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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

These parties’ programs and election manifestos illustrate the interdependence of social, economic, and political issues in their respective ideologies. They also reveal opportunities for coalition-building between parties as well as the obstacles to cooperation that have led some historians to speak of the “pillarization” of the party-political system. Satirical cartoons (IM26, IM27, IM28) and carefully posed photographs of party leaders (IM29, IM30) suggest that the main parties shared more common values than historians sometimes suppose, even though party alliances seemed arbitrary at one moment and dependent on Bismarck’s favor at another.

“Politics in a New Key.” The emergence of new political parties and party groupings was not the only important feature of the emerging mass politics in Bismarckian Germany. In this section we also see the power of the press to bring questions of public policy into the homes of ordinary Germans (IM31, IM32). As voters came to accept the act of casting a ballot as a natural patriotic duty or as the best means of expressing class, confessional, regional, or ideological solidarities, the turnout for Reichstag elections rose dramatically – again, much more dramatically than the better-studied elections after 1890. In the Reichstag elections of 1874, about 5.2 million Germans cast ballots, resulting in a turnout rate of 61.2 percent. In the Reichstag elections of 1887, about 7.6 million Germans trooped to the polls. This amounted to a turnout rate of 77.5 percent, which remained unmatched until 1907 (D32). One reason for this increase in voter commitment was the effort made by Reichstag deputies to ensure the secrecy of the act of voting.

Such protection was far from iron-clad (D33, D34, D35, D36, D37). Whether the principle of secret balloting was respected or undermined depended very much on where a voter lived, who his employer was, and whether the government took a direct interest in the outcome of a particular local campaign. Little wonder that artists of the day depicted the “unresolved questions” that afflicted “doubtful voters” in this era (IM33, IM34, IM35, IM36). Voters also became the target of irresponsible promises and appeals from radical parties. The antisemites of the late 1870s and 1880s contributed most to the brutalization of public opinion: they had a high appreciation for the average voter’s gullibility (D30, D31, D32). Yet all parties were forced to reckon with the masses – as one Conservative put it, whether or not they wanted to and whether or not they were comfortable doing so. Universal male suffrage had grown “too hot under their feet” to allow them to rely any longer on the older and more exclusive politics of notables [Honoratiorenpolitik].

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