Prussian constitutional conflict

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The Prussian constitutional conflict , also known as the Prussian budget conflict or army conflict , is the conflict over army reform and the division of power between the king and parliament in the Prussian state in the years 1859 to 1866 .

During the conflict, King Wilhelm I faced the liberal- dominated House of Representatives , which, among other things, denied him the means necessary to reorganize the Prussian army and the Landwehr. At the height of the conflict, on March 11, 1862, the king dissolved the parliament, which had only been elected at the beginning of December 1861 and had met since mid-January 1862, after it had passed the resolution to end the provisional financing of military reforms. Seven days later he dismissed the liberal members of the ministry and set up a new conservative government under Adolf zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen . In May the liberal German Progressive Party emerged as the clear winner of the elections. In September 1862 a possible way out of the stalemate between the Crown and Parliament failed again, whereupon Wilhelm I considered abdicating in favor of his son. On September 22, 1862, Wilhelm I finally commissioned Otto von Bismarck to take over the government. The new Prime Minister "solved" the conflict by finding a gap in the Prussian constitution at the time (so-called gap theory ). The constitution does not stipulate what should happen in the event of a disagreement between cabinet and parliament, so the king can get his way through. The real political end of the conflict in 1866/1867 was when the liberal right founded a new party and accepted Bismarck's indemnity bill (which excused his actions).

Army reform

Albrecht von Roon , Prussian Minister of War


The constitutional conflict was primarily about continuing the reorganization of the Prussian army . In 1860 Prussia was not affected by any specific foreign policy crisis, but the Sardinian War that broke out in 1859 had shown how quickly such a military escalation could occur. In the event of a military conflict, Prussia had only limited resources of conscripts compared to the great powers France, Austria and Russia. Compensating for numerical inferiority was the main motive of the army reform. The attempt of army reform to push the politically disloyal Landwehr out of the army, however, is ascribed little importance in today's research. In fact, no memorandum from Wilhelm I is known that provided for the exclusion of the Landwehr. On the other hand, the regent and later king took a detailed position on many other important issues of army reform. The fact that the Landwehr was not completely dissolved is also shown by the fact that forces of the Landwehr were also used in the wars of unification .

This reform promised a better level of training for the troops and more military justice. This was not only intended to restore Prussia's military power, but the king also wanted to secure his position after the revolution of 1848 .


The Prussian regent Wilhelm and his war minister Albrecht Graf von Roon had presented a plan in 1860 for the reorganization of the army, which was considered militarily necessary. Before that, the army, with 150,000 men, was still as strong as it was in 1815, but the number of inhabitants in Prussia had almost doubled in the meantime.

The king's plan envisaged drawing in 65,000 recruits a year instead of the previous 40,000 , which corresponded to about a third of the conscripts. The number of active regiments was to be increased by 39 infantry and 10 cavalry regiments . The peace army thus came to 200,000 instead of 145,000 men. The active period of service, which according to the law was three years and which had previously been tacitly limited to two years, should be increased to the old level.

The Prussian House of Representatives , which, as a co-owner of the budget, was also authorized to make decisions on the military budget , wanted to limit general conscription to two years, prevent the weakening of the Landwehr and reduce the funds to be approved for the reform from nine to two million thalers in the first budget year .

Nevertheless, the House of Representatives provisionally approved nine million thalers for the first year of this reform.

The next year the king asked for a further five million thalers for the army reform and was again provisionally approved by the House of Representatives .

Before the new election of the House of Representatives in December 1861, part of the old liberal party split off as the “ Progressive Party ”. The progressives campaigned for the shortening of conscription and the preservation of the Landwehr. In addition, the progressives wanted to change the distribution of power in Prussia in favor of the House of Representatives. In order to gain access to the details of the army reform, they introduced a request for detailing the draft budget. However, they did not achieve the king's indulgence, only the resignation of the New Era cabinet, which was considered to be liberal .

After the House of Representatives was dissolved and new elections were held, the progressives became stronger. You now had a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives.

Prime Minister von Hohenlohe submitted a draft budget to the new House of Representatives , which waived a previously levied tax surcharge because, thanks to a property tax increase and growing prosperity, general tax revenue had increased. In addition, at the Chamber's request, a draft law on compulsory military service was introduced.

On the other hand, the deputies of the Progressive Party not only demanded the limitation of service to two years, but also the dissolution of all regiments that had been newly established in the course of the army reform. A compromise proposal by the War Minister von Roon, who wanted to hire 20 professional soldiers per company with two years of service at the expense of a newly introduced military substitute tax, was rejected by both the king and the chamber, which rejected the six million thalers applied for for the army reinforcement for 1862.

King Wilhelm had the army reform a. a. operated to strengthen the crown and the nobility that made up the officer corps. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, wanted to expand the power of parliament with its budget blockade and to preserve the militia-like Landwehr as the backbone of the Prussian armed forces. The progressors were ready to refuse the entire budget, even in its non-military parts.

The population largely ignored the constitutional conflict.

