German Liberal Revolution

The Revolution of 1848 in Berlin had created a constitutional monarchy. The executive branch of the government remained firmly in the hands of the King of Prussia who had the power to appoint and remove the Chancellor, the chief executive officer. The legislature primarily represented the middle class people in the city of Berlin, while the king continued to enjoy the support of the Prussian army, led by an elite officer corps drawn from the Junkers, who were the landowning aristocracy of Prussia. An efficient bureaucracy operated under the orders of the executive branch. Consequently, Prussia's liberal revolution was incomplete.

Other states in the German Confederation had also experienced a liberal revolution in varying degrees. Middle class professionals throughout Germany had led the way in an effort, not only to produce a liberal Germany, but also to unify Germany under one government. Efforts to accomplish those objectives at the Frankfort Convention bogged down over the question of which ruler should be invited to become the king of a constitutional monarchy. The two possibilities were either the emperor of the Austrian Empire or the King of Prussia, the so-called greater German or the lesser German solution. Because of the complexities of inviting the Austrian Emperor, who was German, but who also was preoccupied as the ruler of a large multi-national empire, the decison was eventually reached to invite the King of Prussia. The Prussian ruler, however, declined the invitation. Since the members of the Frankfort Convention had no governmental infrastructure, no bureaucracy and no army with which to function, the convention adjourned without effect.

Under these circumstances, the future of Germany was to be determined by a power struggle between Austria and Prussia. The issue was decided by the decisive Prussian victory over Austria in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The King of Prussia had appointed Bismarck, a member of the Junker aristocracy, to be the chancellor. Bismarck was given a free hand in determining Prussian policy. The first issue which he addressed, as the new Chancellor, was the proposal by army leaders to increase the size and capabilities of the army. the proposal was supported by the King but opposed by a majority of the legislature. The legislature, which, under the Constitution of 1848, controlled the purse strings, opposed the imposition of new taxes to pay the cost of army expansion.

Bismarck chose to bypass the legislature, and issued orders to the bureaucracy to impose the tax increase. In spite of the opposition of the legislature, the taxes were raised and the army expansion begun. This was a violation of the Constitution, which opened Bismarck to a great volume of criticism in the legislature and in the press, but did not remove him from his position as Chancellor. Bismarck fulfilled the King's wishes and could only be removed by the King.

When, subsequently, Bismarck used the re-vitalized army to defeat the Austrians in 1866, and then to defeat France in 1871, the violation of the Constitution was forgiven. When Bismarck proclaimed the establishment of the German "Empire " at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, he had, in reality, unified the German nation under the leadership of Prussia. The vision, at the Frankfurt Convention, of a liberal, united Germany had been denied in favor of a united Germany in accordance with the Prussian authoritarian model. The failed liberal revolution of Prussia became the failed liberal revolution of Germany.

Nevertheless, united Germany thrived. An industrious and loyal population, with the resources in coal and iron needed for industrialization, made Germany, by the beginning of the 20th century, into the most powerful nation-state on the European continent. Bismarck was an able and skilled politician who deftly steered German domestic and foreign policy for 20 years following unification. He responded to the dramatic changes wrought by industrialization with reforms that gave the rising German working class social benefits and employment protections. He compromised with the influential Catholic Center Party. In foreign policy, his diplomacy helped to keep the peace in Europe. When Bismarck was forced into retirement in 1890 by the new young German monarch, Germany was stable and Europe was at peace.

Success consolidated the new system and gave it great credibility among Germans. The achievement of national unity was attributed to military prowess and military victories. The German officer corps inherited the elitist values of the Prussians, and the armed forces were held in the highest esteem. Bismarck had always considered military strength to be a principal foundation of national power.

His successors, however, lacked his caution and his political skill, and his commitment to peace. King William II, the Kaiser, motivated by national pride and a determination to make Germany "second to none", allowed Bismarck's alliance system to collapse. Within a decade after 1890, Germany had squandered its friendly relations with Russia and England and found itself distrusted and feared by the other great powers of Europe, leaving only a close alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, itself severely weakened by its multi-national instability, and an undependable alliance with Italy.

