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German Reich. Liberal phase.

The beginning of a liberal phase hardly can be seen at the times when the enthronement as a
German Kaiser William I of the Prussian King had taken place. But as a formal beginning of a
special period of German history this event can be used for timing orientation. Further sign of this
and even much in a liberal sense was the creation of new constitution. It stated that the German Reich
comprised of 26 states. Of these Prussian kingdom was the largest and its population comprised more
than halve of the total, as well as over two thirds of the land former entity possessed as a whole. As
formal sovereignty was laid at the heads of the member states and not in the person of the Kaiser or
accordingly to the republican principle in the people many see it as an oligarchy-like statehood.
Hardly liberal were principles of its creation and existence, as the highest governing person was the
Chancellor and the Kaiser at the top of the Reich. Its constitution was, formally seen, more liberal as
the Prussian at least as of the electoral principles and rules, but its enacting, based not on a
democratic vote but on a treaty of military might of winners in the war against France, denied
existence of any liberal common will, not to speak of a democratic procedure in the newly formed
state. But national feelings as much as paid from France reparations brought overall patriotic
sentiment to the country and with no doubt contributed to the feeling of freedom and bright future in
If it is right to call the period between 1870 and 1879 in German Reich as a liberal one can
be seen only in comparison at least with periods immediately before and after that time. The most
historians come to conclusion that the whole time after 1849 and up to the World War One was rather
reactionary. As the events of 1848 calmed down, liberalization defeated and political system has
stabilized itself, there was no way to see more liberalism as it was claimed and gained from the forces
acting in that rumors.
With no doubt was German Reich a conservative state. But as the reality is always far from
the order of ideas, so inside the conservative identity have developed itself a number of signs with
strong liberal flair that has given birth to the title of liberal phase seen in most parts of life even as
conservative direction prevailed. Ideas and thoughts are easy to turn into their opposite, to play
against each other and to neglect, as especially their relation to the reality almost always shows. It is
therefore rather signs of some idea, that taken into consideration, shows itself as even not dominant
but, in some respect, more apparent than the others and, to a degree, proved in itself through real life.
With such precautions it is possible to look at the time of imperial Germany in search for
some liberalist phases which will be proven down here in the major fields of public life of that time.
The direction taken in the public policy from the very beginning of this new period changed
repeatedly. So were times around the middle of 19-th century in territories, populated with German
But political direction became clear with Otto von Bismark-Schnhausen, a modest man with
great imagination and iron will for what he his nickname iron chancellor became. If it is
possible to see in him a guarantee for future liberalism in the German Reich it has to be done at the
early period of his ascendance to the power in Germany. He is said to understand all the given
tendencies in the political developments, caused by industry, national state-building, liberalism,
democracy, even materialism. But to the last, his war with the church was not resulted from the
materialistic views. His were the understandings, that the religion as infallible truth is a great cause
for power and so should be controlled from the state and not vice versa.
In politics Bismarck always was supporter and leading figure of conservatism and only the
necessity to develop economic grows and gain some popular support have led him to accept
liberalization and freer trade than conservative view allowed it to be.
The overall concept of the state, formed after the war against France, was not democratic in
its idea but rooted deep in the will of the people. The unity of German territory was underway and
this fascinated many of may be critical viewers. But non-democratic basis laid false foundations and
could not prove stable enough to sustain to external forces and paved the way to a very sad solutions
in the first half of 20-th century and too many victims as to see it with neutral eyes. So the liberal
were, maybe, some features of the period, but by no means the foundations and main political and
social principles of the state under Bismarck and Kaiser.
But in economic life there where deep changes, helpful for all social classes and liberal in
their main directions. Central banking, a measurement system, legal frames for stock exchange
facilitation brought about an economic boom, followed by short bust and then again enormous
economic growth, nearly as strong as this were in the initial phases. So in the next period of time up
to the first world war liberal entrepreneurship environment created for the very beginning of
industrialism, was followed by bolstering economy especially in the fields of heavy industry like
mining, machine building, chemical and many other branches like textile. This all caused the
superiority of German economy at the beginning of 20-th century with large and apparent surplus.
This all let only American industry to be of a greater scale in the world.
Especially in the sphere of economy liberal theory was not highly developed. From that time
there are no significant representatives of original theoretical background or even no recognized
theory with self standing ability. But nevertheless even from the time of Frederick William IV liberal
thought of Droysen, Haym or after them Traitschke laid down some core elements for future
prosperous way of the next generation. This was the future in the time of William the King since
1861. And as a new age this was not clear enough where it will develop itself.
In historical books there is an acknowledgement of Bismarck he personally knows nothing
to begin with the new industrial and economic model which his efforts created in Germany.
But liberalization in the Reich was brought about the developments of the time as well as of
the efforts of its founders. That not all the working class found itself inside the trade unions and
social democratic party is as well a success for liberal cause as a characteristic feature of political and
ideological diversity much greater than it is emphasized in the economic and social books especially
with ideological color. There were many great thinkers among people at the roots of liberal
beginnings in German public policy. Of that generation was said they preached the liberty but
became the almighty state, beloved the nation but didnt believe the people, as at the end refused to
support the overall suffrage.
