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To what extent was the Second Reich an entrenched autocracy between 1900-1914? Essay

In the years 1900-1914 there was arguably a significant move towards democracy within Germany. There were general desire for political and social reform and many wished for constitutional change. However, come 1914 Germany still remained nearly as autocratic as it had been back in 1900. Over this period it can clearly be shown through 3 key areas: the Constitution, German policy and events, that, regardless of attempted moves towards democracy, Germany truly was an entrenched autocracy in this period.

The German Imperial Constitution of 1871 was widely regarded by contemporaries to be one of the most democratic in the world. People commented at the time how it was more democratic than the UK system of first-past-the-post and the people of Germany were proud that their country was now the European capital of democracy. The Reichstag had universal male suffrage over the age of 25 and was elected by secret ballot. The people felt that they had the true power in Germany as any legislation that was proposed by the Chancellor had to be passed by them and as well as this they could stop any form of direct taxation put forward by the Imperial Government (who could only raise indirect taxes without consent) through blocking such.

However, the Reichstag was not nearly as democratic as it initially seems: it couldn’t produce its own legislation and the only person who could, the Chancellor, couldn’t be removed by them. Similarly the Kaiser and Ministers were untouchable. Whilst the people of Germany voted for who represented them the very fact that the members of the Reichstag were unpaid guaranteed an unfair representation of conservative members, ironic considering it is meant to be the most democratic constitution using proportional representation. The Bundesrat was the collection of 58 representatives who spoke for the federal states of Germany. This was thought to be democratic as it meant the national government had to take into account the wishes of all the separate federal states. Furthermore, the Reichstag could only be dissolved with the go ahead from the Bundesrat which arguably protected the peoples elected representatives of the Reichstag.

The Bundesrat also had to ratify all national legislation and had control over their own local affairs such as education, agriculture, welfare and the justice system. The Bundesrat could also be said to be democratic in that it could make changes to the Constitution. On the other hand, the representatives were nominated by the states and the fact that they were not elected meant that the majority of federal representatives were imperialistic and conservative in their outlook. Supporting this argument that the Bundesrat was not democratic is the fact that Prussia had 17 out of the 58 allocated seats – only 14 were needed to veto laws and this meant that Prussia essentially dominated the proceedings.

The simple fact that the King of Prussia was the Emperor of Germany meant that he essentially controlled the Bundesrat like 17 puppets on strings as the fear of retribution and the fact that the Landtag for Prussian parliament was based on property ownership meant that the representatives were always pro-monarchy and conservative thinking – thus siding with the Kaiser. The Kaiser, as well as unofficially controlling the Bundesrat, could dissolve the Reichstag effectively at will (with the near guaranteed backing of the Bundesrat), formulated foreign policy, was commander-in-chief of all the armed forces and was in charge of the wording and application of federal law. Clearly the Kaiser had serious unchecked power which suggests that Germany really was an entrenched Autocracy in this time period. Adding to this, the only other person with any real power in the German political system (the Chancellor), was responsible and appointed by the Kaiser.

The Chancellor could propose laws, and controlled foreign policy, defence, trade and monetary matters and was not bound by any resolutions passed by the Reichstag (as later seen in the Zabern Affair). Consequently we can see that, the Constitution, drafted up by Bismarck, was, overall, much less democratic than it first seems. Bismarck’s aim was to sate the desire for democracy from Germany’s people whilst at the same time preserving the power and position of the Kaiser (and Chancellor) as well as the Prussian aristocracy. The result was essentially a conservative and pro-monarchy constitution than protected and fortified German Autocracy through the unchecked and protected powers of the Kaiser, and the many political institutions he, unofficially, ran as Bismarck’s Constitution guaranteed.

The German policy of 1900-1914 is more controversial. Whilst it appears that these came from above and were undemocratic the support for these was, arguably, voluntary. Sammslungspolitik was the domestic policy (under Von Bulow) of Kaiser Wilhelm II – It meant “bringing together policy” and it aimed for the building of an alliance of Conservatives, Liberals, Junkers and Industrialists which would present a broad front against Socialism and provide support for the political status quo.

This would be done by following a policy of Protectionism and a strong foreign and colonial policy (Weltpolitilk). Whilst this was democratic in that the support it would create for the Kaiser would be voluntary from the parties concerned, it created a false support through nationalistic fervour and consequently unfairly diminished the SDP which prevented the rise of socialism and further entrenched the autocracy of Germany. Weltpolitik (meaning “world policy”) was the foreign policy adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1890, which significantly differed from Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s ‘ policy of “Realpolitik.” The aim of Weltpolitik was to make Germany a global superpower through aggressive diplomacy, the expansion of overseas colonies, and the development of a large navy (Flottenpolitik). This meant the rapid expansion of the Imperial German Navy through successive Naval Laws.

The Agadir Crisis July 1, 1911 is a clear example of this change in policy. During the crisis, the German government deployed the large Panther gunboat to intervene in the conflict rather than resorting to diplomacy from the outset. Flottenpolitik was an integral part of this in that it aimed to create a navy to rival that of Britain which would whip up patriotic feeling. This all followed the idea of “Social Imperialism” which was “an attempt to buttress the position of the elites at the top of Germany’s class system by diverting the masses away from social and political reform and towards a populist acceptance of the Kaiser and the Kaiserreich” (Geoff Layton).

