We assume our studious blogwatchers know all that is to be known about the Third Reich, because it was notorious, racist, and the direct cause of half a billion deaths in a Second War to End All Wars. But what do we know about the Second Reich (Empire)?
First we must understand that it lasted from 1871 – 1918; it was a continental and overseas empire dominated by powerful Prussia. What we might call the first Reich was in fact the Holy Roman Empire (q.v.), ending in 1806. The Second replaced the German Confederation and the North-German Confederation which lasted a bare four years from 1866 – 70. The North-German C. was invented by von Bismarck (q.v.) after the success of his Franco-Prussian War. It was the union of twenty-five German states ruled by a Hohenzollern King of Prussia, re-named Emperor Wilhelm I.
The Second Reich ‘formed an alliance’ with neighbour Austria-Hungary in 1879, and investments in south-east Europe were realised by Germany. In 1884 Bismarck organised and presided over a conference of European colonial powers in Berlin, with the aim in mind of allocating territories in Africa. Not all the European powers, especially those which already managed territories in Africa, were invited. This incivility was criticised.
Bismarck made it clear that he wanted three areas in the largely under-developed continent: German South-West Africa, which would share borders with the Cape Colony, the Cameroons and Togoland (trade in the latter had for long been monopolized by Britain); in addition, he wanted German East Africa, a direct threat to British interests in Zanzibar. Not content with these, Bismarck claimed Northern New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago in the Pacific.
Kaiser Wilhelm II succeeded in 1888 and with him considerable colonial activity, especially in the Far East. In 1898 Germany leased the Chinese province of Shandong and bought the Caroline and Mariana islands from Spain. In 1899 the natives of Samoa found that they had been partitioned between Germany and the USA. The sleeping lion of Great Britain woke up with a start and growled. Germany quickly came to a mutual agreement however (in 1900) just in time for both countries to crush the Boxer Rebellion In Pekin and other Chinese cities.
Von Bülow became Chancellor in that year and stayed as the German leader until 1909. By now the growth of German industry had made it the biggest European industrial power, and French and English intelligence had reasons to believe that her military power was also increasing daily.
The German search for new markets brought her into dispute with other colonial powers. Under von Tirpitz the German Navy expanded, which led to rivalry with the Royal Navy, and competition with France in Africa led to a crisis in Morocco in 1905. Then in 1911 there was a second crisis in Morocco nearly causing an international war. Curiously, the murder of the Austrian heir to the throne in Sarajevo caught Germany by surprise. The Reich diplomats got together to debate, and decided that the 1879 alliance with Austria-Hungary should be honoured even if it meant war with Russia and France.
The Great War (1914 – 18 q.v.) saw the confiscation of most German African territory; at Versailles she lost the rest of her overseas empire, now to be administered by the victorious powers on behalf of the League of Nations (q.v.). In 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and left Germany, and the all too briefly-lived Weimar Republic (q.v.) was created. Hitler’s Third Reich (‘to last a thousand years’) was already on the horizon.