Wilhemine Era

Wilhelm II, Rhine alley Königswinter
Wilhelm II, Rhine alley Königswinter

Germany around 1900. Above you see an officer with a ‘Pickelhaube’ in front of the imperial residence New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam. For many people, life was good. The decades between the founding of the Empire and World War I are also referred to as “Belle Epoque”. It was the time of impressionist and expressionist painting, historism and eclecticism in architecture, and, turning away from old styles, art nouveau. In the “Belle Epoque” people enjoyed their lives – at least those who could afford it.

Tourism and Quarries

In our region, people could enjoy their weekends and holidays in the Seven Mountains, there were plenty of restaurants, and cog trains went up to the Drachenfels and the Petersberg mountains. HTB. On the other side, the Seven Mountains were in great danger. The Prussian government had stopped all quarries at the Drachenfels already in 1835, but quarries continued at the Petersberg and Stenzelberg. In old photos, you can see the damage done. At the Petersberg, basalt was mined – a stone that resists even hardest pressure. Already in the Napoleonic time it was used, and now, with the building of streets and railway lines, the quarries became more and more extensive. Finally the damage done to nature alarmed many people. Back then two societies were founded who wanted to protect the Seven Mountains. Later they grouped together into one, the VVS. Now there was a conflict of interests: the protection of nature stood not only against the interests of the owners of the quarries, but also against those of the quarrymen. We also have to think of those indirectly affected, like the Heisterbach Talbahn railway who mainly did freight traffic from the quarries to the factories. Finally tourism became important, too, since many people had discovered the Seven Mountains for trips, and their money supported the hotels, restaurants and public transportation. After long discussions, land purchases and law suits the last quarry on the Petersberg was closed in 1908.

William II

The last German Emperor is a controversial figure. We remember his speeches, loud and blowing his own trumpets, that created the ugly image of the aggressive German Emperor. Yet, he was very insecure and suffered from emotional instability and depressions His birth was a traumatic experience for mother and son, and it was thanks to the determined actions of a midwife that he lived. But his left arm remained withered, and that was a personal catastrophe for the Crown Prince and his mother. In the following years he had to undergo all kinds of medical treatments that often enough seemed torture. William took great care in hiding his arm, but it haunted him. Throughout his life, he held his mother responsible, and she only seldom found a good word about him. After his father’s death, he had troops march up in front of the New Palace in Potsdam to observe his mother at her husband’s deathbed, because he considered her a British spy. He adored his British grandma, Queen Victoria, and his German granddad William I.

Like his father, William studied at the university in Bonn, founded by his great-grandfather Frederick William III. He studied law and also was interested in natural sciences and archaeology classes. After Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, the Crown Prince’s time in the Rhineland helped to ease the relationship between the Catholics and the Protestant Hohenzollern dynasty. Unlike Bismarck, William II did not go for confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church.

At the beginning of his reign, William wanted to be a good Emperor for all his subjects, also and especially for the poor people. When coal miners in Silesia went on strike, he received a delegation instead of sending troops to crush the strike, as Bismarck had suggested. “I do not wish to stain my reign with the blood of my subjects,” he said. When Bismarck suggested a new, even tightened Anti Socialist-Law, William turned him down. He wanted an even better social policy to reconcile the working class with this state. Only later, when the Social Democrats voted against all his social laws, he cursed, resigned and angry at the same time, at the “unpatriotic bunch” (in German: vaterlandslose Gesellen) and fought them with might and main.

In spite of all his achievements, Bismarck’s time was over when Wilhelm wanted to rule by himself. Above all, the young Emperor did not want to stand in the shadow of the far too powerful Chancellor, he wanted to be “his own chancellor”. Bismarck, for his part, who had been the second-to mightiest, if not the mightiest man in the Empire for almost thirty years, felt downgraded and did not intend to cede power to Wilhelm. Finally, on March 20, 1890, Bismarck was dismissed. He spent the last years of his life on his Gut Friedrichsruh close to Hamburg, with his family and his beloved great Dane dogs, until he died on July 30, 1898.

