What steps did Bismarck take to strengthen Prussian nationalism in the German Empire and to combat socialism? In what respects, did William II reverse Bismarck's policies? Discuss.
Published: September 18, 2017
The destiny of the German Empire in the first twenty years of its existence rested largely in the hands of Chancellor Bismarck. He built the empire as a union of monarchies in which Prussia would have the strongest voice. Although there was a constitution and a lower house (Reichstag) elected by universal manhood suffrage, real power remained in the hands of the chancellor and the aristocratic upper house (Bundesrat). Bismarck’s intense nationalism made him suspicious of Germans who did not subordinate themselves completely to the state. During the 1870’s he launched a campaign against the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. This Kulturkampf, or “battle of civilization,” sharply curtailed Catholic education and freedom of worship. The Jesuits were expelled, Catholic bishops were arrested, and others fled into exile. After a few years, however, Bismarck abruptly ended the Kulturkampf. He felt that the Catholic Church was no longer a threat, and that Catholic support would be useful in his next campaign, the drive against socialism. The phenomenal expansion of German industry led to the growth of a large German working class. Many workers became interested in socialism—a movement which advocated, among other things, state ownership of all means of production and distribution. When they organized a Social Democratic party in 1875, Bismarck became alarmed. Beginning in 1878, Germany passed law after law against socialism. Designed to exterminate the movement, these laws succeeded only in driving it underground. In the 1880’s Bismarck tried to lure the workers away from socialism by initiating a comprehensive state program of social insurance covering sickness, accident, and old age. It was the most advanced program of its kind in Europe, but it did not kill socialism.
In 1890 the chancellor quarreled with the new emperor, William II, about antisocialist legislation, which the latter considered too extreme. On the surface, it appeared that the breach between the two men was motivated by issues. But in reality, the clash was one of two strong-willed personalities. Bismarck, after almost thirty years of service, was forced to retire. William II, who was twenty-nine when he became emperor in 1888, reigned until 1918. An ambitious man with exalted ideas about his own power, he instituted an aggressive foreign policy. In domestic affairs, he abolished the antisocialist laws and broadened the system of social insurance, but refused to extend political democracy. The Social Democrats continued to gain strength, in 1912 becoming the largest single political party in the Reichstag. Smaller countries shared in the reform movement. Of the smaller nations in western Europe, Belgium came closest to 458 Nineteenth-Century Europe paralleling developments in Britain. A constitutional monarchy, Belgium in the 1890’s adopted universal manhood suffrage, initiated factory legislation, and instituted a program of social insurance. The Netherlands, less industrially advanced, moved more slowly toward political democracy. In the 1890’s, less than 15 per cent of the population could vote, and universal manhood suffrage was not adopted until 1917. The most advanced democracy in continental Europe was Switzerland, a federal union of cantons with a two-house legislature. Universal manhood suffrage was adopted in 1874 and was reinforced by a large measure of direct democracy, including the initiative and referendum. The former was the procedure by which people could propose new laws; the latter allowed them to pass on legislation already in existence. In northern Europe, the constitutional monarchy of Denmark granted the right to vote to all men and most women in 1915. Norway and Sweden, united at the Congress of Vienna, separated peacefully in 1905. Both were constitutional monarchies and soon adopted universal suffrage. In 1907 Norway became the first sovereign state to grant women the right to vote.
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