The Role of Force in History, Engels 1887

Chapter Six

The immediate task was the imperial constitution. The material available was the constitution of the North German Confederation, on the one hand, and the treaties with the South German states, on the other. The factors which were to help Bismarck draw up the imperial constitution were, on the one hand, the dynasties represented in the Federal Council and, on the other, the people represented in the Reichstag. The North German constitution and treaties limited the claims of the dynasties. The people, on the other hand, were entitled to a considerable increase in their share of political power. They had won independence from foreign interference and unification — as far as there could be any talk of unification — on the battlefield; they were also above all called upon to decide what use this independence was to be put to, how this unification would be implemented in detail and how it would be used. And even if the people recognised the legal grounds underlying the North German constitution and treaties, that in no way prevented them from being granted a greater share of power in the new constitution than they had in the old one. The Reichstag was the only body which in reality represented the new “unity”. The greater the voice of the Reichstag and the freer the imperial constitution as compared with the constitutions of the individual provinces, the more the new Empire would have to fuse into one, the more the Bavarian, Saxon and Prussian would have to dissolve into the German.

To anyone who could see further than his nose this should have been obvious. But Bismarck held quite a different opinion. On the contrary, he used the patriotic frenzy unleashed after the war precisely to persuade the majority in the Reichstag to renounce not only an extension but even a clear definition of the rights of the people and to confine itself to a simple reproduction in the imperial constitution of the legal basis underlying the North German constitution and the treaties. All attempts of the small parties to give expression in it to the freedoms of the people were dismissed, including even the proposal of the Catholic Centre to incorporate in it the articles of the Prussian constitution guaranteeing the freedom of the press, of assembly and association and the independence of the Church. The Prussian constitution, twice and thrice pruned as it was, was still more liberal than the imperial constitution. Taxes were voted not yearly, but once and for all, “by law”, so that any refusal of taxes by the Reichstag was out of the question. Thus there was applied to Germany the Prussian doctrine, inconceivable to the non-German constitutional world, according to which the elected assembly had only the right on paper to refuse expenditure, while the government pocketed the revenue in hard cash. While the Reichstag was thus robbed of the most effective means of power and reduced to the humble position of the Prussian chamber smashed up by the revisions of 1849 and 1850, by Manteuffelism, by conflict and by Sadowa the Federal Council, in effect, enjoyed full power, which the old Federal Diet possessed nominally, and enjoyed it in reality, for it had been freed of the fetters that paralysed the Federal Diet. The Federal Council had a decisive voice not only in legislation, alongside the Reichstag; it was also the supreme administrative body, inasmuch as it issued instructions on the implementation of imperial laws, and in addition decides “on shortcomings, which emerge during the implementation of imperial laws...” i.e., on shortcomings, which in other civilised countries can be remedied only by a new law (Article 7, Para. 3, which greatly resembles a legal trap).

Thus, Bismarck sought his main support not in the Reichstag, which represented national union, but in the Federal Council, which represented particularistic disunion. He lacked the courage — he, who set himself up as champion of the national idea — to place himself genuinely at the head of the nation or of its representatives; democracy was to serve him and not he democracy; rather than rely on the people, he relied on underhand dealings behind the scenes, on his ability to scrape together a majority, even if a refractory one, in the Federal Council by means of diplomacy, the stick and the carrot. The pettiness of his conception, the baseness of his view point that is revealed to us here is quite in keeping with the man’s character as we have got to know him so far. Yet, it is surprising that his great successes were unable to make him rise above himself even for a moment.

However, in the prevailing situation, the point was to provide a single firm pivot for the entire imperial constitution, namely, the imperial chancellor. The Federal Council had to be put in a position in which there could be no other responsible executive authority than that of the imperial chancellor and which would exclude the admissibility of responsible imperial ministers. Indeed, every attempt to normalise the imperial administration by setting up a responsible ministry was regarded as an encroachment upon the rights of the Federal Council and encountered insurmountable resistance. As was soon discovered, the constitution was “made to measure” for Bismarck. It was a further step on the road to his absolute personal dictatorship by balancing the parties in the Reichstag and the particularise states in the Federal Council — a further step on the road to Bonapartism.

By the way, it cannot be said that the new imperial constitution — except for certain concessions to Bavaria and Württemberg — was a direct step back. But that is the best that can be said of it. The economic requirements of the bourgeoisie were in the main satisfied, its political claims — inasmuch as it still made any — encountered the same obstructions as during the conflict.

