Ludwig Windthorst, Speech in Favor of Reforming the Prussian Suffrage, in the Prussian House of Deputies, 26 November 1873
Gentlemen! The motion which I have brought to your kind attention represents the views of all my friends who subscribed to it. The justification for the proposal, which has fallen to me, represents only my views, although I believe that, for the most part, I shall be able to give expression to my friends’ thinking, as well.
It is, as I have put it in the motion, my purpose to replace the existing electoral system in Prussia with the one that has been adopted by the German Empire. In Prussia we have universal suffrage, but corrupted by the 3-class system. Whether the universal suffrage of Prussia can be reconciled with that of the German Empire is a matter of dispute. In Prussia every self-sufficient Prussian is entitled to vote; in the German Empire self-sufficiency is not accentuated. Who is self-sufficient is open to doubt. Governmental pronouncements on the issue have varied at various times, and praxis has also varied. In the city of Hanover, for example, the suffrage is as liberally defined as in the German Empire. Young men vote there who undoubtedly still stand under parental authority. In the countryside immediately around Hanover, on the other hand, independent day-laborers, self-sufficient managers, for example, are not allowed to vote. I am not lodging a complaint, merely saying that the expression “self-sufficient” is open to interpretation. For this reason, I cannot with certainty maintain that universal suffrage in Prussia can be completely squared with that of the German Empire, because as of today there is no legal explanation of the concept of “self-sufficiency.”
The franchise in Prussia is, moreover, indirect in that the voters elect electors who then designate the choice of representative. This is not the case in the German Empire where the entire electorate votes directly in the defined election district in question. Finally, casting a vote in Prussia is public. In the German Empire the [secret] ballot is prescribed or allowed.
I hold that the present franchise in the German Empire is more just and healthy than the 3-class system of Prussia with its indirect and public voting. I do not thereby assert that universal, direct, and secret suffrage is the sole and absolute theoretical ideal of perfection when it comes to franchises. As long as history records the forming of states in which votes are cast, political battles have been waged around this issue. In the states of the ancient world, as well as those of the modern era, we everywhere find the same battle. The men occupied with these issues in ancient and modern times held differing political views from one another. When, in addition, we read the various discussions in legislative assemblies, we come finally to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to devise an election system that, in the abstract, will be recognized as the universally correct one. The record shows clearly the particular circumstance that all those concerned with introducing an election system have differing suggestions to make. In my view, it is only possible, after consideration of the special conditions of the country in question and their development, in and of themselves, to establish the relatively best system of suffrage. Personally, I do not hesitate to say: if it were possible to have an old-German corporative suffrage [ständisches Walhrecht], this would be the best. [Hear! Hear!--from the Left]. I expected the “hear” [laughter], but, please, after shouting “hear, hear,” you should in any case listen. As I was saying, gentlemen, such a suffrage system requires estate-based social foundations. Were there states where these conditions obtained, I would be the last to attack them. However, where these corporative foundations no longer exist, it would be, in my view, inappropriate to strive for a corporative electoral system. [Hear! from the Center] But for some time now, no state in Germany--and I shall not look beyond--has more decisively and purposefully combated and annihilated every corporate element than the state of Prussia. [Very true!] The last vestige vel quasi [or nearly] was put to rest in the Kreisordnung. Whatever shred of the corporative element survives will no doubt be flicked away by the liberal members of the committee that consults with the minister of the interior on the question of the Provinzialordnung. [Laughter] That is why there can be no talk about an estate-based representative body in Prussia. In this state everything has been blown to atoms. This is obvious in the current election system which merely counts heads, albeit in the mode of the 3-class system with indirect and public voting. Perhaps it would have been possible to carry on a little longer with this system. I would have probably desisted from the motion I am making today until the fate of the Kreisordnung had been settled. [That decision] alters the situation..
It introduces a momentous factor and we cannot shut our eyes to it: in the German Empire, a state of higher standing than the Prussian state, there has been introduced a different electoral system. I think it impossible for such essentially different electoral systems to coexist in the state of higher standing and in Prussia, which is the largest and the leading state in Germany. It is necessary for the state of inferior standing to follow the lead of the state of higher standing.
