Wilhelminism

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Emperor Wilhelm II (painting by Max Koner)
Spiked helmet (Prussian Police)

The Wilhelmine Period comprises the period between 1890 and 1918, embracing the reign of Wilhelm II and the First World War. By Wilhelminism is not meant a conception of society associated with the name Wilhelm, and traceable to an intellectual initiative of the German Emperor. Rather, it relates to the image presented by Wilhelm II, and his demeanour, manifested by the public presentation of grandiose military parades, and self-aggrandisement on his part, this latter tendency having not been unknown to his grandfather Wilhelm I and Bismarck during the period that Wilhelm’s father was Crown Prince. He continued to implement measures against Socialist ideas. His policies, founded on his imperial ambitions, and directed towards the establishment of Germany as a world power, achieved a short-lived high point at the beginning of the First World War, following the acquisition of some colonial possessions in the South Seas and on the African continent.

The distinctive spiked helmet, the so-called Pickelhaube, although it had existed previously, and not only in the German Empire, was symbolic for this period, and for the imperial army and German military (in various sign languages, the extended forefinger placed in front of the forehead, indicating the spiked helmet, is still the sign for “German”).

Wilhelm’s fascination for the German Navy, and his ambition to see it established as an instrument for the projection of world power, were reflected in everyday German life. Until the middle of the twentieth century, boys were dressed in sailor suits, and in this way were impressed at an early age with the Navy’s aura and prestige.

In principle, the dismissal of Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor of Germany in 1890 marks the beginning of the period. The end of Wilhelminism is associated with the end of the First World War in 1918, and the Emperor’s abdication.

The term Wilhelminism also characterizes the social and cultural climate of the reign of Wilhelm II, which found expression in rigidly conservative attitudes. At the same time, the period was distinguished by an extraordinary belief in progress, which, while contributing to the enormous prosperity of the German Empire, was at odds with its social conservatism.

The term is equally applied to styles prevailing in the visual arts and architecture of the period. It is used to describe, among other things, an essentially neo-Baroque, extraordinarily prestige-oriented style calculated to give expression to the German state’s claim to imperial power. This style was particularly exemplified by the grandiose Siegesallee, lampooned by Berliners as the Puppenallee (“street of the dolls”), and was given official status by Wilhelm’s so-called “Rinnsteinrede“ (“gutter speech”) on what he considered modernist degenerate art at the inauguration of the extravagant boulevard on December 18, 1901.

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