How does a nation get rich

The German Empire 1871-1918

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Ziemann

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Ziemann

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Ziemann teaches as Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield in Great Britain. He was visiting scholar at the University of York, the Humboldt University in Berlin and the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen. His main areas of work are German history in the 19th and 20th centuries - especially the German Empire and the Weimar Republic -, the military and violence history of the two world wars, and historical peace research. He is a member of the editorial team of the Archives for Social History. He is currently working on a biography of Martin Niemöller.

Recent book publications

Republic Veterans. War memory and democratic politics 1918–1933, Bonn 2014;

Encounters with Modernity. The Catholic Church in West Germany, 1945–1975, New York / Oxford 2014;

Violence in the First World War. Kill - Survive - Refuse, Essen 2013;

Social history of religion. From the Reformation to the Present, Frankfurt / M. / New York 2009;

with Bernd Ulrich (ed.), Everyday life at the front in the First World War. A historical reading book, Essen 2008;

with Thomas Mergel (ed.), European Political History 1870–1913, Aldershot 2007.

Not only the three Prussian wars of unification against Denmark, Austria and France, but also a bourgeois unity movement under liberal leadership make it possible for a German nation-state to emerge in the center of Europe for the first time in history. The unity movement "from below" also significantly influences the design of the new state as a constitutional monarchy with a constitution and parliament.

The painter Anton von Werner made a total of three paintings of the imperial proclamation in Versailles in 1871, in which he participated, which show strong differences. The first version from 1877 is a gift from German princes to the emperor, the second is completed in 1882 for the Berlin armory, which later became the hall of fame of Prussian-German history. Bismarck received the third, so-called Friedrichsruher version, as a gift from the Hohenzollern family on his 70th birthday in 1885. On it he wears - unlike the previous version - a white parade uniform and the order Pour le Mérite, which he was only awarded in 1884, and is at the center of the action. (& copy bpk / Hermann Buresch)

On January 18, 1871, the Prussian King Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles at the gates of Paris. Troops of Prussia and its southern German allies had previously occupied the empire of the French emperor Napoleon III. militarily defeated. The history painter Anton von Werner captured this moment in several paintings. His third version of the motif from 1885 puts the Prussian Prime Minister and future Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) at the center of the action. Bismarck is shown in the white officer's uniform of his cuirassier regiment (armored cavalry) - which he actually did not wear in 1871. So he stands to the left of Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian chief of staff, who occupies a prominent position as the military architect of the victory over France in the war of 1870/71. The painting was a gift from the Hohenzollern family on Bismarck's 70th birthday and honored the recipient by deliberately representing the reading according to which the founding of the empire was primarily due to Bismarck's purposeful policies and the power of the Prussian military.

Liberalism and the founding of an empire "from above"

But the central perspective of the painting, which approaches Bismarck, is deceptive. The founding of an empire "from above", as it took place in 1871, would not have been possible without a powerful process of nation-building "from below". This had already reached its first climax in the revolution of 1848/49. But the main goal of the liberal majority of the Frankfurt National Assembly of 1848/49, the creation of a German nation-state, could not be realized at this point in time. A major obstacle to this was the dualism between Prussia and Austria, the two leading powers in the German Confederation. This was an association of sovereign states created in 1815 to guarantee the political order of Central Europe after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

A nation-building in the form of a "Greater German solution" would have united Germany, including the areas of Austria belonging to the German Confederation, under the Habsburg Empire. But this solution would have left the Habsburg crown lands outside the German Confederation - especially Hungary, but also parts of today's northern Italy such as Trieste and Croatia - outside. The "small German solution", excluding Austria and with Prussian hegemony, could not be realized in 1848/49 either. It failed not least because the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV refused to accept the imperial crown offered to him by the Frankfurt National Assembly in the Paulskirche. The Olomouc Punctuation (or Olomouc Treaty) between Prussia, Austria and Russia, in which Prussia renounced a claim to leadership in the German Confederation in 1850, deepened the dualism, the tension between Prussia and Austria.

Nevertheless, lasting impulses for the German nation-building emanated from 1848/49. These include - firstly - the political model favored by most liberals of the constitutional state, a constitutionally bound and limited and thus no longer "absolute" monarchy. In Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Responded to this liberal concern in December 1848 and imposed a constitution with a catalog of basic rights and two indirectly elected chambers participating in the legislature, which was in force with minor changes until 1918. This left only two states in the German Confederation without a constitution. One was Mecklenburg, in whose two duchies until 1918 a land-class and thus feudal order was in effect. The other was Austria, which only received a constitution with the so-called February patent of 1861. But this step came too late to influence the German liberals positively.

Second, the political orientation and organizational basis of the liberal national movement changed in the two decades after 1848. After the rigid political reaction of the monarchical state from 1849 onwards had smashed the hopes of the liberals, they increasingly turned to the model of "Realpolitik", which the publicist and politician Ludwig August von Rochau (1810–1873) published in his book "Principles" in 1853 der Realpolitik "made available to a broad public. According to this, the liberals should recognize the importance of Prussia and its great power ambitions for the national unification of the Germans. At the same time, this required finding a new balance between two liberal goals: between that of freedom - which was directed against the authoritarian politics of the princes and their governments - and that of national unity.

