What was the Second Reich, the imperial and semi-democratic State that some ultra groups in Germany long for

Otto von Bismarck was the mastermind behind the unification of Germany and the first Chancellor of the Second Reich.

It was about going back to the past, about undoing more than 100 years of history.

At the beginning of December, the front pages of the media around the world reported quite unusual news: the German authorities had arrested some 25 people suspected of preparing a coup in that country, with plans that included the armed takeover of the Bundestag (Parliament).

Most of the detainees were sympathizers of a far-right movement known as the Reichsburger (Citizens of the Reich), which does not recognize the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany and which intended to overthrow it in order to establish a new regime in the country inspired by the called the German Empire or Second Reich, which was established in 1871 and disappeared in 1918, after the defeat suffered by that country in World War I.

The existence of the Reichsburger was known for years, but more than worrying, it was a reason for ridicule in the country, because its members were considered crazy for behaviors such as not wanting to pay taxes to the federal government, issuing identity documents or ID cards. drive their own (without any legal validity) and print their own currency.

However, public opinion was surprised to discover that among its ranks there were not only people who were located on the margins of society, but also doctors, opera singers, chefs, a little-known aristocrat, a judge who was a member of the Bundestag and a former military commander who was the founder of the German Special Forces Command and who commanded infantry tank battalions from that country between 1998 and 2000.

Many of those arrested for the plan to overthrow the federal government belong to the Citizens of the Reich movement.

Now, the authorities have no doubts about the seriousness of the plans they had to reverse the constitutional order.

But what was the Second Reich and why can it inspire nostalgia in these people, to the point of being willing to go to such extremes to reinstate it?

A thriving nation with ambitions

The Second Reich or German Empire was born in 1871, after three brief and successful wars fought in the span of seven years against Denmark, Austria and France.

It is considered to have been the fruit of the genius of the then Prime Minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, who led the rest of the German states to create a unified nation state, of which he became chancellor and whose first emperor was King Wilhelm I of Prussia.

Wilhelm I was the seventh King of Prussia and the first Emperor of Germany.

“39 German states were united for the first time in a new type of highly federalized system, dominated by the Kingdom of Prussia. It was a semi-constitutional monarchy headed by the Kaiser, or German Emperor,” explains James Retallack, professor of European history. and from Germany at the University of Toronto.

Politically it was a hybrid regime that combined democratic elements with more authoritarian features.

“It had a democratically elected Reichstag (Parliament), through the vote of men over the age of 25. But it also had many undemocratic characteristics in the sense that the government was not formed according to the will of the people, but rather he was appointed directly by the emperor and was more or less independent of Parliament,” Retallack notes.

In economic terms, although there were booms and busts, during the Second Reich there was an important process of growth and large and powerful corporations were formed.

The industrialization of the country increased rapidly.

While in 1870 Germany produced half the steel that was made in the United Kingdom, by 1914 German production was twice that of Britain.

Germany increased its steel production exponentially during the Second Reich.

Similarly, between 1895 and 1907 the number of German workers working in machine manufacturing doubled.

By 1913, 63% of German exports were finished goods, and Germany dominated all major continental European markets except France.

Thus, before the outbreak of World War I, Germany was already the second industrial power in the world, only surpassed by the United States.

“The German economy had surpassed the British before World War I. During the Second Reich there were many economic, technological and scientific advances. German scientists were winning a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes,” Retallack notes.

From the social point of view, the Second Reich saw the emergence of Bismarck’s initiative, the first policies of a welfare state with insurance against accidents, sick pay and old-age pensions. Subsequently, his successor as chancellor, Leo von Caprivi, banned Sunday work, as well as child labor.

Imbued with the Prussian militaristic spirit, the German Empire also endowed itself with a powerful army and embarked on the development of a great Navy, capable of disputing control of the seas with the British Empire.

Shadows of the Empire

But these remarkable advances were not always driven by the best intentions.

The Constitution had been devised with a view to making the chancellor and the emperor the most powerful figures, and in fact universal suffrage was established because Bismarck believed that the rural population would always favor the conservative forces to which he belonged.

