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Otto von Bismarck The Welfare State

The Welfare State (1884)

Otto von Bismarck

Bismarck’s diplomatic achievements as Chancellor of Germany easier to achieve than the internal unity of the newly created German Reich (state/empire). Bismarck was eventually forced to abandon a campaign against the Catholic Church that dominated the southern German states. He was also faced with the threat of a growing Marxist-Socialist movement. To ensure worker support for his government, Bismarck created the first “welfare state,” providing workers with sickness, accident, and old age insurance. This undermined the appeal of the Socialist Party while enlisting the masses in support of Bismarck’s policies. In this speech to the Reichstag (legislature), Bismarck justified his reforms as Christian rather than socialist. Was this another example of Realpolitik?

We have bestirred ourselves to improve the laborers' position in three directions. One, at a time when opportunity for work is slight and wages have become low, we have taken the necessary steps to protect work in our native land against competition; in other words, we have introduced protective tariffs to protect domestic labor. As a result of these measures, a real improvement of wages and a diminution of unemployment has taken place. Since then, work has reappeared more and more, and you trouble yourself in vain in seeking other grounds for that. On the contrary, I believe this event must have a considerable effect in the quietening down of socialist efforts. . . .

A second plan, which is in the government's mind, is the improvement of tax conditions, in that a fit division of them is sought, by which particularly oppressive [sales taxes] on account of small amounts are, if not eliminated, then, at least, decreased, which perhaps will lead to a further decrease. [Sales taxes] have earlier destroyed and broken down many small individuals in the working class and the few groschen [pennies] which they brought in taxes at the stipulated time also often were the reason why a family, which did not stand right on the lowest rung of affluence, was thrown back into want. . . .

The third branch of reforms, which we strive for, lies in direct provision for the workers. The question of labor time and wage increases is extraordinarily difficult to solve through state intervention, through legislation at all; for in any settlement that one makes, one runs the danger of interfering very considerably and unnecessarily in the personal freedom of getting value for one's services. . . . Then the worker suffers from that as well as the entrepreneur. That therefore is the governing borderline, and every legislative intervention must stop before that. . . . The workers' real sore point is the insecurity of his existence. He is not always sure he will always have work. He is not sure he will always be healthy, and he foresees some day he will be old and incapable of work. But also if he falls into poverty as a result of long illness, he is completely helpless with his own powers, and society hitherto does not recognize a real obligation to him beyond ordinary poor relief, even when he has worked ever so faithfully and diligently before. But ordinary poor relief leaves much to be desired, especially in the great cities where it is extraordinarily much worse than in the country. . . . We read in Berlin newspapers of suicide because of difficulty in making both ends meet, of people who died from direct hunger and have hanged themselves because they have nothing to eat, of people who announce in the paper they were tossed out homeless and have no income. . . .

For the worker it is always a fact that falling into poverty and onto poor relief in a great city is synonymous with misery, and this insecurity makes him hostile and mistrustful of society. That is humanly not unnatural, and as long as the state does not meet him halfway, just as long will this trust in the state's honesty be taken from him by accusations against the government, which he will find where he wills; always running back again to the socialist quacks . . . and, without great reflection, letting himself be promised things, which will not be fulfilled. On this account, I believe that accident insurance, with which we show the way, especially as soon as it covers agriculture completely, the construction industry above all, and all trades, will still work amelioratingly on the anxieties and ill-feeling of the working class. . . .

We derive our right to let the exceptional law continue from duty and from the fulfillment of the duty of Christian legislation. On the Progressive side, you call it "socialist legislation"; I prefer the term "Christian." At the time of the Apostles, socialism went very much further still. If perhaps you will read the Bible once, you will find out various things about it in the Acts of the Apostles. I don't go as far in our own times. But I get the courage for repressive measures only from my good intention of working to the end that, so far as a Christian-minded state society may do it, the real grievances, the real hardships of fate, about which the workers have to complain, will be alleviated and will be redressed.


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