Inasmuch as it still made political claims! For it cannot be denied that with the National Liberals these claims had shrunk to a very modest size and continued to shrink with every passing day. These gentlemen, far from demanding that Bismarck should facilitate their collaboration with himself, were much more concerned with doing his will wherever possible, and quite often also where it was impossible, or should have been impossible. Bismarck despised them and no one can blame him for that — but were his Junkers one iota better or braver?

The next field in which unity of the Empire had to be introduced, the monetary system, was normalised by the currency and banking laws passed between 1873 and 1875. The introduction of gold currency was a considerable step forward; but it was introduced only hesitantly and waveringly and is not firmly established even today. The monetary system adopted — the third of a taler under the name of “mark”, a unit with a decimal division — had been suggested by von Soetbeer at the close of the thirties; the actual unit was the gold twenty-mark piece. By a barely noticeable change in value it could have been made absolutely equivalent either to the British sovereign, or the gold twenty-five franc coin, or the gold U.S. five-dollar piece, and linked to one of the three great currency systems on the world market. Preference was given to a separate currency system, thereby needlessly complicating trade and exchange calculations. The laws on imperial treasury notes and banks limited the fraudulent transactions in securities of small states and their banks and, taking into consideration the crash which had in the meantime occurred, they were marked by a definite timidity, which well became Germany, still inexperienced in this field. But here, too, the economic interests of the bourgeoisie were on the whole adequately looked after.

Finally there came an agreement on uniform laws. The resistance of the central German states to the extension of imperial competency to the material civil law was overcome, but the civil code is still in the making, while the penal code, criminal and civil procedural law, trade laws, the regulations concerning insolvency and the judicial system have been unified everywhere. The abolition of the motley formal and material legal standards in force in the small states was in itself an urgent requirement for ongoing bourgeois development, and this abolition is the chief merit of the new laws — a far greater one than their content.

The English jurist relies on a legal heritage that has preserved a good part of the old German freedoms through the Middle Ages, that does not know the police state, which was nipped in the bud by the two revolutions of the 17th century and has attained its apex in two centuries of uninterrupted development of civic freedom. The French jurist relies on the Great Revolution, which, after the total destruction of feudalism and absolutist police tyranny, translated the economic conditions of life in the newly created modern society into the language of legal standards in the classical code of law proclaimed by Napoleon. But on what legal basis do our German jurists rely? Nothing but the several-century-long process of disintegration of medieval survivals, a passive process mostly spurred on by blows from the outside, and not complete to this day; an economically backward society, which the feudal Junker and the guild master haunt as ghosts looking for a new body; a legal order in which police tyranny — even though the arbitrary justice of the princes disappeared in 1848 — is daily tearing new holes. The fathers of the new imperial legal codes have come from this worst of all bad schools, and their work is quite in keeping with it. Apart from the purely legal aspect, political freedom has fared pretty badly in these codes of law. If the Schöffen courts provide the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie with a means of collaborating in repressing the working class, the state insures itself as much as possible against the danger of renewed bourgeois opposition by curtailing the rights of the jury. The political paragraphs of the penal code are frequently enough as vague and elastic as if they were made to measure for the present imperial court, and the latter for them. That the new legal codes are a step forward in comparison with Prussian common law — today even Stoecker would be unable to concoct something as horrible as that code, even if he were to allow himself to be cut back. But the provinces which had until now lived under French law feel very acutely the difference between the blurred copy and the classic original. It was the defection of the National Liberals from their programme that made possible this strengthening of state power at the expense of civic freedoms, this first actual retrogression.

Mention should also be made of the imperial press law. The penal code had essentially already regulated the material law pertaining to it; the elaboration of identical formal stipulations for the whole Empire and the abolition of the security and stamp duties existing here and there were therefore the main content of the law and at the same time the only progress it achieved.

