The German empire, or Kaiserreich, lasted from 1871 to 1918 and was the first unified iteration of a modern Germany. Unwaveringly ambitious in its aims for world domination, the Kaiserreich ultimately led itself into a suicidal war to feed this desire. What was the Kaiserreich and how did this short-lived German empire rise and fall so spectacularly?

Kaiserreich Kaiserreich

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Table of contents

    Kaiserreich map

    The Kaiserreich spanned modern-day Germany and much of modern-day Poland in Europe. It consisted of federal states. The most influential of these was Prussia, the kingdom from which the Emperor or Kaiser came. Berlin was the capital of the German Kaiserreich and had been the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. The southern German Kingdom of Bavaria was another large federal state. Alsace-Lorraine had been part of France since the 17th century but was incorporated into Germany in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War. The North German Confederation led by Prussia, with its ally Bavaria, had defeated France and annexed Alsace-Lorraine, and King Wilhelm of Prussia became Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Alsace-Lorraine was not given the autonomy to make its own laws, and Germany was forced to return it to France in 1919, following World War I.

    The German word "Kaiser", meaning "emperor", from which we get "Kaiserrech", comes from the Latin "Caesar". The Russian word "Tsar" or "Czar" also comes from Caesar.

    Presence in Africa

    The unification of the Kaiserreich coincided with the "Scramble of Africa" between Western European powers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Whilst the British and the French had a large presence on the continent, the Kaiserreich also harboured colonial ambitions and colonised some key countries, as exemplified below. The three main areas of control were German West Africa (modern-day Cameroon and parts of modern-day Togo), German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania) and German Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia).

    Constitution of the Kaiserreich

    The Kaiserreich was made up of several power structures. It was a federal constitution whereby local governments and a Prince presided over each state. Each German state could make its own laws, but matters of national interest and real significance lay with the Kaiser. Let's examine some features of the constitution of the Kaiserreich and the issues that they presented to the empire.

    The Emperor or Kaiser was the figurehead of Kaiserreich. He controlled the army and foreign policy and chose the Chancellor.Both Kaiser Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II came from Prussia. As a result, the Prussian noblemen (Junkers) often held sway over them and they had little interest in the rest of the country, particularly the southern states.
    The Chancellor ran the Reichstag (parliament) and presided over the Bundesrat (council of representatives).As the Kaiser chose the Chancellor, the Chancellor had to be careful not to upset him. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's measured approach was successful under Wilhelm I, but opposed by Wilhelm II and he was forced to resign from his post in 1890.
    The Bundesrat was the council of 58 representatives from each of the 25 states in Kaiserreich. They had the power to approve or block laws. Prussian influence dominated the Bundesrat. 17 of the 58 representatives were from Prussia, and they only required 14 votes to stop a law from being passed. The Junkers permeated the legal system. They were self-serving and out of touch with the rest of the empire.
    The Reichstag was the parliament of the Kaiserreich. It numbered 397 seats and voted on laws proposed by the Bundesrat.As the Bundesrat could approve laws and there was a strong Prussian section that could halt change, there was little scope for the Bundestag to have any meaningful role within the government.

    Flag of the Kaiserreich

    The Kaiserreich employed different flags for different occasions, but the Reich war flag is perhaps the most interesting in providing an insight into the aims and values of the empire.

    Kaiserreich Kaiserreich war flag StudySmarterFig. 3 - Kaiserreich war flag

    A combination of the Prussian coat of arms with the black eagle and the cross and red-white-black colours of the medieval Hanseatic League in the top left corner.

    The Hanseatic League was a medieval group of merchants and defence forces that resided in northern Europe and across the Baltic sea from the 14th century onwards. It was one of the first prominent European trade alliances and left a lasting legacy, not only in the Kaiserreich but also in London. During its height, the trade route stretched across Northern Europe from Kings Lynn in England to Novgorod in Russia. In the City of London, there is still a street called Hanseatic Walk, and it is believed that the League were routinely responsible for 15% of English imports and exports.1

    The choice of the Hanseatic League and the Prussian empire is significant and was an early harbinger of the Kaiserreich's intent to expand her empire at all costs. The military strength of the Prussians, who had defeated the French before the German Empire's unification, dovetailed with the enterprise and trading nous of the Hanseatic League. This created the perfect image of a nation with unlimited ambitions.

    The Goal of the Kaiserreich

    We have just mentioned that the Kaiserreich was ambitious. As the twentieth century began, it was largely a success story. It boasted the largest economy in continental Europe and had gained respect as a scientific hub with many Nobel Prize winners. However, what was perhaps most emblematic of the desire for the Reich to grow even further was its competition with Britain to build dreadnoughts.

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain was the largest empire in the world. A nation with ambition such as the Kaiserreich would thus do well to learn the lessons of its success. Much of the effectiveness of the British empire was down to their Navy and abilities at sea. So when they built the first HMS Dreadnought in 1906, it revolutionised maritime battleships. The central weapon was particularly impressive.

