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Landholding Inequality, Political Strategy, and Authoritarian Repression: Structure and Agency in Bismarck’s “Second Founding” of the German Empire


Canonical works and recent studies posit that authoritarian repression, like that targeting Social Democrats during the “Second Founding” of the German Empire, depends on structural factors such as landholding inequality. However, at this juncture, the role of these variables was more complex than that in the “grand sweep” of German history. Liberal support for the 1878 Antisocialist Law was the result of an interaction between the strategy of the government and structures in society at large. Public outcry surrounding an assassination attempt on the Kaiser was provoked by the Chancellor through the press, and utilized as a political instrument by calling new elections. Liberals contesting districts with high landholding inequality came under conservative pressure led by landed aristocrats, and were forced to take up stances supporting repression. This first step in the “Second Founding” of the Empire marked an important move away from liberal governance which precluded democratic reform in Imperial Germany.

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  1. 1.

    Of course, not all democratization scholars locate the determinants of regime change on the structural level, and would disagree with the structural interpretation of the German experience. For example, Gandhi and Przeworski (2007) and Svolik and Boix (2013) would emphasize the role of institutions such as political parties and the Reichstag in eliciting support of regime outsiders or sharing power with rival elites, respectively. Accounts such as those by O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986) and Przeworski (1991) would highlight the complex and uncertain nature of transitions to or away from democracy and the strategic choices of elites during these processes. In this paper, I analyze the impact of institutional dynamics, such as parliamentary elections and roll-call votes, along with elite strategies and structural forces on a concrete example of authoritarian repression.

  2. 2.

    Although they also include a brief discussion of the fragmentation of civil society in determining repression costs (ibid, pp. 191–192), they quickly move on to their primary point about the decisive role of economic factors.

  3. 3.

    By voting for the Antisocialist Law, liberals therefore decreased the “cost” of repression to the government, to use the language of Acemoglu and Robinson (2006).

  4. 4.

    Herbert Bismarck won 45.6 % of the vote to Hammacher’s 50.1 %. His father was furious at the result (ibid).

  5. 5.

    See Statistisches Reichsamt (1879, pp. 387–389). The content of the first and second Antisocialist bills was the same: they banned Social Democratic publications, organizations, and public meetings. The various drafts of the bills can be compared in Pack (1961, pp. 242–263).

  6. 6.

    This vote was characterized by a remarkably high number of liberal members reporting as “sick” or abstaining, however. Comparing this to the account given by Pack, I conclude that these members were part of a pro-government faction (“20 to 30 members” according to Pack (1961, p. 39)), within the right-leaning National Liberal party who were in favor of the bill but would not openly break party ranks. I count their votes as “yes” votes in the following statistical analysis to ensure the validity of my results. This is a similar problem to that encountered by Ziblatt (2008), and my solution is in line with his.

  7. 7.

    A robustness test which models party wins in the 1877 election gives substantively identical results.

  8. 8.

    Post-estimation analysis with SPost in Stata (Long and Freese 2006).

  9. 9.

    Interestingly, the predicted probability of a repressive vote decreases again above a landholding Gini of 0.72. Because the confidence intervals around these point estimates are very large, I do not place much emphasis on these results. However, an explanation lies in the nature of the landholding inequality data. Inequality is not only very high in areas dominated by landed Junkers, but also in large cities: Berlin and Hamburg have landholding Ginis of 0.88 and 0.85, respectively. Thus, the power of landed elites is captured perfectly only at moderately high levels of landholding inequality; at very high levels, the data could also be pointing to high population density in cities, where most people do not own any land, explaining the large confidence intervals around the predicted probabilities.


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This paper benefited greatly from input by Ben Ansell, John Freeman, Jane Gingrich, David Samuels and Dan Berliner. Jonas Bunte, Gary King, Lucas Lockhart, Andrew Lucius, August Nimtz, Adam Olson, W. Phillips Shively, Rafael Tarrago, Shawn Treier and Daniel Ziblatt all provided helpful comments and advice. Günter Hinkes at the Statistisches Bundesamt gave information on data availability. I also thank anonymous reviewers for their input.

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Correspondence to Henry Thomson.

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All remaining errors are my own.

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Thomson, H. Landholding Inequality, Political Strategy, and Authoritarian Repression: Structure and Agency in Bismarck’s “Second Founding” of the German Empire. St Comp Int Dev 50, 73–97 (2015).

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  • Authoritarianism
  • Democratization
  • Germany
  • Social Democracy
  • Landholding inequality