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Parliamentarization and the Question of German Exceptionalism: 1867–1918

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Marcus Kreuzer
Villanova University


In a contribution to this journal, Volker Berghahn regretted the fragmentation and lack of focus in the recent research on the German Empire. While he may have overstated his case, his criticism certainly applies to the historiography of Germany's parliamentarization. The dearth of research, especially of recent vintage, has left the debate about the exceptionalism of Germany's governing institutions indeed “fragmented and decentered.” Since Manfred Rauh's two volumes in the 1970s, little has been published. His thesis about Germany's silent parliamentarization has been attacked, it seems, more for the haughtiness of its footnotes than the substance of its argument. As a result, Rauh's provocative interpretation coexists far too quietly with other accounts, and thereby preempts the sort of dialogue and scholarly integration Berghahn so misses. In her response to Berghahn, Margaret Anderson points out that such a dialogue can be found in, without being confined to, the new work of Germany's electoral politics, that looked anew and more skeptically at the exceptional political development of Imperial Germany. Its findings indirectly raise questions about why the development of Germany's governing institutions — the Reichstag, the Bundersat, and the chancellor — continue to be interpreted in much more exceptionalist terms than the evolution of electoral politics.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 2003

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An earlier and shorter version of this paper, “Und sie parlamentarisiert sich doch: Die Enrwicklung der kaiserlichen Verfassungsordnung in vergleichender Perspektive” has been published in Parlamentarismus in Europa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Recker, Marie-Luise (Munich, forthcoming 2003)Google Scholar. I would like to thank Marie-Luise Recker, Gerhard A. Ritter, and Christoph Schönberger for their comments. As usual, Margaret L. Anderson's copious and thoughtful suggestions helped vastly to improve my argument.

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6. In his review article, Thomas Kühne conies to a similar conclusion. “The majority of monographs focus attention on the pathological aspects of Germany's parliamentary history.” However, he cites a number of more recent studies focusing on state legislatures that “point to relativization of the Sonderweg thesis.” Kühne, Thomas, “Parlamentarismusgeschichte in Deutschland: Probleme, Erträge und Perspektiven einer Gesamtdarstellung”, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 24, no. 2 (1998): 325, 27Google Scholar.

7. Space limitations permit me to review only works dealing with or touching on the Reichstag and Bundesrat between 1871–1918. I therefore do not survey studies dealing with state legislatures or national legislatures before and after the Kaiserreich. This literature is reviewed by Kühne, see n. 6.

8. The work of these scholars is well summarized by Langewiesche, Dieter, “Das deutsche Kaiserreich — Bemerkungen zur Diskussion über Parlamentarisierung und Demokratisierung Deutschlands”, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 19 (1979): 628–29Google Scholar.

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16. Blackbourn and Eley make a heretofore largely unheeded pitch for cross-national comparison. Blackbourn and Eley, The Peculiarities, 11.

17. The only parliamentarization scholar to depart from this Anglocentrism is Schönberger, “Die überholte Parlamentarisierung”, 650–62. For the benefits of a more comparative perspective yield, see Anderson, Practicing Democracy.

18. Scholars like Barrington Moore or Gregory Luebbert, who look at the social-economic foundations of modern democracy, have long pointed out that there are multiple paths of political development. Luebbert, Gregory, Liberalism, Fascism or Social Democracy (New York, 1991)Google Scholar; Moore, Barrington, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston, 1966)Google Scholar.

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23. Schönberger extends the same mistake to the Weimar Republic. He argues that the Weimar president's prerogative to nominate the chancellor constituted a violation of parliamentary sovereignty, what he calls negative parliamentarism. Schönberger, “Die überholte Parlamentarisierung”, 640. Weimar, however, was in no way a negative, inferior, or otherwise compromised form of parliamentarism. It was instead a semi-presidential system in which it was perfectly legitimate for presidents to have a say in government formation. Once Weimar is judged as a semi-presidential system rather than a parliamentary system, its characterization as negative parliamentarism does not make much sense. Sartori, Giovanni, Comparative Constitutional Engineering (New York, 1994), 128–29Google Scholar.

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26. In many instances these rules are not constitutionally codified but have evolved from longstanding practices to become extraconstitutional norms. Winter, Lieven de, “The Role of Parliament in Government Formation and Resignation”, in Parliaments and Majority Rule in Western Europe, ed. Döring, Herbert (New York, 1995), 122–23Google Scholar.

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30. Still, this comparison raises the question why historians preclude presidential option for Germany's political development rather than focusing solely on extending parliamentary sovereignty over government formation. The obvious answer might be that presidential systems, with their strong, highly personalized executive, would have been constitutionally incompatible with a monarchy. Still, given Weimar's semi-presidential constitution, historians could defend their focus on parliamentarization more effectively by rejecting more explicitly the presidential alternative.

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39. To some readers Table 3 seems to make the common sense-defying assertion that the Reichstag was more powerful than the current Bundestag. This assertion holds only for strictly formal agenda-setting powers. Once the formal powers of government formation and noninstitutional factors like party cohesion, parliamentary norms, or societal polarization are factored in, the Bundestag clearly becomes the more powerful legislature. The Bundestag's limited agenda-setting powers are stressed, however, in various studies. von Beyme, Klaus, “The Role of Deputies in West Germany”, in Parliaments and Parliamentarians in Democratic Politics, ed. Suleiman, Ezra (New York, 1986)Google Scholar; Saalfeld, Thomas, “The West German Bundestag after 40 Years: The Role of Parliament in a ‘Party Democracy’”, West European Politics 13, no. 3 (1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schüttemeyer, Suzanne, “Hierarchy and Efficiency in the Bundestag: The German Answer for Institutionalizing Parliament”, in Parliaments and the Modern World, ed. Copeland, Gary and Patterson, Samuel (Ann Arbor, 1994)Google Scholar.

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47. No major study of either the Reichstag or Bundesrat has been published since Rauh, Die Parlamentartsierung. Rauh's work was followed by a number of studies on state legislatures but the last one to appear was in 1987. Kühne, “Parlamentarismusgeschichte”, 355.

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66. The related issue of politicians' constitutional preferences for parliamentary government over the existing or alternative constitutional arrangements is taken up in the conclusion.

67. This might explain the dearth of systematic studies devoted to them. Kühne, “Parlamentarismusgeschichte”, 325.

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77. I would like to thank Christoph Schönberger and Margaret Anderson for insisting that I address this point more clearly.

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83. Schönberger, “Die überholte Parlamentarisierung.” Consociational democracy refers to the governing institutions and practices employed at varying times in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. These democracies are characterized by proportional interest representation, checks and balances, oversized coalitions and extraconstitutional elite bargaining aimed at securing consensual decision-making. Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy; Lijphart, “Typologies.”

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101. The relevant literature is surveyed and this theme further developed in Kreuzer, , Institutions, 122Google Scholar.