The Great Powers of World War I — Germany’s Revolution

From a LECTURE SERIES BY Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

Germany’s rise as a Great Power during the turn of the century is a story complete with revolution, political upheaval, unstable leaders, and generals dancing in tutus.

Image of Kaiser Generals for Great Powers article
A composite image of Wilhelm II with German generals

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Germany — The Young Contender

The German Empire had been created by war, born of the war in 1870 to 1871, when the German Kingdom of Prussia had led German armies, its allies of other German states, to victory against France. As a result of this war, it was possible to establish the German Empire around Prussian leadership, a tactic that was pursued and won by the so-called Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and the leader of Prussian politics.

Image of Otto von Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898), was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890.

Otto von Bismarck was a peerless practitioner of Realpolitik, a German phrase often translated in English as power politics. As the chief servant of the royal family of Prussia, the Hohenzollerns, Bismarck carefully engineered German unification around a hard-core of Prussian militarism in a succession of wars against Austria in 1866, and then against France, sealing the establishment of the German Empire. This new, young Germany had become, at a stroke, in 1870 to 1871, the strongest power on the continent. It was endowed with proud Prussian militarist traditions. It had an enormous and growing population of 65 million, and its booming economy likewise made it an industrial powerhouse in a new surge of industrial revolution.

The creation of this German Empire was of such importance to international affairs, the contemporaries had to struggle with the question of how to come to terms with this new political fact. Indeed, where earlier one had had essentially a power vacuum at the center of Europe, there was this new principal, this new factor in power politics. Contemporaries at the time spoke of this unprecedented event as the “German Revolution.” By calling it this, they were very clearly placing it on a par with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century that had overturned the political order.

The German Question

The German Question was essentially a way of asking what role would this new Germany play in European affairs. Would it be an anchor of European stability; or would it be a factor for instability, chaos, and perhaps war?

This, in international terms, was a fact that needed to be dealt with. The German Revolution had produced what contemporaries called, the “German Question.” The German Question, which continued to haunt international politics through much of the 20th century, was essentially a way of asking what role would this new Germany play in European affairs. Would it be an anchor of European stability; or would it be a factor for instability, chaos, and perhaps war? Otto von Bismarck, an international politician of enormous sophistication, also had to deal with the German Question. He dealt with it in part by trying to calm the potential fears of other Great Powers, to insure in part that Germany wouldn’t face a hostile coalition of powers balancing off against its perceived threat. He aimed to reassure the other Great Powers that Germany had only peaceful intentions. Bismarck’s principal was to present Germany at all junctures as a satisfied power that had what it wanted, that was satiated, and that now after being a revolutionary factor in international politics would become a conservative in international politics.

Image of Kaiser Wilhelm
Wilhelm II — German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from June 1888 to November 1918

The Ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm II

These cautious policies, these attempts to calm the fears, potential fears, of neighbors were simply too mild a policy prescription for the young emperor—the word in German is Kaiser—by the name of Wilhelm II who ascended to the throne in 1888. He objected to Bismarck’s attempts to calm other powers, and instead insisted on a far more energetic policy. He soon dismissed Bismarck in 1890, and set about crafting a far more assertive approach to international politics. His slogan was announced with the words, “full steam ahead.”

Now, under his control nobody was really sure exactly what the course would be, but it was clear that it would be fast and it would be aggressive. A few words about this really remarkable personality of Wilhelm II would be in place here. He was, on the one hand, the descendent of a long and distinguished aristocratic line, the royal family of the House of Prussia, the family of Hohenzollern. He was also, as it turns out, the grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. This speaks volumes about the interrelated kinship networks between the royal families of Europe.

Unfortunate Characteristics

But Wilhelm II distinguished himself also by many other unfortunate characteristics. He was notoriously emotionally unstable. He was given to macho posturing and extremely aggressive language. In famous newsreels of this period his figure is always very quickly to be picked out from a crowd of aristocrats because he is the one who is gesturing with wide and dramatic, very aggressive gestures, even when in engaged in making small talk with fellow aristocrats.

