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The German Empire

Territory of the German Empire in 1914, prior to World War I
Territory of the German Empire in 1914, prior to World War I

The German Empire is the name used in English to describe the first 47 years of the German Reich when it was a semi-constitutional monarchy: beginning with the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I of Prussia as German Emperor (January 18, 1871), effectively ending with the proclamation of the German republic by Philipp Scheidemann (November 9, 1918) and formally ending with the abdication of Wilhelm II (November 28, 1918). The most important bordering states were the Russian Empire in the east, the French Third Republic in the west, and Austria-Hungary in the south.


The official name used to describe Germany from 1871 to 1943 in German was the Deutsches Reich, while the German term Deutsches Kaiserreich was used unofficially to describe Germany specifically during the 1871-1918 period. The direct translation of Deutsches Reich into English is "German Empire", although the German word "Reich" can have non-imperial connotations similar to the English "commonwealth", "realm" or "domain". The full English translation to "German Empire" and the part-translation German Reich was officially used to describe Germany during the 47 years of Hohenzollern rule, while only "German Reich" was used in English from 1918 to 1943. During the whole 1871-1943 period, the German Reich was also known as simply Germany.

The term Second Reich (Zweites Reich) is sometimes applied retrospectively to this period. The term was popularised by German nationalist historian Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in the 1920s, and drew an explicit link with the earlier Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (the "First Reich"), as well as underlining his desire for the establishment of a "Third Reich". This term was subsequently adopted during the time of Nazi rule for propaganda purposes - and therefore its use among historians after World War II has generally been discouraged, as many consider it to give legitimacy to Nazi historiography.

Bismarck's founding of the Empire

Under the guise of idealism giving way to realism, German nationalism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848 to Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck's authoritarian realpolitik. Bismarck wanted to unify the rival German states to achieve his aim of a conservative, Prussian-dominated Germany. Three wars which were declared to Germany and led to military successes, helped to convince German people to do this: the Second war of Schleswig against Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War against Austria in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War against the Second French Empire in 1870-71. During the Siege of Paris in 1871, the North German Federation, supported by its allies from southern Germany, formed the German Empire with the proclamation of the Prussian king Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, to the humiliation of the French, who ceased to resist only days later.

Bismarck himself prepared a broad outline - the 1866 North German Constitution, which became the 1871 Constitution of the German Empire with some adjustments. Germany acquired some democratic features: notably the Reichstag, that in contrast to the parliament of Prussia was elected by direct and equal manhood suffrage. However, legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the states, in which Prussia had a large influence. Behind a constitutional façade, Prussia thus exercised predominant influence in both bodies with executive power vested in the Kaiser, who appointed the federal chancellor - Otto von Bismarck. The chancellor was accountable solely to and served entirely at the discretion of the Emperor. Officially, the chancellor was a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs; in practice, the State Secretaries (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc.) acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. With the exception of the years 1872-1873 and 1892-1894, the chancellor was always simultaneously the prime minister of the imperial dynasty's hegemonic home-kingdom, Prussia. The Reichstag had the power to pass, amend or reject bills, but could not initiate legislation. The power of initiating legislation rested with the chancellor.

While the other states retained their own governments, the military forces of the smaller states were put under Prussian control, while those of the larger states such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony were coordinated along Prussian principles and would in wartime be controlled by the federal government. Although authoritarian in many respects, the empire permitted the development of political parties.

Die Proklamation des Deutschen Kaiserreiches by Anton von Werner (1877)
Die Proklamation des Deutschen Kaiserreiches by Anton von Werner (1877), depicting the proclamation of the foundation of the German Reich (18 January 1871, Palace of Versailles).
Left, on the podium (in black): crown-prince Frederick (later Friedrich III), his father Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Frederick I of Baden, proposing a toast to the new emperor. Centre (in white): Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of Germany

The evolution of the German Empire is somewhat in line with parallel developments in Italy which became a united nation state shortly before the German Empire. Some key elements of the German Empire's authoritarian political structure were also the basis for conservative modernization in Imperial Japan under Tokugawa and the preservation of an authoritarian political structure under the Tsars in the Russian Empire.

One factor in the social anatomy of these governments had been the retention of a very substantial share in political power by the landed elite, the Junkers, due to the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban areas.

