How democratic was Imperial Germany? How much power did the Reichstag actually have? How did the Imperial German government compare to other contemporary democracies?

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3 Answers 3


The Reichstag was the Parliament of the German Empire from 1871- 1918. It had less force than government, but still was very powerful. The legislature was bicameral; the two houses were the Reichstag and Bundesrat. After the Parliament of United Kingdom, the Reichstag was one of the most progressive parliaments in Europe.

Members of the Reichstag were elected by general,universal and secret ballot. All men over 25 years were allowed to vote. The Reichstag didn't have official rights to assign or disband government, and Parliament was opened once each year by the emperor. The Reichstag had rights to co-decide about the empire's budget. In order to dissolve Parliament, the decision had to be confirmed by the Bundesrat and the emperor. Then the new Parliament had to be chosen within a 60-day period, which indicates the high level of democracy in Imperial Germany.

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    But ministers were answerable to the Emperor, served at his will and appointed by the Emperor, not responsible to parliament. The Government administration by ministers was pretty removed the Reichstag and not answerable to it.
    – pugsville
    Jun 10, 2014 at 8:41
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    Do you mean the Parliament of the United Kingdom? The Parliament of England ceased to exist in 1707. Jun 10, 2014 at 9:52
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    It's a good start but a deeper analysis is needed. +1 Jun 10, 2014 at 10:25
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    @fdb nice in theory, but in practice the Queen will appoint a cabinet consisting of the majority party in parliament as elected in the general election (she doesn't have to, but refusing to do so would likely mean new elections very quickly).
    – jwenting
    Jun 10, 2014 at 12:37
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    The Ministers were not responsible to the Reichstag, (and military budgets were approved years in advance) The Reichstag votes had very very very little effect on policy,
    – pugsville
    Jun 13, 2014 at 5:08

Imperial Germany was NOT a democracy:

  • Only the Reichstag was elected by the people. The Bundesrat, the second chamber of the legislative, had its delegates picked by the governments of the states who nearly all reported only to the local duke or king. The Reichsregierung (administration) reported to the Emperor alone.

  • The election districts of Reichstag were not changed with population movement. Depopulated conservative rural districts sent one representative, and overpopulated industrial districts sent one.

  • The Reichstag was needed to pass laws and a budget. But the major part of the budget, defense, was passed in long multi-year stretches, reducing the times when Reichstag could demand more power.

  • All foreign policy, including the right to make foreign treaties and to declare war, was reserved to the Emperor.

  • Much power remained with the states, especially the largest, Prussia. Executive in Prussia reported to Emperor alone who was also king of Prussia. Legislature of Prussia was elected in unequal elections: voting power went with size of one's taxes.

After WW I started, much of the actual power went to the leadership of the military, especially after the appointment of General Ludendorff. The heads of the states and the civilian administrations were the losers. The Reichstag, however, kept its small rights and became the only check on the military, but a weak one. The Reichstag forced the resignation of Reichskanzler Bethman-Hollweg, but Ludendorff chose successor, Michaelis. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Ludendorff , The historian Frank Tipton argues that while not technically a dictator, Ludendorff was "unquestionably the most powerful man in Germany" in 1917–18.[31] from Reference [31] = Tipton, Frank B. A History of Modern Germany University of California Press, 2003, p. 313

Others have compared Imperial Germany with Britain. But in Britain, the habits and thoughts of parliamentarism had won by 1912: the Crown and House of Lords were ornaments, not centers of power anymore. It's possible that imperial Germany would have followed the same path later, albeit it didn't in this universe.

  • The Bundesrat (not Reichsrat) represented the individual states (mostly the Prime Minister of each state) and is not comparable to the House of Lords. The same is true today, since Germany then as now, was a federation of states. Apr 3, 2020 at 8:13
  • Bundesrat is correct - I assumed the name Bundesrat ended with the Norddeutscher Bund, but it was kept. Yes, it is not comparable at all with the House of Lords. The Bundesrat is similar to today BUT the governments of the states are elected democratically today and not appointed by the kings and dukes of Imperial Germany. I'm not sure now, but I would assume that only the Bundesrat delegates of the Hanseatic Cities were appointed by a somehow republican government.
    – Peter T
    Apr 3, 2020 at 8:21
  • The original name of the country was indended to be Deutschen Bundes. Deutsches Reich was chosen on the 6th of December 1870 as a last minute change. The prefix Reich, instead of Bund (Federal), was replaced between April and May 1871. Bundesrat was retained, since it was a purly Federal institution. Apr 3, 2020 at 8:38
  • Please document your claim: After WW I started, much of the actual power went to the leadership of the military. Since The office of the Reichskanzler was appointed and answerable to the Emperor before and after 1914, the national government itself did not change until November 1917 when the first Reichkanzler was appointed by a majority in the Reichstag. The military leadership, were after all, busy elsewhere. So where this claim comes from should be clarified by sources. So in this universe the transition started in November 1917. Apr 3, 2020 at 9:18
  • Reichstag protested against Reichskanzler Bethman-Hollweg in July 2017, but it was military leadership who chose his replacement, Georg Michaelis, showing its power. Michaelis in turn resigned November 2017 and was replaced by von Hertling who turned out to be weak, too, and was replaced in October 2018. Military leadership kept its power until September 2018 when Ludendorff realized the war was lost and demanded a surrender performed by the parties in the Reichstag. Yes, November 2017 could have started a transition to a parliamentary monarchy as Britain, but the war events prevented it.
    – Peter T
    Apr 4, 2020 at 4:53

Just to stick to the comparison of Germany and Britain: The German empire and the British empire were both constitutional monarchies, with elected parliaments, legal opposition parties, relatively free press, etc. The German emperor probably intervened more in the running of the state than the British monarch. On the other hand, Britain had much more extensive colonies than Germany with the result that a very much larger portion of the subjects of the British empire were disenfranchised than was the case wth Germany.

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    "The German emperor probably intervened more" - that's a really serious understatement. Jun 10, 2014 at 18:12
  • Perhaps, but maybe you would like to reply to my second point.
    – fdb
    Jun 10, 2014 at 19:30
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    The second point is not very relevant, I think. Nobody in the 19th century thought that native people in the colonies were somehow entitled to be part of the metropoly's body politic. Therefore, it makes little difference for the compariosn how many colonies a nation had - we are comparing the democraticness of the home governments, not their colonial policies. Jun 11, 2014 at 5:41
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    By all means, open a new question. Btw, women's suffrage was promulgated not by Imperial Germany but by the revolutionaries who brought it down... Jun 11, 2014 at 21:05
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    @FelixGoldberg For Wilhelm II indeed but it seems that Wilhelm I didn't intervene that much, and it was rather Otto von Bismarck who was the actual ruler during his reign. Should Imperial German Empire have lasted longer with the same institution, we might have seen other monarch who were lest intervening.
    – Bregalad
    Apr 4, 2020 at 9:54

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