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The Modern Era

1789 - 1914

In Europe, the revolutionary transformation of the ruling systems and state structures began with a bang: In 1789 the French Revolution broke out in Paris, and its motto "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite"—Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood—took on an irrepressible force. A fundamental reorganization of society followed the French Revolution. The ideas behind the revolution were manifest in Napoleon's Code Civil, which he imposed on many European nations. The 19th century also experienced a transformation of society from another source: The Industrial Revolution established within society a poorer working class that stood in opposition to the merchant and trading middle class. The nascent United States was shaken by an embittered civil war. The economic growth that set in following that war was accompanied by the development of imperialist endeavors and its rise to the status of a Great Power.



Liberty Leading the People,
allegory of the 1830 July revolution that deposed the French monarchy,
with Marianne as the personification of liberty,
contemporary painting by Eugene Delacroix.



Imperial Germany



After the founding of the Reich, Bismarck pursued an alliance policy meant to create a European balance of power while largely isolating France. Domestically he fought the power of the Catholic Church in the Kukurkampf ("cultural struggle"). He also sought to control the spread of socialism through the carrot-and-stick method of enacting social reforms while banning socialist organizations and literature. After Bismarck's dismissal in 1890, the German Reich found itself hemmed in on two fronts by an allignment between Russia and France as allies—exactly the situation he had always sought to avoid. The Belle Epoque, in both domestic and foreign politics, was an era in which potentially explosive tensions emerged.


The German Reich from 1890 to 1914: The "New Course"

With the dismissal of Imperial Chancellor Bismarck in 1890, two years after he had ascended to the throne, Wilhelm II rang in a new era. However, the Wilhelminian society persisted in its outdated traditions.


1 Wilhelm II did not continue Bismarck's hard-line strategy. His "New Course" promised to end internal political stagnation. The Catholics, who had been alienated in the Kulturkampf, were given compromises; the anti-socialist law was not renewed; and the new labor law that, for example, banned child labor, showed the protective side of the monarchy. But the kaiser's social interest evaporated when the workers, even after these "gifts," could not be wooed away from the Social Democratic party.

In Count 3 Leo von Caprivi, Wilhelm now had a less domineering imperial chancellor at his side who would not hinder him in his "personal reign."

1 Kaiser Wilhelm II

3 Count Leo von Caprivi

Caprivi did not remain in office for long, however. His pragmatic and conciliatory domestic politics went too far for the conservatives, and his trade policies, while making Germany a leading economic world power in the 1890s. earned him the enmity of big property owners. Caprivi was forced to resign as Prussian minister-president in 1892 and as imperial chancellor in 1894 because he had planned, as had Bismarck before him. to topple the Reichstag.

Central to the nature of Wilhelminian Era was the inner contradiction between economic modernization and the traditionalism of the elite.

The 4 aristocracy, which had set the tone socially, attempted to hold onto its leading role.

4 A ball during the Wilhelminian period, painting by Adolf von Menzel, 1 878

This, however, had long been lost to the upper middle class, which controlled both industry and the financial market. A consequential modernization was not allowed to take place, particularly in Prussia, the most influential part of the Reich.

There, the composition of the state parliament was determined up until 1918 by the three-class franchise so that it increasingly contrasted with the more progressive 2 Reichstag.

The Zabern Affair in 1913 proved what was true for the whole of the Wilhelminian Era: a parliament against an authoritarian government responsible only to the kaiser could accomplish nothing.

2 The Social Democrat August Bebel holding
a speech in the Reichstag



August Bebel

August Bebel

German socialist

born February 22, 1840, Deutz, near Cologne, Germany
died August 13, 1913, Passugg, Switzerland

German Socialist, cofounder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany and its most influential and popular leader for more than 40 years. He is one of the leading figures in the history of western European socialism.

Bebel was the son of a Prussian noncommissioned officer. Growing up in extreme poverty at Wetzlar, where he learned the turner’s craft, he began to travel as a journeyman through southern Germany and Austria and in the spring of 1860 settled in Leipzig, where he began his political career.

