The political establishment in Germany succeeded in maintaining the status quo through a policy of moderate reform Essay

“The political establishment in Germany succeeded in maintaining the status quo through a policy of moderate reform.” How far do you agree with this judgment?

The political establishment in Germany (comprising of the Kaiser, Chancellor, Budesrat, Junkers and the Army) certainly would have wanted to maintain the status quo during that period and it could be argued that they succeeded using moderate reform. The actions of von Bulow and Bethmann-Hollweg can be used as evidence of this. However, despite this, there are other factors that must be considered, for example Sammlungspolitik, Weltpolitik and Flottenpolitik as well as the consequences of Wilhelm’s dissolving the Reichstag as reasons for the status quo being maintained. Also, it could also be argued that the status quo was not maintained at all based on evidence such as the criticisms of the ruling elite or evidence that the Reichstag proved difficult to manage. Upon considering all of these points, it seems fair to conclude that although the semblance of the status quo was maintained for a time, it was eventually worn away by the opposition facing the political establishment. The actions of Chancellor von Bulow should be the first point of consideration in support of this judgement. Chancellor between 1900 and 1909, von Bulow was an aristocratic Junker who had previously served as Foreign Minister and was the first Chancellor who won the Kaiser’s total trust, a feat performed by shameless flattery. As Chancellor, he did introduce some moderate reforms with the aim of maintaining the status quo and seemed to have reasonable successes. For example, the introduction of his new tariff law of 1902. By restoring a higher duty on imported goods, von Bulow hoped to encourage people to buy German produced wheat.

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This act proved highly important in creating the alliance of “rye and steel”; (between the Junkers and industrialists) German leaders had so eagerly been seeking. Other of von Bulow’s reforms introduced for the purpose in question include the 1900 extension of accident insurance to include new occupations and the length of time for which a worker could claim accident insurance was increased. 1901 saw the introduction of compulsory industrial arbitration courts in towns with a population of more than 200. Health insurance was extended in 1903 under the amended Sickness Insurance Law, more generous and longer help was offered to workers with poor health. A law restricting work hours for young people and children was passed, decreeing that children under 13 weren’t to be employed, children aged 13-14 could only work six hours a day and children aged 14-16 were limited to ten hours a day. Under von Bulow, a polling booth was also introduced and payment for Reichstag deputies was introduced in 1906, widening the franchise by allowing poorer people to become MP’s. Through these reforms, von Bulow aimed to prevent challenges to how things were run and to prevent people turning to parties such as the SPD’s in order to get the reforms they wanted, maintaining the status quo through moderate reform.

Another Chancellor who introduced moderate reforms to maintain the status quo was Bethmann-Hollweg, von Bulow’s successor. He continued von Bulow’s work in reforming the Prussian state parliament but was unsuccessful when his proposed legislation was blocked by Junkers in the Bundesrat. He did, however successfully introduce other, more successful acts, for example the 1911 Imperial Insurance Code, consolidating all previous workers’ insurance laws and amending and extending their provisions. Some white collar workers were insured against sickness, old age and death by a separate and simultaneous law. He also introduced a constitution to Alsace-Lorraine in 1911 to encourage its’ integration more into Germany. He also introduced an Army Bill in July of 1913 in response to pressure to raise money for military spending. The Reichstag agreed to a large increase in the size of the armed forces despite argument over raising 435 million Reichsmarks to fund it. It was finally agreed upon that the army would increase by 136,000 troops at a cost of a billion marks. The SPD were forced to agree to this for fear of being made to look unpatriotic. Similarly as with von Bulow, Bethmann-Hollweg introduced moderate reforms in order to maintain peace in Germany, politically and socially and prevent possible challenges to the power of the political establishment, maintaining the status quo arguably with some success.

However, despite the actions of these chancellors, moderate reform was not the only method of maintaining the status quo employed in Germany at the time. Policies such as Weltpolitik, Sammlungspolitik and Flottenpolitik must also be considered. Sammlungspolitik translates as policy of concentration.
Von Bulow used this as a means to build an alliance of conservative interests in the Reich. If he succeeded, they would be able to present a broad front against possible socialist threats. In this way, he could use the strength of the conservative groups within the political establishment to maintain the status quo. The means by which Sammlungspolitik would be implemented would be through the creation of a policy of protectionism (a policy of restraining trade between states through methods such as tariffs on imported goods, restrictive quotas, and a variety of other government regulations designed to allow “fair competition” between imports and goods and service produced domestically.) and a nationalist foreign and colonial policy designed to rally Germans from all social levels, known as Weltpolitik. This was a powerful measure to introduce in order to maintain the status quo as it allowed for all social classes to be involved and strive to a common goal. As well as political pressure, there were other pressure groups pushing for the achievement of these goals too. For example, the German Colonial League, founded in 1882, focused on the acquisition of German colonies and played a part in ruling parts of her empire, South-West Africa for example. The Pan German League, 1890, was also concerned with the acquisition of colonies as well as being committed to the dominance of Germany in Europe. This particular pressure group had much support from the political establishment. As well as nationalist pressure groups such as these, there were also economic pressure groups such as the Central Association of German Industrialists and the Agrarian League formed to protect their respective interests. With the efforts of pressure groups such as these, with widespread memberships, the political establishment was able to maintain the support of a large percentage of the population on a range of social levels and therefore maintain the status quo. Another integral element to the success of Weltpolitik was Flottenpolitik. It was widely agreed that in order for Germany of as a “Great Power”, there needed to be serious development on the Navy.

