Germany’s pre-Nazi history: rethinking the Second Reich

“We need to take the Second Reich seriously if we want to understand the complex interplay of democracy and nationalism today,” writes Katja Hoyer

1871: Otto von Bismarck reads the Proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles following Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

The date that each country chooses as its national day reveals a lot about its self-perception. The French have Bastille Day, symbolising the origin of France as a republic. St Patrick’s Day points to Ireland’s distinct Christian identity, and Americans celebrate Independence Day to highlight the creation of a New World departing from the old.

Advertisement

Germany’s national day, by contrast, harks back to a much more recent event. German Unity Day on 3 October commemorates the country’s reunification in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This choice speaks volumes about Germany’s desire for a fresh start after a long and painful history that seems to offer little to celebrate. To see reunification as the birth of modern Germany allows the nation to look back on what came before as history – something to study from the happy ending’s detached safety.

January 2021 marked the 150th anniversary of the creation of the first German nation-state in 1871 (the Second Reich) – a momentous occasion with far-reaching consequences for Europe and the world. Yet the year began with deafening silence from all sides: in German museums, politics, schools, universities and public life. It is not the case that Germany shies away from confronting the more uncomfortable aspects of its own history. On the contrary, there is a commendable degree of national self-reflection. In recent decades, the country has unflinchingly looked at itself in the historical mirror in order to begin the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – a concept that encompasses the confrontation and discussion of the past. However, this has not yet fully extended to pre-Nazi history.

The trauma, guilt and shame which the events of 1933 to 1945 have blotted onto the national page have absorbed so much collective German attention that prior events are slipping into the background.

The trauma, guilt and shame which the events of 1933 to 1945 have blotted onto the national page have absorbed so much collective German attention that prior events are slipping into the background. The era of National Socialism (Nazism) has formed a black hole in German retrospection, an all-consuming centre of gravity that sucks the events that succeeded and preceded it into its orbit. Much of German history is therefore treated as if it either flows to or stems from it.

Thus, the Second Reich, which was formed in 1871, is often assumed to be a mere prelude to the catastrophes and horrific crimes that followed it. It is viewed as an inherently flawed and ill-considered construct on an inevitable path to aggression, militarism and dictatorship.

It is easy to see the attraction of this narrative. It helps explain why two world wars emanated from German soil. More importantly, it gives the reassuring impression that this will not happen again. To deny the Second Reich any credibility as a modern state contrasts it against the Germany that we see now. There was an authoritarian regime then, and nationalism was rife – now there is a stable democracy and Germany is an outward-looking, well-respected part of the West. The moment we admit any continuity with the Second Reich, we allow a grain of doubt about the stability of modern German democracy into our minds that might well be applicable to a wider Western context.

But what if we were to argue that the Second Reich had strong progressive elements? What if we accept that the foundation of many positive aspects of the modern German state, such as its welfare system, lie there? Well, that would beg the rather uncomfortable question how the mix of nationalism, militarism and partisanship led to the dismantling of democracy. As disconcerting as it may be, this is the question that we must ask of the German Empire.

Otto von Bismarck was instrumental in the creation of a unified German state and was among the most influential politicians of late 19th-century Europe. (Photo by Getty Images)
Otto von Bismarck was instrumental in the creation of a unified German state and was among the most influential politicians of late 19th-century Europe. (Photo by Getty Images)

There is no doubt that the Second Reich had robust democratic mechanisms built into the system. It is true that Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification and the country’s first chancellor from 1871–1890, was an arch-conservative junker (Prussian aristocrat) who was keen to preserve aristocratic rule. However, he also acknowledged the demand for progressive change. The liberal-socialist revolutions of 1848/9 had sent powerful shockwaves through Europe and combined threateningly with the enduring spectre of the French Revolution. Bismarck knew that he could not build a brand-new nation state without the people, so he grudgingly set up a parliament (the Reichstag) that would be directly elected through male universal suffrage. It would hold the purse-strings to the governmental budget, including military spending, and was therefore given immense leverage over the undemocratic elements of kaiser and chancellor.

  • Bismarck: why was the WW2 German battleship named after the Iron Chancellor so feared?