In addition, there is the universal judgment concerning the 3-class suffrage, that it is a caricature. It is left to chance as to how the three classes are constituted. A person who in one community may be in the second, or even the first, class may, in another community, find himself in the third. Since I am not really as at home in Prussia as the old-time Prussians, I shall let an unimpeachably Prussian authority speak to this matter, one who knows Prussian conditions, one who prescribes the aim and direction of Prussian conditions, and one who the gentlemen on the “liberal” side of the House will undoubtedly and unmistakably recognize. [Laughter.]
On March 28, 1867, Prince Bismarck declared to those gentlemen who were challenging universal suffrage:
What would the gentlemen, who oppose [universal suffrage] and the requisite facilitation of it, prefer in its place? Something like the Prussian 3-class suffrage?
Indeed, gentlemen, those who have observed up close the effects and combinations of that suffrage in the land must admit that no other state has thought up such an absurd or wretched election law. It takes all the pieces, scrambles them, and tosses people together who have nothing in common with one another. Every municipality applies different standards. People who in one community belong to the first class would in a neighboring one be thrown into the third class. In a community where, for example, three property owners each pay approximately 200 Thaler in taxes, the first two will be in the first class and the third, who pays 7 silver groschen less, will be placed in the second class, where his fellow-voters will pay as little as 5 Thaler….If its inventors had imagined the practical effects of their election law, they would never have done it.
In the [Prussian] House of Deputies, during the debate on the national election law, the conservative spokesmen von Blanckenburg and Wagener expressed themselves in similar fashion. [Voice from the left: Wagener?]
It seems as though the authority of the last-named gentleman is in doubt over there [pointing to the left side of the house].  In this matter, gentlemen, this gentleman has more political wisdom in his little finger than the editorial staffs of twelve National Liberal newspapers together. [Great hilarity.]
Deputy von Blanckenburg, in particular, said that the universal, direct suffrage was more conservative than the indirect 3-class system. Wagener said the same and asked--not unjustly, in my opinion--whether the vote of a grenadier [who fought at] Königgrätz, but who by chance did not pay much in taxes, was not as weighty as that of a grocer, who by chance had grown rich. [Laughter.]
Gentlemen, with that point, he raised a thoroughly Prussian idea, namely the idea of universal military obligation, and I assert that those who see this as political gospel, will act unjustly if they deny the vote to all who are obligated to do military service. There can be no greater stake in the life of the state than the hazard of one’s own person and very existence; against one’s person and existence a few groschen more or less in taxes ought not come into consideration. [Very true! Left.]
Moreover, I would like to add that as early as April 1866 the Prussian state government, explained to the dear departed Bundestag how, according to its conviction, the universal, direct franchise was more conservative than any other, even the 3-class system. I shall not cease with the citing of authorities, however, because those cited thus far are from conservative circles almost exclusively. I ask the elders of the National Liberal Party [Laughter], the gentlemen of the Nationalverein, whether or not at the founding of this organization and throughout its development they did not advocate the Frankfurt franchise, and whether or not they also demanded that [national] elections be conducted according to it. [Quite right!]
Further, I ask the honorable leaders of the Progressive Party [Laughter], a great number of whom come out of elections from that intelligent city of Berlin [great hilarity], whether or not you have always and at every opportunity demanded universal suffrage. And have you not in recent days again assured your voters that you would stand up for this? [Yes, indeed! Left]
So, Conservatives, the government, the National Liberals, the Progressives--all are in agreement. [Interjection from the Left: the Center, too?] Agreed, it would seem, until that moment when something practical ought to be done.
If my colleague [Rudolf] Virchow means to say the Center Party is of another opinion, I would like to ask the gentleman to show me where he found [that view] expressed. [Windthorst here launches a defense of his personal record in the matter of universal suffrage, centering on his years as minister of justice in the Kingdom of Hanover where a corporate franchise was deemed suitable for the societal situation of the time. Modern social development and the unification of Germany, however, now make universal, direct suffrage a more appropriate system.]
