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To what extent was Bismarck a Revolutionary Conservative

The term ‘revolutionary conservative’ initially appears contradictory. However, it is possible to be both conservative and to some extent revolutionary at the same time. A revolutionary conservative is defined as someone who not only aims to maintain the status quo, but who also to achieve this goal, is prepared to sacrifice certain aspects of the existing order through reform, so that on the whole, traditional values will survive. Whilst Bismarck was almost certainly a conservative, it is the purpose of this essay to examine whether he was truly revolutionary in his ideas, or whether the reforms he introduced were only in the interests of maintaining his own power and influence in Germany.The first aspect of Bismarck’s policy that may give an indication to the extent of his ‘revolutionary conservatism’ is the form taken by the German constitution. When the German states unified in 1871, a new instrument of government was formed, and in theory, the new German nation was very democratic, with all men given the vote. However, a closer examination of the German government reveals that all the real power lay in the hands of the Kaiser, the Imperial Chancellor and the Bundesrat (upper house). The democratically elected house, (Reichstag) had only the power to delay laws and could be dissolved by the Bundesrat at any time.Bismarck had also cleverly engineered the new constitution in order to ensure dominance of both the Reichstag and Bundesrat by the Prussian upper classes. Although the vote had been extended to all men, which was undeniably a revolutionary measure at the time, a three tier system was put in place that meant the vote of the working class man was worth a third of the vote of an upper class German. The form of the constitution can therefore be seen as an example of Bismarck’s ‘revolutionary conservatism’, as it was a fundamentally extremely conservative but had been applied through a new and reformed method.Another possible example of Bismarck’s ‘revolutionary conservatism’ was the introduction of State Socialism. Bismarck had been extremely concerned about the rise in popularity of the SPD (Social Democrats) as he saw them as a threat to the power of the junkers (upper classes) and to the German constitution. The SPD were the party who believed in the workers rightful share in government, and that industries should be owned by the state for the benefit of the people. Being a junker and a conservative himself, Bismarck was understandably ‘firmly opposed to such ideas as the illiterate working class playing a significant role in the government of Germany’.However, Bismarck was a shrewd politician who knew that ignoring the demands for reform could be potentially more damaging to Germany than by introducing some small measures to alleviate the problems of the working classes. Bismarck’s other aim in the matter, was to try to reduce support for the Social Democrats by giving the working class a small dose of social reform that they so desperately wanted. The reforms that were introduced included compulsory sickness insurance, to be paid into by both the workers and employers. In addition, accident insurance was set up and also in 1889 the most radical reform of all; state pensions. The workers, employers and the government paid into the pensions. All these reforms marked a fundamental change in social policy as these measures acknowledged for the first time that capitalist businessmen owed their workers certain rights. The accident insurance was a particularly astute measure for Bismarck to introduce as industrial work was dangerous, and health and safety in the workplace was a burning issue among the workers at this time.Although these new reforms seem to be radical in essence they undoubtably failed to tackle the main problems of low pay and poor working conditions. To have been truly revolutionary I think that Bismarck needed to have introduced these reforms with the honest intention of improving the lives of the working classes. I believe that a more cynical view of Bismarck’s measures is appropriate and that the reforms were only brought in to maintain his own power and popularity. However, inadvertently his plans did in fact represent something revolutionary in European society, a first step on the road to the welfare state of the mid-twentieth century.His repression of socialism and the introduction of the Exceptional Laws is yet another example of Bismarck’s policies that may reveal his political stance. His contrasting reaction to the growth of socialism was the introduction of extremely repressive and anti-socialist laws. This made it virtually impossible to be a socialist and to live in Germany. There appears to be absolutely nothing revolutionary about Bismarck’s attitude in these circumstances, and he takes a very traditionally conservative and authoritarian approach to the situation. By introducing legislation to restrict socialist activities, Bismarck intended not only to stop the socialists but to divide the Liberals as they were caught between their fear of socialism and their belief in civil liberties. This tends to suggest that Bismarck would only make changes when there was a significant political advantage to be gained.When his restrictive laws did not appear to be affecting the support of the SPD, he quickly changed his strategy and made an attempt to introduce these limited reforms. Bismarck’s approach was quite clearly not truly ‘revolutionary’ from the outset, but intelligent political manoeuvring allowed him to take advantage of the changing attitudes of the German people.Another feature of Bismarck’s domestic policy that could give an indication to the extent of his revolutionary conservatism is the May laws and the ‘Kulturkampf’. In 1870, the Pope issued his famous Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which basically gave the Pope’s word the authority of God, this meant that it could not be questioned. Some of the Roman Catholics in Germany refused to accept the Doctrine and Bismarck was therefore forced to take sides. He believed that if he supported the Vatican on the Decree then it would gain control of the education system in Germany. He could not allow this to happen under any circumstances, so Bismarck became determined to crush all Catholic opposition. A series of extremely repressive, anti-Catholic measures were introduced in 1872 and 1876 to limit the power of the Catholic Church in Germany. Bismarck had other reasons for attacking the Catholics, which included strengthening Germany’s relations with anti-Catholic countries such as Russia. However, his reaction to the situation seems to show no hint of revolutionary ideas or reform but gives a strong indication of Bismarck’s traditional conservatism and authoritarianism.In conclusion I would say that Bismarck, was to a limited extent a revolutionary conservative. He used revolutionary methods such as the introduction of State Socialism and universal suffrage in order to maintain the dominance of the Prussian Upper Classes in Germany. In other ways, however, he showed no appetite for reform and appeared to be an extremely traditional conservative, such as in his reaction to the increasing power of the Catholic Church in Germany.In all his responses and ensuing policies Bismarck showed himself to be a shrewd and extremely able politician, possessing the ability to react quickly and effectively to the changing political climate in Germany, and to turn difficult circumstances to his own advantage. His forty years in office as the most powerful man in Germany stands testament to this. In his own words Bismarck revealed his true nature which was neither revolutionary nor conservative but pragmatic and realistic. “Politics are not like mathematics or arithmetic. It is true that in politics one has to calculate with known and unknown quantities at one and the same time, but there are no formula or rules by which one can work out the answer in advance”.

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