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Omnipotent Government
by Ludwig von Mises



I. The Prussian Army in the New German Empire

In the late afternoon of September 1, 1870, King William I, surrounded by a pompous staff of princes and generals, was looking down from a hill south of the Meuse at the battle in progress, when an officer brought the news that the capitula­tion of Napoleon III and his whole army was imminent. Then Moltke turned to Count Falkenberg, who like himself was a mem­ber of the Parliament of Northern Germany, and remarked: "Well, dear colleague, what happened today settles our military problem for a long time." And Bismarck shook hands with the highest of the German princes, the heir to the throne of Württemberg, and said: "This day safeguards and strengthens the German princes and the principles of conservatism."[i]In the hour of overwhelming victory these were the first reactions of Prussia's two foremost states­men. They triumphed because they had defeated liberalism. They did not care a whit for the catchwords of the official propaganda: conquest of the hereditary foe, safeguarding the nation's frontiers, historical mission of the house of Hohenzollern and of Prussia, unification of Germany, Germany foremost in the world. The princes had overthrown their own people; this alone seemed im­portant to them.

In the new German Reich the Emperor—not in his position as Emperor but in his position as King of Prussia—had full control of the Prussian Army. Special agreements which Prussia—not the Reich—had concluded with 23 of the other 24 member states of the Reich incorporated the armed forces of these states into the Prussian Army. Only the royal Bavarian Army retained some lim­ited peacetime independence, but in the event of war it too was subject to full control by the Emperor. The provisions concerning recruiting and the length of active military service had to be fixed by the Reichstag; parliamentary consent was required, moreover, for the budgetary allowance for the army. But the Parliament had no influence over the management of military affairs. The army was the army of the King of Prussia, not of the people or the Parlia­ment. The Emperor and King was Supreme War Lord and com­mander in chief. The chief of the Great General Staff was the Kaiser's first assistant in the conduct of operations. The army was an institution not within but above the apparatus of civil adminis­tration. Every military commander had the right and the duty to interfere whenever he felt that the working of the nonmilitary ad­ministration was unsatisfactory. He had to account for his inter­ference to the Emperor only. Once, in 1913, a case of such military interference, which had occurred in Zabern, led to a violent debate in Parliament; but Parliament had no jurisdiction over the matter, and the army triumphed.

The reliability of this army was unquestionable. No one could doubt that all parts of the forces could be used to quell rebellions and revolutions. The mere suggestion that a detachment could refuse to obey an order, or that men of the reserve when called to active duty might stay out, would have been considered an absurd­ity. The German nation had changed in a very remarkable way. We shall consider later the essence and cause of this great trans­formation. The main political problem of the 1850s and early 1860s, the problem of the reliability of the soldiers, had vanished. All German soldiers were now unconditionally loyal to the Su­preme War Lord. The army was an instrument which the Kaiser could trust. Tactful persons were judicious enough not to point out explicitly that this army was ready to be used against a potential domestic foe. But to William II such inhibitions were strange. He openly told his recruits that it was their duty to fire upon their fathers, mothers, brothers, or sisters if he ordered them to do so. Such speeches were criticized in the liberal press; but the liberals were powerless. The allegiance of the soldiers was absolute; it no longer depended on the length of active service. The army itself proposed in 1892 that the infantry return to two years of active duty only. In the discussion of this bill in Parliament and in the press there was no longer any question of the political reliability of the soldiers. Everybody knew that the army was now, without any regard to the length of active service, "nonpolitical and nonparti­san," i.e., a docile and manageable tool in the hands of the Em­peror.

The government and the Reichstag quarreled continuously about military affairs. But considerations of the usefulness of the forces for the preservation of the hardly disguised imperial despot­ism did not play any role at all. The army was so strong and reliable that a revolutionary attempt could be crushed within a few hours. Nobody in the Reich wanted to start a revolution; the spirit of resistance and rebellion had faded. The Reichstag would have been prepared to consent to any expenditure for the army proposed by the government if the problem of raising the necessary funds had not been difficult to solve. In the end the army and navy always got the money that the General Staff asked for. To the increase of the armed forces financial considerations were a smaller obstacle than the shortage of the supply of men whom the generals considered eligible for commissions on active duty. With the expansion of the armed forces it had long become impossible to give commissions to noblemen only. The number of nonaristocratic officers steadily grew. But the generals were not ready to admit into the ranks of commissioned officers on active duty any but those commoners of "good and wealthy families." Applicants of this type were available only in limited numbers. Most of the sons of the upper middle class preferred other careers. They were not eager to become professional officers and to be treated with disdain by their aristocratic col­leagues.

