From Imperial Germany to the Weimar Republic

How the seeds of the Third Reich were sown.

The roots of modern Germany are deeply embedded in a complex historical narrative characterized by fragmentation, political realignments, and finally, unification.

Before the concept of a united Germany took shape, the region was a patchwork of independent entities, each ruled by its own prince or ruler.

The post-Napoleonic era marked a significant turning point with the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), where the aftermath of Napoleon I's defeat set in motion the initial steps towards German unity.

The outcome was the establishment of the German Confederation, a loose association of 39 independent German states.

A map of the German States in 1815 (Some are too small to be shown on the map).

...the official proclamation of the German Empire...

However, the path to a truly unified Germany was not linear, and the process unfolded over several decades.

The critical moment arrived on January 18, 1871, when the last remaining independent German states joined the Confederation, culminating in the official proclamation of the German Empire.

This marked the birth of the 'Second Reich,' with King William I assuming the title of German Emperor and Otto von Bismarck becoming its Chancellor.

The historic event took place at the Palace of Versailles, symbolizing the newfound unity of the German states.

The formation of the German Empire.

The German Empire that emerged from this unification was a mosaic of states, kingdoms, duchies, and principalities. Among them, Prussia emerged as the most dominant, not only due to its territorial size but also because it housed approximately two-thirds of the empire's entire population.

The King of Prussia concurrently served as the German Emperor, consolidating political and administrative power in the hands of a single monarch.

King William I, first German Emperor (1871 - 1888).

Otto Von Bismark, first Chancellor of the German Empire (1871 - 1890)

...the German Empire quickly transitioned from a predominantly agrarian collection of independent states to an industrialized superpower...

The subsequent years witnessed the rapid transformation of the newly unified Germany into a European powerhouse.

Covering a vast landmass exceeding 200,000 square miles and boasting a population surpassing 40 million, the German Empire quickly transitioned from a predominantly agrarian collection of independent states to an industrialized superpower.

The industrial revolution took hold, fueled by advancements in coal and steel production, and Germany became a hub of technological and scientific innovation.

...that eventually erupted into the cataclysmic events of the First World War...

​By 1913, the German Empire had solidified its position as the third-largest economy globally. Its economic prowess was matched by a formidable military, and Germany had become one of the most powerful nations in Europe.

However, these rapid advancements and geopolitical shifts would also contribute to the complex web of alliances and tensions that eventually erupted into the cataclysmic events of the First World War.

The prosperity and achievements of the German Empire in the pre-war years were overshadowed by the tumultuous events that followed, shaping the course of 20th-century history.

The German Empire.

The Great War

Germany's entry into the First World War in 1914 was precipitated by a complex web of alliances, militarization, and geopolitical tensions.

The war began on the 28th July 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Germany, allied with Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia on the 1st of August and on France on the 3rd August.

The invasion of Belgium prompted Britain to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

German soldiers during the First World War.

@ww1_ww2collector • Instagram photos and videos

...played a role in the U.S. decision to join the Allies in 1917....

The German military strategy, known as the Schlieffen Plan, aimed to quickly defeat France before turning attention to the Eastern Front.

However, the plan faltered, and the war on the Western Front turned into a protracted and brutal trench warfare stalemate.

The introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany, notably the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915, strained relations with the United States and played a role in the U.S. decision to join the Allies in 1917.

Key events in Germany's war effort included the use of new technologies like poison gas and the zeppelin air raids.

However, the introduction of total war and the eventual economic blockade by the Allies took a toll on Germany's resources and civilian population.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 intensified anti-German sentiments, particularly in the United States, leading to increased support for entering the First World War. It undermined Germany's diplomatic efforts and contributed to the war's escalation.

RMS Lusitania in Colour (

...The treaty's punitive nature fueled resentment and set the stage for political and economic instability in Germany...

The turning point came in 1918 with the entry of fresh American troops into the conflict, boosting the Allies' manpower and resources. Facing internal strife and a deteriorating military situation, Germany sought an armistice.

On the 11th of November 1918, the Armistice of Compiègne was signed, marking the end of hostilities on the Western Front.

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 imposed harsh terms on Germany, attributing it sole responsibility for the war and demanding extensive territorial concessions, disarmament, and reparations.

The treaty's punitive nature fueled resentment and set the stage for political and economic instability in Germany.

