The German Second Reich 1871-1918

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 Since 1815 Germany was made up of 39 states known as the German Confederation. The two largest German states where Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the revolutions of 1848 Prussian king, Fredrich Wilhelm IV, was forced to call a constitutional convention, and a liberal constitution was drawn up. In 1861 Wilhelm I succeeded Fredrich Wilhelm IV.prussflag.jpg (27422 bytes)

     Wilhelm I wanted double the size of Prussia’s army, but the Prussian parliament refused to give him the money to do it. Wilhelm saw the parliament’s refusal as a challenge to his authority, so he got Junkers (members of the Prussian upper class with the same views as Wilhelm) to help him create a larger army. In 1862 Wilhelm appointed Otto Von Bismarck, a Junker, prime minister. Bismarck practiced Real Politik (the politics of reality). The Prussian parliament still wouldn’t help Wilhelm create his larger army, so with Wilhelm’s approval Bismarck declared that Wilhelm would rule without parliamentary consent or a legal budget. This was in direct violation of the Prussian constitution. Bismarck planed to unite all of the German states (under Prussian rule) not with elaborate speeches and votes, but with "blood and iron."

     Bismarck turned his attention toward Schleswig and Holstein, which where ruled by the king of Denmark, but where ethnically and politically tied to Germany. The government of Copenhagen planned to make Schleswig an integral part of Denmark in 1863. Wilhelm proposed to Franz Josef, the Austrian Emperor, that Prussia and Austria should occupy Schleswig and Holstein to "prevent" a violation of international agreement that guaranteed their separate status. Austria, afraid to let Prussia act alone, agreed. In 1864 a short war with Denmark broke out. Prussia and Austria won, and no other foreign powers intervened. It was decided that Schleswig was to be under Prussian control and Holstein under Austrian control.

     Bismarck wasn’t finished in his endeavor to create a united Germany yet. He then provoked a war with Austria. Bismarck wanted to see Schleswig and Holstein completely annexed to Prussia, or at least have indirect control over the government. Austria would have rather seen them added to the German Confederation as separate states. The conflict escalated, and Austria finally declared war in 1866 beginning the Seven Weeks’ War. As the name infers the Seven Weeks’ war only lasted seven weeks. Prussia won the war at the battle of Königgrätz, and Schleswig and Holstein were annexed. A more powerful German state had now been created in Europe (North German Confederation).   This confederation was thoroughly dominated by Prussia and wasn't so much a new state as an extension of Prussia to most of Germany.

     France, under Napoleon III encouraged the Austro-Prussian conflict in hopes that they would tire each other out and France could expand eastward into Germany with little resistance. France was unhappy, to say the least, when the conflict only lasted seven weeks. Napoleon had counted on an Austrian victory to put Prussia back in place and to remove a rising threat to France. As a price for staying out of the war, however, he wanted compensation in land along the Rhine river, Luxembourg, or Belgium. Berlin succeeded in halting these plans (though Prussia agreed to demilitarize Luxembourg).

     German unification was nearly a reality.  However, France would resist German  unification in general and would certainly resist if Prussia made the attempt.  Ever since the days of Cardinal Richelieu France had made it a centerpiece of foreign policy to prevent unification of Germany. Not only was France opposed, but nearly all of Europe would also oppose a forcible Prussian attempt to unify Germany.

    The only way for Prussia to succeed in uniting Germany would be in a victorious, but defensive war with France.  Such a scenario would activate the defensive alliances between Prussia and the German states.  It also prevent other European powers from either pressuring Prussia or joining France.  In addition, most in Europe would welcome a chastisement of the arrogant French.

    In the spring of 1870, Bismarck encouraged Prince Leopold, a Prussian and relative of Wilhelm I, to become a candidate for the throne of Spain. As Bismarck expected, France was angry about this, and demanded Leopold withdraw. William I withdrew the candidacy on behalf of Leopold, but this wasn’t enough for France. The French government insisted that Wilhelm promise that the candidature would never be renewed, that Prussia apologized or France might declare war. The demand was presented at Ems by a French ambassador. Wilhelm refused to promise, but dismissed the ambassador in a friendly way--ignoring the menacing threat of war. Bismarck took both the French demands and the King's dismissal and edited them into a document that he released to the press.  This was known as the Ems Dispatch. The dispatch enraged German nationalists and was considered a showpiece of French arrogance by much of Europe.  In France, there was outrage that Bismarck had used cheap editing to embarrass France.  The French press became rabidly anti-Prussian demanding that Bismarck be taught a lesson.  Napoleon did not want war at this point. Curiously indecisive, he listened to his advisors who pointed out that another diplomatic defeat so soon after the failure of his Mexican Adventure might cause revolution.  On the other hand he knew that his rule would never survive a military defeat at the hands of the Prussians. Upon being assured that his army was fully ready to fight he declared war on Prussia and ignited the Franco-Prussian war.

