Why was Bismarck against Socialism? (and what he did against it!)

Otto von Bismarck is known for many things. But one of the most notable apart from his major role in the unification of the German states into the German Empire is his fight against the newly developed political idea of Socialism and Social democracy.

But why did Bismarck dislike Socialism when unlike today he did not have historical evidence of what Socialism could lead to? And what did Bismarck do against Socialism?

Since the Paris Commune of 1871 Socialism was equated with anarchy. And since socialists were able to increase their seats in the German parliament in every election, conservatives became nervous. Two failed assassination attempts on emperor Wilhelm I that were erroneously ascribed to the socialists and the following elections gave Bismack the power to introduce the Anti-Socialist Laws on October 18th, 1878.

Let`s find out more.

The development of Socialism until the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878

In order to be able to present why Otto von Bismarck was so opposed to Socialism, I would like to give a brief overview of the Idea of Socialism and how it emerged during the first half of the 18th century.

Socialism is a political idea inspired by the values of the French revolution and that aims to create a solidaristic society in which freedom and equality thrive. One major matter of concern is the abolition of the practice of people ruling over people!

The idea of Socialism originated as a result of the social changes the industrial revolution brought with it. While prior to the industrial revolution most goods were produced by hand, usually by homeworkers and not in factories, that changed with the invention of steam-powered machines.

The Industrial Revolution as a catalyst for socialist ideas

Before the invention of these steam-powered machines many craftsmen, weavers, for example, would work at home. They would get the raw materials, weave cloths and these clothes would then be picked up.

So there was no need for the workers to leave the rural areas where they often also had some degree of self-sufficient agriculture and move to the cities.

That changed with the Industrial revolution. The German states actually only started industrializing in 1835, which is a little bit later than for example England.

Suddenly factories were established in which machines were able to produce more goods at a cheaper price. Now the practice of delivering raw materials to homeworkers was no longer economical. Most of these homeworkers had no other choice than to leave their homes, move to the cities, and find work in one of the countless new factories.

The masses of former homeworkers migrating into the cities soon became known as Proletarians and lived in crowded quarters without any kind of social security at the subsistence level.

The living conditions for the members of the Proletariat were incredibly hard. Not only did they not have any sort of precaution for the case of illness, accidents, or getting too old to work. As a result of the poor living conditions domestic violence and alcoholism also spread.

These precarious living conditions of large parts of the population on the one side and the new class of wealthy industrial tycoons on the other side favored the rise of Socialism and Communism. And in 1847/1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto presenting the way for the liberation of mankind from Suppression and exploitation.

While the sense of unity among the working class wasn`t really developed yet, the ideas of Socialism presented by Marx and Engels had already put down the foundation for future political workers’ movements.

Over the next years, especially during the 1860s the worker’s movement and socialist ideas would grow rapidly. And these political workers’ movements bring us to the problem Bismarck had with Socialism.

Why was Bismarck against Socialism

In order to find out why Bismarck opposed Socialism we first have to take a brief look at Otto von Bismarck as a person.

The political ideas of Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck was born on April, 1st 1815 as the second son of a Junker, a member of the land-owning Prussian nobility. The wealth of the Junkers was based on their large estates that were worked by peasants who only had very few rights. Since only the oldest son would inherit the family estate the younger sons were the backbone of both the Prussian military and politics.

It should not come as a surprise considering his upbringing that the young Bismarck made a name for himself as being an ultra-conservative and reactionary royalist.

During the liberal revolution of 1848 in Prussia and all over Europe Bismarck once more proved his stance as a conservative hardliner. And while the Prussian king at first appeased the revolutionaries by appointing a liberal president minister and promising to promulgate a constitution the liberal movement failed in late 1848 due to infighting.

By the way, many of these liberal revolutionaries immigrated into the US where they were called the Forthy-Eighters, more on them and why German immigrants often settled in the midwest here.

After the liberal revolutions of 1848 had failed Bismarck was voted into the Landtag in 1849 where he opposed the idea of a German unification because he feared Prussia would lose its independence.

He later changed his stance on the German unification and became its architect, more on that here.

So we can state that Otto von Bismarck was a conservative royalist who was born on an estate that was worked by peasants with very limited rights. I think it becomes clear why Bismarck was skeptical about Socialism.

The first socialist organizations and parties

But his skepticism intensified during the 1860s when the workers started to organize themself in unions, clubs, and political parties.

