At the turn of the century there was a belief in progress and unbroken optimism among all classes in the Empire. In Germany one technical innovation was followed by yet another. The slogans of the time were faster, higher, farther. People in the Rhineland and Westphalia were also caught up in this enthusiasm for technology.
The Ruhr region had developed into the heavy industrial centre of the German Empire, whose appearance was definitively marked by coal-mines and factory premises. Approximately 2.3 million people lived in the region and several towns had experienced massive growth; for example Dortmund and Essen, which from 1895 and 1896 had more than 100,000 inhabitants and became big cities. It was especially immigrants who con-tributed to this growth in population; for instance the East Prussian inhabitants at the Ruhr accounted for 10% of the total. In almost all the towns there was a sufficient supply of water and a sewage system. Street-lighting, trams and private households then made the reliable supply of electricity a high priority across the whole Empire, which in turn boosted coal-mining in the region.
It was the social élite of the aristocracy and the military, as well as entrepreneurs who made the decisions. While the power of enterprise increasingly lay in the hands of fewer persons, and bank capital and industry continued to interlink, the workers lived on the edge of subsistence. Families depended on women and children contributing to work, as the wages of one man alone were not enough. In this situation trade unions and entrepreneurs were irreconcilable; as a result during the 1870's there was a spate of strikes. Living space for workers was in short supply: 20 to 30 people came to look at every vacant flat. In 10-20% of all households a room, or rather a sleeping place, was sublet to a lodger. However, at least society was beginning to recognize the social problems as such. There were attempts to alleviate the lot of the lower classes. But apart from the socialists, nobody wanted to change the prevailing social order, which also denied workers their full political rights.
The health system that was being established was successful in its concentration on prevention and improving hygienic conditions: more babies survived childbirth. At the same time a health insurance system was introduced which ensured that all classes in society received medical treatment. In addition to these State endeavours, there were also private initiatives. For example, at that time the idea originated to provide poor but large families with a small piece of land, so that by growing vegetables they could improve their own provisions independently: allotment gardens came into being. The workers and citizens spent their leisure time in lively club activities – of course they were strictly segregated. Socializing and the consumption of beer were at the forefront, but also sports clubs and especially football clubs became enormously popular.
Nature in the Ruhr region suffered from the consequences of industrialisation. The environment was affected detrimentally by emissions from the factories. The little rivers of the region served as breeding grounds for cholera, typhoid, dysentery and malaria – in the air the soot was so thick one could almost cut it.
In this situation the First World War broke out. At first social differences were pushed into the background by patriotic feelings, which united all classes of the population. The so-called "Burgfrieden" (truce) of the emperor with the socialists and their agreement to the necessary war loans also postponed political conflicts until after the end of the war.