Prewar Years: Germany

The newest and most precocious of the great powers was Germany. At the turn of the century, the country was not yet 30 years old, but in that time it had achieved a great deal. Germany was, however, insecure in its position as a great power, and sought to catch up to its rivals in Europe, in terms of military power, overseas holdings, and economic prowess – not to mention, world influence. This obsession with staking its own “place in the sun” would have serious consequences.

Benz Patented Motorwagon with Karl Benz and Be...

Karl Benz’s Motorwagen. The motor industry was a symbol of German industrial prowess at the turn of the century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1900, Germany’s was the fastest-growing industrial base in the world. The unification of Germany in 1871 had opened up all of the constituent states to a pooling of resources, which had had favourable consequences for most. The Kingdom of Württemberg, in the southwest, had been resource-poor and mostly agrarian before 1871. Afterwards, however, Württemberg became an industrial powerhouse, hosting the Benz automobile manufactories, the Esslingen Machine Factory (the single largest builder of locomotives in Germany), and other important firms. Elsewhere, the Krupp Steel Works in Essen were the world’s largest producer of artillery pieces. The same was true of many of the other states; the sum of this was that Germany had become highly modern and efficient in its manufacturing sectors. Germany also had one of the most concentrated and efficient rail networks in Europe, and had discovered through experience the great trade and military advantages this afforded. The German General Staff, which oversaw procurement and strategy for the German Army (Kaiserheer) and Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), was a highly professional organisation unlike any other in Europe. Within Germany, too, was a representational political system attached to a semi-constitutional democracy that, while subject to strong monarchical powers, was becoming robust and progressive.

English: Berlin, memorial to Otto von Bismarck...

The Reichstag, or parliament of Germany. In spite of Germany’s authoritarian reputation, democratic representation was a relatively strong force in the young German Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, or Social Democrats), campaigning on a ticket of workers’ rights and social justice, was the largest socialist party in the world, having been decriminalised at the beginning of the century. The SPD’s involvement in politics, though not popular with the national elites, aristocracy, and the Junker class of landed gentry, was tolerated, and as a result a wider proportion of the population was actively engaged in politics. With the rise in socialist reform and engagement came an isolation of the traditional, discriminatory parties. Antisemitic parties, which had sprung up on nationalist tickets in the early 1890s, were a spent force by 1900, and by 1914 had little or no representation in the Reichstag. Anti-discrimination laws were enacted by the Reichstag itself, and were constantly updated. In general – and in spite of the later interpretations of historians such as Volker Berghahn and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who saw Germany’s involvement in the First World War as the desperate act of a government under siege at home – Germans were content with their governance and the direction of their society.

All this was meritorious. But Germany now lacked the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who had led the country to unification, and who had crafted Germany’s intricate foreign policy until his dismissal in 1890. His replacements were a succession of capable politicians – Leo von Caprivi, Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, Bernhard von Bülow, and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg – who nonetheless lacked the political acumen or ruthlessness of the Iron Chancellor. Worse, while Bismarck had often been given free reign over foreign and domestic policy by Germany’s first Kaiser, Wilhelm I, his successors were saddled with Wilhelm II, the first Kaiser’s nephew, who was less politically astute and more given to adventure and risk. Wilhelm’s interest in warships and colonies, moreover, neatly dovetailed with his retinue of Colonial Office officials and Naval Ministry admirals. However, it also fed the fears of both Britain and France; Britain worried about threats to its overseas empire, and thus to its global economic hegemony, and France, in perpetual fear of the Germans, became naturally concerned when its neighbour announced its intent to flex its imperial muscles and build a powerful fleet. In 1898, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz presented the Kaiser with a plan to expand the navy, with the ultimate goal being to build a fleet two-thirds the size of the Royal Navy. This would place Germany in an undisputed second place in terms of fleet power, vastly overshadowing France.

