Quote Bank and Key Information The Second Reich 1900-1919 The Constitution of the Second Reich

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The Second Reich 1900-1919

The Constitution of the Second Reich

  • Established following Prussia’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871

  • Following German unification, Prussia compromised 65% of the surface area of unified Germany and 62% of the population – Prussia dominated

  • The Kaiser was top dog and he had the powers of: Commander-in-Chief, in charge of foreign policy, appointment and dismissal of Chancellor, dissolve Reichstag and president of the Bundesrat.

  • Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II from 1888 to 1918

  • All men over the age of 25 could vote in Reichstag elections

  • The Chancellor was responsible for presenting legislation to parliament and the Chancellor and ministers implemented laws – both were only accountable to the Kaiser

  • The Bundesrat could initiate legislation and if 14 or more members of the Bundesrat voted against a law it could be vetoed. The Prussians had 17 members

  • The Reichstag could vote to accept, reject or amend legislation. Members democratically elected

  • Federal constitution

  • The German army was accountable to the Kaiser and swore an oath of allegiance to him and not to the government

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

Economic Developments

  • Between 1890 and 1914, economic growth averaged at 4.5% a year

  • In 1890, coal production was 89 million tonnes. By 1910 it was 222 million tonnes

  • In 1890, steel production was 2.3 million tonnes. By 1910 it was 13.8 million tonnes

  • By 1914, Germany’s industrial strength matched that of Britain

  • Thanks to companies like AEG and Siemens, Germany produced around 50% of the world’s electrical goods

  • In chemicals, Germany led the world in production of synthetic dyes and pharmaceutical and in precision engineering

  • Industrial economy, the contribution that industry made to the country’s GNP rose from around 33% to 42% during the period

  • Early 1870s, annual defence budget = 100 million marks. By 1913, it was 2405 million marks

Social Consequences

  • Stimulated urbanisation. By 1910, 60% of the population lived in urban areas, the highest rate in Europe

  • Berlin had in excess of 2 million inhabitants by 1910

  • Despite low unemployment and increases in average wares, the standard of living for most working people was low. Discontent about this created a boom in Trade Union membership: over 3 million people were members by 1913

  • Class tensions between the Junker elite who wanted to keep their power in tac (Sammslungpolitik) against the working class who were angered at their pay and conditions at work

Political Developments

  • SPD (Social Democratic Party): growing throughout the whole period, main left-wing party. 1887= 0.03% of the vote with 11 seats. By 1912= 28% of the vote with 110 seats making them the largest party in the Reichstag

  • Anti-socialist laws that limited the possible representation of the SPD were in place in 1887

  • Main right-wing party was the German Conservative Party (DKP) who represented Junkers and was strong in Prussia

  • The Centre Party (Z party) represented German Catholics (around a 1/3 of Germans) and consistently received approximately a ¼ of votes in Reichstag elections. The party usually worked more with conservative parties, but at time (e.g. over the budget in 1906) sided with the SPD. Thus the Centre Party often held the balance of power in the Reichstag

The Kaiser and his Chancellors

  • Historian John Rohl (umlaut on the O) argues that the Kaiser developed a system of autocratic personal rule during the 1890s: he appointed ministers who would further his conservative political agenda and sought to control the work of his Chancellors and government. Rohl says how the Kaiser was at “the heart of the system”

  • Historians like Chris Clark say he never attempted to be an “absolute monarch” and instead the Chancellors and the democratic Reichstag held the power in Germany

  • In 1896-97, the Kaiser exercised his powers of patronage to remove more progressive ministers from the government and replace them with those who shared his conservative vision, such as von Bulow and von Tirpitz

  • After Bismarck and Caprivi, the Chancellors worked with the Kaiser (Hohenlohe, von Bulow and Bethmann Hollweg).

  • Although, von Bulow (umlaut on the u) defeated the Kaiser over the Tariff Law of 1902

  • 1911 Imperial Insurance Cod, Sickness Insurance 1902 and Child Labour 1908 laws and reforms show how the people did get their way sometimes

How did the political system work in practice??