In 1861 Bebel joined the Leipzig Workers’ Educational Association, which, like many others of its kind, was formed through the initiative of members of the liberal bourgeoisie; in 1865 he became its chairman. Political and economic circumstances, however, gave the workers’ education movement an increasingly political orientation, which was to be significantly reflected in the development of Bebel’s own political views. Like the other young workers in the new associations, Bebel had not yet heard anything of The Communist Manifesto (1848) or of its authors, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

If in 1863 Bebel believed that the working classes were not ready for the vote, he was already changing his mind when he began his friendship with Wilhelm Liebknecht, who came to Leipzig from Berlin in 1865. Liebknecht, older than Bebel and university-trained, became in many respects Bebel’s mentor, but the more open-minded Bebel always maintained his independence. The Seven Weeks’ War (1866) between Austria and Prussia divided German opinion between the advocates of a Kleindeutschland (Small Germany) and those of a Grossdeutschland (Large Germany), advocated by the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck; it also drove the Saxon workers’ associations into an alliance with the radical anti-Prussian democrats, for Bebel and Liebknecht, the workers’ leaders, were implacable opponents of Bismarck. The Sächsische Volkspartei (Saxon People’s Party) was thus brought into being, and in 1867 Bebel entered the constituent Reichstag of the North German confederation as a member for this party. Eventually, this and other like-minded parties united in 1869 in the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (Social Democratic Labour Party) of Germany.

As a member of the North German Reichstag, in 1867 Bebel had protested against the Bismarckian “greater Prussia,” believing that it meant “turning Germany into one great barracks.” In parliament he continued this protest both before and after the founding of the German Empire. He and Liebknecht were the only voices to speak against the war loan voted in the Reichstag on July 21, 1870; as a result, they were brought to trial on a charge of high treason at Leipzig in March 1872. Sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, Bebel recovered from tuberculosis during this period of enforced idleness. He also was able to give himself a systematic education.

Beginning with an earlier sentence in 1869, Bebel spent a total of nearly five years in prison within less than 20 years, though he never faced any graver charge than that of “spreading doctrines dangerous to the state,” “lese majesty,” “libel of Bismarck,” or “libel of the Bundesrat.” These sentences were a serious threat to his livelihood. As the party itself could afford only the most essential expenditure and as a member of the Reichstag he received no allowances, Bebel continued to rely on his income as a craftsman. He had established himself in Leipzig as a master turner and had married the daughter of a railway worker in 1864. Not until the end of the 1880s was he able to live by his writing.

As a writer Bebel had most success with Die Frau und der Sozialismus (1883; Woman and Socialism), which went through many editions and translations. This book was the most powerful piece of SPD propaganda for decades. Above all, by its combination of science and prophecy, it served as a blueprint for German social democracy in the conditions produced by Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law (1878–90). Bebel himself never doubted that this period of repression under the emergency laws was anything more than an episode, declaring to his opponents in the Reichstag: “Your lances will be shattered in this struggle like glass on granite.” His unshakable confidence gave his colleagues the courage to stand firmly together, but he opposed all tendencies toward retaliation by force, since terrorism or attempts at subversion might have endangered the very existence of the party.

These tactics were proved right when the emergency laws were allowed to lapse and when, in the elections of 1890, the SPD received nearly 20 percent of the vote. Bebel’s position at the head of the party was now uncontested, and in the Reichstag he was the most prominent opponent of the government. Within the party itself he opposed all the “opportunist” tendencies, which had come out into the open since the ending of the anti-Socialist laws. According to these, features of the existing social and political structure might be developed gradually until social democracy was attained. At the Erfurt congress of 1891 he reproached the leader of the Bavarian SPD, Georg von Vollmar, with belying the “inspiration” of social democracy, without which “a party such as ours cannot exist.”

The struggle against open reformism and the theoretical revisionism advocated by Eduard Bernstein at the end of the 1890s reached its climax at the Dresden congress of 1903. Just as he condemned all deviations from the party’s official radical creed, so too was Bebel unwilling to yield to left-wing pressure to indulge in extraparliamentary experiments and thus perhaps to bring repression of the party again. His stand was justified, for in election after election the party gained new adherents, and Bebel lived to see the day when, in 1912, the SPD became, with 110 seats, the strongest group in the Reichstag.