Bismarck and the gap theory

Otto von Bismarck , Prime Minister of Prussia since 1862

Since there was no compromise in sight, King Wilhelm I was already planning to abdicate in favor of his son Friedrich Wilhelm . War Minister Roon recommended, however, that Otto von Bismarck , the Prussian ambassador in Paris , be appointed Prime Minister . The king agreed to this, albeit reluctantly, and on September 23, 1862 appointed him Prussian Prime Minister and shortly afterwards Foreign Minister.

Bismarck first tried to mediate in this power struggle between parliamentary power and crown power through negotiations. He resolved the conflict by asking the following question: How should such a constitutional conflict between monarch and parliament be resolved? Since the Prussian constitution gave no answer, Bismarck interpreted this as a “loophole in the constitution”. In this case he concluded that in constitutionally unresolved cases, in case of doubt, the person who was able to assert himself with the help of the military held the authority, in this case the monarch. This approach went down in history as the gap theory with which Bismarck defeated parliament.

Indemnity submission (declaration of indemnity) and septum

Rudolf von Bennigsen , national liberal politician, who accepted the indemnity bill

Because of his seemingly inconsiderate policies loyal to the king, Bismarck was attacked by many intellectuals. He was not credited with initially trying to negotiate a compromise with the Progress Party. Bismarck felt obliged to conduct a few hundred libel trials. Although he usually prevailed, the slanderers were not discouraged by the modest fines imposed on the convicts. The Prussian judges often reduced the fines to 10 thalers on the grounds that the Prime Minister had actually done an injustice and thus exposed himself to legitimate polemics.

The insults in the press did not cease to exist until an ordinance was passed along the lines of the French model, according to which newspapers could be banned after two warnings if they endangered public welfare through individual articles or their overall behavior. The opposition press then stopped criticizing the government.

After the rejection of the military budget by the Liberals, Bismarck ruled without a budget, carried out the army reform and diverted attention from the conflict with his foreign policy. In his opinion, the questions of this time would be solved "not by speeches and majority decisions", but by " iron and blood ". In the next election, in 1863, the Liberals got two-thirds of the vote. They did not try to overthrow the government, which would not have been possible anyway due to the lack of a mass base, but instead cooperated with it - for example in economic policy.

Bismarck started the founding of the empire from above and with the help of the modern army, which was strengthened in its fighting power through the reform. Through his efforts to achieve German unity, Bismarck was able to win over liberals to whom national unity was more important than freedom and democracy.

Bismarck finally resolved the constitutional conflict with his offer of reconciliation to the Liberals after the victory in the German-Danish War and in 1866 in the German War for supremacy in Germany. In the indemnity bill , parliament should retrospectively legalize the budget of previous years. In return, the MPs were given the prospect of a German nation-state that had come a little closer through Bismarck's policy. The indemnity bill was passed on September 3, 1866 with 230 votes to 75, the constitutional conflict ended. As a result of this decision, a new party, the National Liberal Party , split off from the Progressive Party . This new party supported Bismarck in his national politics, whereas the old party remained in sharp opposition to the Prime Minister.

Since Bismarck had to have his budget confirmed by parliament in the following years, there were further conflicts of this kind. In 1866 Bismarck wanted to adopt a so-called septnate , although he did not hold parliament for seven years with regard to the army should have asked more. After the dissolution of parliament and subsequent new elections in 1867, this septnate was passed by the national liberals and conservatives in parliament.

Effects on the relationship between Wilhelm I and the Prussian Crown Prince

Abdication considerations

The Prussian Crown Prince, portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter , 1857
The Prussian Crown Princess Victoria, 1867, painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Prussian constitutional conflict meant that the political differences of opinion between Wilhelm I and his son and heir to the throne Friedrich Wilhelm came to light and ultimately led to the Crown Prince couple becoming increasingly politically isolated at the Prussian court.

Like his father, the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm was convinced that the Prussian military had to be strengthened, but overall he represented more liberal views. In the run-up to the December elections in 1861, he asked his father in a letter not to replace the ministry with a more conservative one in order to avoid accusations that he was returning to reactionary politics. Wilhelm I felt betrayed by his son, not least because democratic newspapers portray the Crown Prince as a friend of their political ideas and as an opponent of the king. On March 18, 1862, Wilhelm I accused his son, in the presence of Minister Alexander von Schleinitz , of being in cahoots with the dismissed ministers and then accused him of disloyalty in a private conversation.

When the conflict escalated further in the course of 1862 and William I was considering his abdication, Crown Princess Victoria urged her husband to accept his father's offer of abdication:

“When the king sees that he cannot take the necessary steps to restore order and trust in the country without acting against his conscience, I find it wise and honest to leave it to others who can take on these duties without their conscience to charge. I see no way out and I think you would have to make this sacrifice to the country ... "

- Crown Princess Victoria to Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm

Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm ultimately refused. A monarch who abdicated because of a parliamentary decision would, in his view, set a unique precedent and make the rule of the succeeding monarchs much more difficult. His refusal to accept his father's abdication in his favor also reflected his understanding of having to fulfill his duties as a son and member of the House of Hohenzollern. Ultimately, however, it was Otto von Bismarck who prevented Wilhelm I from giving up his crown.

