The German Empire is the name commonly used in English to describe Germany from 1871 to 1918, when it was a semi-constitutional monarchy: beginning with the unification of Germany and proclamation of William I of Prussia as German Emperor (18 January 1871), effectively ending with the proclamation of the German republic by Philipp Scheidemann (9 November 1918) and formally ending with the abdication of Wilhelm II (28 November 1918). The most important bordering states were the Russian Empire in the east, France in the west, and Austria-Hungary in the south.
The official name used to describe Germany from 1871 to 1943 in German was the Deutsches Reich, while the German term Deutsches Kaiserreich was used unofficially to describe Germany specifically during the 1871–1918 period. The direct translation of Deutsches Reich into English is "German Empire", although the German word "Reich" can have non-imperial connotations similar to the English "commonwealth", "realm" or "domain". The full English translation to "German Empire" and the part-translation German Reich was officially used to describe Germany during the 47 years of Hohenzollern rule, while only "German Reich" was used in English from 1918 to 1943. During the whole 1871–1943 period, the German Reich was also known as simply Germany.
The term Second Reich (Zweites Reich) is sometimes applied retrospectively to this period. The term was popularised by German nationalist historian Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in the 1920s, and drew an explicit link with the earlier Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (the "First Reich"), as well as underlining his desire for the establishment of a "Third Reich". This term was subsequently adopted during the time of Nazi rule for state purposes - and therefore its use among non-German historians after World War II has generally been discouraged, as many non-Germans consider it to give what they consider legitimacy to National Socialist historiography.
Under the guise of idealism giving way to realism, German nationalism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848 to Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck's authoritarian realpolitik. Bismarck wanted to unify the rival German states to achieve his aim of a conservative, Prussian-dominated Germany. Three wars led to military successes and helped to convince German people to do this: the Second war of Schleswig against Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War against Austria in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War against the Second French Empire in 1870–71. During the Siege of Paris in 1871, the North German Confederation, supported by its allies from southern Germany, formed the German Empire with the proclamation of the Prussian king Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, to the humiliation of the French, who ceased to resist only days later.
Bismarck himself prepared a broad outline—the 1866 North German Constitution, which became the 1871 Constitution of the German Empire with some adjustments. Germany acquired some democratic features. The new empire had a parliament with two houses. The lower house, or Reichstag, was elected by universal male suffrage. However, the original constituencies drawn in 1871 were never redrawn to reflect the growth of urban areas. As a result, by the time of the great expansion of German cities in the 1890s and 1900s, rural areas were grossly overrepresented.
Legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the states. Executive power was vested in the emperor, or Kaiser, who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. Officially, the chancellor was a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs; in practice, the State Secretaries (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc.) acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. While the Reichstag had the power to pass, amend or reject bills, it could not initiate legislation. The power of initiating legislation rested with the chancellor.
Although nominally a league of equals, in practice the empire was dominated by the largest and most powerful state, Prussia. It contained three-fifths of Germany's territory and two-thirds of its population. The imperial crown was hereditary in the House of Hohenzollern, the kings of Prussia. With the exception of the years 1872–1873 and 1892–1894, the chancellor was always simultaneously the prime minister of Prussia. With 17 out of 58 votes in the Bundesrat, Berlin needed only a few votes from the small states to exercise effective control.
While the other states retained their own governments, the military forces of the smaller states were put under Prussian control, while those of the larger states such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony were coordinated along Prussian principles and would in wartime be controlled by the federal government. Although authoritarian in many respects, the empire permitted the development of political parties.
The evolution of the German Empire is somewhat in line with parallel developments in Italy which became a united nation state shortly before the German Empire. Some key elements of the German Empire's authoritarian political structure were also the basis for conservative modernization in Imperial Japan under Tokugawa and the preservation of an authoritarian political structure under the Tsars in the Russian Empire.
One factor in the social anatomy of these governments had been the retention of a very substantial share in political power by the landed elite, the Junkers, due to the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban areas.
