1848-1918

1848-1918

BISMARK’S EMPIRE

While a new Germany was trying in vain to find itself under the guidance of her intellectual bourgeoisie, Prussian in its old and approved form had acquired a new and, as subsequent events proved, its greatest leader. A thoroughbred ‘Junker’ from the Marches, Otto von Bismark had started his career in civil administration and soon attracted attention by a masterful way of settling disputes and going to the root of a question. After the failure of the German Confederation, Austria, where the young Emperor Schwarzenberg stood in Metternich’s place, successfully asserted her predominance in 1850, forcing Prussia by the Olmutz Convention to break up a League of north-German states; and the old Habsburg-Hohenzollern rivalry seemed to have been ended in favour of the Imperial house. The ‘Christian Germanic State’ of which the romantic Frederick William IV of Prussia had dreamed vanished when confronted with the harsh necessities of power politics. The still unsolved Schleswig-Holstein problem was the pretext under which Prusso-Austrian antagonism materialised, Russia backing Austria with her strong support. When the Crimean War broke out, Bismark’s advise to the Prussian government to keep out of the conflict prevailed over that of older statesmen.

During the years that followed Bismark saw diplomatic service in many capitals before he was called, in 1862, to take the helm of the Prussian State. He had seen a pseudo-democracy at work – as Prussia’s envoy to the Frankfort Diet – and he had been her diplomatic representative at St. Petersburg and Paris. He enjoyed the personal esteem and friendship of William, who acted as regent for his bother Frederick William, when he finally became insane, and after his death in 1861 succeeded him as king. William was a soldier of good appearance, hard-working and thrifty, a characteristic specimen of the ‘first servant of the state,’ as Frederick the Great had described the ruler of Prussia. Actually, he rather followed the example of Frederick’s father, the soldier king, and applied all his energies to perfecting and increasing his army. That army was doubled in numbers in 1856 and the following years under the care of the energetic Minister of War, General von Roon, who in turn urged William to make Bismark his Prime Minister. In 1862, after a conflict between the crown and the Prussian Diet, which refused new credits for the forces, Roon’s advise was followed, and the necessary funds, on Bismark’s advice, were raised by royal decree. Shortly before his appointment, during a visit he paid to London as Prussian Minister to Paris at the time of the exhibition of 1862, Bismark had openly told Disraeli that he would use the first convenient pretext to declare war on Austria, break up the German Confederation, subjugate the smaller states of Germany and create a new Reich under Prussian domination. As soon as he was in power he started to prepare to prepare the way by improving relations with Russia, to which end he prevented the Prussian Poles from lending  a hand to their insurgent brothers under Russian rule, and by going to war with Denmark- in company with Austria who was afraid to leave the initiative to Prussia in a question of pan-German importance. The subsequent wrangling over a condominium in the conquered provinces which Bismark had, from the beginning, decided to incorporate in Prussia furnished the excuse for a definite rupture with Vienna, and in the spring of 1866 a Prussian scheme for the reform of the Bund, excluding Austria and proposing a German Army and Navy led by Berlin, precipitated the war.

In less than six weeks the first Prussian Blitzkrieg was won. In appearance it stated as a disciplinary measure taken by the Confederation against its recalcitrant member Prussia, and the western and southern German peoples fought on Austria’s sides, Hanover even winning the first small skirmish. In reality it was a match between the upstart power of Prussia and the ‘legitimate’ claims of the house of Habsburg, which match was decided at Koniggratz, or Sadowa, on 3rd July, 1866. Bismark forced the king and his military advisors to extreme moderation in their terms of peace, knowing well that a prolonged war would have meant intervention by foreign powers, most likely by Napoleon III, who was striving hard for a decisive role in the European concert. Austria accepted her defeat, as she was simultaneously engaged in Italy – allied with Prussia – and after the sanguinary battles of Magenta and Solferino in 1859 felt unable to resist two rapidly growing adversaries in the north and the south. Thus Prussia was left a free hand to do with Germany as she liked. she did: the Kingdom of Hanover and the Electorate of Hesse were simply annexed; so were the Free City of Frankfort, the old Reich’s coronation town, and Schleswig-Holstein. A new North-German Bund, the forerunner of a new Prusso-German Empire, was established, with the King of Prussia as hereditary President. The other member-states were bound to place their troops at the disposal of Prussia: the unity for which Bismark fought was already virtually achieved. The superiority of the Prussian arms, especially the quick-firing ‘needle -gun,’ had accomplished what the Great Elector’s standing army, Frederick’s drill snd strategy, and Scharnhorst’s compulsory military service had prepared through two centuries.

