Bismarck Era

Cog train to Mount Drachenfels, Drachenburg, Cologne Cathedral
Cog train to Mount Drachenfels, Drachenburg, Cologne Cathedral

>Germany, 1871. Germany was united, and a deeply-felt wish of many people had been fulfilled. However, 10 million Austrian Germans lived outside the Empire, and now Prussia’s dominance was overwhelming: it was by far the biggest state, had the largest army, the crown was hereditary within the Hohenzollern dynasty, and the Prussian Prime Minister was in personal union Imperial Chancellor.

The new Germany was not the democracy the 1848ers had fought for. The constitution of 1871 gave the Emperor (in German: Kaiser) and his Chancellor extensive powers. The Chancellor was responsible solely to the Emperor, not to the parliament, the Reichstag. Bismarck himself made no secret of the fact that the parliament did not count much for him. Yet, he masterly used the political parties for his policy and played them off against each other. For the time being, the old elites, that are the nobility, the owners of large estates, the high-ranking civil servants and also the new business tycoons, stood strong.

“Gründerzeit” – Founding Era

Unification was a catalyst for the German Empire’s economy. Now measures, weights and currencies were unitized, a uniform commercial and criminal law, a code of civil law and a uniform stages of appeal from county court to Reichsgericht (the supreme court of the German Reich) offered legal certainty for all federal states. Above all, the reparation payments from France after the Franco-Prussian War brought a “bonanza” into the country. New railways were built, the big cities and industrial areas had a building boom, and Germany became an industrial power. Who had the money, bought shares and had a magnificent villa built.

The population had changed. Although the monarchs and the aristocracy could maintain their leading role in politics until World War I, it’s the well-educated and wealthy middle class that most shaped the 19th century: the lawyers, notaries, doctors, architects and civil servants. With industrialization, factory owners, bankers, capital owners and managers became increasingly influential. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the industry workers. From the 1850s onwards, we speak of the Industrial Revolution. It was dominated by heavy industry, these are the years during which the railway nets were built. More and more people sought work in the factories: master craftsman, who had to give up their business, fellows who had thus lost their jobs, and day laborers and sons of small farmers who could not live from what they earned in agriculture. A new segment of the population was born: the industrial working class. In many areas, created new cities, just think of the Ruhr. The living and working conditions were often miserable.

The world economic crisis of 1875 hit the Empire badly, almost twenty years of stagnation followed. Small craftsmen and traders feared the social decline of the industrial competition, many had lost their business kapital and their savings. Between 1865 and 1890 over 10 millionen people, mainly from Northern and Western Europe, emigrated to the USA. In 1882, emigration from Germany reached its climax: about 200,000 people left.

Kulturkampf – Bismarck’s struggle against the Catholic Church (1872-1880)

After the exclusion of Austria, the Catholic power, the Protestants dominated in the Empire. Moreover, the Hohenzollern dynasty and most members of the government were Protestants. In the mainly Catholic Rhineland, the already existing tensions aggravated, the number of confessional schools increased, and the Catholic Center Party won more and more followers.

Yet, there was no peace within the Catholic Church either. Supporters of the strictly conservative papal line fought against the moderate conservative and liberal Catholics – a conflict that had already escalated before in Cologne (1835-1840). Under the extremely conservative Pope Pius IX, the crisis came to a head: all convictions that did not combine with his thinking were banned, and the First Vatican Council of 1870 proclaimed papal infallibility on matters of faith and morals. A minority among the Catholics rejected that dogma and got together into the Old Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church’s sanctions followed promptly, among others Old Catholic teachers and professors should no longer be authorized to teach.

Bismarck was alarmed. Teachers and university professors were state officials, and he feared that the authority of Pope would undermine that of the Emperor. The Center Party followed the papal line and insisted that freedom of religion should be laid down in the Empire’s constitution (as it was laid down in the constitution of the Prussia), and that the Government should fire the insubordinate teachers. Bismarck refused to do so, and gained support from the Liberals and the Old Catholics. Most likely, no chancellor except a Center Party politician could have tolerated a Pope’s direct impact on issues of the state.

