The Founding of the German Empire

1871

Germany

Borders

It was during the revolutions of the 18th and 19th century that the first German nation in the form of the German Empire came to be established. Belonging came to be nationally understood and state regulated.

The German Empire was established as a so-called “belated nation” on January 18, 1871 in Versailles with the proclamation of the Prussian King Wilhelm I as the German Kaiser. Otto von Bismarck was the first Reich Chancellor. The establishment of the German Empire was preceded by the bloody suppression of the March revolution of 1848-49. Thus, the founding of the Reich is referred to as the “revolution from above.” The German Reich was a constitutional monarchy, consisting of an alliance of 25 individual states and the territory of Alsace-Lorraine.

With the founding of the Reich, the idea of the German nation was grounded in a state for the very first time; there wasn’t, however, an overarching political structure in place. The state territory was impacted by different cultures, religions and migration. The inhabitants conceived of belonging in terms of local and regional communities, and an overarching national identity had yet to be created. As the Reich did not obtain its legitimacy from constitutionally guaranteed rights or from democratic participation (Staatsbürger-nation) other criteria for the definition of belonging to the Reich were invoked. The new German nation-state came to understand itself as a “Volk”- and culture-based nation, with a supposedly common language, history, and culture.

Membership to the German nation is institutionally codified in “Law for the Acquisition and Loss of Membership to the Federation and State.” State membership refers to the individual states in the federation; for example, people could be citizens of Prussia, Bavaria or Württemberg. The principle of the right to nationality based on ancestry was the continuing basis of German legislation until 2000 (See The Amendment of German Nationality Laws, 2000). Only children whose fathers were German nationals could become German nationals themselves. Though the principle of nationality based on ancestry did not originally have a nationalistic basis, national membership came to increasingly take a nationalistic and ethnic nature (see the law for state and Reich membership, 1913). The institutionalized differentiation between citizens and non-citizens led to a distinction between “Germans” and “foreigners.” As “German-ness” came to be defined on exclusively ethnic and cultural criteria, people living in the Reich from other cultures and speaking other languages came to be ethnic national “minorities.” They were considered “Outsiders” and often did not feel a sense of belonging to the German nation. Although these “minorities” (people from Denmark, France, Lithuania, Mauritius, Poland) were German citizens, they were subjected to a cultural and economic “policy of Germanization” (see Policy of Germanization during the German Empire, 1885).

This policy of assimilation stood in the context of nationalization processes set into motion by the founding of the Reich. These processes were geared inward, focusing on the institutional, economic and cultural adjustment of living circumstances. The nation was understood as a community, one defined in terms of certain criteria (culture, religion, language, imagined “race”), through which it was possible to systematically exclude people from the community. Over the course of the century, the concept of nationalism, which was once oriented towards freedom, came increasingly to resemble an ideology of exclusion and superiority.

A volk-based, imperialistic, and exclusionary understanding of nationhood and belonging developed through Germanization policies, theories about “race,” imperialism, and colonial expansion (see Social Darwinism and Eugenics: The Emergence of a Scientific Racism, 1890 and Berlin Conference, 1884). Stereotypes of enemies inside and outside the nation played a central role in this self-definition. Society and politics began to take overtly racist stances against Jews and Sinti and Roma shortly after the founding of the Reich (see Anti-Semitism and Resistance during the Kaiserreich, 1871 and Sinti and Roma during the Kaiserreich, 1871).