Furst Bismarck -- Germ.  (LOC)

The German battlecruiser SMS Fürst Bismarck was the Kaiserliche Marine‘s first heavy cruiser. Like most others, the Fürst Bismarck was rendered obsolete by the arrival of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Two issues of this fleet-building exercise alarmed London. Firstly, it was conceived of with specific reference to Britain. Tirpitz’s plan measured German power against British power, and the Admiralty in London inevitably came to the conclusion that this meant that the Germans wished for a fleet that could rival Britain’s. Indeed, even though Tirpitz conceded that Britain would still have the larger navy, it was presumed that the makeup of the Royal Navy would still be of a significant number of obsolescent ships, while the Kaiserliche Marine would be made up of only the newest and most advanced vessels. Secondly, while the Naval Ministry in Berlin insisted that their new ships were primarily built to safeguard the small but growing German overseas empire in Africa and the Pacific, a simple overview of the plans at the shipbuilding yards proved the lie in these assurances. The vessels coming off the slipways in Hamburg and Kiel lacked longterm crew dormitory accommodation, indicating that they were intended to be at sea only for short stints. Logically, this could only mean that the principal German battle fleet was being designed and built to fight in the North Sea, close to home ports, rather than in the faraway Pacific Ocean. And, if Germany expected to fight in the North Sea, its expected foes could only be the French Navy and the Royal Navy.

In response to these alarming developments, Britain began a massive shipbuilding effort of its own. Once the Dreadnought launched in 1906, the Germans were forced to revise their battleship designs, since British technology now outstripped anything the Kaiserliche Marine could field. Worse for the Germans, the British were so concerned by Berlin’s intentions that they revised their defensive plans in 1905; now, the Royal Navy had a concrete plan, if war were to eventuate between the two countries, to blockade German sea ports and thus starve the country of imports. In the event, the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race ended in 1912, with a resounding British victory. The Germans could not hope to build a fleet to rival Britain’s, simply because Britain would not permit it. Yet, by attempting so to do, Tirpitz and Wilhelm had challenged Britain on the very issue – sea power – upon which British power was based. Britain could not afford to ignore this. So, while Germany attempted to aggrandise itself in naval affairs, it served mostly to antagonise the most powerful naval force on the globe.

Baghdad Railway train, circa 1910

A German-built train on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, ca.1910. The railway was a symbol of German financial influence and Berlin’s friendship with Constantinople, but it largely came about because of German diplomatic failures and the loss of Russia as an ally. In any case, it never actually reached Berlin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another problem with the post-Bismarckian Germany was that the system of alliances that had been developed by Bismarck was permitted to lapse. In 1873, for example, Bismarck had formed the League of Three Emperors. This was a treaty between the German, Russian, and Austrian Empires, and served as, at the very least, a non-aggression pact. This league had dissolved in 1885, after Russia and Austria-Hungary found themselves with competing interests in the Balkans during the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Even so, Bismarck had been able to secure the partnership of Austria-Hungary with Germany (along with Italy), in the Triple Alliance of 1882, and in 1887 he crafted yet another alliance with Russia – the Reinsurance Treaty. Thus, Germany acted as a mediator; while Austria and Russia were no longer bound to each other by treaty, they were both tied to Germany, and Germany therefore had a prominent bloc of friendly states in Europe. In 1890, however, Wilhelm II refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty. One of the concessions to be made to Russia was that Russia would be given access and rights to the Dardanelles, and Wilhelm feared that this guarantee would anger the British. Therefore, he reneged. Ironically, this permitted France, Germany’s eternal enemy, to make the same guarantee to Russia, and form its own alliance with the eastern giant. To compensate, Wilhelm attempted to court the Ottoman Empire (Russia’s perennial foe in the south), and also tried to keep Italy in the Triple Alliance. Neither of these were commensurate to the loss of Russian patronage, though; Turkey, the “sick man of Europe”, had been in decline for decades, and was poised to lose all influence in the Balkans. It was riven with sectarian and ethnic conflicts. And, while Germany was able to gain some key concessions, such as the private funding of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway or the seconding of General Liman von Sanders to reorganise the Ottoman Army, these had consequences. Britain and France, it should be remembered, also had enormous financial interests in the Ottoman Empire, and Britain had taken charge of the Ottoman Navy’s modernisation, so the economic and military gains enjoyed by Germany were hardly exclusive. Worse, the appearance of German capital and soldiers in Turkey concerned Britain in particular, which worried about its own interests there. As far as Italy was concerned, it was neither a powerful state nor a reliable one, as Germany would find to its discomfort in 1914.

