Rita Aldenhoff-Huebinger. Agrarpolitik und Protektionismus: Deutschland und Frankreich im Vergleich 1879-1914. GÖ¶ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002. 257 pp. EUR 28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-525-35136-9.
Reviewed by Florian Schui (St. Edmund's College, University of Cambridge)
Published on H-German (April, 2004)
The Nineteenth-Century Rise of Agrarian Protectionism in France and Germany
The Nineteenth-Century Rise of Agrarian Protectionism in France and Germany
In order to understand the origins of the European Union's agrarian protectionism one has to go back to the parliamentary debates, trade statistics, and propaganda materials of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in France and Germany. That is at least Rita Aldenhoff-Huebinger's well-informed opinion. In support of her view she presents a study about the rise of protectionism in France and Germany between 1879 and 1914.
In this period European countries faced what the author describes as a "globalisation" (p. 12) of the market for agricultural goods. Put in a simpler way, sinking costs of transportation brought a mass of cheap agricultural products (mainly from North America, but elsewhere as well) to Europe. Due to benign natural conditions and advanced agricultural technology, production-costs in North America were often dramatically lower than in Europe. Aldenhoff-Huebinger analyses the rise of protectionism in France and Germany as a reaction to this "threat" of cheap agricultural imports.
Contemporaries were well aware of this situation. The second chapter of the study analyzes the debates of the international agricultural conferences. At the time, these conferences were held in irregular intervals in different European cities. Participants included representatives of agricultural associations of all kinds as well as politicians and government officials. Together they debated a wide range of possible responses to the challenge faced by European agriculture. A rise in tariffs on agricultural products was initially only one among many concepts discussed. Efforts to improve the productivity of European agriculture were at least equally important. However, from the 1890s onwards agricultural protectionism rose to the top of the agenda. The author offers a clear and subtle analysis of this shift in the debates, although at one point she classifies rises in tariffs summarily as obstacles to a "rational" (p. 45) response to the economic challenge of the day. In the light of the findings of the study, this categorization might be seen as not sufficiently taking into account the complex interrelation between different policy tools. After all, the study goes on to describe the successes of German agricultural policies which prominently featured protective tariffs. It might turn out that rather than being "rational" or not in themselves, the success or failure of protective tariffs often depended on the way in which they were applied and the measures with which they were combined.
After demonstrating the shift towards protectionism in the debates of the agricultural congresses, Aldenhoff-Huebinger analyzes reasons for the rise of tariffs in France and Germany. Her study demonstrates impressively the great insights that can be gained from an analysis that considers political, economic, demographic, social, and cultural factors as an interdependent system. The method used in this study allows us to understand the complexity of the rise of protectionism rather than seeing it as a purely economic issue. Before starting her analysis the author corrects a distorted view of ownership structures in French and German agriculture. Contrary to common belief, she argues, farm sizes were not fundamentally different in France and Germany. According to her study, France's agricultural land was not distributed significantly more democratically than that of Germany, although the size of farms varied regionally in both countries. Moreover, she points out, ownership of large agrarian production units must not be equaled with strong political influence. The productivity of the land, and social and political context must be taken into account in order to evaluate the political and economic "weight" of a large land owner. However, the author underlines that large land owners played an important role in agricultural politics. Mainly in Germany, but also in France, some of the key positions in the agricultural association that pressed for an increase in tariffs were occupied by owners of large estates who were often sons of aristocratic families.
Aldenhoff-Huebinger's analysis in chapter 4 makes clear that the reasons which led the French and German governments to adopt higher tariffs due to pressure from agricultural associations were both similar and different. In both countries governments sought to strengthen the political status quo by adopting protective tariffs for agricultural goods. In this period, not only the survival of a single government in France or Germany was at stake but rather the future of the respective forms of government. Bismarck's policy of high trade tariffs was intended to support the nascent Second Reich by fulfilling two goals at the same time. High tariffs benefited the large land owners of the eastern provinces who formed the social foundations of the new Reich. At the same time, high tariffs also strengthened the central government of the new state vis-a-vis the federal states. For its budget the central government depended on the contributions of the single states. The revenue raised by tariffs, however, went directly into the budget of the central government. In the French case, too, political leaders were concerned with the survival of the current form of government, a republic in this case. Despite its short existence, the Third Republic had already experienced moments of instability. In the early 1880s, for example, the Boulanger crisis had shaken the political system, making the broadening of social support for the republic one of the foremost concerns of government. The Third Republic lacked the support particularly of farmers, who were often associated with conservative and Catholic traditions. Agrarian protectionism played an important role in the bid to win the support of the rural population (p. 73). The result of the French and German attempts to consolidate two rather different political systems was a rise in tariffs for agricultural products in both countries.