The Reichstag would prove a thorn in Bismarck’s side for the best part of two decades and became an insurmountable obstacle to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s desire for personal rule. By 1912, the social-democrats and liberals together occupied roughly half of all Reichstag seats. They were vocal in their demands for further democratisation and better rights for their voters. The ensuing stand-off with the conservatives was not a sign of a dysfunctional polity, but rather it had all the hallmarks of a maturing democracy.

Between 1871 and 1914, an increasingly confident parliament began to make such a nuisance of itself in the political process that it forced substantial concessions from the Imperial chancellors. Bismarck’s so-called ‘state socialism’ introduced Germany’s first welfare programme with accident insurance, old-age pensions and sick pay. His successor, Leo von Caprivi, built on that with the prohibition of Sunday work and child labour. Of course, neither did so out of a sense of benevolent reformism, but that is precisely the point. Seismic shifts in the perception of how politics worked had led to a situation where the elites could no longer ignore the will of the people. This was hardly the hallmark of a military dictatorship.

The German people themselves showed a solid belief in the democratic process. Voter turnout reached enviable heights of over 80 per cent, and there were no significant revolutionary movements seeking violent regime change. Instead, people chose to express their discontent legally. Satirical magazines such as the brilliant Simplicissimus made good use of the freedom of the press while workers took strike action and demonstrated peacefully to express their discontent. By 1914, Germany’s Social Democratic Party was the largest in Europe and trade union membership stood at a formidable three million. Together, they formed a powerful lobby that frightened and frustrated the political elite.

Of course, there were hugely undemocratic elements in the system, and they should not be overlooked. Prussia, Germany’s largest state, still ran elections for its parliament in a three-tier system that weighted votes by socio-economic status. However, there was widespread discontent about this, and by 1914 the government was already considering compromise solutions. The Second Reich was only semi-democratic, but the progressive half was growing in strength and confidence. It stood every chance to make further progress by building on the concessions it had already forced. By acknowledging that, we begin to look at the question that matters: how did this half-democracy perish?

When the kaiser rallied his people to arms from the balcony of Berlin Palace on 1 August 1914, he spoke of “forgiveness” and “unity” urging his erstwhile opponents in the ranks of the social democrats and liberals to bury the hatchet and shake his hand. Now was not the time for internal strife; now was the time for national unity. They responded to his call for a ‘Fortress Peace’ cautiously and with a justified sense of trepidation. Even Hugo Haase, a leading socialist with strong pacifist convictions, declared his support by explaining that he would not let the fatherland down in its hour of need. It was the appeal to nationalist duty, to unity over pluralism, that ultimately provided the death blow to the Second Reich’s immature democracy. All parties signed an Enabling Act on 4 August 1914 that effectively turned Germany into a military dictatorship overnight. But let us not forget that this too was temporary. In 1917 and 1918, the German people began to see through the charade of a defensive war, and they wanted peace. The stubbornness of the military regime was met with an outpouring of anger, which finally culminated in the so-called ‘German Revolution’ of 1918, bringing about the end of the monarchy and the beginning of a new republic.

Was the Second Reich a fully functioning democracy? Of course not, but neither was it a military dictatorship with passive subjects who complacently watched on as their kaiser steered Germany onto a warpath

Was the Second Reich a fully functioning democracy? Of course not, but neither was it a military dictatorship with passive subjects who complacently watched on as their kaiser steered Germany onto a warpath. We need to acknowledge this system as the semi-democracy that it was so that we can hold it up as a mirror and reflect on the dangers that threaten modern democracies. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was wrong to speak of ‘The End of History’ in 1992 in the assumption that liberal, western democracy had emerged as the winner in a linear process of historical evolution that was now complete. It is a dangerous narrative that allows us to be complacent with our democracies when it is clear that they face increasing internal and external threats. So rather than assuming that all-German democratic history starts with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and has now reached a state of secure completeness, we should be brave enough to look back at its democratic origins and investigate why they failed.

Advertisement

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and bestselling author. She specialises in the history of modern Germany with a focus on the Second Reich. Her book Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 is out now, published by The History Press. You can find her on Twitter @hoyer_kat