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Class and Politics in Germany

In Germany between 1840 and 1900 productivity rose 190%, compared to 90% for Switzerland, 75% for Sweden, 50% for Italy and Belgium, 35% for France and 30% for Russia. Common people in Germany and in these other countries could more easily afford new clothing. Germany's share in manufacturing rose from 8.5% in 1880 to 13.2% in 1900 compared to Britain's share falling from 22.9% to 18.5%. This came with Germany's particular strengths in coal, iron, steel and railways. In the middle of the continent with its railways, Germany came to dominate European commerce except in France. note93

In the year 1881 a telephone network was introduced in Berlin. In other ways the lives of people were changing, some for the better and some hardly. Life expectancy in 1895 has been estimated at 41.2 years, not much different from people in the US, at 45.21 years for the year 1890. People were still working long hours with little rest, a lot of heavy smoking and lot of drinking alcohol (also by pregnant women) were having an effect. But Germany was benefitting from the highest literacy rate – 99% – education levels that provided the nation with more people good at handling numbers, more engineers, chemists, opticians, skilled workers for its factories, skilled managers, knowledgeable farmers and skilled military personnel. Literacy in Britain, France, Norway, Sweden and Australia was also above 90 percent. In the less industrialized Balkans it was in the 50 to 70 percent range and in the 30 to 50 percent range in Russia, and said to be below 30 percent in China, India, Africa and the Islamic countries.

Overall, the German people were thriving. The number of births was well beyond the number of deaths. In 1900, France and the United Kingdom including Ireland each had populations of 38 million. Germany's population grew from 41 million in 1871 to 56 million in 1900.

Regarding politics and society, between 1881 and 1889 Chancellor Bismarck promoted laws that provided social insurance and improved working conditions. He instituted the world's first welfare state. He wanted to stimulate economic growth and take issues from the socialist movement appeal. Said Bismarck: "The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work." note94  Bismarck saw benefit in a more healthy and reliable workforce, and he thought his welfare program would improve worker loyalty to the state. A law was passed compelling employers to ensure their workmen in case of sickness or accident. Laws regulating working hours and working conditions were passed. Compulsory insurance against death and old age was introduced. Welfare was provided for widows and orphans. But the eight-hour day for workers had not yet arrived. Bismarck and employers believed in hard work for the common German and saw little benefit in recreational relief from drudgery.

Germany remained more authoritarian than it was democratic regarding state power. There was universal manhood suffrage in the vote for members of Parliament (the Reichstag), but Parliament had little power in creating legislation. Most power remained with Chancellor Bismarck, who represented the king.

There was class conflict. Landed nobility in the east, called Junkers, and other aristocrats were influential but threatened by free trade policies that would have undermined their positions as agricultural capitalists. The upper middle-class associated with big business still lacked political influence, while the lower middle-class was being "squeezed" by big business. Peasants, especially in the south of Germany, were in conflict with trade policies that favored the Junkers.

Those who sold their labor to industrialists had increased in number, many having left agricultural work for work in the factories as had happened in Britain. They and those still in rural areas joined various political parties. In the south of Germany, Catholic political parties and Catholic trade unions had influence among workers. The middle class tended to support various "centrist" and liberal parties, while the Social Democrats were by far the single largest political party.

Two attempts in 1878 to assassinate King Wilhelm I were believed to have been the work of Social Democrats, and reaction against the Social Democrats resulted in their meetings forbidden and circulation of their literature outlawed. Police officers could stop, search, and arrest socialists. Socialist party leaders were arrested and tried by police courts. But despite these efforts the Social Democrats steadily gained supporters and seats in the Reichstag, which they won by running unaffiliated with any party, allowed by the German Constitution. The Social Democrats were the party of labor, and there was still labor dissatisfaction, such as the strike in 1889 by coal miners against which the government sent infantry and cavalry.

In 1890 the new king, Wilhelm II, dismissed Bismarck. He lifted the ban on the Social Democrats, and they began functioning in the open again. Under Wilhelm II the popularity of the Social Democrats would increase, with King Wilhelm wishing to be a ruler loved by all his subjects.

But these were not the same German workers Karl Marx had met and embraced after he had moved to Paris with his family in the early 1840s. In Germany, Marx had been a liberal, a journalist and of the middle-class. The workers had been in desperation, wanting power, to get rid of their bosses by creating collective ownership of their enterprises and to share the rewards of their labors with their fellow workers – what they called communism. They wanted revolution, and so did Marx.

Devoted to science, Marx had studied economic figures. He had seen a broadening of misery and foresaw that misery spreading and more people joining the ranks of the proletariat. But Marx's study was followed by real wages beginning to rise. note95   Rising food production and an increase in real wages were not conducive to political upheaval or the revolution that Karl Marx had believed would one day come. In 1875 the German Social Democratic Party adopted the Gotha Program, which Karl Marx, in London, criticized. The Gotha program presented a moderate, evolutionary way to socialism, as opposed to the revolutionary approach of "orthodox" Marxists. They accused the Gotha program of being "revisionist" and ineffective, and they looked to contradictions in capitalism producing economic crises that would verify Marx's belief in increasing misery.

Marx died in 1883. In 1891 the Social Democratic Party advocated its Erfurt Program: the 8-hour day; prohibition of child labor under the age of 14, government regulation of working conditions and the abolition of laws that restricted the right of people to assemble. The Erfurt Program included calls for equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot, judges elected by the people, an end to laws that put women at a disadvantage as compared with men, a graduated income and property tax, free medical attention, a people's militia for defense rather than a professional army; secularized public education and no public money supporting religious institutions.

A German Social Democratic Party theorist and politician, Eduard Bernstein, wrote books and became known as the theorist of evolutionary socialism and Marxist revisionism, to be reviled by leftists such as Rosa Luxemburg. She called Bernstein an "opportunistic philistine" and accused him of ignoring "the dialectical processes of historical becoming." She wished to purge his "bourgeois revisionism" from the party, and in vain she called for his expulsion.

It was in the most advanced industrialized societies that Marx had expected revolution – a rise of the proletariat created by capitalism, but with Germany's economic progress the kind of revolution that had been sought was becoming more dependent on a major catastrophe other than economic breakdown. Revolutions in China had often been preceded by a catastrophe such as famine. Europe was on a path toward another kind of catastrophe: a war made more terrible by industrialization and mass involvement. It would bring political change to Germany – a political revolution if one want's to call it that. The social revolution that the orthodox Marxists were looking to would come first and be a success not in a most industrially advanced country, Germany or Britain, but to Europe's least economically advanced participant in the Great War. This was Russia, a country that had a smaller middle-class, a higher percentage of peasants and fewer industrial workers than Germany.


Birth of a New Europe, Theodore S Hamerow, 1989

Additional Reading

Chapter Two, "The People of Oberschopfheim," The Nazi Impact on a German Village, by Walter Rinderle & Bernard Norling.

Aristocrats: Power, Grace and Decadence: Britain's Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present, by Lawrence James,.

The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815-1914, by Dominic Lieven, 1993

Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, by Mary Gabriel, 2011

Freedom in the Modern World, by Herbert J Muller, 1966

John Bowle, 1954

The People's Stage in Imperial Germany: Social Democracy and Culture, 1890-1914, by Andrew Bonnell.

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