Both the Reichstag and the liberal press time and again criticized the government's military policy also from the technical point of view. The General Staff was strongly opposed to such civilian interference. They denied to everybody but the army any com­prehension of military problems. Even Hans Delbrück, the emi­nent historian of warfare and author of excellent strategical dis­sertations, was for them only a layman. Officers in retirement, who contributed to the opposition press, were called biased partisans. Public opinion at last acknowledged the General Staff's claim to infallibility, and all critics were silenced. Events of World War I proved, of course, that these critics had a better grasp of military methods than the specialists of the General Staff.

2. German Militarism

The political system of the new German Empire has been called militarism. The characteristic feature of militarism is not the fact that a nation has a powerful army or navy. It is the paramount role assigned to the army within the political structure. Even in peace­time the army is supreme; it is the predominant factor in political life. The subjects must obey the government as soldiers must obey their superiors. Within a militarist community there is no freedom; there are only obedience and discipline.[ii]

The size of the armed forces is not in itself the determining factor. Some Latin-American countries are militarist although their armies are small, poorly equipped, and unable to defend the country against a foreign invasion. On the other hand, France and Great Britain were at the end of the nineteenth century non­militarist, although their military and naval armaments were very strong.

Militarism should not be confused with despotism enforced by a foreign army. Austria's rule in Italy, backed by Austrian regiments composed of non-Italians, and the Czar's rule in Poland, safe­guarded by Russian soldiers, were such systems of despotism. It has already been mentioned that in the 1850s and early 1860s of the past century conditions in Prussia were analogous. But it was different with the German Empire founded on the battlefields of Königgrätz and of Sedan. This Empire did not employ foreign soldiers. It was not preserved by bayonets but by the almost unani­mous consent of its subjects. The nation approved of the system, and therefore the soldiers were loyal too. The people acquiesced in the leadership of the "state" because they deemed such a system fair, expedient, and useful for them. There were, of course, some objectors, but they were few and powerless.[iii]

The deficiency in this system was its monarchical leadership. The successors of Frederick II were not fit for the task assigned to them. William I had found in Bismarck an ingenious chancellor. Bis­marck was a high-spirited and well-educated man, a brilliant speaker, and an excellent stylist. He was a skillful diplomat and in every respect surpassed most of the German nobility. But his vision was limited. He was familiar with country life, with the primitive agricultural methods of Prussian Junkers, with the pa­triarchal conditions of the eastern provinces of Prussia, and the life at the courts of Berlin and St. Petersburg. In Paris he met the society of Napoleon's court; he had no idea of French intellectual trends. He knew little about German trade and industry and the mentality of businessmen and professional people. He kept out of the way of scientists, scholars, and artists. His political credo was the old-fashioned loyalty of a king's vassal. In September, 1849, he told his wife: "Don't disparage the King; we are both guilty of this fault. Even if he errs and blunders, we should not speak of him otherwise than as of our parents, since we have sworn fidelity and allegiance to him and his house." Such an opinion is appropriate for a royal chamberlain but it does not suit the omnipotent Prime Minister of a great empire. Bismarck foresaw the evils with which the personality of William II threatened the nation; he was in a good position to become acquainted with the character of the young prince. But, entangled in his notions of loyalty and allegiance, he was unable to do anything to prevent disaster.

People are now unfair to William II. He was not equal to his task. But he was not worse than the average of his contemporaries. It was not his fault that the monarchical principle of succession made him Emperor and King and that as German Emperor and King of Prussia he had to be an autocrat. It was not the man that failed but the system. If William II had been King of Great Britain, it would not have been possible for him to commit the serious blunders that he could not avoid as King of Prussia. It was due to the frailty of the system that the toadies whom he appointed generals and ministers were incompetent. You may say it was bad luck for Bismarck and the elder Moltke too were courtiers. Though the victorious field marshal had served with the army as a young officer, a good deal of his career was spent in the attendant of a royal prince who lived in sickness and seclusion in Rome and died there. William II had many human weaknesses; but it was precisely the qualities that discredited him with prudent people which rendered him popular with the majority of his nation. His crude ignorance of political issues made him congenial to his subjects, who were as ignorant as he was, and shared his prejudices and illusions.

