The Federal Evolution of Imperial Germany (1871-1918)

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Haardt, Oliver F. R. 

This dissertation examines the evolution of federal government in the German Empire from the unification in 1871 to the collapse of the monarchy in 1918. The story of how the imperial federal state changed over the years has hitherto been hidden from view by disciplinary biases and methodological limitations. While concentrating on how Germany’s peculiar form of government oscillated between a Western-style constitutional monarchy and a semi-absolutist autocracy, historians have failed to make sense of deeper systemic issues. In order to move these to the centre of analysis, the thesis combines different perspectives from history, law, and political theory.

This approach exposes an extraordinary development. The 1871 constitution left Germany’s organisational nature largely undefined. The new national state possessed only very few institutions and competences. There was not even a national government. The Reich completely depended on the constituent states. This weakness was no coincidence. Bismarck’s plan was to secure the dominance of the Prussian monarchy by giving the union enough flexibility to develop either into an integrated composite state or a loose cooperative assembly of states. But the decades after unification turned out differently. By seizing control over the Prussian administration, the federal bureaucracy gradually acquired so many competences that by the outbreak of the First World War Germany had changed into a centralised state. Rather than by the collaboration of the monarchical state governments, national decision-making was now shaped by the competition and cooperation of the federal parliament – the Reichstag – and the newly emerged federal government around the Chancellor.

This transformation came about, the thesis argues, because both monarchical and democratic actors – above all the Prussian government, the federal bureaucracy, and the national parliament – saw federal structures primarily as an instrument of power to be manipulated for their own purposes, namely for the preservation of princely prerogatives or for the expansion of parliamentary rights. There was little respect for federalism as an organisational principle that was beneficial per se. Rather, most executives, administrators, and parliamentarians understood Germany’s federal organisation – albeit for different reasons – as a necessary evil and a means to an end. This attitude had a lasting impact on German political culture, with federal structures remaining at the mercy of power interests throughout the twentieth century.

The dissertation is woven from three different strands. By combining them, it can draw connections that would not come into view if it concentrated on just one of these themes. First, it is a history of German federalism that focuses on the key question of the political history of the Empire: who or what actually governed Germany? As it thus exposes the anatomy of power in the imperial state, it is also a contribution to one of the biggest controversies in modern European history, namely the debate on Germany’s alleged ‘special path’: where did Germany go wrong? Thirdly and lastly, the thesis offers a systemic analysis of federal structures whose observations are relevant for federal orders – such as the European Union – more generally.

Clark, Christopher M.
German History, Modern European History, Constitutional History
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust Helmut Coin Prize 2016 JEV-Stipendium für Europäische Verwaltungsgeschichte