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WHEN Professor Bergsträsser wrote his account of the pre-war German political parties,[i] he began by pointing out the comparatively recent growth of a "parteipolitisches Leben" in Germany. He traced it back to 1848, thus giving present-day party politics in Germany an age of about two generations of men, to which we might now add a third generation of men and women. Two or three generations do not count for much in the development of a political institution such as parliamentary government by means of party organization, and if we observe in the German parties any of the defects commonly found in callow youth, either in the way of bad manners or of immoderate conceit, we should not feel justified in complaining about them.
But the astonishing thing about the German parties is that their most conspicuous faults and failings are not those which might easily be explained by their not having reached even their first centenary; on the contrary, they are those generally attributed to old age, or even to senility. Garrulous to the point of gossiping and backbiting, obstinate and quarrelsome, these parties show the tendencies of old men who seem to draw their power of outliving younger people from a gruesome pleasure in disappointing expectation of their death; there is all too little of the waywardness, the fine contempt for attachments of any kind, which form such marked traits of post-war youth, at any rate in Europe.
Parties in Germany certainly cannot be criticized for changing their programs, their methods or their personnel too often. Mr. James K. Pollock, Jr., in his admirable article on the German party system,[ii] rightly says that, while the change from the old system -- which was that of a government dependent on the assent of parliament for legislation and for "ways and means," but independent of parliament in all matters of administration -- to the new system of parliamentary government under the Weimar Constitution, necessarily led to a change in the party system and methods, nevertheless the metamorphosis of the prewar parties consisted mainly of a change of names. On the whole I agree with Mr. Pollock when he says that not only is the historical background the same as it was before the war, but the German people also remain unchanged. This statement works two ways. In the first place it implies the retrospective notion of the great importance which political parties possessed under the Constitution of 1870, both in the larger states like Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg and Baden, and in the Reich, an importance which few foreign observers recognized before the war. Even in Germany, the insistence with which writers closely attached to court or government laid the merit of everything done and accomplished at the door of the monarch or his chancellor (whether he was made of iron, silk or red tape) tended to obscure in the eyes of many people the share political parties took in forming the destinies of the Reich.[iii] It is only by contrast with the apathy of a present-day election under the proportional system, with its fixed lists of candidates, that older people ruefully recall the enthusiasm roused by an electoral fight in a single-member constituency in the nineties, especially in cases where the first ballot had not given a candidate an absolute majority and a second ballot had to be taken.
Very bitter things used to be said in Germany over the unnatural alliances brought about by this Stichwahl system, as it was called, but it had (and in France to this day has) the supreme merit of giving the two candidates who were at the top of the ballot in the first count a real opportunity of winning votes from electors outside their own party. Canvassing being almost unknown in Germany, this attempt to obtain further votes had to be made by the candidates and their principal helpers in the open, while party organizations tried to make bargains to the same end in the dark; and while it cannot be denied that the latter became more and more important with the growth of organizations, the power of the secretariat rising to an undreamed-of height during 1900-1914 in all spheres of business and official life as well as in politics, it must also be remembered that in the fight of a second ballot, with its numerous public meetings, party programs were exposed to healthy criticism and politicians had to show their real mettle.[iv] The electors belonging to one of the three or four biggest parties, between whom the second ballot generally lay, used to go to the polls in just the same spirit of dumb obedience as they do in countries with a two-party system; but those who in the first ballot had voted for one of the parties of lesser strength -- mustering possibly 25 or even 30 percent of the voters -- had to make a real independent decision of their own, weighing the relative merits, or, to put it lower, choosing the lesser evil between the two candidates, one of whom would have to represent the constituency.
That is also one of the reasons why the smaller parties sometimes exhibit political thought and resourcefulness which the great parties sorely lack. An example is the group of the Democrats, which, though small, is always in evidence; another is the "cave" of the left wing of the National People's Party, which played an important part as the "Free Conservatives" who were ready to support Bismarck's government whenever the die-hard Tories went into opposition against the great man, then for a time disappeared, then again supported Bethmann-Hollweg in his policy of conciliation towards Alsace-Lorraine, and during the last years of the war favored a liberal measure of electoral reform in Prussia. This wing of the National People's Party again came into prominence just recently, when they rebelled against the party dictatorship of Herr Hugenberg, forming a party of their own under the name of Volkskonservative Vereinigung.
