Germany During the First World War

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

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

Germany had the largest and the most powerful army. It also had the strongest economy. However, social and regional tensions were simmering beneath the surface of this success. This was the situation when, in the summer of 1914, the war that everybody had anticipated coming for years finally broke over Europe.

German soldiers in action during the First World War.
When the war first broke, everybody believed the troops would be back in a couple of months. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Initial Reaction to the Great War in Germany

Initially, the Great War was greeted in Germany, as it was everywhere, with great fanfare, with the troops being showered with flowers. Everybody believed that the boys would be back home by Christmas.

In Germany, it also had another meaning—that, finally, the regional, religious, and class divisions of Germany would be overcome. The Kaiser, in a very famous speech, called for what he described as a burgfrieden, as “peace within the castle”. When the enemy is at the gates, one has to put aside all of their disagreements and pull together to get through this threat. In that same speech, he said, “I do not recognize parties any longer. I recognize only Germans.”

For the Kaiser to say this was a definite plea to the Social Democrats. So there was a feeling of national solidarity as the Social Democrats decided, in fact, to support the war effort. This was not automatic. They were technically a pacifist party—an internationalist party—but they supported the war effort.

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 Illusion of the First World War

By the end of 1914, and certainly by 1916, it was clear that all of the thinking about the War had been an illusion. The War obviously wasn’t over by Christmas. In fact, in 1915, and then in 1916, the War was still going on with no end in sight.

Two enormous battles would take place in 1916 that, in many ways, marked the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. One was the Battle of Verdun, fought between the Germans and the French, that lasted a year. A million people perished in that battle.

The British launched an offensive on the Somme later in 1916; 40,000 British troops were killed in one day of fighting and German casualties mounted all the way through 1915 and 1916.

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German Economy During the First World War

There’d been no planning for a long war, so the economy was in a shambles. The skilled workers had been called to the colors early on in the War, and even the farmers who were necessary to produce food had been called up. Now, Germany had to somehow organize itself for a long-term conflict, and that authority was turned over, not to the Parliament, which technically controlled the budget, it was turned over to the army.

A painting depicting Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
Paul von Hindenburg (left) and General Erich Ludendorff became the real leaders of Germany during the course of the Great War. (Image: Hugo Vogel/Public domain)

The army, in fact, established what was in effect martial law during the course of the War. The emperor sort of vanished into the background. Paul von Hindenburg, the first great German hero of the War, and his lieutenant, General Erich Ludendorff, became the real leaders of Germany during the course of the War, and they relied enormously on heavy industry.

The reason was simple: the heavy industries were manufacturing cannons and boots, the essential items during the War. The small artisans and little handicraft shops were not manufacturing these items.

The State of Economy Under the Army

To many, it seemed as if an alliance had been made, with the army functioning as the kind of mediator between big industry and big labor. People who felt on the outside—the small shopkeepers and small producers—in many cases were wiped out. The army had the authority simply to close small, inefficient shops, and it did.

About a third of independent artisans lost their businesses during the War, and their proprietors drafted. Peasants and farmers, also felt cheated. Germany still imported about 20 percent of its food in 1914 and the peasants and the farmers were called on to, somehow, continue producing food without nitrates; those were all going for munitions production. 

They were encouraged to buy new farm equipment, but the government didn’t impose limits on prices for business, so plows and other such equipment, became more expensive.

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Social Conflict During the First World War

There was an awful lot of social conflict during the War. An urban/rural split developed, with farmers and small shopkeepers believing that the government had simply sold out both to big business and big labor.

Farmers felt that the workers in the cities were getting away with lower prices for food. Workers in the cities felt that the farmers were hiding away their food, selling it on the black market. In 1916, over a quarter of a million Germans died of starvation or diseases related to lack of food.

The food just simply wasn’t there, and the British blockade was very successful. As a result, in late 1916 and the beginning of 1917, the first great wave of strikes broke across Germany, and those strikes would continue off and on sporadically down to the end of the War in 1918.

Meanwhile, the official propaganda was producing a really glamorous picture. It looked like Germany might be on the verge of breaking through, and, certainly, the public was fed this constant diet of good news—any day now, the last victory is within sight; there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

But, of course every day, the German population could see the long list of casualties, which continued mounting, and so the price was going to be high no matter what.

Common Questions about Germany During the First World War

Q: What is the significance of Battle of Verdun?

The Battle of Verdaun was fought between the Germans and the French in 1916. The battle lasted a year, and millions perished in this battle during the First World War.

Q: Why did the German peasants and farmers feel cheated during the First World War?

The German peasants and farmers felt cheated during the First World War because they were asked to, somehow, continue producing food without nitrates. They were encouraged to buy new farm equipment, but the government didn’t impose limits on prices for business, so plows and other such equipment became more expensive.

Q: Who became the real leaders of Germany during the course of the First World War?

Paul von Hindenburg, the first great German hero of the War, and his lieutenant, General Erich Ludendorff, became the real leaders of Germany during the course of the First World War.

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