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12: Bismarck and the German Empire

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Building the Bulwarks of the Twentieth Century Nation

Throughout the various events narrated in the two preceding chapters the hand of Bismarck was everywhere visible. He had proved himself a statesman of the highest powers, and these powers were devoted without stint to the aggrandizement of Prussia. As for the surrounding nations and their rights and immunities, these did not count as against his policies. Conscience did not trouble him. The slaughter of thousands of men on the battle-field did not disturb his equanimity. He was unalterably fixed in his purposes, unscrupulous in the means employed, shrewd, keen and far-sighted in his measures, Europe being to him but a great chess-board, on which his hand moved kings, knights, and pawns with mechanical inflexibility. To him the end justified the means, however lacking in justice or mercy these means might prove.

Denmark was despoiled to extend the territory of Prussia to the north. Austria, Bismarck's unwary accomplice in this act of spoliation, was robbed of its share of the spoils, and drawn into a war in which it met with disastrous defeat, the prestige of Prussia being vastly increased on the field of Sadowa. Subsequently came the great struggle with France, fomented by his wiles and ending in triumph for his policies So far all had gone well for him, the final outcome of his schemes resulting in the unification of the minor German states into one powerful empire.


It was in the formation of the modern German Empire that the far-sighted plans of Bismarck culminated. King William was a willing partner for this purpose, moving as he suggested and doing as he wished. The states of Germany, aside from Austria, had actively participated in the recent war, the steps towards unification which had been taken during the few preceding years having now reached the point in which a complete amalgamation might be effected.

The Holy Roman Empire, which had lasted throughout the medieval period in some phase of strength and power, at times predominant, at times little more than a title, had received its death-blow from the hands of Napoleon and vanished from the historic stage. It was Bismarck's design to restore the German Empire - not the old, moth-eaten fiction of the past, but an entirely new one - and give Prussia the position it had earned, that of the great center of German racial unity. In this project Austria, long at the head of the old empire, was to have no part, the imperial dignity being conferred upon the venerable King William of Prussia, a monarch whose birth dated back to the eighteenth century, and who had lived throughout the Napoleonic wars.


Near the close of 1870 Bismarck concluded treaties with the ambassadors of the South German States, in which they agreed to accept the constitution of the North German Union. These treaties were ratified, after some opposition from members of the lower house, by the legislatures of the four states involved. The next step in the proceeding was a suggestion from the king of Bavaria to the other princes that the imperial crown of Germany should be offered to King William of Prussia.

When the North German diet at Berlin had given its consent to the new constitution, a congratulatory address was despatched to the Prussian monarch at Versailles. It announced to the aged hero-king the nation's wish that he should accept the new dignity. He replied to the deputation in solemn audience that he accepted the imperial dignity which the German nation and its princes had offered him. On the 1st of January, 1871, the new constitution was to come into operation.


The solemn assumption of the imperial office did not take place, however, until the 18th of January, the day on which, one hundred and seventy years before, the new emperor's ancestor, Frederick I, had placed the Prussian crown on his head at Konigsberg, and thus laid the basis of the growing greatness of his house. It was an ever-memorable coincidence that, in the superb-mirrored hall of the Versailles palace, where since the days of Richelieu so many plans had been concocted for the humiliation of Germany, King William should now proclaim himself German emperor. After the reading of the imperial proclamation to the German people by Count Bismarck, the Grand Duke led a cheer, in which the whole assembly joined amid the singing of national hymns. Thus the important event had taken place which again summoned the German Empire to life, and made over the imperial crown with renewed splendor to another royal house. Barbarossa's old legend, that the dominion of the empire was, after long tribulation, to pass from the Hohenstaufen to the Hohenzollern, was now fulfilled; the dream long aspired after by German youth had now become a reality and a living fact.

The tidings of the conclusion of peace with France, whose preliminaries were completed at Frankfort on the 10th of May, 1871, filled all Germany with joy, and peace festivals on the most splendid scale extended from end to end of the new empire, in all parts of which an earnest spirit of patriotism was shown, while Germans from all regions of the world sent home expressions of warm sympathy with the new national organization of their fatherland.


The decade just completed had been one of remarkable political changes in Europe, unsurpassed in significance during any other period of equal length. The temporal dominion of the pope had vanished and all Italy had been united under the rule of a single king. The empire of France had been overthrown and a republic established in its place, while that country had sunk greatly in prominence among the European states. Austria had been utterly defeated in war, had lost its last hold on Italy and its position of influence among the German states. And all the remaining German lands had united into a great and powerful empire, promising to gain such extraordinary military strength that the surrounding nations looked on in doubt, full of vague fears of trouble from this new and potent power introduced into their midst.

Bismarck, however, showed an earnest desire to maintain international peace and good relations, seeking to win the confidence of foreign governments, while at the same time improving and increasing that military force which had been proved to be so mighty an engine of war.

