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Bismarck’s Speech in the North German Reichstag in Defense of his Draft Constitution (March 11, 1867)

Here, Bismarck defends his draft constitution for the North German Confederation. There were two main issues, however, that exercised his liberal critics in the Reichstag. First, they wanted the Reich secretaries of state to be fully answerable to parliament. Second, they wanted full parliamentary control of the military budget, which had been a contentious issue in Prussia from 1862 to 1866. But the liberals had to accept the so-called Iron Law, which, up until 1871, set Germany’s military budget and the peacetime strength of its army at a fixed ratio to the population. In this speech, Bismarck also touches upon many issues of immediate interest to Germany’s other federal states, including the fate of both their own parliaments [Landtage] and the German Customs Union [Zollverein].

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It could not have been our objective to produce a theoretically ideal federal constitution in which both the unity of Germany would be guaranteed for all time and freedom of movement for every particularistic stirring would be secured. Such a philosopher's stone, if it is to be found at all, must be left to the future to discover. The task of the present moment is not to come a few decimal places closer to such a squaring of the circle. Rather, recalling and, in my opinion, correctly estimating the forces of resistance upon which the earlier attempts at unification made in Frankfurt and Erfurt foundered, we have made it our business to defy those forces of resistance as little as was at all compatible with our goal. We have held it our task to discover the minimum of those concessions to the whole that the particular political entities existing within German territory must make if the whole is to be capable of surviving. Whether we want to attach the name of a constitution to the product that has thereby come into being is irrelevant. However we believe that if that product is accepted here, the road will have been cleared for the German people, and we further believe that we can have confidence in the genius of our people that it will be able to find its way along this road, which leads to its goals.


Although the document under consideration here is sufficient for this purpose, at least in our view, I nonetheless fully understand that many wishes remain unsatisfied, that a great many things besides these were wished for, and that in like manner a great many others could have been wished for. But what I do not understand is how one could want to refuse what is being offered because these wishes have up to now remained unfulfilled, and at the same time assert that all one really wants is a constitution that could lead Germany to unity. To date objections have been raised and wishes have been expressed by individuals standing on two different sides. I would like to term them the unitary and the particularistic sides. From the unitary side one hears that they expected the creation of a constitutionally responsible ministry from this draft constitution in the same way as from the earlier one. But who should appoint this ministry? This task is not to be expected of a consortium of twenty-two governments; it would not be able to fulfill it. However, it is equally unacceptable to exclude twenty-one of twenty-two governments from a share in the establishment of the executive. The demand could only have been satisfied if a unified head with monarchical character had been created. But then, gentlemen, you would no longer have a federal relationship; then you would have the mediatization of those to whom this monarchical power was not given. This mediatization was neither consented to by our confederates nor sought by us. Some here have intimated that it could be exacted by force, while others have suggested that it will in part come about by itself, the latter position being found in political quarters located close to me. We do not expect this to such a degree, and we do not believe that German princes will be ready in large numbers to exchange their present positions for that of an English peer. We have never made this unreasonable demand of them, and we do not intend to do so.

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