Head­er: A mur­al painted in 1884 by Carl Stef­feck depict­ing Gen­er­al Reille deliv­er­ing Napo­leon III’s let­ter of sur­render to King Wil­helm I at the Battle of Sedan on Septem­ber 2, 1870


With Aus­tria releg­ated to the side­lines of Ger­man polit­ics after the loss of 1866, Prus­sia took over the lead­er­ship of the Ger­man states, which still numbered in excess of a dozen. On the map, the changes were slight; the geo­graphy of the “Ger­man Con­fed­er­a­tion” was little altered by the dis­ap­pear­ance of Austria’s unfor­tu­nate allies. More import­ant changes occurred in the eco­nom­ic coöper­a­tion of the Ger­man states, espe­cially in the crit­ic­al sec­tor of cus­toms and tar­iffs. Des­pite indus­tri­al­iz­a­tion and the rising import­ance of dir­ect taxes, they remained a major part of every state’s income.

 Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben's "Song of the Germans", which became the national anthem in 1922
Lin­guist­ic Map of Ger­many around 1870, with the names of the Ger­man bor­der rivers as men­tioned in August Hein­rich Hoff­mann von Fallersleben’s “Song of the Ger­mans”, which became the nation­al anthem in 1922

The Deutscher Zollver­ein, the Ger­man Cus­toms Uni­on, had been stead­ily expand­ing in the nine­teenth cen­tury from its pro­fane ori­gins as the Com­mon Prus­si­an Cus­toms Tar­iff of 1828: soon it included the south­ern Ger­man states of Bav­aria, Württem­berg and Baden, and in 1867 – Aus­tria hav­ing been knocked out of the pic­ture – most of the remain­ing Ger­man states joined up; the Duch­ies of Schleswig, Hol­stein and Mecklen­burg and the King­dom of Han­over. By 1869, the Zollverein’s and the Ger­man Confederation’s geo­graph­ic­al bor­ders were vir­tu­ally identic­al. Fol­low­ing a slight update of the polit­ic­al struc­ture, the Ger­man Con­fed­er­a­tion was renamed the “North Ger­man Con­fed­er­a­tion”, the only sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ence being the intro­duc­tion of the uni­ver­sal male suf­frage at twenty-one years of age.

Fun­nily enough, the first elec­tion res­ults under the new terms caught Bis­mar­ck in a rare mis­cal­cu­la­tion: he had assumed that the vic­tory over Aus­tria would bene­fit his con­ser­vat­ive par­lia­ment­ary allies most, yet, in the event, the major­ity of the seats went to his enemies, the Lib­er­als, and a few even to his nemeses, the Social Demo­crats and the Cath­ol­ic Zen­trum (Centre), party. Due to this unex­pec­ted fail­ure of the Ger­man voters, Bismarck’s fur­ther plans hit a few par­lia­ment­ary snags, but the Iron Chan­cel­lor proved him­self fit to over­come mere human chal­lenges.

His reas­on­ing in regard to a pos­sible Ger­man uni­fic­a­tion was that the pas­sions of war might over­come the polit­ic­al imped­i­ments again – as they had done in 1866. If the south­ern states, in par­tic­u­lar the out­spokenly inde­pend­ent King­doms of Bav­aria and Württem­berg, were reluct­ant to fol­low his lead, the fer­vour of war might tip the scales. A suit­able oppon­ent and bogey­man was read­ily iden­ti­fied in the per­son of Napo­leon III, Emper­or of France.

It was true that, since 1815, open hos­til­it­ies had not occurred between France and Prus­sia, but Bis­mar­ck, an exper­i­enced French hand on account of his tour of duty as Prus­si­an ambas­sad­or in Par­is in the 1850s, had a clear idea which but­tons to press to inflame France with pat­ri­ot­ic bel­li­ger­ence.

Napo­leon III, neph­ew and suc­cessor of the great Cor­sic­an, who had pro­claimed him­self Emper­or of France in 1852, was in dire need of mil­it­ary, or any oth­er, glory. His Mex­ic­an war in sup­port of Emper­or Max­imili­an had been an unmit­ig­ated dis­aster [AD 1861 – 1867], and the mil­it­ary grandeur of the empire was in sore need of res­tor­a­tion. He had viewed with dis­taste the emer­gence of Prus­sia as the new Ger­man power; not so much as a mat­ter of prin­ciple, of which he had none, but because he had cast a long­ing eye upon the Duchy of Lux­em­burg as the price for his neut­ral­ity in the Prusso-Aus­tri­an war of 1866. He was furi­ous when Bis­mar­ck explained, after the vic­tory, that, since Lux­em­bourg did not belong to Prus­sia, it could not be ceded to France.

