Bismarck’s Germany Before the First World War

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The three cleavages around which German politics was organized were religion, region, and class division. Bismarck’s attempt of unifying the nation-state had failed. Did his policies create more social tensions in Germany?

Power loom weaving in a cotton mill in Lancashire, England.
Unlike England, industrialism arrived late in Germany. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In the 20th century, there were two dominant religious groups in Germany: the Catholics and the Protestants. Northern Germany was largely Protestant and southern Germany was largely Catholic.

Class division was also seen among the emerging German working class—blue-collar workers in the factories and the coal mines in particular—and their liberal, conservative, middle-class counterparts. This class division in the new German state became extremely important in the political landscape.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The German Social Democratic Party

The most obvious domestic political development in Germany before the outbreak of the First World War was the rise of the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD. It was a labor party and its appeal was to blue-collar workers.

It made enormous strides between 1871 and 1912, the last pre-war election, and ended up becoming a major player in German politics. It, in fact, became the largest party by 1912; and, after 1890, it was a Marxist party. It was a party that seemed to represent a domestic threat to the stability of the new German state.

German Industrialization

Unlike Great Britain, industrialism appeared late in Germany. But, once industrialization spread, Germany surpassed Great Britain in many of the areas of industrial production. It was, indeed, the industrial heartland of Europe by the time of the outbreak of the First World War.

However the speed of industrialization meant that there was a peculiar situation in Germany. The most advanced industrial workers in the world increasingly organized themselves into labor unions. Later, that would become the model for European labor unions. These workers were living cheek by jowl with artisans, handwerker, who still belonged to guilds. Interestingly, the guilds didn’t go out of existence until 1918–19.

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The Social Fabric of the New German State

The Krupp works in Essen, 1890.
Industries changed the social fabric of the German society. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Between 1850 and 1875, the Ruhr transformed from being a glorified sheep pasture to becoming the industrial center of continental Europe. This led to a conflict between values that were extremely modern, and those that represented an older past.

The Germany of gingerbread houses and black forest toy makers were being replaced by the smokestacks of the Krupp works in the Ruhr, or around Berlin, or in Silesia.

The new industrial phenomenon gave rise to urbanization. It meant people moving in, certainly from the country into the city, with, again, attendant problems. Urbanization grew by leaps and bounds during this period, particularly after the unification in 1871.

The Unification of Germany Led by Bismarck

Given the divisiveness of this new German state, Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Prussia, had a big task cut out for him. He had to construct a nation-state. And he began his task by unifying Germany.

His efforts can be seen in the way the national anthem of the new nation- state was composed. The lyrics were taken from a poem that was talking about Germany above Bavaria, Germany above Hanover, Germany above Prussia. It was an attempt to recognize one’s Germanness as opposed to one’s Bavarianness. But, did this unification work?

Bismarck and the Enemy of the Reich

Unification didn’t solve the problem of divisiveness, which was the result of centuries of division and regional loyalty. Also, Bismarck had to deal with the threat of the social democracy.

Bismarck picked an enemy of the Reich, a Reichfeind, and then rally a majority against it. The first of these happened to be the Catholic Church. As a short-term expedient, from 1873 to the late 1870s, Bismarck conducted a campaign against political Catholicism. In the long run, this would have a devastating impact on the German political culture.

He wound up pursing a policy of persecution against the church, which had the opposite effect. It rallied Catholics to the church, of course. It rallied Catholics to the Catholic Center Party, and it alienated an important minority within Germany.

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Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws

In 1878, he introduced a series of anti-Socialist laws that would be in effect till 1890. What did that do? It rallied support of liberals, conservatives; it also rallied even some Catholics, who now found a way to become part of the majority, as opposed to the isolated minority.

But what it also did was to alienate a growing percentage of the German population. These were the industrial workers, or workers who were drawn to the Social Democratic Party, which at that point was not Marxist, but certainly was seen as being of dubious loyalty.

Bismarck’s Policy of Negative Integration

The photo shows the Nazi flag.
The greatest goals of the Nazis was to overcome the confrontational style of politics. (Image: RatArt/Shutterstock)

At a time when he could have worked to build consensus, Bismarck employed the policy of negative integration, in group/out group. If you look at the political pamphlets for Germany in this period, they are confrontational. So, it set a tone that you were either with the government, or you were an enemy of the new state.

That style of politics, this confrontational, in-your-face kind of politics, would remain a hallmark of German politics right down to 1933, and overcoming that, ironically, was one of the great goals of the Nazis. That would be the single biggest appeal the Nazis offered between 1920 and 1933.

The New Era in German Politics

When Bismarck was finally booted out of office, not by the Parliament—they couldn’t do it—but by the new emperor, who was about 60 years his junior and didn’t want to take any more advice from the old man, Germany embarked upon a new course in the 1890s.

He lifted the anti-Socialist laws and the Social Democrats instantly became the largest party in Germany. In each election between 1890 and 1912, they improved their performance, so that they had over 38% of the vote in 1912.

In 1890, the Social Democrats showed their thanks to the new emperor for lifting the ban by adopting Marxism as part of its platform. Their policy was to not only bring real democracy to Germany, but also to destroy the capitalist system of Germany.

Germany, domestically, then, was a kind of tinderbox before 1914. There were real social tensions underneath the surface.

Common Questions about Bismarck’s Germany Before the First World War

Q: What happened after Bismarck was forced to leave his office?

After Bismarck was forced to leave his office, the new emperor lifted the anti-Socialist laws and the Social Democrats instantly became the largest party in Germany.

Q: What did Bismarck do in 1878?

In 1878, Bismarck introduced a series of anti-Socialist laws.

Q: What did Bismarck do from 1873 to the late 1870s?

From 1873 to the late 1870s, Bismarck conducted a campaign against political Catholicism.

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