One of the German Institutes of Politics two years ago made an inquiry among its associates about their membership in or affiliation with political parties before, during and after the war. The result was never published because it did not seem sufficiently important, a fact which justified the opinion of those who had predicted that it was vain to attempt to measure the effects of the war and the Revolution on the political opinion of the average citizen, because those effects were so slight as to be inconsiderable. Apart from the deceptive figures of 1920-21, in which the members of the pre-war National Liberal Party appear as Democrats, only to return to their old allegiance as soon as the People's Party had established itself as the successor of Bassermann's party, the strength of the parties underwent no greater change between 1913 and 1930 than between 1896 and 1913 or between 1879 and 1896.
There is a second implication, however, in the thesis that the German people have remained the same and that the change in the German parties has been confined to their names and to their outward appearance. This second implication is as important as the first one, showing as it does that the German parties in their freedom from change represent the people fairly well as far as politics go. There is much talk at the present time about the desirability of a radical reform in our Parteiwesen, notably among the members of the many pseudo-military organizations which have sprung up since universal military service has been abolished; but if these advocates of reform carried the day and promulgated a law taking the vote away from all and sundry who had it in 1914 or 1919, I am afraid they would soon discover that even Fascism in Germany would be, not one, but from seven to nine kinds of the one-and-only-true-national conviction.
Neither a uniform catholicism in politics nor a rationalist two-party system has ever been in the nature of the political animal in Germany, whether southern or northern, eastern or western. We seem to be made to differ. Politics is one of the possible expressions of that aptitude, and after a due consideration of politics as practiced by other nations, we perhaps do not need to be too greatly ashamed of it. It may be noted in this connection that before the war some of the states of Germany knew only three or four parties: for instance, Baden, as some of the children of the Musterländle in the United States may recall, for many years had only two consequential parties, the governmental Liberals and the Centre in opposition; a few forlorn radicals who could not see eye to eye with a government even of their own liberal opinions, and a single Conservative were the only representatives of the many-sidedness of German party politics. Bavaria, with almost universal suffrage but a very clever distribution of seats in favor of the ruling party, had a strong majority of the Centre, a well-spoken but ineffective Liberal opposition, a few Socialists whose loyalty to the reigning house of Wittelsbach was proverbial, and, instead of the Conservatives, a peasants' party which combined a violent radicalism in some respects -- especially those which are usually designated by the prefix "anti" -- with the conservatism of an Irish Tory. In the Kingdom of Saxony the electors for some time were represented by a solid phalanx of radical Socialist deputies in the Reichstag and at the same time had not a single Socialist representative in the Saxon Diet. These good old days of simple devices for keeping undesirables out of parliament have gone; Bavaria still has a majority of the Centre Party, with the socialist group second and the nationalist group a good third, but Baden, Württemberg, Saxony and Hesse now must have coalition governments, and parties with them have multiplied so fast that in some cases even a coalition finds itself unable to form a clear majority, every possible combination of parties mustering only half the number of deputies.
The Reichstag election of May 20, 1928, resulted in sending three minorities to the parliament: a minority of the Left, consisting of 54 Communists, 153 Social Democrats and 25 Democrats, that is -- if they had ever voted together, as they certainly never did -- 232 out of 491 members; a minority of the Centre, consisting of the Catholic Centre with 61 members, the People's Party (formerly the National Liberals) with 45, and the Bavarian People's Party with 17, that is 123 out of 491 (or, if their neighbor on the right, the Economic Party, voted with them, as it sometimes did, 146 out of 491); and a minority of the Right, consisting of the National People's Party (the Conservatives) with 78 members and a medley of small groups with different battle-cries numbering 35 in all, including 4 Junkers from northern Hanover pledged to restore the Guelphs to the throne which was taken from them by the King of Prussia in 1866. After a prolonged wrangle, there came into power a coalition government of the Social Democratic, Democratic, Centre, People's and Bavarian People's Parties, with the Economic Party benevolently neutral. The Socialist leader, Hermann Müller, one of the good men and true of the German Republic, became Chancellor; Dr. Stresemann remained at the Foreign Office; while the Centre Party resigned itself to a few minor seats in the cabinet, hoping that it would eventually obtain Dr. Stresemann's office, and leaving the Socialists in complete responsibility for finance and for the relations between the Reich and the states (Ministry of the Interior) -- two offices in which even an old tactician could hardly hope to succeed.