…now it is clear that the universal and direct suffrage grounded in the law of the German Empire can and should proceed in the individual states. In any case, the German Empire could not ever hinder a state from accepting the electoral system which corresponds to the one the Empire itself rests upon. Furthermore, as is readily to be seen in all the states of the world, limitations on the franchise no longer obtain. In America they have had to extend the vote to Negroes; in England we see how reform marches constantly onward, and it will not be long before they, like us here in the German Empire, will arrive at universal suffrage. In other European states universal suffrage already exists. We may seek to close ourselves off but we cannot escape this ultimate consequence…
These are the viewpoints that persuade me that universal suffrage must be implemented and that the 3-class system should cease to exist. There are those who will concede this and yet hold out hope that indirect voting may yet be preserved. They say that at least with indirect voting the ultimate decision concerning representation lies in the hands of men a bit more prominent than the common strata. Because they are more prominent, it is thought, they are also more intelligent. Gentlemen, I think this is illusory. In truth, the defenders of indirect voting think they can have more influence over a smaller group than over a larger one. And that’s why they want indirect voting. If the influence came from the right people and we could establish these arrangements in law, I might also declare myself in agreement. But since that is a sheer impossibility I find the position untenable. Moreover, if we look at things the way they actually exist, we cannot deny that the indirect suffrage, as presently constituted, is no more than a useless impediment in the business of the election. Gentlemen, just let us look at the recent elections and pose the question: was it not the case in every election district that, immediately after the electors were chosen, everyone knew how the election of the representative would turn out? [Agreement from the Center. An oppositional interjection.]
Only in districts where the parties oppose one another sharply and in almost equal numbers might there be some doubt. In the great majority of cases there can be no doubt about how an elector votes. [Oho!]….
Then there is the story about alleged superior education of those who stand out from the majority of a given district. What is education? [Laughter.] Gentlemen, I cannot extract a definition out of your laughter. I believe there is a Progressive education, a National Liberal education, a neo-Conservative education [Interjection: But no clerical!], and -- a Center education [Laughter.] Everyone defines education to suit themselves. Everyone thinks that he and he alone is the most educated. [Oho!]….Looking at the present situation, I am of the opinion that there is more of a sense of justice in the third class of voters than in the second or the first. [Very true!]
They adhere firmly to tradition, more than the other classes, and in my opinion they are more conservative than people with money. Gentlemen, the most destructive element in the world is money, and the attempt to correct universal suffrage by means of the money bag is the most dubious of expedients. [Quite right! from the Center.]
The classes among which this destructive element of money is most conspicuously at home are those most eaten up by the modern, heathenish state. [Laughter. Very good! Center]
Finally, gentlemen, I come to the objections that can be employed against my proposal, that is, the social question, which today moves the world. It is more serious and deeper than has apparently been noticed here, where, it seems to me, that the current Catholic-baiting [That’s right! Center] is intentionally designed to make us forget the social question. Gentlemen, I regard the social question as fearfully important and believe it much more important for us to deal with it fundamentally than to busy ourselves every day with church and school policies. [Very true. Center. Protest from the Left.] I lament most deeply the many who have gone astray in the lower social spheres; I especially lament the many signs of irreligiosity that accompany these aberrations. [Hear! hear! Center.]
But, gentlemen, let us ask ourselves, seriously: have we done our duty in relation to these questions? It would be the right thing to discuss these questions thoroughly and to be daily reminded of them, especially when [we have] several National Liberal benches occupied by men who ought to be particularly occupied with this question. [Hear! Hear! Left. Quite right! Center.]
Gentlemen, I think it most disturbing, in any form of state, when a large part of society stands outside it deliberating body; I think it no less disturbing when a large portion of society holds its debates on the streets. [Very true! Center.]
Gentlemen, if we accustom the people to debating us within the rules, within the law, than we shall be in position to show them what is erroneous and reprehensible in many political opinions. In the cases where they are in the right, they can instruct us. And by the way, I am not at all fearful [about the consequences of universal suffrage]. Just as with the Reichstag, so it will be with the [Prussian] House of Deputies, when the proposed suffrage is accepted, that there will be no surplus of questionable persons elected. Under all circumstances--I make no secret of this--I want to unite civil society in its entirety, within the constitutional framework, and to have it pursue its views through peaceful, lawful debate. [Bravo!]
