German Unification

Then, in 1863 the Danish king tried to annexe the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Both Prussia and Austria fought a short war against Denmark in 1864. As a result Prussia and Austria were given joint administration of the two duchies.

Disagreements with Austria over the duchies gave Prussia a pretext to start a war in 1866. It was over within a short period. On 3 July 1866 Prussia won a great victory over the Austrians at Koniggratz. Afterwards a peace treaty created North German Federation dominated by Prussia. Austria was expelled from German affairs. Bismarck, the German chancellor, then quarrelled with France over the issue of who was to succeed to the Spanish throne. The French declared war on 19 July 1870. However the French were utterly defeated at the battle of Sedan on 2 September 1870 and they made peace in February 1871. Meanwhile the southern German states agreed to become part of a new German Empire with the Prussian king as emperor. William I was proclaimed emperor on 18 January 1871.

In the late 19th century Germany industrialised rapidly. By the end of the century it rivalled Britain as an industrial power. In 1879 Germany signed the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary. The two powers agreed to come to each others aid in the event of a war with Russia. Bismarck the German chancellor also campaigned against socialism. In the late 19th century it was a growing force in Germany. Bismarck tried to take the wind out of Socialism’s sails by introducing welfare measures. In 1883 he introduced sickness insurance. In 1884 he introduced accident insurance. Then in 1889 he introduced old age pensions. However socialism continued to grow in Germany and by 1914 the Social Democratic Party was the largest party in the Reichstag. Finally Bismarck resigned in 1890.

Germany in the early 20th Century

Bismarck always pursued friendly relations with Britain but under his successors it was different. From 1898 under Admiral Tirpitz Germany began expanding its navy. Britain, the largest naval power, was alarmed. Furthermore Europe became divided into two armed camps, with Germany and Austria-Hungary one side and Britain, France and Russia on the other. The spark that ignited war came on 28 June 1914 when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. In August 1914 the Germany army overran Belgium and marched on Paris. However they were defeated at the battle of the Marne in September. Both sides began a ‘race for the sea’. Both sides reached it at the same time. They then dug trenches and years of deadlock followed. In the east the Germany was more successful. They crushed the Russians at the battle of Tannenberg. Russia gradually weakened and finally made peace by the treaty of Brest-Litvosk in March 1918. Meanwhile in 1917 Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare, which meant that ships from any nations trying to trade with the allies would be sunk. As a result the USA declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. In March 1918 Germany launched a series of assaults on the British and French lines. However they failed to break through and on 8 August 1918 the British counter-attacked with tanks. Furthermore in September the Americans began an offensive against the Germans. Slowly the allies advanced and on 29 September 1918 General Hindenburg advised the government that the war could not be won. The Kaiser abdicated on 9 November and the Social Democrats formed a new government. On 11 November they were forced to sign an armistice with the allies.

Weimar Germany

However although the Kaiser went the ‘pillars’ of the old regime, the generals, civil servants and judges remained. A new constitution was drawn up but it had a fatal weakness. It used a system of complete proportional representation. So if a party won 2% of the vote it got 2% of the seats in the Reichstag. This meant there was a huge number of parties in the Reichstag, none of them ever had a majority of seats and Germany was ruled by weak coalition governments. Worse, under Article 48 the President could ignore the Reichstag and pass laws of his own choosing. This was called rule by decree. In 1919 the German government were forced to sign the Versailles Treaty. However the vast majority of Germans bitterly resented the Versailles Treaty. Firstly the Germans were not consulted on the treaty and they resented being dictated to. They also resented the ‘war guilt’ clause, which blamed Germany and its allies for causing the war. Worse under the treaty Germany lost a significant part of its territory and its population. A section of land called the Polish corridor was given to Poland so East Prussia was cut off from the main part of Germany. Also Memel was given to Lithuania. After a referendum Eupen-Malmedy was given to Belgium. After another referendum North Schleswig joined Denmark. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France. Furthermore the Rhineland was demilitarised (no German soldiers were allowed there). In any case Germany was not allowed more than 100,000 soldiers. The Germans were not allowed submarines or battleships. They were not allowed an air force either. Worse still Germany was made to pay ‘reparations’ (a form of compensation for damage done by the war). The amount was set in 1921. It was the colossal figure of 6,600 million marks and Germany was forced to start paying.

