To what extent did Kaiser Wilhelm have the real power within the second Reich?
Essay for Markedbyteachers – To what extent did the Kaiser have the real power within the second Reich?
Introduction: Kaiser Wilhelm had real power within the second Reich to a large extent; his semi-autocratic manner overshadowed politics and dramatically effected policies such as Weltpolitik. However, other parts of the government had some power. Such as the Chancellors, who following Bismarck tried to appease the Kaiser in various ways, as their position was reliant on Wilhelm II, not the Reichstag. The Reichstag lacked the fundamental components of democracy and had virtually no power, while the elites heavily dominated the government and put pressure on the Kaiser to release policies in their favour. In contrast to the elites, the lower working class claimed they were unrepresented, on the other hand, they could exert pressure on the Kaiser through mass strikes. Although certain elements of the government could place pressure on the Kaiser, Wilhelm’s ‘personal rule’ was left unchallenged until 1918 and even the Daily Telegraph Affair, which provided the Reichstag with an opportunity to demand constitutional change, was not used to its full advantage.
The Kaiser’s real power can be seen in the structure of the German government. As the German Emperor, he headed the military and political apparatus of the Second Reich. For instance, he could appoint and dismiss chancellors; the Reichstag did not elect them. Therefore, those who wished to join the government had to appeal to the Kaiser’s wishes, resulting in an unelected body being chosen by an unelected ruler because the Kaiser’s position was hereditary. This gave the Kaiser a lot of power to shape Germany, even though the Chancellors had legislative initiative, if they depended on the Kaiser then it was really his policies being introduced in the Reichstag. Following the Kaiser and Bismarck’s tense relationship, the Kaiser wished to pursue a period of ‘personal rule’. Consequently, his ultimate power can be shown when examining Hohenlohe’s chancellorship. The Kaiser managed to build an ocean-going fleet and involved himself in complex foreign and domestic policies, as well as major decisions, showing he could exercise his power domestically and internationally. Even political parties did not challenge the Kaiser to some extent because they feared they would be labelled unpatriotic. This can be demonstrated when the socialists and Catholics opposed the Colonial policy, under chancellor Bulow. They were presented in the 1907 election as unpatriotic and the Progressives were enticed to join a new coalition based on support for Weltpolitik. Thus, Bulow won a crushing electoral victory with 216 seats as opposed to 105 seats of the Centre Party and the SPD lost 36 seats. It wasn’t until the SPD’s votes increased in the 1912 election, party due to their voting on an army bill, as they were worried of being labelled unpatriotic again. Although the chancellors were reliant upon the Kaiser, they did have some power in the second Reich.
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The chancellors had power in the Second Reich, although not to the extent the Kaiser did. This is because they were reliant upon the Kaiser, and yet not accountable to the Reichstag. The chancellor was the only minister mentioned by title in the constitution and he presided over the Bundesrat, all degrees and orders had to be countersigned by him. He also appointed government ministers and Bismarck exercised a huge amount of power as Chancellor under the disinterested Kaiser Wilhelm I, but fell foul of the very system he had created when Wilhelm II came to power and promptly dismissed him. This demonstrates how the only weakness of the chancellor was being reliant on the Kaiser, showing his ultimate power. This can be seen with Caprivi and Bulow, as Caprivi refused to pass an Anti-Socialist subversion bill, resulting in his dismissal. While Bulow, who introduced Weltpolitik, was constrained by his need to maintain the support of the Kaiser. This meant he was forced to pursue courses of action he did not necessarily support and make compromises, indicating his critical inferiority. Despite pushing Germany onto the world scene and introducing the tariff law of 1902, the Kaiser exercised his dictatorial power by dismissing him following the Daily Telegraph Affair. In contrast to the Kaiser and chancellors, the Reichstag had little power, especially regarding the Daily Telegraph Affair and the Zabern Affair of 1913.
The limited power of the Reichstag shows that the Kaiser had the ultimate authority in the German government. Outwardly it was one of the most representative popular assemblies with important legislative functions. Elections were held every three years and deputies enjoyed the right of speech. However, the outward veneer of liberalism was deceptive and power lay very much with the Kaiser, Chancellor and aristocracy. On the other hand, there were moments during the Kaiser’s reign that the Reichstag could exert pressure. This can be seen in the Daily Telegraph affair of 1908. The affair was blamed heavily on Bulow, who was accused of carelessness in allowing the publication of an interview given by Wilhelm to the British newspaper. The unguarded comments were offensive to both Britain and Russia, and highly embarrassing for Germany. This resulted in an outcry from the Reichstag, leading to the Kaiser’s break down. However, the Reichstag missed a golden opportunity for long-term constitutional change. The Zabern Affair of 1913 can further demonstrate the Reichstag’s vulnerability and the Kaiser’s real power. The army was placed above the Reichstag, even though there was an outcry and a vote of no confidence with 293 votes to 54. As in 1908, the Reichstag hesitated to take further action and the Kaiser and his ministers firmly maintained their support of the army, showing its immunity from political control. It is clear, therefore, that the Reichstag’s opinions could exert some pressure but it was not able to bring down the government or forcibly restrict its actions as its British or French equivalents could do.
While the Kaiser had the real power in Germany, the elite groups like industrialists and Junkers, placed enormous pressure on the Kaiser and his government to protect their interests. For instance, elements in German society pressured the state into policies, which made Germany directly responsible for the outbreak of World War One. As in 1918, the army’s Junker commanders believed that they could convince the enemy politicians that fundamental change had taken place in the political structure of Germany by forcing the Kaiser to abdicate. Pressure groups, such as the Pan German League, Navy League and Army league emerged due to the social and economic transformation of Germany and contribute to such pressure. Some were fearful of the increase of the lower and middle classes, which was a result of urbanisation, as by 1900 Germany rose to become Europe’s first industrial super power. Therefore, there was an increase in workers and this meant many began to also exert pressure on the Kaiser.
Although the elite groups could pressurise the Kaiser, this tactic was also used by the middle and lower classes, however the lack of socialist policies shows the Kaiser still had the real power in the regime. Then again, this did have a ripple effect on politics and voting, something the Kaiser could not control. This can be seen by the Centre party, which was no longer a strictly clerical party, but a party that reflected middle and lower class interests. After 1890, the right wing parties, which usually supported the government, were in decline. In 1887 they gained 47% of the popular vote and 55% of the seats in the Reichstag. Whilst the number of seats for the right-wing parties was declining up to the First-World-War period, the parties were more critical of the government, especially as the SPD were increasing in strength and numbers. However, their failure to remove the Kaiser until 1918 demonstrates how powerful he was.
To conclude, the real power lay in the hands of the Kaiser to a great extent. However, the chancellor did hold a significant degree of power as the position allowed him to appoint ministers and preside over the Bundesrat. Furthermore, the Reichstag had little say and this contributed to both the Kaiser and chancellor’s ultimate power. The Reichstag was merely a fig leaf covering the nakedness of absolutism and this was apparent in the Daily Telegraph Affair. Additionally, the Reichsrat could overturn the Reichstag’s decisions and if the Reichstag tried to gain more power, they could be dismissed and new elections would be called. While elite groups had a slice of the Kaiser’s power, it was only a small amount that could enable them to exert pressure for the time being. The middle and lower classes began to vote more for socialist parties as a result of the semi-autocratic regime and this shows that many were becoming disillusioned with the Kaiser’s dictatorial methods.