Bis­mar­ck inter­viewed Graf Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prus­si­an Gen­er­al Staff, on the chances of a Prusso-French war. Moltke indic­ated that suc­cess seemed likely, and Bis­mar­ck went on to seek a suit­able oppor­tun­ity for war, a cas­us belli. He did not have to wait too long.

Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)
Otto von Bis­mar­ck, Sec­ret­ary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the Gen­er­al Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Eld­er)

In 1869, the Span­ish throne had been left without issue, once again, and after pro­trac­ted dis­cus­sion the Span­ish crown coun­cil decided to offer the crown to Wilhelm’s cous­in, Prince Leo­pold of Hohen­zollern. When the news of the Span­ish offer and the prince’s even­tu­al accept­ance reached Par­is, Emper­or Napo­leon as well as his loy­al sub­jects inter­preted the mes­sage from Mad­rid as proof of a renewed Ger­man con­spir­acy to encircle France. Prop­er vigil­ance deman­ded to exert the neces­sary pre­cau­tions at once; to nip the planned crime in the bud.

The French ambas­sad­or to Prus­sia, Vin­cent Bene­detti, was urgently dis­patched to the spa town of Bad Ems, where Wil­helm was tak­ing the waters. Benedetti’s orders com­prised two object­ives: in the first instant, to demand that Leopold’s accept­ance be with­drawn, and, for seconds, to demand Wilhelm’s pub­lic affirm­a­tion, in his capa­city as the head of the Hohen­zollern fam­ily, that under no cir­cum­stances any prince of the house was to accept a Span­ish offer should one be renewed.

The demands were quite unusu­al, to say the least, for Napo­leon III cer­tainly lacked cause as well as author­ity in the mat­ter. Wil­helm respon­ded that noth­ing kept the Emper­or of France from dis­cuss­ing the top­ic with Prince Leo­pold him­self, who was a grown man, and he, Wil­helm, was not his moth­er. As far as the second demand was con­cerned, Wil­helm poin­ted out his lack of author­ity to speak for future Hohen­zollern gen­er­a­tions. Bene­detti cabled to Par­is, repor­ted Wilhelm’s answers, and was advised to ask for a second audi­ence, to repeat Napoleon’s requests. Such reit­er­ated inquir­ies were not exactly good dip­lo­mat­ic style. Wilhelm’s sec­ret­ary, Hein­rich Abek­en, sum­mar­ized the second inter­view as fol­lows in a tele­gram to Bis­mar­ck:

His Majesty the King has writ­ten to me:

Count Bene­detti inter­cep­ted me on the prom­en­ade and ended by demand­ing of me, in a very impor­tunate man­ner, that I should author­ize him to tele­graph at once that I bound myself in per­petu­ity nev­er again to give my con­sent if the Hohen­zollerns renewed their can­did­ature.

I rejec­ted this demand some­what sternly, as it is neither right nor pos­sible to under­take engage­ments of this kind [for ever and ever]. Nat­ur­ally, I told him that I had not yet received any news and, since he had been bet­ter informed via Par­is and Mad­rid than I was, he must surely see that my gov­ern­ment was not con­cerned in the mat­ter.

[The King, on the advice of one of his min­is­ters], decided, in view of the above-men­tioned demands, not to receive Count Bene­detti any more, but to have him informed, by an adjut­ant, that His Majesty had now received [from Leo­pold] con­firm­a­tion of the news which Bene­detti had already had from Par­is and had noth­ing fur­ther to say to the ambas­sad­or.

His Majesty sug­gests to Your Excel­lency, that Benedetti’s new demand and its rejec­tion might well be com­mu­nic­ated both to our ambas­sad­ors and to the Press. (29)

Bis­mar­ck changed the text a bit and leaked it to the French press bur­eau HAVAS:

After the news of the renun­ci­ation of the Prince von Hohen­zollern had been com­mu­nic­ated to the Imper­i­al French gov­ern­ment by the Roy­al Span­ish gov­ern­ment, the French Ambas­sad­or in Ems made a fur­ther demand
on His Majesty the King that he should author­ize him to tele­graph to Par­is that His Majesty the King under­took for all time nev­er again to give his assent should the Hohen­zollerns once more take up their
can­did­ature.