Constituent states of the empire

Member states of the German Empire, with Prussia in blue
German Colonial Empire in 1914
German Colonial Empire in 1914

Before the German Unification, Germany was divided up into 39 independent states. These states consisted of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory. The Kingdom of Prussia was the largest of the constituent states, covering some 60 percent of the territory of the German Empire.

Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Others were created as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Territories were not necessarily contiguous - many existed in several parts, as a result of historical acquisition, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling family trees.

Each component of the German Empire sent representatives to the Imperial Council (Bundesrat) and the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). Relations between the Imperial centre and the Empire's components were somewhat fluid, and were developed on an ongoing basis. The extent to which the German Emperor could, for example, intervene on occasions of disputed or unclear succession was much debated on occasion - for example with the Lippe-Detmold inheritance crisis

The Bismarck era

Bismarck's domestic policies played a great role in forging the authoritarian political culture of the Kaiserreich. Less preoccupied by continental power politics following unification in 1871, Germany's semi-parliamentary government carried out a relatively smooth economic and political revolution from above that pushed them along the way towards becoming the world's leading industrial power of the time.


Industrialization progressed dynamically in Germany and German manufacturers began to capture domestic markets from British imports, and also to compete with British industry abroad, particularly in the United States. The German textiles and metal industries had by the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War surpassed those of Britain in organization and technical efficiency and usurped British manufacturers in the domestic market. By the turn of the century, the German metals and engineering industries would be producing heavily for the free trade market of Britain. By the time of World War I (1914-1918) the German economy had switched to supplying its military with the proper equipment needed to fight the war. This included the production of rifles (Gewehr 98), pistols (P08 Luger), and heavy weaponry (Maxim machine gun, Minenwerfer mortar, and several other heavy and light artillery pieces).


After achieving formal unification in 1871, Bismarck devoted much of his attention to the cause of national unity under the ideology of Prussianism. Conservative Catholic activism and emancipation, conceptualized by the conservative turn of the Vatican under Pope Pius IX and its dogma of Papal Infallibility, and working class radicalism, represented by the emerging Social Democratic Party, in many ways both reacted to concerns of dislocation by very different segments of German society, brought by a rapid shift from an agrarian-based economy to modern industrial capitalism under nationalist tutelage. While out-and-out suppression failed to contain either socialists or Catholics, Bismarck's "carrot and stick" approach significantly mollified opposition from both groups.

One can summarize Bismarck's ideology under four objectives: Kulturkampf, social reform, national unification, and Kleindeutschland.


Following the incorporation of the Catholic German states in the south and some areas in the east, Catholicism, represented by the Catholic Centre Party, was seemingly the principal threat to unification process. Southern Catholics, hailing from a much more agrarian base and falling under the ranks of the peasantry, artisans, guildsmen, clergy, and princely aristocracies of the small states more often than their Protestant counterparts in the North, initially had trouble competing with industrial efficiency and the opening of outside trade by the Zollverein. Roman Catholic institutions were obstructed and Catholic influence on society was fought by the Bismarck government. After 1878 however, the struggle against socialism would unite Bismarck with the Catholic Centre Party, bringing an end to the Kulturkampf, which had led to far greater Catholic unrest than existed beforehand and had strengthened rather than weakened Catholicism in Germany.

Social reform

To contain the working class and to weaken the influence of socialist groups, Bismarck reluctantly implemented a remarkably advanced welfare state. The social security systems installed by Bismarck (health care in 1883, accidents insurance in 1884, invalidity and old-age insurance in 1889) at the time were the most advanced in the world and, to a degree, still exist in Germany today.

National unification

Bismarck's efforts also initiated the leveling of the enormous differences between the German states, which had been independent in their evolution for centuries, especially with legislation.