Thus, German foreign policy at the turn of the century left much to be desired. German attempts to gain economic or territorial ascendency concerned the French, who were already poorly disposed towards their neighbour. But Germany’s actions also caused alarm in Britain, and had the effect of further forcing Britain into the French camp, while Germany hoped that the British would, at the very least, remain a neutral force in Europe. Worse, Germany jettisoned its friendship with Russia in favour of relations with Russia’s enemy, the Ottoman Empire, which was hardly a decent substitute. Moreover, this breakdown of relations between Berlin and St. Petersburg left the way clear for Paris, which, concluding treaties with Russia, therefore maintained a bloc that surrounded Germany. So, while Wilhelm had intended to strengthen Germany’s hand, he had actually made his empire far more vulnerable, with enemies to both the east and west, and with only weak or unreliable allies on whom to count.

One of the most profound and far-reaching consequences of this was that Germany focused more and more on its relationship with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary was Germany’s only dependable ally on the continent, and as a result Berlin keenly felt the need to support its southern ally in any diplomatic squabble. In March 1912, Raymond Poincaré had noted to his Russian opposite number, Izvolsky, that a conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary “would constitute a casus foederis for the Austro-German alliance.” Later, as the July Crisis of 1914 devolved into war, Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg insisted that, if Germany had not backed Austria-Hungary in its ultimatum to Serbia (which he must surely have known might necessitate war with Russia), Germany’s inaction would have been an act of “self-castration.” Indeed, though Berlin often viewed Vienna as impulsive and impetuous in its dealings with other countries, such a profound feeling existed that Germany must support its single friend at any cost, that Wilhelm was compelled in July 1914 to issue a “Blank Cheque” to Austria, an assurance that, whatever Austria chose to do in its dealings with Serbia, Germany would guarantee its support and security. The ramifications of this action were to be catastrophic for Europe and the world.

English: Triangle of three emperors, Mysłowice...

Bismarck’s foreign policy aim had been to keep Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary united to isolate France diplomatically. However, Germany’s unwillingness to antagonise Britain led it to jettison Russia (Nicholas II pictured at left), leaving Wilhelm II (centre) with just Franz Josef (right) as a dependable European ally. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One final point should be made about Germany’s relations with other states during this period. Berlin has often been castigated in the historiography of the post-1918 (and, indeed, post-1945) world for provoking its rivals. To the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1960s, Germany’s actions in the intervening years between the beginning of the century and the outbreak of the war constituted nothing less than a “Griff nach der Weltmacht”, or a grasp at world supremacy. Instead, Germany’s actions during this time should perhaps be viewed as reactive, rather than provocative. In both 1905 and 1911, during the Moroccan Crises, Germany was arguably not at fault. Indeed, in both cases, it was France that had overstepped its mandate in North Africa, and certainly in 1911 France’s reaction to the arrival of the decrepit Panther was so hysterical as to be high farce. Germany’s continued, unequivocal support for Austria-Hungary was largely dictated by a necessity, since both France and Russia had concluded arguably hostile treaties of their own. Germany’s attempt to build a navy that might rival the British was, of course, its right, but the way it went about doing so caused such concern in London that it forced the British to gravitate towards the Franco-Russian Alliance. None of these were engineered in Berlin, but the key theme was one of naïveté. To force the French hand in Morocco on both occasions would have required British support, but Britain, as isolationist as it was, would hardly have threatened its cordial relations with France over such an obscure and irrelevant territory. Moreover, it seems likely that no one in Berlin recognised that the British would be threatened by Germany’s naval rearmament – and, certainly, once the Naval Arms Race had begun, neither power could easily back down. Finally, Germany’s inability to find a way to deal with the Russians opened the possibility of encirclement, which terrified German policymakers. Thus, as of 1914, Germany experienced a period of paralysing self-doubt, which was largely of its own making. And, when Austria faced a situation in which it required German support, the Germans were quick to provide it, perhaps without totally understanding that that support could spark off a general European war.


Further reading

  • Berghahn, Volker R. Imperial Germany 1871-1918. Economy, Society, Culture and Politics. New York. Berghahn. 2005.

  • Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. London. Penguin. 2007.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. German Colonialism: A Short History. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany 1866-1945. New York. Oxford University Press. 1978.

  • Eley, Geoff, and Retallack, James (eds.) Wilhelminism and its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930. New York. Berghahn. 2004.

  • Evans, Robert John Weston, and Standmann, Hartmut Pogge von (eds.) The Coming of the First World War. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1988.

  • Hagen, William W. German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

  • Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State. London. Arnold. 1997.

  • Steinberg, Jonathan. Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. New York. Macmillan. 1966.

  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. The German Empire, 1871-1918. Leamington Spa. Berg. 1985.

1 Comment

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One response to “Prewar Years: Germany

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