The German Outlook for Parliamentary Government

THE longer the present conflict lasts, the stronger grows the inclination to project the mind into the new world that is to follow it. Especially in regard to future political conditions in the German Empire, has speculation been rife since August 4, 1914. Will an extension of the principles of parliamentary government in Germany be one inevitable result of the upheaval? Many English writers and politicians answer this question confidently in the affirmative; and every protest against autocratic rule which appears in a section of the German press, every political ‘crisis,’ immediately becomes an incident on which they base conclusions confirming this view.

If few aspects of German life to-day appeal to the average Englishman’s sympathies, this is particularly true of Germany’s political system. That system has always been a puzzle to the English mind. The English people, retaining to the present day a sense of loyalty to their monarchy and their House of Lords, are, and have long been, active participants in the exercise of political power. Their attitude to these institutions is determined by their historical evolution. Yet their proneness to ignore historic factors when dealing with political conditions elsewhere constantly leads them to misinterpret surface indications and to see temporary issues in a false perspective. Over a hundred Socialists are elected to the Reichstag; a vote of censure is passed on the military authorities for outrages on the civilian population; public meetings are held, demanding the reform of the Prussian House of Representatives — on the occasion of every one of these events or agitations during the two years before the war, it was asserted here, with unlimited assurance, that the German people were determined to apply the brake to the Prussian ‘machine,’ and that the advent of responsible self-government was at hand.

In order to arrive at an understanding of developments in German politics to-day, and to approach the question of the outlook for the future, one must have clear ideas concerning the nature of Germany’s social and political structure, and, above all, concerning the attitude of Germans themselves to their government and to the problems of practical politics as they see them. I believe that we can best reach this end by considering (1) the leading characteristics of Prussia’s state organization; (2) the main features of German federalism and their influence on the parliamentary régime; (3) the more significant of the recent political tendencies; and (4) the present political situation and its meaning.


Reams of formal disquisition on the theory of the state held by German philosophers and historians, or on the German constitution, will not convey to the mind of the everyday Englishman or American a just appreciation of the political psychology of the German people. I often challenged Germans to a comparison between their own political system and that of Great Britain or the United States, on the ground either of material well-being or of intelligent interest in national affairs. The challenge was nearly always readily accepted. In the domestic sphere, they pointed to their social legislation and to the all-round improvement in the conditions of the laboring classes. In the sphere of foreign policy, they asked me to name any parallel to Germany’s development from a ‘geographical expression’ to one of the greatest of European powers. The driving-power behind this development was the Prussian state.

Solidarity at home, ‘real’ politics abroad — if we once grasp the full meaning of this characteristically Prussian doctrine, we possess the key to the political situation in Germany. The German people is, more than any other in Europe, a Staatsvolk: that is to say, the German sees in the state the cause and reason of his own existence.

The type of the German state has been determined by the history, the race-characteristics, and the geographical situation of the people of Prussia. The German people became a nation through Prussia’s kings, and the Prussian monarchy has never been superseded by the nation. This fact has brought the monarchy and the popular will, not into perfect accord, but to a common ground of national interests. Why, in 1918, does the German state reveal in clear outline the features of the original Prussian type, despite half a century of unparalleled progress in science, commerce, and industry? Because Germans were forced to stunt their political instincts in exchange for the strength, security, and material advantages afforded by this type of state. They trace the lines of a close intimacy between their state’s internal organization and its external gains.

In such a state, where organization rests upon military power and bureaucratic efficiency, the genius of the people will not find expression in political activities. What was the general impression left upon me by visits to the Reichstag, by attending political meetings, and observing the course of elections? That there was no one in public life playing a rôle analogous to that, of British politicians. Not only did ministers and leaders of groups and parties, one and all, lack the qualities of the orator and the loyal coöperation of a real political party, but there was not behind them the support, through public opinion, of a people used to political thinking. It always struck me as highly significant that Germans themselves used the English term, ‘self-government,’ to express the form of activity embodied in the name.

The German state organization creates its own type of statesman. It produces masters of statecraft, like Bismarck, but it can never give birth to a statesman in the English sense of the word. Bethmann-Hollweg and Hertling rose to the chancellorship, not through a long career of parliamentary debate, but entirely by favor of the Emperor. They had rendered valuable services as officials, and officials they remained in ‘political’ life. Nor has Germany ever produced any popular political leader like John Bright, who sprang from the commercial middle class and represented a large section of it in thought and aspiration. August Bebel and other Socialists have been prominent figures in the public life of Germany, but their concern for politics has been centred in their economic theories.

