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To what extent was rapid economic growth the cause of divisions within Wilhelmine Germany 1890-1914?

In Wilhelmine II’s Germany, society was extremely hierarchal. By 1890 Germany had already completed the ‘take-off’ into sustained economic growth and industries such as coal, iron and textiles increased output by over 25%, leading the way in Germany’s mass industrialisation. This caused Germany’s net national product to rise from 23,676,000,000 (marks) in 1890 to 51,563,000,000 in 1912 and a population growth of 15 million over 20 years. Though this economic growth led to changes in terms of the structure of the Labour force and created new classes such as the industrial bourgeoisie, Germany still remained divided over inherent class divisions. Class divisions were furthered by the economic growth, creating a new class of the Industrial Bourgeoisie and neglecting traditional workers; with divisions in religion, regional and national identity continuing to be very powerful influences that cut across all classes of society.

The political structure of Germany emphasised the divisions caused by Bismarck’s constitution, particularly the lower houses of German parliament: the Reichstag. The Reichstag had influence over areas such as financial affairs and the constitutional position of the Reichstag meant that the Kaiser required their support to pass government legislation.. Known as the ‘lower house’ of parliament, it was made up of a group of representatives, consisting of 8 major political parties, elected every five years by men over the age of 25 in a secret ballot. Though this balloting system showed relative equality allowing all males to vote, in reality the make up of the Reichstag was corrupted. In 1878 under Bismarck laws had been introduced that aimed to curb the socialists (including outlawing the Social Democratic party) reducing left-wing power and therefore the government could rely on the backing of the right wing: Deutschkonservative Partei (German Conservative party) and the Nationalliberable Partei (National Liberal party who despite their name were becoming increasingly conservative in their policies). However Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation was abolished in 1890 and the SPD’s influence rose rapidly, for in the 1887 election the Conservative parties in total won 48% of the vote and 220 seats, however by 1912 their share of the vote had fallen further to 26% and 102 seats, less than half which showed that traditional support for the imperial government was slowly being eroded, increasing the problem of finding majority support to ratify legislation, to enable the passing of laws.

In reality the Reichstag were an example of the Second Reich’s ‘sham democracy’ for they could only discuss and agree to legislation, however laws would be ultimately passed without their consent. This as well as no wages for MP’s , allowed only a certain class of citizens to apply and by not allowing members to apply for governmental positions unless they resigned their seat from the Reichstag, ensured the ranks of Germany’s parliament remained elitist.

The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party) were a German Marxist party, who stood for the trade unionists and the working class. Outlawed until 1890 by anti-socialist legislation in Bismarck’s constitution, support for the Socialist Democratic party increased from 10.1% of the vote gaining 2.8% (11) of the seats in 1890 to 34.8% and 27.7% (110) by 1912. This sizeable political rise, in what were once relatively minor parties, for the socialist Deutsche Fressinage Partei (the German free thought parties) percentage of the ballot, dramatically increased from 35 seats in the Reichstag in 1890 to 110 seats in 1912, demonstrated that by 1912, traditional ‘imperialist’ rule of the Kaiser was coming to a gradual end and Germany was becoming far more democratic. However, though the parties remained committed to bringing about revolutionary changes in society and National unification fulfilled the main political vision, from 1893 onwards the left Liberals were divided into at least three factions. Trade Unionists believed in a policy of advancing slowly and that gradual reform was the best tactic in creating a democratic society. These unionists believed that parliamentary reforms, which improved living and working conditions, represented progress towards improving the lives of working people. Whereas traditional Marxists thoroughly disapproved of this approach since it involved cooperation with the Bourgeoisie. Not only were these political divisions present within individual parties they divided the Reichstag as a whole between those who wished to see no change in the existing order and those who wanted the creation of a truly parliamentary democracy, in which the government was directly responsible to the Reichstag not the Kaiser.

One of the earliest causes for divisions to emerge in Wilhelmine Germany was Weltpolitik. German landowners who dominated the government believed that through the development of a larger navy, Germany could pursue colonial expansion, making Germany the centre of a major empire, uniting all political groupings (except the SPD) in German society, termed Weltpolitik. Up to 1909 Weltpolitik did win support for the government, however in that year facing a major financial crisis (over naval building) money needed to be obtained. This could have either been through; increasing taxes on the rich or sales tax. By opting for an increase in sales tax the govern lost the support of the Catholic Centre party and Liberals causing the SDP and other anti-government parties to win seats in the Reichstag and right wing parties to fare badly. After 15 years of attempting Weltpoiltik had failed to achieve an empire instead, Germany felt encircled not only by hostile great powers but also lost crucial support from the German citizens and in turn the Reichstag.

