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Heinrich von Sybel Describes the Structure of the German Empire and the Prospects for Liberty (January 1, 1871)

A student of the famous Leopold von Ranke, Heinrich von Sybel (1817-1895) went on to become one of Germany’s greatest nineteenth-century historians in his own right. Sybel held professorships at the universities of Bonn (1841-1846), Marburg (1846-1856), and Munich (1856-1861) before returning to Bonn as a chair (1861-1875). During his years in Munich, the capital of Catholic Bavaria, his support of Prussia and Protestantism caused him difficulties. Beginning in 1861, he was a member of the Prussian House of Deputies, and he was elected as a National Liberal to the Reichstag of the North German Confederation in 1867. The essay excerpted below was originally written for the Fortnightly Review’s issue of January 1, 1871. Thus, it appeared just two weeks before the coronation of the German Kaiser and the founding of the German Empire on January 18. In it, Sybel discusses the distinctions between a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. In his view, the constitutional structure of the new empire does not compare poorly with that of Britain or France, even though he sees difficulties in the continued existence of federal state parliaments [Landtage] alongside the national Reichstag. Sybel is guilty of wishful thinking when he speculates that after the next election the Kaiser might draw a substantial number of his state ministers from the ranks of liberal parliamentarians. He also muddies the waters by describing both the Reichstag suffrage of 1867 and the Prussian Landtag suffrage of 1850 as “purely democratic.” (Sybel distrusted universal male suffrage.) He looks, however, to the expansion of liberty and prosperity in the new Reich.

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I can already hear the main objection. This is all very well, one says, but what about the decisive point, the political freedom of the nation, or, as the French expression goes, the gouvernement du pays par le pays?* Would not the government of the King or the Kaiser [Emperor], even if it were reasonable, moderate, and successful, be and continue to be a gouvernement personnel?** Were we to argue against these concerns, it would not help that we already have parliaments, two for one, a German and a Prussian one; that we have universal suffrage for both, and, at least in the case of the former, equal, direct, and secret suffrage as well; that the government exercises only the slightest influence on elections; that since the end of the constitutional conflict in 1862, government commits to the tax laws and the spending budgets approved by parliament; and that it does not pass any sort of laws without parliamentary assent. Without a doubt, in the long run these things make it impossible to have an administration directly opposed to the country’s clear will. No less certain, however, is the fact that the new Reich has no responsible ministry; and that its parliament has no prerogative for the impeachment of a minister or the annual enactment of a Mutiny Bill***; and that furthermore the Prussian Landtag lacks the right to approve state revenues on an annual basis and to exercise any direct influence on the state administration. Unfortunately, therefore, it also lacks the direct means to drive a disagreeable ministry from office. If a ministerial motion or a piece of draft legislation receives only minority support, then the motion is eliminated surely enough, but no minister would, for this reason, contemplate either asking for his dismissal or taking a different line in his political approach. We have a constitutional monarchy, but we do not have a parliamentary government.

* Government of the people by the people. (All footnotes adapted from Gerhard A. Ritter, ed., Das Deutsche Kaiserreich 1871-1914. Ein historisches Lesebuch [The German Kaiserreich 1871-1914. A Historical Reader], 5th rev. ed. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992, pp. 35-39.)
** Personal rule.
*** An allusion to the fact that the English Parliament only approved the Mutiny Act (their military code) for one year at a time. In conjunction with the annual approval of military spending, this ensured that the military remained under strict parliamentary control.

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