His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambas­sad­or again and had the lat­ter informed by the Adjut­ant of the day that His Majesty had no fur­ther com­mu­nic­a­tion to make to the Ambas­sad­or. (30)

Bismarck's Draft of the Dispatch from Ems
Bismarck’s Draft of the Dis­patch from Ems

Bis­mar­ck had giv­en the mes­sage a new edge.

He cut out Wilhelm’s con­cili­at­ory phrases and emphas­ized the real issue. The French had made cer­tain demands under threat of war; and Wil­helm had refused them. This was no for­gery; it was a clear state­ment of the facts. Cer­tainly the edit of the tele­gram, released on the even­ing of the same day (13 July) to the media and for­eign embassies, gave the impres­sion both that Bene­detti was rather more demand­ing and that the King was exceed­ingly abrupt. It was designed to give the French the impres­sion that King Wil­helm I had insul­ted Count Bene­detti; like­wise, the Ger­mans inter­preted the mod­i­fied dis­patch as the Count insult­ing the King. …

The French trans­la­tion by the agency Havas altered the ambassador’s demand (“il a exigé” – ‘he has deman­ded’) to a ques­tion . It also did not trans­late “Adjut­ant”, which in Ger­man refers to a high-ranked Aide-de-camp, but in French describes only a non-com­mis­sioned officer (adjut­ant), so imply­ing that the King had delib­er­ately insul­ted the ambas­sad­or by choos­ing a low-ranked sol­dier to carry the mes­sage to him. This was the ver­sion pub­lished by most news­pa­pers the fol­low­ing day, which happened to be July 14 (Bastille Day), set­ting the tone and let­ting the French believe that the King had insul­ted their ambas­sad­or, before the ambas­sad­or could tell his story. …

France’s mis­taken atti­tude of her own pos­i­tion car­ried mat­ters far bey­ond what was neces­sary and France mobil­ized. Fol­low­ing fur­ther improp­er trans­la­tions and mis­in­ter­pret­a­tions of the dis­patch in the press, excited crowds in Par­is deman­ded war, just as Bis­mar­ck had anti­cip­ated. The Ems Dis­patch had also ral­lied Ger­man nation­al feel­ing. It was no longer Prus­sia alone; South Ger­man par­tic­u­lar­ism was now cast aside.

Bene­detti, the mes­sen­ger for the Duke de Gramont’s demands for point­less guar­an­tees (the Hohen­zollern fam­ily had with­drawn Prince Leopold’s can­did­ature on 11 July 1870 with Wilhelm’s “entire and
unre­served approv­al”), became an unseen bit-play­er; his own dis­patches to Par­is no longer mattered. In the legis­lat­ive cham­ber, by an over­whelm­ing major­ity, the votes for war cred­its were passed. France declared war on 19 July 1870. (31)

Which was exactly what Bis­mar­ck had expec­ted. In a series of clandes­tine treat­ies with the south­ern and cent­ral Ger­man states since 1866, he had laid the found­a­tion for the even­tu­al­ity which now had occurred – war with France. In the case that France declared war on Prus­sia, as it had tran­spired, the Ger­man states had pledged their sup­port to Prus­sia. Two more agree­ments Bis­mar­ck had nego­ti­ated sub rosa, with Rus­sia and Aus­tria, secured their neut­ral­ity in the events that now were unfold­ing. Napo­leon could not find a single ally, and the Ger­man coun­tries he had hoped to win to his cause now appeared on the side of Prus­sia, to defeat the third Bona­parte as they had defeated the first.

Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870
Battle of Sedan, Septem­ber 1 and 2, 1870

For the first time since the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, a con­cer­ted Ger­man army took to the field. The cam­paign of 1870 sub­sequently became the apo­theosis of mod­ern mil­it­ary staff plan­ning, because it largely went as sched­uled. For the first time in a sub­stan­tial European war, the rail­way lines became the prin­cip­al means of troop trans­port­a­tion and the coördin­a­tion of train move­ments the decis­ive factor for the appro­pri­ate deploy­ment and sub­sequent sup­ply of the forces. The open­ing skir­mishes along the bor­ders were mostly won, as Moltke had expec­ted, and fol­lowed up by a large-scale thrust into the Lor­raine. The main axis of the approach aimed at the Meuse River, the cross­ing of which the French had to deny the enemy at all cost, because it was the last nat­ur­al defence line on the way to Par­is.
Napo­leon III had come to Sedan in per­son, where the French troops were chiefly deployed. Moltke’s plan was to encircle the French army, by the sim­ul­tan­eous for­ward move­ment of two pin­cers north and south of their defens­ive pos­i­tion, and to use the river to block their retreat. The oper­a­tion suc­ceeded, and on Septem­ber 2, 1870, Napo­leon III and the French army were forced to sur­render. In numer­ic­al terms, the Battle of Sedan became the largest vic­tory of mod­ern times achieved in a single encounter: over 100,000 French sol­diers had to march into cap­tiv­ity. The emperor’s capit­u­la­tion vati­cin­ated the even­tu­al suc­cess, even if mop­ping-up oper­a­tions and a pro­trac­ted siege of Par­is kept the Ger­man sol­diers busy for a few more months.

Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
Bis­mar­ck and Napo­leon after the Battle of Sedan
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
The Hall of Mir­rors, Ver­sailles

On Janu­ary 18, 1871, in the great Hall of Mir­rors of the Palace of Ver­sailles, the assembled Ger­man princes declared the estab­lish­ment of a new “Ger­man Empire”, and unan­im­ously elec­ted Wil­helm I, King in Prus­sia, to the dig­nity of “Ger­man Emper­or” [not ‘Emper­or of Ger­many’]. Since the new entity was tech­nic­ally only an “etern­al” fed­er­a­tion – as the treaty said – of sov­er­eign princes, who remained inde­pend­ent to vari­ous degrees, the Second Empire was not and nev­er became a cent­ral­ized state like France or Rus­sia.

Anton von Werner's famous painting - Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Ant­on von Wern­er’s fam­ous paint­ing – Pro­clam­a­tion of the Emper­or, Janu­ary 18, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Parade through Par­is, Match 1, 1871
Victory Celebration in Berlin
Vic­tory Cel­eb­ra­tion in Ber­lin

Yet soon flaws appeared in Bismarck’s grand design, which was appro­pri­ately called a “revolu­tion from above”. Uni­fic­a­tion was not a res­ult of the will of the Ger­man people but a cov­en­ant of thirty-six Ger­man princes, who agreed on elev­at­ing one of their num­ber to emper­or but little else. The Ger­man bour­geois­ie had been unable to achieve the same polit­ic­al eman­cip­a­tion the cit­izens of the United States, Eng­land or France had secured: not for a lack of try­ing, but for the bloody repul­sion of the reform move­ment of 1848. The Ger­man peoples’ efforts had col­lapsed in the hor­ror of sol­diers that fired upon their own fam­il­ies, and suf­foc­ated in the sub­sequent ter­ror of the polit­ic­al police. These dread­ful exper­i­ences must not be under­es­tim­ated: togeth­er with the hor­rors of the Thirty-Years-War still alive in the folk­ish sub­con­scious­ness, they explain much of the polit­ic­al apathy that aboun­ded in Ger­many before 1871. For the bour­geois­ie, Bismarck’s “top-down” revolu­tion only amp­li­fied the feel­ing of being excluded from polit­ic­al decisions. Peter Wat­son explains:

In a real sense, and as Gor­don Craig has poin­ted out, the people of Ger­many played no part in the cre­ation of the Reich. “The new state was a ‘gift’ to the nation on which the recip­i­ent had not been con­sul­ted.” Its con­sti­tu­tion had not been earned; it was a con­tract among the princes of the exist­ing Ger­man states, who retained their crowns until 1918.