  • In 1906, the SPD and the Centre Party deputies in the Reichstag joined forces to vote against the government’s budget, in protest at Germany’s colonial policies. The Kaiser consequently used his powers to dissolve the Reichstag and a new election was called in 1907, known as the Hottentot election. Conservative imperialist parties emerged strengthened after the election. This event demonstrated:

  • The Reichstag trying to control the actions of the Kaiser, government and army

  • The tensions between a left-win Reichstag and a permanently conservative government

  • The power that the Kaiser had to dissolve the Reichstag

  • Support from the German public for a brutal imperialist agenda

  • The Daily Telegraph Affair, 1908 – Kaiser made many unguarded comments like the British were ‘mad, mad as March hares!’ for thinking that Germany posed a threat to peace

  • The Kaiser was perceived in German as to of exceeded his authority in talking to the foreign press in this way.

  • Event demonstrated that the Reichstag and German Press were willing to criticise Kaiser

  • Also shows how Kaiser could not always act in an autocratic manner, with the Reichstag forcing him to guarantee he wouldn’t do anything like it again

  • He pressurised von Bulow into his resignation after the matter

  • The Zabern Affair 1913. A German soldier based in Zabern, Alsace, made a derogatory comment about the Alsatian locals (“Wackes” was said by Second Leiutenant Forstner) Tensions escalated between the German army and local inhabitants, and matters came to a head when the soldier was acquitted by a military court of injuring a man who jeered at him. The Kaiser backed the military, while the Reichstag criticised the conduct of the army and of Chancellor Bethmann. Event demonstrated that…

  • The army operated independently of civil authority in Germany and were accountable to the Kaiser who, by 1913, was very supportive of them

  • The Reichstag were not able to hold the Chancellor to account: the Chancellor only needed the Kaiser’s support

  • The Reichstag could be ignored by the Kaiser and the army

  • Tensions existed between different parts of the German system, especially between the army and the Reichstag

Where did the power lie in the Second Reich?

Germany was an autocracy

  • Wilhelm II May 1891 “There is only one man in charge of the Reich and I will not tolerate another.”

  • John Rohl – the Kaiser was at “the heart of the system”

Germany was dominated by elites

  • Historians like Hans-Ulrich Wehler described the elites ruling as “revolution from above.”

  • Conservative pressure groups like the Agrarian League and the Central Association of German Industrialists successfully lobbied for increased agricultural tariffs in 1902

  • Sammslungspolitk


  • Christopher Clark – the Kaiser never attempted to be an “absolute monarch” and Wilhelm II was too erratic for personal rule to be possible

  • Reichstag decided the defence budget

Impact of the First World War

  • Early 1870s, annual defence budget was 100 million marks. By 1913, it was 2,405 million marks

  • “We will not desert our Fatherland in its hour of need,” – Hugo Hasse (chairman of the SPD)

Economic Impact

  • Only 16% of the £8.4 million cost of the war was met by taxation: war bonds were also used and money printed – which led to inflation

  • From 1913 to 1918, the mark declined in value by 75%

  • Food shortages “Turnip Winter” (1916-1917)

Social Impact

  • 2 million soldiers were killed and 6.3 million were injured

  • Living standards fell by 20-30%

  • Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918

Political Impact

  • At the start of the war, appeared politically unified under the Burgfrieden (political truce)

  • Large crowds gathered at Under Den Linden and Odeonsplatz in Munich on August 2nd 1914 to celebrate war effort

  • As the Kaiser announced to the Reichstag at the start of the war, “I know no parties anymore, I know only Germans”.

  • However, this situation did not last: the view of the left that only defensive war was justified was not compatible with the aim of many on the right for a war of expansion and conquest (a Siegfriede)

  • By 1917, 42 SPD deputies had broken away to form the anti-war and radical socialist USPD. Mounting concern about the war led to a Reichstag vote, the ‘peace resolution’, which urged the government to try to negotiate a peace settlement. The left and the centre won the vote by 212 to 126

  • War saw the formation of the Spartacist League who wanted a social revolution

  • 1918 wave of strikes, such as one in Berlin which lasted for 5 days involving half a million workers.

  • Elites called the socialist critics “enemies of the Reich”

  • 1918 – Burgfrieden died

  • By 1916, the ‘Silent Dictatorship’ of Supreme Commanders Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were essentially in charge of the country

  • Germany’s impending defeat came as a great shock to many Germans. This contributed to the outbreak of the revolution and the acceptance of the ‘stab in the back’ myth (Dolchslosslegende)

The German Revolution

  • The revolution from above (29th September – 3rd October 1918) , Kaiser attempted to form a new civilian government which would please the working class yet keep power centralised in the elites. On 3rd of October, liberal Prince Max of Baden formed a new government containing liberal and socialist members of the Reichstag

  • Andrew White said the elites “had no intention of surrendering its own power.”