Not so was Bismarck. After power was in his hands sure enough he started to play it at own
will and discretion.
His stance on liberal idea he showed also in dismissing two leading liberals from his cabinet
in Prussian finance and trade minister as soon as they didnt fit into his power calculations anymore.
And quite an aggressive position he took after news about the second assassination attempt on the
Kaiser passed to him. The dissolution of parliament was only immediate threat he put into play with
second menace of turning to a new constitution. Nothing liberal at all can be seen in this position and
this liberal phase can be regarded as closed at the moment, at least from the political point of view.
This the more so as winning forces after the election were conservatives claiming socialists and their
unwitting allies liberals with their propagated policies are the cause of economic stalemate. So one
but a pure example of the consequences of this change was the introduction of protectionist free trade
barriers tariffs through a law in 1879 and followed after that attempt to split liberals in parliament.
Parliamentary democracy was an opposite of what Bismarck seen as right public order. So his
politics was intended to limit the political power of fractions in the Reichstag and in the Prussian
Landtag, what he permanently sought to. At the level of political establishment in the German Reich
almost no party has shown its interest and clear intention to become responsible for the government
and go with this idea into the elections. So chancellor was seen as a legitimate interface between
parliament and executive power. And this power was not supported by one party of a formal coalition
of them but the chancellor tried to relay on a combination of political stances and parties. He didnt
want to be politically bound to one ideology of direction. As Bismarck was not himself a liberal
politician, liberalism was possible only in the limited frame necessary for him to obtain his political
stance, achieve the results in the spheres where liberalism was the right and maybe the only usable
mechanism and refused to go further along the road as soon as other political agenda loomed about
him. But because of this he heeded liberalism badly. As an authoritarian politician, who wants things
to go his way he has to show that his acting was successful, otherwise the authority vested in him
were diminished. So at some point he gave the bureaucratic machinery clear intention to act in sense
of achievements, to promote well-being, which liberal philosophy and liberal political agenda is able
to promote in a fruitful way.
From 1877 down there was steady shrinking in popular support for liberals, what was to see in
different parts of political developments. In the year 1879 their disastrous defeat appeared in its full
clarity as the number of seats dropped from the majority of 232 to 142 out of 433 seats in the
Reichstag, so liberalism was in decline. The defeat by them came to the gain of conservatives, so
on political level liberalism as a parliamentary power was clearly in minority, and this lasted for the
next generation.
Seen as liberal time in 1870-th was rather a prelude to the ascending in the foreseeable future
of working class party of an industrializing society and strengthening of middle politic stance where
those not able to reach to the top and tough to far from the industrial worker existence to understand
its political view will gather to reach to the political power as proponent of a free political order
where chances are present but not given from the top rather gained from within the society.
What was relation of Bismarck to another politically ascending population sector workers
shows his statement in the parliament about his conversations with Ferdinand Lassalle where he
played the role of a good father rather than a political ally. At the time the state was much more
liberal and capitalist as it was familiar to Bismarck himself, as historians tell. So any contributions to
them were on the halfway of unions with liberals somewhere lost in detail.
Interesting is, that the Chancellor had the opportunity to try to form a parliamentary backed
government if he would propose this to the national-liberal fraction. But his personal view has never
shown signs of democratic direction and time was not ripe enough to materialize this from itself.
Many signs then pointed out that in the time neighboring parties in Reichstag as in Germany
as well were not much different because of the basis of their programs or principles as because of
their personnel choices and relations. So their struggle was not real in the sense of politics and time
of their moderate influence on politics at all can be called as a best and glorious time of German
parliamentarianism (Bltezeit so Golo Mann).
As many antagonisms grew religiosity against the religious indifference, social
responsibility against the so called Manchester-like free market, historical diversity among the
German states against the Unitarian state the need for balance in state gave the opportunity of
liberal with as much free area as under the circumstances possible society to grasp its roots.
One very important sign of liberalism of that time is the liberal features of the most left
leaders of social democrats. As well as Lassalle or Bebel as Liebknecht in the telling of later
historians show them in many respects as liberal as most of 1848 Revolution figures were. Their
position as enemies of the Reich (Rechsfeinde) is may be right when it itself will be seen as an
ideal political body, but even Bismark himself has seen its weaknesses and flaws. So this kind of
labeling a political opponent as a peoples enemy and resulting from it antagonist stance is absolutely
political and has nothing to do with their good or bad role in the German history.
Great political liberalization paces are the significant legal unification, especially in the
judiciary, united and active foreign policy, central bank and one currency creation.
In the economy early allies of Bismarck, Rudolph von Delbrck has contributed well to
developments of the liberal idea of free trade. He as well as Eduard Lasker, to whom US Congress
has devoted special commendation, helped most in growing the area of free trade as there was strong
need of common all-German market, commercial legislation, common currency and commercial fleet.