Two visions of what the German Empire should territorially compromise were debated during Bismarck's reign. One vision was of a Grossdeutschland (Greater or Large Germany) the other which was preferred by Bismarck was a Kleindeutschland (Lesser or Small Germany). Grossdeutschland then especially espoused by German liberals and Pan-German nationalists was that Germany should be an all-encompassing state for all Germans including Austrian territory (some wanting all of Austro-Hungarian territory, some only wanting German Austrian lands). Kleindeutschland was an idea espoused by Bismarck and Prussian conservatives. The Kleindeutschland concept believed that incorporating all of Austria-Hungary into Germany would result in the destabilization of the German state due to the number of ethnic minorities in Austria-Hungary. Also, the largely Prussian supporters of Kleindeutschland feared that even the incorporation of German Austria alone excluding non-German territory, would weaken Prussia's control over the direction of Germany and substantially increase the number of Roman Catholics in a state which already had tensions with the Protestant north establishment and Catholic south which the state wanted to assimilate. Kleindeutschland was an important element of the German Empire's political affairs and stands in stark contrast to Nazi Germany which claimed itself to be a successor to the German Empire, even though Nazi Germany followed a Pan-German, Grossdeutschland approach which dismantled Prussian hegemony in Germany in favour of a centralized and totalitarian state.


One of the effects of the unification policies was the elimination of the use of non-German languages from public life, schools and academic settings with the intent of pressuring the non-German population to abandon their national identity or leave the country in what was called "Germanization". The strict Germanization policies had often the reverse effect of stimulating resistance, usually in the form of home schooling and tighter unity in the minority groups.

The Germanization policies were targeted particularly against the significant Polish minority of the Empire, gained by Prussia in Partitions of Poland]. Laws were made that denied Poles the right to build a home in territories taken in Partitions of Poland, restricted right to speak Polish in public, in 1908 a law was made allowing for explusion of Poles from their homes. A Settlement Commission was set up and funded by the government in 1885, with a mission to distribute Polish owned land among German colonists. However, Poles founded a similar organization that successfully competed with the German settlement commission. In the 1880s mass expulsion of Poles that weren't granted German citizenship were organized by German authorities. Numerous Polish associations fought for their rights and about 20 Polish deputies were elected to the Reichstag legislative where they tried unsuccesfully to fight minority rights. With time German policy towards Poles grew in its racists aspects and massive plans of ethnic cleansing were made towards Poles by German officials.


The completely different legal histories and judicial systems posed enormous complications, especially for national trade. While a common trade code had already been introduced by the Confederation in 1861 (which was adapted for the Empire and, with great modifications, is still in effect today), there was little similarity in laws otherwise.

In 1871, a common Criminal Code (Reichsstrafgesetzbuch) was introduced; in 1877, common court procedures were established in the court system (Gerichtsverfassungsgesetz), civil procedures (Zivilprozessordnung) and criminal procedures (Strafprozessordnung). In 1873 the constitution was amended to allow the Empire to replace the various and greatly differing Civil Codes of the states (if they existed at all; for example, parts of Germany formerly occupied by Napoleon's France had adopted the French Civil Code, while in Prussia the Allgemeines Preussisches Landrecht of 1794 was still in effect). In 1881, a first commission was established to produce a common Civil Code for all of the Empire, an enormous effort that would produce the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (BGB), possibly one of the most impressive legal works of the world; it was eventually put into effect on 1 January 1900. It speaks volumes for the conceptual quality of these codifications that they all, albeit with many amendments, are still in effect today.

Year of three emperors

Frederick III
Frederick III, Kaiser for only 99 days (9 March - 15 June 1888).

On 9 March 1888, William I died shortly before his 91st birthday, leaving his son Frederick III as the new emperor. Frederick was a liberal and an admirer of the British constitution, his links with the United Kingdom strengthened further with his marriage to Princess Victoria, eldest child of Queen Victoria. With his ascent to the throne, many hoped that Frederick's reign would lead to a liberalisation of the Reich and an increase of parliament's influence on the political process. The dismissal of Robert von Puttkamer, the highly-conservative Prussian interior minister, on 8 June was a sign in the expected direction and a blow to Bismarck's administration.

However, by the time of his coronation, Frederick had developed incurable laryngeal cancer, which had been diagnosed the previous year on 12 November 1887 by British doctor Morell Mackenzie.. Frederick died on the 99th day of his rule, on 15 June 1888. The death of Frederick III led to the crowning of his son William II as emperor. Due to the rapid succession of these three monarchs, 1888 is known as the Year of Three Emperors (German: Dreikaiserjahr).

