The case of German Empire
It is a commonplace that the Kaiserreich (Imperial Germany) was a semi-authoritarian and militaristic state. Around 1900, however, the federal nation-state established by the legendary “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck was the European power with the strongest socialist movement and with the most advanced welfare state. In 1914, Germany was the second largest industrial economy in the world after the USA, and the length of the German railroads easily surpassed the French and the British network. The Kaiserreich was extremely dynamic not only economically but also culturally. Various innovative movement and avant-gardes such as the Expressionism, the Jugendstil, and the Lebensreform arose in Fin-de-Siecle. One of the main contradiction in German modernity was the clash between political conservatism on the one hand and the industrial boom as well as the cultural and technological vitality on the other. Without a priori following the theory of Germany’s special historical path (Sonderweg), the research project aims at investigating political violence and, more particularly, the role played by voluntary, non-state armed associations.
In 1871, the Kaiserreich was triumphantly proclaimed at Versailles after three victorious wars against Denmark, the Habsburg monarchy, and the Second French Empire. Despite this bellicose origin, the new German state was concerned in securing peace with its western and eastern European neighbors for more than four decades. The risk of a conflict between European powers turned dangerously into imperialist rivalry outside Europe. Nevertheless, violence was part of the everyday life during the Belle Époque. The most widespread forms of violence emerged in the context of the political mobilization of socialist and anarchist groups as well as during strikes and labour conflicts. Another important field of violence was linked with the Colonial wars and the exploitation of colonial territories. In addition, the population was confronted with plenty of potential or symbolic forms of violence. These more abstract patterns of violence were closely related to the tradition of dueling and to the cult of honor, but they were also associated with military parades and war memorials, with the high social value of military uniforms, and with the festivals and commemorations organized by armed groups of veterans, or by the sharpshooting societies.
In the German case, the topic of political violence is of special interest for many reasons. First, the high conflict potential among the resilience of the semi-authoritarian, highly hierarchical Prussian state, the incomplete liberal reforms and the increasingly strong socialist movement, which received more than 30% of the votes at the Reichstag election in 1903. Second, the controversial impact of the rapid industrialization, i.e. the persistence of corporative, protectionist and reactionary mentality on the one hand and the emerging of trade unions and the welfare state on the other. Third, the legally unrestricted circulation of firearms as well as the high social and symbolic capital of uniforms and weapons.
The project is focusing on six main groups of armed associations, which played a key role in the political, cultural and social history of Imperial Germany: 1) Shooting clubs (Schützenvereine); 2) Veterans and reservists associations (Kriegervereine); 3) Associations of university students (Studentenverbindungen); 4) Civil Militias and Home guard (Bürgerwehr, Landwehr, and Landsturm); 5) Colonial Schutztruppen; 6) Private police and strikebreaking groups (Schutzwehren).