Gentlemen, I come now to the question of public casting of votes. I must confess that in this regard I have had to change my mind. In earlier days I believed that public voting was the correct way, that it was best suited to educate the nation politically and to build its firm public character. I held the same approximate view in this respect as developed by [John] Stuart Mill. However, gentlemen, after entering into the Prussian state formation and having seen the election methods used here, public voting will not work. When I calmly and objectively observed the manner in which the royal state government exerted its influence in this year’s elections [hear! hear! Center], when I saw in what ways this [influence] was exerted by a section of the great landholders, especially the Silesian magnates [hear!], and by state administrators, who were not to be outdone in this noble competition, and by factory owners in the cities, who nobly imitated them, then I must say that it is too much to expect of human nature that it can withstand such terrorism.
I myself have witnessed how the entire state bureaucracy, from the president down to the court messenger, voted as a single man. [Laughter.] When one or another of them saw my amazement, I have on occasion heard: “You are shocked, but we cannot act differently.” [Hear! Commotion.] People were summoned two or three times to appear for the voting and to vote for the National Liberals [Laughter.] There must be an end to this. We must afford people the opportunity to vote according to their convictions, without putting their livelihoods at risk. [Bravo!]
I have now put forward a few general viewpoints which speak to the motion I have presented. I could continue at length and in detail with the justifications but will content myself for the present. I must still touch upon a few related points. [Oh!] Yes, gentlemen, when I have the floor, I hold onto it until I am done. [Laughter.]
It may be asked why I bring up such a motion so quickly and why I do so now. Well, gentlemen, for the reason that implementation [of the motion] requires a change in the constitution. As is well-known, constitutional changes must pass through several stages. Thus, if I want to succeed, I must put the motion immediately. [Several voices: Why not in the third year?]
The gentlemen over there are saying we would have time until the third year. Yes, gentlemen, if we were quite certain that we have three years of life left. I’m not talking about physical life. No, gentlemen, I want to be very frank with you. In my opinion the current House of Deputies could very easily die in its infancy. [Laughter.]
I’ll tell you in a few words what motivates my opponents. I think that there are not enough of the conservative elements in the country represented in the present House. [Laughter Left.] The [Liberal] gentlemen find that laughable because they, no doubt, believe that their transformation into a pro-government party has immediately infused them also with conservatism. [Laughter.]
That remains to be seen, but I can at least tell you that the parquet in the foyer of the minister’s office is slippery. The conservative elements of the country have been, in my opinion, unreasonably thrust back and, what is more, by the state government itself. The “Provincial Correspondence” makes a sweet-sour face over this which leads me to deduce that political hypocrisy has not come as far as one would expect; otherwise they would not look sweet today and sour tomorrow. But if such an essential factor--and that is what it is in Prussia--cannot gain a sufficient representation, then, gentlemen, the representation of the moment and its duration do not appear at all secure. I for one am not taking out a life insurance policy. That’s why I am not waiting for the third year that the gentlemen suggested.
Now I hear some saying that the motion is directed against the government. Gentlemen, how is it possible to assert that the motion is directed against the government whose entire authority is expressly committed to this system [of universal and secret suffrage], as I have read out to you. It is said that the motion is an attempt to split the liberal parties and to embarrass them. Gentlemen, I have no idea what kind of embarrassment the motion could cause you. [Laughter.]
If you thing it good, then vote for it. If you think it bad, then give your reasons and vote against. Is that an embarrassment? As far as a schism goes, gentlemen, if I believed that the “liberal” parties could be split, then I would, in fact, have very little understanding. The cement that binds them together will in all likelihood endure, and it is quite clear to me that a fully compact majority, extending from the neo-Conservatives up to half of the Progressives will stand opposed to us. [Laughter.] You can quarrel about what name to give this great party, but the thing exists. I would not try to sunder it. But, gentlemen, one thing I know for certain. What I cannot split apart the nation will someday call into account. [Agitation on the Left. Very good! Center] Ultimately, it comes down to this. The motion is a gift given by a hand from which you cannot accept it. [That’s right! Left.] Gentlemen, I am so full of good will toward you [Laughter] that if I could give you a gift, I certainly would do so. But in this situation do I want to make you a gift? On the contrary, I am asking you for one. We cannot get the law through. You can do it, and we will gladly take something from your hands. I promise you today that every good thing you have to give will be welcomed by me. In fact, I think that the press, egged on every day by the “official” vehicles, says that legitimate, healthy motions ought not to be discussed, that they ought to be rejected out of hand because they emanate from a singular party which, by chance, does not have the favor of the “official” papers. Such procedures are infantile, childish, foolish. [Quite right! Bravo! Center.]
