Air University Review , July-August 1980

Structural Flaws or Internal Cohesion?:

a new look at Imperial Germany

Dr. Dennis E. Showalter

THE modern historiography of Imperial Germany began when Fritz Fischer published Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961. His claim that Germany desired and initiated general war in 1914 as part of a deliberate intention to dominate Europe had the major implication that at least some continuity existed between the foreign policies of Wilhelmian and Hitlerian Germany.1 The Fischer thesis quickly generated another line of questioning as well. Might not similarities in the foreign policy of these states reflect or manifest similarities in domestic policies, social and economic structures, and ideologies and attitudes? This is not the kind of simple present-mindedness that interprets every event in German history from the defeat of Quintilius Varus, through the theology of Martin Luther, to the presidential election of 1925 in the glow of Hitler's crematoria. The new search for continuity in German history has, however, already produced its own orthodoxy. Standard interpretations now present the Second Reich as a society flawed from its inception. Its leaders, drawn overwhelmingly from preindustrial elites, were unable or unwilling to take the risks of bringing Germany fully into the nineteenth century. Through a combination of force, manipulation, and co-option, they succeeded in limiting the challenges posed by liberalism, socialism, and an emerging right-wing radicalism. These challenges, however, could not be completely eliminated by an establishment whose power bases were steadily eroding. The result was a dangerously unstable, increasingly fragmented society, a mixture of anachronism and modernity whose military and economic power combined with its geographic position to make it the real Sick Man of Europe in the years before 1914.2

For Fritz Stern this process began at the top. He discusses its evolution in terms of the relationship between Otto von Bismarck and Jewish financier Gerson Bleichröder.* Stern's Bismarck is a symbol and a representative of the old Prussian order, yet a man who at the same time sought to create a modern, united Germany. To do so he needed and sought the support of men like Bleichröder, men of wealth and ambition, forward-looking yet at the same time willing to compromise.

*Fritz Stern, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (New York: Knopf, 1977, $17.95), 620 pages.

The key to the Second Empire's history is this collaboration of old and new. Whatever might be the internal logic of conflict between liberalism and capitalism on one hand and feudal, authoritarian concepts of society on the other, no decisive struggle for mastery took place in Bismarck's Germany. What emerged instead was a mutual recognition of interdependence manifested in a complex network of relationships concluded for mutual advantage. The bourgeoisie feared the rise of socialism. The aristocracy feared the loss of its traditional position and prerogatives.

The connection symbolized by Bismarck and Bleichröder was more than a simple thieves' alliance. Each man sought in his own way to control events in a society suffering from future shock. Both succeeded well enough to become increasingly anachronistic. Neither the cabinet diplomat nor the court Jew could play the same roles in the 1890s as they had in the 1860s, particularly in a Germany that never fully understood where it was going and which included an increasing number of critics of the route, the speed, and the implied destination. But no major reforming impulses grew from a political structure deliberately turned against itself by Bismarck. This fact gives special poignance to the role played by the Jewish community and epitomized by Bleichröder. The Jews rose swiftly--so swiftly that on the whole they regarded chauvinism and antisemitism as vestigial, destined to vanish through attrition. Rather than being mere survivals, however, these and similar attitudes were integral to the illiberal society Bleichröder had helped create. And this society's liberal, humanistic elements were too weak to give Germany's Jewish minority any real protection from its increasingly hostile Gentile neighbors.

Gold and Iron is the kind of magisterial work that is convincing from sheer bulk and compelling through intellectual force. Its portrait of a society warped by human judgments and human decisions rather than abstract and unevadable forces provides a valuable counterpoint to more deterministic interpretations, such as those of Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Yet there remains something almost naive about Stern's belief that democratization, in the broad sense of that concept, would have produced a more benevolent, more enduring Germany. Nineteenth-century Europe was racked by unprecedented challenges. The Second Empire cannot be automatically faulted for seeking alternate solutions to the problems posed by industrial, political, and social revolution. On its own terms and in its own times, Bismarck's Reich functioned well enough. If it may not have been Utopia, it was a far cry from Auschwitz. But how long could an illiberal, increasingly divided society cope with a world in constant, rapid flux?

ALAN PALMER'S The Kaiser provides part of the answer. * This book, like Stern's, concentrates on the great and near-great of Germany: William II and his entourage. Like Stern, Palmer sees his subject as reflecting German's strengths and weaknesses. William's upbringing and education, his physical infirmities, his early and intense exposure to the military elements of Bismarck's Reich produced a man more concerned with style than substance. He preferred to impress rather than convince. To the end of his reign, he remained a compound of guards officer and sentimentalist. His snap judgments, his ill-timed spontaneity, and his theatrical behavior bewildered or alienated his parents, his chancellors, and the cabinets of Europe. William's failure to mature, manifested in everything from his choice of advisers to his role in the July crisis, gave Germany an operetta government ruled by a monarch with a whim of iron. By itself the Kaiser's personality was not an inevitable harbinger of disaster. But in a state whose constitution bestowed ultimate, if not absolute, power on the emperor, a man with the character of William II could do incalculable damage simply by behaving naturally.