​As defeated member of the ‘Central Powers’, Germany found it’s map redrawn. As part of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, it lost various territories – 13% in total - as punishment for its role in the war:

April 1918: German prisoners who surrendered on the Somme. Notice how thin the prisoners are - rations had been reduced towards the end of the war.

Colors of war

...Danzig and it’s population of over 400,00 was declared a ‘Free city'...

  • The area of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to France including it’s over 1.8 million inhabitants.
  • Northern Schleswig and its population of 163,00 went to Denmark.
  • Posen, West Prussia, Soldau and parts of Upper Silesia went to the ‘newly reborn’ Poland along with its population of approximately 5 million people.
  • Another part of Upper Silesia (along with its 50,00 inhabitants) was awarded to the newly created state of Czechoslovakia.
  • The German cities Eupen and Malmedy went to Belgium and part of East Prussia was awarded to France.
  • The province of Saarland (Germany’s main coal producing region) came under the control of the League of Nations for a period of 15 years. After that a plebiscite (vote) would be held to decide whether it went to France or was returned to German control.
  • The city of Danzig and it’s population of over 400,00 was declared a ‘Free city’ – semi-autonomous but under the protection of the League of Nations and in a customs union (trade agreement) with Poland.

The German Empire was no more.

The last German Emperor and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert; 27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941), held his position from 1888 until his abdication in 1918, signifying the end of the German Empire.

German territorial losses (1919 - 1921).


The aftermath of the First World War had profound and far-reaching consequences for Germany, shaping the nation's political, economic, and social landscape in ways that would reverberate for decades.

Economically, Germany faced a daunting burden. The war had left the country in ruins, and the reparations demanded by the Allies strained its already weakened economy. Hyperinflation, exacerbated by the economic turmoil and the cost of reparations, led to a collapse of the German mark, wiping out savings and causing widespread hardship.

A 5 billion mark note issued in Germany in 1923. Hyperinflation devastated the German economy and contributed to the failure of the Weimar republic, creating a political void which would eventually be filled by the Nazi party.

Hyperinflation In Germany, 1914-1923 (

...the republic faced numerous challenges...

Politically, the war's aftermath ushered in a period of instability and transition.

The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918 marked the end of the German Empire, and the establishment of the Weimar Republic sought to establish a democratic government.

However, the republic faced numerous challenges, including political extremism and social unrest.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles was widely perceived as a 'Diktat' or dictated peace, fostering a sense of humiliation and resentment among the German population.

The impact of the war and its aftermath was deeply felt socially as well. 

The loss of life during the conflict, coupled with economic hardships and the perceived injustice of the treaty, fueled a sense of disillusionment and despair.

Poster of Karl Liebknecht promoting joining the KPD (Spartacus League), a political party active in the Weimar Republic, 1919

LeMO Weimar Republic - Revolution 1918/19 - Spartacus League (

...political and economic turmoil laid the groundwork for the rise of Adolf Hitler...

The societal scars left by the war contributed to the polarization of German society, creating fertile ground for extremist ideologies to take root.

This environment of political and economic turmoil laid the groundwork for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s. Hitler capitalized on the widespread discontent, promising to restore German greatness and overturn the perceived injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.

The consequences of Germany's experience in the aftermath of the First World War ultimately played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of the country and contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The struggles and upheaval experienced in Germany after the First World War helped lead to the rise of the Nazi Party.

Rare color photos from pre-war Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 - Rare Historical Photos

Further reading

A comprehensive account of the political and social upheavals leading to the end of the Second Reich, exploring the broader European context and the collapse of traditional monarchies in the aftermath of World War I.

Examining the tumultuous post-war years, Gerwarth delves into the consequences of the First World War, illustrating how the power vacuums and social unrest following the conflict contributed to the fall of empires, including the Second Reich.

Peukert offers an in-depth analysis of the Weimar Republic, exploring the political and social challenges that paved the way for its downfall, providing insights into the complex factors that set the stage for the rise of radical ideologies.

Tooze examines the global impact of World War I and its aftermath, shedding light on the economic, political, and social transformations that contributed to the downfall of traditional empires, including the Second Reich.

The first volume in Evans' trilogy on Nazi Germany, this book meticulously details the conditions and events in Weimar Germany that paved the way for Hitler's rise to power, providing a comprehensive background to the demise of the Second Reich.

MacMillan examines the post-World War I negotiations, including the Treaty of Versailles, and their profound impact on Germany, shedding light on the diplomatic intricacies that contributed to the fall of the Second Reich and the seeds of future conflicts.