Against a background of a conservative Bismarckian Germany, the accession of Wilhelm II to the throne of Germany inevitably marked a change in German society, politics and attitude. Most studies of Germany are prone to analyse the political climate, the great contradiction that was Sammlungspolitik, the tentative foreign policy based around nationalism, or the economic ineptitude of the German government.
These rather negative aspects of pre-1914 Germany certainly deserve analysis, they are, indeed, the basis from which Germany grew into a nation which saw it necessary to create a war for no other reason other than a diversion from domestic socialist politics. Yet, Germany exhibited extraordinarily positive aspects of modernization. Industry, is too often regarded, as part of a negative internal conflict, which served only to turn Germany into a politically backward nation, yet is it not possible to see industrialization from another level?
German industrialization in itself was really quite astonishing. For instance, in only 10 years German factories, although outnumbered by British counterparts, were making over four times the profit per factory than those in Britain. Can not the policy of integration be seen as a uniquely positive aspect of German politics, although there is a negative side in that politics of the agrarians are ignored, that the German right was able to ‘force’ the popular support from the agricultural community is in itself an achievement of tactical diplomacy.
Unfortunately, the modern world has been plagued by the nagging issues of the ‘Fischer controversy’ which states the cause of the Great War was due not to nation sates being dragged into war by an outmoded alliance system, but by German Weltpolitik, triggered by the need to paper over ‘the cracks in the fabric’ of domestic politics and evidenced by the ‘annexation trends’ of the wars. The inevitable consequence of this is that historians seek to explain this theory through the negative aspects of pre-1914 Germany or through over-emphasis on the disproving of negative aspects.
Yet one must recognise that although the German condition after Bismarck was not helped by Wilhelm, and indeed all but collapsed, individual achievements of the nation as a whole fully deserve to be seen in their own right as positive aspects of a nation struggling for modernity. Much emphasis, especially by Geoff Eley, has been placed on the political contradiction, Sammlungspolitik. As a right-wing policy that sought to both unify and satisfy industry and agriculture simultaneously, one can see the obvious contradiction.
Being revived between 1897 and 1902, this policy is indicative of the German failure to modernise politically, whilst succeeding to modernise economically, thus declining socially. Negative analysis on this issue is quite justifiable; the German politicians failed to hold any foresight, continuing a policy of the 1880s, when Germany was dependent on agriculture and just establishing a capitalist base, and applying it to a nation with an almost fully developed capitalist base and declining agriculture, thus forming a disparity between the two pillars of the single policy.
Yet, Sammlungspolitik also had social benefits. By encouraging the increase in pressure groups, particularly the Agrarian League, workers and landowners were brought closer together. In fact, the dissolution of this most positive factor came with the forward-looking increase in socialist left-wing politics. The formation of the Agrarian league fostered nationalism, which had been the basis of Sammlungspolitik. The combining of a national policy with the view of Germany as a nation is quite accurate.
Weltpolitik can be seen as structurally connected to Sammlungspolitik. Protectionist interests, which were the foremost interests of the agricultural and industrial communities, fostered a pride in home produce, and with the introduction of Protectionist measures and the subsequent imposition of high import Tariffs in 1902, Germany was allowed to pursue aggressive national interests. This may be seen through the First Navy Bill. The German foreign minister, Alfred Tirpitz, is the most overlooked politician.
Seen for his ‘failure’ to meet British standards and to successfully carry out his plan of rapid naval expansion and modernization on a scale to surpass even that of Great Britain, Tirpitz’s most positive qualities have been ignored. As a politician, Tirpitz is quite possibly the best that Wilhelm II had. Against the flow of a regressive political system, Tirpitz succeeded in forming a long-term plan, designed to increase German production of large battleships in order to control the local waters.
This idea has been often condemned as naive due to the obviously precarious situation in which Germany was placed at the end of the 1890s- in alliance with only Austria and a weak Italy, facing an alliance of France and Russia, and opposite Great Britain, the greatest naval power. In effect, how could naval superiority have been achieved since Britain was not going to relinquish her naval superiority to a militarily superior power? Yet, these criticisms are unjustified.
Tirpitz had already planned for this eventuality and was willing to establish the naval race alongside Britain as an enemy, since alliance would have called into question Germany’s friendship with the other European powers. Although this may have been naive, the plan did not fail due to German error, the plan failed due to the fact that there was a reliance on other navies being willing to destroy the remainder of the British fleet in the eventuality of a German naval war with Britain, which was scuppered by British treaties with the three other major naval powers, Japan in 1902, France in 1904 and Russia in 1907.