The chapter on the rise of protectionism in the 1880s is at the heart of Aldenhoff-Huebinger's study. Though the liberal bourgeois French republic and a conservative half-constitutional German Reich both saw protectionism as a way to strengthen internal support, in the 1890s the situation changed. German tariff policies changed in response to an economy of which seventy percent of exports were made up by industrial products (p. 147). Interest in free trade dominated economic policy, so the politically-desirable protection of agriculture was continued with other tools. Rather than erecting tariff barriers that were likely to provoke retaliation, agricultural production was supported through export subsidies and tax reductions. In France no similar pressure existed to lower tariffs. Industrial development in France was slower and the agrarian sector remained more important than in Germany.
In the final chapter, the study turns to the impact of rising tariffs on agricultural development in Germany and France. Protective tariffs were implemented in a significantly different economic framework in both countries. In Germany, the faster industrialization and stronger population growth resulted in an increasing demand for foodstuffs. Prices for agricultural products were a sensible issue because rising food prices would have exercised upward pressure on industrial wages. Since the government did not want to rely on imports, governmental efforts were made to boost the productivity of German agriculture. The study analyzes the case of Prussia, which promoted credit, agricultural know-how, and new technology, creating a significant rise in agricultural productivity in the period. The activism of the German state ensured that tariff protection was used by domestic agriculture in order to undertake necessary changes. In France, the demand for agricultural products grew more slowly in line with slower population growth and industrial development. At the same time governmental activism for the development of agriculture was much less successful. Consequently, protective tariffs served in France mainly to protect the status quo. Protection from foreign competition was not used to bring structural reforms.
Protective tariffs were also more persistent in France because the pressure for free trade associated with the rise of industry was less strong in France. In particular, French protective tariffs had a "safety valve" that limited the rise of wheat prices: wheat imports from Algiers and Tunis were exempt. This state of affairs was, as Aldenhoff-Huebinger points out, one of the reasons why French wheat prices did not increase strongly despite tariffs. One may add that, in fact, the French tariffs worked to protect North African farmers from American competition while the mass of French farmers did not derive a substantial benefit from them. At best, the tariffs worked to protect large farmers in France. Similarly, the system of export subsidies and tax reductions in Germany worked mainly in favor of big agricultural producers.
Despite her findings that protective tariffs profited mainly large producers, Aldenhoff-Huebinger maintains that small and midsize farmers also benefited. "Otherwise," she writes about the support of small farmers for protective tariffs, "it would be impossible to explain the large potential of small and mid-size farmers who were mobilized by the agricultural societies" (p. 182). The argument seems debatable. Agricultural societies might have been successful in mobilizing small farmers for a goal that was indifferent or even contrary to their own interests. Further research on the question of who benefited economically from higher agricultural tariffs will be helpful in answering this question.
However, the principal merit of Aldenhoff-Huebinger's study is to draw attention to political reasons for the rise of agricultural protectionism between 1879 and 1914. Her finding that the rise in tariffs was intended to stabilize the political systems in France and Germany opens a new perspective on protectionism in the period. The study suggests that further research in the political and symbolical function of protective tariffs will yield interesting results. Such an analysis cannot substitute for economic perspectives on the function of tariffs. However, the perception of protective tariffs and the propaganda that was associated with them must not be neglected. Protective tariffs may have functioned as a means of the state to reach out to certain segments of the population and demonstrate its commitment to their welfare. By the same token protective tariffs may also be seen as a tool that was used to create a sentiment of community among the citizens. A tariff barrier was erected on the borders and clearly separated the nations from the rest of the world. Whatever the economic impact of tariffs was upon the individual, Aldenhoff-Huebinger's study shows that the political and cultural relevance of tariffs and their associated propaganda need further investigation.
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Florian Schui. Review of Aldenhoff-Huebinger, Rita, Agrarpolitik und Protektionismus: Deutschland und Frankreich im Vergleich 1879-1914.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.