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, although only officially acclaimed on 18 January 1871.

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 the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles following the Franco-German War.

With the proclamation of the German republic by Philipp Scheidemann (9 November 1918) and the abdication of Wilhelm II (28 November 1918), the second empire ended.


Proclamation of the German Empire on 18 January 1871, painted by Anton von Werner
Flags of the German Empire
Geographical midpoint of the German Empire (as of 1872) in Spremberg near Cottbus
"Deutschland – August 1914" (battle-ready Germany in WWI) after the painting by Professor Fritz 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 in English into "Empire" or "State". The term "Kaiserreich" denotes an empire - particularly a hereditary empire led by a Emperor. In the case of the German Empire, the official name was Deutsches Reich. The position of the head of state in the constitution of the German Empire was officially a "presidency" of a confederation of German states presided over by the King of Prussia who would assume the title of German Emperor. The most important bordering states were the Russian Empire in the east, Austria-Hungary in the east and south, and the French Third Republic in the west.

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.[1]

Chronological process

  • Constitution I
    • The new "Constitution of the German Confederation" was negotiated in December 1870 with the new members of the federal North German Confederation Baden, Hessen-Darmstadt, Kingdom of Bavaria and Kingdom of Württemberg. De facto a second confederation, after the German Confederation, existed until the constitution of the German Empire came into effect in April 1871. The "Constitution of the German Confederation" was published on 31 December 1870 and came into effect on 1 January 1871 as a "League of German Princes and Free Cities" (Bund der deutschen Fürsten und Freien Städte). In this document, the terms "German Empire" and "German Kaiser" were already used. The constitution of the North German Confederation from 16 April 1867 with effect from 1 July 1867 was dissolved.
  • Kaiser proclamation
    • On 18 January 1871, Wilhelm I was proclaimed "Deutscher Kaiser" (Kaiserproklamation). On 9 and 10 December 1870, the Reichstag and the Federal Council (Bundesrat) had already decided to offer the holder of the Federal Presidency (Bundespräsidium) the title of "Emperor". Wilhelm had accepted the title in the face of an imperial deputation from the Reichstag (18 December 1870). In addition, the country should be renamed "German Empire". This became effective on 1 January 1871 with the new constitution. The later proclamation was only an "act of formal inauguration and taking office",[2] although for the public and historical record the accepted date is 18 January 1871.
  • Constitution of the German Empire
    • On 16 April 1871, Bismarck's imperial constitution (Bismarcksche Reichsverfassung) was introduced and became effective on 4 May 1871. Head of state was the German Emperor with two suppoting chambers, Bundesrat (Upper House) and Reichstag (Lower House). Executive head was the Reichskanzler (beginning with Otto von Bismarck), supreme judiciary was represented by the Reichsgericht (Imperial Court).
  • Abdication of Kaiser on 9 November 1918
    • Reichskanzler Max von Baden had announced the Kaiser's abdication on 9 November 1918, although he had not yet been authorized to do so. It was not until 28 November 1918 that Kaiser Wilhelm II issued an official certificate of abdication and renounced the imperial dignity. At the same time he also laid down the Prussian crown, which he had long hoped to avoid. Max von Baden himself was forced to resign later the same day (9 November) when it became clear that only Friedrich Ebert could effectively exert control.
  • Armistice (WWI) on 11 November 1918; Kaiser Wilhelm II exiled to the Netherlands
  • Constitution of the German Empire repealed on 14 August 1919
  • Constitution of the German Reich (so-called Weimar Constitution) ratified on 11 August 1919, effective on 14 August 1919

Geographical center

Spremberg, about 20 km from Cottbus, is considered the geographical center of the German Empire. The calculations for this were based on the geographer Heinrich Matzat, a senior teacher (Oberlehrer) at the Spremberger Realgymnasium. The basis of his calculation in 1872 was that he determined the average values ​​of the places furthest north, south, east and west in what was then the German Empire. In July 1914, the head of the Prussian State Survey, von Betrab, issued an order that the center of the German Empire fell on the measuring table sheet 2547, i.e. the Spremberg district. In 1946, the inscription on the stone was destroyed on the orders of the then district administrator, who implemented Order No. 30 of the Allied Control Council to the letter.

The original stone was recovered in March 1988 as part of the preparation for road construction work and is exhibited in the local history museum in Spremberg. According to the district monument conservator at the time, the stone was so badly damaged by the removal of the writing and its placement in a concrete wall after 1946 that it was not possible to restore it. On 19 January 1991, one year after the partial reunification of Germany, a copy of the stone was erected just a few meters from the original location.[3]

The End

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.

Commemorative plaque (Gedenkzeichen) for the royal princes, general adjutants and wing adjutants of Kaiser Friedrich III (left) and Kaiser Wilhelm II

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


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 new Reichstag (Parliament) 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.

See also


  • Bismarck, Otto Prince von, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, translated by A.J.Butler, 2 vols., London, 1898.
  • Dickie, Rev. J.F., Germany, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1912.
  • Bülow, Prince Bernhard von, Imperial Germany, Cassell & co., London, 1914.
  • Marriott, Sir J.A.R., & Robertson, Sir Charles Grant, The Evolution of Prussia: The Making of an Empire, new edition, Clarendon Press, London, 1937.
  • Masur, Gerhard, Imperial Berlin, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1971, ISBN: 0-7100-7194-9
  • Koch, Prof. H.W., A Constitutional History of Germany in the 19th & 20th Centuries, Longman, London, ISBN: 0-582-49182-7
  • Craig, Gordon A., Germany 1866-1945, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978/1988 reprint, ISBN: 0-19-822113-4
  • Stürmer, Michael, The German Empire, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2000, ISBN: 0-297-64621-4
  • Hoyer, Katja, Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918, The History Press, Cheltenham U.K., ISBN: 978-0-7509-9622-8

External links



  1. The German Empire,
  2. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Volume III: "Bismarck und das Reich". 3. edition, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1988, pp. 750 f.
  3. Geografischer Mittelpunkt des Deutschen Reiches - Perle der Lausitz