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For this special instalment, our patrons have chosen to send us to the earliest election we have ever covered here at Europe Elects and so our host, Mathew Nicolson, will be taking us back to newly unified imperial Germany in 1871!
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Hello and welcome to another instalment of the Europe Elects History Corner. My name is Mathew Nicolson, and I will be taking you on another trip back in time to an election in European history.
You have probably noticed that this episode is appearing as a separate upload in your feed. The History Corner has broken free from the confines of the standard Europe Elects podcast episodes and will now appear as its own separate episodes. You don’t need to do anything to continue hearing about elections of times’ past; as long as you’re subscribed to the Europe Elects podcasts, the History Corner will continue to appear in your feed alongside the main episodes.
We begin this journey with an election that will be the earliest we have ever covered here at Europe Elects, going back exactly 150 years. It’s time to pull out the leather-clad books from the back of the shelf and blow off the dust and cobwebs, to learn all about the very first election held in a unified Germany, in 1871. As the emerging Third French Republic held its first parliamentary elections and just before the establishment of the doomed Paris Commune, imperial Germany began to consolidate its institutions by electing its first Reichstag, the lower house of the new imperial parliament.
Before getting into the election we need to briefly discuss the tumultuous events that led to these developments. Since becoming Minister-President of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1862, Otto von Bismarck had worked to ensure Prussian dominance over the disparate German states created after the Napoleonic Wars. After winning two wars against Denmark and Austria, concluding with the creation of the North German Confederation under Prussia’s leadership, Bismarck turned his attention to France as the final blocker for unifying the German states.
The Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 which saw the North German Confederation supported by the nominally independent southern German states. The German coalition achieved a stunning series of quick victories, bringing down the French dictatorship of Napoleon III and ensuring no opposition remained to German unification. The German Empire was proclaimed at Versailles in January 1871, with Prussia’s King, Wilhelm I, becoming the new German Emperor, the Kaiser. This was to be a federal system in which the previously independent states retained some autonomy, but one in which Prussia was the dominant member state.
The imperial constitution, which was essentially inherited from the North German Confederation, established two houses in the German Parliament. Although not democratic by modern standards, these were relatively progressive institutions in mid-19th century Europe. The Reichstag was elected by universal male suffrage with a voting age of 25 in which electors had the right to cast a secret ballot, using a two-round runoff system to elect members for three-year terms. At the time, this was Europe’s most democratic electoral system. The Bundesrat, much as it does today, represented the 25 member states, although Prussia was heavily represented in this chamber, controlling almost a third of delegates – enough to veto any constitutional change.
The Reichstag did not, in effect, command significant power in the German Empire. It had no powers to appoint a government, an authority vested solely with the Kaiser, and powers over the armed forces and foreign policy remained solely with the Kaiser and his appointed Chancellor. Majority support in the parliament was required to pass laws so it did have some potential to play a leading role in German politics, although the Kaiser maintained the unilateral power to dissolve the Reichstag and call elections.
The first election to the Reichstag was held on 3 March 1871. This was not an entirely new political system, as elections had previously been held for the North German Confederation in 1867. These elections saw the National Liberal Party, a right-wing grouping which favoured a degree of liberal policies, followed by various Conservatives blocks and then, with only a small minority of seats, Liberals and Polish representatives.
For the 1871 election, a total of 7.6 million people were registered to vote – about 20% of Germany’s population. Of these, only 51% actually cast a ballot in the election, although this figure is relatively high when considering that this was the first time many Germans had ever been asked to vote, and that a high number of eligible men remained on active military duty in France.
The election was held ~mostly~ democratically. There were several recorded instances of attempted coercion by employers, landowners and the clergy, usually in support of conservative and right-wing candidates. And despite the presence of a secret ballot, voters often believed that election officers would know how they voted. Printing ballots was also the responsibility of candidates rather than a central body, so it was possible to use slight differentiations between the ballot quality in an attempt to exclude votes for certain candidates, or discover how people had voted. Some results were later nullified due to irregularities, for example in the Bavarian village of Oberhaid. But for the most part, the results reflected the genuine preferences of the electorate. There were, for instance, no attempts to stuff ballots, bribe or intimidate voters on any meaningful scale or to falsify results, as often occurred elsewhere in Europe at this time.