Wilhelmine Germany’s fault lines were exposed the Zabern incident of 1913. A German army officer Lieutenant Von-Forstner stationed at Zabern in Alsace ordered recruits to respond violently if attacked by local civilians, whom he referred to in the as the derogatory ‘Wackes’. When news of the Lieutenants order leaked into the press and led to local demonstration the army responded violently. Though experiencing less prosperous times as agriculture (old industries) were in relative decline and landowners who refused to modernize production methods and were likely to find that they were financially under threat, the army was formed predominantly of Junkers. The Junkers, otherwise coined as the ‘highest’ ranking class in this period, still regarded their social status as a right and proper reflection of their social superiority built up over many generations, and stood by it’s men. Von Forstner originally given a reprimand, akin to a mere slap on the wrist for the original ‘Wackes’ incident, was subsequently to the pleasure of the SDP, court martialled yet acquitted, demonstrating the view that the army was ‘a state within a state’ only accountable to the emperor.

The political influence of the army was overshadowed by an outward appearance of civilian rule. The Zabern incident also weakened the political relations between the emperor and the Reichstag. A wave of protest broke out across Germany with demonstrations orchestrated by the Social Democratic Party, who argued ‘The events in Zabern have developed into an enormous scandal…the highest official of the Empire is entirely powerless in the face of the military…Our military is entirely independent a separate power in the State’. The Vorwarts article is almost entirely accurate for when Wilhelm II sided with the army as commander in chief, at no point in the entire controversy did he consult the chancellor, creating not only divisions between political groupings but one at the highest level of government. It also highlighted the powerlessness of the Reichstag who censured Bethmann-Hollweg (chancellor) and demanded his resignation but the emperor simply ignored their demands, making the Reichstag seem to weak to impose its will on the government, even when it had majority public support.

On the one hand there were the democrats-the left liberals and the SPD on the other the authoritarian-Kaiser, the army and the Junkers with supportive right wing pressure groups, criticizing or supporting Wilhelm. However though Social divisions played a significant role in initially instigating divisions within Wilhelmine Germany, what furthered these divisions was Germany’s high and sustained rate of industrial growth from 1890-1914. Germany’s rapid industrial growth was the dominant feature of the European landscape through the period 1890-1914, the number of people working in industry overtook those in agriculture by 1890. By 1912 Germany was producing 2,260 kilograms of wheat per hectare on rivalry with the USA and was outputting 222.2 tonnes of coal, which led to the economy developing on a large scale and the government implementing a protectionist policy of high tariffs on imports. High tariffs led to other European governments retaliating and imposing their own, on German produce, which led to a depression in the agricultural sector and manufacturers who were producing surplus for Germany’s population.

These tariffs however they benefited the landowners and the elites in persevering their incomes and hence their social status. Germany overtook Britain as Europe’s number one industrial superpower in 1914. In 1895 a mere 7.52% of the labour force was working in industry, compared with 10.82% just 18 years later, also shown in industries such as mining rising from 0.43% to 0.86. This rapid growth was unprecedented in Europe, bar Britain and it’s empire, which it was rivaling. One of the most significant factors in these figure increases was Germany’s rapid population expansion tripling from 49 million in1890 to 65 million in 1914. Despite this financial divisions remained. Granted freedom from state control in the constitution, Germany’s banking system expanded enormously.

Banks pursued a policy of providing generous and long-term loans and encouraged the development of cartels, an organization that limits the number of firms and restricts the amount of a product produced. Although this reduced overproduction and encouraged investment, furthering economic development, in reality not only was completion reduced but products retained artificially high prices excluding those of the Working classes and increasing inflation. This rapid economic growth also warped the social structure of Wilhelmine Germany, with 32.5% of the population living in towns and cities in 1890 compared with 60% by 1910. In 1871 only 8 towns had more than 100,00 inhabitants by 1910, 48 accounting for 21.3% of the population.

This increase stemmed from the growth in industries including textiles and the pioneering new energy source that was electricity, nonetheless did not come without shortcomings. Overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions became significant issues in many towns, leading to a lack of clean water and causing outbreaks of cholera. In 1892 alone, 8,600 died from Cholera over a ten-week period. This was not the only problem facing those who moved into the city, another major issue was homelessness, for there was not enough accommodation to house Germany’s booming urban population. The cycle of unemployment was dictated by the cycle of the economy, and one in very three workers in any year in the period 1900-1914 experienced some form of underemployment. Officially unemployment rose from 1.35 million in 1882 to 3.45 million in 1907 causing the Berlin homeless shelter to accommodate on average, 200,000 men a year after 1900.

In conclusion, though economic expansion highlighted these disunions it was fact the German constitution that was the greatest cause for divisions in Wilhelmine Germany. German society was ‘pillarised’ in the sense that an assortment of different, compartmentalized clases and groups all supported the state and monarchy without having much else in common. The industrial revolution that took place in Germany altered the voting structure and political make up of German parliament, increasing the influence of socialist parties who the people felt represented them and not the conservative elites, who represented the Junkers which made ratifying legislation a more arduous task for the Reichstag and in turn the Kaiser with different parties conflicting opinions. Incidents such as the Zabern incident, were decisive in causing further divisions between those who
supported the constitution and those who wished to see a truly parliamentary democracy.

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