Norman Stone
Europe Transformed

In 1893, a 'farmers' league'—Bund der Landwirte—came into existence. It speedily acquired a mass-organization, with its own press. It demanded, for instance, that margarine should be given a hideous gentian colour—the colour of the Reichstag skirting-board—to put the consumer off; margarine was also to have a horrible name, Oeltalg, meaning, roughly, 'oilslick.' A ban on 'vending machines' in railway stations was proposed, and, in Wurttemberg, executed. All of this went together with a portentousness that was uniquely German. The Bund issued its electoral manifesto in 1893 with the words, 'A slow but steady rise in the price of grain has been the hallmark of all the great civilizations.' Department stores were dismissed as an Unwesen ('monstrosity'); emancipation of women, almost all Poles, and Jews, were similar targets for abuse.

This agrarian and mittelstandisch group received some of its support from defectors from the liberals. But it came to dominate the Reichstag in many ways because it acquired the alliance of conservatives and Catholics.

The conservatives were, from the start, a Junker party. They recruited most of their voters and candidates from the lands east of the Elbe, in which two-fifths of the land were held by estates over 5000 acres (as against one-fifth in Germany as a whole). The party was highly nationalist and arch-Prussian; it disliked parliaments; increasingly, it sought to use State power to buttress Junkers' economic position. True, there were some conservatives who looked to the English model—or even the model of the Catholic Zentrumspartei—and tried to open up the party. They set up their own party, the Reichspartei, to champion a more liberal, urban and 'popular' conservatism. Some industrialists supported it, but it never really got off the ground. In view of the attitudes east of the Elbe, there was not much room for such a brand of conservatism—a truth that was again displayed towards the end of the Weimar Republic, when moderate conservative parties were shot down almost as soon as they appeared above the horizon. By 1890, the conservatives were becoming markedly hysterical. The Junkers regarded themselves as the backbone of the country, Frederick the Great's rocher de bronze. But the decline of the lesser gentry in the 'Great Depression' was unmistakable. Junkers had fewer children as they strove to keep up appearances—in 1878, 3.85 per family; in 1888, 3.17; in 1910, 2.85. Lutheran nunneries were filled with Junker daughters whom the family could not afford to maintain or endow. For such groups, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901) could serve as a parable, for it charted the decline of a merchant—patrician family—beginning with a four-square patriarch, proceeding through a run-down of financial and moral standards, and ending with Hanno, in the fourth generation, who is weak-willed to the point of spending his time passively enthusing over Parsifal.

Some Junkers became foolishly indebted; generally, the smaller the Junker estate, the greater the proportion of its value that would be mortgaged; and by the early 1890s, there were widespread demands for State assistance, in the form of a guaranteed State grain price, payable on a grain exchange from which private (mainly Jewish) dealers would be excluded except on the sellers' terms. When the private dealers boycotted this exchange, and established an independent one abroad, some of them were arrested. After 1896, even great estates came under pressure because costs rose. They began to follow the smaller estates into decline, as also happened elsewhere in Europe. The burden of debt became so great after 1900 that Junker spokesmen were desperate to find a new entail law—a way by which an estate could be preserved for ever in a single family, but without losing its capacity to act as collateral for a loan. The complications of this scheme preoccupied the Prussian parliament even in the last months of the empire. Even in April 1917, when Germany's leaders were desperately trying to parade their country as a parliamentary democracy, the conservatives in the Landtag took up most of its time in debate on the entail question. To frustrate the opposition of liberal deputies, they managed to tie the entail bill with a law concerning the daily attendance allowances of Landtag members such that opposition to the one would also mean opposition to the other—which, clearly, the liberal members could not afford. That same tactic was used in 1902 when the Reichstag debated Bulow's tariff, and the left threatened to obstruct proceedings. Similarly, there was a great scandal around 1900 when conservatives in Prussia, some of them very highly placed officials, obstructed proceedings in order to stop the government from building a canal from the Rhine to the Oder. This—the Mittelland-Kanal—would have let cheap grain into east Elbian Prussia. The obstruction was such that the canal was not properly started until after the war (and it was not finished until 1937). In such contexts, the Junkers' claim to superior virtue in matters of tax-payment could only sound hollow. Indeed, one of their leaders, Hammerstein, was convicted of a cheque-fraud in 1897. There was an uncontrollable revolte nobiliaire.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.