The Great Powers of World War I — Germany’s Revolution

From the lecture series: World War I — The "Great War"

Germany’s rise as a Great Power during the turn of the century is a story complete with revolution, political upheaval, unstable leaders, and generals dancing in tutus.

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, PhD, University of Tennessee
A composite image of Wilhelm II with German generals. (Image: Unknown/Library of US Congress)

Otto von Bismarck was a peerless practitioner of Realpolitika German phrase often translated in English as power politics. As the chief servant of the royal family of Prussia, the Hohenzollerns, Bismarck carefully engineered German unification around a hard-core of Prussian militarism in a succession of wars against Austria in 1866, and then against France, sealing the establishment of the German Empire. This new, young Germany had become, at a stroke, from 1870 to 1871, the strongest power on the continent. It was endowed with proud Prussian militarist traditions. It had an enormous and growing population of 65 million, and its booming economy likewise made it an industrial powerhouse in a new surge of industrial revolution.

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), Chancellor of Germany, known as the Iron chancellor, ca. 1880
Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The creation of this German Empire was of such importance to international affairs, the contemporaries had to struggle with the question of how to come to terms with this new political fact. Indeed, where earlier one had had essentially a power vacuum at the center of Europe, there was this new principal in power politics. Contemporaries at the time spoke of this unprecedented event as the “German Revolution.” By calling it this, they were placing it on a par with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century that had overturned the political order.

This is a transcript from the video series World War I: The “Great War”. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

The German Question

The German Question was essentially a way of asking what role would this new Germany play in European affairs. Would it be an anchor of European stability; or would it be a factor for instability, chaos, and perhaps war?

This, in international terms, was a fact that needed to be dealt with. The German Revolution had produced what contemporaries called, the “German Question.” The German Question, which continued to haunt international politics through much of the 20th century, was essentially a way of asking what role would this new Germany play in European affairs. Would it be an anchor of European stability; or would it be a factor for instability, chaos, and perhaps war? 

Otto von Bismarck, an international politician of enormous sophistication, also had to deal with the German Question. He dealt with it in part by trying to calm the potential fears of other Great Powers, partially, to ensure that Germany wouldn’t face a hostile coalition of powers balancing off against its perceived threat. He aimed to reassure the other Great Powers that Germany had only peaceful intentions. Bismarck’s principle was to present Germany at all junctures as a satisfied power that had what it wanted, that was satiated, and that now after being a revolutionary factor in international politics would become a conservative in international politics.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, c. 1914
Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruled the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from June 1888 to November 1918. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The Ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm II

These cautious policies, these attempts to calm the fears, potential fears, of neighbors were simply too mild a policy prescription for the young emperor—the word in German is Kaiser—by the name of Wilhelm II, who ascended to the throne in 1888. He objected to Bismarck’s attempts to calm other powers, and instead insisted on a far more energetic policy. He soon dismissed Bismarck in 1890 and set about crafting a far more assertive approach to international politics. His slogan was announced with the words, “full steam ahead.”

Under his control, nobody was sure exactly what the course would be, but it was clear that it would be fast and aggressive. A few words about the remarkable personality of Wilhelm II would be in place here. He was, on the one hand, the descendent of a long and distinguished aristocratic line, the royal family of the House of Prussia, the family of Hohenzollern. He was also, as it turns out, the grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. This speaks volumes about the interrelated kinship networks between the royal families of Europe.

Learn more about the “Great War’s” legacy for both America and for the world

Unfortunate Characteristics

But Wilhelm II distinguished himself also by many other unfortunate characteristics. He was notoriously emotionally unstable. He was given to macho posturing and extremely aggressive language. In famous newsreels from this period, his figure is always quickly picked out from a crowd of aristocrats because he is the one who is gesturing with wide, dramatic, and aggressive gestures, even when engaged in making small talk with fellow aristocrats.

According to historians who place a lot of store by personal psychology, Wilhelm II’s physical infirmity, the fact that he was born with a withered arm as the result of a difficult birth process, according to some historians, goes some way towards explaining his posturing—his overcompensation in terms of aggressive militarism—for what he perceived as a physical malady that a warlord shouldn’t have.

