When compared with the revolutionary excitement of 1848/49 or the horrors of trench warfare in 1914-18, the Bismarckian era can seem drab, an age of equipoise when conformity and compliance were the first duty of the citizen. Certainly, Bismarck scored stunning military and diplomatic victories between 1866 and 1871, but his later years in office have been characterized as a period of “fortification” – not exactly an exciting interpretive key either. But to look beneath the surface calm of Bismarckian Germany is to see quite a different picture, one shot through with contradictions, conflicts, and crises. Contradictions resulted from attempts both to entrench and to extend the international and constitutional agreements achieved at the time of unification. Conflict was inevitable when the effects of rapid economic, social, cultural, and political change became self-reinforcing and as a younger generation of Germans sought new challenges to match the great deeds of their fathers. Crises arose whenever Bismarck felt his authority in jeopardy. How do we assess the causes, consequences, and historical significance of all this turmoil?
A preliminary hypothesis, which readers are encouraged to test against the documents and images included in this volume, is that the German Empire was forged in ways that embedded features of a modernizing economy, society, and culture within the framework of an authoritarian polity. This is not a new proposition. Moreover, it is easy to be too categorical in applying the labels “modern” and “authoritarian,” so that everything before 1866 is deemed un-modern and everything after 1890 hypermodern. Many features of German politics after 1866 were more democratic than those in other European nations at the time. Conversely, traditional elements are easily discernable in social relations, the arts, and certain sectors of the industrial economy. Nevertheless, the anvil of tradition and the hammer of modernity allowed Bismarck and other reformist conservatives to mold German authoritarianism into new and durable forms. As a consequence of decisions made (or skirted) in the founding era [Gründerzeit], Imperial Germany was encumbered by barriers to political reform, and those barriers closed off or constrained opportunities to avoid a German fascism in the twentieth century. Despite the ascendancy of bourgeois codes of conduct and the rapid expansion of industrial capitalism, Socialists, Catholics, Poles, Jews, and other out-groups were subject to social discrimination or overt persecution by the state. Science and technology were harnessed to the interests of military firepower, colonial expansion, and the domination of world markets. Women’s demands for equal rights found little resonance. And one charismatic leader exercised near-dictatorial control over his ministerial colleagues, party leaders, and the entire system of state.