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German Liberalism Recast: Hermann Baumgarten’s Self-Criticism (Early October 1866)

Hermann Baumgarten (1825-1893) was a historian, political publicist, and, after 1872, Professor of History at the Reich University of Straßburg. He was a champion of German liberalism and from 1859 worked in Max Duncker’s “Literary Bureau,” which the Prussian government used for the dissemination of its propaganda. Beginning in 1861 he also held a teaching post at the Technical University of Karlsruhe. In the autumn of 1866, Baumgarten was struggling with the decision whether to remain loyal to liberal principles or accept Bismarck’s military and political successes. In 1866, he published an extended essay that tilted toward the latter and offered “self-criticism” of German liberalism. Baumgarten’s essay played an important role in convincing liberal supporters of Bismarck to form the National Liberal Party in 1867. This essay, excerpted below, was completed in Karlsruhe in the first week of October 1866; it first appeared in the Preußische Jahrbücher [Prussian Yearbooks] and was quickly reprinted in book form.

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The spring of this year [1866] finally triggered the catastrophe that had been impending for a long time. Everyone knows how things have unfolded since the middle of March. The relationship between Prussia and Austria, between Prussia and the medium-sized German states, was forcing a decision. The domestic situation in Prussia and Germany seemed to be the most unfavorable one in the world for the kind of undertaking Count Bismarck was planning; the European situation, on the other hand, was uncommonly enticing. The constellations that had formed at home, however, made it easy to foresee that public opinion would very strongly resist Prussian political initiatives. As a start, though, many years of experience had shown that public opinion would not be able to hinder a resolute will; furthermore, these very difficulties actually presented certain advantages. The politics of the Conservative Party in Prussia rested on the base of a good understanding with Austria. Prussia only had two paths ahead of it: either leading German affairs together with Austria or seizing German power in spite of Austria. Since the latter path would definitely drive the medium-sized states to side with Austria, taking it would force Prussia to appeal to popular force; it could not shrink back from steps that were more or less revolutionary. Early on, in the 1850s, Count Bismarck had become convinced that harmony with Austria was only possible for a Prussia that resigned itself to remaining what it was: the second, dependent power in Germany and the last in line in Europe. He intended to free Prussia from a situation that was neither particularly worthy nor satisfying; he realized that this could be done only by pursuing the above-mentioned option, and he accepted it, even though it was not easy to harmonize with his originally conservative line.

[ . . . ]

Count Bismarck had the courage to dare the great gamble, and he displayed the strength and astuteness that allow statesmen to dare. Almost everything was pointing against him. The Conservatives kept their opposition all the quieter, just to work all the more actively behind the scenes; the Liberals raised a hue and cry about peace, leaving no doubt about popular sentiment. The Prussian people, just like any other educated people living in ordered circumstances, will always be opposed to a war whose absolute necessity is not blatantly evident. The war was regarded as a great calamity not only by the Liberals and Conservatives but also by that rather large group of people for whom partisan points of view are not decisive. The stakes for Prussia in this gamble were incredibly high. The war demanded the greatest sacrifices from each individual. It contradicted everything that had been said and sung for years about German unity and fraternity. The comrades from Schleswig, the comrades from Leipzig were supposed to take up arms against each other. Since Prussia was obviously the offensive party, its politics were the target of all the hatefulness of this fratricidal war. The situation quickly assumed such a shape that Austria felt compelled to reach with both hands at an incomparable opportunity to eliminate Prussia for good.

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