chapter  2
27 Pages

Tracing the origins and rise of the radical right: the Kaiserreich, 1870-1918

The Bismarckian system is best classified, despite the trappings of parliamentary institutions, as an autocratic monarchy under the German emperor. The autocratic nature of this system lay with the emperor's powers alone to appoint and dismiss his chancellors as well as the holders of all other imperial and Prussian offices and his abilities to summon and dissolve the Reichstag and control foreign policy. In short, Bismarck had deliberately created what in hindsight can be seen as an incredibly complex and arguably fragile political order designed to preserve Pruss ian dominance from the very outset. This system might have worked perfectly a century earlier but in a period of rapid industrialization demands were intensifying for economic, social and political change that immediately placed strains on the system.3 Rather than wooing a new electorate to his creation Bismarck opted to keep the existing forces in check. Consequently, as the Reich developed, both the structure and the public symbols of this new state left many, and particularly a growing middle class, largely dissatisfied. As Pulzer aptly puts it: 'The out and out opponents of the new state were initially few. More seriously, it emerged in the long run that its out and out supporters were also few.,4

With a regime opposed to any radical change or overhaul, its room for manoeuvre was severely limited. To preserve his system Bismarck resorted to frustrating the cohesiveness of the Reichstag's deputies by playing parties off, one against another and by identifying the so-called Reichsfeinde (enemies of the Reich). His decisions were manifest, for example, in the Kulturkampf of the 1870s against the Catholic Centre Party, his efforts to resist the rise of the SPD through the adoption of his anti-socialist laws and his willingness to sacrifice the liberals in favour of wooing the conservatives through his colonial crusades in the 1880s. These, however, were only temporary solutions to an ever growing constitutional dilemma.