The Imperial Constitution made no reference to political parties, whose activities were governed by the law on associations. Indeed, prior to 1908 political parties were subject to the legislation of the individual federal states regulating the activities of associations, but in that year the statutory provisions governing associations were standardised throughout the Empire, and this codification was accompanied by a liberalisation of the right of association and the right of assembly, which lifted existing restrictions whereby women could not normally become members of associations, and public political gatherings in enclosed spaces required authorisation by the police.
The dominant type of political party in the Empire was an elite-based party, in which all of the crucial party-political functions were performed by small groups of personalities whose role as leading representatives of their respective sections of society gave them an exalted position. Party organisations were still in their infancy and only existed at the constituency level. After 1871 the way in which parties were led and organised began to change, and during the Empire the Center and the Social Democratic Party became the first mass-membership parties of the modern type.
Six major political parties were active in imperial Germany: the Conservative Party, the Free Conservative Party, the National Liberal Party, the Progressive Party, the Center Party, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands--SPD). Only the SPD survived both the empire and the Weimar Republic (1918-33) and came to play a vital role in the Federal Republic. Even though the German Empire lacked a genuinely democratic system, the six main parties accurately reflected the interests and hopes of most of its people. This landscape may be said to have prevailed throughout the duration of the Empire, as the various splinter parties never came to exert any real influence. Each of the five large political camps was largely linked with a particular milieu. The model of the people's party, drawing support from various milieux, was still in its infancy.
The Conservative Party, the most right-wing of the six parties, represented Prussian nationalism, aristocracy, and landed property. Many of its members remained opposed to German unification because they feared Prussia's gradual absorption by the empire. The Conservatives also detested the Reichstag because it was elected by universal suffrage. The German Conservative Party (Deutschkonservative Partei) and the German Imperial Party (Deutsche Reichspartei) were the representatives of Conservatism and were closely associated with Bismarck and his political line, though critical of every concession he made to the Liberals. Aristocrats and owners of large estates from the eastern provinces of Prussia were especially prominent in these parties and primarily pursued their economic interests as farmers. One of the leading Conservatives was Otto von Manteuffel (1805-1882).
The Free Conservative Party represented industrialists and large commercial interests. The views of this party most closely matched those of Bismarck. Its members supported unification because they saw it as unavoidable.
Within the Conservative spectrum there were also splinter parties with anti-Semitic views. These first gained votes in the election of 1887, pollint 0.2% of votes cast. By the election of 1893 these parties gained 3.5% of the votes, and maintained roughly this level of support thereafter. From the Emperor, who was known to be opposed to Jew-baiting, they received no countenance whatever. The active promotion of violence such as that by Wilhelm Bruhn in Konitz was atypical of the party-political antisemites. Two anti-Semites were sentenced one year for libelling the court which acquitted the alleged murderer of the boy Winter in the Konitz Case. They were Dr. Boetlicher and Herr Bruhn, editor and publisher, respectively of the Staatsburger Zeitung.
The National Liberal Party was composed of liberals who had accepted Germany's lack of full democracy because they valued national unity more. They continued to favor a laissez-faire economic policy and secularization. In time, National Liberals became some of the strongest supporters of the acquisition of colonies and a substantial naval buildup, both key issues in the 1880s and 1890s. Liberalism, the strongest political force in the early days of the Empire, relied chiefly on the bourgeoisie for its votes, although it was weakened by division into the Liberal Left and National Liberalism. In spite of common basic Liberal convictions - belief in the market economy, the rule of law and respect for individual freedoms - there were major differences of opinion between the two tendencies on specific political issues. The National Liberals were largely supportive of the policies pursued by Bismarck and his successors and, unlike the Left Liberals, backed a foreign policy based on the quest for power through the build-up of military and naval armaments.
The Progressive Party, unlike the members of the National Liberal Party, remained faithful to all the principles of European liberalism and championed the extension of parliament's powers. This party was in the forefront of those opposed to the authoritarian rule of Bismarck and his successors. The Liberal Left wanted Parliament to have greater powers within the political system, although it had no wish to undermine the constitutional monarchy. It also advocated an active government social policy. Many splits and mergers occurred within the Liberal Left camp, giving birth to parties such as the German Progress Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei), the German Liberal Party (Deutsch-Freisinnige Partei) and the Liberal People's Party (Freisinnige Volkspartei). Among the leading representatives of the Liberal Left were Eugen Richter (1838-1906) and Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919). National Liberalism, represented by the National Liberal Party, was also torn by factional fighting. Rudolf von Bennigsen (1824-1902) and Ernst Bassermann (1854-1917) set their seal on the National Liberalism of their time.
The Center Party was Germany's Roman Catholic party and had strong support in southern Germany, the Rhineland, and in parts of Prussia with significant Polish populations. It was conservative regarding monarchical authority but progressive in matters of social reform. Bismarck's brutal campaign against the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s -- the Kulturkampf (cultural struggle), an attempt to reduce the church's power over education and its role in many other areas of German society -- turned the Center Party against him. By the late 1870s, Bismarck had to concede victory to the party, which had become stronger through its resistance to the government's persecution. The Centre Party, as the representative of political Catholicism, was akin to the model of the people's party, since the Catholic faith, the common factor that united its members, covered a wide range of social milieux. This also meant, however, that various wings emerged, chiefly a more 'conservative' wing, which cooperated with the Conservatives, and a more 'leftist' labour wing, which campaigned for active government social policies to assist the working classes. The outstanding leader of the Centre Party was Ludwig Windthorst (1812-1891), who became a formidable opponent of Bismarck in the Reichstag. The party remained important during the Weimar Republic and was the forerunner of the Federal Republic's moderate conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union--CDU) and the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union--CSU).