 Wilhelm II, German Emperor in 1905
Wilhelm II, German Emperor, 1905 (Image: Reichard & Lindner; publisher: Gustav Liersch & Co/Public domain)

His militarism was reflected in his love of resplendent uniforms and his militaristic language that often would produce a characteristic talent for disaster.

Wilhelm II often engaged in incautious interviews with the international press, which would produce scandals that he then would have to retreat from. One problem is that this intemperate man was also surrounded by figures at court that were unhelpful in taming some of his policies.

One famous case, which made clear that he was surrounded by irresponsible individuals, involved news leaking out at the start of the 20th century that at one point, when Wilhelm II had to be cheered up from one of these public relations disasters he had unleashed, some of his generals dressed up as ballerinas and danced for him at court.

One of those generals had a heart attack and fell dead while dancing for the Emperor dressed as a ballerina. As news of this filtered out, it was not calculated to reassure people that Germany’s leadership was in firm and responsible hands. Wilhelm II’s policies were determined, above all, to win respect and status for Germany. In his words, “Germany deserved its place in the sun.” As a result, he sanctioned an aggressive foreign policy that quickly alienated many of the Great Powers, precisely the thing that Bismarck had aimed to avoid.

When Wilhelm II had to be cheered up from one of these public relations disasters he had unleashed, some of his generals dressed up as ballerinas and danced for him at court. One of those generals had a heart attack and fell dead dancing for the Emperor while dressed as a ballerina.

Learn more about the Armistice of 1918 and the harsh Versailles Treaty that followed

A Strange Political Creation

Germany was a strange political creation. Though it had a parliament called the Reichstag, the empire was an uneasy mix of constitutionalism and some democratic seeming elements on the one hand, and on the other hand authoritarianism, the personal rule of an unbalanced individual like Wilhelm II. German domestic politics were fragmented along class, regional, and religious lines. There was a volatility to German politics, which was further exacerbated by the phenomenon of rapid, thorough, and late industrialization within Germany, which brought social disruption.

Emblem of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
Emblem of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). (Image: dbenzhuser – Self-digitized/Public domain)

This social disruption for German conservatives and German ruling elites was summed up in the figure of one new political force that many of them feared—this was the SPD. The SPD—the Social Democratic Party of Germany—was a party that identified itself with the working classes.

Founded in 1875, the SPD, adhered to Marx’s ideas of a revolution overcoming capitalism and ushering in an age of worker’s control. The SPD was a self-consciously revolutionary party. It was well organized, disciplined, and became a model for other socialists worldwide, including in the United States, who sought to emulate this elder brother of the international socialist movement.

To the horror of Germany’s ruling elites, the SPD, in the election of 1912, became the largest party in Germany. A sense of crisis was building from these political facts, and Germany’s established elites and German nationalists sought some way in which it might be possible to escape from these domestic problems.

There arose now a plethora of nationalist leagues, pressing and endorsing Wilhelm II’s demand for a more aggressive foreign policy, in some cases outdoing his bellicose sentiments. These included the Navy League, the Army League, the Colonial League, and the Pan-German League, arguing that all Germans living around the world needed, together, to engage in a mission of “national greatness.”

They all agitated for a more assertive foreign policy in part as a way of escaping this sense of internal domestic crisis. A mood of crisis and pessimism about the future haunted German elites and many historians argue, affected the decisions made at the time of the outbreak of the First World War.

Learn more about the problems that beset Germany’s new democratic government after WWI

Common Questions About the Great Powers of World War I

Q: Who were the Great Powers of World War I?

There were two main power blocs in World War I: the Triple Entente of Britain, Russia, and France, as well as the Triple Alliance of Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany.

Q: What country was the most powerful during World War I?

Great Britain was the most powerful of all countries at the beginning of World War I.

Q: What pushed the Great Powers to enter World War I?

The immediate reason for World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There were many other reasons such as Nationalism, the arms race, and militarism, all driving forces for World War I.

Q: What made Italy switch sides?

Italy left the Triple Alliance to fight Austria-Hungary and was made to re-enter via the treaty of London.

This article was updated on August 10, 2020

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