German Empire – Great Powers before World War I (part 1)

We wish to throw no one into the shade, but we demand our own place in the sun.

This series about the Great Powers before World War I provides an overview of their alliances, their foreign and domestic policies and challenges. In this first part we look at the German Empire.

German Empire pre World War I

Area 540,857.54 km²
Population ca. 65 million (1910)
Army size 3.8 million (at outbreak of war)
Government Federal hereditary monarchy
Emperor Wilhelm II
Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger
Alliances Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy (Italy stayed neutral in 1914)

Wilhelm II – the German Emperor

William II was the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from June 1888 to November 1918.

The Emperor held a lot of power in Germany. He was the supreme commander of the military and could direct military and foreign policy.
Unfortunately he was not a good diplomat. He frequently changed his mind, was sometimes erratic and to the dismay of his ministers often got carried away when giving public speeches – frequently into pompous and arrogant statements and/or jingoism.

Foreign policy drivers

  • Pursuit of “a place in the sun” (German Foreign Secretary Bernhard von Bülow 1897) – seeking prestige and colonies.
  • Build large navy which lead to Anglo-German naval arms race. This was a key factor to cause deterioration of relationships between Germany and the UK
  • Fear of being encircled by enemies

Internal conflicts / problems

There was an ongoing conflict between the Government (the Chancellor was chosen or dismissed by the Emperor) and the elected parliament (the Reichstag) in which the Social Democrats (SPD) had become the largest group in the 1912 election.

While there was also a growing movement against the dominant position of militarism and the military in German and in particular in Prussian society, it did not reach critical mass until war broke out and it was swept away by the strong nationalist feelings in support of the German war effort.

German Unification

Otto von Bismarck (Prime Minister of Prussia 1873 – 1890) was the architect of German unification. He was Chancellor of Germany until 1890, when he fell out with the new Emperor Wilhelm II.

Wilhelm I, of the House of Hohenzollern was the King of Prussia and the first German Emperor from 1871 to 1888.

  • The North German Federation was formed after Prussia defeated Austria in the war of 1866 which forced Austria out of Germany.
  • The German nation state was formed after Prussia and her allies had defeated France in the war of 1870/71.
  • The German Empire consisted of 27 constituent territories, with most of them being hereditary monarchies. The Kingdom of Prussia contained most of the population and most of the territory.

Sources / Pictures:

  • MacMillan, Margaret: War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, 2013
  • Herwig, Holger H.: The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World, 2009
  • Map of German Empire in Europe (top) by Blank_map_of_Europe.svg: maix¿? derivative work: Alphathon /’æl.f’æ.ðɒn/ (Blank_map_of_Europe.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Wilhelm II of Germany from Lübeckische Anzeigen, Nr. 385, Ausgabe A vom 2. August 1914 (cropped) by Wilhelm Dahms, chief of the company since 1906 (Lübeckische Anzeigen vom 2. August 1914) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Map Europe alliances 1914-en (middle) by historicair (French original) Fluteflute & User:Bibi Saint-Pol (English translation) license: CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Map of German Empire (bottom) by ziegelbrenner [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0],  via Wikimedia Commons

You may also like...