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

Unified liberal hostility to Bismarck’s autocratic policies during the “constitutional conflict” of the early 1860s ended when the National Liberal Party was founded in 1867 as a means to overcome what its leaders regarded as the “sterile” opposition of the Progressive Party. From 1867 onward the “national” and the “left” liberals competed for the political allegiance of Germany’s Protestant middle strata. The National Liberals subsequently became Bismarck’s main supporters in the unification era. But in 1878 Bismarck decided, for several reasons, to turn away from the National Liberals and cultivate conservative alliances. In this document, the famed sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) – a keen observer of his contemporary world – is highly critical of Bismarck’s Pyrrhic victory over the National Liberals. In fact, however, Bismarck was more interested in dividing and taming this party than in destroying it. By the late 1880s the National Liberals again played a central role in Bismarck’s “cartel of state-supporting parties.”

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Never has a statesman who was not put at the helm by the trust of a parliament had as his partner a political party so easy to deal with and yet so full of political talents as Bismarck enjoyed between 1867 and 1878. One may reject the political views of the National Liberal leadership at that time. Of course one must not measure them by the standard of Bismarck himself in the area of high politics or in terms of sovereign intellectual energy, for even the best of them seem only mediocre in comparison; after all, this is even more true of all other domestic politicians and most foreign ones too. If one is lucky, a genius appears just once every few hundred years. But we might thank fate if the politicians into whose hands it had placed the present and future leadership of the country proved to be as able on average as those in the National Liberal party in those days. It is indeed a most impertinent distortion of the truth for political littérateurs here nevertheless to try to persuade the nation that ‘Parliament in Germany has failed so far to produce great political talents.’ It is deplorable that the subaltern fashion among today’s littérateurs should deny that representatives of parliamentarism like Bennigsen, Stauffenberg, Völk, or of democracy, like the Prussian patriot Waldeck, possessed the quality demanded of representatives of ‘the German spirit’, for that spirit was at least as alive in the Paulskirche as it is amongst the bureaucracy, and more so than in the inkwells of these gentlemen. The great merit of those politicians from the heyday of the Reichstag was, firstly, the fact that they knew their own limitations and past errors and acknowledged Bismarck’s vast intellectual superiority. Nowhere did he have more passionate and quite personal admirers than in their ranks, and in particular amongst those who subsequently seceded from the party. One thing above all attests to their personal distinction, namely their complete lack of feelings of ressentiment about his superior stature. Everyone who knew these men would completely absolve all the significant figures amongst them of any such thing. Anyone familiar with the events would have to regard it as bordering on paranoia if Bismarck seriously entertained the idea that these particular politicians had ever considered ‘overthrowing’ him. I have heard their leaders say on numerous occasions that ‘Caesarism’, the governmental form of genius, would be the accepted political arrangement in Germany if there were the slightest chance of some new Bismarck always emerging to fill the highest position. That was their sincerely held conviction. It is true that they had crossed swords fiercely with him in the past. For this very reason they were also aware of his limitations and were certainly not inclined to make any unmanly sacrificium intellectus, although they were always prepared, even to the point of self-abnegation, to go a long way to meet him in order to avoid a break with him – much further, indeed, then was permissible in view of the mood of the voters, who then threatened to withdraw their support. The National Liberal politicians avoided a fight for formal parliamentary rights with the creator of the Reich, not only because they foresaw that, in party political terms, any such contest would only help the Centre Party to gain power, but also because they knew that it would paralyze Bismarck’s own policies as well as the substantive (sachlich) work of parliament for a long time to come: ‘Nothing is successful any more’* was the well-known watchword of the eighties. Their innermost intention, often expressed in their own circles, was to steer safely through the period when this grandiose personality ruled the Reich those institutions which would ensure continuity of Reich policy once the time had come to adjust once more to politicians of normal stature. Admittedly, these institutions included, in their view, a parliament which would have a positive share in decision-making and therefore be capable of attracting great political talents – and strong parties.

*Title of an article dated April 28, 1889 in Germania, the Catholic Center Party’s main organ. (Footnote adapted from 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, p. 230.)

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