The diagram shows the strength of the government as far as parliamentary support went. The Social Democrats occupied all the most important seats in the cabinet with the exception of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While Dr. Stresemann was alive, this was in a sense his own office, quite apart from party politics. The appearance of parliamentary strength, however, proved to be deceptive, and as early as the beginning of 1929 the augurs knew that the government was mainly kept in power by the intransigent
and sometimes highly offensive opposition of the National People's Party under the leadership of Herr Hugenberg. They knew, in other words, that sooner or later moderate Conservatives who had at first submitted to party discipline either would muster enough strength within the party, and especially within the Reichstag fraction, to dethrone Dr. Hugenberg, or else would take their courage into their hands and leave the party just as their fathers and uncles had done in Bismarck's time. When that happened, they knew, the right wing of the coalition government would be irresistibly drawn towards this new group and would therefore grow very restive against further collaboration with the Social Democrats.
A peculiar charm is always associated (and not only in Germany) with a group of people who are conservatives or even Tories by birth and upbringing, but who are also men of the world, taking a lively interest in the arts and sciences, perhaps a little fastidious in regard to good manners, yet sometimes even of a very advanced type, and painstaking and industrious workers. Many of them in Germany have been ardent social reformers, typically German (though mostly of the north) but without any trace of jingoism or blatant anti-semitism -- in short, a gentlemen's party par excellence. That is, perhaps, the best explanation for the attraction which such a group has for the members of the bürgerliche parties, and also for the evident leaning towards it of a great gentleman like President Hindenburg. The weak point of this group, of course, is their constitutional inability to fight foul, or even to make use of the more harmless tricks of a
demagogue. In the present case, however, they found unexpected support from the Centre Party, which produced a man very similar to their own type, Herr Brüning, and which, having elected him leader of the party, allowed him to stand as a candidate for the Chancellorship (which meant at least a temporary renunciation of the party's wish to have one of its members fill the post of Foreign Minister); in addition the Land League, the most powerful of the three great agrarian associations forming the so-called "Green Front,"[v] joined them in full force and in direct opposition to Dr. Hugenberg's express commands.
The second diagram shows the new cabinet in a very precarious parliamentary position, but here again appearances are deceptive. The extreme Conservatives -- to give them a name distinguishing them unmistakably from the moderate Conservatives -- could at any time bring about the defeat of the government in the Reichstag by voting for a Social Democratic-Communist vote of censure. They had their first opportunity of doing so when the new cabinet presented itself to the Reichstag on April 1, and the Social Democrats promptly asked for such a vote against it. Communists and Fascists (or National Socialists), of course, went into the same lobby with the Social Democrats. Herr Hugenberg, however, chose the better part of valor and abstained from joining the opposition. He knows that in a general election following the dissolution of the Reichstag his party would lose enormously to the Fascists, who are entirely irresponsible and have the support of a gutter press. This press, by far the worst in the world, is supported by the concern which has the lease to the bookstalls at all German railway stations, with the result that the news-stand sale of this kind of unspeakable filth is probably larger and certainly is more wide-spread than the sale of a great newspaper by subscription can be. The Social Democrats would probably lose votes to the Communists, too; but even this prospect of a reënforcement of the opposition for opposition's sake could hardly suffice to console the leader of a party that still calls itself conservative and claims to put the national interest above every other worldly consideration. The Hugenberg group's fear of a general election will greatly help the present government in its appointed task of carrying out a program of constitutional, social and financial reform which is bound to be damaging to a good many vested interests, notably those of the trade unions, and which may possibly put the loyalty of state officials to a new and severe test by demanding from them a Notopfer in the form of a temporary reduction of all salaries, without affording them any reduction in the general cost of living -- a proceeding similar to the emergency measures taken in connection with the stabilization of the mark in 1924.
