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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).

SLUB Dresden, (CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Shooting clubs had a very long tradition in German history. They usually had an urban and bourgeois background. The practice of shooting, but also the highly symbolic value of bearing arms were both main aspects of social activities and festivals involving shooting clubs.

One key difference between shooting clubs and veteran associations is that the latter was a modern mass movement. The Kriegervereine emerged during the nineteenth century and involved not only the middle class in the cities. The federal association of the German veterans and reservists associations (Kyffhäuserbund) had nearly 3 million members on the eve of WWI. Similarly to the shooting clubs, the Kriegervereine were also involved in organizing festivals and other forms of socialization, which emphasized the representative meaning of weapons, and the importance of a military habitus in the German society. Furthermore, these associations were engaged in several other activities such as the mutual help among members, the support to the culture of remembrance (e.g. building national monuments), and the propaganda of military values (e.g. organizing “training camps” for young recruits).

Associations of university students were, by contrast, small elite groups. However, they were also responsible for supporting the culture of weapons, of honor and violence in Imperial Germany. One of the Studentenverbindungen main activities was fencing, which did not only mean to compete, but also to prove one’s own manhood. Showing a dueling scar was a badge of honor for the Corp students.

Despite their playing a major role during the revolution of 1848, the civil militias (Bürgerwehr) rapidly disappeared after 1849, or they became more similar to a “playing war” association than to a real military force. However, in Imperial Germany two more national militias existed: the Landwehr for reservists, who completed the military service, and the Landsturm for the population from 17 to 45 years old that did not serve in the regular army.

As in the case of France, Italy and the British Empire, the German colonial troops were not only “playing war”, but also participating in colonial wars and repressive activities. The Schutztruppen were a hybrid para-military/military group. Initially, they had been partly or indirectly State-controlled (e.g. the Wissmanntruppe), they later passed fully under the control of the Imperial colonial office. These composite colonial units carried out military as well as police tasks, and were flexibly composed of mercenaries, regular troops and volunteers.

Along with the colonial troops, private police and strikebreaking groups were another type of armed associations for which the “real need” to use weapons was at least as relevant as the symbolic and imagined dimension of violence. The so-called Schutzwehren were vigilante groups hired by steel and mining companies with the goal of defending private propriety. The vigilantes were also mobilized to protect workers who did not take part into the strike, or to force the strikers to return to work. The strikebreaking groups were actively supported or at least tolerated by the state and, by contrast, the security teams organized by striking workers were strictly prohibited. While para-military groups in Weimar Germany, especially the right-wing Freikorps militia, have been relatively well researched, the prewar period is still understudied.


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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