From the start there were attempts to overthrow the government. In January 1919 a group of communists called Spartacists led a rebellion in Berlin. The government fled to Weimar. As a result the new regime was called the Weimar Republic. (Even though it soon returned to Berlin). The communist uprising in Berlin was crushed by the Freikorps (free corps). They were ex-soldiers bearing arms. In April 1919 more communists seized power in Bavaria. Again the Freikorps crushed them. Then in March 1920 a group of Freikorps led by Dr Kapp tried to take control of Berlin. The army refused to put down the rebellion but the trade unions in Berlin ordered a general strike. As a result the Kapp putsch was defeated. The early 1920s were years of hardship and near-starvation for many people in Germany. Worse a myth began that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’ in 1918. Some people said that Germany could have fought on and won the war. That was nonsense but it was a powerful myth. The people who agreed to the armistice in 1918 were called ‘November criminals’. Extreme right-wingers assassinated some of the so-called November criminals. Matthias Erzberger, who signed the armistice was shot in 1921. Walter Rathenau the foreign minister was shot in 1922. Meanwhile in January 1919 Anton Drexler formed the German Workers Party in Munich. In September 1919 an Austrian named Adolf Hitler joined. (He did not become a German citizen until 1932). The party believed the myth that Germany was stabbed in the back in 1918. They also wanted all Germans to live together in one Greater Germany. The party was also unashamedly racist and anti-Semitic. In 1920 the party’s name was changed to the National Socialist Germany Workers Party or NAZI party. In 1921 Adolf Hitler became it’s leader. In 1921 Hitler formed a paramilitary organisation called the Sturm Abteilung or SA. They were also called brownshirts because of the their brown uniforms.

In 1923 Hitler and his tiny party tried to take control of Germany. On 8 November a politician named Gustav von Kahr was the speaker at a beer hall in Bavaria. With him was General von Lossow. At 8.30 pm the SA surrounded the beer hall and Hitler entered with armed men. Kahr and the general were told they were under arrest. However Kahr agreed to lead Hitler’s attempt to take over Germany and the two men were allowed to go. As soon as they went they took steps to stop Hitler. When Hitler and his supporters marched through Munich they were met by state troopers in the Odeonplatz. In the skirmish that followed 4 troopers and 16 Nazis were killed. The Munich putsch promptly collapsed and Hitler fled the scene. He was arrested two days later. The year 1923 was a very bad one for Weimar Germany. By then Germany had fallen behind with her reparations payments. In response in January 1923 French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. German workers in the Ruhr went on strike. They also held huge demonstrations. The striking workers became heroes in Germany and the government printed money to pay them, which led to rapidly increasing inflation. Furthermore production of goods in Germany fell drastically. As a result the price of goods rose very quickly. These two factors, the printed money and the shortage of foods caused inflation in Germany to go through the roof. Inflation became hyper-inflation. In January 1923 a loaf of bread cost 250 marks but by September it cost 1.5 million marks. Prices rose so fast that workers had to be paid twice a day and they had to bring baskets or suitcases to take their money home in. As a result of the hyperinflation people lost their life savings. Money they had in the bank became virtually worthless. On the other hand anyone in debt saw their debts virtually disappear. Finally in August 1923 Gustav Streseman became chancellor of Germany. He issued a new currency the Rentenmark to replace the mark, which had become almost worthless. Streseman lost the post of Chancellor in November 1923 but he became foreign minister instead. Germany began paying reparations again and in 1924 Streseman negotiated the Dawes plan. Germany’s annual repayments were reduced and the USA agreed to lend Germany a huge sum of money to rebuild it’s economy. In 1925 the French and Belgian troops left the Ruhr and the years from 1925 to 1929 were ones of relative prosperity for Germany. In 1929 Streseman negotiated the Strong Plan. The amount of reparations was reduced to 1,850 million. Unfortunately the good times in Germany ended with the Wall Street Crash in the USA in 1929. The depression of the early 1930s was a disaster for Germany. While unemployment was 1.4 million in 1928 it rose to 4.8 million in 1931. By 1932 it was 6 million. About one man in three in Germany was out of work. One effect of the depression was that the democratic parties lost support. Instead people turned to radical parties like the communists or the Nazis who promised seemingly easy solutions to Germany’s problems. In 1928 the Nazis only gained 2.6% of the vote. By September 1930 they gained 18.3% of the vote. By 1932 they were the largest party in the Reichstag. (Although they never obtained a majority of the vote). However in November 1932 votes for the Nazi party fell and the economic situation in Germany seemed to be getting better. Unfortunately on January 30 1933 President Hindenburg asked Hitler to become Chancellor of Germany and to lead a coalition government. Hindenburg disliked Hitler who he called the ‘Bohemian corporal’. However a number of German politicians thought they could use Hitler. They were convinced that if he joined a coalition they could dominate him. They soon turned out to be very wrong.

