrich, The loyal subject (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998).

4 Taylor, A. J. P., Course of German History, The: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1815 (Taylor & Francis, 2001), (15 January 2010)

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