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Political Stability in Germany

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Political Stability in Germany

In its relatively short history, Germany has undergone several transformations. We will examine the unification of the German states and the building of the nation through nationalism. What was the cost of trying to build the greatest nation on earth?

How Did the Nation-Building Process Occur in Germany?

In the nineteenth century, there were many changes before the Prussian-dominated Kaiserreich became the first semblance of a modern and unified Germany in 1871. From the crumbling Holy Roman Empire to the North German Confederation, let's find out how these changes occurred.

German Confederation

Political Stability in Germany Klemens von Metternich StudySmarterKlemens von Metternich, Wikimedia Commons

The first German Confederation replaced the Holy Roman Empire in 1815. Until 1806, the Holy Roman Empire had dominated central European territory for around ten centuries. The rise of Napolean I in France and his aggressive campaigns of expansion led to the surrendering of the rule and abdication of the final Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. In response to this, the 1815 Congress of Vienna created a new German Confederationof 39 states that included German and Italian speakers. The dominant state was Austria, and this is why delegates met in Vienna to discuss policy.

The leader of the Confederation was Austrian Klemens von Metternich. He passed the Carlsbad decrees in Karlovy Vary (modern-day Czechia) in 1819. These laws suppressed nationalism, which was already simmering in the German states and destroyed descent. States from Prussia and modern-day Germany thus had to strengthen their ties in different ways. In 1834, they established the Zollverein, a free-trade zone that encompassed 18 German-speaking states outside of Austria.

1848 was a year of revolutions that swept across Europe. They were organised by republicans who fought against European monarchies. In the German Confederation, it was no different. The lower classes, who felt repressed, rose up and protested peacefully. In Berlin, they were met with a harsh reaction on behalf of the Prussian crown. Conservative and future Kaiser Wilhelm I was instrumental in quashing the protestors with violence. Whilst the revolutions cost Metternich his position and forced him into exile, they planted a seed for future reforms.

Eventually, the German Confederation collapsed in 1866, and the North German Confederation took its place. This would just act as a stepping stone to German Unification!

German Unification Timeline

Despite the suppression of descent, the desire for German and, in particular, Prussian autonomy did not go away. Though Wilhelm had previously been against any radical change, he became King of Prussia in 1861 and struggled against the Prussian Landtag (government) to gain the support required for military expansion. He was on the verge of quitting when Otto von Bismarck became his Prime Minister in 1862 and began to pull the strings. Both men realised that German Unification would be the best way for Prussian influence to spread in the region. Let's examine the events that lead to this becoming a reality.

Year Event
1861Wilhelm I becomes King of Prussia.
1862On the verge of abdicating, he appoints Bismarck as his Prime Minister.
1862Realising the necessity of military action for Prussia to become a European force, Bismarck gives his famous "iron and blood" speech, which would earn him the moniker the "Iron Chancellor".
1864The Prussian Army instigates the Second-Schleswig War on Danish territory. Danish defeat gave more territory to the German Confederation.
1866Humiliation and defeat for Austria in the "Seven Weeks" Austro-Prussian War leaves Prussia in a strong position. In exchange for sparing Vienna, Prussia instructs Austria to form their own alliance whilst simultaneously becoming the dominant state in a new order, the North German Confederation.
1867Austria is reconstituted to be a part of Austria-Hungary, a huge Empire that also encompassed parts of Czechia, Slovakia and some of the Balkan countries.
1870This was not enough for Wilhelm I and Bismarck, who still had the problem of French influence over some important southern German states that had been in the Holy Roman Empire. Prussia promised to protect the states in the event of a French invasion, which Bismarck and Wilhelm preempted.
1871In the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian Army was successful again. They occupied large swathes of France before crowing Wilhelm I Kaiser of the German Empire at Versailles (near Paris) to add insult to injury. They also gained the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine and became the dominant force in mainland Europe.

