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1. Demographic and Economic Development
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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

Population Growth, Migration, Occupational Structure. We confront a paradox as soon as we try to assess why material conditions were improving for many Germans and yet, at the same time, life was also becoming less secure. Although economic opportunities were increasing and the hardware of modern technology was infiltrating workplaces and homes alike, such changes often brought unwelcome consequences: forced migration from the countryside to unfamiliar cities, job insecurity as different occupational sectors experienced booms and busts, a rising cost of living despite increases in nominal wages (D9), and the loss of traditional roots associated in one way or another with smallness of scale. Germany was urbanizing rapidly in the pre- and post-Bismarckian eras, too, but the growth of cities and the concomitant decline in the number of Germans living in rural communities – designated as those with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants – is especially pronounced during the 1870s and 1880s. Whereas almost two-thirds of the population lived in such rural communities in 1871, less than half still did so in 1895. It is impossible to overlook the extreme disparities between city and countryside caused by population shifts and urban growth rates across Germany (D1, D2, D3, D4, IM1, IM3, IM4). Without continuing emigration to America and other destinations, population growth would have been even more dramatic. Even so, it certainly seemed momentous at the time. As the problem of “pauperism” from the 1840s evolved into the “social question” of the 1860s, overcrowding in Berlin and in other large cities resulted in squalid “tenement barracks” (IM2) that epitomized the downside of freedom of movement.

Scholars used to believe that most of the Bismarckian period was afflicted by a Great Depression (1873-1896); this belief has been exposed as a myth by further research. In reality, the 1870s and 1880s were characterized by shorter periods of boom and bust; some historians use “great deflation” to describe the cumulative effect of the latter. Although some sectors suffered more severe downturns than others, the German economy as a whole continued to expand. For Germans living through these tumultuous decades, such long-term expansion was very difficult to perceive. Even brief downturns in a particular occupational branch or a local place of employment could have a devastating effect on family budgets, especially when compounded by the sickness or death of a primary wage-earner or the reduced income that came with temporary unemployment or strikes. We can identify periods when the general economy did well: the years 1866 to 1873 and the early 1880s were two such times, and there was a strong upswing during the “founding years” [Gründerzeit]. That upswing, however, was followed by a downturn after 1873, which convinced many Germans that the capitalist system was dysfunctional (see Chapter 3). Indeed, there is merit in Hans Rosenberg’s thesis, advanced in the 1940s, that socio-economic dislocation and anxiety shaped the radical political movements that came to the fore in the period 1873-96. In stark contrast with the 1850s and 1860s, on the one hand, and the period of broader and more sustained prosperity between 1896 and 1913, on the other, Germans sensed that they were living through unprecedented hard times in the 1870s and 1880s. That sense of hardship contributed to their growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in the second half of Bismarck’s term of office.

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