The stage was set for the First World War, the "Great War" to that generation, because it was the most devastating, destructive war in history up to that time. Germany, the greatest power in Europe, was arrayed against the Triple Entente, neither of which could gain a military victory over the other. When the United States tipped the balance in favor of the Entente, in a war of attrition, Germany was outmatched in human and material resources. Defeat brought profound political change to Germany.

Applying Crane Brinton's phases of revolution to German history, we may gain new insights into the long-term path that Germany followed. We may describe the first, moderate phase to the period from 1871 to 1918, when Bismarck had grafted the Prussian system upon a united Germany, an era which Adolf Hitler would later characterize as the Second Reich. During that period, authoritarianism coincided with liberalism, much as it had done in France during the French Second Empire under Napoleon III. In France, however, liberalizing ideals launched during the great French Revolution of 1789, remained influential and were gradually re-asserted over a compliant emperor. In Germany, authoritarianism, identified with national pride and unification, prevailed, operating first within the executive branch of government and then, during World War I, with the takeover by the military leadership.

The radical phase of the German Revolution began in 1918 with the defeat of Germany, and the imposition of a German government, the Weimar Republic, by the victorious Allies. This was a government, which the German people, left to their own devices, would not have created. The German military leadership, though its organization was left intact, was not represented. Neither were the major parties that represented the German middle class. The Weimar government based its support almost exclusively upon the working class as represented in the Social Democratic Party. This was a large party, which had developed during the moderate phase under Bismarck's leadership, however, it did not represent the mainstream of German politics. Its support was severely eroded because it bore the onus of having to sign the Armistice and the Versaille "Dictat", both of which were an affront to German national pride. Had the new government been welcomed wholeheartedly into the community of nations by the victorious powers and not been saddled with the economic burden of reparations, it might have gradually gained acceptance by the German people. It did, after all, represent the most promising liberal influence within the German political sphere.

The counter-revolutionary phase of the German revolution began with the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. Hitler's vision of Germany and its future was best expressed in a speech he gave at the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg, a German victory at the outset of World War I. As he had done in previous speeches, he condemned the Weimar government which he had replaced, as the "criminals of 1918", while identifying his own government as the Third Reich. He was proclaiming the pride that the German people had about the Second Reich under Bismarck, and identifying his movement as the future of Germany. As he put it, it would last a thousand years.

In reality, Hitler's regime was extremely reactionary, a characteristic of Fascism, hearkening back to a supposedly idealistic past when rural virtues prevailed; when the heroism of great and fierce warriors stood as an example of leadership.These ideas were rooted in a myth of German and Aryan racial superiority. There had to be unusual circumstances that caused such unrealistic beliefs to become as widely accepted as they were. Those circumstances were the defeat in war suffered by a proud people who had become convinced they could not be defeated. The political humiliation was followed by crushing economic collapse; a hyper-inflation in 1923, and the Great Depression of the early 1930s. The government of the radical phase, along with all of its liberal qualities, was totally repudiated by the government of the counter-revolutionary phase.

Hitler's government, however, was so out of touch with reality that it could not last. Drawn by his own theories of struggle between races, he eventually created so many enemies around the world that his regime was overwhelmed and destroyed. Tragically, it required another great war to do so.

At the end of World War II, mistakes made at the end of World War I were not repeated. The German military elite , identified as they were by association with the monstrous characteristics of Hitler's regime, were thorougly repudiated and their organization disrupted. The Nazi Party was outlawed in Germany. Economic aid under the European Recovery Program ( the Marshall Plan) helped to bring about a rapid recovery in western Germany from the devastation of war. The liberal tendencies within Germany, which had been stifled by authoritarianism and militarism, finally had the opportunity to take root.

The tensions of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union divided Germany for half a century. The end of the Cold War, however, created the opportunity for German nationalism to re-assert itself with re-unification, this time under the auspices of the liberal German government which had, by that time, evolved in the western part of the nation.

The liberal revolution, which Germany experienced, was profoudly affected by two world wars, two defeats, and foreign occupation. This greatly distorted and delayed the process, and brought great suffering to people in Germany and around the world.

Historical Analysis