'Inept and Unsuccessful'. How Valid is this Comment on Bismarck's handling of Domestic Policy from 1871-90? From her formal unification at Versailles in 1871, Bismarck, the first German Chancellor, took control of his new German State. Yet twenty years later, the 'Bismarckian era' in German history had ended, culminating in Bismarck's departure. With unification complete at least geographically, by 1871, Bismarck's next challenge lay with domestic policy and the running of the new German constitution.
In the early 1870s, Bismarck relied on the support of the National Liberals in the Reichstag as they were the largest single party. Bismarck acted to strengthen the newly created state in order to ensure its prosperity, and succeeded in establishing the State bank (Reichsbank) and adopting the gold standard. Bismarck also formed a National Court of Appeal that helped to promote feelings of a united state. With industry and economy booming, one could say that Bismarck was relatively successful during 'foundation time', opposing the suggestion.
Yet Bismarck was a pragmatist, and just as he had changed policies prior to 1870, so he continued to change his line of attack in the post-1870 period. Following the impact of the 'Great Depression' in Europe, the political basis upon which Bismarck had founded his power was undermined, and so Bismarck was forced to return to more protectionist policies. Added to the fact that in the Balkans there had been split alliances, the National Liberals and Bismarck were further split here. Not only did they oppose his rule of parliament, constitutional rule, but they were opposed to the policy of protectionism that Bismarck proposed, being in favour of free-trade. Bismarck had his reasons; to gain the support of industrialists, landowners, Conservatives and Centre Parties, creating income for the people, and it wasn't an unusual European trend. This shows that such a policy was not of inept thinking or of unskilful judgement. To add to this, Bismarck was successful in carrying out his policy.
Bismarck managed to convince the people at the 1878 election that protectionism was the way forward and subsequently the National Liberals were defeated. Tariffs were imposed, and a new political pattern of Conservative dominance emerged, which Bismarck had hoped for. Bismarck also managed here to strengthen German unity by showing the people that it was in German interests from Europe competition. Hence a successful policy for Bismarck, and not as suggested by the comment.
The 'Kulturkampf' that emerged during the 1870s brought Bismarck his first major political defeat. This 'struggle for civilisation' within Germany, were Bismarck's attempts to hold off the threat he saw as Catholicism. Bismarck's aim in domestic policy was for a united Reich, socially and politically. To achieve this, he had to rid of threats to Protestantism, so as to create the Protestantized Germany that he wanted. The Catholics were 'something to hate for unity'.
Most of the southern and Rhine states were Catholic. The new empire mixed Protestants and Catholics, yet the Catholics were still in a minority. They had formed the Centre party, and won 57 seats in the 1871 election. Bismarck saw this party as a grave danger to the unity he wanted to create, especially as he knew they would always obey Rome and not Berlin. In one sense here, it can be said that Bismarck's execution of the 'Kulturkampf' was not inept or even a wrong decision to take. Bismarck had his aims and merely tried to establish them, whilst eradicating possible threats to them.
However one could not say that Bismarck was successful in this course of action, backing up the suggested comment. Bismarck had attacked the Catholic Church over the issue of 'Papal Infallibility' by using the press, which was followed by the expulsion of Jesuits. In 1873, Bismarck passed anti-Catholic legislation better known as the 'May Laws', which included state control of the Church and clerical appointments, with civil marriages made compulsory; another attack on the Church. Yet the campaign had the opposite effect, strengthening Catholic morale, so that in the 1874 election their seat tally rose. Pope Pius IX fought Bismarck, yet by the time of his passing; the German Chancellor had realised that it was an impossible situation. The Church had more strength and support than Bismarck had estimated, and he was hence unsuccessful.
Bismarck even admitted that there was now no reason to attack Catholics, if there ever had been, so seeming inept. The 'Kulturkampf' had been a failure. It had increased disunity, not removed it, and by 1880, the repeal of the 'May Laws' had commenced. This period of Bismarck's backs up the suggestion over his handling of domestic policy that he was unsuccessful. As a result, he even allied himself with the Centre party when the issue of protectionism followed. His next political witchhunt was aimed against the socialists.
The Socialists were anti-monarchist revolutionaries, and were hence an obvious target for Bismarck. He became increasingly alarmed by the increasing success of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), winning 12 seats in 1877. Again, as in with the Catholic conflict, he misjudged the situation by overestimating instead of underestimating the enemy. There were several valid threats for Bismarck to act against. Firstly, the Paris Commune in 1870-71 had exhibited the potential of the physical socialist threat. Furthermore in 1878, members of the SDP had twice supposedly attempted to assassinate the Kaiser. This shows that despite eventual failure, Bismarck's decision wasn't inept. The socialists represented revolution in his eyes and were a threat to his united Germany aims.