Within a modern state hereditary monarchy can work satis­factorily only where there is parliamentary democracy. Absolutism—and, still more, disguised absolutism with a phantom constitu­tion and a powerless parliament—requires qualities in the ruler that no mortal man can ever meet. William II failed like Nicholas II and, even earlier, the Bourbons. Absolutism was not abolished; it simply collapsed.

The breakdown of autocracy was due not only to the fact that the monarchs lacked intellectual ability. Autocratic government of a modern great nation burdens the ruler with a quantity of work beyond the capacity of any man. In the eighteenth century Fred­erick William I and Frederick II could still perform all the adminis­trative business with a few hours of daily work. They had enough leisure left for their hobbies and for pleasure. Their successors were not only less gifted, they were less diligent too. From the days of Frederick William II it was no longer the king who ruled but his favorites. The king was surrounded by a host of intriguing gentle­men and ladies. Whoever succeeded best in these rivalries and plots got control of the government until another sycophant supplanted him.

The camarilla was supreme in the army too. Frederick William I had himself organized the forces. His son had commanded them personally in great campaigns. Herein too their successors proved inadequate. They were poor organizers and incompetent generals. The chief of the Great General Staff, who nominally was merely the King's assistant, became virtually commander in chief. The change remained for a long time unnoticed. As late as the War of 1866 many high-ranking generals were still not aware of the fact that the orders they had to obey did not emanate from the King but from General von Moltke.

Frederick II owed his military successes to a great extent to the fact that the Austrian, French, and Russian armies that he fought were not commanded by their sovereigns but by generals. Frederick concentrated in his hands the whole military, political, and eco­nomic strength of his—of course, comparatively small—realm. He alone gave orders. The commanders of the armies of his adversaries had only limited powers. Their position was rendered difficult by the fact that their duties kept them at a distance from the courts of their sovereigns. While they stayed with their armies in the field their rivals continued to intrigue at the court. Frederick could venture daring operations of which the outcome was un­certain. He did not have to account for his actions to anybody but himself. The enemy generals were always in fear of their monarch's disfavor. They aimed at sharing the responsibility with others in order to exculpate themselves in case of failure. They would call their subordinate generals for a council of war, and look for justi­fication to its resolutions. When they got definite orders from the sovereign, which were suggested to him either by a council of war deliberating far away from the field of operations, or by one or several of the host of lazy intrigants, they felt comfortable. They executed the order even when they were convinced that it was inexpedient. Frederick was fully aware of the advantage that the concentration of undivided responsibility in one commander offered. He never called a council of war. He again and again forbade his generals—even under penalty of death—to call one. In a council of war, he said, the more timid party always pre­dominates. A council of war is full of anxiety, because it is too matter of fact.[iv]This doctrine became, like all opinions of King Frederick, a dogma for the Prussian Army. It roused the elder Moltke's anger when somebody said that King William had called a council of war in his campaigns. The King, he declared, would listen to the proposals of his chief of staff and then decide; it had always happened that way.

In practice this principle resulted in the absolute command of the chief of the Great General Staff, whom, of course, the King ap­pointed. Not William I but Helmuth von Moltke led the armies in the campaigns of 1866 and 1870–71. William II used to declare that in case of war he would personally command his armies, and that he needed a chief of staff only in peacetime. But when the first World War broke out this boasting was forgotten. Helmuth von Moltke's nephew, a courtier without any military knowledge or ability, timid and irresolute, sick and nervous, an adept of the doubtful theosophy of Rudolph Steiner, led the German Army into the debacle at the Marne; then he collapsed. The Minister of War, Eric von Falkenhayn, filled the gap spontaneously; and the Kaiser in apathy gave his consent. Very soon Ludendorff began to plot against Falkenhayn. Cleverly organized machinations forced the Emperor in 1916 to replace Falkenhayn by Hindenburg. But the real commander in chief was now Ludendorff, who nominally was only Hindenburg's first assistant.

