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Bismarck and German Society, 1848-1871

The White Revolutionary in Context


Dec 07, 2010


"Only the kings make revolution in Prussia."

-- Otto von Bismarck
(spoken to Napoleon III)

Was Otto von Bismarck a white revolutionary? By way of definition, a white revolutionary is "someone who both radically changed existing institutions while at the same time attempting to maintain and strengthen them." As suggested by the comment of Bismarck as quoted above, it would indeed seem that Bismarck's concept of revolution was closely tied to the power of existing institutions. However, it is precisely because our definition of the white revolutionary is based on institutions that conceptual concerns regarding our opening question must be examined. Specifically, the inclusion of institutions in our definition necessitates that we discuss the importance of social, political, and economic trends operating prior to, and beyond the influence or domain of Bismarck. Our opening question thus begets two distinct lines of inquiry: Was Bismarck a white revolutionary? Did German conditions reinforce a white revolution?

In order to understand the relationship between these two lines of inquiry, we may begin by examining modern positions on Bismarck. Bismarck is today widely regarded as a realpolitiker, and this characterization helps us to see how his categorization as a white revolutionary may prove problematic. If Bismarck was a realpolitiker, then in working towards his goals he was prepared to undertake the most propitious path available, regardless of ideological constraints. Thus, if Bismarck had believed his best option would have been, for example, to dispose of existing institutions, then by the principles of realpolitik he would have done so. Such an option however is not what Bismarck chose. As per the analyses of historians ranging from Lothar Gall and Katherine Ann Lerman to David Blackbourn, Bismarck chose to radically change existing institutions while at the same time attempting to strengthen them; that is, Bismarck selected the white revolutionary road. However, if as these historians claim, Bismarck's actions were of a white revolutionary stripe, but he was also a realpolitiker, this begs the question: is it possible that a better, or non-white revolutionary path to his goals existed, and if so, why did he choose against it? Answering this counterfactual question is not necessary, however posing it enables us to appreciate the difficulties surrounding the label of white revolutionary, and we may now expand our opening question appropriately.

Our question thus becomes: was Bismarck a white revolutionary by virtue of his personal belief system, or by virtue of the political path he forged through his social context? More exactly: would Bismarck the man have been a white revolutionary regardless of his formative and operational context, or is Bismarck the political actor best described as a white revolutionary because of his political strategies and the relationship of his choices to existing conditions and institutions?

In order to unpack these questions, and to understand the relationship between Bismarck's personal beliefs, his political actions, and contemporary German society, this paper will begin with a general examination of Bismarck's society, including a discussion of the connection between his goals and their relationship to the period during which he lived. Following this, Bismarck's goals and actions with respect to institutions and revolution will be elaborated, including an analysis of their results, as well as the white revolutionary nature of both Bismarck and German society. Because we will be examining the Bismarckian revolution, we shall focus on the two and a half decades beginning with the 1848 revolution and ending with the unification era of the 1870s.

The philosopher of history E.H. Carr observed that "Every human being at every stage of history ... is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society." What then were the conditions of the society that moulded Otto von Bismarck? German social and political conditions during the era in question were in a state of flux, however political power at all times rested ultimately, if not unquestioningly, in the hands of the monarch. With this fact in mind, and with respect to the mentality and policies of Bismarck, we may identify three primary features of German society and life that bore directly on Bismarck's formative years and later political activities: Prussian hegemony in the German Confederation, liberalism, and conservatism.

In the decades preceding 1848 the Prussian population doubled, and Prussia came to control various resource rich areas. Agricultural and technological innovations enhanced Prussia's productive abilities and capacity, and its economy gained in diversity and strength throughout the 1840s and 1850s. This economic prowess enabled Prussia to support a powerful army, and because of its economic-military might, the particularistic states of Third Germany relied increasingly on good relations with Prussia for both commercial stability and a strong ally. Accordingly, Prussian dominance of the Zollverein increased and Prussian-Austrian relations suffered as both vied for control of the various bodies of the German Confederation. This antagonism would later prove to be an essential component of Bismarck's foreign policy.

