Jacques Bonhomme May 1906

The Franchise in Germany

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. X No. 5 May, 1906, pp. 284-290;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

At the present moment a great agitation is taking place in Germany in favour of universal suffrage, and it may not, therefore, be out of place to devote a page or two to the consideration of the subject. It must first be remembered that the German Empire is a confederation, or more correctly speaking, a federated State, founded in 1871. This federation consists of Prussia and the smaller German States which, till then, were called the North German Confederation, and of the States which adhered to it in 1871, namely, Bavaria, Wurtemberg, Hesse, and Baden, and of Alsace-Lorraine, which was conquered from France in that year.

There is, first, an Imperial Parliament having two Chambers, the Bundesrath and the Reichstag, which form the legislative assemblies. The first Chamber has, however, some functions of an executive character, for it is a kind of Council of State which has to prepare regulations necessary for carrying out laws, and it also has a voice in the appointment of high officials.

It is not elected. Its members are appointed by the Government of the Federal States. Prussia has 17 members, Bavaria 6, Saxony and Wurtemberg 4 each, Baden and Hesse 3 each, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and the Duchy of Brunswick 2 each, and each of the other States one each; altogether there are 58 members. The members representing a State must always vote together, and if some are absent yet those remaining can vote for those who are away; its proceedings are secret.

The Reichstag is elected by universal manhood suffrage by ballot (every elector of 25 having a vote), and there is one Deputy for every 100,000 inhabitants. That looks very nice on paper, but it must be remembered that the electoral divisions were settled in 1869 and 1871, and have never been altered since. There were in 1871 397 Deputies, because the population was then 39,000,000; but now that it is nearer 50,000,000 there is still the same number. This might not be an evil, but there has been no redistribution, and that has had some very startling results. In Germany, as in other countries, the population of the rural districts has diminished while that of the towns has increased. For example, Berlin, in 1869, had 600,000 inhabitants, and therefore had 6 members; now it has a population of nearly 2,000,000, but still only has its 6 members (of whom 5 are Socialists). It is hardly necessary to point out how this system heavily handicaps the Socialists.[1]

The system of the second ballot exists, but at the second ballot only the two candidates who at the first election received the highest number of votes, can stand.

The curious systems of franchise will be seen if we examine the system prevailing in each State, for we must not forget that in each State there is a local parliament or parliaments. In Prussia there are two Chambers. The Upper House (Herrenhaus) consists of some hereditary members and some appointed by the King (i.e., the German Emperor) who have been elected by the nobility, the large landed proprietors, the universities, or the municipalities of certain towns having that privilege. There are no elected members. The Lower House (Haus der Abgeordneten) has 350 members elected by delegates chosen by universal suffrage but with unequal voting power. The system, which is somewhat complicated, is as follows: All Prussians over 24 years of age are primary electors. In each constituency these primary electors are divided into three groups. The citizens are classed according to the amount of direct taxes which they pay, and those who do not pay any direct taxation are supposed to pay three marks (3s.). Then the amount thus obtained, though partly a fictitious one, is added up and divided by three. The members paying a third of this form the first group, those paying the second third form the second group and all the rest, the great mass, are included in the third group. Each group elects separately a third of the electors who are to choose the members of Parliament and these electors then meet together and elect the Deputies.

It is not, therefore, a system of election by classes, since all the electors join in electing each Deputy. But it is a much worse system; it is a kind of universal suffrage with plural votes, where the number of votes given to each elector depends on the taxes which he pays. The vote of a rich man is worth six or twelve times more than that of a member of the middle classes, and 60 or 150 times more than that of the poor. This jerrymandering has succeeded in making the Parliament very Conservative, and in order to still more emphasise this, all voting is not by ballot but is open voting. The Socialists have never yet succeeded in getting a member elected, though they have tried for many years. This system has been denounced, but Prince Billow said recently that he would take care not to alter it, nor do I suppose he would unless the whole system was swept away by violence, as it suits the governing classes very well. Of course there is no real Parliamentary government in Prussia, where the Ministers are merely officials responsible to the Emperor.

In Bavaria there are also two Houses. The Upper House consists of some members who sit by virtue of their office, some are hereditary members, and some are appointed for life by the King. There are no elected members.

The Lower House is elected by ballot by indirect election. Every male aged 20 votes for a candidate – there being one for every 500 inhabitants – and these candidates choose the members of Parliament. At the present moment there is a Bill being discussed which proposes that all the members should be elected by universal suffrage, and it has very good chances of being passed. The Bill was supported by the heir to the Throne, who spoke and voted in its favour.

