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Why the Government Cannot Ignore the Social Question: A Conservative View (January 29, 1872)

By the 1870s, the problem of “pauperism” – already much debated before 1848 – had been redefined as the “social question.” It received attention from political parties across the entire political spectrum, but those on the left usually took the lead in criticizing government inaction. In this memorandum written for Chancellor Bismarck in 1872, we get an unorthodox right-wing perspective. Here, the high public official and conservative politician Hermann Wagener (1815-1889) suggests that a do-nothing policy would spell disaster – for society, but also for Bismarck’s government itself. Wagener argues that passing additional laws to repress Social Democratic and Catholic activists would involve the government in a dangerous two-front war. Instead, Bismarck should seize the initiative and propose tangible remedies to help those most in need. A fundamental reordering of hierarchical social relationships, however, is the last thing this conservative would have recommended (or Bismarck would have accepted).

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Since in my most humble opinion the way in which social issues are approached these days is not the proper one, I would allow myself the liberty of respectfully submitting to Your Highness a short summary of the measures that I, on the contrary, deem necessary. [ . . . ]

It seems to me [ . . . ] an extremely dangerous endeavor to propose taking up the battle against the ultramontane and socialist parties simultaneously, thus driving the socially oriented people further, and more irrevocably, into the clerical camp. However justified and necessary it may be to forcefully apply the existing laws in all respects, thereby keeping all external elements, including those pursuing anti-national aims, away from the social movement, I would nonetheless consider it a decisive political mistake to subject socialist leaders to emergency laws on account of their social advocacy, particularly without also doing something substantial to satisfy the just efforts of their followers.

The most recent reports of developments in the close circle of the International leave no doubt that, within the English and German section, the national element has not only gained predominance but has also begun to reject the confusion of social advocacy and politics – and this has resulted in a complete rift between the Anglo-German section on the one hand and the Franco-Russian section on the other.*

It would be very regrettable if this development were not exploited by the Reich government, which could thereby remove the social movement from the hands of anti-national agitation. [ . . . ]

The most recent reliable reports from Great Britain and the United States show that in England, for instance, the regular nine-hour workday is hardly viewed as a question of legislation any longer, and the trade unions already feel strong enough to push these working hours through independently. Moreover, as is generally known, the U.S. Congress has formed a commission to assess the situation of the working class with a view to appropriate legislation. That the latter also constitutes an election maneuver will probably add to the significance of the initiative rather than detract from it.

* A reference to the conflicts between the followers of Karl Marx and those of the anarchist Michael Bakunin in the First International that led to the dissolution of this organization. Secondary commentary from Ernst Schraepler, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der sozialen Frage in Deutschland. 1871 bis zur Gegenwart, 3rd rev. ed. Göttingen: Muster-Schmidt, 1996, p. 52. See source information at the end of this document.

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