Bismarck had two attempts for anti-Socialist legislation declined. The first against propaganda in 1876 and then again in 1878. However in October 1878, Bismarck's new anti-Socialist bill was presented to the Reichstag with relative success. The SDP was deemed illegal, and all clubs and meetings banned. Yet the bill had the same effect on socialists that the 'May Laws' had on Catholics: it united them, and their support in their support in the country increased. Socialists were imprisoned, yet the SDP vote nearly doubled up to 1887, despite the Anti-Socialist Act remaining until 1890. Bismarck had failed again. They had 35 seats in the Reichstag by the time that Bismarck left.
This failure also backs up the statement on Bismarck's handling of domestic policy. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to rid of the socialists, and wasn't even close in a final assessment; their seat tally never fell below 9. He may have had just reason, but his paranoia had brought about another failure. As a result, Bismarck took up the banner of State Socialism and social reform, yet this did not make him any more successful.
One saw Pensions and Insurance schemes which may well have been steps in the right direction. However, they were only a 'taster', not the 'whole hog', and Bismarck was well of the mark from completely satisfying people and workers. The fact that the SDP remained and grew shows that. Thus another failure for Bismarck.
Whilst William I lived, Bismarck's hold on power was never in question. The 'soldier king' that William was, was easily impressed and won over by Bismarck. Hence, Bismarck can take full responsibility for all political defeats incurred during the period. The Imperial crown was passed down temporarily to Frederick when the King died. Yet this was for a mere three months. After Frederick's untimely death, William II became the new German Emperor. William II was a different man to his predecessors. He was a man with power, determination, and who was prepared to rule as well as reign, 'I shall let the old man shuffle on for six months' (referring to Bismarck as the 'old man').
The new young and headstrong leader conflicted with Bismarck over many issues such as the rights of ministers, and ultimately the anti-Socialist legislation. William II all but dismissed Bismarck, sending him an ultimatum of resignation. By mid-1890, Bismarck was no longer Chancellor. In one sense this may be seen as unsuccessful period for Bismarck. He had underestimated William, with his judgement again at fault.
However William II had come to the throne with Germany set up as a nation with little left to achieve, and he thought that Bismarck's job was all but over. This shows that it was William II's attitude and new approach that led to bad relations with Bismarck and another blemish on the 'Bismarckian Period'. It is fair to say that Bismarck had little success here, yet it would be unfair to say that he was inept. Bismarck may not have realised the strength of William II, yet it is not his fault that William II was so different from his grandfather. It was a new generation that was surpassing Bismarck, seen with difficulties experienced with younger politicians. The suggested comment then that Bismarck was inept may be invalid in this instance, due to the person that William II was.
Germany as a state also had its own problems during the period in question. By 1871 Germany was unified, but not with a true union or identity. It attempted to be unified politically through a German parliament, yet it was very much a Federal state with individual states running individual state affairs, e.g. in Bavaria. Bismarck faced the problem where a centralised control of Germany was attempted yet failed. Loyalties lay with regions, yet despite geographical unity, unity was scarce.
Due to the state of German identity, Bismarck's handling of domestic policy was always going to be difficult and so can be excused for the lack of success. The fact that the German people were barely emotionally unified can also excuse Bismarck from the suggested comment that he was inept. Facing these national problems, Bismarck couldn't rule in his dictatorial and absolute fashion that he wanted. He found himself having to fight supposed threats to unity, such as Catholicism and Socialism, to try and ensure that he could run Germany in his 'Bismarckian' style. If he couldn't run Germany in the way that he wanted, then the suggested comment that he was inept is a harsh one. It was also this factor that contributed to Bismarck's lack of success, so the suggested comment that Bismarck was unsuccessful would again seem harsh.
That apart, Bismarck was successful for keeping Germany together as much as he did. There were no problems with individual states breaking away from the Reich and as a nation, and Germany became one of the great European powers - not solely because of its domestic stability.
However hard the new united Germany was to run in the first decades since its formal unification, Bismarck was Chancellor and was ultimately responsible. He had some success in his early years whilst building up the German economy which was extended throughout his term. The issue of protectionism was another positive note, as was his dealing with the political parties up to a point. Bismarck was a cunning politician and used his skills of pragmatism and principle to run the German political scene. Yet Bismarck's power always seemed to be limited as time wore on.
Bismarck's two main policies, those of the 'Kulturkampf' and of attacking the socialists, were both political defeats. In respect to the suggested comment, it is fair to say that it is valid in view of Bismarck's defeats. Yet Bismarck had his reasons for taking these lines of attacks. He felt that they were threats to his ideals of a unified Germany, hence he was not inept. Even when one looks at Bismarck's relationship with the Kaiser William II, Bismarck was very much pushed out due to the style of Kaiser that William II was.
Bismarck's Chancellorship between 1871-90 was never going to be easy. His handling of domestic policy in the years varied, with areas of success mixed amongst relative failures. The rise of Germany to a feared European power during the era may well be a reflection of Bismarck's work, however domestically Bismarck failed to control a political arena or state that was modernising into 'Weltpolitik', away from his 'Realpolitik'.
The suggested comment can hence be claimed to be valid in some areas as far as Bismarck's success was concerned; yet claims that he was inept are slightly 'off the mark' in view of his reasons and the state of the nation.