In this week's chapter of the Marxist History series Neil Faulkner looks at how Germany’s ruling elite brought about a bourgeois revolution ‘from above’.
Germany in the middle of the 19th century was divided into 39 separate states. Political unification to create a single national market was the central question on which the future of German capitalism turned.
The attempt to resolve ‘the national question’ by revolution from below had failed in 1848. The Frankfurt Parliament had attempted to unify Germany and impose a liberal constitution by making speeches and passing resolutions. It had been dissolved by the armies of the German states in the counter-revolution of 1849.
The dominant German state was Prussia, and the dominant class in Prussia was the Junker landowning aristocracy.
By origin a class of Teutonic crusader knights who had settled on conquered Slav land in the eastern part of the North German Plain, the Junkers’ social evolution since had been shaped by three factors.
First, because the land they farmed was of marginal fertility, the returns on their estates were meagre and the Junkers were, as aristocrats go, relatively poor. Marx dubbed them ‘cabbage-Junkers’.
Second, their territory was wide open to attack. Germany occupies a central position in Europe, yet lacks clear natural frontiers, especially in the East, where the North German Plain merges into the great open spaces of Poland and European Russia.
Third, Germany as a whole was politically divided – the 39 states of the 19th century had numbered no less than 300 in the 17th and 18th centuries – making Germany one of the three main cockpits of European warfare throughout this period (the others were Belgium and Northern Italy).
Prussia was a product of these three factors. During the 18th century, King Frederick the Great (1740-1786) had turned Prussia into a military barracks: the Sparta of Europe.
Five-sixths of state spending was devoted to war. Mass conscription raised an army of 150,000. And the Junkers became an elite officer-caste, defined by landownership and state service, deeply loyal to the absolute monarchy which guaranteed their property, privilege, and power.
The Prussian Junkers were the black heart of the German counter-revolution which crushed the ‘Forty-Eighters’.
But the world was changing ways that cabbage-Junkers could not control. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the economic, social, and military geography of Europe.
The first railways were constructed in the mid 1830s, and by 1850 some 14,500 miles of track had been laid altogether. The military significance of the new technology was obvious: railways could move troops from one theatre to another in a fraction of the time taken to march. Junkers did not need parliaments, but they did need railways.
In 1815, as part of the reordering of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, Prussia had been granted the Rhineland – the region that was fast becoming Germany’s industrial powerhouse.
Though the Rhineland revolutionaries – including Karl Marx and Frederick Engels – had been defeated in 1849, the Junker state’s military power was increasingly dependent on the region’s mines, steelworks, and engineering plants.
One lesson of 1848 was that the new social classes of the industrial era – the bourgeoisie, the middle class, and the proletariat – could not for long be accommodated inside a divided Germany ruled by a hotchpotch of semi-feudal potentates. The question was whether national-economic unification could be engineered from above as an alternative to popular revolution from below.
When the Junker aristocrat Otto von Bismarck was appointed Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862, the historic mission he set himself was to save his class by placing the dynamic forces of nascent German capitalism at the service of the Prussian military monarchy.
Instead of the bourgeois revolution bursting its medieval shell, Prussia would be reconstructed as ‘a feudal turret on a capitalist base’ (as Trotsky later put it). Instead of the great questions of the day being settled by ‘speeches and the resolutions of majorities’, they would be resolved by ‘blood and iron’ (as Bismarck put it at the time).
Instead of the French model – armed insurrection, burning mansions, the shadow of the guillotine – there would be the Prussian: revolution from above by the conscripts and cannon of a royal army.
Bismarck’s programme was accomplished in three lightning wars. The 1864 war against Denmark over the status of two disputed provinces placed the King of Prussia at the head of the German national movement.
The 1866 war against Austria – the prospective alternative hegemonic power – destroyed Habsburg influence in Germany and created a new Prussian-dominated North German Confederation.
And the 1870-1871 war against France – the traditional enemy – brought the smaller German states, more or less willingly, into a new Prussian-dominated empire.
In effect, during these seven years, Prussia conquered Germany. The new order was inaugurated by an act of calculated political theatre. The King of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at a grand ceremony in the Palace of Versailles on 18 January 1871. The Junker king, in the captured capital of the enemy, wrapped himself in the flag of modern German nationalism.
The politico-military triumph of 1871 was followed by 40 years of rapid industrialisation. Between 1870 and 1914, German coal production increased from 34 to 277 million tons, pig-iron production from 1.3 to 14.7 million, and steel production from 0.3 to 14 million.
The Krupp complex of steelworks and arms factories at Essen in the Ruhr became the biggest industrial enterprise in Europe, employing 16,000 workers in 1873, 45,000 in 1900, and 70,000 in 1912.
Industrial expansion was made possible by bank credit, state contracts, and protective tariffs. The total deposits held by large German banks increased by 40% in the five years between 1907-1908 and 1912-1913. Banks lent the funds for industrial investment and became major holders of industrial stock.
State expenditure on railways and armaments underpinned the industrial boom. The biggest state enterprise – the Prussian State Railway Administration – was the same size as the biggest private corporation – the Deutsche Bank. Government spending on the army and the navy increased ten-fold between 1870 and 1914.
In 1879, Germany introduced the first of a series of new tariffs – essentially taxes on imports designed to raise the price of foreign goods on the home market and thereby ‘protect’ domestic industries. By 1914, Germany was charging an average of 13% on foreign imports.
Britain, the dominant global economy in the middle of the 19th century, was overtaken by Germany in the early 20th. German coal production almost equalled that of Britain by 1914, while pig-iron production was a third higher, and steel production fully twice as much.
The advance of German capitalism in the new chemical and electrical industries was yet more pronounced. By 1914, German firms dominated global production of synthetic dyes, and were selling nearly half the world’s electrical goods.
Germany’s bourgeois revolution ‘from above’ – one carried out by an absolute monarch, aristocratic officers, and peasant conscripts – had unleashed a breakneck industrial transformation. The effect was to destabilise both German society and the European state system.
Prussian Junkers and Rhineland capitalists formed an uneasy political alliance based on their mutual interdependence. The fast-growing German working class, on the other hand, constituted a mortal threat to the entire social order.
At the same time, German capitalism’s increasing need for raw materials, new markets, and investment outlets brought it into conflict with other European powers – above all, with Britain, the dominant global imperial power.
A quarter of a century after the Franco-Prussian War, these two conflicts – the class struggle at home and the imperialist struggle abroad – were propelling the new Germany towards a cataclysmic crisis.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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