Imperial Germany - Political Parties
Six major political parties were active in imperial Germany: the Conservative Party, the Free Conservative Party, the National Liberal Party, the Progressive Party, the Center Party, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands--SPD). Only the SPD survived both the empire and the Weimar Republic (1918-33) and came to play a vital role in the Federal Republic. Even though the German Empire lacked a genuinely democratic system, the six main parties accurately reflected the interests and hopes of most of its people.
The most right-wing of the six parties was the Conservative Party, which represented Prussian nationalism, aristocracy, and landed property. Many of its members remained opposed to German unification because they feared Prussia's gradual absorption by the empire. The Conservatives also detested the Reichstag because it was elected by universal suffrage. The Free Conservative Party represented industrialists and large commercial interests. The views of this party most closely matched those of Bismarck. Its members supported unification because they saw it as unavoidable. The National Liberal Party was composed of liberals who had accepted Germany's lack of full democracy because they valued national unity more. They continued to favor a laissez-faire economic policy and secularization. In time, National Liberals became some of the strongest supporters of the acquisition of colonies and a substantial naval buildup, both key issues in the 1880s and 1890s.
Unlike the members of the National Liberal Party, members of the Progressive Party remained faithful to all the principles of European liberalism and championed the extension of parliament's powers. This party was in the forefront of those opposed to the authoritarian rule of Bismarck and his successors. The Center Party was Germany's Roman Catholic party and had strong support in southern Germany, the Rhineland, and in parts of Prussia with significant Polish populations. It was conservative regarding monarchical authority but progressive in matters of social reform. Bismarck's brutal campaign against the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s--the Kulturkampf (cultural struggle), an attempt to reduce the church's power over education and its role in many other areas of German society--turned the Center Party against him. By the late 1870s, Bismarck had to concede victory to the party, which had become stronger through its resistance to the government's persecution. The party remained important during the Weimar Republic and was the forerunner of the Federal Republic's moderate conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union--CDU) and the Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union--CSU).
The Marxist SPD was founded in Gotha in 1875, a fusion of Ferdinand Lassalle's General German Workers' Association (formed in 1863), which advocated state socialism, and the Social Democratic Labor Party (formed in 1869), headed by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, which aspired to establish a classless communist society. The SPD advocated a mixture of revolution and quiet work within the parliamentary system. The clearest statement of this impossible combination was the Erfurt Program of 1891. The former method frightened nearly all Germans to the party's right, while the latter would build the SPD into the largest party in the Reichstag after the elections of 1912.
Once Bismarck gave up his campaign against Germany's Roman Catholics, whom he had seen for a time as a Vatican-controlled threat to the stability of the empire, he attacked the SPD with a series of antisocialist laws beginning in 1878. A positive aspect of Bismarck's campaign to contain the SPD was a number of laws passed in the 1880s establishing national health insurance and old-age pensions. Bismarck's hope was that if workers were protected by the government, they would come to support it and see no need for revolution. Bismarck's antisocialist campaign, which continued until his dismissal in 1890 by Wilhelm II, severely restricted the activities of the SPD. Ironically, the laws may have inadvertently benefited the SPD by forcing it to work within legal channels. As a result of its sustained activity within the political system, the SPD became a cautious, pragmatic party, which, despite its fiery Marxist rhetoric, won increasing numbers of seats in the Reichstag and achieved some improvements in working and living conditions for Germany's working class.
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