The belief, widespread in England, that in Germany a man of commanding ability cannot rise from obscurity to high national appreciation, rests upon no solid foundation of fact. Though the claims of birth and family are, and always have been, of the utmost importance in the social and political life, yet in the past some of Germany’s greatest sons have been of quite humble origin, and the same is true of many of the leading commercial magnates to-day. But they are excluded from the highest political office. That they should be driven to express their discontent by voting for Socialist candidates, with whose economic theories they are often in complete disagreement, is a proof that the German people lacks true political status.

This state organization also creates its own administrative machinery, which is a fixed trait in the social life, and as much a product of the Prussian spirit as the army. The system is reared on a foundation of bureaucratic efficiency, which strikes its roots into the national soil and leaves its impress on every man and woman. Its effect on character, national or individual, is an interesting study. In England one may say, speaking somewhat generally, that the character of the individual determines that of the state. In Germany the reverse is the case. A docile people, accustomed to control and regulation, not even half-conscious of the nightmare which weighs upon it, is an essential ingredient in the German political system; and the Beamtenschaft, the world of officialdom, is the mainspring of this control. We speak of the Kaiser, of the Chancellor, the Junkers, the police, and the military officers, as anti-liberal elements in the national life, but in reality the pressure upon the German people is exerted impersonally. These high personages and the mass of the people are all together cogs in the machine. The best intelligence of the nation which has not been absorbed by the professions is concentrated in a few high officials, but their power is exercised through a vast army of mechanical drudges, thoroughly well-trained for their work, efficient instruments of routine and formalism, and above the very suspicion of corruption. Germans do not feel the cramping influence of the system because it has become second nature to them. Their individuality has been merged in uniformity.

For good and for evil, in Germany there is no social aspect at all to politics. A parliamentary career is never the stepping-stone to social or professional advancement. The pursuit of public office, with its party spirit and its place-hunting, its ‘nursing’ of constituencies, its selection of candidates of small capacity simply because they contribute generously to party funds, is not free from repellent features. But if the German state system, and the spirit of organization which animates it, give a certain unity of purpose to the national will, they deaden the spirit of free personality, and they have been powerless to prevent the existence of those severe class-distinctions which impress outsiders as one of the ugliest features in the national life.


The constitution of the German Empire presents some interesting problems to the student of federal government. This union lacks the cardinal features of federalism in the United States, or Australia, or Switzerland. Three of the twenty-five states in the German federation are the free cities, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck. In the other twenty-two the monarchical principle of government prevails in the political organization, and the bureaucratic in methods of administration. Some authorities even declare that the idea of monarchy cuts against the spirit of federalism. A stronger ground of protest against the application of the term to the German constitution is that here the monarchy is hereditary and is fixed in a single state.

In most cases in history an intense yearning for unity among members of the same racial or national stock, once realized, brings some measure of political liberty in its train. But in the case of the German states unity made little difference in this respect. Not only in political organization, but in aspiration, Germany is less liberal to-day than she was before political unity was achieved. A number of petty tyrannies, some of them less oppressive than others, were absorbed in one huge tyranny of higher efficiency. In order to effect a change in the direction of the democratization of Germany, new machinery is needed if the federal character of the constitution is to be maintained. Under existing conditions the fountain-head of the Empire’s political energies issues neither from the German people nor from the German states collectively, save in so far as these happen to be in accord with the will of one state organized on the lines indicated in the first section of this paper. Any union tends to lose its federal character if one of the constituent states completely overshadows, not only any other state, but all the rest combined, in military power and economic resources. But in the German constitution an overwhelming preponderance of political power is actually conferred upon one state.

Hence the spirit of the German federation is the traditional spirit of the Prussian state. The executive power is wielded through agencies in which the Crown of Prussia plays an all-dominating part. Theoretically, it is true, the real sovereignty in the Empire is not vested in the Kaiser but in the totality of the sovereigns represented in the Federal Council. This body preserves the historic remnant of German federalism, of particularism, but the presidency of the federation is assigned to the King of Prussia and is hereditary in the royal house of Prussia. He appoints (1) the Chancellor, who is the president of the Federal Council, and is responsible solely to his imperial master; and (2) the civil and military officials of the Empire. He has, further, the right of absolute veto over legislation appertaining to naval and military matters, and his control of the eighteen Prussian votes in the Federal Council enables him to block any effort to amend the constitution. Moreover, the principle of equal representation in the Council for each individual member of the federation is not recognized, Prussia controlling eighteen votes, Bavaria six, and seventeen of the other federal units having only one vote each.