Almost paradoxically -- or perhaps better: ironically -- discord between Prussia and Austria was bolstered by an upward swing in nationalistic sentiment, which had been rising across Germany since the end of the French occupation that produced the union of Prussian, Austria, and Third Germany in the German Confederation of 1815. Ideologically, nationalistic sentimentalities were married to liberalism. Towards the twin ends of enlightened governance and Germanic patriotism, and looking forward to the programs of Bismarck, it is important to note that the majority of the liberal assembly of the 1848/1849 Frankfurt Parliament voted for a kleindeutsch (lesser-German) style unification. In this way liberal politicians prefigured Bismarck's conservative revolution, seeking to harmonize disparate states into a single nation excluding Austria (and thus favouring Prussia), and indeed, the entire period from 1848 to 1871 was marked by unification debates regarding constitutionalism and social reform. However, though liberalism was ascending, the revolutionary parliament failed, as official liberalism presented no real challenge to monarchism and royal institutions, which ended the political program of 1848/1849 by main force. "The political climate surrounding the administration, the courts, and the police" remained "one of pressure and conformity," and conservatism broadened in its reach rather than losing ground.

Conservative strength was reified in the Prussian three-class voting system of 1849, which correlated voting power to economic holdings, and was therefore far more "plutocratic and unequal" than liberal. Three-class voting, the conservatives claimed, would permit the "natural authority" of wealthy elites to express itself politically, thus reinforcing the intelligence of monarchical decisions, and avoiding the ostensibly uninformed -- and thereby dangerous -- influence of the masses. This type of reform from above was characteristic of German governance in general, and both prepared society for Bismarck's revolution from above while also acting as a model for it.

Returning to the issue of a potential dichotomy between Bismarck and his society, we may here offer an intermediary answer to the question "would Bismarck the man have been a white revolutionary regardless of his formative and operational context?" Without doubt, there existed a social foundation for Bismarck's political program of German unification, and his correspondent political choices. Accepting Carr's dictum that everyone is moulded by society, and knowing that Bismarck's ends were the Prussian dominance of a kleindeutsch Germany, then reflecting on his environment it is no surprise that in the single person of Bismarck we variously observe "extreme Junkerism and alliance with the forces of revolution, aristocratic rebellion and ministerial absolutism, divine right and raison d'etat, ... struggle against democracy and a later appeal to parliamentarianism." Setting aside Bismarck's actions and their consequences (which shall be examined subsequently), Bismarck's goals clearly reflected societal conditioning: rising nationalism; Prussian-Austrian antagonism; the exploration of enlightenment ideals and liberalism; political containment within a system of reactionary conservatism; and defense of the monarchic principle.

Having established the social basis for Bismarck's conservative goals, the question remains; "is Bismarck the political actor best described as a white revolutionary because of his political strategies and the relationship of his choices to existing conditions and institutions?" We shall examine this question presently, and consider the impact of Bismarck's revolution as regards his approach towards institutions.

What were the major institutions that existed and were impacted by the Bismarckian revolution, focusing on the importance of Prussia? Prior to the Germanic unification of 1871, major institutions and structures included: the Zollverein; the German Confederation; the North German Confederation; the office of the Prussian monarch; the office of the Prussian Prime Minister; the office of the Federal Chancellor; the Prussian army; and various parliamentary bodies. Following unification in 1871, major institutions and structures included: the German Empire; the office of the Kaiser; the office of the German Chancellor; the German army; and the Bundesrat and Reichstag. Armed with these lists, let us examine Bismarck's strategies alongside the developmental trajectory of these structures for evidence of white revolutionary activity.

Pursuant to Napoleon's occupation of German lands, the German Confederation was instituted in 1815 as a military alliance of German states, including a commercial component formalized in the Zollverein of 1834. Having already fought for many years against external influences over Prussia within the Confederation and the Zollverein, Bismarck's capacity to instigate a greater-Prussian revolution increased dramatically after being appointed Prime Minister in 1862. Immediately Bismarck began to govern "without the law," adhering to Gerlach's principle that royal officers should continue to rule even when faced with "A Hostile Lower House"; and rule as such Bismarck did, until 1866. As it was, the lower house was already subordinate to the upper house, and Bismarck's public decision to ignore the lower house only obviated the weakness of this representative institution while further enforcing the notion of royal prerogative.

In addition to having little influence over parliamentary processes, the lower house officially exerted no influence over another major institution: the army. Although the liberal majority of the parliament fought to obtain some control over the budget and the military, the army had nevertheless been operating outside of the constitution since 1848, at which time the special relationship between the king and the military had been made an extra-constitutional, or rather non-constitutional, concern. Taking full political advantage of this arrangement, Bismarck reinforced the royal prerogative again during the Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864, and by way of his presence alongside the king on the battlefield he illustrated the "symbiosis of the monarchical, political, and military leadership of the Prussian state" -- and the impotence of his opponents.

