Germany during WWI

The German Empire was formed on January 18th 1871. Three wars preceded this. Denmark, France and Habsburg monarchy were defeated in short conflicts. However the empire was not forged as a result of this war alone. There were talks between the leaders of the North German Confederation which was led by Prussia and rulers of Baden, Wurttemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt. Since Prussia had most of the area of Germany, Prussia was a dominant force and this remained so till the end of World War I. With WWI the German Empire came to an end. The empire had an ethnic population and some Polish, French, Sorbian and Danish population.

Germany at the beginning of the 20th century

The population grew to 60 million by the beginning of WWI. There were Protestants, Roman Catholics and a small percentage of Jews. Otto Van Bismarck was the Prime Minister for the North German Federation. The constitution was also designed by Bismarck. The design of the constitution was such that all the powers were vested on the chancellor and the monarch. Later on Bismarck took it upon himself to look into the affairs of Germany and over the years Bismarck practised an authoritarian leadership. Bismarck’s policies and wars were not meeting with success so he thought of reconvening German princes to create a new constitution in 1890. There was always one crisis or another in the state. The new emperor William II was not in favour of this and asked Bismarck to resign. Thus the architect of German unity had to leave convinced that his creation was flawed and at the same time feeling humiliated at the age of 74. However by then Germany had become a dominant power. Germany took a lead on industrial development and today it is still the leading industrial nation in Europe. In the early 20th century it took on lead on Britain, were better in railway s and steel production, ahead of France. This allowed Germany to take an aggressive foreign policy. Its navy was also strong. There was an all round economic development. However all that was built up was lost in the First World War and the situation deteriorated and in the early 1930s Great Depression hit Germany.

Involvement in World War I

In World War I German Empire joined Austria-Hungary and fought the Allies from the western and eastern fronts. German territory remained safe from attack for most part of the war. Royal Navy created a blockade of food supplies and there were severe food shortage in many cities. This was more so in the winter of 1916-17 and it was called the Turnip Winter. The defeat of Germany and the Treaty of Versailles enraged the people of Germany. Initially there was enthusiastic support for the war by all sections of the populations including the socialists. The spirit of the people was soaring for a common cause. However there were some apprehensions and anxiety as well. The short victories brought great joy but the final humiliating defeat turned the tables and the people were up and against the empire.

The industrialists of Germany equipped the Kaiser’s army with new and deadly weapons. They included machine guns, flame throwers, chemical weapons and artillery. The navy got new battle ships, submarines and cruisers. German strategists drew up many war plans which were a little ambitious and that even envisaged the conquest of France in few weeks. German nationalists wanted to improve the base by taking control of Asia, Africa and Middle East. German newspapers published the bullying tactics of the Britain and France and hoped to replace in many areas. The attack of France from Belgium side which was less fortified proved successful for a short time but finally Germany was defeated. Though Germany had joined the cause of the Austria-Hungary cause, the World War I ended up as war between Germany and the Allies; the losses were the maximum for Germany.

Political developments: Domestic 

After the unification Bismarck designed the constitution which reflected the rural nature of Germany. There were two houses the Reichstag and the Bundesrat. The Reichstag represented the people and Bundesrat the 25 states. The former was an elected body and contained 397 members. Men alone could vote. The legislations were put in the upper house and only if they approved it could be moved to Reichstag, the lower house. In principle the lower house could question the Chancellor but it was not effectively put to use. The people shifted to cities but the representation continued to be from the rural areas. There was a mismatch between the urbanization and the rural representation. The ministers who were elected were representing the emperor and not the people.

After Bismarck resigned a newcomer to politics, Caprivi took over the Chancellorship. He served his entire career in the military. When he took over he worked for the people and not for the royals and the landed people. So he drew the ire of these people. In the shortest term of Chancellorship, Caprivi was forced to resign in 1894. Bernhard, Fürst (prince) von Bülow was the next Chancellor and he abandoned the policy of Caprivi and brought back the alliance with the landed and the elites. He was in the post of Chancellor till 1909. The Social Democrats became popular. BY 1912, this party had more support than other parties combined together. As Germany was economically strong before the WWI, most countries feared and respected Germany.