Bismarck's intention was to create a constitutional façade which would mask the continuation of authoritarian policies. In the process, he created a system with a serious flaw. There was a significant disparity between the Prussian and German electoral systems. Prussia used a highly restrictive three-class voting system in which the richest third of the population could choose 85 percent of the legislature, all but assuring a conservative majority. As mentioned above, the king and (with two exceptions) the prime minister of Prussia were also the emperor and chancellor of the empire--meaning that the same rulers had to seek majorities from legislatures elected from completely different franchises.
In 1871, there were 41 million citizens in the German Empire. In 1913 there were nearly 68 million, an increase of more than half. And more than half of them were living in towns and cities.
But it was not merely an expansion of population. The foundations of economic strength at the turn of the century were steel and coal – Germany had made great strides with both:
In 30 years, Germany’s share in world trade had risen by a third. Now, in 1914, Germany was, after America, the most powerful industrial nation in the world. The epitome of her industrial might lay in the firm of Krupp. Essen, where the first Krupp factory was built, became by 1902:
“A great city with its own streets, its own police force, fire department and traffic laws. There are 150 kilometres of rail, 60 different factory buildings, 8,500 machine tools, seven electrical stations, 140 kilometres of underground cable and 46 overhead.”
Germany delighted in the prowess of Krupp’s. When Alfred Krupp died in that year, the Kaiser attended his lavish funeral and called him “a German of the Germans.” In 1914, the firm employed 80,000 workers. They lived in Krupp houses, their babies were delivered by Krupp doctors, their children educated in Krupp schools, they bought at Krupp stores, borrowed books from Krupp libraries, married in the Krupp church and were buried in the Krupp cemetery. Under Bismarck, Germany had come closer than any other state to modern conceptions of social welfare. German workers enjoyed sickness, accident and maternity benefits, canteens and changing rooms and a national pension scheme before these were even thought of in more liberal countries. Yet the life of the workers was hard. The steel mills operated a 12-hour day and an 80-hour week. Neither rest nor holidays were guaranteed. In Germany, as in every industrial state, there was poverty and protest.
By 1912, the Marxist Social Democratic Party was the strongest party in the Reichstag, the German parliament. But the Reichstag did not rule Germany. The Kaiser ruled Germany through officials whom he personally appointed. “No one,” said Winston Churchill, “should judge Kaiser Wilhelm II without asking the question, ‘What should I have done in this position?’” “Imagine yourself brought up to believe that you were appointed by God to be the ruler of a mighty nation. Imagine succeeding in your twenties to the prizes of Bismarck’s three victorious wars. Imagine feeling the magnificent German race bounding beneath you in ever-swelling numbers, strength, wealth and ambition. And imagine on every side the thunderous tributes of the crowds and the skilled, unceasing flattery of the court.”
With this background, subjected to these pressures, trying to hide a left arm withered from birth, for 30 years Wilhelm II vexed and perturbed the peace of Europe--but always short of war. His first public utterance when he came to the throne was addressed not to the people but to the army:
“We belong to each other, I and the army. We were born for each other and will indissolubly cleave to each other. I promise ever to bear in mind that from the world above the eyes of my forefathers look down on me, and that I shall one day have to stand accountably to them for the glory and honour of the army.”
Those were not empty words. The German Kaiser was also the King of Prussia, and it was for the sake of Prussian strength that the other Germany-–the Germany of the merchants, the industrialists, the musicians, the philosophers--had accepted its rule. The Prussian influence was seeping in through the whole nation. It was above all a military influence, well described by one of its advocates, then-General of Infantry Paul von Hindenburg:
“The army trained and strengthened that mighty organising impulse which we found everywhere in the Fatherland. The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.”
Before unification, German territory was made up of 26 constituent states. These states consisted of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory. The Kingdom of Prussia was the largest of the constituent states, covering some 60 percent of the territory of the German Empire.
Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Others were created as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Territories were not necessarily contiguous - many existed in several parts, as a result of historical acquisition, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling family trees.
Each component of the German Empire sent representatives to the Imperial Council (Bundesrat) and the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). Relations between the Imperial centre and the Empire's components were somewhat fluid, and were developed on an ongoing basis. The extent to which the German Emperor could, for example, intervene on occasions of disputed or unclear succession was much debated on occasion - for example with the Lippe-Detmold inheritance crisis.