In 1863 the lawyer Ferdinand Lassalle had started the first german workers’ party. And while Karl Marx in London maintained the idea of a revolutionary international Socialism Ferdinand Lassalle believed that a national workers party that tried to achieve successes in small steps and WITHIN the existing system was the way to go.

Now since Ferdinand Lassalle died in 1864 during a duel it was mostly due to his successors Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel that the german workers movement took a more Marxist turn when they founded the Social democratic workers’ party.

By the way, in 1891 the social-democratic workers’ party and the socialist workers’ party of Germany would merge into the Social democratic party of Germany (SPD). And the SPD is still active today making it not only the oldest german party but as of 2021 also the party to provide the current German Chancellor.

But let`s return to the question of why Bismarck was against socialism.

Bismarck’s main problem was that the Socialists and Social democrats were popular and started to rapidly gain seats in the parliament! In the first election for the german parliament in march of 1871 the Social democrats had only archived two seats (of 382). In 1874 they got nine seats and in 1878 already 12 seats.

So the Social Democrats and Socialists were picking up steam. And that didn`t only concern Bismarck, large parts of the bourgeoisie also feared an international socialist revolution. That fear can be traced back to the Paris Commune of 1871.

Between March 18th and May 28th, 1871 a revolutionary government was able to seize control over Paris. Since Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists played a major role during that time large parts of the German bourgeoisie now connected Socialism to anarchy.

And the fact that the Paris Commune had also abolished child labor and had given workers the right to take over a business when the owner had deserted it frightened the industrial tycoons.

The last feather to break the camel’s back were two failed attempts of assassinating the German Emperor Wilhelm I that were erroneously ascribed to the socialists.

These two assassination attempts and the following elections gave Bismarck the legitimation (and the new conservative majority) he needed to introduce his Anti-Socialist Laws on October 18th, 1878.

Now one might ask why Bismarck had not dealt with the Socialists before 1878.

Well first of all his main enemy before the political worker organizations was the catholic church. After Austria was no longer a part of the German Confederation, more on that here, the number of Catholics had declined within the German confederation from 52% to only 37%.

The following dispute between the pope and Prussia, especially over the clerical control over education, ecclesiastical appointments, and a resolution over the infallibility of the Pope, would result in the Kulturkampf (=culture struggle) between 1872 and 1878. Only after that conflict was resolved Bismarck could turn against the Socialists.

So let`s now look at the measures Otto von Bismarck took against the Socialists.

What did Bismarck do against Socialism?

In order to minimize the influence of Socialism Otto von Bismarck used a two-pronged strategy.

To impede any socialist organizations Bismarck introduced Anti-socialist laws. But he realized that just prohibiting socialist organizations would not remove the core of the problem so he also introduced social reforms (like old-age and accident insurance) to improve the conditions of the Proletariat and reduce the appeal of socialist politics.

Let`s look at both aspects separately.

Bismarcks Anti-Socialist Laws

In May of 1878, a mentally challenged man had shot at emperor Wilhelm I but had missed him.

Although the attempt was not politically motivated Bismarck used the incident to try to pass a law that would outlaw Social democracy. But because the liberal parties still had a majority in the Parliament his attempt to pass the law was voted down with 251 against 67 votes.

But shortly after that incident, there was another assassination attempt on the emperor.

And that time the assassin didn`t miss but severely wounded Wilhelm I. Conveniently the new parliament was also voted around and that time the liberal parties rapidly lost while the conservatives gained seats.

The new conservative strength in parliament allowed Bismarck to introduce his Anti-Socialist Laws on October 18th, 1878. They would be extended several times until 1890. All socialist clubs, gatherings, and publications were outlawed and police got permission to act against party- and union members.

The Anti-Socialist Laws also led to the prohibition of 244 clubs as well as 491 newspapers and pamphlets but also pushed Socialists, Social Democrats, and Unions into illegality damaging the connection between the working class and the newly founded German Empire.

More how the different german states were unified and what role Bismarck played in my article here.

But although Socialists and Social Democrats were massively impeded they did not disappear. And since the Social Democrats were one of the parties that had been voted into parliament Bismarck did not have the power to completely prohibit them.

As a result, the parliamentary group of the SPD (the social democrats) would gain a leading role within the working class. The speeches of its members were so popular that prints of these speeches were distributed all over Germany.

Even though Bismarck tried to prohibit Socialist and Social democratic activities he failed. When the Anti-Socialist Laws ended in 1890 the worker’s movement (and the Social democrats) had gotten stronger than ever before.

