To what extent can the political system of the 2nd Reich from 1900-1914 can be described as autocratic
During the 2nd Reich, the political system in Germany was divided, with many fighting for either autocracy or democracy. The conflict between these two groups was the source of great political tension and frustration, and it was not always clear who had the greater grip on the country – the Kaiser or the Reichstag? Germany’s political structure was chiefly autocratic. The Kaiser, Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia, was ultimately in charge. He had the power to appoint and dismiss the government and he had control of foreign policy and the armed forces.
He could also dissolve the Reichstag. He could appoint the Chancellor, who therefore had no obligation to be accountable to the Reichstag, and the Reichstag could not remove him or the government. However, the Kaiser and the imperial government still had to work within the constitutional framework created in 1871, at the start of the 2nd Reich, and the Reichstag had some power over him. The Reichstag was democratic, with members elected by all men over the age of 25, and could agree to or reject any laws he or the government put forward, and the voting laws instigated by the Reichstag and the Bundesrat continued.
The 2nd Reich began in 1871 when Prussia united German states and ended in 1918 with the Kaiser’s abdication, therefore his grip on the 2nd Reich was substantial and although a lot of the power in Germany was divided, even those in the Reichstag were still patriotic towards him. Many Reichstag deputies respected his prestige and status and actively supported the expansionist policy of Weltpolitik, but there was also a general nationalistic worshipping of the Kaiser.
The monarchical system was strongly upheld, and supported by powerful forces, especially the Prussian elites, who also had 17 seats in the Bundesrat, in which they continued to block any change. However, as Germany developed into a more industrial society, the amount of legislation discussed in the Reichstag increased greatly, and although fewer parties supported reform, people’s faith in the Reichstag evidently grew as voter turn-out increased significantly between 1871 and 1912, from 50 per cent to nearly 85 per cent of the electorate voting.
German citizens had various civil liberties as a Rechstaat (constitutional state). They enjoyed healthy democracy, with the freedom of speech, of press and of assembly. However, although the government did have to co-operate with the Reichstag, there was no real danger of rebellion from the Reichstag as they generally had the last word on the Kaiser’s laws. Politics were generally dominated by right-wing conservative parties such as German Conservative Party (DKP) and the Free Conservative Party (FKP), and even the Centre Party had traditional Conservative values.
However, there were a large variety of different political parties – but very few of them seemed to act for the common good of government, acting more like interest groups. Germany was a place of great reform and many changes for the good were made, but after 1900 less and less reforms were passed, and even those that remained, the Kaiser was more reluctant to enforce, and the political parties followed his lead. There was a great lack of will to take responsibility for bringing about change, and all the parties distanced themselves from the Social Democrats.
The Conservatives vehemently disagreed with their ideals, but even the more moderate middle-class parties, such as the Progressive Liberals, were scared of their expanding influence, and they refused to co-operate actively, with the fear that constitutional reform might lead to radical reform. To conclude, I think that the political system of the 2nd Reich, from 1900-1914, was mainly autocratic, as the Kaiser had seized control of most of the power in Germany, and although much of his government’s actions were ultimately determined by the Reichstag, he could pull the strings to get what he wanted.