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Theodor Fontane Describes a Conservative Election Campaign in Rural Brandenburg (1880s)

The following excerpt is from Theodor Fontane’s novel The Stechlin [Der Stechlin], published in 1899. It is a fictional work, but the account provided here illuminates many aspects of rural elections in small-town Germany during the Bismarckian era. Fontane’s main character, Dubslav von Stechlin, is a nobleman from the Mark Brandenburg. He becomes the Conservative Party’s Reichstag candidate in the constituency of Rheinsberg-Wutz, a traditional Conservative stronghold. As a politician obliged to seek the support of the common man, Stechlin is neither experienced nor particularly willing, but he is well-known locally, and in an age when face-to-face politics had yet to give way to party machines, he stands a good chance of being elected. The competing candidates represent the Progressive Party [Fortschrittspartei] and the Social Democrats [Sozialdemokraten]. Stechlin refuses to campaign actively: his character is his platform. But both Stechlin and Fontane know that times are changing and that a more modern style of political campaigning is beginning to pay dividends. Stechlin loses the election and the Social Democrat wins.

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Election in Rheinsberg-Wutz

Chapter Seventeen

It was just as his aunt had written: Dubslav had allowed his name to be entered as a conservative candidate and if there had still been any doubts on the matter for Woldemar, a few lines arriving from Lorenzen the next day sufficed to put them aside. It said in Lorenzen’s letter:

“All sorts of grand and glorious things have transpired since your last visit. On the very same evening both Gundermann and Koseleger appeared and urged your father to run for office. Of course he refused at first. Said he was unfamiliar with the ways of the world and had no understanding for that sort of thing. But that didn’t get him very far, Koseleger, who always has a few good stories up his sleeve – which is sure to stand him in good stead someday – immediately told him how years ago some fellow picked by Bismarck to be Minister of Finance who tried to extricate himself from the affair in the same manner with an ‘I don’t know anything about that sort of thing,’ had run straight into the prompt Bismarckian reply, ‘But that’s exactly the reason I’m picking you, my dear fellow.’ That was a tale which your father naturally couldn’t resist.

“To make a long story short, he agreed. Traveling around to electioneer has naturally been ruled out; the same applies for speechmaking. The election is already next Saturday. As always, the die will be cast in Rheinsberg. I think he’ll win. Only the Progressives might come into consideration or, at the very outside, the Social Democrats, if – which is easily possible – a few were to fall away from the Progressives. Under any circumstances, do write your Papa that you are glad about his decision. You can do so with a good conscience. If we get him through, I know for certain that no better man will be sitting in the Reichstag, and that we will all be able to congratulate ourselves on his election.

“And he too, of course. His life here is too lonely, you know, so much so that now and then even he complains about it, a thing that has never been his style. That’s what I had to let you know about. ‘Otherwise,’ as they used to say during the war, ‘All’s quiet in the lines before Paris.’ Krippenstapel is gadding about in great excitement. I think it’s because of the pre-election meeting set for Thursday in Stechlin itself, where I suspect he will give his usual speech on the bee state. My regards to your two kind friends, especially Czako. As always, your old friend, Lorenzen.”

After reading this, Woldemar was not quite certain how he should react. What Lorenzen had written. that no better man would be sitting in the Parliament, was quite right. Yet he nevertheless had reservations and concerns as well. The old fellow was by no means a politician. He could easily get himself deeply into nettles, perhaps even make a fool of himself in fact. And this thought was extremely painful to a son who ardently loved his father. Moreover, there was always the possibility he might be defeated in the campaign.

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