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Max Weber Reflects on Cooperation between the National Liberals and Bismarck during the 1860s and 1870s (May 1918)

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They were perfectly aware that the achievement of this goal absolutely did not depend on them alone. On the occasion of the great change of direction in 1878, I very often heard people from their ranks say, ‘No great political skill is needed to destroy a party in such an utterly precarious position as ours or to make its continued existence impossible. If this happens, however, it will not be possible to create another great party which collaborates in a purely objective way. Instead it will be necessary to have recourse to the politics of interest groups and the system of petty patronage, and it will be necessary nevertheless to accept the most severe political upheavals into the bargain.’ As I have said, one may judge particular positions taken by the party as one will. After all, it was ultimately on their initiative that the office of the Reichskanzler received its constitutional definition (Benningsen’s motion), that civil law was unified (motion by Lasker), that the Reichsbank was created (motion by Bamberger), indeed that the majority of the great institutions of the Reich still in effective operation today were introduced. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to criticize their tactics, but these constantly had to take account of the party’s difficult position in relation to Bismarck. In part the decline of the party’s position can be blamed on the natural difficulties of a party which was so purely political in its orientation and yet burdened with antiquated economic dogmas when faced with problems of the economy and social policy, although the position of the conservative parties on all these issues was certainly no better. The opposition between Bismarck’s aims and the constitution they wanted to see after 1866 did not arise, as some would have it, from their ‘shortsightedness’, but from their unitarist ideals (in the manner of Treitschke) at that time (which we have abandoned in the meantime, partly for reasons of foreign policy). Subsequent developments have proved the fundamental political premises of their conduct to have been entirely correct.

They were unable to achieve their chosen political objective and fell apart, not ultimately for reasons of substance, but because Bismarck was unable to tolerate any kind of at all independent power alongside himself, that is to say one that acted on its own responsibility

Source of English translation: Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order: Towards a Political Critique of Officialdom and the Party System, in Max Weber, Political Writings, ed. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 130-271, here pp. 137-40.

Source of original German text: Max Weber, Parlament und Regierung im neugeordneten Deutschland [Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order] (May 1918) in Gesammelte politische Schriften [Collected Political Writings], ed. Johannes Winckelmann, 2nd rev. ed. Tübingen: Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1958, pp. 301-03.

Original German text also reprinted in Gerhard A. Ritter, ed., Das Deutsche Kaiserreich 1871-1914. Ein historisches Lesebuch [The German Kaiserreich 1871-1914. A Historical Reader]. 5th ed. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992, pp. 229-31.

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