In 1898 the Secretary of the Navy, Alfred von Tirpitz successfully passed his first piece of naval legislation through the Reichstag. The momentum of Flottenpolitik was supported by the Naval League, another immensely popular pressure group. In 1900 a second Navy Law, proposing to build 38 battleships over the following 20 years, was passed, leading to a leap in production off steel, pleasing both the Naval League and the industrialists. Another Navy Law was passed in 1906, adding 6 battle-cruisers to the building programme and widened the Kiel Canal to allow the passage of dreadnought-style ships. Through this process the navy became a focus of national pride and patriotism. This could then be used to soak up some of the pressures and tensions in Germany at the time, preventing people from challenging the status quo.

Another method in which the status quo was maintained was the dissolving of the Reichstag in 1906 following the Centre Party’s joining the SPD in order to vote down government plans to build a railway in South West Africa. As a result of the Centre Party’s attitude, the Reichstag was dissolved. The election of 1907 became known as the “Hottentot” election (“Hottentot” was the slang name for the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa. It is now considered to be an offensive term to use). This was an election fought on the issue of nationalism. Von Bulow, supported by nationalist groups like the Pan German League, threatened the consequences of a Red-Black victory would be the alliance of Centre and SPD parties. The threats succeeded and the German voters backed the candidates from the Bulow Bloc, delivering a majority. By employing these tactics and their success, von Bulow ensured that the candidates sharing the views of the political establishment were elected, thus protecting himself and the rest of the ruling elite from the threat of potential threats from other political parties and again maintaining the status quo.

Despite the ways in which the status quo was maintained listed above, there is evidence that suggests that it was not maintained at all. For example, despite all the measures put in place to try and discourage support for the SPD party, by 1912 they were the largest party in the Reichstag, holding 112 seats and eventually were winning 75% of the votes in elections in Berlin. The SPD certainly proved itself to be a threat to the status quo the political establishment strived so desperately to defend. It did this in a number of ways. For example, with the growth of socialism came the growth of trade unionism. By 1914, around 2.5 million Germans were members of trade unions and throughout 1913, 400,000 of them went on strike for better working conditions, something previously unheard of. Also, at the 1891 Erfurt conference, led by August Bebel, the SPD committed to a revolutionary, Marxist programme. They stated the revolution was inevitable. Later at the Lubeck conference in 1901, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht argued that revolution should be considered and that general strike should be used as a weapon. Taking these facts into account, it could be argued that the status quo was not at all maintained, the challenge to the government from the growth of socialism was too strong.

Another possible counter argument to the judgement could be evidence of criticisms of the political establishment, particularly the Kaiser. A particularly strong area of criticism came following the actions of the Kaiser during the Zabern Affair in 1913. Following the events that took place, the Army faced harsh criticisms. When it claimed it was only answerable to the Kaiser (as was stated in the Constitution), there was outrage, particularly from the Reichstag, as it seemed that Wilhelm allowed the armed forces to do whatever it pleased with no regard for law. Bethmann-Hollweg also defended the Kaiser’s position and the actions of the armed forces. The event also highlighted the weakness of the Reichstag. Its vote of no confidence was ignored by the Chancellor and Kaiser. This led to an enormous anti-government feeling within the Reichstag. The Kaiser’s prestige was evaporating. The Reichstag became so difficult and critical that Bethmann-Hollweg depended on decrees as opposed to passing legislation through them. There were now strikes not only over working conditions but also for a reform of the Prussian voting system. Minorities reacted against the discrimination they faced. The working classes became highly critical of the lack of reform. All these areas of criticism are strongly indicative of a breakdown of the status quo. Prior to this period, criticisms of the ruling classes, in particular the Kaiser would not have been expressed so openly or strongly.

In conclusion, as can be seen from the points discussed above, it can be argued that the political establishment did succeed in maintaining the status quo through moderate reforms to a degree, primarily through the actions of von Bulow and Bethmann-Hollweg. There were also other factors in the maintenance of the status quo, for example Sammlungspolitik or the dissolving of the Reichstag that must be considered and credited. However, given the growing strength of the opposition to the status quo and the criticisms it faced, it seems impossible that maintaining it was an impossible task for the political establishment.


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