Gentlemen, I believe that the Prussian people sent us here to examine all that comes before us calmly and in a nonpartisan way and then to decide matters objectively, not on the basis of what this or that party thinks about it and not because one or another party has brought the motion. Neither the constitution nor the [parliamentary] order of business recognizes parties [very true! Center]; we represent the whole country. Just as I would consider a motion from any one of you calmly and objectively before voting on it, so, too, in my opinion, are you obliged to do with the motion I bring before you. [Very good! Center.] And when the newspapers deny such an obligation, they demonstrate once again that they do not understand the ABC’s of the constitutional system, [Very true! Center] that they are writers-for-hire, not commentators on public affairs. [Very good! Bravo! Center]
Gentlemen, I am aware that many deliberations have been held to determine just how to wring the neck of the old boy who brought this motion--and in the shortest, quickest, and most charming way possible. [Laughter.] I tell you that the motion has already served its purpose. I know the methods of the English, who do not believe that a motion is carried on the same day it is brought. I say to you, this motion will carry, even if you postpone it for six months. [Bravo! Center.]
[After Eduard Lasker (National Liberal), Karl Hermann von Mallinckrodt (Center), and Rudolf Virchow (Progressive) spoke, Windthorst once again took the floor.]
Gentlemen, the calls for cloture from so many sides shows me that [the House] no longer wishes to discuss the matter. [Agreement.] Therefore, I will limit myself, as far as possible, to responding only where it is a matter of defending myself from personal attacks.
Representative Lasker’s entire expectoration, in which he repeats what we can read in the papers every day, namely, that we are the initiators of the quarrel that is sadly unsettling the country--I will not discuss today. The day will come on which I shall discuss this theme quite thoroughly. But I must return to the utterances of Representative von Mallinckrodt, because Representative Virchow failed to consider them and has repeatedly asserted some erroneous facts. For one, he has asserted that we are presently embroiled in church matters because of [the Center’s] wish for an intervention in Italy was denied. That is absolutely untrue. The minutes of the Reichstag will show this to anyone who can and will read. [Windthorst denies that the Reichstag refusal to intervene in the conflict between the papacy and the secular Italian state had to do with the general principle of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of another state; it was, he implies, sheer hypocrisy and motivated by anti-Catholic politics; the principle of nonintervention, he predicts, would be violated gladly, if it suited the interests of the Liberals.]
Then Representative Virchow spoke a lot about freedom of conscience. He told us that everyone knows what freedom of conscience is, but he did not risk telling us what he understood it to be. When we hold the doctrines of the Catholic Church to be correct, confess our faith in and practice them, we lay claim to our freedom of conscience, and it is our right to exercise it. [Disagreement.] You have other convictions and have a right to confess and practice them; if we should abridge this right, we would abridge your freedom of conscience. But we do that neither to you nor to anyone, believe what he will. The sentence read out from the Syllabus [of Errors] does not disprove this. When it says there, that all beliefs in general are not equally good, this is certainly correct. However, no injury is done to the right to believe in the validity of a deviating view. Those [liberal] gentlemen, on the contrary, want the state first to adopt their individual views and then have the state impress and, if necessary, impose them on every individual. [Very true! Center. Oho!] That is their freedom of conscience. [Great laughter.]
In general, however, I must confess that it appears to me that the gentlemen have dragged things into the discussion that do not belong there. I am convinced that discussion of church questions absolutely does not belong in the discussion of universal suffrage. [Very true. Center] They have erected a coulisse on the stage only in order to disappear behind it. [Hilarity.] This is a method which we see today and which we will see more often in the future. Every time something significant is proposed from [the Center], the coulisse, in all its varied colors, will drop down upon the stage, so that they can conceal themselves behind it. [Quite right! Center. Laughter.]
From what I have read and heard, I am afraid that this is often the attitude of the [Prussian] royal state government. It, too, conceals a great deal of whatever it wants behind the coulisse. However, I will attempt most zealously to drag them again and again into the open. [Hilarity.]
And if I have made any sort of calculation with this motion, it is this. It lies within the interests of the general situation to show the country clearly where the liberal parties stand on this question. [Aha!]
[Windthorst counters two further objections to his motion as obvious delaying tactics, made in bad faith, and concludes.]