The Wilhelminian era

Relegitimizing the throne and Bismarck's resignation

Friedrich Wilhelm Albert Viktor Hohenzollern of Prussia
Friedrich Wilhelm Albert Viktor Hohenzollern of Prussia, more commonly known as Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Oil painting by Max Kohner, 1890

Wilhelm II intended to relegitimize the importance of the Imperial throne at a time when other monarchies in Europe were being subordinated into figurehead positions. This decision led the ambitious Kaiser into conflict with Bismarck who was confident in his leadership and had no intent to relinquish any powers to the young Kaiser and instead wanted Wilhelm II to be dependent on him. A major difference between Wilhelm II and Bismarck was their approaches to handling political crises, especially in 1889, when German coal miners went on strike in Upper Silesia. Bismarck demanded that the army be sent in to crush the strike, but Wilhelm II rejected this authoritarian measure, responding "I do not wish to stain my reign with the blood of my subjects." Instead of repression being used, Wilhelm had the government proceed with negotiations with a delegation sent from the coal miners which resulted in the strike coming to an end without violence. This was the beginning of a rift between Wilhelm II and Bismarck. Bismarck defied Wilhelm's demands for greater power by forming political coalitions with political parties which Wilhelm did not praise. The fractious relationship ended after Wilhelm II and Bismarck had a dispute, days later Bismarck turned in his resignation in March 1890.

With the departure of Bismarck as Chancellor, Wilhelm II became the dominant leader of Germany. Unlike his father who was satisfied with leaving government affairs to the Chancellor, Wilhelm wanted to be active in the affairs of Germany and wanted to be a knowledgeable leader, not an ornamental figurehead. Wilhelm voluntarily received economics tutoring from Walther Rathenau, a controversial figure in German affairs at the time in Germany because he was liberal, Jewish, a freemason and a homosexual (who would later be assassinated in 1922 by far-right nationalists because of his unconventional background of the time). From Rathenau, Wilhelm learned about European economics and industrial and financial realities in Europe..

In official appearances and photographs, Wilhelm II took great care in hiding his deformed and withered left-hand which he had since birth. Wilhelm would become internationally known for his aggressive foreign policy positions and strategic blunders which pushed the German Empire into political isolation and later into World War I.

Domestic affairs

Under Wilhelm II, Germany no longer had long-ruling strong chancellors like Bismarck. The new chancellors had difficulty in performing their roles, especially their additional role as Prime Minister of Prussia that was assigned to them in the German Constitution. Reforms made by Chancellor Caprivi involving trade liberalization which brought about a reduction in unemployment were supported by the Kaiser and many Germans, except for Prussian landowners, who feared loss of land and power and set up a number of anti-Caprivi campaigns against the reforms..

While Prussian aristocrats challenged the demands of a united German state, in the 1890s a number of rebellious organizations were set up to challenge the authoritarian conservative Prussian militarism which was instilled on the country. Some educators acted in opposition the German state-run schools which taught military education and set up their own independent liberal-minded schools which encouraged individuality and freedom. Artists began experimental art in opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm's demands for traditional art in which Wilhelm responded "art which transgresses the laws and limits laid down by me can no longer be called art […]." The most dangerous opposition to the monarchy came from the newly formed Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in the 1890s which advocated Marxism. The threat of the SPD towards the German monarchy and industrialists caused the state to both crackdown on socialist supporters as well as initiating social reform to sooth tensions. Germany's large industries provided significant social welfare programs and good care to their employees as long as they were not identified as socialists or members of a trade union. Pensions, sickness benefits and even housing were provided to employees by the big industries to reduce social unease.

Wilhelm II, unlike Bismarck, set aside differences with the Roman Catholic Church and put the government's energy into opposing socialism at all cost. This policy failed when the Social Democrats won a third of the votes in the 1912 elections to the Reichstag (reich parliament), and became the largest political party in Germany. The government remained in the hands of a succession of conservative coalitions supported by right-wing liberals or Catholic clerics and heavily dependent on the Kaiser's favour. The rising militarism that was implemented by Wilhelm II caused many to flee Germany in order to avoid military service. Most fled to the United States.

During World War I, the Kaiser's powers were devolved to a two-man dictatorship in 1916 led by the German High command leaders, future President of Germany, General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. The Kaiser was no longer seen as a hero figure to Germans, while Hindenburg and Ludendorff were seen as the nation's true heroic leaders by Germans. The Kaiser remained a figurehead for the remaining two years of the war until his abdication in 1918.

