Wilhelmine Germany on postcards (1871-1914)
No period of modern German history has inspired as much controversy as the era bounded by Otto von Bismarck's dismissal from power in March 1890 and the outbreak of war in 1914. During the interwar period, Imperial Germany was the focus of the debate over the origins of the Great War. After 1945, the issue became the place of the German Empire in the historical trajectory towards Nazism. By the 1970s, it had become common to trace the roots of the Third Reich directly back to the manifold tensions and contradictions of Imperial Germany. In the most influential statement of this case, the West German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler portrayed the Kaiserreich as a deeply flawed social and political system, in which essential features of a pre-modern age had survived into the modern, industrial era. Imperial Germany's constitutional structure remained autocratic in critical respects, while the country's ruling class, the landed Prussian nobility, not only dominated the army and councils of state, but also left its imprint on broader values and attitudes, as the country underwent its economic and social modernization. The result of this asymmetry was increasing domestic tension. The ruling classes clung grimly to power in the face of democratic challenges from many quarters, whether the progressive middle class, women's organizations, or the labor movement. In the end, so goes the argument, Germany's political elites resorted to war in 1914 as a strategy of survival – in the hope that military victory would shore up the beleaguered fundaments of their own power.
In part because it seems wed to untenable assumptions about how countries ought to modernize, Wehler’s view has itself been beleaguered. It also appears to minimize the dynamism of the German Empire, which many contemporaries regarded as the most modern country in Europe – a place where economic development, social change, and cultural achievement were unmatched, and where a mix of authoritarian and popular rule produced efficient and effective government. If Imperial Germany was tension-ridden, so goes an alternative argument, then the tensions were due to the pace of change – in other words, to the rapid onset of modernity itself.
The following volume of documents addresses the second half of the Kaiserreich, when the pace of industrial development, social ferment, and cultural change became torrid. The new German emperor, Wilhelm II, who gave his name to the era, seemed in many respects to symbolize the impulsive energies of Germany's development, as well as its contradictions. The documents speak primarily to the country's precocious dynamism, but they should be read in conjunction with the previous volume, in which constitutional matters, the putative font of Germany's pre-modern tensions, figure more prominently.