Bebel, as no other, embodied the tradition of the German SPD. Already in 1882 Engels had described him as “a unique manifestation of the German, indeed of the European working class.” A member of the Reichstag from 1867 almost continuously until his death, he achieved his most celebrated triumphs as a parliamentarian. Even his opponents could not withhold their respect in the face of his passionate honesty. A shrewd contemporary, Hellmut von Gerlach, suggested that in politics Bebel lived from hand to mouth: “His political aims were for the most distant future or for the immediate present”; he did not concern himself with what might lie between. This is an accurate description of Bebel’s aims; for him and for the leading body of social democratic thought he represented, political activity essentially consisted in promoting as effectively as possible the politico-social interests of the working classes. His contradictory combination of futuristic revolutionary sentiment and a social policy rooted in the present reflects the equivocal position of his party under the conditions of the new German Empire. This explains to a great extent both the strength of Bebel’s position within the party and the political passivity of German social democracy, already noticeable before his death and fully revealed when, on the fall of the empire, the party had to face its first great political test.

Erich Matthias

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Zabern Affair

The Zabern Affair of 1913 made the impotence of the Reichstag clear. After German soldiers arrested protesters in Saverne (German: Zabern), Alsace, without legal grounds, Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, albeit reluctantly, supported the Prussian minister of war, Erich von Falkenhayn, in a cover-up together with the kaiser that denied abuse of power on the parts of the soldiers.

The Reichstag passed, for the first time, a vote of no confidence in the government on December 4, 1913, and demanded the chancellor's resignation. However, there was no constitutional basis for this move, and it proved unsuccessful.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Erich von Falkenhayn




Diplomacy without a Touch of Tact

Wilhelm II proved to have little skill in foreign policy. Germany became increasingly isolated in Europe through imprudent diplomacy.


Wilhelm II began the foreign affairs segment of his New Course by abandoning Bismarck's policy of the European balance of power. Germany would now aim for an imperialistic world policy. His new chancellor, Caprivi, refused Russia a renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty of 1890. France saw its chance and allied itself with Russia in 1894, which made a two-front war against Germany possible.

In spite of the theory of the inevitability of Anglo-German rivalry, Wilhelm sought close contact with Great Britain, recognizing the British protectorate over Zanzibar in exchange for Heligoland, but then antagonized the British in 1896 with his 8 Kruger telegram—a message congratulating the president of the South African republic of Transvaal, Paul Kruger, on a victory of the Boers over the British.

8 Kruger telegram; Wilhelm congratulates
the president of the Boers, Paul Kruger,
on his victory over the British

Furthermore, Wilhelm wanted to build up a 9 German fleet with the help of Admiral von Tirpitz and consequently started an arms race with Great Britain in the mid-189os that brought Germany to the limit of its financial resources.

9 "SMS Kaiserin Augusta," second-class protected cruiser

When Germany approached the Ottoman Empire in 1898 and started constructing the 6 Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad in the Near East, the British considered it an intrusion into their sphere of influence and so allied first with France in 1904 and then also with Russia in 1907, thus creating the Triple Entente, which left Germany isolated except for Austria-Hungary.

In colonial affairs, the German Empire wanted its "place in the sun," as Foreign Minister von Bulow expressed it in 1897. Germany became politically involved in Africa, China, and the Pacific.

Rebellions, such as those of the 7 Herreros and Hottentots (Khoikhoi) in German Southwest Africa, were brutally suppressed.

6 Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, built 1903-1940

7 Herrero uprising in German South West Africa,

The conflict with France in 5 the Morocco Crises of 1905 and 1911 soon left Germany alone in Europe, without an alliance partner other than the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and militarily encircled.

Germany decided to expand her military and naval might despite British efforts at a rapprochement. When the Austrian heir to the throne was shot in Sarajevo in 1914, World War I was unavoidable.

5 Cartoon depicting the first Morocco crisis, 1905/06



The "Hun Speech"

In his infamous "Hun Speech" of July 27, 1900, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent off the troops leaving for China to put down the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion with the words:

"Pardon will not be given. Prisoners will not be taken. Whoever falls into your hands is forfeit. Once, a thousand years ago, the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves...

May you in this way make the name German remembered in China for a thousand years so that no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German!"

Kaiser Wilhelm II bids an expeditionary corps in
Bremerhaven farewell as they leave to put down
the Boxer rebellion, June, 27 1900




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