The results of the election largely reflected previous electoral trends. The National Liberal Party once again emerged with the plurality, winning 30% of the vote and 119 out of 382 seats. It was followed by the newly-formed Centre Party, a centre-right party aiming to represent Germany’s Catholic population, which won about 18.5% of the vote and 60 seats. The Centre Party would become at this stage the most significant opposition to the landed Protestant elite which dominated Prussia’s, and now Germany’s, political institutions.
Most of the remaining seats went to various liberal and conservative parties, although the system allowed a few other political tendencies to gain representation. Most notably, minority parties representing Germany’s Polish and Danish populations won a small handful of seats. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party, founded two years previously by Germany’s growing labour movement, also won its first two seats, providing the only left-wing representation in the Reichstag. The slightly older General German Workers’ Association, founded in 1863, had also contested the election but, despite netting just over 1% of the vote, failed to win any seats.
This did not represent an absolute victory for Bismarck’s government forces. Only 57% of successful candidates had been explicitly backed by the government, a fairly low figure in the context of widespread celebrations at the end of an remarkably successful military victory against France. No single block – conservatives, liberals, or Catholics and other minority groups – were close to a majority.
Geographically, the National Liberals emerged strongest in Baden and Wurttemberg in the south-west and across the central parts of Prussia further north. Conservatives were especially stronger in eastern Germany – all of which was part of Prussia – with Liberals scattered further west, with a particular clustering in Saxony. Unsurprisingly, the Centre Party performed well in Bavaria and in the far western parts of Prussia, both areas with large Catholic populations, while the Polish Party won its seats in the Polish-majority parts of east Prussia.
Due to the constitutional structure of the German Empire, there was no need to develop a formal coalition or majority in the Reichstag for a government to be formed. Two weeks after the election, Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck to be the first Chancellor of the German Empire, in addition to continuing as Minister-President of Prussia. Bismarck’s position did not rely on support from the Reichstag, although he did require votes in both houses of parliament to pass any legislation. To this end, Bismarck cultivated a close relationship with the National Liberal Party, which acted as something of a de facto governing party during the 1870s.
Germany’s first parliamentary term would see several dramatic developments over the following three years. With the support of the National Liberal Party, Bismarck launched his ‘Kulturkampf,’ meaning cultural struggle, against the Catholic Church, which he viewed as a threat to the authority of the new Empire. Church oversight over schools was abolished, Germany’s relations with the Vatican were suspended and the Catholic Church’s authority in Germany was significantly curtailed. The Kulturkampf was especially targeted at Germany’s Polish minority, and was most notably opposed by the Centre Party. Bismarck’s anti-Catholic campaign would last for most of the 1870s, until a conciliation process began at the end of the decade, when he retreated from the policy.
The 1871 German federal election was not especially significant in terms of its actual results, which did not have the capacity to force a change in the new German Empire’s leadership and, in any event, provided a fairly comfortable majority in support of Bismarck. But they did help to entrench the political system which would govern Germany for the following fifty years: a hybrid between authoritarianism and democracy, conservatism and liberalism – essentially an oligarchy, but one with real, if limited, democratic features.
I hope you enjoyed this latest entry to the Europe Elects History Corner. Our podcasts are free for everyone but if you would like to support our work we do have a Patreon, which you can find at www.patreon.com/EuropeElects. As an added incentive, every month our Patrons get to vote on a shortlist of options for the next History Corner instalment. Until next month, goodbye for now!
You’ve been listening to the Europe Elects History Corner hosted and written by Mathew Nicolson. The managing editor and producer was Polychronis Karampelas, the music was by José Alvarado and everything we do wouldn’t be possible without our patrons on Patreon.