The first theme considers both preferences for stasis and motives for reforming the existing order. Which economic structures, social relationships, cultural attitudes, and political institutions from 1871 remained in place in 1890 – or, for that matter, in 1918? By parsing these texts and examining the details of these images, we can inquire into Germans’ subjective reactions to stability and change in their personal and public lives.
The second theme overlaps with the first one. It concerns the tension between authority and protest. Was the principle of authority on display every September 2nd when Germans celebrated the origins of their empire in the crucible of war? Was revolution the clarion call that inspired a wave of strikes, lockouts, and other labor disputes in the final years of Bismarck’s chancellorship? In the documents, we find that representatives of the authoritarian German state – emboldened by the support of elites and others who feared that the pace of change was getting out of hand – were able to erect many barriers to a more equitable distribution of wealth, privilege, and power. We also encounter a surprising number of Germans who were challenging and seeking to overturn such barriers, questioning fundamental assumptions about how authority should be legitimated and deployed. These Germans devised or resurrected forms of political, social, and cultural protest that we typically associate with earlier or later periods of German history – with the age of Romanticism, for example, with the revolutions of 1848/49, or with Expressionism, Pan-Germanism, and anarchism in the early years of the twentieth century. In this volume, however, we grapple with the paradox that authoritarianism actually fostered and radicalized expressions of protest in Bismarck’s Germany, too.
The third theme focuses on Germany in its remarkable regional diversity. This diversity cannot be reduced to a center-periphery polarity. To be sure, we often encounter the skeptical views of Germans who felt distant from and alienated by social, cultural, and political developments in the new imperial capital, Berlin. But we must not neglect the extreme geographical unevenness of industrial development, religious affiliations, and regional political cultures across the federal states and provinces of Germany. Only if we abandon the perspective of political leaders in Berlin and explore the back-roads of German history can we properly apprehend the interconnectedness of local, regional, and national affairs. And only then can we appreciate the diversity of outlooks among taxpayers, churchgoers, conscripts, employees, newspaper readers, and others who saw themselves primarily as Leipzigers, Rhinelanders, or Bavarians and as Germans only secondarily.