Germany's Failure at Establishing Democracy (1871-1945)

  By Elvis S, December 2006; Revised
Contents »
The German nation state, which emerged under the leadership of Bismarck, had been set up with all the guises of a modern Western parliamentary state. The problems of the German democratic movement had been both cultural and state implemented. Bismarck successfully protracted his royalist state during the rise of the German Reich through various means that gave up certain privileges to the middle class, that normally in other Western society’s, which had been extensively industrialized, led the fight for parliamentary democracy, and their share of power. The German political culture, since the Nationalist movements of the post Napoleonic Europe, sought unification, a feat almost impossible, unless under a strong leadership, which Bismarck finally provided under the heavy price of indoctrinating his reactionary views first in the constitutions of the North German Confederation of the 1860s, and finally with the revised constitution of the German Reich. This early era of German unification created a lot of the precedents that were to follow, of anti-democratic feeling, and the masses longing for strong leadership to see them through hard times.

Bismarck, a staunch conservative and royalist, knew that if not co-operation with the rising middle class was to be undertaken, then at the very least enticement to gain the loyalty of the masses, through such institutions as the Reichstag, and labor reforms was needed. To bring the middle class to his camp, he created them junior partners in government and gave them a unified expansionist Germany that could provide them with a secure atmosphere for their international business ventures alongside a few economic offices in the state. The state established, had been Federalist, and staunchly reactionary in both ideology, and practice. The Kaiser had absolute power, the Reichstag voted on bills, that essentially did not matter in terms of need, rather in terms of appeasement, that the aristocracy let them cast a essentially. Bismarck employed all the tools at his disposal to fulfill his desire of a strong unified royalist German Reich. As he exemplified in his failed “Blood and Iron Speech,” the Reich was to be made through a show of force, and conservative politics.

The reign of Bismarck in many ways set a very negative precedent for German political development, and Germany’s rise as a Great Power. During the age of Wilhelm II Germany fully realized this downward spiral to a state governed more in the fashion of the age of Absolutist monarchs, then a early twentieth century liberal West where France had the Republic and the United Kingdom the Parliament. Social unrest had been present and growing rapidly, public opinion demanded political reforms, and the unwilling Wilhelm II alongside the Junkers, and the subdued middle class, wanted to turn the clock back 20 years. To succeed in his endeavor to stall the want for political reform, in particular, Democratic reform, Wilhelm II and his advisors looked to Bismarckian ideals to successfully subdue the masses under the outdated system of absolutism for a little longer. All attention in the mind of Wilhelm and many of the aristocrats turned to war. World War I started with the premise of being a short, concentrated effort, that would be fought in the style of Bismarck’s wars of unification rather than what it became. The conservatives hoped to turn the tide of democratic reformation movements within the Reichstag, and their respective constituents, through a short war that would unite the Germans under a single banner, in what he called Burgfrieden. Wilhelm II’s futile effort only united the Germans in the initial states of the War, nevertheless, with the imminent loss the country turned up in revolutionary fervor, and in a rather bloodless coup, the Weimar Republic had been declared.

What seemed as the final realization of German democratic movements, did not last either, nor was it as popular as the enthusiastic new democratic leaders of Germany hoped it would be. The problem lay in the structural makeup of this new entity, the resentment felt towards the politicians signing the Treaty of Versailles, the terms of the treaty, and the German political culture, which had been largely underdeveloped, and insisting rather on strong leadership than democratic process. The Weimar democracy lingered on and had its good years in the mid 1920s; however, it had been largely undermined, by nationalist and anti democratic movements from the start. The Volkisch groups, alongside the communists, and the conservatives who wished a curbing of the constitutions to turn the clock back to 1914 brought about the eventual demise of the Weimar Republic. The constitution had been one of the most democratic ones of the time; nevertheless, such clauses as constitutional emergency, allowed for the assumption of dictatorial power in one man, foreshadowed the Republic’s demise in 1933.

The Volkisch groups, out of which the Nazi movement stemmed, gained a wide following after the war, and in the Great Depression. The empty promises and designating scapegoats for Germany’s troubles were popular with desperate people, and they with the Nazi’s gained hold of the political spectrum. The new conservatives with their anti-democratic and royalist agenda were enticed by a promising partnership with the Nazis, where they would use them as junior partners for their own goals. This brought about the rise of Hitler in 1933, at a time when the Nazi movement had been already running out of steam, and the subsequent declaration of emergency powers with the supposed communist plot to initiate a revolution.
The German experience with democracy had been ineffective until the end of World War II. A lot of the problems with establishing a viable democratic state lay in its foundations. The German Reich through its drive for staunch reactionary conservatism created for itself an Achilles heel, through which World War I ensued, and the Imperial Reich forever disappeared. What was left was an enthusiastic young democratic republic that had good intentions, but neither the experience, nor the support to reach its full potential. As the Nazi takeover of Germany had been finalized after Hitler’s ascendancy to the Reich chancellery the fact that democracy died became self evident. His new regime was not only absolutist, but totalitarian, democracy was successfully extinguished. Hitler took away civil liberties while the Germans cheered him on, this had been only successful, due to Germany’s political culture, that had a longstanding preference for strongmen that could “get things done,” over the inability of successive failed coalition governments of the Reichstag.


Orlow, Dietrich. A history of modern Germany 1871 to present. Prentice Hall, 2002 5th ed.