In Saxony there is an Upper House consisting of the princes of the blood and eight other members who sit by virtue of their office, the mayors of six towns, 15 life members chosen by the King, and 17 members elected by the nobility and the landed proprietors.

There is also a Second Chamber, which was formerly elected by all citizens over 25 years of age paying direct taxes of at least 3 marks (3s.) a year in direct taxation. But this was found to be too favourable to the Socialists, for it must be remembered that all the Deputies of Saxony to the Reichstag, with one exception, are Socialists. The law was accordingly altered in 1896, and a system somewhat similar to that prevailing in Prussia was adopted. But it is even less liberal, for those citizens who pay less than 3 marks a year in direct taxation have no vote at all in the first election. The measure was, however, successful, for now there is not a single Socialist Deputy in the local Parliament for Saxony.

In Wurtemberg the Upper House consists of royal princes, of members sitting in virtue of hereditary right, and of some members chosen for life by the King.

In the Second Chamber there are 13 members elected by the members of the lesser nobility, 9 chosen by the Catholic and Protestant Churches and also the Chancellor of the University. Then there are 71 members elected by universal suffrage and by ballot, the electors being all males over 25 years of age. There is a system of second ballots limited to the two candidates who obtained the most votes at the first ballot.

In Baden in the Chamber there are 64 members elected for four years, of whom half retire every two years. Every citizen of 25 can vote for a delegate, there being one for every 200 inhabitants; the voting is by ballot. These delegates then elect the Deputy by ballot.

The same system applies in the Grand Duchy of Hesse; all men over 21 years of age are electors, provided they are not domestic servants, and that they pay some sum in direct taxation. The Deputies are chosen for six years, half retiring every three years.

The small States have only one Chamber. In the Grand Duchies of Mecklenburg there are no Deputies representing the country districts, and the other members are the nobility and the mayors of towns. In the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, the Chamber is elected in the same way as in the Prussian local Parliament. It seems hardly necessary to go through the systems adopted in the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, the Duchies of Anhalt, Brunswick, Saxe-Altenburg, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen, the Principalities of Lippe, Schaumburg-Lippe, Reuss (two branches), Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, and Waldeck and Pyrmont. All these States are very small, most of them nothing like so large as an average English county, and, of course, the assemblies are not large, the maximum being about 50. They have very little to do and very little power. In nearly all there is class representation, different sections, as the nobility, etc., being represented, or rather over-represented; sometimes the other members are elected indirectly, sometimes directly, and generally by citizens paying direct taxation.

There remains to say something of the three Hanse towns – Bremen, Hamburg, and Lubeck, and of Alsace-Lorraine. The Hanse towns are nominally republics, but they are more like oligarchies. In Bremen the Senate is the executive body; it co-opts its members. The other Chamber contains 160 members, elected for six years. Members of the University elect 14 Deputies; merchants, bankers, etc., 42; manufacturers, 22; the other citizens 44 by double election; the inhabitants of Vegesack, 14; of Bremenhaven, 8; landed proprietors, 8; others in the country, 8.

At Hamburg, 80 members are elected by universal suffrage, with the ballot, each elector being 25 years of age; 40 members are elected by landed proprietors, and 40 represent officials and judges.

At Lubeck, however, matters are better managed, for the assembly of 120 members is chosen by ballot in a system of universal suffrage, there being ten constituencies, each having twelve members.

In the local assembly of Alsace-Lorraine the members are elected somewhat in the same way as in the French Senate, but they have very little power.

It will be seen that there is great diversity in the different electoral systems which prevail, but they all, however, agree in being so fixed as to prevent the opinions of the people being adequately expressed, and also in preventing the members of the central or local Parliaments really exercising any influence on the policy of the Government. Parliamentary government as understood in England and in France does not exist in Germany, and this realised will enable people to see the grave dangers of a State which has for its head a ruler having the characteristics of the present sovereign. It will also be seen how difficult it is for the Socialists to effect any change, though they are strong in the Reichstag, and that the fear of universal suffrage being tampered with is not idle. The Socialists threaten that if this be done then they will proclaim a general strike, but I very much fear that it would not be successful. The military spirit is very strong in Germany, and I think that any attempt at an insurrection would be suppressed with great severity, and would be followed by a period of dismal reaction.

Jacques Bonhomme

1. See a table, translated by the writer from “Vorwaerts,” in “Social-Democrat” for October, 1933. showing that the Socialists polled 31 per cent. of total votes though they only returned 81 members out of 397, and that each Socialist member received, on an average, 49,000 votes, being a much higher average than the number given to deputies of other parties. – J.B.