The German Empire’s Internal Problems (1871-1890)

Bismarck’s term as chancellor (1871-1890) of the German Empire endured numerous internal battles revolving around the power of the empire and its rulers. Disagreements regarding the appropriate power of the working class and the role of the church caused turbulence during Bismarck’s term. Bismarck attempted to solve these internal conflicts by catering to each side of the argument at different times, but the disagreements resurfaced.

The internal problems of the German Empire started with the delegation of votes. Bismarck and King Wilhelm I established the German Empire in 1871 and created a hierarchy of government for deciding the laws and conditions of the new government. Bismarck allowed universal manhood suffrage (the right for working, white men) in the lower chamber, or Reichstag, of the legislative body. Bismarck’s decision to allow the lower classes to vote disrupted the peace within the upper chamber, a group of lawmakers composed of upper class men, because the upper chamber did not think that normal, uneducated people should have the power to influence government. Bismarck limited the power of the lower chamber so that average men could vote, but he could overrule them.

The National Liberals restricted the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church , but the Center (a largely Catholic political party) opposed the National Liberals and pressed for the Church to maintain its power. In 1864, a document called the Syllabus of Errors was published. This document observed the government’s inclination to encroach upon religious power and called for change so that the future government would not hinder the church or education. Bismarck, allied with the National Liberals, declared a nominal war (Kulturkampf) in 1871 with the intention of protecting culture and education from the church. With the support of the anticlerical National Liberals, Bismarck passed laws restricting the church’s ability to worship and educate. Bishops of the Catholic faith were arrested and Jesuits were expelled. The Center was outraged with the new anticlerical laws. In 1879, Bismarck decided that the Catholic Church was not the large, powerful threat he had feared it to be. Bismarck allied himself with the Center, causing numerous National Liberals to grow angry at Bismarck’s alleged betrayal. The influence of the church caused internal arguments.

Another cause for conflict within the German Empire was the rise of socialism. Bismarck’s fear of having a Paris Commune (anarchy) situation in Germany were heightened by the formation of the German Social Democratic Party in 1875. Socialists quickly populated most of the Reichstag and held a small amount of influence in the government. Bismarck, backed by the upper classes of the German Empire (the Junkers), passed antisocialist laws between 1878 and 1890, forbidding the formation of labor unions and socialistic uprisings against the government. In order to gain socialist support, Bismarck created a social insurance program that benefited the working class. Social insurance did not appeal to the Junkers, who did not work in factories and were expected to pay some money to the government so that the lower class could benefit. Throughout Bismarck’s term in office, the tension grew between the socialists and antisocialists concerning the duty of the government to the working man.

Most of the internal problems that Bismarck witnessed while in office consisted of struggles for power within the German Empire. The German population disagreed with respect to who should have the right to vote, how much power the church should have, and what role the government should play in the lives of workers. Between 1871 and 1890, the German Empire suffered internal conflicts due to imbalances of power.