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German Liberalism Recast: Hermann Baumgarten’s Self-Criticism (Early October 1866)

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It is far from my intention to scold my fellow liberal party members for not siding decisively with Bismarck’s policy from the very start. To have done so would perhaps have required the sort of objectiveness in judgment and knowledge of the situation that one may not demand of the majority of a party. But to see how in May, how even in June, when it had been obvious for some time that a Prussian victory would have to mean the triumph of a liberal and national policy, whereas an Austrian victory would have to represent the destruction of liberal and national hopes, to see how they clung with few exceptions to the anti-Bismarck chorus, along with everything that was reactionary and anti-national in Germany – this was, I admit, one of the saddest things an upright Liberal could experience. They joined in with dynastic particularism; with the small-state bureaucracies that had grown up in comfort and trembled in the face of Prussian discipline and work; with the petty philistinism that would perhaps like to see the number of German residences doubled; with that absolutely pitiful Junkerdom, which, displaying the right instinct in Prussia, hates the revolutionary parvenu; with those ultramontanes whose love for the Habsburg dynasty ought to be sufficient reason to sway any patriot to the opposite sentiment. It was very sad to see how, even then, most representatives of a liberal German policy were still walking arm in arm with their most irreconcilable adversaries. It was a death sentence – with no chance for appeal – for the type of liberalism that had been customary in Germany up to that point. It proved that the party on which the nation had pinned its hope in the past possessed neither the political insight nor the strength that alone suffice to lead a great nation to its salvation.

As I indicated, I do not wish to discuss the question of whether it was necessary right from the start for the National Liberal Party to seize the opportunity finally to fight the inevitable conflict with Austria, or whether it could have held to its earlier intention of organizing German affairs in a peaceful way by means of liberal opinion. I will admit that, at the time, a series of weighty arguments could be raised against Bismarck’s policy. In early May, however, this issue ceased to be important. At that point, the issue was no longer whether the war was desirable, but only which side one should take in a war that had become unavoidable. I will admit that this decision, too, would have involved considerable difficulties in March, at a time when one could say that, in the conflict, Prussia was only pursuing objectives that the party would have to reject. But what had happened on the Prussian side after the April 9th motion to convene a [national] parliament precluded the further possibility of such claims. Now anyone willing to see had to realize that the imminent conflict would not only decide whether Prussia or Austria would become the leading power in Germany; it would also show that Prussia, by having forced this decision, would be compelled by the irresistible force of the situation to call upon the strength of the nation, and to use this strength on its behalf against the closely allied phalanx of interests based on [maintaining] the fragmentation and servitude of the nation. Even if Prussian policy took this turn despite the vigorous opposition of liberalism and the inherent compulsion of liberalism in Prussia to seek as much support as possible from the conservative camp, all it took was a simple political calculation to see that this policy would position itself openly on the foundation of a liberal program as soon the Liberals finally stopped making such a move impossible. The lamentations of the Rundschauer*, on the one hand, and the most outspoken declarations by the Bismarckian organs, on the other, made this equation clear even to an unpracticed eye, that is, if that eye were willing to see at all.

[ . . . ]

*Rundschauer is a reference to the group of Conservatives around Ludwig von Gerlach, who wrote weekly political commentaries [“Rundschauen”] in the main Conservative newspaper, the Neue Preussische (Kreuz-) Zeitung – ed.

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