Soon thereafter, that symbiotic illustration of Prussian power brought forth the realization of Prussian hegemony, for Prussia defeated Austria in the Seven Week's War of 1866. The German Confederation was dissolved, and a new North German Confederation excluding Austria and Southern German states was formed. Because of Prussia's economic and military superiority and prestige, Prussian dominance of the new Confederation was never a question, but a foundational feature. The new Confederation became a federal state in 1867, with a constitution composed by Bismarck. Within these provisions Bismarck underwrote the power of Prussia by vesting in the office of the Prussian king executive power and control over the Bundesrat (Federal Council). Bismarck himself became the Federal Chancellor, and retained power over the military budget; "there was no collective government, a minimum of political consultation, and all final decisions rested with Bismarck." Prussia now enjoyed control of a Confederate Germany through its council, the selection of personnel, and the army. In addition to this stable system of control over greater-Prussian regions of Germany, Bismarck had by this time also garnered official support from a sizable segment of liberal and parliamentarian camps by promulgating the Indemnity Bill of 1866, and admitting that he had ruled unconstitutionally for four years. Such an admission broke with Gerlach's conservative principle of "A Hostile Lower House," however the realpolitikal fact remained that here was the Prussian dominance of a kleindeutsch Germany, as conservatives and liberals alike desired. Hardly any reform to further enhance Prussian monarchism might have been imagined, however Bismarck's royal revolution from above was not yet complete.

While the causes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871, and Bismarck's hand in it are not fully agreed upon, the results of Bismarck's subsequent achievements remain uncontroversial. Following the war, the structures of Bismarck's North German Confederation were used as a basis for the new German Empire, which adopted many features of the Confederation's constitution, and consummated Bismarck's revolution. South Germany was included; the Prussian king became the German Kaiser; the Prussian Prime Minister became the German Chancellor and the Kaiser's first minister (while also retaining the office of Prussian Foreign Minister); the Prussian army formed the basis of the German army; the Empire assumed the responsibilities of the Zollverein; the Reichstag became the German parliament; and the Kaiser controlled the Bundesrat. Comparing this list with the institutions and structures prior to 1871 (the Zollverein; the German Confederations; the state offices of monarch and Prime Minister; Federal Chancellor; the state army; and parliamentary bodies) we readily perceive how radically it was that Bismarck had altered the form of German government from 1848.

The radicalism of these formal alterations notwithstanding, we now arrive at the key consideration regarding their content: amongst the theoretical entities of 1871, the practical powers concentrated in the person of Bismarck were the de facto axis of the entire system; "Coordinating the activities of the king, ... ministers, ... parliaments ... [and] federal governments, as well as ... foreign affairs." Indeed, having examined the developmental history of the Empire and its structures, we appreciate how it was that by "the early 1880s Bismarck had ... authority over the Prussian ministerial bureaucracy" and "the Reich executive," and that his authority became incontestable. Hence, by studying the relationship between the form and content of Bismarck's revolution we understand that while the organizational structures of government were radically transformed between 1848 and 1871, the distribution of power in 1871 continued to favour the same groups that were favoured prior to 1871, even if in unfamiliar ways. Thusly, in answer to our central question -- "was Bismarck a white revolutionary by virtue of his personal belief system, or by virtue of the political path he forged?" -- the answer is: both. Bismarck's goals were clearly circumscribed by his conditions, and the path he forged through his context married political conservatism to revolutionary realpolitiks, discarding ideology in favour of results.

Entering into the pre-revolutionary era, the legitimacy of political elites flowed largely from the sources of dynastic succession and noble lineage. Over time, Otto von Bismarck came to realize that these sources alone would not continue to suffice. Accordingly, Bismarck worked to find new ways to protect the traditionalist principle of legitimacy by adding modernized dimensions. The monarch was to remain, however the monarchical principle was to be enveloped inside of political appearances that included parliamentary representation and confidence, male suffrage of an elitist variety, and a formally non-ideological bureaucracy. In this way, Bismarck updated and radically changed the formalistic basis of existing institutions, while at the same time maintaining and strengthening their pre-unification era content. Therefore, Bismarck's revolution was indeed a white revolution in both its intent and execution, and though Bismarck himself was a flexible realpolitiker rather than a steadfast ideologue, the choices he made remained conservative in their origins, characteristics, and consequences.


Part of the series: UWO