The Wilhelmine Period (German: Wilhelminische Zeit, Wilhelminische Epoche) comprises the period of German history between 1890 and 1918, embracing the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the German Empire from the resignation of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck until the end of World War I and Wilhelm's abdication during the November Revolution.
It represented an era of creative ferment in the society, politics, culture, art, literature, and architecture of Germany. It also roughly coincided with the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in the British Empire, the Gilded Age in the United States, the Belle Époque in the Third French Republic, and the Silver Age in the Russian Empire.
The term "Wilhelminism" (Wilhelminismus) is not meant as 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, as manifested by the public presentation of grandiose military parades and self-aggrandisement on his part. The latter tendency had already been noticed by his grandfather, Emperor Wilhelm I, while Wilhelm II's father, later Frederick III, was Crown Prince.
Wilhelminism also characterizes the social, literary, artistic, and cultural climate of Wilhelm II's reign, which on the one hand was dominated by the rigidly-conservative opinions of the Prussian Junker aristocracy, those associated with the German Agrarian League, and of the German industrialists, which closely mirrored those of the British upper class during the parallel Victorian era in the British Empire. Ironically, Germany during the Wilhelmian era was, on the other hand, distinguished by a escalating Secularization and growing belief in progress among intellectuals, in response to recent medical and scientific advances and the enormous prosperity of the heavily-industrialized German Empire, but which was at polar odds with its social conservatism. Although Otto von Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws were not renewed, Kaiser Wilhelm's government continued to implement legislation at his insistence that favored industrial worker's rights to organized labor and collective bargaining, while still opposing socialist ideas. Nevertheless, the German Social Democratic Party continued to grow in strength and became the largest political party elected to the Reichstag during the 1912 national elections. Despite the party's stronger influence, internal developments were characterised by an increasing loyalty of the party leadership towards the monarchy and the empire. That attitude was condemned as "revisionism" by its opponents, but ultimately culminated in the Burgfrieden policy of agreeing to support the war effort during the patriotic euphoria later dubbed the Spirit of 1914.
Foreign policy was founded on Kaiser Wilhelm's support for both his Government's colonialist ambitions and their efforts to establish Germany as a world power (Weltmacht). The desire for a "place in the sun" as coined by Foreign Secretary Bernhard von Bülow and was shared by a large number of German citizens and intellectuals. Pan-Germanism achieved a short-lived high point after the German colonial empire expanded in Africa, China, New Guinea, and in the South Seas and became the third largest colonial empire after those of the United Kingdom and the Third French Republic. Meanwhile, European diplomatic relations deteriorated. In 1890, Germany refused to prolong the secret Reinsurance Treaty with the Russian Empire that had concluded by Bismarck in 1887, and Germany had to witness the forming of the Franco-Russian Alliance, which presenting a new threat of a two-front war.
Relations with Britain were both strained by the Scramble for Africa but by the Anglo-German naval arms race. Wilhelm's fascination with the Imperial German Navy and his support for Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz's ambition to see it established as an instrument for the projection of world power were still reflected in everyday German life long after the fall of the monarchy in 1918. Until the mid-20th century, young German boys were still dressed in sailor suits to impress them at an early age with the Navy's aura and prestige as the gentlemen's branch of the service.
The distinctive spiked helmet, the so-called Pickelhaube had existed previously and not only in the German Empire, but it symbolised Wilhelmine period since the Imperial Army and German militarism in general. (In fact, various sign languages still have the extended forefinger placed in front of the forehead, indicating the spiked helmet, as the sign for "German".)
Culture and the Arts
In a December 1931 conversation in Frankfurt with journalist Heinrich Simon, Harry Graf Kessler was asked for the reasons why, despite being a descendant of the German nobility, for embracing the concept of Republicanism and opposing the post-1918 restoration of the House of Hohenzollern. Kessler responded, "William II's downright perverse bad taste, I said, was more responsible than anything else. Bad taste in the selection of his friends and advisors; bad taste in art, literature, politics and his style of living; bad taste revealed by every word he uttered... A crowned barbarian who gave the whole German nation a reputation for barbarity."
Despite Count von Kessler's later contempt for the cultural life during the final decades of the Second Reich, the Wilhelmian era also seethed with radical innovation, literary, artistic, and cultural ferment inside the literary coffee houses, theatres, and bohemian urban quarters of Berlin, Munich, and many other German cities.
While "Wilhelmism" is equally applied to the last Kaiser's favored styles in both the visual arts and architecture, such as the ornate Germania postage stamps, numerous government buildings and the Wilhelmine Ring housing areas of Berlin and many other German cities, the term is also used to describe an essentially-Neo-Baroque and prestige-oriented style of architecture, which was calculated to express Germany's ambitions to become and remain a naval, imperial, and colonial power.
This neo-Baroque style was particularly exemplified by the grandiose Siegesallee, a boulevard of what were intended to be heroic-looking marble statues of the last Kaiser's ancestors in the Tiergarten of Berlin. Even though the Siegesallee was widely ridiculed by the infamously irreverent and sarcastic Berliners of the era as "die Puppenallee" ("The Boulevard of Dolls") and as a place where, "even the bird-shit is made of marble", the neo-Baroque statues were given Royal Assent in Kaiser Wilhelm's Rinnsteinrede ("gutter speech"), which was also a very harsh criticism of the recent birth of German modernist art which the last Kaiser considered degenerate art, at the formal unveiling of the Siegesallee on 18 December 1901.
