The Seeds of Evil: The Rise of Hitler

The Seeds of Evil: Germany 1919 - 1933.

Germany: The Second Reich

This unit briefly covers: The Unification of Germany, Political systems within the Second Reich and German Society in the years leading up to the First World War.


Any study of the History of Germany in the inter-war era needs to bear in mind the political structures and traditions that the German population and governing classes were accustomed to. It's important to understand these as they have a great deal of bearing on the way in which people react to the forming of the Weimar government. Likewise an awareness of events and systems in the build up to war will allow you to place any opposition to Weimar, economic fluctuations and social changes in context.

The Unification of Germany

Germany is a relatively modern state. In the mid nineteenth century Germany was a collection of smaller states that were linked as a German confederation. This confederation was dominated by Austria, which as a large imperial power was politically and economically superior to the smaller Germanic states. In the 1860's the dominance of Austria was challenged by Prussia and the process of unification and codification of German law began. These events have been interpreted rather differently by historians. Here I will offer only a brief narrative of the events however as interpretation of these issues is not particularly relevant or necessary for the purposes of the course being followed.

The process of unification, in chronological order:

  1. A gradual process of economic interdependence from the early stages of the Industrial Revolution through to the mid 19th century saw the germanic states move towards economic unification. For example, the growth of the railway network in Germany led to easier access to different resources across the confederation. This helped to stimulate economic growth and meant that economic prosperity was increasingly reliant upon strong links between different member states of the German confederation. This led to the introduction of the Zollverin customs union, an agreement amongst the German states to have preferential customs policies for member states. This economic union excluded Austria, illustrating a growing German sense of identify and a lesser dependency upon the largest of the Germanic states.
  2. Schleswig-Holstein. Schleswig and Holstein are two German duchies that were under Danish rule. However Holstein's population was largely German speaking and Schleswig's was a broad mix of Germans and Danes. In the 1840's the Danes attempted to claim Schleswig and Holstein as being part of Denmark, rather than them remaining as semi-independent duchies. This resulted in uproar from German nationalists and demands for the two duchies to be fully incorporated into the German Confederation. In 1848, this had led to a brief war for control of the two duchies. The resulting Treaty of London stated that upon the accession to the Danish throne of the Prince, Christian, the duchies would remain under Danish rule but not be incorporated into the nation state of Denmark. Upon his accession in 1863, Christian formally incorporated Schleswig and Holstein into the Danish state: breaking the terms of the Treaty of London. Again this led to an outcry amongst German nationalists and the German Confederation mobilised an army and invaded the duchies. War with Denmark resulted in a victory for the Germanic Confederation and the acquisition of Schleswig and Holstein. It is the manner in which the duchies were dealt with after the war of 1864 that took Germany one step closer to unification. Following the victory it was agreed that Austria would manage the duchy of Holstein and that Prussia would be in charge of the day to day running of Schleswig. The two major German powers clashed many times over the manner in which the duchies were to be administered. Historians still debate whether the German chancellor, Bismarck, deliberately set out to provoke Austria. Either way, the result was a political division within the German Confederation with Austria and Prussia now fighting for dominance of the Germanic states.
  3. Austrian-Prussian War. In 1866 further arguments about the administration of Schleswig-Holstein led to war breaking out between Austria and Prussia. This war lasted 7 weeks and resulted in Prussian victory over the Austrians. In beating the Austrians on the battlefield the Prussians assumed the role of senior Germanic state. This led to a clearer division between Austrian and German interests and forced the smaller states to align themselves alongside the Prussians, with whom they shared more economic ties due to the aforementioned Zollverin customs agreement.
  4. The Franco-Prussian War. Between 1866 and 1870 relations between Prussia and France worsened. In 1870, frustrated by the prussian attitude to the issue of candidacy for the vacant throne of Spain, France declared war on Prussia. The resulting Prussian victory was both swift and decisive. It resulted in the removal from power of the French Emperor, Napoleon III and led to a wave of Germanic Nationalism sweeping through the whole of the German Confederation. Following victory over France in January of 1871, Prussia was able to persuade her partners within the German confederation that unification was desirable. As a result, Wilhelm of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany on January 18th 1871. The Second German Reich was born.

Political systems within the Second Reich

Following unification of Germany in 1871 the political structure of the Second reich was roughly as follows:

The Second Reich was made up of 25 German states. Each of these retained its own Prince, as each had previously been a Princedom. These states were represented on a National Level by the Reichsrat, the upper house of legislative Parliament.

The Head of State was the Kaiser. This role was an hereditary one based upon the old Kingdom of Prussia. The Kaiser had the right to summon the Reichstag and dismiss it as and when he felt appropriate. He also had the power to appoint and dismiss the Chancellor and all government ministers. It was these Ministers who would propose legislation to the two houses of Parliament.

