Agriculture, Industry, Commerce. After the mid-1870s, German agriculture experienced increased competition from foreign producers. For example, grain from the North American prairies, Australia, and Russia could now reach German markets at prices that pushed owners of large estates in the Prussian east into debt or bankruptcy. Yet technological innovations such as the introduction of steam-powered threshing machines in the countryside (IM5, IM6) contributed to overall increases in the productivity of German agriculture. To be sure, growth rates in mining, industry, and commerce outstripped those of German agriculture, especially from the mid-1870s onward. But we should be careful not to exaggerate the speed of Germany’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial state (the tipping point is generally regarded as c.1900). It makes more sense, as Klaus Bade has argued, to speak of a gradual change from an agrarian state with a strong industrial sector (especially during the Bismarckian era) to an industrial state with a strong agrarian sector after the turn of the century (D5, D6).
In the first decade covered by this volume, the engine of German industrialization was still railway construction and the large-scale mining, iron-rolling, and other industries that sustained it (D7, D8). Small workshops had not disappeared, even though the exclusive rights of the guilds had been breached in most German states in the early 1860s through freedom of occupation legislation (D10, IM7). The huge factories that we associate with the era of high capitalism were still rare in the 1870s. In 1882 more than half of all heavy industry enterprises had a workforce of no more than five employees (IM8). Nevertheless, by the 1880s technological innovations were changing the face of industrial production: now precision machinery, steel, tool-making, and – somewhat later – the emergence of the petro-chemical and electrical industries shifted the German economy onto new paths. Commerce and banking also expanded greatly in these years. The documents and images in this section describe the introduction of gas motors (D11), changes in the construction industry (D12), the transition from horse-drawn to electric trolleys (D14, D15), and the introduction of electric lights, telephones, and automobiles (D16, D17, IM10, IM11, IM12). Such progress in transportation and urban infrastructure contributed to the further growth of cities: workers were able to live further from city centers and still travel rapidly to and from their shifts with public transportation. They also fueled a recognizable consumer culture that drew the worlds of industry, commerce, and everyday life closer together. By the late 1880s, advertisers trumpeted and ordinary Germans marveled at the modern conveniences that had changed their daily routines (IM10, IM11). Scientists, inventors, and explorers believed that the age of discovery was being realized through German know-how (IM14, IM15), and poets wrote paeans to technical progress (D18).