A still greater asset of the new government is President Hindenburg's evident desire to give it a real chance of carrying through the necessary reforms. A certain phrase of the President's message to the Chancellor was commonly used during the negotiations preceding the formation of the new cabinet, in regard to its independent position towards the parties. This phrase, "ohne koalitionsmässige Bindung," is very difficult for foreign students to appreciate in its true meaning. It does not mean exactly what it says. It is not the coalition of government parties as such to which objection is taken; such a coalition will be necessary, not only to secure a normal working majority in parliament, but also as an education in tolerance and coöperation. Nor does the President's phrase contain even the slightest hint of a wish to govern in opposition to, or without, the parliament. It certainly does mean, however, breaking away from a practice which had grown upon the late cabinet in its last two years of office: namely the practice of consulting the leaders of the coalition parties, and even taking a vote among the coalition parties themselves, as represented by their Reichstag deputies, before an important measure was finally adopted by the cabinet and laid before the Reichstag. Strong republicans have condemned this practice in no uncertain terms [vi] because it tends to weaken the authority both of the government and of the Reichstag, besides making the public debates in parliament farcically unreal, the decisions all having been bargained for in secret. Party life will benefit by the new practice quite as much as the administration itself. There is more need than ever for the publicity of open discussion, because of the increased danger of misunderstanding and friction between old and young since the war removed so many of the men of the generation of 1880-1890.
All these difficulties may be said to be inherent in the parliamentary system; one could find many counterparts to the present crisis in Germany in other countries, as well as in the German past. But there is one feature which is peculiar to the German situation since 1927 or 1928. Of the 491 members of the Reichstag, about a fifth have been sent -- or believe themselves to have been sent -- to the Reichstag to obstruct parliamentary government by every means in their power whether fair or foul, to bring parliament into ridicule and disrepute, and, if possible, to create such disgust among the constitutionalists that they will despair of a system of popular representation which must include the wild men of the Communist Party and the swash-bucklers and mudthrowers of the National Socialist type. A vote of censure as such, whatever its reasons and irrespective of its reasonableness from any point of view, may count on eighty or ninety supporters in addition to those who vote for it on its merits. A similar state of things may have existed elsewhere and been overcome by the good sense of the great mass of the people. Under the Empire this game was tried by Poles, Alsace-Lorrainers and Guelphs, but they had much more reason, because their tactics were not directed against parliamentary government as such; they simply wished to show their unwillingness to belong to the Reich and to submit to a rule which they resented as the rule of a foreign people. The Communists -- who exist elsewhere, though not in considerable numbers -- claim also to be exempt from the rule of the Reich, belonging as they do to the super-state of the Third International. The peculiar difficulty of the present situation in Germany lies in the combined attacks of Communists and Fascists in parliament on parliament as such.
It may be said that we have proportional representation to thank for this state of things, and it is certainly true that in single-member constituencies neither Communists nor Fascists could reasonably hope to obtain more than half a dozen out of the eighty seats they control in the present Reichstag, and out of the hundred they will probably obtain in the next. Whatever the reason for their number, the real question is: Can the parliamentary system tolerate these attacks from within ? If not, how can they be prevented? Certainly not by simply asking that an oath of loyal service be sworn by every member before he takes his seat. The Communist Party dispenses with adherence to formal pledges of that kind, and the Fascists would simply say that an oath to serve the Jewish Republic can never bind a true follower of Wodan and a genuine descendant of Teut. They would have a more serious argument, too. Under the constitution, sovereignty rests with the people. Professors of constitutional law may tell us that "the people" here implies, not the individual voters, either singly or in groups or in masses, but an ideal entity of men, women and children living on and by their native soil and representing, not the present generation only, but past and future generations as well. But the voters and the members of parliament elected by them will, in spite of what the professors tell them, believe that they are the sovereign people, every single one of them. Moreover, they will believe that if they elect as their representative a man who has promised to destroy parliament as quickly as he can if he is elected, they can feel satisfied that they have used their sovereign power and are above criticism; and they would resent with genuine indignation any attempt on the part of other electors or of other members of parliament to safeguard the dignity of parliament and to save its very existence by excluding the deputies who made havoc with it.
Evidently this cannot go on for long. The parliamentary system must be based on the loyal service of the pro tempore minority members quite as much as on the zeal and administrative ability of the majority and the cabinet. Such loyalty is best secured where the minority can hope, by dint of sound criticism in parliamentary debate and by vigorously upholding the rights of parliament and of the electorate against bureaucratic rule, to win the favor of the voters at the next general election and to be called upon to form the government. In Germany this is attainable only by a drastic electoral reform, by returning to a system of single-member constituencies for the Reichstag and by keeping proportional representation, possibly, for an Upper House; because two chambers, representing the will of the people twice ascertained, give parliament a greater strength than can be derived from a single chamber.