But then Bismarck decreed a series of laws to reduce the Roman Catholic Church’s influence. Some of his latest laws were perceived as harassment, also by Protestants standing loyally to the Empire, and even by members of the Imperial family. But in spite of all the hardships, the overwhelming majority of the Catholics did not surrender. The archbishops of Cologne, Münster and Trier were arrested and expelled. Bishoprics and parishes stood vacant. Catholic schools and orders did not exist anymore. Also the priest in the village of Oberpleis had to leave his parish. But the people stood firmly to their priests and bishops. New orders and monasteries, hospitals, orphanages and further charity institutions came into being, the Catholic press got a real boost and the Center party won more and more followers. All in the, the Kulturkampf strengthened Catholicism in Germany rather than weakened it.

Bismarck was realistic enough to see that he could not win this fight. Moreover, he had to make peace with the Catholic Center Party for reasons of domestic policy. When Pope Pius IX died in 1878, he negotiated a compromise with the new, more moderate Pope Leo XIII. In the following years, various laws were mitigated.

The inauguration of the Cathedral in 1880, which was finally completed after 40 years of work, was meant to set the seal on peace between Bismarck’s state and the Catholic Church, Emperor William I and Empress Augusta had travelled to Cologne to attend the celebrations. Yet the atmosphere was frosty, and the tensions remained.


In the same year in which the Kulturkampf was settled, another, grimly fought conflict began: Bismarck’s fight against the socialists. By 1875, two previous parties had united into the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei). As chairman August Bebel put it, the Social Democrats saw in Bismarck’s state the class enemy of the proletariat, and therefore they stood against the Empire and the Hohenzollern monarchy: For Bismarck, cooperation was impossible, the socialists were his enemies. He used two failed assassination attempts on Emperor Wilhelm I as pretext to introduce an Anti-Socialist Law in the Reichstag, although he knew that the Social Democrats had nothing to do with the attacks. The majority in the Reichstag passed it. From 1878 until 1890, all Social Democratic clubs and events, press and books were prohibited; many Social Democrats were imprisoned or expelled from the country. However, the hardships endured strengthened cohesion among the Social Democrats, and they got more votes with every election.

In the Catholic regions of the Rhineland, however, the Social Democrats could not gain grain, just the opposite, outing oneself as Social Democrat would have meant ostracization. The Catholic working men voted for the Catholic Center Party. In the neighboring country of Berg, an industrial area, the SPD had a stronghold.

Bismarck’s social security system

At the same time, Bismarck saw the great need of the working class and considered it the state’s duty to help. Against fierce resistance from the left and from the right, he implemented a remarkable social security system: health care in 1883, accident insurance in 1884, invalidity and old-age insurance in 1889. Back then, it was the largest in the world, but it did not win the working class over for the state.


While Bismarck’s foreign policy concentrated on securing the German Empire on the European continent, England, France and Russia obtained and expanded colonies in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific (Imperialism, 1850-1914), to gain natural resources and markets for their economies. For a long time Bismarck hesitated, but in 1884/85 also Germany established colonies in Togo, Cameroon, Southwest and East Africa, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Land on New Guinea, the Bismarck-Archipelago and the Marshall Islands. At the same time, upon Bismarck’s initiative, major European nations and the United States convened in Berlin to settle questions of colonial expansion in Central Africa.

The Year of three emperors

On March 9, 1888, Emperor Wilhelm I died shortly before his 91st birthday in Berlin, greatly mourned by his country. His son Frederick III (in German Friedrich III, 1888) could not join the funeral procession through Berlin because he was already terminally ill, suffering from incurable laryngeal cancer. Friedrich III died only 99 later, on June 15, 1888, in his beloved New Palace in Park Sanssouci in Potsdam, leaving his son William II (in German Wilhelm, 1888-1918) as new Emperor.

The picture of the Margarethenhof hotel is from, Zenodat.

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