German democracy?

Of all the contributions to the Gove-inspired debate about the First World war, perhaps the funniest is Seumas Milne’s rant in the Guardian, which furiously attacks Michael Gove’s notion that the Britain of 1914 was a country worth fighting for.

The idea that Britain and its allies were defending liberal democracy, let alone international law or the rights of small nations, is simply absurd.

The proof of this is that the Kaiser’s Germany, unlike Britain ‘already had full male suffrage.’
He does not mention that the powers of the elected Reichstag were rather small. For example, it was the Kaiser alone who appointed and dismissed Reich officals, including the chancellor. He was also was commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and in times of national emergency, had the right to temporarily suspend the rule of law and govern dictatorially. And he alone, with no reference to any democratically-elected assembly, could determine questions of war and peace.
The main power of the Reichstag was that its approval was necessary for any new laws.
Karl Liebknecht called the Reichstag, with some justification, ‘the fig-leaf covering the nakedness of absolutism’.
Does Seumas Milne not know this? Or is it just that any stick will do to beat Michael Gove with?

3 Comments

  1. Alan Allport
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Also: it’s hard to see how a German victory would have been anything other than disastrous for the progressive/democratic elements in German society. It would have given the militarist reactionaries an enormous boost in prestige, the victory seeming to delegitimize the Social Democrats who had traitorously (sic) wavered in their commitment to the cause. A victorious Germany would have been a much nastier country than it had been in 1914.

    Once the war began – certainly by 1916 – there were only two ways it was going to end for the Germans: either with a Hindenburg peace or a Scheidemann peace.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Actually, Milne’s comment about German suffrage is very much a throwaway remark, merely pointing out that it was a much wider franchise than the British one. Neither country was much of a democracy, both ruled by elites

  3. Posted January 11, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Professor Richard Evans pulls the same rhetorical sleight in a Guardian article (online for a while, I think, but reprinted in the paper version today:

    ‘Britain wasn’t a democracy at the time either: until the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, 40% of adult males didn’t have the vote, in contrast to Germany, where every adult man had the right to go to the ballot box in national elections.’

    Britain was a democracy, albeit with a limited franchise (limited mostly to male householders). The electorate could and did remove governments. This could not happen in Germany, which was an autocracy with some democratic institutions, of decidedly limited power.


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