Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

4

FROM UNIFICATION TO WORLD WAR 1

Even today, after reunification, Wolfgang Mommsen points out, the German Empire created by Bismarck forms a central point of orientation for the national identity of the Germans. It was created not by an act of free will on the part of its citizens but rather by a ‘revolution from above’. It was forged in the heat of battle, and imposed by force. It was incomplete, excluding many ethnic Germans from its boundaries, and it was divided, including many people of other nationalities as well as different confessions, classes and regional groups. Yet, says Mommsen, it soon came to incorporate in the eyes of the majority of its inhabitants the historic dream of a German nation-state. It continued to do so long after its formal collapse in the revolution of 1918. From today’s point of view, indeed, the Weimar Republic of 1918-33 looks more like the last phase of the Imperial period than any kind of genuinely new beginning. Its institutions were, broadly speaking, continuations of those which had existed under Wilhelm II, from the Reichstag and the central government ministries to the provincial legislatures and federated administrations. The legal system remained the same as under the Empire, as did, by and large, those who ran it. The political parties renamed themselves but were still in effect the same parties which had existed for decades under the Empire. Even the President, elected in a separate national vote, and armed with extensive legal and administrative powers, above all in time of emergency, was a kind of substitute Kaiser. To symbolize the continuity, the Weimar Republic referred to itself as the German Reich rather than trying to invent a nomenclature that was fundamentally new.

The basic structures of the Bismarckian Empire were swept away only after 1933—first (and partially) by the Nazis, then more completely by defeat and occupation in 1945. Mommsen sees the division of Germany at the end of the Second World War as part of the price Germans had to pay for Weimar’s failure to free itself from the historical burden imposed on it by the Bismarckian Empire. The problems which that Empire left unsolved were compounded by the disasters of Weimar. Democracy was too widely identified with defeat in war for it to stand much of a chance of surviving the

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