In effect, this attempt by Germany to establish her navy was not a negative aspect of the time, indeed it was an attempt to establish the country and simultaneously drum up local popular support through nationalism marked by failure. Those both second and third naval bills were passed shows that this was a continuing policy, aimed at a realistic ideology as well as conjuring up fringe benefits. It is in the area of foreign policy that Germany deserves the most criticism. Yet, this area seems to be most often neglected.
As a foreign power, Germany is in a very precarious geo-political situation. Germany is often seen as being freed from the aggressive Bismarckian weltpolitik and concept of lebensraum. Yet, Germany under Bismarck was a nation ruled by autocracy, yet in matters of foreign policy, Germany was a diplomatic country aiming to foster peace. Although there was French hostility after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Bismarck continued a cautious and peaceful foreign policy aimed at isolating France and thus preserving herself.
By signing the secret ‘Dual Alliance’ with Austria-Hungary in 1879, and then the ‘Triple alliance’ with Austria and Russia in 1882, Bismarck settled Germany into a relatively secure geo-political position for the first time. Thus, only Great Britain and France of the major powers were not allied with Germany. Although most of Bismarck’s agreements represented only informal commitments rather than strict alliances, he succeeded in staying on good terms with all powers except France.
This was a remarkable achievement, particularly as all of Germany’s allies had significant conflicts among each other: Russia and Austria were the main rivals on the Balkans, and Italy wanted to recover Austria’s Italian speaking areas. That this was the case only emphasises how far Germany declined in foreign relations by 1894. The adherence to the precise wording of documents in favour of sensible security meant that the new Chancellor, Leo von Caprivi, was not willing to renew the treaty with Russia in 1890, due to a contradiction in a clause of the Austro-German alliance.
At a time of complete stability, this may have been a fair course of action. But at a time of growing social unrest throughout Europe, and a dramatic increase in nationalism, this policy was not far short of foolishness. By not taking into account that the French exposure meant that she needed an alliance partner, and that since France was funding Russia’s industrialization then Russia would be the ideal partner, Germany’s strong geo-political position was entirely reversed by 1894 as tensions were growing with Britain, and the two largest powers in Europe, covering Germany’s north and south borders, were now in alliance.
In five years, German foreign politics had transformed Germany from a stable nation into a nation desperate for national and naval security, thus necessitating the future Tirpitz plan. Industrialization was the most important factor in Germany on a social, economic and national political level. Yet, this factor is usually seen as something that highlights the political insecurity of the ruling right. Yet, this is also the most positive factor in Wilhelmine Germany. Against a worldwide economic slump, which lasted until 1894, German industry managed to pull ahead of France, Russia, and begin to fall in line with Britain.
The speed of industrial mobilization meant that although economics was placed at odds with politics, in itself economic climate of Germany was shining brighter than any other nation. Industry gained massively through fleet expansion, and through Weltpolitik and the demand for national expansion. Higher import tariffs meant that home goods could be sold cheaper that foreign counterparts, and trade with other nations was able to flourish. Industrialization also facilitated the increase in left-wing politics.
Although left-wing politics itself had many negative factors and did not survive for long, the spread of these ideas does show the extent of political mobilization, and the ability for information to travel, also due to technological progress after 1900. In conclusion, factors which one may consider negative are often the very same factors, which could be considered positive. Through a need to either explain, or explain away, Germany’s negative aspects after Fritz Fischer’s thesis of 1961, too much influence has been put on the German superstructure as a whole.
Emphasis has been put on how different factors fit in with the German nation, when the real answer is that they do not. Social, economic and political factors were at odds with each other, none fitted into the superstructure since each contradicted or compromised the others. Yet, Germany was a nation of achievement in individual areas. For instance the maintenance of relative political stability by forcing together industry and agriculture was not a fact conducive to a future Germany, yet it was mastery of short-term politics which managed to integrate by promising ‘all things to all people’ (a bit like New-Labour perhaps?
Industrialization has often been shown to serve to show the political weaknesses of the German right, yet in itself was a wonderful German achievement. Little has been said of the effect of left wing politics or political groups such as the Pan-German League. Yet these movements do themselves show a forward looking and a more sophisticated social structure. In effect Germany before 1914exhibited at times a complete disunity, yet German society, politics and economics separately showed signs of true accomplishment.