In the years before WW1, Germany was progressing towards an effective parliamentary democracy. Do you agree?

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In the years before WW1, Germany was progressing towards an effective parliamentary democracy. Do you agree?

The constitution of the German empire was enacted on the 16th April 1871 and is often referred to as ‘Bismarck’s imperial constitution’. This constitution stood as the foundation for the Second Reich.  Between the years 1871 and 1914, there is often debate over whether Imperial Germany was an entrenched autocracy, or whether there was a growing parliamentary democracy. This essay will analyse key aspects of the Second Reich namely the role of the Kaiser, the Chancellor and the Reichstag, the nature of politics, the existence of reform and where power essentially lay in order to demonstrate that any steps towards democracy essentially did not go far enough, thus disputing the idea that Germany was progressing towards an effective parliamentary democracy.

Firstly, it can be argued that Germany was in fact progressing towards an effective parliamentary democracy. Universal male suffrage had existed right from the outset in 1871 for all men over the age of 25, thus deputies of the Reichstag – the lower house of parliament – were elected. Although the Reichstag did not hold any real power, elections to it were hotly contested causing Bismarck and later chancellors to be concerned with their outcome. The fact that more democratic parties were becoming dominant in the Reichstag was particularly significant as governing became more difficult for the Kaiser and his officials. In addition to this, although the Reichstag was limited in the sense that it could not remove the chancellor or the government and had no real power to pass laws, it was in fact active and involved in politics. This became more apparent when its proceedings began to be published under the Chancellorship of Caprivi.  The idea of the Reichstag having an active role is perhaps demonstrated by the Daily Telegraph Affair in 1908 when it openly criticised the Kaiser, thus prompting the Kaiser to take a step back from politics. This, coupled with the fact that the Reichstag was becoming increasingly dominated by the anti-authoritarian SPD (as shown by the fact that the SPD won 34.8% of the vote in 1912) lends support to the idea that Germany may have been slowly progressing towards a parliamentary democracy.

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Secondly, a great deal of pressure groups existed within the Second Reich. Historians, such as Geoff Eley have recognised the importance of these popular movements. It is argued that the elites lacked any real union of purpose and that the Kaiserreich was a state of many regions with very different political and cultural traditions. For example, the Agrarian League consisted of mainly peasants and had a third of a million members, all of whom were campaigning to protect their agricultural interests. There were also a number of working-class trade unions which were represented by the SPD who campaigned for ...

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