Individual entrepreneurship on the eve of unified market and economy unfettered strong economic
forces and domestic as well as foreign trade spurred high across the country. All this under liberal
spirit gave birth to very significant economic achievements even when Bismarck disliked
manchesterian signs of such turns. Soaring foreign trade backed by rise in iron, coal and steel
production, used by promoter of economic changes the railway all this formed strong growth,
building and construction boom, as well as the soaring stock market, spurred by optimism among the
A sign of a weird, but liberal politics could be seen in the activities known as the Kulturkampf
cultural struggle, which was called to weaken and steadily weakened the position of catholic church
and so promoted much of the liberal space in culture and even education, but has not reached a stage
of church defeat as to eliminate it from the political life. To the contrary it gave birth to the Centre
party as it was known throughout next nearly 50 years. This party with significant parliamentary
presence and strong opposition to the Bismarckian policy and cross-class appeal reduced as well the
left as the rights wings of social political forces and so can be seen as strong supported opposition.
Existence of such a party was also one but remarkable liberal achievement of the society able enough
to find a middle way and support religious feelings with moderate citizen consciousness. Especially
the abolition of religious catholic division inside of the Prussian Ministry of Culture was a clear
move towards the more liberalization of state from the religious supervision. But as public speeches
for the catholic church where also put on same level as public order offences even some liberals have
turned their backs to such subversive liberalization.
Further steps, the state supervision over schools as well as civil marriage and ban on Jesuits
are also moves to meet the liberal ends but not the most desired ones. It has to be admitted, that, in
spite of popular support for clearer division between religious and public authority this direction
gained weight and contributed to the political importance of government and his agenda. The refusal
to reiterate in the constitution of some religious passages, desired by Catholics, was expressed in
clear and somewhat sharp tone, further grew to a full-scale political conflict that became a point of
interest for many historians. Speculations exist that Bismarck with his strict refuse of Catholicism
only promoted its political importance to the people and in this confusing way conytributed to the
political diversity.
In the press freedom liberal values seemed to be protected at the right level. But as the future
events especially concerning the socialist press ban showed, there were no guarantees of future blows.
Further steps on the way back from the liberal politics were the protectionist tariffs, new
indirect federal taxes and so creation of a new federal taxation authority, or much spoken state
As next the tobacco monopoly, pursued by Bismarck in high 1870-th and followed by some
other tax reform issues led situation to further split between Bismarck and liberals and to their lost of
As from the time of 1879 on conservative measures and creation of protectionist economic
means followed were so the scandal and accusation of corruption even in the railway sector the
proud of Prussian industry and one of the biggest railway companies in the world, built by Strousberg
and collapsed in mid-1870-th all this showed that without political competition and control
corruption may grow endemic.
An interesting tough understandable move of Bismarck was to turn to the national-wide non-
political associations as a replacement of parliamentary support. This witnesses, that even by
defeating liberals, he could not gain enough parliamentary basis for his initiatives or even didnt want
it to come.
In social life liberalism has begun as an idea of free thought and humanity for promoting
progress and prosperity. This was changed with interests in place of idea, with economic success
instead of philosophic development, with the effect that liberal became more like success-oriented
with minimal limitations and responsibilities.
One of the questions of profound importance is that about the ability of the liberal classes to
own and to exercise the power as opposite ones are on their nature and needs mach more organized
and goal-oriented. As the events further show, liberals lost their positions, as well in the politics, so in
the economy. Protectionist measures, among them first of all tariffs, as well as moves on the opposite
side of the politic sector the rise of socialists give rather negative answer on this question.
Limited role of Parliament has not contained it from becoming the more and more distanced
from the liberal idea and liberal followers. Having free trade and moving to protectionist measures
with every parliament elected after 1879 more and more Germany distanced itself from the liberalism
in economy.
As parliament has no political power over the ministries bureaucracy extended itself and was
the real policy-maker in the country, choosing the ways and means to complete wants and needs its
ruler Chancellor.
It could be questioned if bureaucratic structure of a state can move it to or from a liberal
policy making. As can be seen there is no direct correlation throughout the countries. A look at the
Britain show, that liberal monarchy there can only prove this conclusion.
It can be seen that the liberal phase was not that much a picture of classic idyllic society,
where liberalism means the most freedom for all. A society is only as free as it its co-citizen can free
each other from own opposing interests and demands. As these were the time when society members
badly needed each other for realization of prosperity needs and desires, brought with the rapid
industrial changes, and its structure was in the grip of strong forces of the past, as own political figure
of Bismarck shows, the only possible way out was in conflict. It must be stated, that to the great
extent this conflict and the ways of its resolution were peaceful and productive enough to calm and
satisfy its parties. As stated at the beginning of this essay, the foundations, being not democratic
enough and changes being far too extraordinary, led German Reich to the challenges it was hardly
prepared to, but this is already another chapter of Germsan history.