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29 September 2021

From the NS archive: Germany and democracy

21 July 1917: A new chancellor arrives from nowhere.

By New Statesman

Following the forced resignation of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg on 13 July 1917, the relative unknown Georg Michaelis was appointed as the new chancellor of Germany and minister president of Prussia. While the dismissal of Von Bethmann Hollweg may have given “much satisfaction to the Conservatives, who welcome for its own sake every assertion, in disregard of the Reichstag, of the personal power of the Crown”, as this anonymous author wrote, the surprise appointment of Michaelis was met with scepticism. As the first non-titled person to serve as chief minister during the Hohenzollern monarchy’s 400-year rule, his political career was equally unknown as “his record as a politician was a blank”. As the author explained, “before it was announced, it had scarcely been suggested in public, let alone demanded, by anyone in the Empire”. They tried to understand how “by a wave of the hand the All-Highest beckons him to the highest political post in the German Empire”.


Nothing could illustrate better the almost Oriental authority of the Crown in Germany than the elevation of Dr Michaelis to be Imperial Chancellor. Before it was announced, it had scarcely been suggested in public, let alone demanded, by anyone in the Empire – certainly by no political party. Dr Michaelis’ politics were practically unknown. He had followed the typical career of a Prussian bureaucrat, and save for a few years’ early residence in Japan had spent it climbing the customary ladder; through various stages in the lower judiciary to a desk in the Education Department at Berlin; thence at 46 to the position of Ober-Präsident (or Prefect) of the province of Breslau; and thence back to Berlin at 52 as Under-Secretary in the Finance Department. In the last two years he had been transferred to special war services, and had attracted some notice as the efficient and courageous assistant of the Imperial Food Controller. One may assume him to be a capable Civil servant, but he has not risen rapidly; at the age of 60 he was by no means at the top of the official tree; and his record as a politician was a blank. By a wave of the hand the All-Highest beckons him to the highest political post in the German Empire, where, subject to no constitutional control but his master’s, he directs the destinies of the second largest nation in Europe.

The episode must give Germans as well as their enemies food for thought. Now, if ever, at the crisis of fate it would have been natural for the Crown to consult the people at least in form with regard to its choice of leadership and policy. No pretence has been made of doing so. Could anything exhibit more clearly the difference between the political conceptions of the Central Empires and those of the liberty-loving nations who are in arms against them? It is, as we shall show, at this very point that democracy and autocracy decisively part company.

But if that is the character of the change, what will be its effect? Time and Dr Michaelis may shortly show. At the moment the plan which is defeated is Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg’s plan to reconstitute the Imperial and Prussian Ministries on a less reactionary basis under the old headship. The ex-Chancellor is no Liberal; but he seems to have seen (probably Vienna helped him to see) that a show of domestic Liberalism would pay Germany in the international sphere. He had no less a precedent for his view than Bismarck’s, who introduced universal suffrage for the Diet of the North-German Confederation in 1866 in just that spirit, knowing (as he said years afterwards, when he could afford to avow the motive) that it could easily be prevented from having any undesired internal consequences.

Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg’s difficulty was that even a show of Liberalism proved too much for his Conservative supporters. It is generally believed that he welcomed, if he did not inspire, the initiative of Herr Erzberger a fortnight ago in order that he might bring the reactionaries to heel by the threat of the Centre’s opposition. For the first few days he succeeded, and the half-dozen resignations which were announced in the newspapers looked like a clear victory for him. But the Prussian Conservatives have great reserves of strength in Court circles. They mobilised the Crown Prince on their behalf; and, apparently in consequence of his intervention, the Emperor abruptly decided that Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg must go. The manner of his dismissal, and still more the manner of Dr Michaelis’ appointment, gave much satisfaction to the Conservatives, who welcome for its own sake every assertion, in disregard of the Reichstag, of the personal power of the Crown. They feel (and are probably right in feeling) that in the new constitutional struggle they have won the first round.

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But, on the other side, the constitutionalising parties do not acknowledge defeat. They shed no tears over the outgoing Chancellor, whom they never trusted; and they have gone on to form in the Reichstag a constitutional bloc, suggestively reminiscent of that which made memorable the last days of the Duma. How far they are in earnest, and how much Dr Michaelis will yield to them if they are, we will not attempt to prophesy. But since the democratisation of Germany is of supreme importance to the world at large, it might be well to specify precisely what seem to be the principal legal changes needed to effect it. They are no fewer than five:

(a) The democratisation of the franchise for the Prussian Diet;
(b) the redistribution of seats for the Prussian Diet;
(c) the firm establishment of the principle of Parliamentary Government in Prussia;
(d) the redistribution of seats for the Reichstag;
(e) the establishment of Parliamentary Government for the German Empire (or, alternatively, of a democratic federal government on the American model, which would incidentally necessitate the disappearance of the Emperor).

Now the thing to notice about these five changes is that they are all necessary for a democratic Germany, and very little would be effected by the introduction of one or two of them. The first is the hardest to resist, and the Emperor’s declarations can scarcely be fulfilled without granting it. But great as is the scandal of the “three-class” franchise, its removal would not give Prussia a democratic Parliament without redistribution; for the present arrangement of constituencies, both for the Prussian Diet and for the Reichstag, is unjust and anti-democratic to a degree for which parallels could only be found in England before 1831.

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Moreover, it is of little advantage to have a democratised Parliament, unless the Ministry is responsible to it. But at present even the Prussian Diet (though in its sphere a stronger body than the Reichstag) does not control its Ministry. Prussian Ministers always have a majority there, in the sense that the majority under the present system is always, like them, Conservative. But the Prime Minister (who is German Chancellor) is a bureaucrat, not a Parliamentarian, and so, as a rule, are his colleagues; and they are, in fact as well as in theory, essentially the nominees and servants of the King of Prussia. Where the Royal will and the will of the Diet’s majority conflict, the Royal will finally prevails; as will have to be the case now, if a democratisation of the Prussian franchise is to become law. For though the Diet majority often give the Crown trouble, they are bound as Prussian Conservatives by their own theory of politics, which presupposes the ultimate autocracy of the Crown.

It is not difficult to foresee how the problem of sham-democratisation will present itself to the Emperor and his advisers, if they envisage it in the spirit of Bismarck in 1866. They will see as he saw (it is pretty clear that they have already seen) that a democratic franchise is the cheapest of the possible concessions. They will give that; and they may add some measures of redistribution if they are obliged. But they will fight to the last ditch against the principle of making the German and Prussian Ministries responsible to their respective Parliaments instead of to an autocratic Crown. There lies the supreme issue of the internal struggle, the root-difference between democratic and autocratic government. A superficial observer during the last generation, seeing that Germany and Austria had Cabinets and Parliaments much as Great Britain or France or Italy had – Cabinets composed of heads of much the same departments, and Parliaments elected generally in much the same way – might have concluded that all these adjoining countries were travelling much the same political road. But in reality the difference between the Parliament-controlled Cabinets of Parliamentarians and the Crown-controlled Cabinets of bureaucrats was decisive. As people who had lived under both had little difficulty in realising, it was a difference not in degree but in kind.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).