Till then the parties which, under a normal state of things, would carry on parliamentary government between them as majority and minority -- that is, the Moderate Conservative, People's Party, Centre, Democratic and Social Democratic -- will be obliged to work through coalitions. These groups of neighbor parties will not be of sufficient strength to support a stable government against the combined attacks of the anti-constitutionalists. Events of the last few months have shown that coöperation, even at the cost of shelving part of the official program of one or more of the parties, proves comparatively easy in regard to questions of a political character, and becomes more difficult the farther one enters the domain of economics. Thus foreign policy, including the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan and, of course, the Kellogg Pact, enlists a majority which goes to pieces on the question whether the tax on beer is to be raised or how the surplus of rye is to be taken off the hands of the producers; and a coalition which had succeeded in uniting the Marxists and the Centre with most of the Liberals for the purpose of concluding a Concordat with the Holy See was wrecked by the impossibility of coming to an agreement on the question of covering the growing deficit of unemployment insurance.
That is another reason why the present government should bring to the forefront the questions of electoral reform and of the relations between the Reich and the states as soon as it has dealt with the most urgent needs of agriculture and national finance. Professor Pollock, in his study of the German party system, repeatedly notes the marked tendency of German parties to represent class or economic interests. There are other signs, however, which indicate that political parties are asserting their independence from economic forces. One of them is the indisputable fact that the personality of a leader or of a rival in the leadership of a great party has become of much greater importance during the past few years. Dr. Stresemann's death and the consequent return of Dr. Scholz to full leadership of the People's Party is a good instance; the conflict between Dr. Hugenberg and the young Conservatives is another; the position of the Prime Minister of Prussia, Herr Otto Braun, as the head of a coalition which promises to last while the corresponding coalition in the Reich has broken up, is a third. There is no cause for complaint in this fact. It will help to reëstablish the personal contact between the common citizen and the political organizations, some of which seem to have lost all human semblance. Such a contact is more than ever necessary at a time when big industrial concerns like the steel concern or the J. G. Farbengemeinschaft not only take a great interest in national politics (which in itself may be a good thing), but also regard themselves as governments of their own, more powerful and more efficient than the political government. If parties become again what they were and what they should be -- that is, a means of keeping the citizen in direct and close touch with the commonwealth -- a sensible nation will think several times before dispensing with them.
[i] Die politischen Parteien in Deutschland vor dem Kriege. "Handbuch der Politik," 3rd ed., 1920, vol. I, pp. 369-375. This was a sort of prelude to his book on the history of political parties, "Geschichte der politischen Parteien," 5th ed., 1928.
[ii] The American Political Science Review, November 1929, vol. XXIII, pp. 859-891.
[iii] This became very marked even in Bismarck's time, when the Catholic Centre Party -- Centre because its place was to the right of the Liberals in questions of religion and education, but to the left of the Conservatives in questions of foreign policy, treatment of minorities, supremacy of military power and state power generally -- had won the Kulturkampf and felt strong enough to form a responsible opposition in the Reichstag.
[iv] Under the present electoral system by-elections do not occur; if death or resignation creates a vacancy, the candidate who stood next to the elected member on the party list at the last general election is declared elected without the electorate even being consulted. A real fight is a very exceptional feature even during a general election. It may happen in one of the smaller states when the local parliament is elected. Two years ago the State of Hamburg voted a new electoral law favoring the great parties at the expense of the small groups, which had become a nuisance to everybody else. The elections were held to be illegal because the electoral law had transgressed the principle of the equal vote for everybody. Then the President of the Senate, Dr. Petersen, who had formerly been the leader of the Democratic Party in the Reich, entered the fray and by addressing dozens of meetings throughout the territory of Hamburg in a whirlwind campaign succeeded in winning many thousands of votes for his party, which up to that time had seemed a certain loser. That, however, is an isolated case.
[v] Green being the international as well as the domestic party color of the Agrarians.
[vi] Cf. Leopold Schwarzschild in Das Tagebuch, April 5, 1930, p. 528.