Analyse the successes and failures of Bismarcks domestic policies after 1871
October 20th, 2012
Analyse the successes and failures of Bismarck’s domestic policies after 1871
Otto von Bismarck (1815-98) served as Imperial Chancellor after the German Unification and influenced European diplomacy until his resignation in 1890. His concentration on foreign affairs limited his ‘rule at home’. The extent to which his domestic policies were successful or not is debatable by historians as by the end of his career ‘he found himself out of sympathy with the Pan-German enthusiasm of the younger generation and was forced to resign’ as A.Palmer wrote.
The first decade of domestic policies under Bismarck’s chancellorship was dominated by a conflict between the Catholic Church and the state. That clash initiated an alliance with Bismarck’s former opponents, the Liberals, against the Centre Party, which signaled the beginning of Bismarck’s ‘liberal era’ (1871-1878). A liberal deputy, Virchow, gave the campaign against Catholicism ‘the character of a great struggle for civilization (Kulturkampf)’.
In 1873, after the cutting of diplomatic relations with the Vatican (1872), the newly introduced series of legislation known as the ‘May Laws’ aimed to bring the Church under state control by forcing clericals to attend a university, giving control of all clerical matters to the state and making civil marriage compulsory.
The opinion that the ‘iron chancellor’ manipulated this clash as a means of uniting the Reich against a ‘common enemy’ is no longer defensible. Bismarck’s motives extend to another level. More specifically, as a sincere Protestant, Bismarck saw the Catholics with suspicion, he referred to them as ‘Reichfeinde’ (enemies of the Reich) and distrusted the influence of Catholicism upon the already questionable loyalty of the German Catholics to the newly formed Reich. Thus, as presented by Bismarck ‘It is not […] a matter of struggle between belief and unbelief, it is a matter of a conflict […], between monarchy and priesthood […]’. Moreover, political advantages offered by the Kulturkampf such as the improvement of his relations with the National Liberal Party and the anti-clerical Italian and Russian governments also served greatly the chancellor’s interests.
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The desired results, though, were not achieved. The Kulturkampf instead of weakening, it strengthened the influence of the Church and the Centre Party which doubled his representation in the Reichstag (1874). In addition, the chancellor’s anti- Catholic stance imperiled the relations with Austria and caused the disapproval of the conservatives due to his liberal views. Therefore, the conflict did much to vitiate Bismarck’s previous accomplishments. As the historian C. Grant Robertson stated ‘Bismarck deliberately sacrificed victory in the Kulturkampf to victory in other issues’.
After the Kulturkampf failure, Bismarck’s new challenge was to combat what he found as a great threat, socialism. The Socialist Party was up to then an unpretentious force in the Reichstag but in 1875, revolutionary socialists united to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The new party aimed to the realization of the Marxist goal, namely a ‘classless’ society. They endeavored to succeed nationalization of banks, social equality and wealth redistribution. The chancellor’s fear was, therefore, rational as the socialists did not suit him ideologically and were a peril to the society he purposed to preserve.
The 2 ‘would-be assassinations’ of Emperor Wilhelm I by an anarchist, gave Bismarck the opportunity to hold socialists accountable of the events and relate their image with that of ‘murderers’, although they had no direct link. This incident led to elections where the Social Democrats as well as the National Liberals lost a big number of seats in the Reichstag and allowed Bismarck to establish anti-socialistic measures (1878) which enjoined the Social Democratic Party in an indirect way by prohibiting the publication of 45 newspapers, banning trade unions and any group meeting that aimed at the spread of socialism. The second part of the chancellor’s policy that aimed to the weakening of socialists was ‘state socialism’. It involved a series of measures to better the conditions of the working class by establishing 3 main laws: the Sickness Insurance Law (1883), Accident Insurance Law (1884) and Old Age Pensions (1889).
The chancellor’s incentive of establishing these measures lay basically on his personal interests. Although that according to his speech to the Reichstag ‘[…] an overwhelming majority of sincere adherents of the Christian religion, should do for the poor, the weak and the old […]’ he suggests that his motives are mainly related to his Christian feelings, he did not conceal his desire to weaken the socialistic power. Specifically, his opponents accused him of using his social policy as a means ‘to canvass votes’.
In spite of the opposition and skepticism that Bismarck’s actions faced, he achieved to adapt to the demographic transformation and create the first innovative system of social policy. On the other hand, politically these legislations did little to limit the growth of the SDP but had at least eased the possibility of a clash with the working class.
Lastly, as Bismarck’s main concern was to sustain and consolidate Germany’s power, after the financial crisis (1873) he had to balance his economic policy between the interests of National Liberals on one side and iron and steel industries and Junkers on the other side. The former found free trade market an ‘essential principle’ while the latter demanded the increase of protective tariffs as they found themselves endangered by the cheap grain coming from America. He altered his strategy, adopted protectionism and abandoned the National Liberals by launching a new economic package (1879) that placed tariffs on iron goods, grain, wood and cattle.
By applying protectionism, the chancellor aimed to increase the state’s revenue and decrease his financial dependency on the Reichstag and the member states.
Germany was both influenced economically by the prosperity of industry although ‘It proved completely ineffective when faced with new downturns in the economy’ as H-U. Wehler mentions and politically by the return to conservatism that cost Germany to miss ‘a great democratic opportunity’. Bismarck did not achieve to become financially independent of the Reichstag despite the fact that he indeed increased the profit of the state.
In total, Bismarck resigned in 1890 with a sentiment of failure when it came to domestic affairs. He did indeed much to prevent internal factors that might jeopardize the stability of the new Reich, but along with that he sacrificed many of his previous political accomplishments in favor of his personal interests. As Alan Palmer mentions, ‘He was less successful in home affairs, since he regarded parliamentary parties as states in miniature with whom he could make temporary alliances’.
Simpson, William. The Second Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Murphy, Derrick. Morris, Terry. Europe 1870-1991. UK: Harper Collins, 2006.
Farmer, Alan. The Unification of Germany 1815-1919. London: Hodder Education, 2007.