  • The revolution from below (31st October – 8th November 1918), sailors in Kiel mutinied against a final suicide order by Chief Scheer – this spread across Germans. Riots in many areas like Berlin Cologne and Stuttgart. Moderate socialists were declaring the existence of a “democratic republic”

  • 9th November 1918, Wilhelm II abdicates to Holland and a government of SPD and USPD members was formed with Friedrich Ebert as the dominant member

  • Armistice agreed on 9th November 1918

  • 10th November – January 1919. Ebert-Groener Pact agreed which made a deal between the army and Ebert’s government

Controversy 1: Causes of the First World War

Full blame on Germany

  • A.J.P. Taylor – ‘the sole cause for the outbreak of war in 1914 was the Schlieffen Plan.’

  • A.J.P also had the theory of War by Timetable - 'The First World War had begun - imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables.

  • Fritz Fischer – strong ‘ will to war’ among German leaders before 1914 (Fischer thesis where he argued it was Germany’s fault in his book, Germany’s Aims in the First World War and War of Illusions 1969. John Rohl (umlaut) also supported this view

  • James Joll – German rulers had ‘accepted war as inevitable’ by December 1912

  • Chief of the General staff, von Moltke said “In my opinion, war is inevitable, and the sooner the better.”

  • Mark Rathbone on the Schlieffen Plan, “Germany had committed an act of unprovoked aggression against another country.”

  • The War Council meeting 1912, where the Kaiser and the military leaders met and the topic of the possibility of war was a main one. Fischer uses this as key evidence

  • Weltpolitik

  • Schlieffen Plan

  • The September Programme 1914

  • The Blank Cheque – 5/6th of July, Kaiser Wilhelm II (under pressure from Ludendorff and Hindenburg) gave full support to Austria-Hungary. Austrians subsequently issued an ultimatum to Serbia after Franz Ferdinand’s assignation by the Black Hand Gang, when 1 of their 10 demands was not met – war was declared

Did Germany destabilise peace?

  • 1890, Wilhelm II allowed the Reinsurance Treaty (ties with Russia) to lapse and began closer links with the Austro-Hungarian Empirie

  • The Bosnian Crisis, 1908. Declining power of Ottoman Empire in Balkans led a power vacuum to be open, the Balkans v Austria-Hungary. Germany gave support to Austria-Hungary and promised military assistance against Serbia, whereas Serbia was backed by Russia

  • The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905-1906. Conference in Algeciras debating who had power in the region after the Kaiser called for a conference in a speech he made in Tangier in 1905. All countries present accepted French influence in the area except for Germany and Austria-Hungary

  • The Second Moroccan Crisis, 1911. Following French suppression of an anti-French uprising in Fez, Morocco. Wilhelm II argued France had exceeded their rights and ordered a gunboat, the Panther, to assist the rebels; Britain and France found this aggressive. Eventually, Germany was given the right to control parts of the Congo in return for accepting French influence in Morocco

  • German Naval expansion. The Second Naval Law in 1900 increased the size of the German navy to 38 battleships and consistently increased throughout the period. Britain saw this as a threat, and in 1912 tried to negotiate with Germany to limit their naval expansion, but to no avail

  • “the most formidable document I had ever seen addressed by one state to another that was independent.” – Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary on the Austrian ultimatum

  • On 28th July, Austria declared war on Serbia and in response Russia, who was allied with Serbia and concerned to prevent Austria expanding in the Balkan region, began to mobilise her army. On 31st July, Germany declared war on Russia

  • 3rd August, Germany declare war on France and invade Belgium on 4th August. Britain declare war on Germany due to their alliance with Belgium

Not all Germany’s fault….

  • Gerhard Ritter – “No one in a position of (German) authority wanted to bring about a world war.”

  • Emil Ludwig – “a few dozen incapable leaders” led Europe “into a war which in no way was destined or inevitable.”

  • “I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure brought upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.” – Russian Tsar’s telegram to Wilhelm II on 29th July 1914

  • Europe ‘slithered into war’ – Lloyd George UK PM (by accident)

  • Christoph Mick – “The First World War was a result of the collective failure of the European political elite.”

  • Sarah Ward – “expansionist ambitions of states such as Russia, Austria and Germany were to blame for war breaking out in July 1914.”