The Constitution of the German Empire was almost identical to the North German Confederation (see Kaiserreich). It was clear that power resided with the Kaiser and the Prussian elite or Junkers. In the case of Wilhelm I, it was also apparent that Bismarck held all the cards, and Bismarck threatened to resign on many occasions when things didn't go his way. The Reichstag (government) was almost completely irrelevant as a force due to the nature of the constitution. Now that the German Kaiserreich was finally a united nation. How did it quickly forge its identity as a powerful nation-state?

German Nationalism

Let us take a look at those involved in German Nationalism

Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck (1871 - 1888)

Political Stability in Germany Otto von Bismarck StudySmarterOtto von Bismarck, Wikimedia Commons

After 1871, Otto von Bismarck continued his close political ties with Wilhelm I by becoming his Chancellor. This role largely mirrored that of his previous duties, but now, the two men had jurisdiction over an Empire. As such a young country, it was vital that images of nationalism were quickly cultivated. Bismarck identified Bavaria over Prussia as the exemplary state of German-ness as it had fewer foreigners.1 He was wise to intertwine national patriotism with political conformity and could thus brand his political opponents, such as the Social Democrats, as traitors.

Though Wilhelm I and Bismarck weaponised nationalism to a degree, their brand of nationalism was far less fanatical than that of their successors. It did not brag about the military might of the Kaiserreich and was not borne out of racial hatred or disgust. Bismarck was ultimately a pragmatist who continually asked himself, "What are the obstacles to Prussian power?". It is a consensus among historians, including Otto Pflanze, that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party hijacked the "Iron Chancellor" image for their own political means.

Wilhelm II (1888-1918)

Political Stability in Germany Wilhelm II StudySmarter

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Wikimedia Commons
There was a stark contrast between the nationalism during the reign of Wilhelm I and Bismarck until 1888 and that of the other prominent Emperor of the Kaiserreich, Wilhelm II. Wilhelm II was quick to dispense with the "Iron Chancellor" and had a much more rampant blend of militaristic nationalism. This stems from his childhood, where he idolised the British Empire as he was a grandson of Queen Victoria. His jealousy led to a belief in a shared German destiny with Britain, which was their biggest obstacle to colonial expansion.

In addition to this, the notion of "Pan-Germanism" began to gain momentum. In the face of impending continental conflict, it was vital that the identity of German-speaking culture was consolidated. Figures like writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe and composer Richard Wagner were key to achieving such a mood.

A line from the Ernst Lissauer song of 1914, his "Song of Hate for England", around the time that World War I began, demonstrates the outward propensity for aggression that Wilhelm II had fostered.

We love as one and hate as one,

We have one foe and one alone - England!"

Political Stability in Germany (1924 - 1929)

Abdication

The voluntary surrendering of a crown by a monarch.

Democratic

A government where laws are made through the people and a voting system rather than one person or a small group of people.

Hyperinflation

The rapid growth of a currency at a high rate so that it virtually becomes worthless.

Reparations

Money that a country needs to pay for the calculated damages of war.

Germany suffered huge problems after World War I but emerged like a phoenix from the ashes during the second half of the 1920s. Until 1924 the country was in turmoil:

  • Defeat in World War I and the abdication of Wilhelm II led to the dissolution of the Kaiserreich. A democratic Weimar Constitution replaced this.
  • The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany into crippling war reparations. This destroyed the economy and led to hyperinflation in 1923.
  • The dire economic situation led to political unrest, and in 1923 the Munich Beer Hall Putsch was the first concrete attempt from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to seize power.

"The Golden Years"

However, from 1924 onwards, Germany began to blossom again. The openness of Chancellor Gustav Stresemann and readiness to accept aid from the United States helped the country back to its feet. Both the Dawes Plan and the less effective Young Plan enabled economic growth and provided a respite from the harsh reparations of the Treaty of Versailles. As a result, a period of stability ensued.

Interestingly, this period of stability coincided with the time when politicians were able to put German nationalism and pride aside. This attitude is epitomised in the jazz bars that began to pop up in Berlin. This reflected a culture heavily influenced by the popular culture of the United States. Unfortunately, the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the resulting Great Depression plunged Germany into uncertainty again. Many Germans looked to the Nazi Party for the answers.

