Whether or not Germany's leaders resorted to war in 1914 in the hopes of uniting the country, the results of the ensuing conflict were catastrophic. Paradoxically, the war did unite all Germans in a great national experience, but the experience itself exacerbated the social, cultural, and political tensions that had vexed Wilhelmine Germany in peacetime. The country was not prepared to fight a long war, for it was outmatched in basic resources by the coalition that took the field against it. The wrenching effort to mobilize domestic resources kept German armies in the field for more than four years, and it also resulted in such dislocation, privation, and corruption at home that the authority of the Wilhelmine state itself was called into question. The defeat of the German armies in the fall of 1918 dashed the hopes of those who had counted on a great victory, in the calculation that it would ratify the existing structures of power and restore domestic comity. Defeat was sealed instead in political collapse, revolution, and civil war.
Whatever the place of Wilhelmine Germany in the history of National Socialism, the significance of the war is difficult to exaggerate. Even its alleged benefits, such as the emancipation of women and the political integration of most of the Social Democratic labor movement (to say nothing of the birth of the German Communist Party), now appear to have been ambivalent. In George Kennan's famous formulation, the war was the twentieth century's "seminal catastrophe." To the German republican government that took shape in 1918, it bequeathed a crushing legacy of civil conflict and national humiliation.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Roger Chickering. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918. Cambridge, 2004.
Fritz Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegszielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914-1918 [Grasping at World Power: The War Aims Policy of Germany under the Kaiser 1914-1918]. Düsseldorf, 1961.
Holger Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918. London, 1997.
Peter Graf Kielmannsegg, Deutschland und der Erste Weltkrieg [Germany and the First World War]. Frankfurt am Main, 1968.
Fritz Klein, et al, Deutschland im Ersten Weltkrieg [Germany in the First World War]. 3 vols., Berlin, 1968-9.
Wolfgang Michalka, ed., Der Erste Weltkrieg: Wirkung, Wahrnehmung, Analyse [The First World War: Impact, Cognition, Analysis]. Munich and Zurich, 1994.
Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Die Urkatastrophe Deutschlands: Der Erste Weltkrieg 1914-1918 [Germany’s Greatest Catastrophe: The First World War 1914-1918]. Stuttgart, 2002.