The German nation, biased by the doctrines of militarism, did not realize that it was the system that had failed. They used to say: We lacked "only" the right man. If Schlieffen had not died too soon! A legend was composed about the personality of this late chief of staff. His sound plan had been ineptly put into execution by his incompetent successor. If only the two army corps which Moltke had uselessly dispatched to the Russian border had been available at the Marne! Naturally, the Reichstag too was considered guilty. There was no mention of the fact that the Parliament had never earnestly resisted the government's proposals concerning alloca­tions for the army. Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch in particular was made the scapegoat. This officer, it was asserted, had transgressed his powers, perhaps he was a traitor. But if Hentsch was really responsible for the order to retreat, then he would have to be deemed the man who saved the German Army from annihilation through encirclement of its right wing. The fable that but for the interference of Hentsch the Germans would have been victorious at the Marne can easily be disposed of.

There is no doubt that the commanders of the German Army and Navy were not equal to their task. But the shortcomings of the generals and admirals—and likewise those of the ministers and diplomats—must be charged to the system. A system that puts incapable men at the top is a bad system. There is no telling whether Schlieffen would have been more successful; he never had the op­portunity to command troops in action; he died before the war. But one thing is sure: the "parliamentary armies" of France and Great Britain got at that time commanders who led them to victory. The army of the King of Prussia was not so fortunate.

In accordance with the doctrines of militarism the chief of the Great General Staff considered himself the first servant of the Emperor and King and demanded the chancellor's subordination. These claims had already led to conflicts between Bismarck and Moltke. Bismarck asked that the supreme commander should adjust his conduct to considerations of foreign policy; Moltke bluntly rejected such pretensions. The conflict remained unresolved. In the first World War the supreme commander became omnipotent. The chancellor was in effect degraded to a lower rank. The Kaiser had retained ceremonial and social functions only; Hindenburg, his chief of staff, was a man of straw. Ludendorff, the first quarter­master general, became virtually omnipotent dictator. He might have remained in this position all his life if Foch had not defeated him.

This evolution demonstrates clearly the impracticability of hereditary absolutism. Monarchical absolutism results in the rule of a major-domo, of a shogun, or of a duce.

3. The Liberals and Militarism

The lower chamber of the Prussian Parliament, the Abgeordne-tenhaus, was based on universal franchise. The citizens of every constituency were divided into three classes, each of which chose the same number of electors for the final poll by which the parlia­mentary representative of the constituency was elected. The first class was formed of those adult male residents who paid the highest taxes and together contributed one third of the total amount of taxes collected in the district; the second class of those who together contributed the second third, and the third class of those who to­gether contributed the third third. Thus the wealthier citizens had a better franchise than the poorer ones of their constituency. The middle classes predominated in the ballot. For the Reichstag of the North German Federation, and later for that of the Reich, no such discrimination was applied. Every adult male cast his vote directly on the ballot which returned the representative of the constituency; franchise was not only universal but equal and direct. Thus the poorer strata of the nation got more political influence. It was the aim of both Bismarck and Lassalle to weaken by this electoral system the power of the liberal party. The liberals were fully aware that the new method of voting would for some time sap their parliamentary strength. But they were not concerned about that. They realized that the victory of liberalism could be achieved only by an effort of the whole nation. What was important was not to have a majority of liberals within the chamber but to have a liberal majority among the people and thereby in the army. In the Prussian Abgeordnetenhaus the Progressives outnumbered the friends of the government. Nevertheless liberalism was powerless, since the King could still trust in the allegiance of the greater part of the army. What was needed was to bring into the ranks of liberalism those backward ignorant masses whose political indifference was the safeguard of absolutism. Only then would the day of popular government and democracy dawn.

The liberals therefore did not fear that the new electoral system would postpone or seriously imperil their inexorable final victory. The outlook for the immediate future was not very comforting but the ultimate prospects were excellent. One had only to look at France. In that country too an autocrat had founded his despotism upon the loyalty of the army and upon universal and equal franchise. But now the Caesar was crushed and democracy had triumphed.

The liberals did not greatly fear socialism. The socialists had achieved some success. But it could be expected that reasonable workers would soon discover the impracticability of socialist utopias. Why should the wage earners whose standard of living was daily improving be deluded by demagogues who—as rumors whispered—were on the pay roll of Bismarck?