The modern industry state

William II felt he was the representative of a new generation, a modern and progressive ruler who enjoyed living in a time of tremendous technical progress, on the edge of a new century in which things would get better and better – “Glorious times” (in German: “herrliche Zeiten”), as he put it. In turn, many people considered Wilhelm to be the perfect monarch for them.

Wilhelmine Germany was a modern industry state, a “High Tech location” as we would say today, and one of the world’s leading economic powers. Not only the iron and coal industry of the Ruhr area, in the Saarland and in Upper Silesia, also the industries relevant for the future chemistry – pharmacy, electrical engineering and optics – contributed to the economic boom, and many Nobel Prizes went to Germany. In Berlin and other big cities one could see motor cars, trams and electric light. During the 19th Century the population had grown rapidly: in Europe, from 175 million in 1800 to 460 million in 1904, in Germany in about the same time from 25 to almost 65 million. The national income almost doubled from 1896 to 1912, and since wages and prices remained stable, all parts of the population benefited.

Finally, the number of emigrants decreased: in the climax year 1882, after the world economic crisis, 200,000 had left, in 1895 only 37,000, and about 20,000 yearly from 1908 onwards. Now it were mainly people from Ireland, England, Italy and Russian Poland, who wanted to make a new beginning in North America.

The conservative authoritarian state

The Empire made big progress in the field of economy and industry and had colonies in Africa and Asia; but at home it remained utterly conservative. Wilhelmine Germany was a conservative authoritarian state. Wilhelm himself believed that he was Emperor by the grace of God. Next to the Emperor, the military had the highest standing, becoming officer was the best career option for a young nobleman, and also for a career in a civilian profession it was highly recommendable to have served in the military. William himself always wore uniform. The parliament, the Reichstag however, had gotten a pompous new building, but its standing was low. Please bear in mind that back then the Chancellor and his Government were responsible to the Emperor, not to the parliament as it is in today’s parliamentarian democracies. At the bottom of the social ranking were the socialists, and those that did not fit into the conservative middle and upper class society.

As to politics, the most dangerous opposition came from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) that was legalized again in 1890. Germany’s business tycoons like Krupp provided significant social welfare programs and good care to their employees as long as they stayed away from the Social Democrats and the trade unions. Nonetheless, the SPD got more and more votes, and in the general elections to the Reichstag of 1912, the SPD turned out as the strongest faction. However, as mentioned above, the Reichstag’s did not hold the power

A highly innovative time

Also as to art, the Wilhelmine Era was a highly innovative time, just think of the impressionists and expressionists, artist Käthe Kollwitz, and the writers Theodor Fontane, Gerhard Hauptmann and Heinrich Mann, just to mention a few. William himself flatly rejected the modern arts of his time, both impressionist and expressionist painting and contemporary literature. After the first night performance of Gerhard Hauptmann’s drama “Die Weber” in Berlin, the Emperor cancelled his theater box as a protest, and many of his subjects approved.

If the Emperor ever saw a picture by August Macke (1887-1914)? Macke lived for a long time in Cologne and Bonn; his house in Bonn, the August-Macke-Haus (Bornheimer Straße) today is a museum and open to visitors. August Macke and his close friend Franz Marc (1880-1916) belonged to the international artists’ group “Blauer Reiter” that had some important exhibitions in the years before World War I. In August 1914, Macke and Marc volunteered to fight at the front – they should not come back.

Germany’s “Place in the Sun”

The political situation in the world was tense, with European powers competing over colonies. Bismarck’s foreign policy had been careful, Germany’s security was the goal of his complicated system of alliances. Nonetheless, the German Empire had its colonies.

William II wanted Germany to have her “Place in the Sun” just as Britain and France, and behaved like the emperor of a World Power, relying on Germany’s military and economic strength. In spite of the tense political situation in the world, he proclaimed Germany’s claims loud and saber-rattling. Still today, his pithy, often overstepping speeches mark our image of him. Back then, they created the ugly image of the aggressive German Emperor, and Germany was rejected as ally. The Boxer Rebellion in China 1900 and the Herrero Uprising 1904 in Southwest Africa were bloodily crushed.