To enable Prussia once again to prove itself a model state, so-called self-government was introduced there. The aim was to abolish the most objectionable survivals of feudalism and yet, actually, to leave, as far as possible, everything as before. The District Ordinance served this purpose. The manorial police power of the Junkers had become an anachronism. In name — as a feudal privilege — it was abolished, but actually it was reinstituted by the establishment of independent rural districts [Gutsbezirke], within which the landowner either himself acts as rural superintendent [Gutsvorsteher] with the powers of the head of the rural community [Gemeindevorsteher] or appoints this rural superintendent, and was also reinstituted by transferring the entire police power and police jurisdiction of the administrative district [Amtsbezirk] to a district head [Amtsvorsteher], a position held in rural areas almost exclusively by big landowners, of course, who in this way got the rural community under their thumb. The feudal privileges of individuals were abolished, but the absolute power connected with these privileges was handed over to the entire class. By similar conjuring the English big landowners turned into justices of the peace and the masters of the rural administration, the police and the lower courts of justice and thereby secured for themselves under a new, modernised title further enjoyment of all essential positions of authority, which they could not continue to hold under the old feudal form. That, however, is the only similarity between the English and the German “self-government”. I should like to see the British Minister who would dare to propose in Parliament that elected local officials should be approved and that in case an undesired person is elected he be forcibly replaced by an appointee of the state, to propose that there be civil servants vested with the authority of the Prussian Landrats, heads of administrative districts and Oberpräsidents, to propose that the administrative bodies of the state be given the right provided for in the District Ordinance to intervene in the internal affairs of communities, small administrative units and districts and to exclude recourse to law, a thing unheard of in English-speaking countries and in English law, but which we see on almost every page of the District Ordinance. And while the district diets [Kreistag] as well as the provincial diets are still composed in the old feudal manner of representatives of the three estates: the big landowners, towns and rural communities, in England even a highly conservative ministry moves a bill transferring the whole county administration to authorities elected by almost universal suffrage.

The draft of the District Ordinance for the six Eastern provinces (1871) was the first indication that Bismarck did not even think of allowing Prussia to dissolve into Germany, but that, on the contrary, he sought to further strengthen these six provinces — the stronghold of the old Prussianism. Under changed names, the Junkers retained all essential positions of power, while the helots of Germany, the rural workers of these areas — such as farmhands and day labourers — remained in their former de facto serfdom and were admitted to only two public functions: to become soldiers and to serve the Junkers as voting stock during the elections to the Reichstag. The service Bismarck rendered thereby to the revolutionary socialist party is indescribable and deserves the warmest gratitude.

What can be said about the mindlessness of the Junker gentlemen, who, like spoiled children, kicked against the District Ordinance which had been drawn up exclusively in their interest, in the interest of perpetuating their feudal privileges, under a somewhat modernised name? The Prussian House of Lords, or, to be more exact, of Junkers, at first rejected the draft, which had already been delayed for a whole year, and adopted it only after 24 new “Lords” had been nominated peers. Once again the Prussian Junkers proved that they were petty, obdurate, incorrigible reactionaries, unable to form the nucleus of a large independent party which could play an historical role in the life of the nation, as the English big landowners actually do. Thereby they proved their complete lack of sense; Bismarck had only to reveal to the world their equally complete lack of character, and a little pressure, pertinently applied, would transform them into a Bismarck Party sans phrase.

The Kulturkampf was to serve this purpose.

The implementation of the Prussian-German imperial plan should have evoked a counterblow — the amalgamation into a single party of all anti-Prussian elements, which had previously relied on separate development. These motley elements found a common banner in Ultramontanism. The rebellion of sound common sense even among the numerous orthodox Catholics against the new dogma of Papal infallibility, on the one hand, the destruction of the Papal States, and the so-called imprisonment of the Pope in Rome, on the other, forced all the pugnacious forces of Catholicism to rally closer together. Thus even during the war, in the autumn of 1870, the specifically Catholic Party of the Centre was formed in the Prussian Provincial Diet; in the first German Reichstag of 1871 it had only 57 seats, but it grew stronger with every new election until it had over 100 representatives. It was composed of very heterogeneous elements. In Prussia its main strength consisted of the Rhenish small peasants, who still regarded themselves as “Prussians under duress”, then of the Catholic big landowners and peasants of the Westphalian bishoprics of Münster and Paderborn, and of the Catholic Silesians. The second great contingent was provided by the South German Catholics, notably the Bavarians. It was not so much the Catholic religion that formed the Centre Party’s strength, but the fact that it represented the antipathies of the popular masses against everything specifically Prussian, now laying claim to domination over Germany. These antipathies were particularly strong in the Catholic areas; and then there were sympathies with Austria, now expelled from Germany. In harmony with these two popular trends, the Centre was decidedly particularise and federalist.

This essentially anti-Prussian character of the Centre was immediately recognised by the other small Reichstag factions, which were anti-Prussian for local reasons, not, as the Social-Democrats, for national and general reasons. Not only the Catholic Poles and Alsatians, but even the Protestant Guelphs allied themselves closely with the Centre. And even though the bourgeois liberal factions could never fully understand the actual character of the so-called Ultramontanes, they did have an inkling of the true state of affairs when they styled the Centre unpatriotic” and “hostile to the Empire” ...


[The manuscript breaks off here]