To our mod­ern way of think­ing, this had some extraordin­ary con­sequences. One res­ult was that the Reich had a par­lia­ment without power, polit­ic­al parties without access to gov­ern­ment­al respons­ib­il­ity, and elec­tions whose out­come did not determ­ine the com­pos­i­tion of the gov­ern­ment. This was quite unlike – and much more back­ward than – any­thing that exis­ted among Germany’s com­pet­it­ors in the West. Mat­ters of state remained in the hands of the landed aris­to­cracy, although Ger­many had become an indus­tri­al power. As more and more people joined in Germany’s indus­tri­al, sci­entif­ic, and intel­lec­tu­al suc­cesses, the more it was run by a small coter­ie of tra­di­tion­al fig­ures – landed aris­to­crats and mil­it­ary lead­ers, at the head of which was the emper­or him­self. This dis­lo­ca­tion was fun­da­ment­al to “Ger­man­ness” in the run-up to the First World War.

It was one of the greatest ana­chron­isms of his­tory and had two effects that con­cern us. One, the middle class, excluded polit­ic­ally and yet eager to achieve some meas­ure of equal­ity, fell back on edu­ca­tion and “Kul­tur” as key areas where suc­cess could be achieved – equal­ity with the aris­to­cracy, and superi­or­ity in com­par­is­on with for­eign­ers in a com­pet­it­ive, nation­al­ist­ic world. “High cul­ture” was thus always more import­ant in imper­i­al Ger­many than else­where and this is one reas­on why … it flour­ished so well in the 1871 – 1933 peri­od. But this gave cul­ture a cer­tain tone: free­dom, equal­ity, and per­son­al dis­tinct­ive­ness ten­ded to be loc­ated in the “inner sanc­tum” of the indi­vidu­al, where­as soci­ety was por­trayed as an “arbit­rary, extern­al and fre­quently hos­tile world.”

The second effect, which over­lapped with the first, was a retreat into nation­al­ism, but a class-based nation­al­ism that turned against the newly cre­ated indus­tri­al work­ing class (and the stir­rings of social­ism), Jews, and non-Ger­man minor­it­ies. “Nation­al­ism was seen as social pro­gress, with uto­pi­an pos­sib­il­it­ies.”

Against the back­ground of a devel­op­ing mass soci­ety, the edu­cated middle class looked to cul­ture as a stable set of val­ues that uplif­ted their lives, set them apart from the “rabble” (Freud’s word) and, in par­tic­u­lar, enhanced their nation­al­ist ori­ent­a­tion. The “Volk,” a semi-mys­tic­al, nos­tal­gic ideal of how ordin­ary Ger­mans had once been – a con­ten­ted, tal­en­ted, apolit­ic­al, “pure” people – became a pop­u­lar ste­reo­type with­in Ger­many. (32)

Need­less to say, such “con­ten­ted, apolit­ic­al, pure’ people” had nev­er exis­ted out­side of the ima­gin­a­tion of overzeal­ous his­tory pro­fess­ors and racist journ­al­ists. But the “pop­u­lar ste­reo­type” worked, and res­ul­ted in a sort of anti-Social­ist and anti-ultra­mont­ane nation­al­ism, not truly dir­ec­ted against oth­er nations, rather against the “enemy with­in” – lib­er­als, demo­crats, social­ists, Cath­ol­ic, Jews, and so forth – against whose “inter­na­tion­al­ist” designs Prus­si­an sec­u­lar and Prot­est­ant cler­ic­al author­it­ies nev­er tired to warn the burgh­ers. It was essen­tially a nation­al­ism of the upper strata of soci­ety, who attemp­ted to ensnare the sup­port of the bour­geois middle class against the assor­ted enemies of Kul­tur. The Second Empire’s nation­al­ism almost amoun­ted to a neg­a­tion of the effects of indus­tri­al­iz­a­tion, of mod­ern­ity, in some ways even of the enlight­en­ment. Its char­ac­ter remained medi­ev­al.

The core of this “intern­al” nation­al­ism was formed more or less, dur­ing the years fol­low­ing the found­a­tion of the Empire, by the nuc­le­us of the “Folk­ish Move­ment”(‚Völkische Bewe­gung‘), to whom we – and the world – more or less owe the First and Second World Wars. It absorbed the “bloody roman­ti­cism” of the Napo­leon­ic era [see the art­icle by Elke Schäfer] and was later per­ceived and used as use­ful spectre by the élite. Not without reas­on did the ideal­ized depic­tions of the “Ger­mania”, below two by Philip Veit, always held swords in their hands.