The only body in the federal constitution exhibiting the semblance of democracy is the Reichstag. This assembly is popular and democratic in that it is elected on a free franchise of manhood suffrage and represents the whole Empire. The electorates are so delimited that a minority of votes may sometimes have a majority of seats; but Germany is not entirely singular in this respect. The Reichstag lacks the sense of political power, because it has no control over ministers, in regard either to their appointment or to their tenure of office. That is why it is so often referred to as a mere debating society.

Party government is impossible under the present political conditions. A glance at the composition of the Reichstag, at any time within the past decade, would have proved the truth of this statement. On the Right one sees a handful of Imperial Conservatives, representing the landed aristocracy, from whose class, or caste, ministers and high officials are for the most part chosen. In the Centre — appropriately enough — sit the members of a political party based upon religious confession. On the Left are the National Liberals, representing the industrial magnates, and the Social Democrats, representing the toiling masses in the large cities.

All these parties represent groups of interests. Neither the Chancellor nor any other minister is the leader of one of these groups, and he can never, like the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, rely upon a settled majority in the assembly. A Reichstag majority may be made up of Conservatives and Centre to-day, and a month hence it may consist of National Liberals and Conservatives, with the Centre in bitter opposition. The Chancellor placates this group, or intimidates that, organizing a temporary majority by undertaking to promote a particular measure.

What one traced throughout the debates was the sense of impotence in the members, a recognition of the fact that events would move in their appointed course, independently of speeches and opinions of the day. The frequent references in this chamber —■ an imperial assembly — to the threeclass franchise in one of the constituent states, reflected the sinister light which Prussianism has cast over the whole political system.

The history of the various parties, but especially of the three large groups, the Social Democrats, the Centre, and the National Liberals, affords striking proof that the whole parliamentary life of Germany since the foundation of the Empire, has been passing through the formative period. The Socialists — the largest group numerically — have remained outside all the ‘capitalistic parties,’ placing the classstruggle, not political democracy, in the forefront of their programme. Denouncing imperialism and colonial expansion, whenever a great opportunity has come to prove that their loyalty to their principles on this subject can bear the test, they have declared that national considerations required them to support the government for the time being. To-day the organization is broken into majority and minority subdivisions, and many of the Socialistnewspapers assert that the party was really a greater influence in the national life in the days of persecution and exceptional laws, than in 1918, with the largest parliamentary following in the Empire. Since the war, the result of by-elections for the Reichstag, and of municipal elections in Saxony and elsewhere, shows some inclination on the part of the working-class population to side with the minority against the imperialistic majority.

The Centre is another popular party, that is to say, it represents a section of the masses and not a privileged class. This party, numerically the largest after the Social Democrats, has always proclaimed quite frankly that it votes on the principle of support in return for concessions. Actuated by this motive, and acting upon it more consistently than any other group, it has for nearly fifteen years been the predominant parliamentary influence in the Reichstag, and upon its good offices both Bülow and Bethmann-Hollweg were frequently dependent for the passing of the army and navy estimates. Once bitterly assailed as hostile, both to Prussia and to the federal constitution, in 1918 the party gives the Empire a chancellor.

Shortly after the foundation of the Empire, the National Liberals seemed likely to exercise a real influence in shaping German politics in the direction of the party system; and had they been as liberal as they were national, they might have done much to infuse a democratic spirit into German political ideals. But, unlike English Liberals, the adherents of this party made no real effort to reach the masses. They soon degenerated into a group, identifying themselves exclusively with the industrial magnates. For twenty years this group has been the Chancellor’s shuttlecock, tossed about between the Black (Centre) and the Blue (Conservative), now attached to the former, now to the latter, and at times even driven to the last of humiliations — courting the Socialists.

In what way can the principle of ministerial responsibility, either to the Reichstag or to the Federal Council, be introduced into such a system? We have seen that no ‘government’ can command a settled majority, but the word is misleading to English or American ears. There is no imperial government in our sense. It is merely as a member of the Federal Council that the Chancellor takes part in the debates in the Reichstag, and any other member of the Council has the same right. Complete ministerial responsibility to the Reichstag alone means the weakening of the royal prerogative, and consequently of Prussian influence; responsibility to the Federal Council alone would increase the prestige of a body essentially anti-democratic in its constitution. A double-barreled responsibility— to both houses — would be quite impracticable. If the federal character of the constitution is retained, the first real step toward true democracy is the conversion of the Federal Council into an elective assembly, and the second is the recognition of the principle of ministerial responsibility to the Reichstag as the popular chamber. If, however, the federal element is destined to become a weaker and weaker political influence in the constitution, then the democratization of Germany will depend upon the democratization of Prussia.


