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August Bebel, Reichstag Speech (November 8, 1871)

In the following Reichstag speech of November 8, 1871, the leading Social Democrat August Bebel (1840-1913) denounces the lack of constitutional and parliamentary rights in Germany and its federal states. He emphasizes the vague wording of the current motion (“every federal state must have a parliament based on general elections”) to justify his party’s opposition, instead of voicing qualms about infringements on the parochial politics of the German states by the central government.

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Gentlemen! Today I find myself in a position, together with gentlemen from both the right and the Center Party, to vote against the motion [merriment], albeit for different reasons. This, of course, will not prevent the Reich Chancellor’s press organ, the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, from declaring in tomorrow’s political overview that today’s vote once again confirmed the cooperation of the “blacks” [Catholic clerics] and the “reds” [Socialists]. [Merriment.] Gentlemen, substantial reservations have been voiced from that side of the House because passing the current motion would cause the jurisdiction of the Reich authority to be extended, and [therefore] they have prompted these gentlemen to speak against it. There was also a time when we took vigorous action against the extension of powers in the North German Confederation. We did so, however, not because we were particularly in favor of the small states – God forbid, Gentlemen! – but because, compared with Prussia’s absolutist-militarist cravings, constitutional life in the small states was better developed and generally allowed at least slightly freer movement to an opposition party – despite the Reich Chancellor’s remark that their liberalism still lagged far behind Prussia’s. Yet this difference, Gentlemen, has diminished considerably in recent years, especially last year. The founding of the North German Confederation meant that any independent action and independent work on the part of the small states had already been destroyed. So once the German Reich was established on [the basis of] “fear of God and pious conduct,” and once the south German states were also drawn into this state of impotence, their independent activities were over and done with. Today, Gentlemen, the small states – we, as Social Democrats, have experienced this quite often enough in the past years – do little more than play police bailiff for Prussia. [Merriment.]

The persecution to which our party has been subjected in [the Kingdom of] Saxony – where laws that were already reactionary were used against us in the most arbitrary, reactionary way with respect to freedom of assembly, association, and the press – has shown us that all previous liberal impulses have completely vanished from the small states. Furthermore, it has shown that they are no longer able to resist the pressure on them from Berlin. Therefore, Gentlemen, today we don’t care the slightest if the existence of the small states is preserved for one more day. If Prince Bismarck seizes upon the idea of putting all of them in his pocket tomorrow, we won’t do anything to encourage it, but we also won’t oppose it. [Great merriment.] And we won’t act in this way because we believe we’ll find ourselves in a better situation under Prussian yoke – heavens no! – but for the simple reason that the powers of resistance, fragmented as they are right now against a dozen governments, will then be concentrated against one major adversary; because all of the hate and anger that grows daily among the people on account of our rotten political and social conditions will be concentrated against one enemy, thus creating an opportunity to make a clean sweep of it, too, one fine day. [Laughter.] Gentlemen, as you can see, I am very frank. [Laughter.] But this, Gentlemen, is what prompts me to drop all reservations about jurisdiction, both today and in the future.

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