Bismarck's domestic policies played a great role in forging the authoritarian political culture of the Kaiserreich. Less preoccupied by continental power politics following unification in 1871, Germany's semi-parliamentary government carried out a relatively smooth economic and political revolution from above that pushed them along the way towards becoming the world's leading industrial power of the time.
The Germanization policies were targeted particularly against the significant Polish minority of the empire, gained by Prussia in the Partitions of Poland. Laws were made that denied Poles the right to build homes in territories acquired in the Partitions of Poland, restricted the right to speak Polish in public meetings, and in 1908 a law was made allowing for expulsion of Poles from their homes. A Settlement Commission was set up and funded by the government in 1885, with a mission to distribute Polish owned land among German colonists. However, the Poles founded an organization of their own to defend themselves against the German settlement commission. In the 1880s mass expulsion of some 24,000 Poles to Russian Poland that weren't granted German citizenship were organized by German authorities. This act was heavily criticized by leftist German political parties and Bismarck himself was sceptical about it but he was concerned about possible "revolutionary elements" among the Poles from Russian Poland. Polish associations tried to fight for their rights without success, and although some Polish deputies were elected to the Reichstag, they were greatly outnumbered by German representatives hostile to their cause.
In 1871, a common Criminal Code (Reichsstrafgesetzbuch) was introduced; in 1877, common court procedures were established in the court system (Gerichtsverfassungsgesetz), civil procedures (Zivilprozessordnung) and criminal procedures (Strafprozessordnung). In 1873 the constitution was amended to allow the Empire to replace the various and greatly differing Civil Codes of the states (if they existed at all; for example, parts of Germany formerly occupied by Napoleon's France had adopted the French Civil Code, while in Prussia the Allgemeines Preußisches Landrecht of 1794 was still in effect). In 1881, a first commission was established to produce a common Civil Code for all of the Empire, an enormous effort that would produce the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (BGB), possibly one of the most impressive legal works of the world; it was eventually put into effect on 1 January 1900. It speaks volumes for the conceptual quality of these codifications that they all, albeit with many amendments, are still in effect today.
On 9 March 1888, William I died shortly before his 91st birthday, leaving his son Frederick III as the new emperor. Frederick was a liberal and an admirer of the British constitution, his links with the United Kingdom strengthened further with his marriage to Princess Victoria, eldest child of Queen Victoria. With his ascent to the throne, many hoped that Frederick's reign would lead to a liberalisation of the Reich and an increase of parliament's influence on the political process. The dismissal of Robert von Puttkamer, the highly-conservative Prussian interior minister, on 8 June was a sign in the expected direction and a blow to Bismarck's administration.
However, by the time of his coronation, Frederick had developed incurable laryngeal cancer, which had been diagnosed the previous year on 12 November 1887 by British doctor Morell Mackenzie. Frederick died on the 99th day of his rule, on 15 June 1888. The death of Frederick III led to the crowning of his son Wilhelm II as emperor. Due to the rapid succession of these three monarchs, 1888 is known as the Year of Three Emperors (Dreikaiserjahr).
William II intended to relegitimize the importance of the imperial throne at a time when other monarchies in Europe were being subordinated into figurehead positions. This decision led the ambitious Kaiser into conflict with Bismarck who was confident in his leadership and had no intention of relinquishing any powers to the young Kaiser and instead wanted William II to be dependent on him. A major difference between William II and Bismarck was their approaches to handling political crises, especially in 1889, when German coal miners went on strike in Upper Silesia. Bismarck demanded that the German Army be sent in to crush the strike, but William II rejected this authoritarian measure, responding "I do not wish to stain my reign with the blood of my subjects." Instead of repression being used, William had the government proceed with negotiations with a delegation sent from the coal miners which resulted in the strike coming to an end without violence. This was the beginning of a rift between William II and Bismarck. Bismarck defied Wilhelm's demands for greater power by forming political coalitions with political parties which Wilhelm did not praise. The fractious relationship ended after William II and Bismarck had a dispute, and the latter resigned days later in March 1890.