It is impossible for the closest student to foresee the ultimate political conditions in the German Empire, but tendencies indicate that the natural evolution will follow two main lines:

(1) the federal system will approach more and more to the unitary type;

(2) the gradual supersession of the agricultural population by a highly organized industrial community is bringing into existence a middle class that will exercise an important influence on the social life of the German people, and indirectly on their political evolution.

The unitary tendencies since the establishment of the Empire have been unmistakable. Forces making for commercial expansion, and for what is called ‘world-politics,’have intensified the national consciousness. This in itself tends to break down the old particularism. But in the sphere of purely domestic activity also, forces working in the same direction are clearly traceable. The effort to reduce the law, so far as possible, to one uniform code, the vast body of imperial legislation regulating interstate commerce and the industrial conditions in the whole Empire, the appointment of a school commission to mould, so far as practicable, the educational system on one model, are all the continuation of the Prussianizing process under the new conditions.

Often, during the critical seven and a half years which I spent in Germany, I conversed with Prussians and South Germans whose memories stretched back to the wars of 1866 and 1870, to the days of the anti-Socialist laws and the conflict between the state and the Roman Catholic Church — Kulturkampf, — and I tried to ascertain their estimate of Germany’s political progress since those days. One and all seemed to regard any right of selfgovernment, any constitutional power, as a concession from above. On another point also there was something like unanimity — that the establishment of constitutionalism in Prussia is inseparably associated with the outlook for political liberalism in the Empire. The Prussian type, they pointed out, is very stable, and seems destined to absorb more and more elements of the national life, because only its extension will satisfy the new aspirations and ambitions. So far from the structure, with all its anomalies, having ever been seriously menaced from within since the foundation of the union, the old distinctions based solely on locality have almost disappeared. Moreover, it is in Prussia that the greatest commercial and industrial advance has been made since 1871, and no section of the people has derived more relative benefit from this advance than the small tradesmen and the skilled artisans in the other states.

It is this question of Prussia’s politics that is exercising the minds of German Socialists and Radicals to-day. The centre of political interest is, and will remain for some time, the constitution of the Prussian House of Representatives rather than the position of the Reichstag. The essential elements in the liberalizing of Prussia’s political institutions are the substitution of equal adult suffrage for the three-class electoral system, and the recognition of the principle of ministerial responsibility to the representatives.

The details of the three-class system — Dreiklassenwahl — have been given too often to call for elaboration here. A general idea of its result in actual practice may be obtained from the bare statement of fact that at the 1908 election the Conservatives, with a total of 418,398 votes, secured 212 seats, and the Social Democrats with 598,522 votes, secured 7 seats. The bill promised last year goes some distance in the direction of substituting a more equitable electoral system, and also of liberalizing the Upper House (Herrenhaus). If the present agitation continues, we shall soon see how far the promises then made were sincere, and whether they are backed by the present Chancellor.

Though opposition to the reform of existing political institutions in Prussia is largely centred on aristocracy and privilege, it must be emphasized that no urgent need of democratic selfgovernment seems to have taken strong hold of the intellectual element in the nation. The forces antagonistic to Junkerdom have been mainly recruited from the working masses and a section of the commercial middle class. These influences will not be powerful enough, or coherent enough, to work an organic change to a constitutional régime until they are reinforced by the flower of the national intellect.


It is essential, however, in considering the prospect of political reform in Germany, or what are called the ‘crises’ of the past twelve months, to remember that what is at stake is the whole character of Germany after the war. This character will be determined by the peace, and if the military organization is strong enough to resist external pressure, it will be strong enough to resist any pressure likely to be exerted from the inside.

The attitude of the German press toward political developments since the appointment of the new Chancellor, Count von Hertling, was widely interpreted in England as indicating a cleavage of opinion between the general public and the autocracy. But the German press is only partially trustworthy as a guide to the drift of political affairs in Germany. Hertling’s appointment was another move in the offensive, directed from the political side. The German reply to President Wilson’s and the Pope’s notes, and the proposed Socialist conference at Stockholm, mark varying stages in this offensive. They all failed, for the simple reason that Germany could not state her terms definitely without exposing her bloodguiltiness and her aggressive designs.

