The Firing of Bismarck

The focus in this essay is on how Bismarck dealt with the various forms of internal opposition encountered, and how successful he was with his measures.

When Otto F�rst von Bismarck-Sch�nhausen became the first Chancellor of the German Reich in 1871, his position was undisputed. The German people saw in him their national hero who had made possible the formation of a kleindeutsch German Reich, established by an overwhelming victory in the 1870/71 war against France. For the first three to four years after the unification, Bismarck's prestige did not descend from its peak as French war-indemnity payments caused a boom for the German economy and public opinion was still caught up in national ecstasy over Bismarck's achievements. However, in the mid-1870s three factors worked together in removing the chancellor from his superior position and putting him under political pressure. Firstly, recession set in caused by the end of French war-reparations. The temporary abundance of capital had not been used efficiently by German industrials, and their success declined rapidly with the absence of French capital. Parallel to these economic problems evolved the discontent of the working class with the living conditions they had to succumb to under Bismarck and Wilhelm I. They gave their support mainly to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) with the hope for social reforms and the establishment of trade unions. Thirdly, Bismarck's Kulturkampf against German Catholics was met by the public with discontent and alienated many of his supporters. The focus in this essay is on how Bismarck dealt with the various forms of internal opposition encountered, and how successful he was with his measures.
The constitution of the German Reich was a bastion of strength for Bismarck. Even though it was designed to give the impression that power was shared equally between the emperor and the chancellor, Bismarck had the upper hand in all crucial decision making as he was adept at convincing Wilhelm of the correctness of his policy. Being responsible only to the Kaiser himself, Bismarck's policies were not threatened by the Reichstag which had relatively little influence. "It had the power to initiate debate upon any point of his policy, but neither he nor any other minister was responsible to the assembly for his actions" (T. A. Morris, p116). The only issue where the Reichstag could inflict severely on Bismarck was the alteration of the military budget, for this decision was, according to the constitution, in the hands of the Imperial Assembly. However, because of fear of the emergence of another constitutional conflict like the one that was resolved by Bismarck in 1862, its members agreed from 1874 to 1881 to approve the budget envisioned by Bismarck. Any other decisions that had potential to conflict with the chancellor were not likely to even be made, as 17 out of the 58 deputies were Prussian, and thereby predominantly inclined to favor a pro-Bismarckian policy. These factors indicate how it was almost impossible for an opposition to block the Otto von Bismarckway of Bismarck, who did not have to seek the consent of anybody but the easily convinced Emperor.
Nevertheless it seemed favorable to Bismarck, who was not member of any party himself, to be supported by a strong grouping in the Reichstag. From 1871 to 1878, a period frequently described as his liberal era, Bismarck sought cooperation with the National Liberals. These were broadly sympathetic to the chancellor because he had brought about national unity, the party's major policy aim, and also because many short-term goals of the two partners coincided - most notably "consolidation of that national unity and the centralization of the administration of the Reich" (Morris, p118). However, the collaboration was by no means a complete symbiosis. In 1874, for example, Bismarck's Press Law enabled for easier prosecution of editors by the government; a law very much opposed to liberal ideals. The National Liberals never received from the chancellor any immediate political power; a fact that lets the collaboration appear more like exploitation at the hands of Bismarck. His association with the National Liberals strengthened his position by giving him a strong presence in the Reichstag, and can therefore be seen as a preventive means of dealing with internal opposition.
Perceived by Bismarck as a threat to the integrity of the German Reich was the German Catholic minority. Several reasons may have contributed to the chancellor viewing this group and its political extension, the Center Party, as a dangerous source of opposition. Firstly, the Catholics had proven to be opposed to the liberal policy which coated Bismarck up to 1878. Also, they were under the moral influence of the Pope and therefore did not seem to be reliable subjects of the Kaiser. Probably their greatest misfortune was that their views and policies were not acceptable to Bismarck. To combat these Reichsfeinde, "enemies of the people", Bismarck launched Kulturkampf, the "struggle for civilization", which had at its core the ambition to annihilate Catholic influence throughout the German Reich. Most notorious of Kulturkampf were the 'May Laws', a set of laws aimed directly at diminishing the influence which the German Catholic Church enjoyed. Introduced in 1872 by the Minister of Religious Affairs, Adalbert Falk, the May Laws brought education entirely under state control and placed the Catholic Clergy under strict supervision. Catholics in Germany had to live with the governmental accusation of being enemies of their own fatherland. His way of dealing with the German Catholics is as a strong indicator of why Bismarck was referred to as the "Iron Chancellor". His rigorousity in fighting whom he perceived as his enemy was extreme and lacked any willingness to compromise unless circumstances forced him to do so.