According to historians who place a lot of store by personal psychology, Wilhelm II’s physical infirmity, the fact that he was born with a withered arm as the result of a difficult birth process, according to some historians, goes some way towards explaining his posturing, his over compensation in terms of aggressive militarism, for what he perceived a physical malady that a war lord shouldn’t have.

Image of Wilhelm II, German Emperor
Wilhelm II, German Emperor, 1905

His militarism was reflected in his love of resplendent uniforms and his militaristic language that often would produce a really characteristic talent for disaster.

Wilhelm II would often engage in incautious interviews with the international press, which would produce scandals that he then would have to retreat from. One problem is that this intemperate man was also surrounded by figures at court that were not very helpful in taming some of his policies.

One famous case, which made clear that he was surrounded by irresponsible individuals, involved news leaking out at the start of the 20th century that at one point, when Wilhelm II had to be cheered up from one of these public relations disasters he had unleashed, some of his own generals dressed up as ballerinas and danced for him at court.

One of those generals had a heart attack and fell dead while dancing for the Emperor dressed as a ballerina. As news of this filtered out, it was not very much calculated to reassure people that Germany’s leadership was in firm and responsible hands. Wilhelm II’s policies were determined, above all, to win respect and status for Germany. In his words, “Germany deserved its place in the sun.” As a result, he sanctioned an aggressive foreign policy that very shortly alienated many of the Great Powers, precisely the thing that Bismarck had aimed to avoid.

When Wilhelm II had to be cheered up from one of these public relations disasters he had unleashed, some of his own generals dressed up as ballerinas and danced for him at court. One of those generals actually had a heart attack and fell dead while dancing for the Emperor dressed as a ballerina.

A Strange Political Creation

Germany was a strange political creation. Though it had a parliament called the Reichstag, the empire was in fact an uneasy mix of constitutionalism and some democratic seeming elements on the one hand, and on the other hand authoritarianism, the personal rule of an unbalanced individual like Wilhelm II. German domestic politics in fact were fragmented along class, regional, and religious lines, so there was a certain volatility to German politics, which further was exacerbated by the phenomenon of rapid, very thorough, and late industrialization within Germany, which brought social disruption.

Emblem of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
Emblem of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)

This social disruption for German conservatives and German ruling elites was summed up in the figure of one new political force that many of them feared—this was the SPD. The SPD—the initials stood for the Social Democratic Party of Germany—was a party that identified itself with the working classes.

Founded in 1875, the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, adhered to Marx’s ideas of a revolution overcoming capitalism and ushering in an age of worker’s control. The SPD was a self-consciously revolutionary party. It was well organized and disciplined, and became a model for other socialists worldwide, including in the United States, who sought to emulate this elder brother of the international socialist movement.

To the horror of Germany’s ruling elites, the SPD, in the voting in 1912, became the largest party in Germany. A sense of crisis was building from these political facts, and Germany’s established elites and German nationalists sought some way in which it might be possible to escape from these domestic problems.

There arose now a plethora of nationalist leagues, pressing and endorsing Wilhelm II’s demand for a more aggressive foreign policy, in some cases outdoing his bellicose sentiments. These included the Navy League, the Army League, the Colonial League, and the Pan German League, arguing that all Germans living around the world needed to, together, engage in a mission of “national greatness.”

They all agitated for a more assertive foreign policy in part as a way of escaping this sense of internal domestic crisis. A mood of crisis and pessimism about the future haunted German elites, and many historians argue affected the decisions made at the time of the outbreak of the First World War.

From the lecture series World War I: The “Great War”
Taught by professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
For more about World War I, stream the lecture series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition  by Professor Thomas Childers, Ph.D. on The Great Courses Plus.

1 Comment

  1. I may have some letters written to my grandmother from her brother who served in the Prussian Calvary under von Bismarck He eventually became a pilot in the Luftwaffe, but was very dismayed as were many junkers over the Kaiser’s rule. His last letter to my grandmother was written in 1940 and she died in 1944. In doing some research, my daughter found that one of the Prussian officers who plotted against Hitler was a von Kessel. However, we have no idea if no idea if he was my grandmother’s nephew. We believe her brother Franz von Kessel died in 1940.

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