  • Britain participated in the naval race with Germany and launched the dreadnought class of warship in 1906, provoking Germany to expand their navy in the Third Naval Law

  • Russia’s decision to mobilise her army in July 1914 pushed Germany to enact the Schlieffen Plan

  • Austria- Hungary trying to save its dying empire got Germany caught up e.g. Balkans Crisis and ultimatum

  • Triple Entente raised German fears of ‘encirclement’ i.e. being surrounded so they had to break out

  • Britain, Russia and France were all building empires in time of Weltpolitik

  • Russia had plans to increase their army by 500,000 from 1916

  • France decided to increase conscription from two to three years from 1916

  • 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente. Created the Triple Entente

  • Could also say that Germany pushed for war to escape domestic pressures e.g. Zabern Affair, SPD. Weltpolitik “aimed at diverting the attention of the masses from social and political problems at home by a dynamic expansion abroad.” – Imanuel Geiss

  • Imanuel Geiss – “the Bosnian crisis in the East was a kind of dress rehearsal for the First World War.” – Imanuel Geiss

So the interpretations are…

  • The war was caused by German desire for European power

  • German leaders pushed for war (aggression) to escape domestic problems

  • Germany feared encirclement

  • German leaders believed war was inevitable, and the sooner the better

  • Other European countries

The Weimar Republic 1919-1933

  • Following elections in January 1919, a National Assembly met in the city of Weimar to form an interim parliament and to agree a new constitution. The largest party in the Assembly was the SPD, which had won 38% of the vote. SPD co-operated with other pro-democracy parties, the Centre Party and the DDP (German Democratic Party) and formed a liberal democratic system with protection for workers

  • Had two Presidents, Friedrich Ebert (1919-1925) and Paul von Hindenburg

The Weimar Constitution

  • A President to be elected every 7 years with the power to select and dismiss the Chancellor

  • President was Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces

  • The President could dissolve the lower house of the German parliament, the Reichstag and call new Reichstag elections under Article 25 of the constitution

  • The Chancellor and government were accountable to the Reichstag and had to resign if they lost confidence of the Reichstag

  • The Reichstag was to be elected every 4 years. Universal suffrage for people over the age of 20

  • Proportional Representation: minimum requirement for a seat in the Reichstag was just 60,000 votes across the entire country

  • Federal system

  • Referendums if enough people petitioned one

  • Freedoms of speech, right to work, worker’s rights and welfare rights guaranteed under Bill of Rights

  • Under Article 48, the President had the power to rule via presidential decree in the event of an emergency. However, this power was checked as the Reichstag could review and overturn any decree issued under Article 48

Treaty of Versailles

  • ‘Death rather than slavery’ thundered the nationalist newspaper Deutsche Zeitung in reaction to the Treaty

  • The Constituent Assembly accepted the treaty in June 1919 by 237 votes to 138

  • Those who signed the Treaty, (Ebert and the SPD) were known as the ‘November Criminals’

  • ‘War guilt’ clause number 231 – all blame put on Germany

  • Treaty meant Germany

  • Lost 13% of its territory

  • Lost 12% of its population (6.5 million)

  • Lost 48% of its iron ore

  • Lost 16% of its coal

  • Lost 15% of its agricultural production

  • April 1921, decided 132,000 million gold marks over 30 years

  • Conscription abolished, army reduced to 100,000 – no tanks or aircraft

  • Navy limited to 6 battleships, 6 cruisers, 12 destroyers, 12 torpedo boats and no submarines

  • The first election in 1919 produced a whole majority for the pro-Weimar parties but the 1920 election saw their support slump to only 45%

The Threat from the extreme left

  • The Spartacist uprising 1919 – launched an attempted communist revolution. President Ebert ordered the paramilitary Freikorps (volunteer groups of ex-servicemen) to crush the rebellion. The leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed

  • Communists also temporarily took control or rebellion in a number of areas in Germany : Bavaria in 1919, the Ruhr in 1920 and Saxony and Thuringia in 1923

  • Ebert-Groener Pact meant Freikorps and army crushed these rebellions

  • The left assassinated 22, 10 got sentenced to death and 17 to severe punishment

  • The highest share of the vote that the KPD received in Reichstag elections of the 1920s was 12.6%

The Threat from the extreme right

  • The Kapp Putsch, 1920. Led by Wolfgang Kapp, a group of right-wing politicians and soldiers seized control of Berlin. Lack of support, putsch died after general strike paralysed Berlin