German Nationalism: Hitler and the Nazi Party

Political Stability in Germany Adolf Hitler StudySmarter

Adolf Hitler, Wikimedia Commons
After some clever political manoeuvring, Adolf Hitler became the undisputed leader of Germany. He borrowed the notions of what it meant to be German already cultivated by the Kaiserreich. Bismarck's image of the "Iron Chancellor" was used, in particular, because of his popularity. The necessity of military expansion can be linked to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Both of the previous iterations of German nationalism fed into a new one where armament and carefully constructed narratives were inherited. The idea of "Pan-Germanism" allowed Hitler to talk about "Lebensraum" or "living space" as a justification for his first steps into foreign lands. He was also quick to portray himself as a fervent lover of Wagner, whose operas he had attended religiously when he lived in Vienna as a young man.

Xenophobia

The disgust and hatred of people from different countries.

What set the Nazi Party apart from the previous regimes was their xenophobia and prejudice. Hitler played on previous disdain of the British but also created a real siege mentality by blaming Germany's Jewish population for their problems within. The racially superior Aryan had to rise against the "Untermensch" or "sub-human" Slavic people, too, meaning that war in the east was also necessary. His, the most potent and alarming blend of German nationalism, led to a horrendous genocide and another lost war.

Hitler may have first encountered his notions of different races in Hans Günther's 1922 text "The Racial Science of the German People". In this book, the author characterised the German people as Aryan or Nordic. The Nazis went on to strengthen nationalism through their policies of eugenics; planned breeding to continue the "master race".

Political Stability in Germany - Key Takeaways

  • During the nineteenth century, Germany existed in various guises. The Holy Roman Empire was replaced by the German Confederation, the North German Confederation and finally, the Kaiserreich or German Empire.
  • From 1871, Wilhelm I (the first Kaiser) and Bismarck used a carefully constructed brand of nationalism to maintain control and begin to build the identity of the nation.
  • Between 1888 and 1918, the warmongering and militaristic rhetoric of Wilhelm II showed the ambition of the German Empire but made her a lot of enemies and resulted in a defeat in World War I.
  • There was a brief period of stability and growth when Germany accepted foreign aid between 1924 and 1929. Nationalism was put aside during this time.
  • Hitler and the Nazi Party used some features of previous nationalist ideals and added a fierce xenophobia and superiority complex that resulted in genocide and the loss of World War II.

References

  1. Otto Pflanze, "Bismarck and German Nationalism", The American Historical Review, Vol. 60, No. 3 (548- 566) Apr 1955.

Frequently Asked Questions about Political Stability in Germany

The German nation was created in 1871 when the previously independent 25 German states joined together to create the German Empire. 

It became unified at the Palace of Versailles in France, when princes of the German states gathered to proclaim Wilhelm I of Prussia as the German Emperor after the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War.

Germany was previously called the North German Confederation until the unification in 1871. The most prominent German state was Prussia.

The military expansionism of the 1860s from Otto von Bismarck culminating in the defeat of France in 1871 allowed Germany to become a unified country. They declared the German Empire a state in Versailles with the inauguration of Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Thanks to the openness of Chancellor Gustav Stresemann and readiness to accept aid from the United States helped the country back to its feet. Both the Dawes Plan and the less effective Young Plan enabled economic growth and provided a respite from the harsh reparations of the Treaty of Versailles. As a result, a period of stability ensued. 

Final Political Stability in Germany Quiz

Question

What event in German history marked the beginning of the First World War?

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Answer

The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser's support for the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia.

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What was the War Guilt Clause?

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  1. Germany had to accept complete responsibility for the war, losing 13% of its land and 12% of its population to the Allies. 

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What was the 1918 Revolution?


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  1. In November 1918, the Kaiser and all German ruling kings, dukes, and princes abdicated, and German nobility was abolished. On November 9, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a republic. The new government led by the German Social Democrats called for and received an armistice on 11 November. It was succeeded by the Weimar Republic. Those opposed, including disaffected veterans, joined a diverse set of paramilitary and underground political groups such as the Freikorps and the Communists.

