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German Unification and the Rise of the Nazis

Scott Abel
Modern Germany: Final Paper
Germanys sonderway, or special path, went from a period of German political
unification, military defeat, and then to the rise of the authoritarianism of the Nazi party.
The differences between the German Reich and Nazi Reich are too great to conclude that
Germany became a fascist state in the 1930s, because Bismarck did not set a long-term
political will for authoritarianism in the German people. The idea that Bismarck created
a Germany that was more likely to become an authoritative state during the 1920s and
1930s because of his style of governance or the nature of the Imperial Constitution is
false. Rather, the economic and political realities of the 1920s and 1930s were much
more important to the rise of fascism in Germany than Bismarcks policies in the
nineteenth century.
The German State that Otto von Bismarck helped to create was a complex state
that was composed of people with differing ideas and beliefs regarding politics. The
German Empire, or Reich, had a complex relationship with the states that composed it.
The Imperial Constitution that was signed on May 4, 1871 defined the relationships
between the states and the German Empire. The German Empire was formed as a
perpetual union of three hanseatic towns and twenty-two principalities. Each state had
its own responsibilities, privileges, and rights, but had to surrender some of its power to
the centralized state. The only exception to the norm of the relationship between the
Empire and the minor state was the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, where the Empire had

direct control over the territorys administration. The formation of these states into the
German Empire created a nation that became a truly global power.1
The German Empire was governed through several bodies of government,
including the Bundesrat, or Federal Council, Reichstag, or Parliament, and the office of
Kaiser, or the German Emperor. The Federal Council was vested with formal sovereignty
and was a legislature that had representatives from each of the states. These
representatives were not democratically elected, but were instead appointed by the
leaders of their respective states. The Federal Council was not really a decision-making
institution used to determine German policy, but rather it was an institution that was used
by the states to prevent the over-centralization of the German Empire and to preserve the
rights of individual states. Otto von Bismarck pushed successfully to allow male German
voters to get representation through the secret ballot in the 397-seat Reichstag. The
Reichstags only real power was the ability to either approve or disapprove the budget.
The monarch, or German Kaiser, appointed the Chancellor, and the Kaiser could replace
the Chancellor and the people within the executive if he so desired. Otto von Bismarck
was Chancellor during the reign of Wilhelm I and had to answer to him directly.
Bismarck was not an authoritarian dictator, but a civil servant whose power was
constrained by the monarch and German people.2
Although Bismarcks power was not effectively challenged in the Reich executive
office, he did not always get his way within the executive, because ultimately his
authority rested with the monarch. One example of when he was unable to get his way
was when Bismarck could not remove Albrecht von Stosch from his post as chief of the

Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire: 1871-1918, (Dover, NH: Berg Publishers, 1985) 52
Wehler, The German Empire, 52-54
Katharine Lerman, Bismarck, (Pearson Longman: New York, 2004), 172-3, 190-191

Reich Admiralty. Despite Bismarcks public accusations of Stosch being derelict of his
duty as the chief of the Admiralty, Wilhelm I allowed Stosch to keep his position and
remain directly accountable to the Kaiser from 1872 to 1883. Bismarcks power in the
executive as Chancellor was fortified by his positions in the Prussian government, which
included Prussian minister-president and Prussian foreign minister. However, his power
in the Prussian government was also limited and he found difficulty in enacting the
Kulturkampf, because he could not remove Prussian ministers who supported ties
between religion and the state.3
Some historians, such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler, believe that Bismarck was the
dictator of the German Reich, but the notion that Bismarck had absolute power is false
but rather he was able to achieve his objectives through the sheer power of his
personality. Wehler argued that the Reichstag was not a significant power, because it
could only approve a budget and could be dissolved by the Emperor. Wehler is incorrect
in his assessment of the Reichstag, because it did not always approve Bismarcks
policies. The vulnerability of Bismarck and how he could sometimes falter was
demonstrated in 1881. Bismarck failed to get the legislation he wanted past through the
Reichstag, despite all of his attempts in forming a political majority in the Reichstag in
support of his colonial ambitions, iron budget, and tax plans. Bismarcks political
enemies had a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag and he could not form a coalition that
would support his policies. Bismarcks opposition believed that he was getting far too
powerful, so it attempted to check his power by blocking his legislation. Bismarcks
political fortunes changed, not through extra-constitutional action, but after a high
election turnout with German voters support, Bismarck was legally able to pass the

