The German Empire came into being when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed its ruler by the representatives of the German Confederation at Versailles in 1871 in the victorious aftermath of the war with France. Over half of its territory and population was Prussian, but the empire contained four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities and the ‘free cities’ of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck. Its architect, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, welded it together masterfully, with populist measures (universal male suffrage, a welfare state) underpinning an electoral system manipulated to ensure the control of the junker landed elite. There was little to provoke dissent: industrial production soared, outstripping Britain by 1900, living standards rose accordingly. Its army, railways and postal service could claim to be the world’s best, and Berlin was the Congress venue of choice for international power brokers. But the accession of ‘reckless Kaiser’ Wilhelm II (1888) would usher in a dangerous foreign policy adventurism.
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