The Platform

Proclamation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles, by Anton von Werner. (Wikimedia)

Germany’s liberal movement has had its ups and downs.

In the 19th century, the liberal movement in Prussia had a promising opportunity to establish itself as a dominant political force. By 1860, their presence in parliament had grown significantly, leading many to believe that the king would eventually be compelled to grant a constitution based on the British model. This would have paved the way for a liberal German constitutional state.

However, the rise of Otto von Bismarck, a skillful politician from the old guard, presented a challenge for the liberals. Bismarck skillfully maneuvered the power struggle between the monarchy and the liberal parliamentarians to his advantage. Some liberals, captivated by his successful power politics, aligned themselves with Bismarck, even though his vision of a unified nation-state did not align with their aspirations of a free constitutional state.

This division within the liberal camp made them susceptible to manipulation by Bismarck, revealing that the centrifugal forces within the liberal movement were stronger than the cohesive forces of their ideals. In 1866, the German Progressive Party split into two factions: the right-wing National Liberal Party and the left-wing faction that retained the name German Progressive Party. After Bismarck’s conservative turn in the late 1870s, marked by policies like protective tariffs, the National Liberals further split into left and right wings. The right-wing aligned tactically with the conservatives, forming a coalition that Bismarck temporarily ruled with.

Meanwhile, the left-wing of the National Liberals, known as free traders, formed a group called the Secessionists around Ludwig Bamberger, a prominent but largely forgotten German liberal. Several years later, in the mid-1880s, the Secessionists merged with the progressives to form the German Free-minded Party. However, this party also experienced subsequent splits, becoming a recurring pattern with the emergence of left and right-wing factions.

Given the deep divide within the movement, it is somewhat remarkable that the Free Democratic Party (FDP) remains the only liberal party in Germany today. The fragmentation of German liberalism far surpasses the divisions seen in the labor movement. The liberals missed an opportunity for resurgence during the Weimar Republic due to the irreconcilable differences between left-wing and right-wing factions. This internal division resulted in a loss of appeal for the liberals.

Towards the end of the Weimar Republic, around 1932, both liberal parties, the German People’s Party, and the German State Party, garnered only about one percent of the voters each. These parties were essentially splinter groups, with no representation in the Reichstag had there been a five percent threshold. The flame that once burned brightly for German liberalism had extinguished, as the inner convictions of liberalism proved weaker than national sentiment and resentment. The ultimate culmination of this decline was the approval of Adolph Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933, with the remaining liberal members of the Reichstag, including Theodor Heuss, bowing to Hitler’s will and giving the dictatorship free reign.

Following Nazi Germany’s defeat, the Federal Republic of Germany established a moderately liberal social market economy. The FDP, despite its origins as a peculiar mix of various sentiments, managed to evolve into a genuine liberal force in the country. The FDP benefited greatly from the intellectual unrest of the 1960s and the student movement, attracting bright minds determined to overcome the historical dilemmas of German liberalism.

These new liberal intellectuals, such as Ralf Dahrendorf, Werner Maihofer, and Karl-Hermann Flach, spearheaded a shift towards a social-liberal coalition in 1969, under the leadership of Walter Scheel. 1971 marked a turning point where the FDP embraced a modern social-liberal identity. This repositioning was seen as a return to the spiritual roots of liberalism in Germany, as the FDP recognized the social obligation of property and emphasized its role in promoting freedom.

The FDP played a pivotal role in driving social reforms, even more so than its grand coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). With a commitment to safeguarding civil liberties against state paternalism and economic dominance, the FDP represented the modern bourgeoisie and offered conceptual superiority over the two major parties. Notably, the FDP was among the first political parties to prioritize environmental protection.

However, the heyday of political liberalism in Germany was short-lived. The challenges of practical politics overwhelmed leaders like Dahrendorf and Maihofer, while the untimely death of Karl-Hermann Flach in 1973 at the age of 43 further disrupted the movement. Before the social-liberal synthesis of liberalism could take root, the economically liberal faction within the FDP initiated a shift in direction in 1977, which marked its gradual decline.

Eva Kneifel is studying Politics and History at FernUniversität Campus Hagen.