Bismarck being the sharp politician he was had realized early on that just prohibiting the Socialist and Social democratic ideas would not destroy the reason why socialism was so popular among the working class.

And that reason was the conditions under which the Working-class had to work and live.

So to reduce the appeal of socialist ideas Bismarck didn`t only rely on prohibiting socialist activities but also started reforms and programs to better the lives of the working class.

And we will look at these reforms and programs in the next paragraph!

Bismarcks social politics

It was on November 17th, 1881 that Bismarck announced his goal of improving the conditions for the working class to the parliament.

Bismarcks created a type of state socialism to defeat real socialism by taking care of the social concerns of wide parts of the population. In 1883 a mandatory health insurance for factory workers was agreed on. In 1884 it was decided that employers had to provide accident insurance, in 1889 an Old age and disability insurance followed.

Now, these attempts to improve the conditions for the working class were not the first ones.

On March 9th, 1839 a law had been passed prohibiting children under the age of 9 from working in factories or mining operations. Now it is also important to state that the law was not passed only because the authorities suddenly cared for the wellbeing of the children in Prussia.

The law had another, much more Prussian background.

In 1828 the Prussian general von Horn had realized that due to children working as long and as hard as adults the number of healthy recruits for the Prussian army dwindled.

It was the risk of not being able to find enough recruits that convinced Prussian authorities to create the first anti-child-labor laws on March 9th, 1839.

By the way, these laws were not greeted by the industrial tycoons or the parents of the child laborers. Obviously, both groups had different reasons for disapproving of the law to outlaw child labor.

The industrial tycoon feared that their profits would shrink if they would now have to employ adults (who had to be paid a full wage) and not children, who could be paid much less.

The parents of the children were also not happy about the laws that would prevent their children from working as early as the age of 6. The reason why these parents were against the law was actually quite sad.

The wages, even for adults, were so low that many families had no other choice than to also send their young children to work in order to survive.

So as mentioned. When I talk about the dire conditions the working class had to endure during the industrial revolution I really mean dire!

But let`s now turn to the social politics Bismarck introduced:

The Health Insurance Bill (1883)

In 1883 all factory workers were obliged to get Health Insurance. The dues for the health insurance were split in half, one half was paid by the employee and the other half by the employer. Medical aid and drugs were made cost-free, and when an employee would get sick he would get paid 50% of his wage for the next 26 weeks.

The Accident Insurance Bill (1884)

The Accident insurance bill bound employers to get accident insurance for all their workers. In case of an accident during worktime, the worker who had the accident and who was injured so badly that he could not return to work would get 2/3 of his wage as a pension. In case a worker died in an accident his widow would get 20% of his wage as pension.

These fatal accidents happend quite regularly. For example: Eight workers died during the construction of the Titanic and several others lost limbs during accidents. Please check out my article here for more information on the 3 reasons why the Titanic was so special.

The Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889)

In 1889 a bill was passed making it mandatory for every employee to pay 5% of his wage into an Old Age and Disability insurance. The insurance would pay as soon as the employee turned 70 (which only a really small percentage of workers would archive).

How effective were Bismarcks Anti-Socialist Laws and his Social laws?

So we now talked a lot about why Bismarck was against Socialism, how he used laws to prohibit socialist organizations and pamphlets, and how he tried to improve the living conditions of the workers to make socialist policies less appealing to them.

But one question remains: Was Bismarck successful in pushing back Socialism?

Well, actually no.

While Bismarcks` attempts to improve the living conditions of the workers were remarkable they at first only helped industrial workers and not all workers.

And while Bismarcks` idea of social programs including health insurance for everybody would act as a model for several countries and is still the foundation of Germany`s modern-day social system it had its limitations. The pensions that were paid were so low that it was hard to live off them and most workers wouldn`t even get close to the age of 70 after which the Old Age insurance would pay.

So while Bismarck’s social programs certainly contributed to keeping the social peace in the newly created German Empire they would not drive back socialist or social-democratic ideas. When the Anti-Socialist Laws ended in 1890 the workers’ movement and the parties connected to it grew stronger than ever before.

And after World War I and the monarch had ended it was actually a social democrat, Friedrich Ebert, who would become the first president of the Weimar Republic. But the story of the Weimar Republic with its many flaws (being a democracy without democrats is one of them) is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


F. Herre: Bismarck. Der preußische Deutsche (Köln 1991).

C. Graf von Krockow: Bismarck (Stuttgart 1997).