In addition, under the disturbing impression of the social workers' protests of 1848, the liberals said goodbye to egalitarian ideals. At the same time, the network of clubs, especially the singers and gymnasts, which formed the social basis of the national movement, was consolidated. When the national unification of Italy began in 1859 - and thus further weakened Austria's position of power - this also gave German nationalism a boost. Now it seemed obvious that the creation of a new nation-state in the center of Europe was possible. In the same year, bourgeois liberals founded the German National Association, which campaigned in public for a national unification in the sense of the small German solution.

Thirdly, after 1848 nation-building intensified in the socio-economic and cultural fields. Step by step, a national communication and traffic area developed that stretched beyond the internal borders of the originally 38 member states of the German Confederation. This did not mean that a preliminary decision had yet been made about the form of a future nation-state or that its foundation had become inevitable. But the consolidation of networks, which Austria left out, complemented the political events of the years 1864 to 1871 in the social field.

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Cultural nation-building before 1871

With the imperial proclamation in the hall of mirrors of the palace in Versailles on January 18, 1871, a German national state was founded. For many members of the German national movement, this fulfilled their most important political goal. The historian Heinrich von Sybel (1817–1895) exuberantly expressed his emotions when he wrote to a friend on January 27, 1871: "How does one deserve the grace of God to be able to experience such great and mighty things? And how does one become live after? What twenty years had been the content of all wishing and striving has now been fulfilled in such an infinitely wonderful way! "

Sybel and other historians of the so-called Borussian school of historiography had begun before 1871 to present the establishment of the nation state as a necessary result of the historical mission of the Prussian power state. According to this, it was Prussia's "job" to restore state order and unity in Germany after Napoleon's defeat of the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon in 1806. In addition to Sybel, it was historians such as Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884) and Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) who, in their books and articles, describe German history since 1800 as a straightforward and purposeful development towards the small German version of the German nation-state under Prussian Interpreted leadership.

But the Borussian historical legend did not only lose the variety of objectives that characterized the German national movement before 1871. The legend also assumed that the national movement was striving for a unified nation-state, which did not exist. The linguistic findings already provide an indication of this. The use of the word "nation state" was first documented in a political pamphlet from 1842. The term did not find its way into other linguistic usage until the revolution of 1848/49, when there were first attempts to establish a German nation-state. But the German national movement was not fixated on the creation of a unified state until 1871. She understood the German nation in a much broader, social and cultural sense than the practice of national values ​​and the creation of common symbols.

The idea of ​​the state of the national movement was federal. It aimed to create a nation in which the existing individual states would find their place. This attitude can be described as "federal national consciousness" (Dieter Langewiesche). It was only after the founding of the nation state in 1871 that the Borussian legend substantiated this attitude with the derogatory term "particularistic", which was intended as a contrast to national unity. But such a contrast did not correspond to the expectations of the national movement before 1871.

Contrary to the Borussian legend, the unified state only entered the center of the national movement after it had emerged in the wake of the three wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870/71. The organized national movement before 1871 therefore understood its work primarily as a contribution to cultural nation building, which made the supra-regional togetherness of Germans vividly and sensually tangible through symbols and ritual practices. The most important of these were gymnastics, which made the male body fit for the nation, and the four-part male chant, which intoned popular and patriotic songs. So the gymnasts and singers formed the core of organized nationalism. Both groups joined forces in associations that developed into a mass movement before 1848. The time of the political "reaction" from 1849 to 1858 was a deep turning point, many associations were banned. Of 300 gymnastics clubs with around 80,000 members, only 100 survived the repression after 1849. However, with the rise of the national movement after 1859, there were already around 1,900 gymnastics clubs with 167,000 members in 1864.

Gymnasts and singers used public festivals as important forums for expressing their values ​​and goals. The Schiller celebrations of 1859 moved the linguistic and cultural foundations of the German nation into focus. In the early 1860s, the great national festivals for singers, gymnasts and marksmen took place. Here the mostly middle-class and petty-bourgeois members of the national associations celebrated their guiding values: unity and freedom. National unity did not see itself as being differentiated from other peoples, but included the idea of ​​"people solidarity". Under the black, red and gold flags of the national movement and those of the individual states, the federal goal of "being a single nation of brothers" was invoked. Turner and singer demanded the "unity" of all Germans and thus a harmonious social ideal that should avoid social conflicts in a structured order.

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The most important institution of economic standardization was the German Customs Union, founded in 1834. He created an internal market marked by common customs borders, to which, apart from Austria and some northern German states, gradually almost all members of the empire founded in 1871 belonged. By standardizing weights and currencies and facilitating economic transactions, the Zollverein contributed to a stronger economic network. At the same time, written communication in the cultural sector intensified due to the increased number of titles and print runs of newspapers and book titles in the wake of the reading revolution of the 19th century. In the imaginary space of the printed texts, the differences and similarities between Germans could be reflected and geographically distant places could be understood as part of a common national culture.

