Militarist, expansionist, successful, frustrated, to blame… that’s pretty much the heritage story when it comes to Germany in 1914. It doesn’t tell you much and what it does suggest is, as usual, only part of the truth.
Modern historians generally agree that the main impetus to general war in 1914 came from Berlin, but heritage remembrance tends to skate over the equally accepted view that Vienna, Paris and Belgrade deserve their share of the blame. It also lets us assume, albeit largely by omission, that Germany went to war inspired by some Teutonic imperative to greed and martial glory, when in fact the German leadership’s decision to embrace war sprang primarily from desperate fear of the immediate future without it.
So by way of softening any cartoon images you may have picked up, here’s a beginner’s guide to the real German Empire. It’s not particularly snappy reading and it’s not meant to be, but it should at least demonstrate that Germany went to war for intelligible reasons.
Germany was a federation of twenty-two kingdoms or principalities and three independent city-states (Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). The biggest component was Prussia, which accounted for 64 percent of the country’s land area; the smallest was the principality of Schaumberg-Lippe, covering all of 340 square kilometres.
They had been united as Germany since 1871, largely thanks to Prussian military successes against Austria and France, and they were dominated by Prussia in 1914. Some of the larger kingdoms – Bavaria, Saxony and Württemburg, for instance – enjoyed military autonomy in peacetime and retained much of their previous national identity, but the Prussian king was Emperor of Germany, with control over foreign policy, ministerial appointments and the armed forces, and Berlin served as the Imperial capital.
Here’s a map, which I will of course remove should anyone object to its use.
Germany was Europe’s great economic success story in 1914. Industrial output, trade and infrastructural development had all mushroomed since the 1880s, and although an increasingly urban population had grown from 41 to 65 million in forty years, some 35 percent of German workers were still employed in agriculture and the country was virtually self-sufficient in food. Along with the United States, it had caught and was overtaking Britain as the world’s leading economic power, but with no colonial empire to speak of Germany badly needed new export markets if its rampant production boom was to be sustained.
German politics ran just as hot. The industrial working class was expanding fast, as was an educated middle class, but the constitution denied them genuine political representation. At federal level, every male citizen was entitled to vote for members of the parliamentary lower house, the Reichstag, but its only real function was to approve measures enacted by the upper house, the Bundesrat. That was elected by partial suffrage and populated by conservative aristocratic, military and business interests, as were most of the regional parliaments that ran the internal affairs of individual states.
Atop this pyramid of yes-men and natural supporters, the Kaiser appointed his ministers and ruled with no real need for concessions to a plethora of political parties that reflected stresses all through the system. Regional differences were important political issues, as were tensions between Protestants and Germany’s large Catholic minority, but the fault line that threatened a political earthquake in Germany was the country’s ever-widening socioeconomic divide.
The regime received qualified support from conservative and liberal parties in the Reichstag but had a real problem with the rapid rise of socialism. Most parliamentary socialists belonged to the relatively moderate Social Democratic Party (SDP), which sought gradual reform but was seen by all shades of conservative opinion as a pack of rabid revolutionaries. Once the 1912 election returned the SDP as the largest single party in the hitherto acquiescent Reichstag, some kind of constitutional crisis seemed inevitable to all sides.
German street politics were even more polarized. Few German employers recognised unions, but strikes had become a major issue by 1914, many of them focused on demands for an eight-hour working day. Socialist community organisations had sprung up all across the industrial landscape, and printed attacks on the regime proliferated in an atmosphere relatively free from media censorship. Every left-wing pressure group, however radical, had its right-wing counterpart, often in the form of ‘patriotic’ Leagues sponsored by conservative interests. Most called for military expansion and a more aggressive foreign policy but some, like the anti-feminist German Women’s League, existed primarily to oppose perceived radicalism.
Faced with rampant economic growth and sitting on a political pressure cooker, Germany’s ruling elites expected revolution at any time during the first decade of the twentieth century. Terrified of reform, on the grounds it would unleash the revolutionary agents of their own destruction, they tried to release the pressure with a policy, personally led by the Kaiser and known as Weltpolitik, aimed at making Germany a world power.
Broadly, Weltpolitik sought to establish a pan-German state, win colonial markets, secure economic domination of continental Europe and build up armed forces. It was supposed to culminate in a short, decisive war against France and Russia, as detailed very precisely in the Army’s Schleiffen Plan. So far, so militarist and expansionist, but by 1914 Weltpolitik lay in ruins.
Attempts to secure overseas possessions had achieved little, but had helped provoke France and Britain into an arms race that threatened German military superiority, while tax battles fought in Berlin to pay for German arms expansion, especially its new navy, had brought political tensions at home close to the boil. With every day that passed the enemy abroad became stronger and the enemy within more likely to explode into revolution.
By 1914 siege mentality had taken a firm grip on the administration. The Schlieffen Plan for a rapid attack on France through Belgium still beckoned as a solution to all its problems, but had to be implemented sooner rather than later or everything would be lost. In that context the Balkan crisis of 1914 and an appeal for help from Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, looked to political and military planners in Berlin like a last shot at salvation.
Once the opportunity had been seized and the world’s most efficient military machine set in motion, Germany’s internal problems evaporated in a blaze of national unity. At that point German civil and military authorities, astonished by the speed and depth of the change, had every right to consider the War an instant success, and to hope that the new patriotism would endure into peacetime. After all, even if the Army failed to deliver its rapid knockout blow, economic arguments insisted that the conflict couldn’t possibly last for more than nine months.
History knows better, and so does heritage. But where history tries to see the past from the perspective of its participants, heritage seems happy to describe it in terms of modern stereotypes. The Kaiser’s Germany, aggressive and unafraid? That’s poppycock.