Lerman, Bismarck, 165-166, 172-173

legislation that he wanted in 1887. Although Bismarck did not belong to any particular
political party, he remained a very divisive figure in German politics and often divided
the Reichstag between those who supported and opposed his policies. Bismarck was able
to get what he wanted through the sheer force of his personality and his ability to
manipulate the German public and his political rivals.4
The Germany that Adolf Hitler came to power in was very different from the one
that Bismarck helped to create. The government that Hitler tried to overthrow was a
democratic republic that had a Reich President as the head of state, rather than the
monarch. The new government was set up under the Weimar Constitution, which
allowed the people to vote for the Reich President directly. The only hint of the
possibility of the formation of a dictatorship within the Weimar Constitution was that the
President could seize both legislative and executive authority in order to gain emergency
power if deemed necessary, but this power could be annulled by the Reichstag. The
Weimar Republic was set up by groups of politicians including some from the Social
Democratic Party, Center Party, and various leftist organizations. Although Germany
initially had trouble adjusting to the Post-war Era, the economic and political situation
had stabilized by 1924.5
Hitler was able to exploit the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic, not because
Bismarck had supported the monarchy in the nineteenth century, but because Hitler
sought power during the turbulent years of the Weimar Era. Hitler exploited the
humiliation of Germany caused by the Treaty of Versailles, to incite Germans to join his
cause. This treaty humiliated the German people, because it limited the size of the

Lerman, Bismarck, 200-202

Wehler, The German Empire, 52-54
Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), 3, 4, 38-41

German Army to ten divisions, removed fortifications, and disallowed an air force. The
treaty also limited the German Navy to six battleships, six light cruisers, and twelve
destroyers. Also, Germany was forced to pay 132 billion gold Marks as war reparations.
Besides hurting the German economy, the reparations helped Hitler criticize the Weimar
government for being weak against foreign powers.6
Another factor in the 1920s and 1930s that allowed for Hitler to come into power
was the faltering of the economy and a political vacuum that occurred. The effects of the
Great Depression were being felt in Germany and by 1932, because there was a rise in
unemployment from 1,368,000 to 6,014,000 people in a short period of time. The Nazis
were able to exploit theses economic issues for political power by blaming socialists,
Jews, and the wealthy for the economic problems Germany faced. The Nazis used the
suffering of small farmers and lower middle-class workers to great political advantage
during their rise to power. The Nazis were able to gain much power through a power
vacuum in 1932, but were capable of seizing authority once they allied themselves with
the political leadership of von Papen and von Hindenburg. The seizure of power by the
Nazis meant that not only was the democratic opposition was forced underground, but
also that other conservative politicians who did not want Hitler as a dictator were forced
out of power.7
Once Hitler seized power, he managed it far differently than the way Bismarck
did. When President Paul von Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the powers of the
Presidents office with that of the Chancellors office, which he held at the time of
Hindenburgs death. This was a blatant violation of the Weimar Constitution and a clear

Peukert, The Weimar Republic, 53

6. The Terms of the Treaty of Versailles, edited by Sax and Kuntz, Inside Hitlers Germany: A
Documentary History of Life in the Third Reich (Lexington: DC Heath, 1992), 47-50
Sax and Kuntz, Inside Hitlers Germany, 66-68, 94

overstepping of Hitlers legal power. The Nazis destroyed all opposition parties and
created an authority that exceeded the power of the judicial system. Hitler and the Nazis
could control or destroy any of Germanys institutions, such as the military. Bismarck
complained that he did not have enough control or power over the military, but Hitler had
fewer problems getting the German Army to obey him completely.8
Germany was brought under the fascist dictatorship of Hitler and Nazi party, not
because of the authoritarianism of Bismarck, but because of the economic and political
situation of the 1930s. Germany lost its democratic virtues in exchange for a dictatorship
in the hopes that a political entity could return Germany to the glory days, but this system
of government was very different from that of the days of the German Reich. Bismarck
was answerable to the monarch and acted as such, but Hitler answered to no one and did
as he pleased, regardless of the consequences.

Honor Code:

Lerman, Bismarck, 150-151

Sax and Kuntz, Inside Hitlers Germany, 129, 159-161