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7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization
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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

Few German workers had even heard of Karl Marx in the early 1870s or knew anything about his theories of class struggle and revolution. Of those who did, many still followed the teachings of another (then deceased) socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle. During the period of the Anti-Socialist Law (1878-90), Social Democrats developed a comprehensive network of underground agents, couriers, propagandists, and election workers. Tempered by the practical parliamentary politics of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and other Social Democratic leaders in the Reichstag and state parliaments, more and more workers came to believe that tight party organization, an autonomous network of cultural associations, political protest, and the principle of “all hands on deck” on election day were the best way to combat a state that had labeled them outlaws (D16, D24, D25, D26, D27, D28, IM16, IM17, IM18, IM19, IM20). As a result, between 1878 and 1890 the membership of the Social Democratic Party rose, as did the number of deputies in its parliamentary caucuses (D37, IM21, IM22, IM23). Whereas only about 350,000 votes had been cast for Social Democratic candidates in the Reichstag elections of 1874, 1.4 million ballots were cast for the party in February 1890 – almost 20 percent of the popular vote (D38, IM25). This stunning victory contributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s decision to dispense with Bismarck a month later and anticipated the party’s even more dramatic growth in the 1890s.

Party Programs and Organizations. Universal male suffrage was introduced in 1867, first for elections to the Reichstag of the North German Confederation and then, in 1871, for the new empire. In these years the party landscape in Germany assumed patterns that persisted up to 1918 and beyond. Historians disagree about whether the main political parties represented stable socio-moral “milieus,” as postulated by M. Rainer Lepsius. Milieu theory fails to accommodate the dynamic nature and opportunities for shifting alliances within Imperial Germany’s political system. Yet the durability of the main party groupings and of their original party platforms suggests that the genesis of modern mass politics is best located in the Bismarckian, not the Wilhelmine, era. It was in 1866-67 that both the conservative (D17, D18, D19) and liberal movements (D21, D22) split. The Social Democrats also organized in these years, first in the regional and then the national arenas (D24, D25). In the early 1870s, the Catholic Center Party was consolidated in response to the Kulturkampf (D20), and in 1875 the Marxist and Lassallean wings of Social Democracy forged a fragile unity on the basis of the Gotha Program (D26, D27, D28). The 1880s saw the older left-liberal and newer antisemitic parties split, reunite, or otherwise reconstitute themselves (D23, D29).

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