Foreign affairs

Wilhelm II wanted Germany to have its "place in the sun" like the British Empire and set Germany to begin colonial efforts in Africa and the Pacific. With much territory in Africa already colonized, Germany took the remaining territories, which formed German Southwest Africa (Namibia), German Kamerun (Cameroon), and German East Africa (Tanzania). Germany gained some islands in the Pacific the Chinese port of Qingdao, to compete with the British holding of Hong Kong and Portuguese holding of Macau. The African colonies had some economic return, but the Pacific colonies had little to no economic use, and only served to spread Germany's official presence. Germany, with the finance of Deutsche Bank, worked to create the Baghdad Railway with the cooperation of the Ottoman Empire with the intention to create a German port in the Middle East. The creation of the Baghdad Railway from 1900-1911 was initially supported by the United Kingdom which believed that this would increase trade between their country and Germany, however as time passed, the British increasingly saw the efforts as Germany attempting to expand its influence in the Middle East and demanded a block to the expansion of the railway in 1911, this demand was accepted by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The colonial efforts were opposed by Bismarck and his supporters who favoured Germany gaining international power through dominating Europe and creating a German "Mitteleuropa" (Middle Europe) through taking land from the Russian Empire which would provide Germany with sufficient economic resources and land to exploit at the cost of non-German population. Wilhelm's efforts to colonize the few remaining territories in Africa and the Pacific would come under criticism by German nationalists and later future Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, for having missed the opportunity to create a fully European-based German empire.

German colonialism under Wilhelm II put Germany in conflict and risk of conflict on a number of occasions, the first during the Boxer Rebellion in Qingdao, Chinese civilians protested against the German presence in which Wilhelm demanded a swift response saying that the Chinese must be forced to remember German brute power in the same way as others remembered the Huns, a statement which would later be used by war opponents to mock Germany during World War I and World War II. On two occasions, Germany nearly went to war with France over the fate of Morroco.

Surviving, severely malnourished Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke
Surviving, severely malnourished Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke.

German colonialism also resulted in the infamous Herero and Namaqua Genocide in German Southwest Africa (modern day Namibia). Upon taking Southwest Africa, German white settlers were encouraged to settle on land held by Herero and Nama tribes, in order to displace them. The Herero and the Nama people were then being used as slave labour, while their land was pillaged for resources, particularly for diamonds, by the German colonists. In 1903 and 1904, the Herero and the Nama revolted against the German colonists in Southwest Africa. In response to the attacks, the German Empire dispatched General Lothar von Trotha to Southwest Africa with orders to expel all the Herero from Southwest Africa immediately. Von Trotha gave the following ultimatum to the Herero people:

"I, the great general of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people... All Hereros must leave this land... Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall no longer receive any women or children; I will drive them back to their people. I will shoot them. This is my decision for the Herero people."

In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) perished. The German Empire defended its actions on the world stage by saying that the Herero could not be protected under the Geneva Conventions defining human rights because Germany claimed the Herero were not true humans, but "subhumans". This method of dehumanization to defend Genocide would be a model utilized by Germany's Nazi regime years later. However, unlike the Third Reich, Imperial Germany's racist atrocities did not expand to all non-whites within its boundaries, for a number of native Africans had became German colonial soldiers, called Askaris. The Genocide was directed specifically at eliminating Herero and Nama from German Southwest Africa out of fear of more revolts destabilizing Germany's East African colony and endangering its colonists. The United Nations officially condemned the Genocide in 1985, followed in 2004 by the acceptance and condemnation by the German government of the actions of the German Empire which caused the genocide.

Germany's belligerance towards France, and Germany's support of its ally Austria-Hungary's occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, caused Germany to lose previously good relations with Russia, and the potential for an alliance with Britain evaporated, as Britain followed the Russian monarchy's opposition to Germany's aggression and set aside differences with France. By 1914, Wilhelm's foreign policy left Germany isolated with one loyal ally, Austria-Hungary, largely dependent on German support to protect its declining power due to ethnic nationalism across its heterogeneous empire. Germany's other official ally, the Kingdom of Italy had grown increasingly lukewarm and indifferent to Germany, remained an ally only on paper, and saw more benefit in entering into an alliance which could take back Italian-populated territories from Austria-Hungary.

