‘The Wilhelmine Germany was an entrenched authoritarian state’. How far do you agree with this judgement?
The question of whether Wilhelmine Germany was an entrenched authoritarian state has been the subject of much debate. Those who have argued that it was have pointed mainly to the constitutional balance of powers to substantiate this view, which indeed appeared to give the Kaiser nearly complete authority over German politics. Some historians such as Wehler have offered an alternate version of the argument that Germany was ‘authoritarian’ by suggesting that it was in fact elites, such as the army and judiciary, who controlled German politics. However, other structuralists have argued that mass political movements were consistently growing throughout the period, and did in fact have influence over politics, and as such if Germany was to some extent authoritarian, this authoritarianism was by no means entrenched. In this essay I will discuss these interpretations, offering the view that Germany was ‘entrenched’ under the rule of elites (of which the Kaiser was a member), but was not completely authoritarian.
The view that Wilhelm II was the key player in the politics of the Kaiserreich, the ‘personal rule’ view, was presented by historians such as Roehl. The Kaiser’s constitutional powers show that he certainly had the legal authority to be an authoritarian leader. He could appoint and dismiss the Chancellor, dissolve the Reichstag with the consent of the Bundesrat, direct Germany’s foreign policy and command all armed forces. In turn, although the Reichstag was superficially progressive, as it was elected by all males over the age of 25 by secret ballot and the Chancellor and state secretaries could not be members, the Chancellor and imperial government were not accountable to it, meaning that any proposals it discussed could effectively be ignored. This suggests that the Kaiser could make any changes he wanted. However, this was not strictly the...
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