Germany 1900-1945 From Kaiser to Führer

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Germany 1900-1945

From Kaiser to Führer

Unit 1: What were the main issues in the Second Reich 1900-14?

  • The constitution of the Second Reich

  • The relative powers of the Kaiser, Chancellor and Reichstag and how their relationships might be illustrated

  • Social and political divisions in the Second Reich at the beginning of the twentieth century.

  • The economic and social changes of the years 1900-14 and the impact of these changes on politics and political parties.


1900 June: Second German Naval Law introduced

October: Count Bernhard von Bülow becomes Chancellor

1902: Tariff Law introduced

1903: Sickness Insurance Law gives greater help to sick workers

1904: Herero uprisings begins in German South West Africa

1906: Parliamentary crisis leads to election

1907: Reichstag elections see Socialist SPD lose votes

1908: Law passed restricting hours of factory work

1909: Bülow resigns: Dr von Bethmann-Hollweg becomes Chancellor

1911: Reform of Alsace Lorraine constitution

1912: Reichstag elections: SPD become largest party

1913: June: Reichstag passes Army and Finance Bills, increasing size of armed forces

December: The Zabern Affair
The Constitution

  • Wilhelm I was proclaimed Kaiser of the new German states in 1871, following the unification of Germany

  • This new empire was born out of victory in battle over a period of years but most recently over the French in the Franco-Prusso war. War against France had been fought by a number of German states in alliance, including the states of Prussia and Bavaria.

  • Victory against France in 1871 led to the unification of the states of the North German Confederation, which was defined by a constitution, with the southern kingdoms.

  • The unification was however on Prussia’s terms, and the main aim of the refined constitution was to preserve the power of the elite.

  • Author was Otto von Bismarck: Chancellor of Germany 1871-1890. He was fiercely conservative and had little regard for any form of parliamentary democracy.

  • The constitution created a political structure that was not clear, was fragmented and that was dominated by the conservative elites.

  • Enshrined in the constitution was the dominance and veto of Prussia.

A Federal State

  • The new German Reich included 25 states.

  • The states retained their own governments and had different constitutions. Some allowed universal suffrage, others, retained a 17th century style with near absolutist rulers.

  • Granted the states fairly wide ranging powers, which included responsibility for education, police, justice and heath care.

  • Domestic affairs were in the hands of the state governments rather than the federal governments.

The Kaiser

  • The Kaiser held considerable powers, which made the personality of the Kaiser of paramount importance.

  • The Kaiser was always to be the Prussian king, which reinforced Prussia’s dominant position

  • Held full control over foreign and diplomatic policy.

  • Had the power to make alliances, sign treaties, starts war and sue for peace.

  • Commander in chief of the armed forces of all of Germany’s states.

  • Appointed and dismissed the Chancellor and had the power to dissolve the Reichstag.

  • Published and oversaw the implementation of federal law.

The Chancellor

  • The Chancellor was directly responsible to the Kaiser as chief minister of the Reich.

  • In charge of the appointment and dismissal of the state secretaries who oversaw the running of the government ministries.

  • As well as Chancellor of the federal state, he was Minister-President of Prussia.

  • Could ignore the resolutions passed by the Reichstag.

  • Bismarck gave the position of the Chancellor considerable powers to manipulate both the Kaiser and the Reichstag: but this depended on political ability, the character of the Kaiser and the composition of the Reichstag.

The Bundesrat

  • The Bundesrat was the upper house of the federal parliament

  • Consisted of 58 members nominated by the states’ assemblies.

  • It was part of the law making process and in theory able to change the constitution.

  • Created by Bismarck to act as a possible barrier to radical legislation.

  • The Bundesrat could veto legislation if 14 or more of its members voted against a bill.

  • The dominance of Prussia was assured by the fact that it held 17 out of the 58 seats in the Bundesrat, thereby ensuring that no legislation could be passed without the consent of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.

  • The electorate for the Prussian Chamber of Deputies was divided by what was known as a ‘three class franchise’.

    • Votes were categorized into one of three bands.

    • The votes of those who paid more tax counted for more than the votes of those who paid less.

    • The lowest group of voters was made up of around 92% of the electorate.

  • As a result, the Prussian Chamber of Deputies was always dominated by conservatives.

  • In the 1908 election in Prussia, 418,000 voters gained 212 conservative seats, whereas 600,000 votes gained 6 Social Democrat seats.

The Reichstag

  • The lower house of the federal parliament, the Reichstag, held joint legislative power with the Bundesrat. It had influence over areas such as financial affairs and the banking system.

  • The most significant power held by the Reichstag was its control over the defence budget.

  • This became the most significant federal government expenditure.

  • In the 1870s the annual defence budget was 100 million marks; by 1913 it was 2,405 million marks.

  • Bismarck recognised the potential political lever that this might give the Reichstag, and in 1874 he persuaded them to vote through the Septennial Act: voted on the military budget only once every seven years.

  • This was changed to once every five years in 1893, but this was still not enough to give the Reichstag real control.

  • Another power was to pass the annual budget.