Without this forerunner in the form of the formation of constitutional states, the economic and cultural consolidation of a national communication space, and the liberals' commitment to a small German nation-state, which was shaped by "realpolitik", it would hardly have been founded in 1871. Admittedly, these factors alone were not enough to form a German state. The developments in all these fields made a large German solution including Austria more and more improbable. In addition, at the center of Prussian politics, the view prevailed that an alliance with the liberal national movement would serve Prussia's great power ambitions. At the same time the resistance of the Prussian conservatives was overcome, for whom the nation state was synonymous with the decline of the sovereignty of individual state princes and the unleashing of participatory passions.

The anchoring of this policy in Prussia was the work of Otto von Bismarck. His appointment as Prussian Prime Minister came in 1862 when the constitutional conflict was at its height. In this conflict between the crown and the liberal party, in addition to the army reform (enlargement of the army, extension of compulsory service, standing army instead of landwehr), which the liberals refused, the main issue was the parliamentary budget law of the state assembly. Bismarck used an alleged "loophole" in the constitution in the event of a conflict to enforce the rights of the king.

At the same time he used Germany's policy to enforce Prussian hegemony in Germany in an informal alliance with the liberals. This was first served by the two successful wars against Denmark in 1864 - on the question of the integration of Schleswig-Holstein into the German Confederation - and then against Austria in 1866. 1866 was the actual epoch year. Because with the military victory of Prussia over Austria the German Confederation was destroyed and the national question decided in terms of the small German solution. While the state founded in 1871 adopted the name "Reich", it was based on the exclusion of the traditional supremacy of the Old Empire, which existed until 1806, Habsburg Austria. An empire without the Habsburgs had never existed before. The founding of the empire in 1871 marked a deep break in a second sense. Because it took place "against a main line of German history" in which, since the early modern period, unity had only been embodied by a loose, federal "union of states". (Dieter Langewiesche)

Bismarck used the victory over Austria to clean up the foreign and domestic political situation. In the war of 1866, the majority of the German states - including all south of the Main as well as Saxony and Hanover - and their populations had stood against Prussia and its northern German allies. Now Prussia annexed Schleswig-Holstein as well as Hessen-Nassau, Frankfurt and the Guelph kingdom of Hanover.The North German Confederation, founded in 1867, comprised all states north of the Main. In its constitution, it largely anticipated the political order created in 1871.

In terms of domestic policy, Bismarck tried to use the "Indemnity Act" (Indemnity provides subsequent legitimation) in 1866 to obtain subsequent approval from the Prussian state parliament for his approach to the constitutional conflict and the state expenditure that had been made since 1862. The bill was also an offer to come to an agreement with the Liberals, who split on the issue. It led to the collapse of the German Progressive Party when the proponents of a combination of liberalism and cooperation with Bismarck on the national question founded the National Liberal Party in 1867. The acceptance of the indemnity bill, which was achieved with their help, was not the surrender of the liberals to Bismarck. Rather, it was the realistic recognition of the fact that the goal of national unification could only be achieved through cooperation with the Prussian government.

The liberals could also look with pride on their leading role in the modernization of society and the economy, which the Reichstag of the North German Confederation tackled between 1867 and 1870 in around 80 reform laws. This enabled freedom of movement and settlement to be enforced, a police restriction on marriage, which in practice had controlled the formation of families among the lower classes, was abolished, and the corporate and class domicile law was abolished. The commercial code of 1869 and a reform of trade and stock corporation law were cornerstones of a comprehensive liberalization of the economic use of labor and capital. The reform work was rounded off by a reorganization of the district administration and administrative jurisdiction in Prussia. In just a few years, the foundations for a comprehensive liberation of the modern capitalist economy and for an inclusive citizenship based on legal equality were created. This was a "bourgeois founding of an empire" (Hans-Ulrich Wehler) with long-term social consequences, which must be placed alongside the military founding of an empire "from above".

The military founding of the empire through three wars of unification ended with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. With a lot of power-political skill, Bismarck used the candidacy of a Catholic Hohenzollern prince for the Spanish throne, which had been vacant since 1868, to reign over the French Empire of Napoleon III. "To maneuver into an unfavorable starting position" (Lothar Gall) and ultimately to drive into a war against Prussia. The declaration of war by France fueled the national feeling of the Germans. The military defeat of France, sealed on September 2, 1870 at the Battle of Sedan, paved the way for the southern German states to join the North German Confederation. Negotiations conducted under the exclusion of the liberal movement led to the conclusion of corresponding contracts in November 1870.

The foundation of the German Empire (& copy mr-kartographie, Gotha 2016)



The imperial constitution created on this basis came into force on January 1, 1871, before the imperial proclamation in Versailles. As the formation of a union of states by their respective governments - and thus with the exclusion of parliaments and the renunciation of a constituent assembly - this was the path of a "revolution from above", which came alongside the liberal nation-building from below. It was a revolution because the formation of the nation state undermined the traditional legitimacy of kings, grand dukes, dukes and princes in the federal states of the empire.