Prussian domination was not received with enthusiasm. Though some of the smaller sovereigns tried to compromise and to convince themselves of the necessity for making sacrifices for the sake of a greater and united Germany, large parts of the population, especially in the Catholic areas, adhered to the old order and resented the harsher forms of Prussian administration, the strict obedience demanded from them. They disliked the overbearing attitude of many Prussian officials, the privileges of the agrarian nobility, the ‘Junkers,” and the stiff esprit de corps of the army officers, a tradition created by the sergeant-king Frederick William to offset their poor pay. But Bismark’s far-sighted and ambitious policy caused events to march much too rapidly to permit of interference from such popular reactions. After four years of consolidation during which a beginning was made with building a Navy – the first one, created by the German Confederation, had been ignominiously sold by auction after the breakdown of 1848 – and the Hohenzollern prestige was enhanced by visits of the Crown Prince to Jerusalem and to the inauguration of the Suez Canal, Bismark’s second great blow fell.

The pretext was insignificant: Napoleon III’s objection to a Hohenzollern of the southern, Catholic line accepting the Spanish throne offered to him, a cleverly engineered affront in which King William and the French Ambassador were the unknowing puppets – and Napoleon let himself be manoeuvered into declaring war on Prussia, the very war for which Bismark, Roon, the War Minister, and Count Moltke, the Chief of Staff, were longing.

The Franco-German war of 1870 started in July. Between the first skirmish on 2nd August and the decisive German victory at Sedan on 1st September, only one month elapsed. Napoleon III himself with his army surrendered; a French Republic under Gambetta’s energetic leadership continued the struggle, but not three weeks after Sedan Paris was besieged. On 27th October the main fortress, Metz, fell, and on 28th January, 1871, Paris surrendered after terrible sufferings and Communist revolts. By the ensuing Treaty of Frankfort the new Imperial Germany gained Alsace and Eastern Lorraine with Metz and Strassburg and an indemnity of five milliards of francs (#200,000,000) in cash. Bismark, a master of stagecraft, chose the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in which to have the Imperial crown placed on the head of his king and pupil, on 18th January, 1871, on the apparently spontaneous initiative of all the other German kings and ruling princes, after he had won them over in advance by persuasion, bribes and threats. A few of them, like the romantic, and subsequently insane, Ludwig of Bavaria, and William’s close relative, the Grand Duke of Baden, were sincerely convinced of the rightness of the cause Bismark had urged upon them.

Events seemed to justify them at first. The patriotic enthusiasm created by the great victory over what had previously been considered the first military power in Europe, the sudden wealth that came to large parts of the population from the stream of gold which the French indemnity brought to a formerly modest and thrifty people, the economic impetus thereby gained – all contributed to make the Prusso-German Empire appear as a boon to the whole German race. German historians like Mommsen, Lamprecht and especially Treitschke made their work a means of exalting German, and in particular Prussian, nationalism and imperialism and proving their absolute value. Being as yet uninterested in colonial expansion, Bismark astutely directed French activity towards that field, so as to provide a safe outlet for a strong nationalism that might otherwise have concentrated upon revenge. At the same time, haunted by his cauchemar des coalitions, he succeeded in reviving to some extent the old Holy Alliance by a ‘Covenant of the Three Emperors’ concluded in 1872  between the Russian Tsar, Francis Joseph and the German Emperor; and when Russia was temporarily estranged by Bismark’s attitude at the Berlin Congress of 1878 – the apex of his career as the leading statesman of Europe – he converted the Covenant into an Austro-German one and, three years later, into the Triple Alliance by the addition of Italy.