*Alan Palmer, The Kaiser: Warlord of the Second Reich (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978, $14.95), 276 pages.

Palmer makes no claims to original scholarship. His book is popular history, anecdotal, fast-paced, and readable, a solid synthesis of printed Sources and interpretations. Its derivative nature adds force to Palmer's reasoning that Bismarck set the stage for William's personal rule: the book simply repeats current, standard arguments. Neither Stern nor Palmer sympathizes with Bismarck's growing conviction that only a strong central authority could cope with the problems facing a state which had been a geographic expression before 1871 and in many ways remained a geographic expression afterward. Both authors tend to exaggerate the potential power of their principal characters to change the course of the stream of time, as opposed to channeling its flow.3

Bismarck accepted the power of historical forces; William II was correspondingly convinced that events could be shaped by willpower. Unfortunately for Germany and Europe, he was not able to develop and pursue a consistent course of action in any direction. A planned preventive war, a coup d'etat against what he defined as the opposition to his rule, even an attempt to utilize his public theatrics as the first step in making himself a modern Caesar--such coherent policies were foreign to William's temperament and talent. His eclipse in the Course of World War I was a logical reflection of the impossibility of waging such a war by impulse. William was little more than a figurehead by 1918; his abdication seems to have been a relief from a role he found increasingly impossible to play.

THE genesis of the Second Empire can be explained in purely military terms. Similarly, Germany was able during World War I to assume the strategic and tactical defensive at a time when the superiority of defense over offense was unusually, if not uniquely, high. This in turn meant that the German army's trained and experienced cadres were not decimated in futile attacks relatively early in the war, as were those of France. Nor did the Germans face Britain's problem of improvising a mass army, then keeping its junior leaders alive long enough to teach the replacements how to survive. It took Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele combined to wear down the German military machine to the point of collapse. And the nature of that collapse reflected the army's quality. Germany was definitely not stabbed in the back. But her defeat in the field was the defeat of an army whose physical and moral resources were exhausted, an army having nothing left with which to fight.

FEW historians would accept the argument that a high-quality military establishment could by itself sustain a state through four years of total war. Yet most current analyses focus on the discord that emerged in Germany as the initial euphoria of 1914 vanished. The Kaiser was ineffectual; the governing establishment was trying to fight a war whose nature few had forecast. As a result, four decades of stresses more or less camouflaged burst into the open. Conflicts over war aims and war production, hostilities among and within political parties, and antagonisms inside the High Command and the war cabinet were eviscerating Germany long before November 1918. The many articles and monographs dealing with such themes help their readers understand how a country so torn could blunder into a war, or, indeed, how a German government might even plan a conflict either to restore a viable domestic balance or from simple fecklessness. What remains incomprehensible in this context is how the society described by Fritz Stern and Alan Palmer was able to fight as long and as well as it did. The question is complicated by the tendency of too many scholars dealing both with the Second Empire and World War I to regard 1914 as a watershed, a natural place to stop or start. Perhaps it is desirable for the next generation to begin bridging that particular gap. And perhaps it is even more desirable to begin seeking elements of positive continuity, elements of strength and cohesion, in the Empire of Bismarck and William II. The new orthodoxy, like its predecessors, remains open to challenge and revision.

Colorado College
Colorado Springs, Colorado


1. A useful discussion of the controversy surrounding Fritz Fischer and his conclusions is John A Moses, The Politics of Illusion: The Fischer Controversy In German Historiography, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975).

2. Recent English-language introductions to this issue include Richard J. Evans, "Wilhelm II's Germany and the Historians," in Richard J. Evans, editor, Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (London: Croom Helm, 1978), pp. 11-39; and James J. Sheehan, "Conflict and Cohesion among German Elites in the Nineteenth Century," in James J. Sheehan, editor, Imperial German, (New York: New Viewpoints, 1976), pp. 62-92. Both articles contain useful bibliographies of German scholarship on the subject.

3. Cf. Norman Rich, "Imperial Germany: Two Views from the Top," Journal of Modern History, 1978, pp. 112-22, esp. p. 114; and George Windell, "The Bismarckian Empire as a Federal State, 1866-1880: A Chronicles of Failure," Central European History, 1969, pp. 291-311.


Dennis E. Showalter (B.A., St. Johnís University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is associate professor of history, Colorado College, presently on sabbatical in Germany. He is editorial consultant to Archon Books; he has been a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Military Affairs. Dr. Showalter is author of Railroads and Rifles: Soldier, Technology, and the Unification of Germany (1975) and is now writing a book entitled The German Army in the Age of Moltke and Schlieffen; his German Military History Since 1648: A Critical Bibliography is being published by Garland Press.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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