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Bismarck’s "Putbus Dictations" on Germany’s Future Constitution (October-November 1866)

As the historian Otto Pflanze has noted, the idea that Bismarck drafted the constitution of the North German Confederation in just two days in early December 1866 is among the first myths that fuelled Germany’s Bismarck cult. As this document shows, the prehistory of the constitution was somewhat longer, though its most intensive phase was in October and November 1866. The combination of foreign crisis, war, and domestic political maneuvering in the spring and summer of 1866 had shattered Bismarck’s nerves, and to restore his health he had retired to the village of Putbus on the Baltic coast. There, he received, edited, and combined initial drafts sent or brought to him by a team of aides and associates. As his thinking evolved, Bismarck dictated his thoughts to his amanuensis Robert von Keudell. As we read in the following excerpts from those dictations, Bismarck’s foremost concern was the distribution of power – to Prussia’s advantage, but in ways that reconciled the forces of German nationalism and particularism and left the path open for the southern German states to join the new Germany. The constitution that we see here in embryonic form was then drafted between December 1 and 8, after Bismarck returned to Berlin. But Bismarck’s full powers of persuasion were required before it was passed, with many amendments, by the Reichstag of the North German Confederation in the spring of 1867. This constitution was adopted, with minor changes, by the German Empire after unification in 1871.

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I. Thoughts on the Formation* of the North German Confederation
[Bismarck’s Putbus Memorandum, October 30, 1866]

Is [Karl von] Savigny familiar with the current drafts of the constitution of the North German Confederation? [ . . . ]. By consulting them, he could gain a clear idea of what he may find objectionable in them. They are too biased toward a centralized federal state to allow the future accession of the South Germans. In form, it will have to tend more toward a confederation of states; in practical terms, however, it can be given the character of a federal state through the use of elastic terms that are seemingly inconspicuous but actually far reaching in implication. A Federal Council**, not a ministry, will act as the central authority; and here I believe we will fare rather well if we initially follow the system of voting used in the old German Confederation.

We will have to act fast to transfer to the central institutions those matters that fall under their legislative jurisdiction. We will adhere to the program announced before the war, i.e., that federal laws shall be enacted by agreement between the majority of the Federal Council and the representative body of the people.***

The more one adheres to earlier forms, the easier the whole affair will be arranged; whereas any attempt to spring a fully formed Minerva from the head of the Presidium would lead us into the quicksand of professorial arguments. [ . . . ]

One can form federal ministries à fur et à mesure [step by step], so that their areas of responsibility come into being on a practical level; one will have to start with the ministry of war by temporarily transferring the work to the Prussian Ministry of War until the federal constitution is completed, and this interim solution can be perpetuated infinitely. In my view, the remaining central authorities for trade, customs duties, railways, etc., will best be staffed by specialist commissions comprised of three to five members appointed by the governments and elected by the Federal Council. These commissions will edit the materials for legislative processing and for the votes of the Federal Council and the Reichstag. Allowing the latter to consist of two chambers would make the mechanism too cumbersome as long as a Federal Council also exists alongside it as a voting assembly, not to mention the plethora of state parliaments [Landtage].

I would instead suggest that the members of a single assembly [the Reichstag] be chosen through different election processes, perhaps something along these lines: half of the representatives to this body can be elected by the 100 most highly taxed persons in any given election district, with each district being expanded to include 200,000 constituents; the other half can be elected in direct elections. I do not give these matters first priority, however. The essential thing to me is: no per diem payments for [parliamentary] deputies, no members of an electoral college+, and no census++, unless it extends as far as suggested above.

* Gestaltung: also in the sense of molding/shaping the structural configuration of the Confederation – ed.
** Bundestag: here Bismarck refers to what by 1867 had been renamed the Bundesrat, also translated as Federal Council – ed.
*** That is, the Reichstag. It is misleading to think of the Federal Council and the Reichstag as “upper” and “lower” houses in a classic bicameral parliament, as Bismarck’s subsequent remarks make clear – ed.
+ That is, no system of indirect voting, as in Prussia – ed.
++ That is, no threshold for enfranchisement based on annual taxes paid to the state – ed.

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