“Bismarck knew he could not build a new nation-state without the people, so he reluctantly established a parliament (the Reichstag) to be directly elected by universal male suffrage,” wrote Anglo-German historian Katja Hoyer, author of the book Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.

The first chancellor of Germany, however, did not foresee the demographic changes that his country would experience, whose population – increasingly urban and salaried – would tend over time to favor the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD, for its acronym in German) and to the Center Party, whom the president considered “enemies of the Empire.”

It was precisely to try to stop these center and left forces that Bismarck decided to create the first policies of a social welfare state in Germany.

“Of course, neither [Bismarck nor Caprivi] made these policies out of benevolent reformism,” Hoyer wrote.

The strikes and demands of the workers during the Second Reich led to numerous social advances within the framework of a semi-democratic and conservative state.

James Retallack notes that Bismarck met the political challenge from the left with a “carrot and stick” policy, in which social protection policies were the carrot, while anti-socialist laws were the stick.

“Somehow, the stick was heavier and more important. The anti-socialist law was in force for 12 years (1878-1890) and its measures were draconian, they led the social democratic party to operate in the shadows, while its leaders were harassed and many associations and unions were dissolved. There were publications banned and, in some localities, it was almost martial law. Thus, the working class and the social democratic movement suffered more under the anti-socialist law than they gained under the welfare state legislation”, he points out. the expert.

As for economic policies, although they led to growth and an increase in the country’s wealth, they were oriented to favor the interests of the aristocracy, landowners and big businessmen.

In the diplomatic and military field, with the departure of Bismarck from power -which occurred in 1890 after the rise of the new and ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm II-, Germany made a series of mistakes that gradually left it isolated on the international stage.

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s policies ended up isolating Germany.

During his tenure, Bismarck wove a series of agreements that sought to maintain a balance and prevent a possible rapprochement between France and Russia, whose alliance he considered a threat.

However, in the decades that followed, the Second Reich not only neglected these delicate balances but embarked on a series of actions challenging the status quo – including building a powerful Navy to rival the United Kingdom.

With these policies he ended up favoring an alliance between Russia and France, at the same time that he contributed to the addition of the British Empire, which left Germany at a clear disadvantage, with the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the only weighty ally.

In addition, Imperial Germany’s attempts to become a global player earned it rejection from the other established powers, who often saw the Germans as meddling in their areas of influence, especially in Asia and Africa.

Nostalgia for the Empire?

The Second Reich came to an end with the German defeat in World War I, but its demise is not solely attributable to military failure.

“The country fought in an all-out war in which every element of society – from all classes – was affected in one way or another: either by death on the battlefield or by extreme starvation,” Retallack says.

“This was mainly the result of military defeat, but also dissatisfaction with a state that was unable to feed its population or treat it fairly. So between 1916 and 1918 there were a series of strikes that were initially to demand better wages and food, but later ended up demanding a more democratic system of government. Thus, on November 9, 1918, the revolution broke out and Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate,” he adds.

But why then are there Germans who are nostalgic for the Second Reich?

Katja Hoyer believes that the main attraction of this period for those who long for it is the fact that it was a time dominated by a kind of conservative values.

“People look at that time almost as if it were the ‘good old days,’ before all the things that went wrong for Germany during the 20th century. I think for them, the appeal is in the more traditional way of governing the “They imagine that if Germany had a kaiser again, it would go back to having sort of more traditional values. So it’s a way of rejecting the modern values ​​present in the way Germany has changed recently,” he says.

Retallack, for his part, considers that the feeling of nostalgia would depend somewhat on the social class to which you belong.

“Many members of the working class, who make up 60-70% of the population, probably wouldn’t look back very nostalgically at the period of the German Empire,” he says.

“For members of the upper and middle class, there is a certain feeling about the so-called ‘belle epoque’, the French name sometimes referring to the period before 1914. But that is because you look back. with rose-colored glasses,” he concludes.

Previous articleThe 97-year-old typist convicted of her complicity in 10,500 murders in one of the last trials for Nazism
Next articleRussia launches worst wave of airstrikes in months on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, knocks out power to large parts of the country