Historical Background

End of Century situation in Germany

Germany in the times of Wilhelm II was an industrially strong country, it had international trade and was at the ’’highpoint of its power and confidence’’[1]. Of 39 Nobel-prizewinners in Physics and Chemistry, up til 1918, there were 13 German winners[2]. Upper-middle-class-ness awoke culturally and particularly industrially, and became one of the foundations of economic success in the German Reich. Industry, research and something that today we call innovation blossomed. The by the Kaiser promised ’’Golden Days’’ appeared for some to have begun.

On the other hand, this country felt threatened by a world full of enemies.

Military success in the war against France in 1871, and a subsequent attempt at ‘surrounding tactics’ by the traditional enemy France and also Russia, especially after the non-extension of the Bismarck Reinsurance contract, lead Germany into a definitely weak position.

At the latest Germany became encircled in 1904, when the Entente Cordiale between France and England was signed. Independently of the reasons for this encirclement – Germany was not innocent of the formation of this encirclement at all – it gave Germany a strategic disadvantage to its position in Europe in the time around 1914. This was realised, and one of the reasons why militarised political thinking in Germany was strengthened. This particular militarisation of the influential upper middle classes was often stiffened by the aggressive appearance of the Kaiser – who in fact was rather unsure of himself, and suffered from childhood by his left arm being shorter than the right one.

Glorifying everything military was not necessarily free of certain excesses. People defined themselves as “having been in service”. Men in uniform, preferably officers, was synonymous of good form. The resulting exaggerations can be read in the well-known German book “The Captain of Köpenick” by Carl Zuckmayer. It is the story of an unemployed shoemaker, who wears a borrowed commanding officer´s uniform. With this garb he takes command of a troop of Prussian conscripts and also the administration department of Koepenick, which is a Berlin suburb. All this in aid of getting a passport, which he needs in order to apply for a job. A true-to-life incident, which was suitably noticed by higher circles.

A further interesting example of the meaning of uniform in public life was given by the recordings of deaths in those times. Here the deceased high-ranking professor, before his membership of either influential or European Universities of Science, would be referred to firstly with the title “Reserve Lieutenant ret.”. Germany was the only country in Europe where a speaker at the Reichstag parliament, who would be representing the people, could appear in full uniform with his hand on his sabre.

Beyond that there was a national desire for overseas colonies, which was considered to be lucrative, supported by Chancellor Bülow`s “a place in the sun”, in order to establish the further industrial success of the German Reich at that time.

This view across the oceans was interrupted by the English fleet which was everywhere where the German naval forces ever appeared. A maritime upgrading began in Germany , as never before had been. Photos of children from this period are revealing, they wear fitting or ill-fitting sailor-uniforms for every occasion. It was believed that Germany´s future would be found on the seven seas. This was general knowledge in Germany , and was questioned only by few.

Naval endeavours against England were never truly serious. The only effect of this direct sea-challenge was that England developed a certain non-neutrality in the years before the war which Germany found more and more threatening.

Parts of the English fleet coming into Kiel Harbour on 24th June 1914, a few days before WWI. An official visit, celebrating the Kiel Week, which included ships of the First Fleet, among them King George V, Ajax , audacious and Centurion. The dark clouds of war were looming.

All these developments were like thunderclouds brewing in the skies, which must somehow soon relieve their burden.

[1] Sebastian Haffner, Die Sieben Todsünden Des Deutschen Reiches Im Ersten Weltkrieg, Gustav Lübbe Verlag

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