Only later did the liberals become aware of the change taking place in the nation's mentality. For many years they believed that it was only a temporary setback, a short reactionary incident which was doomed to disappear very soon. For them every supporter of the new ideologies was either misguided or a renegade. But the numbers of these apostates increased. The youth no longer joined the liberal party. The old fighters for liberalism grew tired. With every new election campaign their ranks became thinner; with every year the reactionary system which they hated became more power­ful. Some faithful men still clung to the ideas of liberty and democracy, gallantly fighting against the united assaults on liberal­ism from the Right and from the Left. But they were a forlorn squad. Among those born after the battle of Königgrätz almost nobody joined the party of liberalism. The liberals died out. The new generation did not even know the meaning of the word.

4. The Current Explanation of the Success of Militarism

All over the world the overwhelming victory of German militar­ism is interpreted in accordance with the legends developed by the propaganda of the German Social Democrats. The socialists assert that the German bourgeoisie seceded from the principles of freedom and thus betrayed the "people." Based on Marxian historical materialism absurd theories concerning the essence and the de­velopment of imperialism were invented. Capitalism, they say, must result in militarism, imperialism, bloody wars, Fascism, and Nazism. Finance and big business have brought civilization to the verge of destruction; Marxism has the task of saving humanity.

Such interpretations fail to solve the problem. Indeed, they try purposely to put it out of sight. In the early 1860's there were in Ger­many among the politically minded a few supporters of dynastic absolutism, of militarism and of authoritarian government, who strongly opposed the transition to liberalism, democracy, and popular government. This minority consisted mainly of the princes and their courtiers, the nobility, the commissioned officers of higher ranks, and some civil servants. But the great majority of the bourgeoisie, of the intellectuals, and of the politically minded members of the poorer strata of the population were decidedly liberal and aimed at parliamentary government according to the British pattern. The liberals believed that political education would progress quickly; they were convinced that every citizen who gave up political indifference and became familiar with political issues would support their stand on constitutional questions. They were fully aware that some of these newly politicized men would not join their ranks. It was to be expected that Catholics, Poles, Danes, and Alsatians would form their own parties. But these parties would not support the King's pretensions. Catholics and non-Germans were bound to favor parliamentarism in a pre­dominantly Protestant and German Reich.

The politicization of the whole country went on faster than the liberals had foreseen. At the end of the 1870s the whole people was inspired by political interests, even passions, and ardently took part in political activities. But the consequences differed radically from those expected by the liberals. The Reichstag did not earnestly challenge the hardly disguised absolutism; it did not raise the constitutional issue; it indulged only in idle talk. And, much more important: the soldiers who now were recruited from a com­pletely politicized nation became so unconditionally reliable that every doubt concerning their readiness to fight for absolutism against a domestic foe was considered an absurdity.

The questions to be answered are not: Why did the bankers and the rich entrepreneurs and capitalists desert liberalism? Why did the professors, the doctors, and the lawyers not erect barricades? We must rather ask: Why did the German nation return to the Reichstag members who did not abolish absolutism? Why was the army, formed for a great part of men who voted the socialist or the Catholic ticket, unconditionally loyal to its commanders? Why could the antiliberal parties, foremost among them the Social Democrats, collect many millions of votes while the groups which remained faithful to the principles of liberalism lost more and more popular support? Why did the millions of socialist voters who indulged in revolutionary babble acquiesce in the rule of princes and courts?

To say that big business had some reasons to support the Hohen­zollern absolutism or that the Hanseatic merchants and shipowners sympathized with the increase of the navy is no satisfactory answer to these questions. The great majority of the German nation con­sisted of wage earners and salaried people, of artisans and shop­keepers, and of small farmers. These men determined the outcome of elections; their representatives sat in Parliament, and they filled the ranks of the army. Attempts to explain the change in the Ger­man people's mentality by demonstrating that the class interests of the wealthy bourgeoisie caused them to become reactionary are nonsensical, whether they are as childish as the "steel plate"[v]legend or as sophisticated as the Marxian theories concerning im­perialism.

[i]Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutschen Kaiserreichs, I, 298.

[ii]Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Sociology (New York, 1897), III, 588.

[iii]Whoever wants to acquaint himself with the political mentality of the subjects of William II may read the novels of Baron Ompteda, Rudolf Herzog, Walter Bloem, and similar authors. These were the stuff the people liked to read. Some of them sold many hundred thousand copies.

[iv]Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst, Part IV, pp. 434 ff

[v]The "Panzerplatten-doctrine" maintained that German militarism and the trend to increase Germany's armed forces were due to machinations of the heavy industries eager to enlarge their profits. Cf. pp. 132–133.


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