  • Munich Putsch 1923. 8th November Hitler and Nazis took control of a conservative political meeting and Hitler announced a national revolution. Bavarian police able to stop it on 9th November

  • “The enemies of the state stand on the right.” – 1922 by Joseph Wirth, then chancellor, following assassination of Walter Rathenau

  • Stahlhelm ( Steel Helmets) paramilitary group membership reached around 400,000

  • Right assassinated 354, 326 went unpunished and only 1 rightly sentenced to severe punishment

  • The political right did not just undermine Weimar through direct action. The ‘stab in the back’ myth had a pernicious influence in that it made democracy appear weak and un-German and portrayed democratic politicians as traitors

1923 – Year of Crisis

  • By early 1923, the German government was failing to meet its reparations obligations – so it started printing money

  • The Ruhr Crisis. Failure to meet payments meant France occupied the Ruhr to take “what is rightfully theirs”. The German government ordered ‘passive resistance’, refusing to cooperate with the French.

  • To help those in the Ruhr, and reparations by 1923, 300 paper mills and 150 printing presses worked 24 hours a day to create paper currency

  • Hyperinflation! In April 1919, 12 marks were needed to buy $1. However by December 1923, 4.2 trillion marks were needed to buy $1.

How did Weimar survive all this shit?

  • Poor leadership and planning of attempted putsches. E.g. during the Munich Putsch, Hitler exhibited indecision as he dithered overnight about whether to launch his coup, which gave time for others to alert the authorities.

  • The Spartacists only had around 15,000 members

  • Some 700,000 people demonstrated in Berlin against political violence after assassination of Walther Rathenau in 1922 – and it was this public revulsion rather than police or judicial action that ended the assassinations

  • Ebert was ruthless against both extremes, ruling under Article 48 during the Munich Putsch

  • As chancellor, Gustav Stresemann helped to solve the crisis of 1923. He payed the reparations payment with worthless money, ended passive resistance and got the economy back on track

  • Stresemann sacked 700,000 state employees – necessary

  • He helped negotiate the Dawes Plan, US loans and investments to assist the German economy

  • Dawes Plan also redesigned reparations, the annual payment of gold marks was reduced to 1 million, rising to 2.5 million from 1929

  • Rentenmark established

  • The Elite supported Weimar – the civil service and banking community refused to co-operate with the Kapp government

Some more fun facts on Weimar

  • 18 governments from 1919-1933 with only 9 elected by elections

  • 1928 election, 76% of people supported pro-Weimer parties, with the Nazis only gaining 2.6% of the vote

  • Numbers killed in political violence 1924-1929.

  • Nazis = 29

  • Communists = 92

  • Stahlhelm = 26

  • Reichsbanner (SPD paramilitary group) = 18

  • Total = 162

  • Peukert argues that “The electoral decline of the liberals was the decisive event of Weimar politics because it undermined the pro-republican centre from within.”

  • American Journalist William Shirer wrote, “life seemed more free, more modern, more exciting than in any place I had ever seen.”

  • The 1928 election saw the Social Democrat Party gain the biggest share of power, with 29.8% of the vote

  • By 1928, production equalled that of 1913 and national income was 12% higher than in 1913

  • Exports rose by 40% in 1925-1929

  • Despite wages rising every year 1925-1929, inflation remained low and hyperinflation never threatened

  • Unemployment did not fall below 1.3 million and levels were climbing before 1929

  • Agriculture was in recession from 1927

  • Too reliant on US

  • By 1927/28, Imports>exports

  • Nazis only gained 2.6% of the vote in 1928

  • The creation of the Grand Coalition in 1928 had a 60% democratic majority – led by SPD’s Muller (umlaut)

  • Hindenburg upheld the new constitution and chose a SPD chancellor in spite of his hostility to socialism

  • KPD obtained 10.6% of the vote in 1928

  • By 1929, extremist threats were on the decrease. There had been no putsch attempts since the Munich Putsch in 1923 and only 162 political assassinations happened during 1924-1929 compared to 376 between 1919 to 1923

  • William Carr: “superficial prosperity and the growing international stature of the republic served to mask a state of chronic political weakness.”

  • William Carr: “Chancellor Stresemann acted upon the simple truth that a government which lacks power cannot play power politics.”

  • Second round of votes 26th April for Presidency.

Votes (millions)


Votes %


Hindenburg (DNVP)



Marx (Z)



Thaelmann (KPD)


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