The Unpredictable Dynamo: Germany's Economy, 1870-1918

F.G. Stapleton examines the momentous social and political consequences of Germany's spectacular economic growth.

During the 1851 Great Exhibition in Britain, representatives from the 18 states of the German Confederation marvelled at the range and quality of manufactured goods from the 'workshop of the world'. Yet by 1900 the united German State had taken that economic mantle from Britannia. Between unification in 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Kaiserreich not only caught up with Britain's economic growth rates but actually surpassed them. This economic progress enhanced the prestige of the Wilhelmine State as much as did the existence of the finest armed forces in Europe.

Nevertheless the German establishment from Bismarck to Wilhelm II always viewed industrialisation with grave suspicion. They comprehended that the corollary of mass production, a rising Gross Domestic Product and an advanced economic state infrastructure, was the fateful emergence of an organised urban proletariat that would ultimately challenge those self-same elites with their monopoly of political power. In this sense the 'unpredictable dynamo' would not only aid the process of German political unity, but would in time undermine the social fabric of the state to such an extent that the Kaiser and his ministers would look to war in 1914 to restore the 'natural' aristocratic social order. But how had the economy mutated from being a positive to a negative element in the Reich's historical cohesion?

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