Germany, since the fall of the Frankish Empire had not been under a unified leadership, unlike the French, or the English, or the Spanish, up until the formation of the German Empire under a single government in January of 1871. Up until its formation Germany had always found itself loosely combined in confederations at best. The Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor Imperial) was one of the first inceptions of this type of Confederation of German States. This confederation began in 962 (some consider the Carolingian Empire to be its first inception, but for Confederated purposes it doesn’t fall under this same sort of description.) The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806, at the hands of the French Emperor Napoleon, forcing the Austrian Emperor to abdicate the Holy roman throne. From there Napoleon set up smaller German states, the Confederation of the Rhineland being an example of one of these such states.

In 1814, after the defeat of Napoleon, there was convened the Congress of Vienna, and the German Confederation was formed, with Austria at its head. This German Confederation, was a sort of updated Holy Roman Empire, but it ignored the power of the Prussian State in the north and because of that, tensions were at a constant rise between the Hohenzollern and Habsburg Monarchs. Even though this confederation of German states was the result of backlash against French Revolutionary Ideals, there was still a growth of the ideals throughout the Confederation. On top of Revolutionary ideals, there too was the economic call for German unity, which was led by certain high level German credit unions.

Bismarck’s Empire

Prussia would grow to great power in this time period. King William I Hohenzollern of Prussia appointed Otto Von Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia in 1862. With Bismarck at its helm, the Prussian state would win three decisive wars, and become the leader of a new confederation. Within seven years Prussia won a war against Denmark, Austria and France. With a victory in Denmark, German interest were protected in the Jutland peninsula, with victory over Austria in the Austro-Prussian War the North German Confederation was formed with Prussia as its nominal leader and excluded Austria from its affairs, and finally victory in the Franco-Prussian War which ended in Alsace-Lorraine being ceded to the confederation. With all of these victories, the German Princes proclaimed a German Empire. Unlike most empires this was not done out of nationality but rather formed diplomatically. This new empire was led by the Prussian state, due to it having the most population and land within the empire, and so the Prussian Kings became the German Emperors, the new Empire’s capital was moved to Berlin and Otto von Bismarck became the chancellor of this new Empire.


Bismarck’s work domestically within the empire would be work to unify and subdue any opposition. One of Bismarck’s biggest worries in the early Empire was the Catholic population that made up about a third of the mostly protestant country, and held a party majority of seats throughout the edges of the empire. Bismarck instituted something called Kulturkampf (German for Culture Struggle), as a result to fear of Pope Pius IX’s political gains throughout the continent, and thus the anti-clerical government action. In one instance he attempted to convince the nations of Europe to gain some control over who would be elected Pope, though this failed, he eventually started to arrest Priests and Bishops. Kulturkampf would become not only domestic policy and a way to deal with the Catholics in Germany but also a foreign policy and way of dealing with enemy Catholic nations; France and Belgium, in attempts to distablize them.

The next thing Bismarck worked on Domestically was unification, due to the recent win in wars, certain land had been won that wasn’t fully German, and thus Bismarck sought to “Germinize” these states. Alsace-Lorraine in the west was French and he took sometime to integrate that population into the newly formed Empire. In the east there was the strongly Polish population, in which he had hoped would eventually integrate into more German like people culturally. While culture was a powerful unifier another problem had arisen, socialism. Bismarck especially hated socialism, so he implemented an Anti-Socialist law in 1878, which banned Socialists from organizing and meeting. In the 1880’s he sought to gain the worker’s support by implementing social benefits in their favor, such as accident and old age insurance and some socialized medicine. He did this with little success though.

Bismarck’s foreign policy was more successful than his domestic policy. After the three major wars that he had led Prussia through before the Imperial Unification he sought to lead the empire into years of peace. He would spend his entire time as Chancellor of the German Empire diplomatically enforcing peace on the European Continent. His mission to promote peace was so the empire could grow, but because of the German’s place in Europe (the direct center) he was forced to pay attention to two problem areas that could involve the Germans in a massive war. First the Balkans were a powder keg. With the recent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Russian and Austrian Interests could lead to a massive war. Second is France, who sought to regain the land lost in the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck’s greatest fear was a coalition between France and Russia or France and Austria, which would put enemies on two fronts of the Empire. So Bismarck was able to negotiate the Three Emperors League in 1873, made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Russian Empire. Though this league was short lived. Eventually this league failed, due to Russian warmongering in the Balkans and with Turkey, so Germany and Austria formed the Dual alliance that would last until they lost World War 1. The Reassurance Treaty of 1887 was signed so that Russia would not go to war in the Balkans. Italy fearing French aggression decided to join Austria and Germany and they formed the Triple Alliance. France was outmatched by Germany’s allies, and could not lead a war against the young Empire. This would be the state of the German foreign policy until Bismarck’s resignation in 1890.

The Failings of Bismarck’s Successors and the Fall of the Empire

The German Industrial Complex exploded in 1890, leading to a whole new German expansionism. Bismarck’s successor quickly abandoned his foreign policy. The Reassurance Treaty of 1887 was dropped, freeing up Russian influence in the Balkans, and forcing the Empire to cling more tightly to its alliance with Austria-Hungary. Germany was extremely late to the game with most of its advances, nation state building, and Colonizing. The Empire sought to put itself at equal standing with all the other nations in the world, and so naval spending increased. While the growth of the navy was almost meaningless, due to the small bits of territory that Germany had gained, it caused a problem, that would later come back to bite Germany in the butt. Germany by the time of 1900 already had the best standing army in the world but they also had one of the most fastest growing navies in the world. Britain saw this as a threat, they couldn’t allow Germany to form a navy as strong as theirs, and they did not want to be worried about war with Germany, especially over their vast territories. So they sought an alliance with France and Russia, forming the Triple Entente. Germany was now surrounded by three major powers and allied against it.

The deathblow to the German Empire did not come from some major war they started. It had been from two things. One being the surprising actions of the Successors of Bismarck, who instead of following in Bismarck’s footsteps seeking peace incited war and expansionism across the globe. Japan had issue with German intervention in China, England saw potential war for her colonies. Two being the Empire’s ally being prepared to plunge itself into war to keep its Empire from falling apart. So in June of 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian Heir, was gunned down, and thus sparked World War 1. With the German Empire and her allies defeat in 1918 the Old World Died. Three powerful Empires were dismembered and forced to accept Democracies. Winston Churchill said, lamenting the cause of World War 2, “This war would never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and Hungary and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer onto the vacant thrones.” Thus with the fall of the German Empire the Bloody Twentieth Century was at hand.

Written by: Vincent Wise