The press order and the Danzig episode

Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm retained his critical attitude towards the course of the royal government. When he returned to Prussia after a long trip, he tried to be loyal to his father by abstaining from any comment on politics. However, there was a renewed conflict between the king and the crown prince when the government unconstitutionally restricted the freedom of the press by decrees. There were already signs of such a step by the royal government in May 1863, which the Crown Prince took as an opportunity to carefully warn his father against unconstitutional steps:

“You know, dear papa, how I cling to you with all my soul, how there is no person in the world who is more loyal to you than I, and how your wishes are always commands for me. As your son you will expect me to always be open and honest with you [...] but how can I keep silent when I know your happiness, your reputation, your God-given position, which are one with the happiness of your country , See your children and grandchildren threatened. "

- Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm to Wilhelm I.

In response, Wilhelm I demanded from his son that he speak out against the opposition and support the conservatives. At the same time, on June 1, he issued the so-called press order , an emergency ordinance based on dubious legal principles that restricted the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.

The Crown Prince was aware that any public comment on this pressurelessness would be viewed by his father as a subordination. Nevertheless, on June 4, 1863, he informed him of his resolute rejection of this decree and during a trip to Danzig Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm publicly criticized these far-reaching restrictions on freedom of the press with few and very reserved words. The reaction to this cautious criticism was violent: King Wilhelm I accused his son of disobedience and threatened to release him from his functions within the Prussian army and expel him from the privy council . The reactionary younger brother of Wilhelm I, Prince Carl of Prussia , and General Manteuffel even spoke out in favor of bringing the Crown Prince to court martial. A little later, the Crown Prince informed his father that his conscience forced him to adhere to his position, but emphasized that he would no longer express himself publicly and that he was also willing to retire from his military offices. Wilhelm I did not accept this offer. In August there were two long conversations between father and son, but they did not bring any rapprochement. In September, the Crown Prince asked to be exempted from attending the Council of Ministers meetings because he felt that his mere presence at them would bring him into contact with the measures. He repeated this in November 1863 without this having any effect. In January 1864 there was another argument between father and son. The immediate reason was that Wilhelm I instructed his son not to discuss government matters with the Crown Princess, who was seen as the driving liberal force behind the Crown Prince. During this conversation, which the Crown Prince subsequently described as violent, Wilhelm I had accused his son, among other things, of being a man of the opposition whose actions one had to keep an eye on. Friedrich Wilhelm's biographer Frank Lorenz Müller points out that this attitude shaped Wilhelm's entire remaining reign - which lasted almost a quarter of a century.


  • Official stenographic reports of the negotiations of the Prussian House of Representatives on the military budget. (Separate edition). Berlin 1862. ( digitized version )


  • Gerhard Eisfeld: The emergence of the liberal parties in Germany 1858-1870. Study on the organizations and programs of the Liberals and Democrats . Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, Hannover 1969 (series of publications by the research institute of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Series B: historical-political writings).
  • Frank Lorenz Müller: The 99-day emperor. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. Siedler, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-8275-0017-5 .
  • Jürgen Schlumbohm (Ed.): The Constitutional Conflict in Prussia 1862–1866 (Historical Texts, Modern Times, Vol. 10) . Goettingen 1970.
  • Dierk Walter: Prussian army reforms 1807–1870: military innovation and the myth of the “Roon reform” . Paderborn 2003

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Guntram Schulze-Wegener: Wilhelm I. German Kaiser - King of Prussia - National Myth . Middle. Berlin 2015. p. 277
  2. Guntram Schulze-Wegener: Wilhelm I. German Kaiser - King of Prussia - National Myth . Middle. Berlin 2015. p. 276
  3. ^ Frank Lorenz Müller: The 99-day emperor. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. , P. 32.
  4. ^ Frank Lorenz Müller: The 99-day emperor. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. , P. 33.
  5. ^ Frank Lorenz Müller: The 99-day emperor. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. , P. 33. and p. 34.
  6. ^ Franz Herre : Kaiserin Friedrich - Victoria, an Englishwoman in Germany. Hohenheim Verlag, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-89850-142-6 , p. 92.
  7. Patricia Kolander: Frederick III - Germany's Liberal Emperor. Greenwood Press, Westport 1995, ISBN 0-313-29483-6 , pp. 25-45.
  8. quoted from Frank Lorenz Müller: Der 99-Tage-Kaiser. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. , P. 35 and p. 36.
  9. Patricia Kolander: Frederick III - Germany's Liberal Emperor. Greenwood Press, Westport 1995, ISBN 0-313-29483-6 , pp. 25-45. Pp. 38-42.
  10. ^ Frank Lorenz Müller: The 99-day emperor. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. , P. 37.
  11. ^ Frank Lorenz Müller: The 99-day emperor. Friedrich III. of Prussia - prince, monarch, myth. , P. 39.