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Bismarck’s Letter of Resignation (March 18, 1890)

After Kaiser Wilhelm II’s accession to the throne in June 1888, conflict between the old chancellor Bismarck and the 29-year-old emperor was almost inevitable. Tensions came to a head over the workers’ question and how to deal with the Social Democrats. Germany had experienced a wave of strikes in 1889, and opinion was divided on how to meet the challenge. Wilhelm II did not want to start his reign with bloodshed. His Royal Decree of February 1890 promised social reform and workers’ protection. But Bismarck was more inclined toward a collision course with the Social Democrats, who had emerged from the Reichstag elections of February 1890 with more votes than any other party. He hoped to provoke a domestic crisis that would make him indispensable. On March 15, 1890, Bismarck was awoken at 9 a.m. with the news that the Kaiser wished to see him in the Foreign Office in half an hour’s time. At last, the break between the two men could no longer be postponed, and a rancorous, awkward scene resulted, leaving Bismarck no choice but to offer his resignation. As it happened, more than two days ensued before he did so, during which time both men tried to seize the tactical advantage (Bismarck wanted to draw up a letter of resignation that could be published later). The following text is the so-called chancellery draft [Kanzleikonzept] – the draft of the actual letter that was finally sent to Wilhelm on March 18, 1890.

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Berlin, March 18, 1890.

At my respectful audience on the 15th of this month, Your Majesty commanded me to draw up a decree annulling the All-Highest Order of September 8, 1852, which regulated the position of the Minister-President vis-à-vis colleagues.

May I, your humble and most obedient servant, make the following statement on the genesis and importance of this order:

There was no need at that time of absolute monarchy for the position of a “President of the State Ministry.” For the first time, in the United Landtag of 1847, the efforts of the liberal delegate (Mevissen) led to the designation, based on the constitutional needs of that day, of a “Premier-President,” whose task it would be to supervise uniform policies of the responsible ministers and to take over responsibility for the combined political actions of the cabinet. In the year 1848, this constitutional practice was introduced into our system, and “Presidents of the State Ministry” were appointed, such as Count Arnim, Camphausen, Count Brandenburg, Baron von Manteuffel, and Prince von Hohenzollern, who were primarily responsible not for one portfolio, but rather for the overall policy of the cabinet and thus for all the portfolios. Most of these gentlemen did not hold portfolios of their own, but rather only the presidency, as was most recently the case, before my assumption of the post, with Prince von Hohenzollern, the Minister von Auerswald, and Prince Hohenlohe. It was incumbent on them, however, to ensure that the State Ministry maintained – both within itself and in its relationship with the monarch – the kind of unity and steadiness that is absolutely required of any ministerial responsibility that forms the basis of constitutional life. The relationship of the State Ministry and its individual members to the new institution of the Minister-President very quickly required a new constitutional regulation, which was effected with approval of the then State Ministry by the order of September 8, 1852. Since then, this order has been decisive in regulating the relationship of the Minister-President and the State Ministry, and it alone gave the Minister-President the authority which enabled him to take over responsibility for the policies of the cabinet, a responsibility demanded by the Landtag as well as public opinion. If each individual minister must receive instructions from the monarch, without previous understandings with his colleagues, it becomes impossible in the cabinet to sustain uniform policies, for which each member can be responsible. There remains for none of the ministers and, especially, for the Minister-President any possibility of bearing constitutional responsibility for the whole policy of the cabinet. [In the absolute monarchy, a regulation such as contained in the order of 1852 is dispensable and would be so today if we returned to absolutism without ministerial responsibility; according to the rightly existing constitutional institutions, however, a presidential leadership of the ministerial committee based on the principle of the order of 1852 is indispensable. On this point, all of my colleagues agree, as was ascertained at yesterday’s meeting of State Ministers; they also agree that any successor of mine in the ministerial presidency would not be able to bear the responsibility for his office if he lacked the authority that the order of 1852 confers. For any of my successors, this need will be even more pronounced, because he will not immediately be supported by the authority that my presidency of many years and the trust of the two late emperors have granted to me.] Up to this time, I have never felt the need, in my relationships with my colleagues, to draw upon the order of 1852. Its very existence and the knowledge that I possessed the confidence of their late Majesties, Wilhlem and Friedrich, were enough to assure my authority on my staff. This knowledge exists today neither for my colleagues nor for myself. I have been compelled, therefore, to turn back to the order of 1852, in order to assure the necessary uniformity in the service of Your Majesty. On the aforementioned grounds, I am not in a position to carry out Your Majesty's demand, which would require me to initiate and countersign the suspension of the order of 1852 recently brought up by me, and, despite that, at the same time carry on the presidency of the Ministry of State.

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