Reichstag


Reichstag
   Established by the constitution of April 16, 1871, the Reichstag was the popularly elected lower house of the legislature of the German Empire. Although the chancellor and the state secretaries were not responsible to the national assembly and the institution was thus seriously flawed from its inception, its deputies wielded nevertheless considerable power when it came to the elaboration of the budget. Modeled with a few minor adaptations on the constitution of the German Confederation from July 1, 1867, and on the former Zollparlament, the parliament of the members of the Zollverein , the Reichstag disposed of the essential power of the purse. As the time where government could reign by decree was definitely over, the executive’s dependence on the legislature and the resulting bargaining power of the Reichstag should not be underestimated. Moreover, the monarch had the right to convoke and prorogue Parliament, but no right to veto its decisions. On the other hand, both contemporary commentators and historians have stressed the Reichstag’s weakness compared to the mighty position of the British House of Commons and the French Assemblé Nationale . The assembly’s functions were indeed subject to substantial restraints. Its budgetary powers were constricted when it came to military spending, the lion’s share of the Reich ’s expenditure. Searching for a compromise between the demands of the representatives of the people and the postulations of the army, it was finally agreed that parliament would decide only every seven years on laws concerning the costs of the military. Although the Reichstag was in a position to veto any bill, it needed to secure the approval of the federal Bundesrat to actually make a law. Also, its controlling powers were gravely hampered by the actuality that the Reichstag did not dispose of a vote of confi-dence. The most formidable threat to the chamber’s independence, however, was a dissolution mechanism laid down in the constitution stipulating that a resolution of the Bundesrat sanctioned by the Emperor sufficed to dissolve the Reichstag. In stark contrast to most other European states, the constitution of 1871 introduced universal manhood suffrage including a secret ballot. Elections were held according to the electoral law of 1871, which provided for a majority system in single member constituencies. In spite of accelerating migration to the cities, however, the constituencies were never adapted to population shifts. As a consequence, in 1912 the smallest constituency consisted of 50,000 inhabitants, and the biggest constituency counted more than a million heads. This amounted to a gross discrimination of the left-leaning conurbations to the advantage of the more conservative rural areas. The antiparliamentarian roadblocks of the 1871 constitution ensured that no member of the Reichstag ever became part of the government. Although the chancellor depended on the support of the chamber’s majority to pass legislation, a stable and reliable coalition of parties that supported the government seldom existed. Otto von Bismarck was disdainful of parliamentarianism, and bitter confrontations between government and Reichstag factions occurred frequently, especially with the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center Party.
   With the extension of the modern state and a general centralizing tendency, the influence of the Reichstag nevertheless grew. Increasingly, the government began to form previews on important legislative proposals with the major party leaders before introducing the bill in the Bundesrat. Although the Reichstag visibly gained in importance, the kaiser and successive chancellors continued to prevent its members from deciding on pivotal matters, most notably in military affairs and foreign policy.
   FURTHER READING:
    Brandt, Hartwig. Der lange Weg in die demokratische Moderne. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998;
    Cullen, Michael S. The Reichstag: German Parliament between Monarchy and Federalism. Berlin: Bebra, 1999;
    Schnabel, Franz. Deutsche Geschichte im 19. Jahrhundert. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1987;
    Stürmer, Michael. Das ruhelose Reich. Deutschland 1866–1918. Berlin: Siedler, 1983;
    Willoweit, Dietmar. Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte. Munich: Beck, 2004.
   ULRICH SCHNAKENBERG

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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