Austria-Hungary; it also fueled restless aggression among a younger generation drawn to Pan-Germanism. Bismarck’s own policies contributed to the German public’s rapturous reception of the most stirring line in his last major Reichstag speech of February 1888 – “We Germans fear God and nothing else in the world!” (IM9) – and their utter neglect of his peaceful intentions (D16, D17, IM9, IM10, IM11). By 1889, Bismarck was ready, on both the domestic and diplomatic fronts, to take previously unacceptable leaps in the dark to preserve his own authority in office. Hence, readers should consider both the virtues and the flaws of Bismarck’s foreign policy, from two perspectives: over the longue durée and with careful attention to the divergent assessments voiced by contemporaries who basked in the glow or felt the sting of his statecraft.
The Prussian Officer Corps and Militarism. In the process of forging an empire, the sword of victory was wielded by the Prussian army. Yet among today’s historians the role of the military in Imperial Germany has become a very contentious issue. Exactly what linkage should we draw, for example, between the Prussian victory over Austria in July 1866 and Bismarck’s successful whipping-through parliament, just two months later, of a bill (D9) “indemnifying” him for disregarding the liberal opposition? As the documents and images in this section illustrate, the heavy symbolism that accompanied the proclamation of the empire in the palace of Louis XIV in January 1871 was not accidental. At that event, the trappings of military power so overwhelmed everything else that when Anton von Werner, commissioned to paint the scene, entered the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, one Prussian officer exclaimed, “What is that civilian doing in here?” But did the annual Sedan Day festivities (D10) commemorating the defeat of France reflect a new chauvinism among the German populace? Or were they more meaningful as occasions for local communities to celebrate the social and cultural ties that bound them together? Was the same bonding experience evident when veterans of the wars of unification and others who had been conscripted after 1871 gathered at the “regulars’ table” [Stammtisch] in the local tavern to discuss their real or imagined memories of wartime service? (D11)
Even more open to debate is the degree to which the social ethos of the Prussian officer corps infused German society. This debate revolves around the meaning of the term “social militarism,” which has eluded clear definition. We discover the importance that both Kaiser Wilhelm I and his grandson placed on the social ethos of Prussian officers (D12, D14). By the time Wilhelm II ascended the throne in 1888, it was already evident that the ancient Prussian nobility could no longer supply the number of socially privileged and politically “reliable” recruits needed by a modern army. The Kaiser made a virtue of necessity. He decreed that a new “nobility of spirit” would ensure the continued respect shown to the officers’ corps by German society (D13, D15, IM7, IM8). Although historians no longer believe that popular acceptance of the military’s elevated status in society signified the “feudalization” of the bourgeoisie, this issue continues to elicit debate.