Imperial Germany – mighty aristocracy or modern meritocracy?

Post-1871 Imperial Germany's embrace of meritocratic ideals was only skin deep.
Members of the imperial family at the centenary celebrations at the University of Berlin in 1909. Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Members of the imperial family at the centenary celebrations at the University of Berlin in 1909. Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Was Germany in 1914 a militarist authoritarian country in thrall to a reactionary aristocratic elite? Or was it a rapidly modernising one, fully integrated into the globalised economy, and perhaps on its way to becoming a meritocracy? The 150th anniversary this year of the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 has generated heated discussion around these issues.  For they concern key questions: Did Imperial Germany lay the foundations for the Third Reich? Or was Nazism a consequence of Germany’s humiliating defeat in 1914?

Both narratives reflect elements of reality. The German Empire was dominated by Prussia. The aristocracy largely monopolised both military leadership, which had been instrumental in creating the empire in victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1871, and the political system generally. The imperial chancellor was appointed by, and answerable only to, the emperor. The political parties in the Reichstag were excluded from participation in government. The 1912 election produced a massive anti-imperial majority, but parliamentary government was only conceded in 1918, just before the empire collapsed.

Yet Imperial Germany also became one of the leading and most modern European powers. Over several centuries the German lands had developed strong and progressive bureaucracies. And after 1871 this fundamentally rural and agrarian society experienced rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. Germany challenged British supremacy in industry and trade, and Germans competed with British traders in Latin America, Australia, and other emerging markets. German banking and finance were better placed to mobilise venture capital to exploit new opportunities. Germany dominated in the key new industries of the day, such as industrial chemistry, precision engineering, and electrotechnology. Significantly, these activities were underpinned by scientific research and specialist education.

For entrepreneurial merchants and producers, the opportunities became more plentiful after 1871. Merit here was achieved by initiative and determination. Spectacular rags-to-riches stories were rare. Most entrepreneurs emerged from the world of the petit bourgeoisie or craft production, if they were not the sons of already successful fathers. 

The changes that affected the educated classes had complex origins in earlier developments. The German educational system – one of many sources of national pride – was one of the most modern in the world. It is often claimed it was founded on two early nineteenth-century developments.

First, as part of a series of measures introduced following Napoleon’s humiliating defeat of Prussia in 1806, Wilhelm von Humboldt, a philosopher and influential government official, founded a new university in Berlin in 1810, and reformed the traditional Gymnasium or grammar school. This was a striking development at a time when long French wars had led to the decline or closure of many German universities. 

Many claim that Humboldt’s vision of Bildung (education in the broadest sense) was based on the principle of freedom in research and teaching. In fact, Humboldt’s initiative was envisaged as a contribution to Prussia’s fightback against France – he wanted primarily to train state officials, teachers, and pastors to be the vanguard of a new generation of patriots.

Secondly, teaching at Berlin and elsewhere was informed by a new understanding of Wissenschaft. This means scholarship of all kinds, but specifically an encyclopaedic, unified vision of all knowledge, and an understanding of the world’s inner coherence. This was pioneered by philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Schelling, who aimed to create a framework for this idea.

In time, this philosophical approach did indeed come to characterise German scholarship in both humanities and science. Initially, however, the French polytechnics were more innovative in the fields of science and technology; the first institution was established in 1792, and they led the way until the 1840s. In the German lands, Austria emulated the French model with the foundation of the Vienna Polytechnic in 1815. Other German states followed suit from the 1820s; and many German universities began to build new scientific laboratories, too.

The most important changes came in the 1860s and 1870s, led by a generation of scientists who had begun their careers around 1840. In 1863, Tübingen University pioneered the establishment of a separate scientific and mathematical faculty; and, from the 1870s, leading scientists often headed their own specialist research institutes. US and British university founders and reformers began to look to Germany rather than France for teaching and research models, especially in science and technology.

The universities expanded dramatically. Including polytechnics and other technical institutions, student numbers increased from roughly 18,000 in 1871 to some 80,000 by 1914. But what did this mean for mobility? Was Germany becoming a meritocracy? Before about 1850, higher education ran in families. After about 1890 there were signs of widening participation, largely from the petit bourgeoisie, but rarely from the working class. 

Despite doubling in size by 1914, however, the university educated Bildungsbürgertum comprised significantly less than 1 per cent of the total population. The educated and enterprising middle class combined accounted for perhaps 2 per cent of the working population. They exercised great influence yet were ultimately constrained by the political system. To some degree or other, most chose to conform and identify enthusiastically with the state.

True meritocracy only became possible after 1945 when the last vestiges of Imperial Germany had been destroyed.

Joachim Whaley

Joachim Whaley is Professor of German History and Thought at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, 2 vols (OUP, 2012) and The Holy Roman Empire. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018).

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