Works of Frederick Engels 1890

The Elections of 1890 in Germany

Source: the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, March 3, 1890;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

That the Social-Democratic party of Germany was sure to obtain a startling success at the general election of 1890 could not be doubted by any one who had followed the political development of that country for the last decade. In 1878 the German Socialists were placed under rigorous coercion laws, in virtue of which all their newspapers had been suppressed, their meetings stopped or dissolved, their organisation annihilated, their every attempt to re-form it punished as a “secret society,” sentences summing up to more than a thousand years’ imprisonment having thus been pronounced against members of the party. Nevertheless, they succeeded in smuggling into the country, and regularly distributing every week some 10,000 copies of their organ printed abroad, the Sozialdemokrat, and thousands upon thousands of pamphlets; they succeeded in penetrating into the German Parliament (nine members) and into innumerable town councils, amongst others that of Berlin. The growing strength of the party was evident even to its most embittered enemies.

Yet such a success as they have scored on the 20th February must surprise even the most sanguine among themselves. Twenty-one seats conquered: that is to say, in twenty electoral districts they proved stronger than all other parties put together. Fifty-eight second ballots, that is to say, in 58 districts they are either the strongest, or the strongest but one. of all parties which have put forward candidates, and the fresh election will finally decide between the two candidates who had the greatest number, while neither had the absolute majority of votes. As to the total number of Socialist votes given, we can only make an approximate estimate. In 1871 they summed up not more than 102,000; in 1877, 493,000; in 1884, 550,000; in 1887, 763,000; in 1890, they cannot be less than 1,250,000, and may be considerably more. The strength of the party has increased in three years by at least 60-70 per cent.

In 1887 there were but three parties with more than a million voters, the National Liberals, 1,678,000; the Centre or Catholic party, 1,516,000; and the Conservatives, 1,147,000. This time the Centre will hold its own, the Conservatives have lost a good deal, and the National Liberals have lost enormously. Thus the Socialists will still be outnumbered by the Centre, but they will either fully come up to, or outnumber, the National Liberals as well as the Conservatives.

This election establishes a complete revolution in the state of parties in Germany. It will indeed inaugurate a new epoch in the history of that country. It marks the beginning of the end of the Bismarck period. The situation, at the present moment, is as follows.

With his rescripts on labour legislation and international labour conferences, young William broke loose from his mentor Bismarck. The latter thought it prudent to give his young master plenty of rope, and to wait quietly until William II, had got himself into a mess with his hobby of playing the working man’s friend: then would be the time for Bismarck to step in as the deus ex machina. This time Bismarck did not care much how the elections went; an unmanageable Reichstag, to be dissolved as soon as the young Emperor had found out his mistake, would be rather an advantage to Bismarck, and considerable Socialist success might help to prepare a good cry to go to the country with when the time for dissolution arrived. And the wily Chancellor, this time, has indeed got a Reichstag that nobody will be able to manage. William II, will very soon find out the impossibility, for a man in his position, and with the present state of mind of both the landed aristocracy and the middle class, of carrying out even a shadow of the objects alluded to in his rescripts, while the elections have already convinced him that the working class of Germany will take anything he may offer them as an instalment, but will not give up one jot of their principles and demands, nor relax in their opposition against a Government which cannot live but by gagging the working majority of the people.

Thus, before long there will be a conflict between Emperor and Parliament; the Socialists will be accused, by all rival parties, with being the cause of it all; the new election cry will be there, ready made; and then Bismarck, having given the necessary lesson to his lord and master, will step in and dissolve.

But then he will find that things have changed. The Socialist workmen will be stronger and more determined than ever. The aristocracy Bismarck never could rely on; they always considered him as a traitor to true Conservatism, and will be ready to throw him overboard as soon as the Emperor chooses to drop him. The middle class were his mainstay, but they have lost confidence in him. The little family quarrel between Bismarck and the Emperor has come to be publicly known. It has proved that Bismarck is no longer all-powerful, and that the Emperor is not proof against dangerous crotchets. In which of the two, then, is the German middle class Philistine to trust? The wise man is becoming powerless, and the powerful man proves to be unwise. In fact, the confidence in the stability of the order of things established in 1871, a confidence which, as regards the German middle class, was unshakeable while old William reigned, Bismarck governed, and Moltke was at the head of the army — that confidence is gone, and gone for ever. The growing load of taxation, the high price of living caused by ridiculous import duties on everything, food as well as manufactured goods, the unbearable burden of military service, the constant and ever-renewed fear of war, and that a war of European dimensions, when 4-5 millions of Germans would have to take up arms — all this has done its work in alienating from the Government the peasant, the small tradesman, the workman, in fact the whole nation, with the exception of the few who profit by the State-created monopolies. All this would be borne, as inevitable, so long as old William, Moltke, and Bismarck formed a ruling triumvirate which seemed invincible. But now old William is dead, Moltke is pensioned off, and Bismarck has to face a young Emperor whom he himself filled with an unbounded vanity, who is consequently considering himself a second Frederick the Great, and is, after all, but a conceited coxcomb, eager to shake off the yoke of his Chancellor, and, withal, a plaything in the hands of court intriguers. With such a state of things, the immense pressure upon the people no longer is patiently borne; the old faith in the stability of things is gone; resistance, which formerly appeared hopeless, now becomes a necessity; and thus, unmanageable as this Reichstag seems, maybe it will be far less so than the next.

Thus Bismarck very likely is miscalculating his game. If he dissolve, even the spectre rouge, the anti-Socialist cry, may fail him. But then he has one undoubted quality: reckless energy. If it suits him, he may provoke riots and try what effect a little “bleeding” may have. But then he ought not to forget that at least one-half of the German Socialists have passed through the army. There they have learned the discipline which has enabled them so far to withstand all provocation to riot. But there they have also learnt something more.