Although they had gained a wider field of vision from the Chancellor’s international game, the majority of the Germans of that period still held comparatively parochial views. The Berliners were still wont to speak of their king, and not of the Emperor; the southern and western German states, and especially their parliaments as they grew in influence, displayed a strong particularism and fought tenaciously for their ‘privileges,’ which consisted of separate military contingents, in some cases their own bank-notes and postage-stamps, their independent railway systems and above all their own management of their schools, church affairs, taxation and so forth. Technically the new Hohenzollern monarchy was a confederation of the princes and the three free cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck, which had republican constitutions. it needed the strong current of general European industrialisation to draw a people so preoccupied with its own domestic affairs into the whirlpool of international politics and make it accept the risks and sacrifices of that new role. A boom in science and invention, great engineering feats, and a successful general development of German industry which soon began to compete seriously with Britain in the sphere of world trade, helped to foster the spirit of enterprise. Setbacks like the great crash of 1873, due to unscrupulous and haphazard speculation which had been favoured for a time by the regular influx of French indemnity-payments, held up that development only for a time; and the British Trade Mark Act, designed to stop competition from cheaper and inferior German imitations of British goods by insisting on their being marked ‘Made in Germany,’ soon proved an advantage to the astute and ingenious Germans. With the development of great German shipping companies, especially the Hamburg-America line under Albert Ballin, and the growth of the German Navy – in increase justified by the necessity of protecting the country’s increasing overseas interests – friction between Britain and the new Empire, which had hitherto been on comparatively friendly terms, slowly but unavoidably set in.

The proud and patrician Free City of Hamburg was the spearhead of this German advance. From here the first German colonial pioneers had started for the South Seas as far back as 1844 and later to Western Africa and Morocco. In 1884 even Bismark, who had been reluctant to embark on ventures likely to collide with British and French interests, finally had to give way to that half economic, half political demand for a share of the world’s unexploited riches. He granted protection to private ventures in South-West Africa, East Africa, the Cameroons and New Guinea, and thereby laid the foundation of a German colonial Empire. Considerations of home politics may have influenced his decision to divert the interest of a large part of the population to new, foreign, and somewhat adventurious and romantic enterprise. He had not been successful in his struggle against the Catholic Church, which began in 1872 and lasted until 1887, the so-called Kulturkampf, in spite of having started it with such drastic measures as expelling the Jesuits, placing the clergy under state control, restricting the Church’s influence upon education, making civil marriage compulsory and dissolving monasteries. This campaign, by which he hoped to crush both pro-Habsburg leanings among the Catholic population of the new, western conquests of Prussia and the Christian socialism advocated by some bishops, lost him many sympathies in Bavaria and other southern states and failed to make headway against the strong and essentially conservative Catholic Pary, the ‘Centre.’

He was more successful in taming the Socialists, whose official Social-Democratic party, founded in 1875, soon gave up its most radical revolutionary theories, its Reformist and Revisionist wing out-weighing the doctrinaires. Even so, Bismark took several Anarchist attempts to assassinate the old Emperor as a pretext for promulgating drastic anti-Socialist laws, which were mitigated soon afterwards by the grant of the first of a series of so-called social insurances, the old-age insurance of 1881. The years round 1880 mark the zenith of Bismark’s almost unlimited power. He enjoyed the full confidence of his aged master and played astutely on a parliament which had a merely advisory, not controlling, influence on policy, being unable to overthrow a Cabinet appointed and dismissed by the Emperor. He had, moreover, acquired such international prestige as often made him arbitor of Europe. His most brilliant performance was the settlement of the eternal Eastern question after the Russo-Turkish war of 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, which brought together the leading statesmen of all the great and some of the secondary powers under his chairmanship and established the independence of Roumania, Bulgaria and Serbia, besides many other alterations of the map. Although Russia’s ambitions were frustrated, largely through the agency of Disraeli, Bismark succeeded in regaining the confidence of St. Petersburg and concluded a ‘Re-insurance treaty’ with Russia which he regarded as a necessary, although seemingly contradictory, supplement to the Triple Alliance. That treaty was signed; in 1888 William I died at the age of ninety-one; his son and successor Frederick III, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, followed him only three months later, taking with him all hopes of a more liberal ear; and William II ascended the throne.