World War I and the end of the Empire

Following the assassination of the Austrian Habsburg Archduke of Austria-Este, Francis Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, Kaiser Wilhelm II offered Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph full support of Austrian plans to invade Serbia, which they blamed for supporting the assassination. This unconditional support for Austria was called a "blank cheque" by historians in that the German government did not expect a serious war to take place as Serbia initially met many of the demands of Austria, and if a war were to take place, the German government expected the war would remain regional and Russia, which was long angered over Austria's occupation of Bosnia in 1908, would not risk entering a war with Austria if Germany demanded a halt to Russian aggression. These assumptions backfired when Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, in which Germany backed Austria-Hungary. France and Britain went to the side of Russia, as the Triple Entente and the German Empire and Europe faced a massive war.

The First World War saw the introduction of modern weaponry and technology. Here a German naval zeppelin flies over the battleship SMS Grosser Kurfürst in 1917.
The First World War saw the introduction of modern weaponry and technology. Here a German naval zeppelin flies over the battleship SMS Grosser Kurfürst in 1917.

Germany began the war by targeting its major rival, France. Germany saw France as its principal danger on the European continent as it could mobilize much faster than Russia and bordered Germany's industrial core in the Rhineland. Unlike Britain and Russia, the French were principally involved in the war for revenge against Germany, in particular, for France's loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871. The German high command knew that France would muster its forces to go into Alsace-Lorraine. Germany did not want to risk lengthy battles along the French-German border and instead adopted the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy designed to cripple France, through invading Belgium and then sweeping down towards Paris and then encircling and crushing the French forces along the French-German border in a quick victory. After defeating France, Germany could turn to attack Russia. This strategy resulted in the violation of recognizing Belgium's official neutrality. The strategy initially was successful, the German army swept down from Belgium and was nearly at Paris, at the nearby Marne river. However the French army put up a strong resistance to defend their capital at the First Battle of the Marne resulting in the German army retreating.

German dead at Verdun
German dead at Verdun. One of many repeated sights seen in the gruesome trench warfare of World War I.

The aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne was a long-held stalemate between the German army and the allies with the use of dug-in trench warfare. Further attempts to breakthrough deeper into France failed at the two battles of Ypres with huge casualties. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn decided to break away from the Schlieffen Plan and instead focus on a war of attrition against France. Falkenhayn targeted the ancient city of Verdun because Verdun had been one of the last cities to hold out against the Prussian army in 1870, and Falkenhayn knew that as a matter of national pride, the French would to anything to ensure that Verdun would not be taken. Falkenhayn anticipated that with correct tactics, French losses would be more than the Germans and that continued French recruits being sent to Verdun would cause the French army to "bleed white" and then allow the German army to take France easily. In 1916, the Battle of Verdun began, with the French positions in Verdun under constant shelling and poison gas attack and taking large casualties under the attack of an overwhelmingly large German forces. However Falkenhayn's prediction of a greater ratio of French killed proved to be wrong. With Falkenhayn's replacement by Erich Ludendorff and no success in sight at Verdun, the German army retreated in December 1916.

Borders drawn up in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Borders drawn up in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

While the western front was a stalemate for the German army, the Eastern Front proved to be a great success. The badly organized and supplied Russian army faltered and the German army steadily advanced eastward. The Germans benefited from political instability in Russia and a desire to end the war. In 1916, the German government allowed Russia's communist Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin to travel through Germany from Switzerland into Russia. Germany believed that if Lenin could create further political unrest, Russia would no longer be able to continue its war with Germany, allowing the German army to focus on the western front.

In 1917, the Tsar was ousted from the Russian throne and later a Bolshevik government was created under the leadership of Lenin. With political opposition to the Bolsheviks, Lenin decided to end Russia's campaign against Germany and Austria-Hungary in order to redirect its energy to eliminating internal dissent. In 1918, at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik government gave Germany an enormous territorial settlement in exchange for an end to war on the eastern front. This settlement including all of modern-day Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) which were given to the German occupation authority Ober Ost, and Belarus and the Ukraine also were given to Germany. As a result, Germany had at last achieved the long-wanted land of "Mitteleuropa", and now could fully focus on destroying the allies on the western front.

