Despite elements of democracy, with the Kaiser at the Head of the Constitution and holding such significant powers, Wilhelminian Germany was clearly structured to maintain authority and keep the power concentrated at the top. The issue is whether or not in practice the state was totally authoritarian and how far Germany was stuck in authoritarianism, or in other words; how much potential for advancement towards democracy there was. It also needs to be established what is meant by an ‘authoritarian state’ as the Kaiser’s power can be seen in the reflection of other powers; the Kaiser was the head of the army & appointed the Chancellor, therefore the authoritarianism & power of these two can be seen to reflect the authoritarianism & power of the Kaiser. Even areas where the strength of influence from Prussian elite is dominant can be seen as indicating an authoritarian state as the elite thrive in authoritarianism & bureaucrats flourish under strong monarchy.
True democracy must involve ‘the people’, rather than just the bureaucrats, having a strong influence & active part in how the country is run, as only then is everyone’s interests given a fair chance to be considered. EXAMPLES However, the ‘Structuralist’ theory, heavily influenced by Marxism, argues the traditional Prussian elite were not supporting the Kaiser’s power, but seeking to fill the power vacuum left by his weak personality and the limited constitutional power of the Reichstag. This can be seen as being actively done when, instead of making an enemy of the new industrial elite, they form an alliance with them. It could be argued that this alliance actually encouraged authoritarianism as it suppressed the forces of democracy, but with the Prussian elite directing society rather than the Kaiser authoritarianism can be said to have decreased whether or not democracy decreased with it.
Further evidence of the influence of the traditional elite is the success of the hugely influential Navy League with its one million members and other pressure groups. While on the surface it seems to support a more ‘history from below’ theory as it was supported by the ‘grass roots’ of political activity, it was actually heavily funded by industrialist who had allied with the elite, meaning it was possibly vulnerable to the control of the elite. Also, even by the eve of the First World War, the elite appeared to be maintaining their power because even Bethmann’s 1910 constitutional plan to alter the rich-bias 3 tier Bundesrat voting system was dropped in the face of Conservative opposition. The Conservative elite flexed their muscle again with their successful pressure on watering down the inheritance tax in the 1905 budget.
However the Army Bill that was later passed included an inheritance tax, but this did not happen until 1913, so whether or not this shows the power of the elite depends on whether emphasis is put on how long it was held off for by the Conservatives or that they were not powerful enough to prevent it. The Conservative elite within the government, such as the Chairman, also tried to maintain power by conducting policies of moderate reform to weaken the socialist opposition, mainly the SPD, but the policies did not have the desired great effect. The SPD did support the 1913 Army Bill despite their beliefs supposedly being anti-navy expansion as it was Imperialist, but this does not suggest the opposition from the SPD had been lessened because the bill was actually supported by them because it involved taxing the rich. In fact, statistics show that the SPD was strengthened over the years; by 1912 it held 110 seats in the Reichstag, replacing the Centre Party as the largest party.
Furthermore, this rise in number was directly in the wake of Bethmann’s ‘Imperil Insurnce Code’ demonstrating socialists couldn’t be ‘paid off’ by welfare policies. Bismarck famously described the Constitution as an ‘empty vessel whose contents are determined by those in power’ suggesting the direction in which Germany is steered is entirely dependent on who is the Kaiser, only changing with succession of Kaisers. This is very much a view belonging to the ‘personal rule’ theory on who held the power that the system was based on court flattery, favouritism & cliques due to the Kaiser’s instability. The structure of the Constitution, although supposedly democratic, demonstrates how power was concentrated at the top. It was the ‘authorities’ (the Kaiser and the Chancellor), not the Reichstag or Bundesrat, calling the shots on what was to be discussed.
This, combined with the allowance of the Kaiser to dismiss the Chancellor or dissolve the Reichstag, could essentially enable the Kaiser to severely hinder the progression of any policies that displeased him. The power to dismiss the Chancellor was not an empty power; it was exercised by Wilhelm in 1909 due to Bulow’s failure to defend the Kaiser to the rest of the government after the Daily Telegraph Affair, proving the Kaiser could & would use the powers he had. However, this could not just be done on a whim, but rather Wilhelm had to wait for a sufficient reason, such as the failure of passing a budget, to be seen to be in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution. Moreover, the public clearly thought they were a democracy as they objected to the Kaiser giving the impression in the Daily Telegraph that he made all the decisions in government & were angered that he admitted to having not read the Constitution.
Furthermore, that the public were allowed free critical press, evidenced in the newspaper criticisms of the Daily Telegraph incident & Zabern Affair, can be argued to be a clear indicator that Germany was not ‘entrenched’ in authoritarianism because in truly authoritarian states, such as Russia, criticism in newspapers would be censored and opposition or pressure, like that of the SPD or Nationalist groups, would be boycotted. Therefore, the public outcry to these events showed that among the public there was a spirit of democracy, not a belief in authoritarianism, suggesting Germany was not entrenched in authoritarianism, but ready and prepared to become more democratic. Any attempts of authoritarianism being increased were generally met with public opposition. However, public opinion & the freedom of it is not necessarily enough to constitute an un-authoritarian state; the limitations of the Reichstag highlighted the lack of ‘true’ democracy being the ‘democracy in the Undemocratic State’ as the Reichstag is limited in its power.
The Reichstag was supposedly the source of democracy for Germany, but has since been called by Karl Liebknecht merely a ‘fig-leaf’ for absolutism, the veil covering the truth that Germany was still authoritarian. The Reichstag was made of weak, divided parties causing occasional failure to support one another & meaning no strong bloc against the authorities as the separate parties views often differed. For instance Schiederman’s call for the resignation of Bethmann was ignored & not openly supported by fellow politicians. Even when the Reichstag did agree & make own demands as a whole they were often ignored because both the Chancellor and the army were only responsible to the Kaiser, for example Bethmann did not resign after the Reichstag’s vote of no confidence following the Zabern Affair and Bulow easily silenced demand for constitutional change after the Daily Telegraph Affair with an apology.
While the Reichstag was important in respect that it was needed to pass legislation, Bismarck had reduced their powers; firstly with his 1874 Septenimal Act where the Reichstag could only vote on the military budget once every seven years and then his switch to protectionism in 1879 increasing the government’s income gave financial independency from the Reichstag. On the other hand, despite this overall decrease of Reichstag powers, there was an indication their influence was on the up again by the eve of WW1 with the Reichstag allowed to vote on military budget every five years instead. This could be seen as showing gradual change and enough high demand for change to have effects like these, thus shedding light on the potential for democratic advancement & the willingness of the public for reduction in authority, meaning authoritarianism was not entrenched in German society. In conclusion, the power the Kaiser had over the Chancellor, the Constitution & the army equated to an authoritarian state, but by no means was it stuck, or ‘entrenched’, in authoritarianism.
The growing assertive nature of the Reichstag combined with popularity of different pressure groups and rise of socialist movements like the SPD, shows that there was, firstly a definite willingness for change, secondly the potential for change & lastly that gradual pushes for decrease in authoritarianism were starting to be made. Germany was still an authoritarian state, but if the First World War had not happened, turning Germany upside down, power may have shifted from the Prussian elite to the Reichstag, the Reichstag’s increasing assertiveness & demands might have evolved into a stronger power and the SPD may have grown so large that the socialist movement could have transformed Germany into a socialist state & decreased the Kaiser’s power itself.
Courtney from Study Moose
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