By 1878, Bismarck had sensed the general discontent of many highly influential groups within the Reich. Public opinion demanded protective tariffs to strengthen endangered industrial ambitions, and as a result, the chancellor's tendency to liberalism was openly challenged. Bismarck reacted with the second of his two most remarkable features - second to his rigor was only his opportunism. He conducted a dramatic change from liberalism to conservatism, deserting the too demanding National Liberals and strengthening his own position by succumbing to the strong demand for conservative politics. Protective tariffs were introduced in 1879 and Bismarck's position as chancellor was confirmed. During this process, he was also able to retract his call for Kulturkampf and the bulk of the May Laws established in 1872 - the clash with the Catholic Church had proven to be a complete failure. Support for the Catholics and partial outrage at his uncompromising severity had threatened to severely damage the support he enjoyed and thus forced him to abandon the attempted annihilation of Catholic influence in the German Reich.
Growing too strong in Bismarck's eyes was the Social Democratic Party, which he regarded with severe ideological and personal contempt. The SPD's policies collided with those of conservative Bismarck, who was eager to ridden himself of the advancing socialists. His opportunity came in 1878, when two attempts upon the life of the Kaiser enabled him to direct the nation's patriotism against his political foes. He dissolved the Reichstag to hold fresh elections, in which those whom he charged with the attempted assassinations were bound to be the losers. To get rid of socialism once and for all, Sozialistengesetze (anti-socialist measures) were passed on October 19th 1878. Even though these measures did not ban the SPD completely, they prohibited the party from meeting and disseminating its doctrine.
Despite his dislike of socialism and the extreme measures employed to contain the SPD, Bismarck was aware that the demand for socialist reform was a threat he could not quite as easily eradicate. Most workers had to live under undeniably dreadful conditions, and when the uproar that had followed the attempts on the Kaiser's life ended, the workers would present a most dangerous problem. Bismarck realized that socialism could not be conquered by oppression alone and embarked on a program of "state socialism" which was to improve the conditions of the German workers. In 1883, medical insurance and sick pay were introduced, and 1889 saw the introduction of old-age pensions. Reforms brought about by state socialism were by no means as advantageous for the workers as similar reforms by the SPD would have been, but they sufficed to pacify the proletariat and those critics of the chancellor who had blamed him for disregarding public needs.
Bismarck's way of dealing with internal opposition during his chancellorship in the German Reich from 1871 to 1890 is marked primarily by his rigor and opportunism, but also by most adept planning. Already the constitution prohibited, theoretically, any threat from below to attain too much influence. With the Reichstag unable to effectively oppose Bismarck, only the Kaiser had the power to dispose of the chancellor - a threat that, during the lifetime of Wilhelm I, did not exist due to the predominantly smooth understanding between the two German leaders. When a threat from below had potential to endanger Bismarck's position, he would try to nip it in the bud. Examples of his uncompromising severity regarding political opposition can be seen in the May Laws and the Sozialistengesetze - threats were to be eradicated promptly and finally. The French politician Emile Ollivier emphasizes this picture by displaying Bismarck as a "machiavellian and immoral power politician". Bismarck's undeniably unethical way of treating internal opposition was replenished by his opportunism. The abrupt change from liberalism to conservatism, the tacking back of the May Laws and the granting of socialist reforms support the view that Bismarck did not have a master plan; not even a firm ideological inclination, but did all he had to in order to remain the effective leader of the German Reich. I identify his way of dealing with internal opposition with flexibility rather than sole opportunism - while it has to be admitted that he was unethical in his methods, he was succumbing to the broad demands of the public only to be able to carry out the foreign politics necessary to secure the German Reich for the future. By combining rigor with flexibility, Bismarck effectively kept internal opposition under control between 1871 and 1890.