For the past few years I have taught the AQA module Democracy & Nazism, which takes the student through a couple of decades of traumatic events for the country of Germany: from the impact of defeat in the First World War, the problems of the Weimar age, the rise of the Nazis, and then ruin in the Second World War. Previously on the blog I have posted bits and pieces related to this module, which can be found by clicking here.
Recently, I have covered the impact of the First World War with my new first year A-level class. This has included the reasons for defeat in war, the failed “October Reforms” of October 1918, and then the eventual abdication of the Kaiser and the establishment of a new republic in November 1918. All of this content is needed to prepare students for the exam, however, history itself did not begin at the end of 1918: and so questions were asked of Germany prior to this point. These included the rise of German industrial and military power in the decades leading up to 1914, its plans for colonial growth, and the large domestic problems that seemed set to divide the nation.
I’m particularly intrigued by Germany’s pre-war domestic issues, mostly due to the connection to the argument that the European powers went to war in 1914 in order to provide a solution to the growing discontent within their societies. Yes, there were important factors that led to the outbreak of war: the development of a rival alliance system, the growth of the British and German navies, and of course, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo (which was recently discussed on this blog back in August 2020). However, the argument about the importance of domestic issues is one that particularly takes my fancy, due to the possibility of each government preferring on the course of war instead of attempting to resolve issues with their own respective populations.
George Dangerfield wrote an influential book, first published in the mid-1930s: The Strange Death of Liberal England. This was in response to the demise of the influential Victorian / Edwardian Liberal Party, and it outlined key issues that this party (which was in power in the period form 1905) could not resolve. These included the suffragette movement, the rise of trade unions, and the Irish question. Similarly, the German government also faced growing domestic problems in this time period; German historian Fritz Fischer was particularly vocal of this thesis. Number one concern for the Kaiser was the rise of socialism.
The 1912 elections were the culminated in a long electoral history for the Social Democratic Party. They were active toward the end of the 19th century, and despite having obtained the most votes in the 1890 election, they had won an insubstantial number of seats in the Reichstag. In 1907, the SPD won a million more votes than the Centre Party, but yet only received half the number of the seats. But in 1912, this situation changed, with the Social Democrats achieving a double victory: most votes (4.2 million – more than double their nearest rivals) and the most seats (110 in total).
From 1912-1914, the Social Democrats – alongside fellow “progressive” parties – were able to make their voice heard. This was notable in the Zabern Affair of 1913, in which they led calls for the dismissal of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. The Fischer argument, then, is that the Kaiser became so annoyed by the seeming unstoppable growth of socialists that a war (preferably localised and directed against Russia) was the necessary tonic in terms of getting the German population to come together in a patriotic outburst. Such a jingoist strategy has worked wonders for many governments throughout history, with the 1982 Falklands War providing the so-called “Falklands Factor” for Thatcher’s 1983 general election win in Britain.
I summed up this points in an earlier post about the debate of the inevitability of the First World War:
The German historian Mommsen believes the outbreak of war in 1914 was ‘akin to a religious awakening’. Such a statement is supported by the outpouring of support, with a ‘major’ Berlin newspaper reporting the submission of over 500 poems every day during August 1914.
The words of contemporary intellectual, Karl Alexander von Muller, are also illustrative of this feeling:
For the first time in the nation’s history the mass of the German people had united around a single point…A people of seventy million had become a host.
However, despite the interest in this theory, I do not believe it holds up to scrutiny. Yes, the Social Democrats were a major influence in German politics and the Reichstag, but there were definitely not an unstoppable force. The 1913 Zabern Affair illustrates this: despite being seen as a “high-point” of the socialists in the period 1912-14, it also demonstrates their ultimate impotence. They demanded the resignation of the Chancellor, but yet the Chancellor remained in power. The deciding voice in this was the Kaiser’s, and he simply ignored the Reichstag. Furthermore, the Kaiser’s surge toward a dynamic, aggressive “Weltpolitk” was not tampered by the Reichstag after 1912: preparations continued and all the Social Democrats could do was watch on.
Perhaps the best way to place the importance of the 1912 German election is that it illustrated to the Kaiser and his inner-circle that the Reichstag would remain a thorn in his side. But it does not explain the reason for the outbreak of war in 1914; from a German perspective, the main force was with the Kaiser’s long term ambition for Germany to become a world power. So, it is best to see the 1912 election as a factor, but certainly not the central cause.