Imperial Germany 1890-1914


  • Post-1918 nostalgia; Nazi contempt; return of nostalgia after 1945. Conservatism of German historical profession ensured that Imperial Germany would seem a haven of peace, hierarchy and order in comparison to the turbulence of 1918-45. Positive view strengthened by imperative of refuting war guilt clause of Treaty of Versailles.
  • ‘Fischer Controversy’ of 1960s broke the hegemony of conservative nostalgia. “September Programme’ of 1914 revealed vast extent of German war aims 1914-18 and suggested parallels with Nazi war aims. Growing view that Germany deliberately launched World War I.
  • Focus of Röhl on personal role of Wilhelm II. Wide-ranging powers of Emperor, who appoints Chancellors and Ministers, who cannot be dismissed by a parliamentary vote of no confidence (Zabern 1913). Powers designed to be used by Bismarck; did Wilhelm take them over in the 1890s, or did Bismarck’s departure create a power vacuum leading to a polycratic system of government (“who rules in Berlin?”). In particular, political autonomy of the army.
  • Turn to internal political and social structures of Imperial Germany (Wehler, Berghahn, the ‘Kehrites’, named after Eckart Kehr; Kritische Studien, Geschichte und Gesellschaft).

The Kehrite Position

  • Economic  modernization: Huge companies and combines, especially in heavy industry, linked to the great banks: vertical integration, cartels. Krupp, ofunded in 1846 with 140 workers, had 68,000 by 1913. Mining employed 863,000 by 1913, metallurgy 398,000. ‘Monopoly capitalism’? ‘Organized capitalism’ backed by state support? ‘Great Depression’ 1873-96 causes economic elites to look to state support and adopt hostile attitude to workers’ rights. ‘Feudalized’ industrialists (‘barons of heavy industry’), Herr-im-Hause standpoint, no collective bargaining, company housing, even uniforms for workers (Krupp, mines). ‘Alliance of iron and rye’.
  • Political domination by Prussia. 25 states in federal union effectively controlled by Prussia; Prussian King is German Emperor, foreign policy and army run by Prussians, Prussian values prevail – hierarchy, order, honour, hard work, contempt for the masses, rejection of democratic values and social openness. Impotence of political parties. SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Social Democratic Party of Germany) the largest party by 1914, yet completely shut out of decision-making.
  • Social hierarchy: Economic modernization not accompanied by political democratization or social mobility. Dominance of Junker aristocracy through the Prussian control of Imperial government and civil service, and above all the officer corps. Co-optation of middle classes through reserve officer corps, through titles and honours, through notion of hierarchy as guaranteeing stability.. Restrictions on civil liberties. ‘Negative integration’ of working class through social insurance.
  • All this summed up in the idea of Germany’s special path (Sonderweg) to modernity, setting it apart from ‘western’ nations like Britain, France or the USA, which experienced political democratization and social emancipation along with economic modernization.
  • Led to Flucht nach vorn, or governments and elites whipping up nationalism in the masses to divert their energies from social reform; war launched in 1914 as a way of escaping the problems of mounting demands, especially from the SPD, for democratization at home.


  • Economy: Concept of ‘organized capitalism’ neglects relative autonomy of politics, can’t explain change over time, underestimates state penetration of economy before 1873. Cartels and combines yes, but consequences of late and rapid industrialization. ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ – chemical and electrical industries. Comparison of workers’ rights with USA (Carnegie, use of Pinterton’s to break unions, company towns, etc.) shows restrictions were not ‘atavistic’ or ‘feudal’. ‘Great Depression’ ignores sustained economic growth after the crisis of the mid-1870s. No evidence for ‘alliance of iron and rye’ in either the Navy Law of 1898 or the Tariff Reform of 1902.
  • Politics: Universal male suffrage for the Reichstag made political parties practice democratic political mobilization, with those which refused to make a popular appeal (National Liberals, the Conservatives) losing out to those that did (SPD, rural populist movements) and being forced to adapt (Tivoli Programme 1893). Secret ballots secured by 1903 reform. A democratic political culture was thus emerging long before the advent of the Weimar Republic. Increasingly, government had to take account of popular opinion. SPD increasingly involved in decision-making at local level, in sickness funds, even in the Reichstag. By comparison the restricted franchise of UK inhibited growth of modern politics. Relative autonomy of army in UK, Italy, Spain. Civil service power in Austria-Hungary. Weakness of liberalism across Central Europe. ‘Nationalization of the masses’ in many European countries (France, UK). Repression of socialism in France, Russia.
  • Society: Bourgeois values dominated (dress codes, even duelling expressing masculinity rather than ‘feudal’ concepts of honour). The very wealthy came 75% from non-noble backgrounds, and only 7 businessmen were ennobled 1871-1918. Comparison of military models and values in UK, dueling in France, etc. Junkers not necessarily backward-looking (agrarian revolution, investment in industry, schnaps production etc.). Social mobility no greater in UK.
  • No evidence of German diversion from a ‘normal’ path to modernity; such a path did not exist. Germany did, however. have an unusual combination of many factors present in smaller quantities elsewhere.
  • The elites did not manipulate public opinion in a nationalist direction; new movements self-mobilized from below, including Pan-German League, Society for the Eastern Marches, Navy League, Defence League, Colonial Society, etc., arguing German unification incomplete because many ethnic Germans outside the Reich, and urging German government to make greater efforts to create Germany as a world power. Fringe movements adopt ideology of racist antisemitism (Wagner circle), others urge adoption of eugenic policies, sterilization of criminals and the ‘unfit’. Long-term origins of Nazi ideology; but how much influence did they have on government? Limited scope of antisemitism, far less than in France or Russia.
  • Nevertheless, exaggeration of Germany’s sole or prime responsibility for World War I; no documentary evidence of intention either to launch a war or to adopt an aggressively nationalist foreign policy to escape from domestic problems. Ignores foreign policies of other states.
  • Imperial Germany not a backward state: widely regarded in Europe as highly modern in every respect, not just economically but also socially and even politically, especially in comparison to other states further east.
  • The nervous great power’ – uncertainties and anxieties deriving from deep social and political divisions created by rapid industrialization. Bourgeois/proletarian antagonisms based on an extremely strong class consciousness.