Gentlemen, I really do not understand why such tricks are thought necessary. If you do not want the motion, or if you do not want it at the present time, then simply reject it. The people will in either case grasp what it is you want and what it is you are doing. After today’s discussion, no one in the country can be in doubt that the gentlemen who applauded the views of colleague Lasker do not want the motion. And those who vote with colleague Virchow want to leave it in doubt as to whether they approve of the motion or not. [Laughter.]
We, on the other hand, want it, and I especially want it, regardless of what the honored gentleman has read to me from the Reichstag minutes. I will not discuss today whether I would favor proclaiming universal suffrage with the same alacrity as the Reichstag once did. Let it suffice to say that it was proclaimed and that it had to be proclaimed, for it lay at the basis of all the confusing events of the year 1866; it could not be denied. Once it became the election system for the Empire, it put the matter inexorably in motion, and, gentlemen, it cannot be stopped. Moreover, it is--and here I agree with colleague Virchow--a highly conservative, and I believe, correct political principle. It is better to do it at the right time, voluntarily, and calmly than to be forced into it in troubled times.
 The Prussian 3-class franchise of 1849, which survived all attempts to abolish it before 1918, divided the male population into three groups according to the amount of tax paid. Each group voted for electors who then chose the representative for a given electoral district. The election was not only indirect, it was unequal. Although nearly every male could vote, every vote was not equal in significance. In 1849 Class I consisted of less than 5% of the eligible voters; Class II comprised 12.6%, while 82.7% of the voters were consigned to an essentially disenfranchised Class III. Designed to favor noble landowners in the East and generally to enhance the forces of conservatism in the Prussian Parliament, the 3-class system did not always work as planned. In municipal politics, for example, the system privileged wealthy liberal middle-class voters.
 At the time in which Windthorst was speaking the Kreisordnung of 1872 was thought to have dismantled the last vestiges of feudalism in the Prussian countryside. Too optimistically, Liberals hoped that self-government would replace the proprietary and corporate rights of indigenous Junkers, that decentralization would lead to the modernization of the Prussian state and end the dependency of the peasantry. But the reforms did little to alter Junker control of the small towns and villages that lived in the shadow of their great estates. As in past centuries, local and provincial affairs rested firmly in their grip.
 Windthorst, at his most laconic here, refers to the forcible annexation of the Kingdom of Hanover (1866), in which he had served as minister of justice and solicitor-general. The dethronement of the Guelph dynasty, the shabby expropriation of blind King George V by Bismarck, and the Protestant triumphalism of Prussia insured that Windthorst would never feel himself to be other than a Musspreussen--a Prussian by force.
 Hermann Wagener (1815-1889) was a key figure in Prussian Conservative politics, a founder of the party, editor of its chief newspaper, the Kreuzzeitung, and trusted advisor of Bismarck. Windthorst’s mentioning of his name occasioned a disturbance in the House because a few months before this sitting, Wagener, among others, had been exposed by the National Liberal Eduard Lasker for using his insider connections to profit from fraudulent railroad stock deals. After this public humiliation, he never recovered his influence or his personal wealth. Meanwhile, the general loss of confidence engendered by the exposé helped deepen the financial crisis that spiraled into the Crash of 1873.
 The elite Nationalverein, founded in September 1859, was an attempt to form a nationwide Liberal organization to agitate for German unification. It declared that the Frankfurt Constitution of 1849 had been truly representative of the people’s will for national unity. Windthorst, like many others by this time, had come to believe that the National Assembly that had composed the 1849 constitution had been elected according to universal suffrage (the “Frankfurt franchise”). But in fact the vote had been denied to the poorer classes in many locales, and in others the voting had been indirect.
 Windthorst employs the word Bildung, translated here as “education,” but Bildung has connotations that, while including formal education, also go beyond this. Today’s broadly construed “culture” might be closer to Windthorst’s thinking, despite the anachronism.
 Windthorst’s opponents questioned the urgency of his motion; 1873 marked only the first year of the three-year legislative period for the Prussian House of Deputies.
 Along with the dogma of papal infallibility (1870), the Syllabus of Errors (1864), in which Pope Pius IX denounced nearly all the principles of liberalism and modernity, appeared to reaffirm the Liberals’ conviction that Catholicism and progress were incompatible.