01. July 2021

The Insecurities of the Wilhelmine Empire The Insecurities of the Wilhelmine Empire

Historian from the University of Bonn has written about "Social Conflict, Mass Politics and Violence in Germany before 1914"

So much for the "age of security": The author Stefan Zweig's description of the period before the First World War seems almost too good to be true - at least if you take a closer look at the political and social conflicts in the German Empire. This was done by Bonn historian Dr. Amerigo Caruso in his study "Blood and Iron Even Within' - Social Conflict, Mass Politics, and Violence in Germany before 1914". One of the results: Reflecting an increased need for security, a modern private security market emerged with guard companies and detective agencies.

Cover - of the current book by Dr. Amerigo Caruso © Campus Verlag
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In his autobiographical work "The World of Yesterday," completed in exile in 1941, the author Stefan Zweig spoke retrospectively of an "age of security". As the study just published emphasizes, the same applies to the term "Belle Époque" for this European era which also has its origins in the retrospective. This idealized perspective is understandable in light of the extreme violence in and after World War I, but it does not match the perception of many contemporaries around 1900 who could not yet know how history would unfold. "Threatening communication, feelings of insecurity, and medialized violence" were ever-present then, according to Amerigo Caruso. At the same time, the feeling of living in uncertain times was also a Europe-wide phenomenon, he notes.

In the German Reich, Wilhelm II threatened "blood and iron" if necessary in order to bring about "healthy conditions". Caruso cites increasing strikes as a reason for the verbal militancy, and, more fundamentally, "the expansion of trade unions, which gave rise among economic and political elites to an urgent sense of the need for new repressive and disciplinary strategies." The Social Democratic Free Trade Unions already had 680,000 members at the turn of the century, and in 1904 they exceeded the one million mark.

Strikes were considered a threat to internal security

Business leaders and the conservative press spoke of "strike terrorism" in order to criminalize the strikers and, according to Caruso, make them an integral part of a general threatening scenario for the established order. Strikes and protest movements, as the historian explains, were considered a threat to domestic security in several respects: political-ideological, military, economic and private-capitalist.

This "discursive construction of threats," however, contrasted with the social reality of largely peaceful strikes and political demonstrations. A key reason why the situation did not escalate was the presence of an active opposition in the parliaments, media and social milieus of the Kaiserreich. Amerigo Caruso sees the late empire - to which he attests a relatively liberal basic order, even by European standards - as characterized by numerous contradictions that produced diametrically opposed patterns of interpretation: "For advocates of democratization, the empire was an authoritarian regime in which legal discrimination and repression were part of everyday life. For opponents of democracy, on the other hand, the Wilhelmine system was too liberal."

From colliery guards to "German Pinkertons"

Many entrepreneurs did not see their interests consistently enforced by government agencies. This was another reason for the privatization of order functions and repression. According to the author, this aspect has so far been neglected by researchers. The multifaceted spectrum ranged from colliery guards to private security companies and armed strikebreakers, also called "German Pinkertons" by the workers' press, after the notorious American detective agency. The drivers behind the new security market were social disputes as well as an increased fear of everyday crime.

Caruso calls it characteristic of the empire that even privatized violence did not provoke extreme violence against political opponents or counterviolence against the state. However, the situation was completely different after the First World War: "Now political instability and escalation of violence far exceeded the crisis expectations and feelings of insecurity of the Belle Époque." For the historian from Bonn, the "threatening legacy" of the Wilhelmine era is "that strikes and political protests were not accepted as the basis of democratic culture across large sections of society." This in turn, reinforced by the war and brutalization, laid the foundations for the much harsher political-social conflicts in the Weimar Republic.

Publication: Amerigo Caruso: „Blut und Eisen auch im Innern“– Soziale Konflikte, Massenpolitik und Gewalt in Deutschland vor 1914, Campus, 361 p., EUR 29.95

Dr. Amerigo Caruso

Universität Bonn

Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Lehrstuhl für Neuere und Neueste Geschichte

E-mail: acaruso@uni-bonn.de

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