Meanwhile, the Dresden-based artist's group Die Brücke ("The Bridge") was one of two groups of iconoclastic German painters fundamental to expressionism, the other being the Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter group.
In addition to witnessing the birth of modern art, the same era also witnessed the introduction of the Symbolist movement into German literature and the creation of the modern German literary language by passionately Francophile poet Stefan George and the George-Kreis, the circle of younger poets and writers that surrounded him.
Among many other examples of the power and influence the George-Kreis wielded over Germany cultural and literary life, the scholarly and editorial skills of one member, Norbert von Hellingrath, were singlehandedly responsible for the revival of interest in the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who had died unrecognized following decades of incarceration in a tower at Tübingen following a mental breakdown in 1806. Hellingrath, who later fell at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, collected and published the collected works of Hölderlin in 1913 and succeeded in gaining for the Swabian poet in death the literary recognition that always eluded him in life. Norbert von Hellingrath is why Hölderlin is now widely considered one of the greatest poets ever to write in the German language.
Jeremy Adler has written that war poet and playwright August Stramm, who began publishing his poetry in early 1914, treated, "language like a physical material" and, "honed down syntax to its bare essentials." Citing Stramm's fondness for "fashioning new words out of old," Adler has also written that, "what James Joyce did on a grand scale for English, Stramm achieved more modestly for German."
Adler has also written that August Stramm's "essential innovation (still too little recognized in Germany) was to create a new, non-representational kind of poetry," which is, "comparable," to Pablo Picasso's creation of abstract art and to Arnold Schönberg's revolution in the writing of Classical music.
Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914, T.E. Hulme heard the kind of poetry that Stramm had created and inspired being read aloud at the Cabaret Gnu in Berlin. Hulme later wrote, "Very short sentences are used, sometimes so terse and elliptical as to produce a blunt and jerky effect ... It is clear that a definite attempt is being made to use the language in a new way, an attempt to cure it of certain vices."
Sorge's The Beggar was written during the last three months of 1911. According to Michael Paterson, "The play opens with an ingenious inversion: the Poet and Friend converse in front of a closed curtain, behind which voices can be heard. It appears that we, the audience, are backstage and the voices are those of the imagined audience out front. It is a simple, but disorienting trick of stagecraft, whose imaginative spatial reversal is self-consciously theatrical. So the audience is alerted to the fact that they are about to see a play and not a 'slice of life.'"
According to Walter H. Sokel, "The lighting apparatus behaves like the mind. It drowns in darkness what it wishes to forget and bathes in light what it wishes to recall. Thus the entire stage becomes a universe of [the] mind, and the individual scenes are not replicas of three-densional physical reality, but visualizes stages of thought."
Tragically and in an added parallel to the lmany other nations experiencing similar cultural ferment during the same era, many of Germany's most gifted and innovative poets, writers, artists, and intellectuals were soon to die prematurely upon the battlefields of the Great War.
- Kessler, Harry Graf (1990). Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918–1937). New York: Grove Press. Saturday 5 December 1931.
- Germania Issue - 1900
- Tim Cross (1988), The Lost Voices of World War I, page 124.
- Tim Cross (1988), The Lost Voices of World War I, page 125.
- Patrick Bridgwater (1985), The German Poets of the First World War, Croom Helm Ltd. Page 39.
- Patrick Bridgwater (1985), The German Poets of the First World War, Croom Helm Ltd. Page 38.
- Tim Cross, "The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets, and Playwrights," University of Iowa Press, 1989. Page 144.
- Tim Cross, "The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets, and Playwrights," University of Iowa Press, 1989. Pages 144-145.
- Tim Cross, "The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets, and Playwrights," University of Iowa Press, 1989. Page 145.
- Walter H. Sokel (1959), The Writer in Extremis, Stanford University Press.
- Geoff Eley (ed.) and James Retallack (ed.): Wilhelminism and Its Legacies. German Modernities and the Meanings of Reform, 1890–1930. Essays for Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2003
- R. J. Evans (ed.) and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann (ed.): The Coming of the First World War. Clarendon Press, 1990.
- John C. G. Röhl: The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany. Cambridge University Press, 1966.
- John C. G. Röhl: Wilhelm II : The Kaiser's Personal Monarchy, 1888–1900. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- John C. G. Röhl: Kaiser, Hof und Staat. Wilhelm II. und die deutsche Politik. C. H. Beck, Munich ³1988 (TB 2002), ISBN 978-3-406-49405-5.
- John C. G. Röhl: Wilhelm II., C. H. Beck, Munich 1993–2008:
- Volume 1: Die Jugend des Kaisers, 1859–1888. Munich 1993, ²2001, ISBN 3-406-37668-1.
- Volume 2: Der Aufbau der Persönlichen Monarchie, 1888–1900. Munich 2001, ISBN 3-406-48229-5.
- Volume 3: Der Weg in den Abgrund, 1900–1941. Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-406-57779-6. (online review by Lothar Machtan, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaft, Bremen University on http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/)
- Fritz Fischer: Griff nach der Weltmacht. Die Kriegszielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914/18 (1961), Droste 2000 (reprint of special edition, 1967), ISBN 3-7700-0902-9.
- Zeitreise – exhibition in Nordrhein-Westfalen
- Preußen – Chronik eines deutschen Staates (ARD series during “Preußenjahr“ 2001)
- Warum der Wilhelminismus als politischer Kampfbegriff nichts taugt - Die Zeit, February 1999