When a “Deutsche Arbeit­er Partei”, a ‘Ger­man Work­ers’ Party’ was foun­ded in Bohemia (i.e. tech­nic­ally Aus­tria) before World War I, its agenda was not to advance the cause the work­ing class, as one naively might assume, but to pro­tect the interest of Ger­man work­ers over Czech or Moravi­an work­ers. The Ger­man people, mean­while, remained the polit­ic­al wards of the old elites, which were abso­lutely unwill­ing to give up the pre­cious author­ity they had barely regained after the shocks of the revolu­tions of 1789 and 1848 and the Napo­leon­ic wars. The con­sti­tu­tion, which the nobil­ity tailored accord­ing to its fears and needs, could truth­fully be called ana­chron­ist­ic in its obvi­ous fear of demo­cracy and lib­er­al­ism.

Ber­lin around 1900

For the “sat­is­fied, apolit­ic­al and pure” Ger­mans, whose pic­ture was fre­quently summoned by the offi­cials of the empire, did not do too well, unless they were born as nobles. Ger­man indus­tri­al­iz­a­tion went over their dead bod­ies – Bismarck’s social legis­la­tion was not born of his pas­sion for the suf­fer­ing of the work­ing class, but were his min­im­um con­ces­sions to pre­vent the social­ist revolu­tion. There was unof­fi­cial slavery – the Schwaben­kinder – and liv­ing, work­ing and liv­ing con­di­tions in the cit­ies were hor­rible. 3,279,021 Ger­mans emig­rated to the USA alone between 1870 and 1919.

Children working from age five ...
Chil­dren work­ing from age five ...

The con­sti­tu­tion­al frame­work of the Ger­man Reich did … dif­fer sharply in key respects from that of Bri­tain or France, whose diversely struc­tured but rel­at­ively flex­ible par­lia­ment­ary demo­cra­cies offered bet­ter poten­tial to cope with the social and polit­ic­al demands arising from rap­id eco­nom­ic change.

In Ger­many, the growth of party-polit­ic­al plur­al­ism, which found its rep­res­ent­a­tion in the Reich­stag, had not been trans­lated into par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy. Power­ful ves­ted interests – big land­hold­ers … the officer corps of the army, the upper ech­el­ons of the state bur­eau­cracy, even most of the Reich­stag parties – con­tin­ued to block this.

The Chan­cel­lor of the Reich remained the appointee of the Kais­er, who could make or break him whatever the respect­ive strength of the Reich­stag parties. The gov­ern­ment itself stood over the Reich­stag, inde­pend­ent (at least in the­ory) of party polit­ics. Whole tracts of policy, espe­cially on for­eign and mil­it­ary mat­ters, lay out­side par­lia­ment­ary con­trol.

Power was jeal­ously guarded, in the face of mount­ing pres­sure for rad­ic­al change, by the belea­guered forces of the old order. Some of these, increas­ingly fear­ful of revolu­tion, were pre­pared even to con­tem­plate war as a way of hold­ing on to their power and fend­ing off the threat of social­ism. (33)

This will­ing­ness, how­ever, was not restric­ted to Ger­many: most of the more reac­tion­ary mon­arch­ies of the con­tin­ent, in par­tic­u­lar Rus­sia but also Italy, Spain or some Balkan coun­tries, feared social­ists much more than the armies of their fel­low princes, with whom they could always find some arrange­ment. The found­a­tion of the Social­ist Inter­na­tion­al [SI] (Inter­na­tion­al Workingmen’s Asso­ci­ation) in Lon­don 1864 spir­ited the spectre of com­mun­ism world­wide. Yet whatever the real threat of social­ism or any oth­er mod­ern devel­op­ment might truly sig­ni­fy, in cer­tain respects, chiefly in its inner rela­tions, the Second Reich showed a dis­tinctly pre-mod­ern char­ac­ter by design – as if noth­ing had changed since 1806. It could be seen most clearly in ...

… the Reich’s fed­er­al struc­ture, which was designed to take account of the spe­cial rights and sens­it­iv­it­ies of the south Ger­man states in par­tic­u­lar. The estab­lish­ment of a Baden Leg­a­tion in Ber­lin and a Prus­si­an one in Karls­ruhe [Baden’s cap­it­al] is an indic­a­tion in itself of the remark­ably “unfin­ished” char­ac­ter of the Reich’s struc­ture – it is as if the devel­op­ment towards a mod­ern, unit­ary con­sti­tu­tion­al struc­ture had stopped at the half-way mark.