Once again this support for the Kaiser was voluntary but was subtly influenced by the Germans peoples want for international recognition. It was internationally undemocratic but the aggressive foreign policy got people to back the Kaiser as he initiated it. The more powerful Germany became and the more recognition they got internationally the more the Kaiser’s position was protected and his autocracy entrenched. The policies of Sammslungspolitik, Weltpolitik and Flottenpolitik were schemes “from above” to entrench them “from below”. Essentially the Kaiser protected his privileged position bydistracting the masses with power and glory which he attributed to himself in order to gain support.

Events in this period give a real insight into what extent Germany was an entrenched Autocracy unlike any other area. In 1907 the Hottentot Elections occurred which clearly showed the Autocracy in Germany to be entrenched. The local population of German South West Africa rebelled, and was subsequently crushed brutally, in 1905-7 and after these events revelations of awful brutality were made accessible to the public. The Government then planned to build a new railway in GSWA and to provide additional appropriations to suppress the uprising at a significant cost to the disinterested taxpayer back in Germany. Due to the negative press back home the Centre Party sided with the SPD and voted down the government bill. The Kaiser then dissolved the Reichstag simply for not passing the bill which would allow him to continue his aggressive foreign policy in GSWA.

This is a strong example of entrenched Autocracy in Germany – the Kaiser disagrees with the elected people’s representatives and so he just gets rid of them and they can’t do anything but dissolve and stand for election again. Furthermore, the Centre Party and SPD then suffered a substantial defeat to the Bulow Bloc, a reactionary bloc of German political parties, including conservatives, national liberals, and so-called freethinkers, created by Chancellor von Bülow, (in terms of seats) despite them collectively gaining 3 million more votes. Once again the Autocracy of Germany (the Kaisers Iron rule) was entrenched by the 1871 constituent boundaries which remained unchanged, despite growing urbanisation, thus favouring a conservative, and thus Kaiser supporting, Reichstag.

The Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 is another example of events which highlight how entrenched the Autocracy in Germany was in this period. In Germany newspapers published an interview the Kaiser had with the Daily Telegraph which included quoting wild statements and diplomatically damaging remarks from the Kaiser. Wilhelm managed to offend the British, French, Russians and Japanese and said things such as “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares”. As a result there were serious calls for his abdication in Germany and the Chancellor, Prince Bülow, joined the Reichstag and criticised the Kaiser. Arguably this shows how Germany was democratic – the people and the people’s government could criticise the monarch openly and the Chancellor allowed the transcript to be published without censorship and even supported the Reichstag in its demands for constitutional limitations to be put on the Kaiser.

Despite this though it just proved how the Kaiser was untouchable, the end result was that the Kaiser promised to be more circumspect and the Reichstag backed down and eventually Bülow was forced to resign after a failed bill as he no longer had the Kaiser’s support. Nonetheless neither of these events highlights the extent to which Autocracy in which Germany was entrenched like the Zabern Affair of 1913. In Zabern, in Alsace-Lorraine, two battalions of Prussian Infantry Regiment 99 were garrisoned and a second Lieutenant insulted the Alsatian population. When the people protested the man was given only 6 days house arrest but the crowds continued protesting until on November 28 sentries from the nearby barracks were called to arms drove the crowd away under threat of force of arms, and arrested a great number of people without any legal basis.

After much negative media coverage the Chancellor (Bethmann) still backed the brutality and a vote of no confidence resulted in 293 votes for the behaviour of the government being “not the view of the Reichstag” with only 4 abstentions and 54 opposing votes. Arguably this shows a democratic side to Germany – an SPD member even demanded that Bethmann resigned. However, the vote had no effect at all, he refused to resign and indicated that he was only dependent upon the confidence of the Kaiser. The only real democratic result was that the Reichstag decided to form a committee to legally regulate the rights of the military with regard to the civilian authority and eventually a “Regulation about use of weapons by the military and its participation in suppression of domestic unrest” was passed. Overall these events demonstrate just how entrenched the Autocracy in Germany was in practise.

In conclusion, despite the attempt of democracy to establish itself as a powerful force in Wilhelmien Germany, Germany was truly an entrenched Autocracy under the Kaiser. The German Imperial Constitution of 1871 preserved the power and position of the Kaiser who could either control all the various political institutions directly or ensure they were of conservative and pro-imperial build up and so would support him anyway. Whilst public support for German policies such as Sammslungspolitik and Weltpolitik were voluntary, they were subtly influenced by nationalistic fervour and were undemocratic on both an international and psychological scale.

Furthermore, they unfairly diminished the SDP and consequently blocked the rise of socialism. Finally, events such as the Hottentot election clearly shows how the system was Autocratic through real life events and practice; the Reichstag was dissolved simply as the government was voted down and, despite a democratic election, the centre party and SDP lost near half their seats despite gaining 3million more votes due to the 1871 constituent boundaries which didn’t reflect recent urbanisation.

Moreover, the Daily telegraph affair showed that, despite criticism from the Chancellor and the Reichstag, the Kaiser could escape mass public resentment with no official sanctions or restrictions and Buller was forced to resign due to the Kaiser not having faith in him anymore. Lastly the Zabern affair most clearly illustrates how entrenched the autocracy of Germany was as a vote of no confidence was ignored by Chancellor Bethmann who could legally remain as long as he had the Kaiser’s say so. Thus it is fair to say that Germany was indeed a monarchical entrenched autocracy in the period 1900-1914.

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