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Why was the occupation of the Ruhr so important?


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Answer

After the French invaded the Ruhr, the German government asked the workers to cease all operations in the Ruhr until the French left. In order to keep these workers from refusing, they printed more money to pay them. This led to the hyperinflation crisis.

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What was the Young Plan?


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The Young Plan was the second renegotiation of Germany's WWI reparation payment.

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What is the Volksgemeinschaft?


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Volksgemeinschaft is a German expression meaning "people's community" This expression originally became popular during WWI as Germans rallied in support of the war, and it appealed to the idea of breaking down elitism and uniting people across class. Nazi volksgemeinschaft, however, focused on racial unity and organized hierarchically. This involved a form of 'racial soul' uniting all Germans.

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Who were the Gestapo?


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The Gestapo were the Nazis' 'secret police' and played a crucial role in Germany's internal security. Over 150,000 informants throughout the country would report any anti-Nazi feeling to the Gestapo.

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How did the Second World War end?


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World War 2 ended with the unconditional surrender of the axis powers. On 8 May 1945, the Allies accepted Germany's surrender, about a week after Hitler had committed suicide. VE Day - Victory in Europe celebrates the end of the Second World War on 8 May 1945.

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Why was Germany divided by the Allies after the war?


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There was a fear that a unified Germany could start another war, so Allies occupied key areas in order to 'keep the peace'.

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Who is credited with playing the biggest role in German reunification and why?


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Helmut Kohl. Chancellor Helmut Kohl put forward a 10 point plan to restore German unity.

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What was the RAF?

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The RAF were a far-left communist paramilitary group formed in 1968 in Germany

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Who were the key founders of the RAF?

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Andreas Baader, Horst Mahler, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Marie Meinhof.

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What were the aims of the RAF?


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To promote the spread of marxism throughout not only Germany, but the whole of Europe. They propagated a classless society that is not ruled by political governments or any other form of private ownership: everything is divided equally within a society.

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What tactics did the RAF employ in order to spread their ideology in Germany?


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Violent bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and robberies were the main tactics of the RAF during their years active.

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How prepared was the German Government to deal with the RAF?


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The German Government was not even remotely prepared to deal with the RAF. They were inexperienced in dealing with such a threat, as had been proven during the Munich olympics when Palestinian protestors took hostages, demanding Palestinian POWs were freed. Their poor handling of this situation, which resulted in hostage fatalities due to the miscalculations of the police, shows they were not prepared for a threat like the RAF.

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What was the Federal Border Guard?


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The Federal Border Guard was chosen because it was centrally-controlled and thus could prevent the debacle of the Munich Olympics through dedicated training not available to local police forces. Their job was to contain the threat of the RAF in Germany.

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Why did the RAF dissolve itself?


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The communist government in East Germany had collapsed in 1990 and the RAF felt they didn't have a good basis for their cause anymore. They announced their ceasefire in 1992 and formally disbanded in 1998, but members were still being tried after this.

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What was the German Economic Miracle?

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Answer

A period of rapid economic growth in Germany in the years immediately following WWII.

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What was wrong with Germany's economy before the 'miracle'?

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Before the economic miracle, Germany's economy was in pieces. Hyperinflation, rationing and price controls were crippling East Germany's economy in particular.

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Who was Ludwig Erhard?


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Ludwig Erhard was a politician credited with having caused the economic miracle. He is referred to as the 'father of the economic miracle'.

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Which other factors contributed to the economic miracle?


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The Marshall Plan and the Korean War.

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What impact did the Korean War have on the German Economy?


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The Korean War had a surprisingly positive effect on Germany's economy. There were many skilled workers in Germany and there was a shortage of supplies during the Korean War, which Germany created and provided.

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What was Germany like after the economic miracle?


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After the economic miracle, Germany was, despite being much better off, still not perfect. There was still the issue of inequality between East and West Germany as the Allied powers controlling each side would not allow them to mix.

