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5. Politics I: Forging an Empire
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Overview: Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866-1890   |   1. Demographic and Economic Development   |   2. Society   |   3. Culture   |   4. Religion, Education, Social Welfare   |   5. Politics I: Forging an Empire   |   6. Military and International Relations   |   7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization

Forging a Constitutional State: The Quest for Unity and Liberty. Battlefield victories and “Hails!” to the Kaiser did not suffice to forge a working constitutional state. The same kinds of political negotiations that led to the imperial proclamation continued afterward, too – in parliament, in the press, in the slow process of legal codification, and in the critical reflections of liberals who still hoped that national unity would foster greater civil and constitutional liberties (D25, D26). Beginning with the impassioned defense of German federalism written by one Württemberg Democrat in the mid-1860s – and then updated in subtle ways in the mid-1890s (D12) – the documents in this section show how Bismarck and the liberals found common ground on a broad platform of economic, legal, and constitutional reforms. The particularly fruitful legislative periods of 1866-67 and 1871-74 are highlighted (D14 through D24, IM37, IM38, IM39). Readers are encouraged to consider where the emphasis should be put when this legislative agenda is described as “reformist conservatism” – on the adjective or the noun? The same is true of the terms “constitutional monarchy,” which can be assessed through Reichstag debates and iconography (D16, IM37), and “federal state” [Bundesstaat], which was meant to suggest that central authority now rested with the imperial state (in the singular), as opposed to the confederation of states [Staatenbund] that had existed until 1866.

A Turn from Liberalism? The reflections of German Leftists, drawn from both the socialist and liberal camps, throw light on the possible paths that lay open for ongoing constitutional reform in the 1870s, even under Bismarck’s increasingly autocratic style of governance (D25, D26, D27, D28, D29, D30). The liberals were now split between left-liberal and National Liberal factions, but their many accomplishments in these years cannot be dismissed. From 1874 onward, though, we see an incremental narrowing of opportunities to realize the dream of a liberal constitutional state with parliamentary control over the executive branch (D31, D32). By the mid-1880s, liberal disunity, the perceived threat of Socialism, and Bismarck’s unassailable ascendancy in the Prussian ministry of state seemed to offer little hope for the future (D33). For a time it appeared possible that the coming reign of Kaiser Friedrich III might break Bismarck’s omnipotence in domestic politics and revive liberal fortunes. More and more Germans had come to the conclusion that Bismarck was not only “a despot,” as Theodor Fontane and others claimed, but that he was also dispensable (D34, D35). Yet the opposition parties in the Reichstag were unable to form an anti-Bismarckian coalition. The penetration of imperial institutions – and the idea of empire – into the dynastic states provided further impetus for the concentration of power in the office of the imperial chancellor and in the symbol of Kaiserdom (IM40, IM41). Friedrich was terminally ill with throat cancer even before he ascended the throne, and his reign in 1888 lasted only 99 days. Liberals soon realized that his son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was unlikely to endorse a return to a “liberal era” (D36, D37, IM45, IM46).

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