He was twenty-nine years of age, gifted and headstrong, and he hated the idea of having to submit his plans and decisions to the approval of an old man of world-wide reputation and immense national prestige. he therefore ‘dropped the pilot’ at the first opportunity, over a dispute of procedure, in 1890. He set out to gain popularity by instituting further social insurances, against sickness and disablement, and to enlarge his international prestige by increasing and fostering the army and navy. Although he preserved peace for more than a quarter of a century, his decided militarist leanings, his favouritism, which produced a camarilla that flattered him and screened him from the realities of life, his frequent and violent speeches, his love of military splendour and of display in general, and his frequent journeys at home and abroad made him responsible for most of the political unrest of the period preceding the Great War of 1914 – 18. He could not refrain from interfering in other peoples; affairs: witness his behaviour over the Boer War, the Boxer revolt in China shortly afterwards, the Agadir incident of 1911, and many other instances. As Bismark had his cauchemar des coalitions, so William was haunted by the nightmare of Germany’s ‘encirclement’ which was supposed to be engineered by none other than his uncle the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. He was never popular, except with his toadies of the princely and Junker class and a few scientists, scholars and financial and industrial magnates whom he personally liked.

His period, as regards both himself and the German people as a whole, was one of very showy. Everything had to be ‘colossal’: public buildings, the size of a canvas, a scientific theory, a military display, the speed of a new train, the production of a new machine. Architectural taste can hardly ever have been guilty of such strange aberrations, in which pseudo-Renaissance and pseudo-Gothic vied with the Jugendstil, a fearsome conglomeration of distorted ornamentation originated by a Munich school of designers. The Emperor always went about in brilliant uniform and wore an upturned, pointed moustache that was a gift to the caricaturists. He was an able dilettante in many fields but could not endure to be excelled by others and permitted himself to be praised as a master in every one of them. like a God-Caesar of old, he wanted servants not advisors, believing sincerely in a divine grace bestowed upon him with the crown. Scarcely one of his Ministers dared to put him in his place; Bernhard von Bulow, whom he had made first a Count and then a Prince, as his grandfather did to Bismark, tried it once but failed, and lost the long-continued favour that he had won as Foreign Minister and afterwards as Chancellor by flattery and pliancy and an astute exploitation of his master’s weaknesses.

Many were the blunders that paved the way to disaster. Alsace and Lorraine, the provinces that might have been really won back for Germany had the particular situation and the character of the population been properly considered, were left to the administration of harsh and overbearing Prussian officials and soldiers who provoked frequent and sometimes serious clashes. Britain was estranged by a senseless, because sterile, competition in the naval field; Japan by William’s intervention in her war with China in 1895, which led to the Peace of Shimonoseki, and by a drawing in which the Emperor showed the European powers ranged against the rising ‘Yellow Peril’; China by extorting from her, in 1897, the colony of Kiaochow. He prevented the lasting amicable settlement with France he sincerely desired by repeated interference in Morocco and by a military effort that forced the French Republic, more and more outdistanced in numbers by the higher German birth-rate, to ever-increasing sacrifices.

The clash, for one reason or another, had become practically inevitable by the time it happened in 1914. Although neither William nor the majority of his prosperous people wished it, there was a strong group of extreme nationalists, the Pan-German League, that had become powerful under the regime and openly advocated a career of conquest with the aim of world-domination, if necessary shared with Britain and the U.S.A. but securing the better part of the European Continent for the ‘superior race’ of the Germans. together with other organisations, like the Navy League, the Colonial league and similar bodies, the Pan-Germans represented that tradition of Prussianism which for well over two hundred years had thriven on conquest and the mental as well as physical regimentation of the whole nation. true, they encountered strong opposition from the liberal and democratic groups as well as from the rapidly growing Socialist movement, which in the last election before the Great War 111 seats in the Reichstag, representing nearly 30 percent. of the electorate. but at the decisive hour that opposition disappeared as if by magic, the whole German people having been made to believe that the war had been brought about by a Franco-Russian plot to destroy their thriving Empire, with the backing of Britain who wanted to get rid of an ever more dangerous economic rival.

