The Kaiser's Voters: Electors and Elections in Imperial Germany

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Date: Summer 1999
Publisher: MIT Press Journals
Document Type: Book review
Length: 708 words

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The Kaiser's Voters: Electors and Elections in Imperial Germany. By Jonathan Sperber (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997) 389 pp. $59.95

This interesting book combines the methods of history and political science to offer a new interpretation of politics during the Second Empire. Sperber undertakes a sophisticated statistical analysis of voting behavior, and then draws on his extensive reading in the secondary literature both to weigh interpretations by other scholars and to offer his own.

The author leaves technical statistical discussion for the Appendix, but early in the book, he explains his use of ecological regression "with appropriately selected variables" and discusses the aggregate data available and its limits (12). Assuming a dynamic rather than a static electorate, Sperber analyzes his data in several ways, examining voting patterns from one election to another; separating Protestants and religious minorities from Catholics; and, for the Wilhelmine period, breaking the voting population down by class as well as confession. Throughout, he is also clear about the need to recognize non-voters, who declined as a percentage over time, and new voters, who grew in importance as the population rapidly expanded.

Sperber agrees with other historians that the election of 1890 marks a break in German political life, although he finds modern political forms beginning rather than fully evolved. He argues that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) fought the election with a modern and sophisticated set of organizations and strategies, and that the Center Party and the conservatives (with the help of the Agrarian League) were quick to follow.

The author also agrees that civil society expanded in Wilhelmine Germany, along with a political culture of engagement and debate about substantive issues. He points especially to the importance of economic policy to voting, locating a pattern in which elections fought on nationalist themes were followed by those emphasizing economic issues--tariffs, taxes, and fami prices. In both sorts of elections, voters considered policy; even the nationalist 1907 "Hottentot" election focusing on Germany's colonies, claims Sperber, raised questions about the nature of the Gemian state and Gemian foreign policy.

This characterization of German elections is linked to Sperber's compelling account of political life during the course of the Empire, in which parties changed as much as voters. The author challenges established viewpoints, especially Lepsius' presentation of fixed "milieus" in which voters were located, and Rohe's notion of a national grouping of voters who switched only between the conservative and liberal parties. (1) Sperber presents a pattern of voter shifts and uncovers some surprising party support, in addition to insisting that the greatest cleavage in the Second Empire was confessional.

After 1900, Sperber argues, the National Liberal Party was neither in decline nor part of a nationalist camp. It attracted voters from many competing parties, as well as non-voters and new voters. In many ways, it was a "people's party"--like the Social Democratic party; beginning with the election of 1890, it won votes from Protestant fanners, members of the urban middle class, and workers. After 1900, the SPD also received a number of votes from the Catholic working class, and even from anticlerical middle-class Catholics in the south.

In his final chapter, Sperber offers a number of comparisons with other times and countries. Looking at Germany longitudinally, he presents evidence that the Nazis comprised a "people's party," drawing voters from the same shifting groups that had supported the right in the 1890s. What he discovers, however, is not so much a direct continuity as a potential realized only in the context of a lost war, a revolution, and economic chaos.

The volume suggests many new directions for scholarship, especially regarding the liberal and socialist parties in the Second Empire and in the Weimar Republic; the relationship between mass associational life and voting, which would bring women into the picture; and the importance of particular elements of social and economic policy in voters' evaluations of different parties. Sperber gives readers new insights into Wilhelmine Germany and lays the basis for important future work.

Carole Elizabeth Adams

University of Central Florida

(1) M. Rainer Lepsius, "Parteisystem und Sozialstruktur: zum Problem der Demokratisierung der deutschen Gesellschaft," in G. A. Ritter (ed.), Die deutschen Parteien vor 1918 (Cologne, 1973); Karl Rohe, Wahlen und Wahlertraditionen in Deutschland (Frankfurt am Main, 1992).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A443988560