Napoleon's declaration of war was a godsend to Bismarck. The clumsiness of the Leopold affair had nearly cost him his job.  Now Napoleon had not only saved it, but had proffered the only scenario where Prussia could unify Germany.  The Prussians quickly moved massive numbers of men to the French border.  The Prussians had an army of nearly 400,000 troops from all over Germany under unified command, with excellent supplies and crack organization.  France's army only could put 250,000 on the border in various states of readiness due to an incredibly chaotic attempt at mobilization.  French troops put up some very brave efforts, but suffered nearly continual defeats.  The French army was such a mess that most top commanders were in charge of four to ten times more troops than they had ever commanded before. The Prussians, on the other hand, had their magnficent general staff that easily handled enormous numbers of troops with greate dexterity and flexibility.  Even when the French did manage to put up an excellent effort, the coordination of units was so poor that a unit on the verge of victory never got the follow up help to succeed.  Finally, at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon surrendered along with about half the French army.  Days later, the remainder of the best troops surrendered at the fortress at Metz.  The Prussian then advanced on Paris to finish off the war. 

     The surrender of Napoleon only resulted in France having a revolution.  The new French Republic was dominated by Monarchists but had heavy elements of Republicans.  Vowing to fight on they scrambled to put together an army to save Paris.  However, the Prussians quickly surrounded the city and provincial French forces failed to link up with Parisian attempts to break out of the city.  After a few months, the Republic had to capitulate to the Prussians.  Once news of capitulation hit Paris, the city rose in revolt by the Reds.  The Reds declared a Commune and civil war broke out in other French cities between Republicans and Communards.  Finally, after a few days, only the Paris Commune held out.  The baffled Germans were increasingly enraged at all this nonsense and threatened France with harsh peace terms unless someone in France could surrender and end the fighting.  However, the Republicans could not get control over Paris. Bismarck finally had to part the Prussian encirclement of the city to allow Republicans to attack the city.  After a string of atrocities on both sides, the Republicans finally conquered the city and won the right to surrender to the Prussians.

The long delay in capitulation did result in a very harsh peace for France. On May 10 the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed and the war was officially brought to a close. The Third Republic had to give up Alsace-Lorrain, pay 5 billion francs, and accept Prussian army occupation. It was expected that France would take decades to pay off such a huge reparation.  Bismarck went along with such a hard peace as he felt that the bitterness in France over the Commune and defeat would never go away. The French were nearly psychotic in their desire for revenge and Bismarck hoped to simply make it impossible for France to engineer a war of revenge.  However, the French would pay off the entire debt to Prussia in only three years by foregoing nearly all other expenditures and by borrowing nearly every franc in the nation in order to  rid France of the hated Prussian troops.

     During and after the Franco-Prussian War nationalistic feelings ran high among Germans. On January 18, 1871 (ten days before Paris was taken) Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at the military headquarters in Versailles. The Holy Roman Empire had now ended and the Second Reich (German Empire) was formed. Bismarck was appointed the new empire’s first imperial Chancellor.

     After 1871 Wilhelm I and Bismarck tried to avoid conflicts so the newly formed united Empire could develop. Bismarck’s economic policies resulted in the rapid growth of German industry and the acquisition of overseas colonies. From 1871-1875 the iron-works factories and machine companies grew to an unbelievable size. The German railroads became the best in the world, and German cities grew into European metropolises. From 1888 to 1908, foreign trade increased by 250%.

     Bismarck feared a war on two fronts so he tried to keep Germany allied with Russia and Austria-Hungary in order to keep them from becoming allies to the French. Russia and Austria had conflicting interests over the Balkans, which made it hard to keep them both as allies. In 1873 Germany formed a loose alliance with Austria-Hungary and Russia known as the Three Emperors League, but soon broke up over the Balkan problem. In 1879 Bismarck established a military and political alliance with Austria-Hungary. Italy joined in 1882, and the Triple Alliance was formed.

     Wilhelm I died in 1888, and was succeeded by his terminally ill son, Frederick III. Frederick died 99 days later, and Wilhelm II was next in line. Wilhelm II was eager to establish his authority and resented Bismarck for pushing his father around. Wilhelm II forced Bismarck to resign in 1890.

     Wilhelm II demanded Germany have influence throughout the world and wanted to build a navy to challenge British supremacy. Wilhelm’s aggressiveness frightened other European powers, and in 1894 Russia allied with France. Britain felt its control over the seas threatened and established the Entente Cordial (cordial understanding) with France (1904). In 1907 Britain and Russia signed a similar agreement. The Triple Entente was now formed. Europe was divided into two opposing forces (the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente). In 1914 World War I started in the Balkans when a Serbian assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. By 1918 Germany has put up an incredible fight, but has lost. Before the Armistice ending World War I was signed on November 11, 1918, German workers and troops revolted in protest to the continuing of the war. The Revolution began in Kiel and spread like wild fire through Germany. On November 9, 1918 Germany was declared a republic, and Wilhelm II was forced to flee to the Netherlands. And so the curtain closes on the Second Reich and opens on the Weimar Republic.