The comments of the English press a few months ago on Michaelis’s ‘precarious position’ and the ‘distrust’ of the Crown Prince and his clique, were quite immaterial to the main argument. Michaelis was nothing more or less than a stop-gap, accepted as a compromise by the Imperialists in the Reichstag, who succeeded in deposing the objectionable Bethmann-Hollweg. When Michaelis proved himself the third-rate politician which every one acquainted with the man and his career knew him to be, some of our English journalists already saw Kaiserism fighting in its last trench, and Germany abandoning her earlier dreams and schemes of world-power. The Chancellor ‘crisis’ was engineered solely because German statecraft was supremely concerned to make the most of the military situation, and Hertling was a far abler man than Michaelis to conduct the new ‘offensive’ against Germany’s enemies. At home, the appointment was an honest effort to placate the extreme Imperialists without embittering the more moderate war party, but in no sense was it a yielding to popular clamor. On this ground the Reichstag welcomed him, but it was not responsible for the choice.

The appointment, it is true, was not decreed in the accustomed imperious manner of the Kaiser. Some sort of negotiation took place between the Chancellor elect and the parliamentary leaders. The Left clamored for the removal of Vice-Chancellor Helfferich, who had long been obnoxious to a section of the Reichstag. He was dismissed. Thereupon, with what would seem to the outsider a curious unanimity, the German press strove to give as much democratic color as possible to the incident, declaring that both Germany and Prussia were moving toward true constitutionalism. The Socialist and Liberal organs especially, in referring to the recent changes, said that Germany had already become a state ruled on parliamentary lines, and that the ‘political revolution’ which had taken place would increase her prestige with the nations of the world. If German Socialists and Liberals were really capable of such self-deception, it would not be surprising that the attitude of the Pangermanists toward them is what it is.

Nowadays comment on political movements and personages in Germany soon becomes out of date. The decisive factor in German politics today is simply the need of converting military successes into political assets. Hertling’s whole speech in the Reichstag on January 24, 1618, proved this. The speech, throughout, showed that diplomatic astuteness for which he was noted as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Federal Council; but it showed also that he represents the German army quite as much as does Hindenburg or Ludendorff.

The disposition since the war to rest large hopes on every anticipated utterance of Berlin is in complete accord with the entire mental attitude of British Liberals to Germany and Germanism for at least a decade. Then, when the concrete proposals are declared, they are found not to point to security, or to a league of nations, but to further strife and the continuance of all those conditions which would doom such a league, from its inception, to repose on a false idea and a false ideal.

Any discussion of the prospect of a long or short reign for Hertling would yield little profit. All that one can say with certainty is that his appointment was popular with the Clericals, and, apparently, with a small section of the Left. A more interesting personality than either Bethmann-Hollweg or Michaelis, he has for years played an important part in Bavarian politics, and in the Federal Council he always displayed a keen flair for the motives of German foreign policy. He has also long been the unofficial mouthpiece of the Wilhelmstrasse with the Vatican. In many respects a typical member of the Centre, he is nevertheless Deutschnational, patriotic, and German, to the finger-tips, finding no difficulty in reconciling his Germanism with the just claims of his church. His attitude to the war and war-aims since August, 1914, has left nothing to be desired, even by the Pangermanists. In February, 1917, he said, ‘We have gained all that we wanted, so from Germany’s point of view there is no longer any reason to continue the struggle.’ He went on to defend the submarine campaign, which was organized ‘to bring the war to a close on the basis of the present war-map.’ Responsible statesmen in Germany have given few plainer indications of the motives underlying the policy that led up to the world-conflict.

I have often been asked if I thought there would ever be a revolution in Germany. My reply has consistently been, ‘Only if the mass of the people find themselves face to face with military defeat and starvation.’

That time is not yet. It may well be that, before it is reached, militarism in Germany is destined to run its full course, and to supersede even such semblance of civilian authority as exists. For the pressure of democratic opinion, such as it is, will not influence the counsels of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

I have never been one of those who hold that an overwhelming majority of the German people at any time sincerely believed that they were fighting a purely defensive war. But it is impossible to doubt that the German government would not now find that wholehearted support from the people which was accorded in the early stages of the war, or such unanimous approval of Hertling as the Allied governments can claim from their own people for their statement of war-aims. The German people have long desired peace, but the form of peace which has hitherto appealed to them is more or less associated with the ambitions and ideals of a militarist power. It will become less associated with those ideals in proportion as the militarists fail to ‘deliver the goods.’ Then the democratic ferment may begin to work effectively.