With the departure of Bismarck as chancellor, William II became the dominant leader of Germany. Unlike his grandfather, William I, who was satisfied with leaving government affairs to the chancellor, William II wanted to be active in the affairs of Germany and wanted to be a knowledgeable leader, not an ornamental figurehead. William voluntarily received economics tutoring from the controversial Walther Rathenau. From Rathenau, William learned about European economics and industrial and financial realities in Europe.
In official appearances and photographs, William II took great care in hiding his deformed and withered left hand which he had since birth. William would become internationally known for his aggressive foreign policy positions and strategic blunders which pushed the German Empire into political isolation and later into World War I.
Under William II, Germany no longer had long-ruling strong chancellors like Bismarck. The new chancellors had difficulty in performing their roles, especially their additional role as Prime Minister of Prussia that was assigned to them in the German Constitution. Reforms made by Chancellor Caprivi involving trade liberalization which brought about a reduction in unemployment were supported by the Kaiser and many Germans, except for Prussian landowners, who feared loss of land and power and set up a number of anti-Caprivi campaigns against the reforms..
While Prussian aristocrats challenged the demands of a united German state, in the 1890s, a number of rebellious organizations were set up to challenge the authoritarian conservative Prussian militarism which was instilled on the country. Some educators acted in opposition of the German state-run schools which taught military education and set up their own independent liberal-minded schools which encouraged individuality and freedom. Nevertheless, the schools in Imperial Germany had a very high standard and dealt with modern developments. Artists began experimental art in opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm's demands for traditional art in which Wilhelm responded "art which transgresses the laws and limits laid down by me can no longer be called art […]." At the same time, a new generation of cultural producers emerged. The most dangerous opposition to the monarchy came from the newly formed Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in the 1890s which advocated Marxism. The threat of the SPD towards the German monarchy and industrialists caused the state to both crack down on socialist supporters as well as initiating social reform to sooth tensions. Germany's large industries provided significant social welfare programmes and good care to their employees as long as they were not identified as socialists or members of a trade union. Pensions, sickness benefits and even housing were provided to employees by the big industries to reduce social unease.
William II, unlike Bismarck, set aside differences with the Roman Catholic Church and put the government's energy into opposing socialism at all cost. This policy failed when the Social Democrats won a third of the votes in the 1912 elections to the Reichstag (imperial parliament), and became the largest political party in Germany. The government remained in the hands of a succession of conservative coalitions supported by right-wing liberals or Catholic clerics and heavily dependent on the Kaiser's favour. The rising militarism that was implemented by Wilhelm II caused many to flee Germany in order to avoid military service. Most fled to the United States.
During World War I, the Kaiser's powers were devolved to a two-man dictatorship in 1916 led by the German High Command leaders, future President of Germany, General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. The Kaiser was no longer seen as a hero figure to Germans, while Hindenburg and Ludendorff were seen as the nation's true heroic leaders. The Kaiser remained a figurehead for the remaining two years of the war until his abdication in 1918.
William II wanted Germany to have its "place in the sun" like the British and the French Empires and set Germany to begin colonial efforts in Africa and the Pacific ("new imperialism"). With much territory in Africa already colonized by other European Powers, Germany took the remaining territories, which formed German Southwest Africa (Namibia), German Kamerun (Cameroon), Togoland, and German East Africa (Tanzania). Germany gained some islands in the Pacific and the Chinese port of Qingdao, to compete with the British holding of Hong Kong and Portuguese holding of Macau. The African colonies had some economic return, but the Pacific colonies had little or no economic use and only served to spread Germany's official presence. Germany, with the finance of Deutsche Bank, worked to create the Baghdad Railway with the cooperation of the Ottoman Empire with the intention to create a German port in the Middle East.The creation of the Baghdad Railway from 1900–1911 was initially supported by the United Kingdom, which believed that this would increase trade between their country and Germany. However, as time passed, the British increasingly saw the efforts as Germany attempting to expand its influence in the Middle East where it believed it alone should rule and demanded a block to the expansion of the railway in 1911; this demand was accepted by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The colonial efforts were opposed by Bismarck and his supporters, who favoured Germany gaining international power through dominating Europe and creating a German "Mitteleuropa" (Middle Europe) through taking land from the Russian Empire, which would provide Germany with sufficient economic resources and land. William's efforts to colonize the few remaining territories in Africa and the Pacific would come under criticism by German nationalists and later future Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, for having missed the opportunity to create a fully European-based German empire.