In the constitution of the new empire two legislative bodies, already possessed by the Confederation of North German States were provided for - the BUNDESRATH or Federal Council, whose members are annually appointed by the respective state governments and the REICHSTAG or representative body. whose members are elected by universal suffrage for a period of three years, an annual session being required. Germany, therefore, in its present organization, is practically a federal union of states, each with its own powers of internal government, and with a common legislature approximating to our Senate and House of Representatives. But this did not make the German emperor a parliamentary monarch. From the fact that the consent of both assemblies was necessary to change the law, he governed as he pleased and had no other ministerial representative than the high chancellor of the empire, depending solely on the sovereign. After 1870 he was in the empire what he had been previously in Prussia, the essential representative of the country and the supreme head of the military forces.

The remaining incidents of Bismarck's remarkable career may be briefly given. It consisted largely in a struggle with the Catholic Church organization, which had attained to great power in Germany, and was aggressive to an extent that roused the vigorous opposition of the chancellor of the empire, who was not willing to acknowledge any power in Germany other than that of the emperor.

King Frederick William IV, the predecessor of the reigning monarch, had made active efforts to strengthen the Catholic Church in Prussia, its clergy gaining greater privileges in that Protestant state than they possessed in any of the Catholic states. They had established everywhere in North Germany their congregations and monasteries, and by their control of public education seemed in a fair way eventually to make Catholicism supreme in the empire.


This state of affairs Bismark set himself energetically to reform. The minister of religious affairs was forced to resign, and his place was taken by Falk, an energetic statesman, who introduced a new school law, bringing the whole educational system under state control, and carefully regulating the power of the clergy over religious and moral education. This law met with such violent opposition that all the personal influence of Bismarck and Falk was needed to carry it, and it gave such deep offense to the pope that he refused to receive the German ambassador. He declared the Falk law invalid, and the German bishops united in a declaration against the chancellor. Bismarck retorted by a law expelling the Jesuits from the empire.

In 1873 the state of affairs became so embittered that the rights and liberties of the citizens seemed to need protection against a priesthood armed with extensive powers of discipline and excommunication. In consequence Bismarck introduced, and by his eloquence and influence carried, what were known as the May Laws. These required the scientific education of the Catholic clergy, the confirmation of clerical appointments by the state, and the formation of a tribunal to consider and revise the conduct of the bishops.

These enactments precipitated a bitter contest between Church and State, while the pope declared the May Laws null and void and threatened with excommunication all priests who should submit to them. The State retorted by withdrawing its financial support from the Catholic church and abolishing those clauses of the constitution under which the Church claimed independence of the State. Pope Pius IX died in 1878, and on the election of Leo XIII attempts were made to reconcile the existing differences. The reconciliation was a victory for the Church, since the May Laws ceased to be operative, the church revenues were restored and the control of the clergy over education in considerable measure was regained. New concessions were granted in 1886 and 1887, and Bismarck felt himself beaten in his long conflict with his clerical opponents, who had proved too strong and deeply entrenched for him.


Economic questions became also prominent, the revenues of the empire requiring some change in the system of free trade and the adoption of protective duties, while the railroads were acquired as public property by the various states of the empire. Meanwhile the rapid growth of socialism excited apprehension, which was added to when two attempts were made on the life of the emperor. These were attributed to the socialists, and severe laws for the suppression of socialism were enacted. Bismark also sought to cut the ground from under the feet of the socialists by an endeavor to improve the condition of the working classes. In 1881 laws were passed compelling employers to insure their workmen in case of sickness or accident, and in 1888 a system of compulsory insurance against death and old age was introduced. None of these measures, however, checked the growth of socialism, which very actively continued.

In 1882 a meeting was arranged by the chancellor between the emperors of Germany, Russia, and Austria, which was looked upon in Europe as a political alliance. In 1878 Russia drifted somewhat apart from Germany, but in the following year an alliance of defense and offense was concluded with Austria, and a similar alliance at a later date with Italy. This, which continued to 1914, was known as the Triple Alliance. In 1877 Bismarck announced his intention to retire, being worn out with the great labors of his position. To this the emperor, who felt that his state rested on the shoulders of the "Iron Chancellor," would not listen, though he gave him indefinite leave of absence.

On March 9, 1888, Emperor William died. He was ninety years of age, having been born in 1797. He was succeeded by his son Frederick, then incurably ill from a cancerous affection of the throat, which carried him to the grave after a reign of ninety-nine days. His oldest son, William, succeeded on June 15, 1888, as William II.


The liberal era which was looked for under Frederick was checked by his untimely death, his son at once returning to the policy of William I and Bismarck. He proved to be far more positive and dictatorial in disposition than his grandfather, with decided and vigorous views of his own, which soon brought him into conflict with the equally positive chancellor. The result was a rupture with Bismarck, and his resignation (a virtual dismissal) from the premiership in 1890. The young emperor proposed to be his own minister and subsequently devoted himself in a large measure to the increase of the army and navy, a policy which brought him into frequent conflicts with the Reichstag, whose rapidly growing socialistic membership was in strong opposition to this development of militarism.