The Reichstag was the main legislative body. This institution was democratically elected every 3 years, with all men over the age of 25 having the vote. This body debated issues and voted on proposed legislation. The Reichsrat had the power to veto legislation passed by the Reichstag.

Each State within the Reich had its own local legislative body that dealt with local issues.

In brief, the legislative bodies worked something like this:

The Kaiser
The Reichstag
The Reichsrat

The chancellor and government ministers

Elected by Universal Male Suffrage every 3 years (Voting age was 25) The Kaiser was able to summon and/ or dismiss the Reichstag.
Was an assembly of the representatives of the 26 states that made up the Unified Germany. One representative from each state was a member of the Reichsrat. The Reichsrat had the right to veto Legislation passed by the Reichstag.
Appointed directly by the Kaiser. They proposed legislation to be passed by the reichstag.

German Society

German politics had been dominated by the middle classes and the aristocracy in the Second Reich. Whilst there was Universal Suffrage for men aged above 25 the real political power was very firmly in the hands of the nobility. Economic prosperity and growth led to increased urbanisation within Germany, 60% of the populace lived in towns and cities by 1910. This led to the emergence of a stronger socialist movement during the latter stages of the 19th century, though this was controlled initially by Bismarck via the introduction of welfare legislation and later through anti-socialist legislation. Much of Germany could be considered to have a military tradition at this time. The Military was of great importance to the Second Reich throughout its inception and was much loved by many of those with political power, particularly the Prussian aristocracy. Generally speaking, the Second Reich was therefore a conservative society, as illustrated by these electoral results:

Party 1887 1890 1893 1898 1903 1907 1912
German conservatives 80 73 72 56 54 60 43
Free conservatives 41 20 28 23 21 24 14
National Liberals 99 42 53 46 51 54 45
Centre 98 106 96 102 100 105 91
Left Liberals 32 76 48 49 36 49 42
Social Democrats 11 35 44 56 81 43 110
Minorities 33 38 35 34 32 29 33
Right Wing Splinter Parties 3 7 21 31 22 33 19
Total 397 397 397 397 397 397 397
Source: European History for AS Level, Edited by Steve Lancaster, Causeway Press.

Selected links on the Second Reich

This fantastic resource from King David's High School offers a very clear outline of the way that the Second Reich worked. In addition the site goes on to show how events from the failed revolution of 1848 onwards may have contributed in some way to the Rise of Hitler. Here you will see that political events deep occurring a hundred or so years previously can be viewed as having relevance to the way that Society and the Political systems work today.

This site looks at the end of the Second Reich and provides a useful insight into the way that one Political regime is replaced by another, including references to the impact of the war on the Reich - which is helpful as you can then evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Reich's political systems. This is a particularly useful link as you prepare for the following lesson as you will be able to draw comparisons between the two systems and make clearer analysis of the later Weimar constitution.

The page for the Second Reich is a portal that links to pages of use. From here you will be able to find documents relating to the Bismarck administration and Wilhelmine Germany. Also included are biographies of the great statesmen and narratives outlining the process of unification in more depth.

Russel Tarr's site contains many useful resources relating to Wilhelmine Germany. There are a range of PowerPoint presentations outlining the role of Chancellors, evaluations of WeltPolitik and Document based activities. Mr Tarr also provides links to further resources that will be of use to you.

A detailed account of the period 1870-1914. This site looks at the role of key individuals alongside the importance of minority groups within Germany at the time of the Second Reich. There is a helpful appraisal of Foreign Policy at the time and an explanation of German standards of living. Make sure you click through to the second part of this document; the link to part two is tucked away in the bottom left hand corner of the page.

An interesting insight into the Military tradition of the Second Reich can be gained from careful reading of the information on this site. Through using the links built into the page you will be able to gain a developed understanding of the political make up of Germany at the time. The explanations on this site are short and sweet, ideal for getting your head around some of the new terms and phrases that have been introduced to you.

The eduseek website offers a hyperlinked timeline of the Second Reich. This allows you to see how the Reich developed over time. Alongside this there are narrative accounts of the Bismarck and Wilhelmine eras, essays discussing aspects of Politics at the time and some interesting documentary evidence that makes use of the Kaisers personal mail.

On this page Tina Columbus briefly outlines the way in which the Second Reich fell and was replaced by the Weimar Republic. Understanding the nature of this change will help you to place later events in context.

Encyclopaedic entries relating to Germany in the age of the Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor). By making full use of the hyperlinked text you are able to investigate the relative significance of events and individuals throughout the History of the Second Reich and throughout the existence of the Weimar Republic.

The Second Reich
The Founding of the Weimar Republic
The Impact of War
The Treaty of Versailles
Germany 1919 - 1923
Germany - Economic Recovery
The Early days of the Nazi Party 1919 - 1924
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Unit last updated 4th June 2004

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