    In addition, the engine meant that she could reach a speed hitherto unachieved by battleships. Engaging in a Naval Arms Race with the British from the 1890s, The Kaiserreich built their own dreadnought in 1907 out of fear of its superiority. By the eve of World War I in 1914, Britain had 22, while the German Reich had five.

    Kaiserreich HMS Dreadnought StudySmarterFig. 4 - HMS Dreadnought

    The Schlieffen Plan

    As a response to the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894, in 1906, Chief of German General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen drew up a plan to deal with the possibility of attacks from the west and the east. He left office shortly after, and the plan was subtly altered by his successor Helmut von Moltke the Younger (whose father, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, had won the Franco-Prussian War). It perfectly demonstrated the flawed ambition of the Kaiserreich and was a large factor in Germany's ultimate defeat in World War I. Here is why it failed in 1914:

    • The plan specified German attacks on the French first, whose borders would be avoided by marching through neutral Belgium and the Netherlands, but it predicted that the French could be defeated in six weeks.
    • They were not as weak as the Germans hoped and were aided by the British, who honoured their 1839 Treaty of London with Belgium and intervened when the Kaiserreich entered Belgium.
    • As a result, Allied soldiers outnumbered the Germans, and the Germans got bogged down in trench warfare along the Western Front in France and Belgium.
    • The Schlieffen Plan also assumed a slow and unprepared Russia, which was recovering from its military humiliation by Japan in 1905. It predicted that the Russians would take six weeks to mobilise their troops whilst they quickly defeated a weak French army and used the rail network to go to the Eastern border.
    • In fact, Russia mobilised its forces and attacked East Prussia in ten days.
    • Even though the Russians were forced back, Germany was now outnumbered on two fronts and was fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

    As we can see, the Schlieffen Plan was ill-conceived but showed the ambition of the Kaiserreich. It truly wanted to become the biggest colonial power in the world. It would go on to pay the price, and by the end of the war, the Geman Empire went extinct.

    The Collapse of the Kaiserreich


    The willing surrender of a king or queen of their royal office.


    A leadership model where one person or a small group hold all the power without the constraints of a government.


    A process where one country asks another for a person to return to their original country to stand trial and be sentenced for their crimes.


    A person with extreme political views. Extremist groups after World War I included the Spartacists and the Freikorps.

    Despite the fact that it was doomed from the start, the Kaiserreich continued to fight their miscalculated war for four years until 1918. From 1916, Kaiser Wilhelm II was essentially absent due to his mental state, and the kingdom was effectively under the stewardship of a military dictatorship. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff ran the German war effort in place of him. By 1918, the country was in disarray. There was a naval mutiny at Kiel, and finally, Ludendorff surrendered in September.

    Kaiserreich Wilhelm II StudySmarterFig. 5 - Kaiser Wilhelm II

    Underlining the lack of autonomy of the Kaiser by the end, his abdication was announced on 9 November 1918 before he had even agreed to it. He fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his remaining years, sheltered from extradition. The political turmoil that the defeat left behind lasted until the next year. Extremists fought on the street but eventually, the Social Democrats became the dominant force and drew up a new constitution at Weimar. Germany became a republic in 1919, with Friedrich Ebert as the first leader. The Kaiserreich was well and truly over.

    The Kaiserreich - Key takeaways

    • The Kaiserreich began in 1871 after the unification of states following the Franco-Prussian war. It lasted until 1918 when Germany lost World War I.
    • The constitution put power in the hands of the Kaiser and Junkers; the Chancellor and the government had little ability to make laws.
    • The war flag of the Kaiserreich signalled its intent: to be a colonial world superpower.
    • At the start of the twentieth century, the Kaiserreich engaged in a Naval Arms Race with Britain and drafted the Schlieffen Plan for an expansion in Europe on two fronts.
    • The execution of this plan was a disaster and resulted in defeat, humiliation and the end of the Kaiserreich.


    1. Chris Morris, "Hanseatic League: The first European Union?", BBC News. (2020)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kaiserreich

    Where did the power lie in the Kaiserreich?

    In the Kaiserreich the power lay with the Kaiser who directed foreign policy and had the ability to appoint or dismiss a Chancellor.

    Why did the Kaiserreich collapse?

    The Kaiserreich collapsed because of the ambitious and aggressive Schlieffen Plan to fight a European war on two fronts. After losing the war Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands.

    Why did Germany lose World War I?

    Germany lost World War I because it underestimated the French, British and the Russians and was arrogant in the belief in their own military power and alliances.

    Why was Germany often known as the Kaiserreich?

    Germany was referred to as the Kaiserreich because it was a kingdom or "Reich" ruled by the Kaiser.

    How long did the Kaiserreich last?

    The Kaiserreich lasted from 1871 until 1918.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Victory in which war was followed by the establishment of the Kaiserreich?

    Which modern-day African country did the Kaiserreich NOT have a presence in?

    Who lost their job due to pressure from Kaiser Wilhelm II?


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