German colonialism under William II put Germany in conflict and risk of conflict on a number of occasions, the first during the Boxer Rebellion in Qingdao, Chinese civilians protested against the German presence in which Wilhelm demanded a swift response saying that the Chinese must be forced to remember German power in the same way as others remembered the Huns, a statement which would later be used by war opponents to mock Germany during World War I and World War II. On two occasions, Germany nearly went to war with France over the fate of Morocco.
While foreign propagandists made much of the so-called Herero and Namaqua Genocide in German Southwest Africa it must be remembered that those happenings, while deplorable, amounted to nothing when confronted to the atrocities committed by the Belgians in Belgian Congo and the United States against Native Americans and the British in South Africa upon the Boers. Upon taking Southwest Africa, German settlers were encouraged to settle on land held by Herero and Nama tribes. The Herero and the Nama people were then being used as forced labour, while their land was used for resources (much as the British did in Rhodesia), particularly for diamonds, by the German colonists. In 1903 and 1904, the Herero and the Nama revolted against the colonists in Southwest Africa. In response to the attacks, General Lothar von Trotha was dispatched to quell the uprising. In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) perished. The genocide was directed specifically at eliminating Herero and Nama from German Southwest Africa out of fear of more revolts destabilizing Germany's East African colony and endangering its colonists. Imperial Germany's actions did not expand to all blacks within its boundaries, for a number of black Africans had become German colonial soldiers, called Askaris. The United Nations officially condemned the genocide in 1985, followed in 2004 by the acceptance and condemnation by the German government of the actions of the German Empire which caused the genocide. Germany's belligerence towards France, and Germany's support of its ally Austria-Hungary's occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, caused Germany to lose previously good relations with Russia, and the potential for an alliance with Britain evaporated, as Britain followed the Russian monarchy's opposition to Germany's aggression and set aside differences with France. By 1914, Wilhelm's foreign policy left Germany isolated with one loyal ally, Austria-Hungary, largely dependent on German support to protect its declining power due to ethnic nationalism across its heterogeneous empire. Germany's other official ally, the Kingdom of Italy had grown increasingly lukewarm and indifferent to Germany, remained an ally only on paper, and saw more benefit in entering into an alliance which could take back Italian-populated territories from Austria-Hungary.
Following the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke of Austria-Este, Francis Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, Kaiser Wilhelm II offered Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph full support of Austro-Hungarian plans to invade Serbia, which they blamed for supporting the assassination. This unconditional support for Austria-Hungary was called a "blank cheque" by historians in that the German government did not expect a serious war to take place as Serbia initially met many of the demands of Austria-Hungary, and if a war were to take place, the German government expected the war would remain regional and Russia, which was long angered over Austria-Hungary's occupation of Bosnia in 1908, would not risk entering a war with Austria-Hungary if Germany demanded a halt to Russian aggression. These assumptions backfired when Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, in which Germany backed Austria-Hungary. France and Britain went to the side of Russia, as the Triple Entente and the German Empire and Europe faced a massive war.
Germany began the war by targeting its major rival, France. Germany saw France as its principal danger on the European continent as it could mobilize much faster than Russia and bordered Germany's industrial core in the Rhineland. Unlike Britain and Russia, the French were principally involved in the war for revenge against Germany, in particular, for France's loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871. The German high command knew that France would muster its forces to go into Alsace-Lorraine. Germany did not want to risk lengthy battles along the French-German border and instead adopted the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy designed to cripple France, through invading Belgium and Luxembourg and then sweeping down towards Paris and then encircling and crushing the French forces along the French-German border in a quick victory. After defeating France, Germany could turn to attack Russia. This strategy resulted in the violation of recognizing Belgium's and Luxembourg's official neutrality. The strategy initially was successful, the German army swept down from Belgium and Luxembourg and was nearly at Paris, at the nearby Marne river. However the French army put up a strong resistance to defend their capital at the First Battle of the Marne resulting in the German army retreating.
The aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne was a long-held stalemate between the German army and the Allies with the use of dug-in trench warfare. Further attempts to break through deeper into France failed at the two battles of Ypres with huge casualties. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn decided to break away from the Schlieffen Plan and instead focus on a war of attrition against France. Falkenhayn targeted the ancient city of Verdun because Verdun had been one of the last cities to hold out against the German army in 1870, and Falkenhayn knew that as a matter of national pride, the French would do anything to ensure that Verdun would not be taken. Falkenhayn anticipated that with correct tactics, French losses would be more than the Germans and that continued French recruits being sent to Verdun would cause the French army to "bleed white" and then allow the German army to take France easily. In 1916, the Battle of Verdun began, with the French positions in Verdun under constant shelling and poison gas attack and taking large casualties under the attack of an overwhelmingly large German forces. However Falkenhayn's prediction of a greater ratio of French killed proved to be wrong. With Falkenhayn's replacement by Erich Ludendorff and no success in sight at Verdun, the German army retreated in December 1916.
While the western front was a stalemate for the German army, the eastern front proved to be a great success. The badly organized and supplied Russian army faltered and the German and Austro-Hungarian armies steadily advanced eastward. The Germans benefited from political instability in Russia and a desire to end the war. In 1916, the German government allowed Russia's communist Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin to travel through Germany from Switzerland into Russia. Germany believed that if Lenin could create further political unrest, Russia would no longer be able to continue its war with Germany, allowing the German army to focus on the western front.
In 1917, the Tsar was ousted from the Russian throne and later a Bolshevik government was created under the leadership of Lenin. With political opposition to the Bolsheviks, Lenin decided to end Russia's campaign against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria in order to redirect its energy to eliminating internal dissent. In 1918, at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik government gave Germany and the Ottoman Empire an enormous territorial settlement in exchange for an end to war on the eastern front. This settlement including all of modern-day Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) which were given to the German occupation authority Ober Ost, and Belarus and Ukraine also were given to Germany. As a result, Germany had at last achieved the long-wanted land of "Mitteleuropa", and now could fully focus on destroying the Allies on the western front.
On the colonial front, German results were mixed. Much of Germany's colonies fell to the British and French armies, however in German East Africa, an impressive campaign was waged by the colonial army leader there, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would remain long respected as a military commander then and after by the native Askaris whom he commanded. Lettow-Vorbeck used guerilla raids against British forces in Kenya and Rhodesia as well as invading Portuguese Mozambique to give his forces supplies and to pick up more Askari recruits. By the end of the war his army was the only one allowed a victory parade under the Brandenburg Gate.
Despite success on the Eastern Front in 1918, Germany was not making progress on the western front for three reasons. The first was war exhaustion; German soldiers had been on the battlefield constantly without relief and, after failing to break the British and French armies in offensives in March and April 1918 despite the transfer of large numbers of troops from the Eastern Front, had lost hope in the chance of a victory. The second was civil unrest because of the war effort. The concept of "total war" in World War I, meant that supplies had to be redirected towards the armed forces and, with German commerce being stopped by the British naval blockade, German civilians were forced to live in increasingly meagre conditions. Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced. The winter of 1916–17 was called the "turnip winter". During the war, about 750,000 German civilians died from malnutrition. Many Germans wanted an end to the war and increasing numbers of Germans began to associate with the political left, such as the Social Democratic Party and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party which demanded an end to the war. The third reason was the entry of the United States into the war. With a surprise attack by a German U-Boat (submarine) against the liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 which was carrying American civilians (though the Germans suspected it was bringing supplies to Britain) and Germany's subsequent declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain in 1917, American public sentiment moved from neutrality to interventionism. While U.S. involvement was smaller than that of World War II, the American entry was devastating to the Germans because unlike Britain, France or Germany itself, the United States forces were not worn down by the war attrition which had affected the other countries.
In November 1918, with internal revolution, a stalemated war, Austria-Hungary falling apart from multiple ethnic tensions, and pressure from the German high command, Emperor William II, who was by this time merely a figurehead, abdicated the throne along with the German high command, leaving the disastrous scenario to be blamed on the new government led by the German Social Democrats which called for and received an armistice on 11 November 1918 which marked the end of World War I and the end of the German Empire. It was succeeded by the democratic, yet flawed, Weimar Republic.