The Marxist Social Democratic Party [SPD] was founded in Gotha in 1875, a fusion of Ferdinand Lassalle's General German Workers' Association (formed in 1863), which advocated state socialism, and the Social Democratic Labor Party (formed in 1869), headed by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, which aspired to establish a classless communist society. The SPD advocated a mixture of revolution and quiet work within the parliamentary system. The clearest statement of this impossible combination was the Erfurt Program of 1891. The former method frightened nearly all Germans to the party's right, while the latter would build the SPD into the largest party in the Reichstag after the elections of 1912. The Social Democrats, most of whose activists and voters came from the growing ranks of industrial labour, remained entrenched for a long time in the political theories of Karl Marx, which caused bitter strife within the party and ultimately led to a split that became permanent after 1918. The Social Democrats campaigned intensively for democratic rights and equality and were fundamentally opposed to the political system of the Empire and to Bismarck. Despite twelve years of persecution under the Socialism Act (1878-1890), which included expulsions and press bans, the Social Democratic Party of Germany was able to consolidate and emerged from this period in its history as a stronger force. August Bebel was the pre-eminent unifying leader of the Social Democrats at that time.
Once Bismarck gave up his campaign against Germany's Roman Catholics, whom he had seen for a time as a Vatican-controlled threat to the stability of the empire, he attacked the SPD with a series of antisocialist laws beginning in 1878. A positive aspect of Bismarck's campaign to contain the SPD was a number of laws passed in the 1880s establishing national health insurance and old-age pensions. Bismarck's hope was that if workers were protected by the government, they would come to support it and see no need for revolution. Bismarck's antisocialist campaign, which continued until his dismissal in 1890 by Wilhelm II, severely restricted the activities of the SPD. Ironically, the laws may have inadvertently benefited the SPD by forcing it to work within legal channels. As a result of its sustained activity within the political system, the SPD became a cautious, pragmatic party, which, despite its fiery Marxist rhetoric, won increasing numbers of seats in the Reichstag and achieved some improvements in working and living conditions for Germany's working class.
Kaiser Whilhelm II had an unreasoning fear and hatred of the Socialists. In Germany the Socialists were the great bulk of the mechanics and the best of the whole laboring population, and they are quiet, law-abiding, peaceable folk; their political program was in the main nothing worse than that of a radical reform party, and there was a large proportion of them who are even royalists. These Socialists polled at the 1912 election some 2,170,000 votes, which was about twice the voting strength of any other political party in the empire. Yet so unreasoning and unreasonable was the antipathy of the Kaiser to this large fraction of the nation that he referred to them in a throne speech as a "horde of men unworthy to bear the name of Germans." He had, on many other occasions, insulted these men and their families in the grossest and most unjust manner, and he frequently provoked them in a most despicable way. He has harangued regiments, telling them that it would be their duty, if there ever was another popular uprising, to shoot down the rioters, even if their own mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters were among them.
The key statutory provisions governing the right to vote in Reichstag elections were derived from the Electoral Act adopted by the National Assembly in St Paul's Church, Frankfurt, on 12 April 1849 and had already applied to the North German Confederation. The Electoral Act of 31 May 1869, which regulated elections to the Reichstag of the North German Confederation, was adopted as an imperial law in 1871 and remained in force without significant amendment until the end of the monarchy in 1918. The Reichstag was directly elected by universal manhood suffrage on the basis of one man, one vote, the most progressive electoral system in Europe at that time. Subject to certain restrictions, all German men aged 25 or over who lived in one of the federal states could vote. Women, on the other hand, were not enfranchised until 1918. The Members of the Reichstag were elected directly rather than through delegates and had to obtain an absolute majority of the votes cast. In 1871, the territory of the Empire was divided into 382 constituencies, and in 1873 a further 15 constituencies in Alsace-Lorraine were added. The population distribution was based on the 1864 census, each constituency containing about 100,000 inhabitants, and the constituency map remained unaltered until 1918. This meant that no consideration was given to movements of population in the Empire resulting from East-West migration, depopulation of rural areas, industrialisation and urbanisation, which resulted in widening disparities in the numbers of eligible voters in the various constituencies. For example, the constituency of Teltow, by Berlin, with 338 900 registered voters, elected one Member to the Reichstag, while Schaumburg-Lippe, with only 10,700 registered electors, enjoyed the same right. In general, cities and centres of industrial activity were at a disadvantage in relation to rural agricultural areas.
In the period of the Empire from 1871 to 1918, there were 12 general elections to the Reichstag (1871, 1874, 1877, 1878, 1881, 1884, 1887, 1890, 1893, 1898, 1903, 1907 and 1912; there were no more elections thereafter because of the war).
During these years, the balance among the five political forces (the Conservatives, the National Liberals, the Liberal Left, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats1) swung considerably. Liberalism, a powerful force in the initial stages, went into decline and lost its predominant role. The Conservatives also lost a certain amount of ground, despite occasional swings in their favour. The stablest political force in the Empire was the Centre, which could always count on the support of a quarter to a fifth of the electorate. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, grew from parliamentary insignificance to become the largest group in 1912.
Voter turnout rose in the course of the imperial period, from 50.7% in 1871 to 84.5% in 1912; the parties evidently succeeded in mobilising the electorate. Political developments during the time of the Empire resulted in a fundamental politicisation of the German population.
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