A drawing of a native East African Askari in German service by Wilhelm Kuhnert.
A drawing of a native East African Askari in German service by Wilhelm Kuhnert.

On the colonial front, German results were mixed. Much of Germany's colonies fell to the British and French armies, however in German East Africa, an impressive campaign was waged by the colonial army leader there, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would remain long respected as a military commander then and after by the native Askaris whom he commanded. Lettow-Vorbeck used guerilla raids against British forces in Kenya and Rhodesia as well as invading Portuguese Mozambique to give his forces supplies and to pick up more Askari recruits. By the end of the war his army was the only one allowed a victory parade under the Brandenburg Gate.

Despite success on the Eastern Front in 1918, Germany was not making progress on the western front for three reasons. The first was war exhaustion, German soldiers had been on the battlefield constantly without relief and had lost hope in the chance of a victory. The second was civil unrest because of the war effort. The concept of "total war" in World War I, meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces and with German commerce being stopped by the British naval blockade. German civilians were forced to live in increasingly meagre conditions, food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced. The winter of 1916-17 was called the "turnip winter". During the war, about 750,000 German civilians died from malnutrition. Many Germans wanted an end to the war and more and more Germans associated with the left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party which demanded an end to the war. The third reason was the entry of the United States into the war. With a surprise attack by a German U-Boat (submarine) against the liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 which was carrying American civilians (though the Germans suspected it was bringing supplies to Britain) and Germany's subsequent declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain in 1917, American public sentiment moved from isolationism to interventionism. While U.S. involvement was smaller than that of World War II, the American entry was devastating to the Germans because unlike Britain, France or Germany itself, the United States forces were not worn down by the war attrition which had affected the other countries.

In November 1918, with internal revolution, a stalemated war, Austria-Hungary falling apart from multiple ethnic tensions, and pressure from the German high command, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was by this time merely a figurehead, abdicated the throne along with the German high command, leaving the disastrous scenario to be blamed on the new government led by the German Social Democrats which called for and received an armistice on November 11, 1918 which marked the end of World War I and the end of the German Empire.


The German Empire left a legacy of mixed fortunes for Germany and Europe. Under Bismarck, a united German state had finally been achieved, however it remained a Prussian-dominated state and it did not have German Austria within it. The influence of Prussian militarism and its colonial efforts casted a negative view of the state, especially in regards to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide and the causes of World War I. While the German Empire enacted a number of progressive social reforms such as guaranteeing freedom of press, and established a system of public welfare, at the same it openly engaged in racist discrimination of non-Germans, leading some scholars to title it an "apartheid state". There was a modern election system to the federal Parliament, the Reichstag, which represented every adult man by one vote. This enabled the German Socialists and the Catholic Centre Party to play remarkable roles in the empire's political life, although both parties were officially regarded more or less as "foes of the empire".

The history of the German Empire is well remembered in Germany as a period when academic research and university life flourished as well as arts and literature. Thomas Mann published his novel Buddenbrooks in 1901. Theodor Mommsen was awarded the Nobel prize for literature a year later for his Roman history. Painters like the groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke made a significant contribution to modern art. The AEG turbine building in Berlin by Peter Behrens from 1909 can be regarded as a milestone in classic modern architecture and an outstanding example of emerging functionalism.

The empire's support of Austria-Hungary's invasion of Serbia against Russia's opposition has been seen by a number of historians as a major influence in what caused the clash of alliances in Europe which resulted in the massive war later known as World War I. In the defeat of the empire in World War I and the territorial and economic losses imposed by the Treaty of Versailles signed shortly after the empire's dissolution caused enormous ramifications for the new German republic, such as defining what the German state was and how it should operate, as conservatives, liberals, socialists, nationalists, Catholics and Protestants all had their own interpretations which led to a fractious political and social climate in Germany in the aftermath of the empire's collapse.

There is a considerable historical debate over the Sonderweg question, concerning whatever the nature of German politics and society during the Second Reich made Nazi Germany inevitable. Some historians such as Fritz Fischer, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Wolfgang Mommsen have argued that during the Second Reich, a "pre-modern" aristocratic elite became entrenched in German society and thus doomed the Weimar Republic to failure before it was even born. Other historians such as Gerhard Ritter have argued that it was only World War One and its aftermath that opened the doors to Nazism.

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