German Empire

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The Second German Empire; On 10 December 1870, the Reichstag of the North German Confederation renamed the Confederation as the "German Empire" and gave the title of "German Emperor" to William I, the King of Prussia.

The German Empire (German: Deutsches Reich or German: Deutsches Kaiserreich) is the name used in English for the federation created in 1871 after the unification of Germany and the proclamation of the King of Prussia Wilhelm I as German Emperor in in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles during the Franco-German War. The semi-constitutional monarchy effectively ending with the proclamation of the German republic by Philipp Scheidemann (9 November 1918) and formally ending with the abdication of Wilhelm II (28 November 1918).


Proclamation of the German Empire on 18 January 1871, painted by Anton von Werner
"Deutschland – August 1914" (battle-ready Germany in WWI) after the painting by Professor Fritz August von Kaulbach (de)

The First Reich refers to the Holy Roman Empire. The German Federal State created in 1871 and once again ruled by a newly created emperor is usually referred to as the Second Empire or Second Reich. "Reich" translates literally in English to "German Empire" and appropriately "German Realm".[1] 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 German Empire consisted of 26 constituent territories, most ruled by royal families. This included four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies (six before 1876), seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Although the Kingdom of Prussia contained most of the Empire’s population and territory, it eventually played a relatively lesser role in politics. As Dwyer (2005) points out, Prussia’s “political and cultural influence had diminished considerably” by the 1890s, after the era of Bismarck’s leadership. After Germany was united by Otto von Bismarck into the “German Reich,” he dominated German politics until 1890 as Chancellor. Bismarck tried to foster alliances in Europe to contain France and consolidate Germany’s influence in Europe. Bismarck’s post-1871 foreign policy was conservative and sought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. British historian Eric Hobsbawm concludes that he “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [devoting] himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.” His chief concern was that France would plot revenge after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. As the French lacked the strength to defeat Germany by themselves, they sought an alliance with Russia that would trap Germany between the two in a war (as would ultimately happen in 1914). Bismarck wanted to prevent this at all costs and maintain friendly relations with the Russians, and thereby formed an alliance with them and Austria-Hungary. The League of Three Emperors was signed in 1872 by Russia, Austria, and Germany. It stated that republicanism and socialism were common enemies and that the three powers would discuss any matters concerning foreign policy. Bismarck’s domestic policies played an important role in forging the authoritarian political culture of the new Empire. 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 to becoming the world’s leading industrial power of the time. Bismarck’s “revolutionary conservatism” was a conservative state-building strategy designed to make ordinary Germans—not just the Junker elite—more loyal to state and emperor. His strategy was to grant social rights to enhance the integration of a hierarchical society, forge a bond between workers and the state to strengthen the latter, maintain traditional relations of authority between social and status groups, and provide a countervailing power against the modernist forces of liberalism and socialism. He created the modern welfare state in Germany in the 1880s, with an introduction of health care and social security, and enacted universal male suffrage in the new German Empire in 1871. He became a great hero to German conservatives, who erected many monuments to his memory and tried to emulate his policies. At the same time Bismarck tried to reduce the political influence of the emancipated Catholic minority in the Kulturkampf, literally “culture struggle.” The Catholics only grew stronger, forming the Center (Zentrum) Party. Germany grew rapidly in industrial and economic power, matching Britain by 1900. Its highly professional army was the best in the world, but the navy could never catch up with Britain’s Royal Navy.[2]

With the German Revolution of 1918–19, the abdication of the Emperor, and the Proclamation of a Republic, it is generally accepted that the empire came to an end. It was followed by the Weimar Republic. The unofficial so-called Third Reich relates to Germany between 1933 (more properly from 1938) and 1945.

Heads of State

Title Head of State from to
German Empire (1871–1918)
German Emperor Wilhelm I 18 January 1871 9 March 1888
German Emperor Frederick III 9 March 1888 15 June 1888
German Emperor Wilhelm II 15 June 1888 18 November 1918
German Reich (1919–1933)
Reichspräsident (President of the Reich) Friedrich Ebert 11 February 1919 28 February 1925
Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg 12 May 1925 2 August 1934
German Reich (1933–1945)
Führer und Reichskanzler (Führer and Chancellor of the Reich) Adolf Hitler 2 August 1934 30 April 1945
Reichspräsident Karl Dönitz 30 April 1945 23 May 1945


Under the Constitution, the Imperial Chancellor (Reichskanzler), whom the Kaiser appointed and who was not dependent on the confidence of a parliamentary majority, was confronted by a Reichstag without the consent of which it was, in principle, impossible to enact any law and which had to approve the national budget. From 1871 the Reichstag initially met in the former Royal Prussian Porcelain Works in Leipziger Strasse. Not until 6 December 1894 did it move into the Reichstag building.

The Reichstag had 382 members until 1874; thereafter, it had 397. They were elected for a three-year period, which was extended to five years in 1888, on the basis of a general, equal, direct and secret ballot and a first-past-the-post system of constituency seats. All male Germans over the age of 25 were eligible to vote. By the standards of the time, this electoral system was regarded as modern and progressive, even if it increasingly operated to the detriment of certain political parties. The law governing Reichstag elections played a key role in politicising the population after 1871, which is reflected not least in the steady growth in electoral turnout from 50.7 % in 1871 to 84.9 % in 1912.

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  1. Harper's magazine, Volume 63. Pp. 593. The term "reich" does not literally connote an empire as has been commonly assumed by English-speaking people, the term "Kaiserreich" literally denotes an empire - particularly a hereditary empire led by a literal emperor, though "reich" has been used in German to denote the Roman Empire because it has a weak hereditary tradition. In the case of the German Empire, the official name was Deutsches Reich that is properly translated as "German Realm" because the official position of head of state in the constitution of the German Empire was officially a "presidency" of a confederation of German states led by the King of Prussia who would assume "the title of German Emperor" as referring to the German people but was not emperor of Germany as in an emperor of a state.
  2. The German Empire,