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The German Empire was established in 1871 as a federation of states under a constitutional monarchy. The Prussian king Wilhelm I, as German emperor, became the head of the state. In his function as chancellor, Otto von Bismarck tried to secure the Empire’s position through a policy of European alliances. Domestically his aim was to stabilize the new empire by means of an authoritarian government while preserving the societal equilibrium.

In 1888 Wilhelm II became emperor. Initially he supported social and political reforms, but rejected the idea of democratizing the Empire. Around the turn of the century an economic upsurge enabled entrepreneurs and those of the educated middle class to become part of a new elite, but it also covered over serious conflicts on the domestic front. Attempts to incorporate the working class and Social Democrats into the state were thwarted by the resistance of agrarian, industrial and middle-class interests. Nationalism, the drive for economic expansion and social unrest produced a climate in which peace was increasingly experienced as a limitation.

In 1914 power political clashes in Europe, along with the arms race, led to the First World War. Hopes for a rapid victory were demolished in the barrages of trench warfare. In 1918 Germany surrendered and Wilhelm II had to abdicate the throne.