Eugen Richter on War and Empire


Somehow, in my last column I wandered into 19th-century Germany. I wish to dwell there long enough to say something about perhaps the most echt (“genuine”) of all late 19th-century German liberals, Eugen Richter. Anyone who has suffered through a standard course on the history of that period will have learned that, after the failure of the 1848 Revolution, most German liberals became National Liberals. As such, they were quite happy to support the efforts of Prussia to impose unity on Germany by force.

The force involved came in the series of minor wars orchestrated by the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, culminating in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Bismarck’s wars were “minor” by 20th-century standards, although the last one showed perhaps a tendency towards modern total war, a tendency largely unrealized because the war did not last all that long. When the dust had settled, Germany had been united as a Bundesstaat (federation), as opposed to a Staatenbund (union of states or confederacy).

Unity at Prussian hands realized the kleindeutsch (“small German”) program of excluding Austria from the new Germany. This left no internal counterweight to Prussia, the largest state, although – as I noted in my last column – federal elements sometimes restricted the centralizing intentions of the Prussian dynasty, bureaucracy, and army. Many National Liberals favored this outcome because they regarded Protestant Prussia as inherently more progressive than Catholic Austria.

Like Napoleon III in France and Disraeli in Britain, Bismarck presided over the granting of universal manhood suffrage. These conservative statesmen did so on the assumption that their political allies could make appeals to working class voters of a kind that liberals could not, without violating liberal principles. The result in Germany was a multi-party system in the Reichstag (the popular branch of government), which included the National Liberals, the Catholic Center Party, Social Democrats, and various agrarian and conservative parties.

Bismarck thus had more than one choice of potential allies with which to build a governing coalition. In 1879, he famously went over to protective tariffs, breaking his long-standing alliance with the National Liberals. A cynic would say that all that the National Liberals had gotten from their support of Bismarck – aside from unification – was free trade and the Rechtsstaat (“rule of law”), and in 1879 they had lost free trade.


There were a couple of liberal groupings to the “Left” of the National Liberals, which had never made acceptance of scraps from Bismarck’s table their political program. One of these was the Deutsche Freisinnige Partei (Freisinn – roughly, “free-minded” – for short). Their most consistent and able parliamentary leader and spokesman was undoubtedly Eugen Richter (1838-1906).

Richter was born in Düsseldorf. He studied political science in Bonn and, later, Heidelberg, where he also studied public finance. From a liberal family, Richter became engrossed with politics and by 1884 he headed the Freisinn.

The party was “Left-liberal” at a time when that meant adherence to the genuine liberal ideas of free trade, limited, constitutional government, free markets, and peace. Caught between the German Right, with its conservative welfare state pioneered by Bismarck, and the Social Democratic Left with its Marxism, Richter was forced to conduct a “two-front” struggle for the program of laissez faire liberalism. This he continued to do, almost down to his death, despite continual political defeat and defection from the ranks. Historian Ralph Raico sees Richter as the last real liberal of any importance sitting in any European parliament at the end of the 19th century.


Richter has not done well at the hands of historians, German or otherwise. For them, he is the paradigmatic “petty bourgeois penny-pincher” who served the narrow interests of the middle classes – freedom, prosperity, peace: those negligible things – when he could have had a great social or national vision, indeed a great national-social vision. Richter gets little notice, and historians misunderstand him with almost premeditated hostility.

One reason is his line on German domestic policy. Richter was a thoroughgoing opponent of state intervention – welfarism, subsidies to business, and socialism – whether brought forward by the Right or the Left. Bismarck despised Richter’s constant drumfire of criticism, but had to concede that Richter was a master of budgetary details and “the best speaker that we had” in the Reichstag.

Richter’s constant defense of civil liberties, his calls for limits on public spending, and the rest did not sit well with the Iron Chancellor. Richter sought to promote the free growth of German civil society and to prevent its absorption by the modern and modernizing state. Thus, he did not support Bismarck’s famous assault on German Catholicism, the Kulturkampf, and he opposed those political parties which were beginning to dabble in anti-Semitism as a means of gaining support.

As for Bismarck’s integrated program of workers’ pensions, tariffs, and subsidies to industry, Richter saw therein the unleashing of a thousand Sonderinteressen (“special interests”), which would raid the public treasury and distort the workings of the German economy. This benefited no one, other than the special interests and certain political actors. Even the apparent gains to workers were being paid for – by the workers themselves.


If Bismarck and the Imperial authorities disliked Richter’s running battle against their domestic policies, they must have really hated his critique of their military and foreign policies. This field was, in their minds, the exclusive prerogative of the Kaiser, his ministers, and his armed forces. They did not like having to put up with complaints from a representative of the mere middle-class taxpayers.

Ralph Raico notes that Richter was “famous for his fight against militarism and Weltpolitik.” Weltpolitik (“world policy”), which grew worse after the young Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck as Chancellor, involved a dangerous tendency to self-assertion by the German Empire. In the circumstances of the late 19th century this could only contribute to a destabilization of European international relations. Richter quipped that Weltpolitik meant that “one wishes to be everywhere, where something has gone wrong.”

Richter consistently resisted all military spending and all war which was not directly linked to genuine self-defense of the German nation. Private interests might wish to found colonies overseas, as in Africa, but the German state should not play a role in such efforts. Since this – private colonization – was unlikely to happen, Richter in effect opposed German colonialism. He remarked that such efforts simply transferred wealth from the relatively propertyless at home to more prosperous persons who wished to acquire and protect overseas investments at public expense.

The expansion of the German fleet was another pet project of the authorities, and business interests that wanted shipbuilding contracts. Richter rightly pointed out that such expansion could have no rational connection with German defense. Instead, the naval buildup – big enough to appear threatening, too small to make any military difference in a major war – could only serve to worsen Germany’s relations with England. This would make war more likely. Admiral Tirpitz, spearhead of the naval expansionists, considered Richter “my most unsparing opponent.”

Richter’s sole deviation from his anti-imperialist critique lay in his support for the German sphere of influence in China. This inconsistency may have resulted from his lack of an overall theory of imperialism. Still, as Raico observes, it is interesting that Richter’s last vote in the Reichstag in 1904 was in opposition to expenditures for a protectorate in Togo. For Richter, it was not the glory of the monarch but the welfare of the people – understood as resting on free markets and private property – that was the true goal of all policy.


In the light of what took place after Richter’s death – in the name of public greatness and the like – it is remarkable that the man receives so little credit for his critique of militarism and adventurist foreign policy. Socialist historians disdain him as a frontman for the bourgeoisie. That middle-class elements might have had as much natural interest in peace as workers is lost on them. Non-socialist historians fault Richter for his lack of national vision.

Had there been more Eugen Richters in all the parliaments of Europe prior to 1914, the 20th century might have been a good deal less dramatic. Instead, the Jingoists and the Social Reformers got together, as someone said of the United States in the age of Teddy Roosevelt, and got together in every major nation. Of the case at which we having been looking, F. A. Hayek put it this way: “the union of the anticapitalist forces of the Right and of the Left, the fusion of radical and conservative socialism,… drove out of Germany everything that was liberal.”


Ralph Raico, “Eugen Richter and Late German Manchester Liberalism: A Reevaluation,” Review of Austrian Economics, 4 (1990), pp. 3-25, and Die Partei der Freiheit (Stuttgart: Lucius & Lucius, 1999), chapter on Richter, pp. 87-151. F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), p. 168.