The old statesman, to whom Germany owed so much, was deeply aggrieved by this lack of gratitude on the part of the self-opinionated young emperor, in view of his great services to the state. The wound rankled deeply, though a seeming reconciliation took place. But the political career of the great Bismarck was at an end, and he died on July 30, 1898. It is an interesting coincidence that almost at the same time died the distinguished but markedly different statesman of England, William Edward Gladstone. Count Cavour, another great European statesman of the latter half of the nineteenth century, had completed his work and passed away nearly forty years before.

The career of William II soon became one of much interest and some alarm to the other nations of Europe. His eagerness for the development of the army and navy, and the energy with which he pushed forward its organization and sought to add to its strength, seemed significant of warlike intentions, and there was dread that this energetic young monarch might break the peace of Europe, if only to prove the irresistible strength of the military machine he had formed. But as years went on the apprehensions to which his early career and expressions gave rise were quieted, and the fear that he would plunge Europe into war lessened. The army and navy appeared to some as rather a costly plaything of the active young man than an engine of destruction, while it tended in considerable measure to the preservation of peace by rendering Germany a power dangerous to go to war with.

The speeches with which the emperor began his reign showed an exaggerated sense of the imperial dignity, though his later career indicated far more judgment and good sense than the early display of overweening self-importance promised, and the views of William II eventually came to command far more respect than they did at first. He showed himself a man of exuberant energy. Despite a permanent weakness of his left arm and a serious affection of the ear, he early became a skilful horseman and an untiring hunter, as well as an enthusiastic yachtsman, and there were few men in the empire more active and enterprising than the Kaiser.


A principal cause of the break between William and Bismarck was the imperial interference with the laws for the suppression of socialism. As already stated, the old chancellor had established a system of compulsory old age insurance, through which workmen and their employers - aided by the state - were obliged to provide for the support of artisans after a certain age. The system seems to have worked satisfactorily, but socialism of a more radical kind grew in the empire far more rapidly than the emperor approved of, and he vigorously, though unsuccessfully endeavored to prevent its increase. Another of his favorite measures, a religious education bill, he was obliged to withdraw on account of the opposition it excited. On more than one occasion he came into sharp conflict with the Reichstag concerning increased taxation for the army and navy, and a strong party against his autocratic methods sprang up, and forced him more than once to recede from warmly-cherished measures.


It may be of interest here to say something concerning the organization of the German empire. The constitution of this empire, as adopted April 16, 1871, proposes to "form an eternal union for the protection of the realm and the care of the welfare of the German people," and places the supreme direction of military and political affairs in the King of Prussia, under the title of Deutscher Kaiser (German emperor). The war-making powers of the emperor, however, are restricted, since he is required to obtain the consent of the Bundesrath (the Federal Council) before he can declare war otherwise than for the defense of the realm. His authority as emperor, in fact, is much less than that which he exercises as King of Prussia, since the imperial legislature is independent of him, he having no power of veto over the laws passed by it. His actual military power, however, is practically supreme, as demonstrated in the opening events of the war of 1914.

The legislature, as stated, consists of two bodies, the Bundesrath, representing the states of the union, whose members, 58 in number, are chosen for each session by the several state governments; and the Reichstag, representing the people, whose members, 397 in number, are elected by universal suffrage for periods of five years. The German union, as constituted in 1914, comprised four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, three sovereign cities, and the Reichsland of Alsace-Lorraine; twenty-six separate states in all. It included all the German peoples of Europe with the exception of those in Austria.

The progress of Germany within the modern period has been very great. The population of the states of the empire, 24,831,000 at the end of the Napoleonic wars, had become, a century later, over 64,000,000, having added 40,000,000 to the roll of inhabitants. The country, once divided into an unwieldy multitude of states, often of minute proportions, has become consolidated into the number above named, each of these possessing some degree of importance. These, as combined into a federal union, or empire, have an area of 208,830 square miles, of which Prussia holds the lion's share, its area being 134,605 square miles.

The presidency of the empire belongs to the king of Prussia and is hereditary in his family. Besides the Imperial Parliament, each state has its own special legislature and laws, but railroads regarded as necessary for the defense of Germany or the facilitating of general communications may come under a law of the empire, even against the opposition of the members of the confederation whose territory is traversed. The states have their respective armies, but it is the emperor who disposes of them; he appoints the heads of the contingents, approves the generals, and has the right to establish fortresses over the whole territory of the empire.

The wealth of the German empire has grown in a far greater area than its population, it having developed into the most active manufacturing country in Europe. Agriculture has similarly advanced, and one of its chief products, that of the sugar beet, has enormously increased, beet-root sugar being among its chief industrial yields. In addition, Germany has grown to be one of the most active commercial nations of the earth. Thus it has taken a place among the most active productive and commercial countries, its wealth and importance being correspondingly augmented. These particulars are of interest as showing the standing of Germany at the outbreak of the war of 1914 and indicating its degree of ability to bear the fearful strain of so great a war.

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