The course of the war showed up both the qualities and the defects of the German people and its leaders. Initial success, due to a thorough preparation of the gigantic war machine, soon ceased. Far-reaching political and strategic plans were frustrated. Enormous sacrifices were made by a finally half-starved population. Battles were won in France and in Russia, countries like Belgium, Serbia and Roumania were swallowed. The U-boat, the German submarine, proved a terrible weapon against the far superior British Navy; ‘Big Bertha,’ a giant gun bombarding Paris from a distance of seventy-five miles, and the Zeppelins, raiding London and scattering bombs on civilians, men, women and children alike, were expected to undermine the fighting spirit of the Entente countries. At the Dardanelles, in Mesopotamia and in Palestine German officers and special troops stiffened Turkey’s badly-equipped armies after the young Turks had thrown in their lot with the Central Powers; daring pirate ships and air aces like Baron Richthofen and Captain Boelcke won admiration even from their adversaries. Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, the ‘wooden Titan’ behind whom the strategic genius of General Ludendorff pulled the wires, annihilated large Russian armies and penetrated deep into the territory of a weak and superstitious Tsar. Austria, on whose behalf the great holocaust had been started, wrestled with her great neighbours Russia and Italy without, and with ever-increasing disintegration within, as the demand of her Slavonic and other non-German peoples for independence grew more and more insistent. Francis Joseph’s prestige prevailed until his death in 1916, when a young and well-meaning grand-nephew, Charles, took the throne the original heir to which, Crown Prince Rudolph, had perished mysteriously in connection with a love-affair, while his successor, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, had been murdered by a Serbian fanatic on the eve of the war.

The whole structure of the Central bloc, including Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Turkey and – after some hesitation – Bulgaria, proved ramshackle and unreliable, though capable of well-prepared and violent onslaughts which again and again, including the last great offensive in the spring of 1918 in France. The tenacity and greater resources of the Allies, greatly strengthened during the last year of the war by the entry of the U.S.A. into the struggle on their side, won through after four years and five months of fighting; William II, on the advice of his generals, took refuge in Holland and abdicated when a revolt, starting in his fleet but rapidly spreading all over the country, began to overthrow the regime.

The civil powers, who at an early stage of the war had given way to a purely military dictatorship, proved unable to stem the tide at practically any moment of the period. Bulow’s successor, Theodor von Bethmann Hollweg, a slow-moving, cultured man, was overwhelmed by scruples which he openly confessed when the Treaty of 1839 guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality and inviolability was treated as a ‘Scrap of paper.’ Overthrown by the Supreme Command, he was succeeded by a series of nonentities, until finally, shortly before the breakdown, a first parliamentarian Cabinet, including Socialists, was formed by Prince Max of Baden, a member of the most liberal of the ruling German dynasties. But after enforcing abdication upon the Hohenzollerns, this Cabinet too found itself unable to resist a revolution which, unlike all previous revolutions in history, was brought about by underground forces, by general hunger and despair, against the will of those to whom it was to bring the power to fulfil their age-old dream. for the Socialist party, the strongest in Parliament in spite of the sucession of some minor, more radical groups, was neither willing nor ready to take the lead and to conclude an armistice the conditions of which were optimistically expected to be based upon the ‘fourteen points.’

Much had already been made of this programme, launched the year before by the American President Woodrow Wilson. Not that a victorious German government would have given it any consideration whatsoever: but to a defeated Germany on the brink of disaster these points appeared as a sheet-anchor, and when her plenipotentiaries, a Catholic leader, Dr. Erzberger, and General von Winterfeld, met Marshal Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, in the wood of Compiegne, on 10th November, 1918, they were bitterly disappointed to be presented with much harsher conditions.

They had to give way, however, not because the power of German resistance was undermined by revolutionary activities, by the famous ‘Stab in the Back’ of which German nationalists have made so much ever since, but because Turkey, Bulgaria and, immediately before the armistice, Austria-Hungary had utterly broken down, surrendered and disintegrated, and because the two last tremendous attacks on the western front, in March  and July 1918, had exhausted every ounce of strength the army and the country still possessed after four years of blockade, after the loss of two million dead and the using up of her war material down to the last tyre and the last strap. On November 11 the Armistice was signed in Foch’s special train, and a whole people, awakening from a nightmarish dream, found itself confronted with the drab and dreary reality of a new epoch in its life.

Borrowing its first somewhat shabby dress from Russia, which had gone Bolshevik a year before, the new German Republic was at first ruled by a Council of People’s Commissioners, composed of socialists and Independent Socialists – who had opposed the war budgets – and by Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils formed haphazard everywhere. That governemnt, in which the names of Ebert and Scheidemann soon predominated, had to endorse the harsh conditions of the armistice.