The German foreign policy got the country more and more in isolation. Great Britain was considered Germany’s “natural” ally, because Great Britain was in conflict with both Russia and France over colonies. But at the same time, a program of warship construction under Admiral von Tirpitz began, and the Foreign Office did not see how threatening that was to Great Britain. Finally, Great Britain and France compromised over their colonies in Africa and formed the “Entente cordiale” in 1904. In 1907, after setting aside differences with Great Britain over territories in Asia, Russia joined them and the “Triple Entente” was formed. In 1907, two blocks all armed to a maximum stood against each other: England, France and Russia (“Triple Entente”) on one side, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (“Dreibund”) on the other..

World War I

The assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo (Bosnia) by a Serbian Nationalist eventually led to the outbreak of a war. Also in Germany, patriotism rose above all other feelings, and all parties. The following World War I was the most terrible war the Europe had seen so far. It was devastating and millions of people lost their lives.

After a quick march through Belgium into France, German troops were halted on the Marne River, north of Paris. The frontlines in France changed little until the end of the war. The two friends August Macke and Franz Marc had volunteered to the front. Macke died in September 1914 in Champagne, Marc was killed during the battle of Verdun in March 1916. At that time, Emperor William II was no longer in control. All decisions were de facto taken by the German High Command leaders, General Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. They convinced William to declare unrestricted submarine warfare against all foreign ships. In vain, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg warned that in that case the USA would enter the war on the Allies’ side. In 1917, when Germany took up unrestricted submarine warfare and US merchant ships were attacked and sank, the USA declared war on Germany. Still the German war propaganda continued promising victory, and the High Command as well as right wing parties kept pursuing expansionist and offensive war goals.

The longer the war lasted and the more victims it claimed, the more people at home suffered, social tensions broke out again and general strikes in armament factories occurred. People had to work very hard 12 hours a day, for minimal wages, and they had almost nothing to eat due to a British naval blockade in the North Sea. The Social Democrat faction in the Reichstag split over the question of further credits to finance the war. Those who were against them were excluded and shortly after formed the Independent Social Democratic Party. Politicians around Matthias Erzberger of the Catholic Center Party demanded a truce of understanding, and with the votes of Social Democrats, the Center Party and the Progressive People’s Party the Reichstag passed a peace resolution in July 1917. The High Command considered it an admission of weakness and enforced Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s dismissal. From now on, General Ludendorff dictated German policy.

In the east, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had defeated the Russian army. After the October Revolution in Russia, Lenin offered peace in November 1917. For month the High Command and the Bolsheviks negotiated while fighting continued until the very hard “peace through victory” was imposed upon Russia in March 1918 at Brest-Litowsk. After the victory in the east, the High Command ordered a new offensive in the west to bring about a decisive turn in favor of Germany. They outright rejected the “Fourteen Points” set out by the American President Woodrow Wilson on January 8, 1918. Wilson wanted peace on the basis of “self-determination of peoples” without victors or conquered.


In July 1918, the last reserves were burnt up, military defeat of Germany was inevitable. At the same time, the multi-ethnic state of Austria-Hungary was falling apart and had to ask for armistice. On August 8, 1918, Canadian, Australian and French tanks broke through the German lines. In October, the High Command informed Wilhelm II that there was no more hope, and that Germany had to ask for an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”. However, it was clear that President Wilson would not negotiate with the Imperial authorities, so the High Command suggested that the Government should be democratized from above, and that the democratic political parties should participate in the new government. That was nothing but cynical political calculation, because that way the democratic parties would have to face the disastrous consequences of the defeat, whereas nobody would hold the Imperial authorities and the High Command responsible. Later, Ludendorff and Hindenburg would pretend that the army had been undefeated in combat, but “stabbed in the back” by revolutionists and strikers at home.

By the “October reforms”, Germany became a constitutional monarchy whose Chancellor, Max von Baden, was responsible to the Reichstag. For the first time, Social Democrats got into the government. Only now did the High Command reveal the full truth to the Government: the situation was hopeless, armistice had to be made at any conditions. On November 11, 1918, armistice was signed in Compiègne, France.

The picture is from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.

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