The German Empire left a legacy of mixed fortunes for Germany and Europe. Under Bismarck, a united German state had finally been achieved, however it remained a Prussian-dominated state and it did not have German Austria within it as Pan-German nationalists had desired. The influence of Prussian militarism and its colonial efforts cast a negative view of the state, especially in regards to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide and the causes of World War I. While the German Empire enacted a number of progressive social reforms such as guaranteeing freedom of press, and established a system of public welfare, at the same time it openly engaged in racist discrimination of non-Germans, leading some scholars to title it an "apartheid state". There was a modern election system to the federal parliament, the Reichstag, which represented every adult man by at least one vote. This enabled the German Socialists and the Catholic Centre Party to play remarkable roles in the empire's political life, although both parties were officially regarded more or less as "foes of the empire."
The history of the German Empire is well remembered in Germany as a period when academic research and university life flourished as well as arts and literature. Thomas Mann published his novel Buddenbrooks in 1901. Theodor Mommsen was awarded the Nobel prize for literature a year later for his Roman history. Painters like the groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke made a significant contribution to modern art. The AEG turbine building in Berlin by Peter Behrens from 1909 can be regarded as a milestone in classic modern architecture and an outstanding example of emerging functionalism. The social, economic, and scientific successes of this Gründerzeit, or founding epoch, have led the Wilhelmine era to sometimes be regarded as a golden age.
In the field of economics the "Kaiserzeit" lay the foundation of Germany being one of the world's leading economic powers. Especially the iron and coal industry of the Ruhr area, at the Saar Bassin and in Upper Silesia contributed much to that process. The first motorcar was constructed by Karl Benz in 1886. The enormous growth of industrial production and industrial potential also led to a rapid urbanisation of Germany, which turned the Germans into a nation of city dwellers.
The empire's support of Austria-Hungary's invasion of Serbia against Russia's opposition has been seen by a number of historians as a major influence in what caused the clash of alliances in Europe which resulted in the massive war later known as World War I. The defeat and aftermath of World War I and the territorial and economic losses imposed by the Treaty of Versailles caused enormous ramifications for the new German republic, such as defining what the German state was and how it should operate. Conservatives, liberals, socialists, nationalists, Catholics, and Protestants all had their own interpretations, which led to a fractious political and social climate in Germany in the aftermath of the empire's collapse.
There is a considerable historical debate over the Sonderweg question, concerning whatever the nature of German politics and society during the German Empire made Nazi Germany inevitable. Some historians, such as Fritz Fischer, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Wolfgang Mommsen, have argued that during the German Empire, a "pre-modern" aristocratic elite became entrenched in German society and thus doomed the Weimar Republic to failure before it was even born. Other historians, such as Gerhard Ritter, have argued that it was only World War I and its aftermath that opened the doors to Nazism.
In addition to present-day Germany, large parts of what comprised the German Empire now belong to several other modern European countries:
|Elsass-Lothringen||France||The then-German-speaking départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin (Alsace region) and Moselle (north-eastern part of the Lorraine region)|
| The Eupen und Malmédy area |
(intentionally spelled with é only then)
|Belgium||Eupen and Malmedy, two towns and surrounding municipalities in the province of Liège, on the German border|
|Nordschleswig||Denmark||South Jutland County|
|Hultschiner Ländchen (The Sudetenland which stretched along the border to Germany belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire)||Czech Republic||Hlučín Region, on the border to Poland in Silesia, from which Germans were deported following WWII (as from the whole Sudetenland)|
| Central and eastern Pommern, Schlesien, Ostbrandenburg, Ermland, Masuren, Westpreußen, Southern Ostpreußen|
Also Posen (Wartheland).
|Poland||the northern and western parts of the country, including Pomerania, Silesia, Lubusz Land, Warmia and Masuria, from all of which Germans were deported following WWII.|
|Northern Ostpreußen with Königsberg||Russia||Kaliningrad Oblast enclave on the Baltic, from which Germans were deported following WWII.|
|Memelland with Memel (city)||Lithuania||Klaipėda Region, including the Baltic coastal city of Klaipėda, from which Germans were deported following WWII.|