  • However, this power was also reduced by Bismarck; his switch to protectionism in 1879 brought the federal government increased income and some financial independence from the Reichstag.

  • Even though the Reichstag could be dissolved by the Kaiser, it could not be dismissed indefinitely and it had the right to hold elections soon after dissolution.

  • It was elected on a system of universal male suffrage of men age 25+. Its member represented constituencies that were arranged in the 1870s.

  • However, the powers of the Reichstag were limited

    • Limited power to initiate legislations: its primary function was to debate and to accept or reject legislation that was placed in front of it.

    • Members could not become members of the government. If they wished to do so, they had to resign their seats.

    • The Chancellor was not accountable to the Reichstag and did not even have to answer its questions.

    • The military was not in any sense accountable.

    • In order to ensure that only a certain class of person stood for election to the Reichstag, Bismarck included the stipulation that members would not be paid.

The Army

  • The army lay outside the formal constitution because Bismarck did not want to tie its hands by defining its role.

  • The army was of huge significance in this new state.

  • Its importance in part stemmed from the fact that the German state had been founded on the back of victories in the 1860s + 1870s.

  • As a result, Bismarck did not make the army accountable in law to the Reichstag; instead he made it directly responsible to the Kaiser.

  • On the advice of senior military figures, the Kaiser appointed the military Cabinet (made up of senior military figures).

  • The Military Cabinet advised and chose the General Staff.

  • The General Staff organised all military affairs from planning to court bodyguard duties

  • The War Minister was a member of the General Staff and was accountable only to the Kaiser and the Military Cabinet.

  • The army swore an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser and not to the state.

  • It had the right to declare martial law.

  • In terms of social background, the officer classes were split; positions in elite regiments such as the cavalry or the guards were held by the Prussian nobility known as Junkers.

  • A sizeable minority, around 44% of officer posts in the army in the period 1898-1918, were held by professional soldiers.

  • Whatever their social background, there were few officers in the army who had any respect for democracy.

  • Bismarck had ensured that the army was a ‘state within a state’.

  • This meant that it ran itself with little or no outside interference beyond that of the Kaiser.

  • This system worked for Bismarck because he was able to manage it; Chancellors who followed found it more difficult to cope with.

Political Organisation

  • Despite the restrictions on the power of the Reichstag, mass political parties flourished.

  • This was in part because of the introduction of universal male suffrage.

  • However, because of the limits on the power of the Reichstag, other types of political organisations which represented different interests developed.

  • Main political parties included:

    • Conservatives (Junkers, landed interests, particularly in Prussia). Supported the Kaiser, discipline and authority, in favour of a nationalist foreign policy.

    • Free Conservatives (Commercial, industrial and wealthier professional classes from across Germany). Strong supporters of Bismarck and protectionism.

    • National Liberals (Industrial middle class, Protestant middle class). Nationalist, believed in a strong nation state and encouragement of a state with a liberal constitution. Supported Bismarck's arrack on the Catholic Church, the Kulturkampf. Political allies with of the Conservative parties

    • Liberal Progressives (middle classes). In favour of the development of parliamentary government. Not so keen on Bismarck’s idea of the power of the nation state. Views closely shared by the German People’s Party.

    • Centre Party (the Catholic Church, non-socialist working class). Opposed Bismarck’s attack on the Catholic Church, the Kulturkampf. Feared the rise of socialism. Anti-Prussian.

    • Social Democratic Party (working classes after Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws lapsed in 1890). Views were split. Marxists argued for revolution and non-cooperation with the political system. Reformists argued that the party should work within the political system to achieve social reform.

Seats won in the Reichstag 1898-1912










Free Conservatives





National Liberals





Liberal Progressives





Centre Party





Social Democrats










German Economics Growth

  • The industries of the first Industrial Revolution were heavy- cotton, coal and iron- and up until the middle of the nineteenth century Britain dominated these industries.

  • The extent of German economic growth in the period between unification and the outbreak of the First World War is therefore best illustrated by a comparison with British growth

Coal and Pig Iron production (in thousands of tonnes)

Coal (Germany)

Coal (Britain)










Iron (Germany)

Iron (Britain)










  • By 1914 Germany had become the economic powerhouse of continental Europe, and it was not just in the old industries that Germany excelled.

  • From the 1880s there had been a technological revolution in the new industries of steel, engineering and chemicals that was fuelled and closely linked to the new sources of energy: electricity and petroleum

  • Germany led the way in many of these new industries.

  • New methods in manufacturing steels, such as the Thomas-Gilchrist process allowed firms such as Krupp to increase production rapidly in the pre-war period.

  • German advantage over Britain in steal was also gained through the size of her companies:

  • Only one British firm in 1900 had an annual capacity to produce over 300,000 tons, whereas in Germany here were ten such companies.

  • Growth in steel production fuelled the expansion of other industries including armaments and the railways.

  • The Prussian railways expanded from 5,000 kilometres in 1878 to 37,000 kilometres in 1914.

Steel Production (in thousands of tonnes)

Steel (Germany)

Steel (Britain)










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