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2. Society
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Overview: Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866-1890   |   1. Demographic and Economic Development   |   2. Society   |   3. Culture   |   4. Religion, Education, Social Welfare   |   5. Politics I: Forging an Empire   |   6. Military and International Relations   |   7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization

Wistfulness over the disappearance of social estates and mixed feelings about the new significance of class relations can be discerned in the images of the day. They document the distances of time and space separating a midday meal of itinerant laborers in Thuringia (IM1) from a Sunday afternoon stroll by upper-middle-class burghers on Dresden’s famed Brühlsche Terrasse (the “balcony of Europe”) (IM2). Satirical journals poked fun at the new pretensions that became evident as these class divisions widened. They noted, for instance, that claims to represent “the people” were often put forward by the most privileged and narrow of social elites (IM3). The hunt for decorations and titles continued to animate burghers eager to rub shoulders with courtiers and the very rich (D4, D5, IM4, IM5). And successful industrialists like Alfred Krupp and Carl von Stumm did their best to import hierarchies of status and authority (D7, D8, D11, D12) into the fabric of workplace relations on the shop floor. Bankers, lawyers, professors, and other members of the propertied and educated bourgeoisie added to the clamor for social prestige (D9, D10, D13, D14, IM4, IM5, IM7, IM9). This newly acquisitive society horrified the novelist Theodor Fontane (D6, IM6), who remarked on the paradox that the ubiquity of status-seeking and one-upmanship actually had a leveling effect on society as a whole.

Other leveling influences included near-universal literacy; the rise of a mass press; increasing access for middle-class youths to secondary schools, universities, and institutes of technology; the pervasiveness of consumer culture; and the general rise in the proportion of family incomes available for discretionary expenditures after payment of essential food, clothing, and housing costs. For the working classes, discretionary income rose from about 40 percent of family income in the 1870s to 55 percent in the 1890s. Among these leveling influences, education [Bildung] came to be seen as the most important means for overcoming barriers to advancement in urban and rural areas alike. New modes of transportation and communication, too, carried discontents from one sphere to the other and offered the prospect of escape when such discontents became too severe to bear. Over an extended period of time and with great variations among regions, the social and institutional constraints that had made life harsh, static, or isolated before 1866 loosened or disappeared. The levels of geographical and social mobility achieved in the 1870s indicated that there was no turning back from a dynamic society that had still seemed distant to revolutionaries in 1848/49.

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