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Was the Economic Miracle a real 'miracle'?


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No, the economic miracle was a carefully executed financial plan carried out by Erhard and other financial experts, who knew what needed to be done to fix the economy.

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Why was Germany divided in the first place?

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Germany had been divided by the Allies after WWII to ensure they would not be a strong enough power to instigate another war.

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What was 'Ostpolitik'?

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Ostpolitik was the opening of communication between the East and West German states.

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How did West Germans feel about the Ostpolitik policy?


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Many were unhappy with it as they saw it as surrendering and accepting the permanent division of Germany.

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What was the Basic Treaty?


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The Basic Treaty aimed to establish good neighborly relations between both German states and granted legal recognition to the German Democratic Republic.

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Why was the Basic Treaty a worry for the East German government?


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They feared that if their citizens were able to travel to the West, they would prefer the lifestyle offered under capitalism and leave permanently.

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Who was Helmut Kohl?


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Helmut Kohl was the German Chancellor from 1982 and was one of, if not the most, important figures in German reunification.

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Why did East Germany start to lose legitimacy?


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East Germans were seeing the vastly superior quality of life available in the West and were starting to leave the East through any means necessary.

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What led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989?


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Günter Schabowski, a communist functionary, mistakenly announced at a televised news conference that the government would allow East Germans unlimited passage to West Germany, effective “immediately”.

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Define the 'Empire'.

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The German Empire, also referred to as the Kaiserreich, was the period of the German Reich from the unification of Germany in 1871 until the November Revolution in 1918.

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How was the Kaiserreich initially founded?

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On 18th January 1871 when the south German states (except Austria) joined the North German Confederation.

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Why was Prussia able to visit such a dominating force in the Kaiserreich?


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Prussian dominance had also been constitutionally established, since the King of Prussia was also the German Emperor or Kaiser.

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When was the Constitution of the Empire written and what did it mean?


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The constitution came into effect on 4 May 1871. German historians often refer to it as Bismarck's imperial constitution. According to the constitution, the empire was a federation of 25 German states under the permanent Presidency of Prussia.

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Which were the three main political ideologies in Germany in this period?


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Liberalism, Conservatism, Centralism

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What did Bismarck target in order to create a strong German state?


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He targeted the Catholic Church and socialist movements.

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Why did Bismarck target the Catholic Church?


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He felt they exerted too much power over the government.

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What were the Gründerjahre or 'founders' years'? 


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A period of financial and infrastructural development in Germany.

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Who was Wilhelm I?

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Wilhelm Frederick Louis of Prussia was born in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin on 22 March 1797 and was a Prince who was not likely to take the throne.

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How did Wilhelm I become King of Prussia, despite not being next in line?

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His older brother had been rendered incapable of completing the job and so Wilhelm I ascended the throne following his brother's death, as he had borne no sons.

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Who elected Wilhelm I as the Emperor?


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The Reichstag and the Bundesrat.

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What improvements did Wilhelm I make to Germany during his time as Emperor?


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Wilhelm centralized power, built a strong military, and improved Germany's international status. It was also under his reign that Germany became one of the first modern welfare states.

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Who was Otto von Bismarck?


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Bismarck was a conservative Prussian Junker and loyal friend of the King, who became Minister President.

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Who was Emil Max Hödel?


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Emil Max Hödel was a plumber who attempted to assassinate Wilhelm I on 11 May 1878.

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Who was Wilhelm II?

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The first son of former Kaiser Wilhelm I.

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What was Wilhelm II's first mistake as Kaiser?

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Firing Bismarck and ignoring his foreign policy advice.

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What was the Daily Telegraph Affair?


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The Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 was an interview Wilhelm II gave to British newspaper the Daily Telegraph in which he angered British citizens and politicians by referring to them as “mad as march hares”.

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What quality did Wilhelm lack that had a part in leading to WWI?


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Wilhelm lacked diplomacy skills, he did not make an effort to build and maintain healthy partnerships with other leaders and favored aggressive tactics.

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