‘Bismarck Ruled Germany By Dividing It. In Doing So He Prevented It From Ever Becoming Truly United.’

1846 words - 7 pages

The above statement seems to be associated closely in spirit with the German Sonderweg theory. Broadly this theory posits that, in contrast to most Western nations, Germany remained un-democratised, failing to wrestle itself free from the control concentrated in the hands of the small set of traditional elites, with disastrous consequences. The statement depicts Bismarck, the Reich Chancellor, as one man in whose hands the Reich’s destiny was controlled. However, the German Empire was not as firmly in Bismarck’s subjective control as the statement would suggest, and indeed as he would have liked. As Volker Berghan argues, more recently historical writing has been characterised by methodological and thematic diversity with the result that our understanding has become more sophisticated. He mentions Geoff Eley as an historian who has identified that the history of the Reich is not exclusively the history of a small set of manipulative elites; the historical reality is far more complex and interesting. If one looks beyond broad Sonderweg trends, it becomes clear that Bismarck’s control over Germany was not as overwhelming and effective as the statement in the question would suggest. Whether he retained the initiative by dividing Germany is questionable. Although Bismarck’s legacy may have ultimately had damning consequences, which can be traced back of lack of unity in German society, there are also indicators of a degree of unity and democratization within the Empire.

The argument that runs in tandem with the thrust of the statement highlights the following developments within the Reich between 1871 and March 1890 when Bismarck was dismissed by Wilhelm II. Bismarck identified Reichsfeinde and set in motion thoroughly suppressive and divisive waves of persecution against them. The German Catholics were a large minority group within the Reich. In Lesser Germany which excluded Austria Protestants made up two-thirds of society and Catholics made up one-third. They were aggrieved after the defeat of Austria in 1866 which had provoked Catholic riots. Further the Center Party opposed strong federal government and the dominant role of Prussia, elements which were central to Bismarck’s vision for the new empire. The Kulturkampf was partly a preventative war against the Catholics, who were presented as ‘the enemy within.’ More importantly, however, it was a calculated attempt at ensuring Liberal support for Bismarck, a support-rallying exercise. The May Laws of 1873 sought to establish state control over education and the appointment of the clergy. The failure of these measures then led to a second wave of punitive legislation under which the seizure of church property and the expulsion of ‘illegally’ appointed clergy was authorised. In a more repressive phase in the mid 1870s clergy were imprisoned and church property seized with greater intensity. By the end of the Kulturkampf around 1800 priests had been gaoled or exiled.

However, in the...

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