But the fed­er­al sys­tem of the Kais­er­reich went fur­ther: in 1894 Baden Leg­a­tions were also opened in Munich and Stut­tgart, and a little later Rus­sia even sug­ges­ted that a Rus­si­an mil­it­ary attaché should be sta­tioned in Bav­aria. These leg­a­tions were not merely cour­tesy insti­tu­tions but rep­res­en­ted an import­ant com­pon­ent of the polit­ic­al struc­ture of the Reich, and they were a point­er to the fact … that the Less­er Ger­man Reich, forged by war and dip­lomacy, in many respects con­tin­ued to be gov­erned by for­eign policy meth­ods even after its so-called uni­fic­a­tion.

Polit­ic­al Organ­iz­a­tion of the Empire

A related prob­lem, fre­quently repor­ted on by the Baden envoys, was the con­tin­ued exist­ence and indeed the con­stant growth of par­tic­u­lar­ism, espe­cially in Bav­aria. The per­cept­ive Baden envoy in Munich, Bar­on
Ferdin­and von Bod­man, repor­ted in Decem­ber 1895 from the Bav­ari­an cap­it­al that “under the influ­ence of the all-dom­in­at­ing court and of the Aus­tri­an-cler­ic­al [Cath­ol­ic] party, all meas­ures … are dir­ec­ted at build­ing up Bav­aria as a self-suf­fi­cient … state”. Above all in the two Bav­ari­an army corps, accord­ing to Bod­man, “the Reich and its head, the Kais­er, are being elim­in­ated to the fur­thest pos­sible extent.”

Count Ant­on Monts, the Prus­si­an envoy in Munich, was con­vinced that “a pro­cess of detach­ment [by Bav­aria] from the Reich was tak­ing place,” Bod­man repor­ted. Sim­il­arly, the astute Arthur von Brauer, who had served for many years under Bis­mar­ck, observed in May 1893 that Bav­ari­an par­tic­u­lar­ism was mak­ing enorm­ous advances. He wrote to the Grand Duke: “Under the influ­ence of the Old-Bav­ari­an party the mon­strous idea is gain­ing more and more ground that south Ger­many should be placed under the spe­cial hege­mony of Bav­aria just as north Ger­many is under Prus­sia.” In 1898 the Grand Duke of Baden him­self felt obliged to warn the Reich’s gov­ern­ment against mov­ing too close to the Cath­ol­ic Centre party because the aim of this party was “to des­troy the present Reich in order to cre­ate a new fed­er­al con­sti­tu­tion with a Cath­ol­ic head.“…

Wheth­er they were based on a sober assess­ment of the object­ive cir­cum­stances or are ulti­mately explic­able only in psy­cho­lo­gic­al terms, these anxi­ety com­plexes are of abso­lutely cru­cial import­ance in eval­u­at­ing the polit­ic­al cul­ture of Wil­helmine Ger­many. (34)

Imper­i­al Coats of Arms

John Röhl’s ana­lys­is above iden­ti­fies one psy­cho­lo­gic­al factor in the new empire’s policies, but there was anoth­er, unspoken, psy­cho­lo­gic­al implic­a­tion. What Bis­mar­ck had ulti­mately “super­im­posed over a highly frag­men­ted soci­ety” (35) was a for­mula hatched to take account of the spe­cif­ic Ger­man situ­ation, that is, fore­most, its polit­ic­al par­tic­u­lar­ism; thus nation­al­ism had to be instilled and cohe­sion cre­ated from the out­side, and top-down, instead of bot­tom-up, and by the people. Yet the decis­ive factor why Bis­mar­ck chose this strategy was that, unlike the crown of 1849, the res­ult would be accept­able to his king. Essen­tially, an emperor’s new clothes were hung upon ye olde author­it­ari­an Prus­si­an régime.


Foot­notes: [29] [30] [31] Hein­rich Abek­en, Otto von Bis­mar­ck – The Ems Dis­patch, see Wiki­pe­dia

[32] Wat­son, Peter,The Ger­man Geni­us, Harp­er Collins 2010, ISBN 978−0−06−076022−9, pp. 112 – 113

[33] [34] Röhl, John C.G., The Kais­er and his Court, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, ISBN 0−521−56504−9, pp. 112 – 113 and 153 – 154

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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