Political developments: Foreign 

Bismarck the architect of German unification was given a free hand to form the foreign policy. The unification happened after three wars, so the major concern of Bismarck was to maintain peace in the nation. The victory of the Prussians and the unification unsettled the continental powers and they began to strengthen their army. Bismarck was concerned that there would be disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and this would lead to conflict between Austria-Hungary, Russia and France. Any war in that area would result in Germany getting involved in it. The main worry was France and Bismarck was worried that other powers of Europe would ally with France. In 1873 he formed an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Russia and this was called Three Emperor’s League. However this league broke off after a few years. Russia declared war on Turkey as its expansionist plans. To avoid war that would involve Germany Bismarck called for an international peace conference. He honestly tried to broker peace. Russia agreed to give back certain areas and the tension in the area was diffused. Close to the peace conference Bismarck called for an alliance between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. This alliance remained till the end of World War I. The three nations agreed to support each other if any one country was attacked but would not support if the attack was initiated by these countries. Alfred Von Tirptiz, the astute naval advisor of William II made the navy of Germany very powerful and this was unsettling for others especially Britain. Now it was Germany’s turn to alienate Britain.

Economic policies and changes

After 1890 there was an upsurge in the economy of Germany. From 1895 and 1907 saw many more people working in machine building; it doubled during that period. This resulted in sharp drop in emigration. From more than a lak emigrants it dropped to 20,000. There was movement from Prussia’s eastern province but they were to the factories of Ruhr and Berlin and not to other countries. The steel production in Germany exceeded that of Britain by 1893 and by 1914 Germany’s steel production was twice that of Britain. Germany was exporting one third of its production in 1873. This rose to 63% by 1913. Most of the continental markets, except France, were flooded with German goods. There was a drop in the rural population and a rise in the urban population. When there were fewer people in the farms, technology was brought into agriculture. This doubled the price of farm products.

A new class evolved and that was the working class and they had their unions. Most of the people were affiliated to the socialist union. Though there was a union, monetary benefits were not made available to the working class. There was a rapid rise in income for them till 1902, after that it was a slow increase. Industrialization was very rapid in Germany but there were some sectors that did not on catch on. The traditional artisans continued their trade in the traditional way. Industrialization did not help them. So also the farms in Germany had been divided and the size of each of them was very small making it less productive. The pre-industrial sectors of German economy did not keep pace with the new industrialization.

Social policies and changes

The birth of German population kept growing and by 1914 it was 67 million. 63% of this was Protestants, 36% were Roman Catholic and 1% was Jewish. By and large the unified Prussia was a homogenous society with little bit of Polish and lesser Danish. By 1914 67% of the people lived in villages and the rest lived in cities and towns. Education was compulsory in early 19th century so literacy was nearly hundred percent. The nationalist movement was seen as most people were patriotic and wanted to see a unified Germany. In 1871 Bismarck launched a cultural struggle, Kulturkampf, which was struggle of German liberals against political Catholicism. They feared that the Catholic population was not as nationalist as they were. Albert Falk, the minister for education and ecclesiastical affairs introduced bills to promote civil marriages. The movement of clergy was limited and some religious orders were dissolved. Church appointments had to be approved by the state. Many in the church were left without any work. The administration sent out clerical civil servants.

The Kulturkampf was a disaster and he then turned his attention on the socialist party. Many leaders went to Switzerland and worked for the party in exile. The industrialization brought in a new class, the working class. Since Russia was already oriented to this class, socialism son caught on in Germany. Bismarck thought this was opposed to the ideas of nationalism. Bismarck tried to win the workers by introducing accident insurance, a modest pension and a medical coverage which was a national system. Till the WWI society and its changes were centred around the changes happening in the industrial sector.

Consequences of WWI 


The effect of WWI was devastating in Germany. The people were given the impression that they were winning and there were some minor victories but Germany could not face the onslaught of the three powerful nations for long. The people soon lost their trust in the government. The Social Democrat Party which was the leading party in the parliament (Reichstag) declared Germany was now ruled by a civilian government and the Kaiser had to flee from the country on November 11th 1918. Industrialization took away the famers from the rural areas. There were no farmers and the war only added on to the problem. There were heavy shortage of food and many died of starvation. Lack of food made people weak and there were unable to keep away diseases. Many soldiers who returned after the war succumbed to disease. The armistice signed proved to be disastrous for Germany and there was violence especially in Berlin. The war had brought a sea change in Germany.

  • There was no respect for the government headed by the Elbert.
  • There were many former soldiers were roaming round the streets totally disillusioned and more dangerously, armed.
  • The civilian population were equally affected by the war.
  • Germany which was galloping as an economic power was nose diving to a disaster.
  • There was a big loss of man power.

The Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28th 1919 was the last nail in the coffin of Germany. A country that advocated peace for decades went to support Austria-Hungary in the war ended up being the most affected in World War I.

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