Nazi Germany

On 27 February the Reichstag burned down. A Dutchman called Marinius van der Lubbe was arrested and confessed to the crime. Hitler claimed that van der Lubbe did not act alone and that it was a Communist plot. The next day President Hindenburg was persuaded to sing ‘Presidential Decree for the Protection of the People and the State’, which allowed arbitrary arrest. As a result all the leading Communists were arrested. The last election in Weimar Germany was held on 5 March 1933. The Nazi’s still failed to gain a majority of the vote. However the Communist party was banned and none of its members could take their seats in the Reichstag. As a result the Nazis were left in control of the Reichstag. In March 1933 Hitler persuaded the Reichstag to pass the enabling law. This would give Hitler the power to pass new laws without the consent of the Reichstag. The new law meant changing Germany’s constitution and that would require votes by two thirds of the Reichstag’s members. Incredibly 80% of the Reichstag voted in favour of the law, only the Social Democrats voted against it. The Reichstag voted to make a madman dictator of Germany. Hitler wasted no time in introducing a tyrannical regime in Germany. After 1871 Germany was a federal state. It was made up of units called Lander, which had once been independent countries. A governor ruled each. However in April 1933 Hitler replace them with Reich governors, all of who were loyal Nazis. This helped to bring the country even more under Hitler’s control. In May Hitler banned trade unions. To replace them he created the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) under Robert Ley. It set levels of pay and hours of work. The Social Democratic Party was banned in June 1933. Later that summer other parties dissolved themselves, under pressure from the Nazis. On 14 July 1933 Hitler banned all parties except the Nazi party. Finally Hitler consolidated his grip on power with a purge called the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934.

In 1934 the SA or brownshirts wanted to take over the army. The army was appalled by this idea and Hitler needed the army’s support. Moreover the SA had other enemies. In 1925 Hitler created the Schutztaffel (protection squad) of SS as his bodyguard. Heinrich Himmler the head of the SS resented the fact that the SS was officially part of the SA. He wanted the SS to be a separate organisation. He also wanted more power for himself. Himmler told Hitler that the SA were planning to overthrow him. Hitler himself arrested Rohm the leader of the SA. The SS arrested other important figures in the SA and other prominent critics of the regime. All of them were shot. Then on 2 August 1934 President Hindenburg died. Hitler, the Chancellor took over the President’s powers and called himself Fuhrer (leader). The army were made to swear an oath of loyalty of Hitler. (Previously they swore an oath of loyalty to Germany). Furthermore any opponents of the regime (mostly communists and socialists) could be arrested and sent to a concentration camp without trial. (At first although prisoners were beaten and tortured concentration camps were designed as prisons rather than extermination camps). Homosexuals were also sent so concentration camps. So were vagrants, beggars and the ‘work-shy’.