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Bismarck’s Reichstag Speech on the Law for Workers’ Compensation (March 15, 1884)

Part of the social welfare legislation announced in Kaiser Wilhelm I’s Royal Proclamation of November 17, 1881 was a workers’ compensation law, which passed only on the third attempt, in 1884. The following excerpt is from one of Bismarck’s Reichstag speeches in defense of the program of paternalistic social reforms in general and accident insurance for workers in particular. Here, Bismarck is determined to show that his government, not the Social Democratic Party, deserves praise for introducing these reforms. He also tries to calm liberal worries that the state is intervening in the affairs of the workplace, where (liberals believed) the individual capitalist entrepreneur should hold sway. His reform proposal, Bismarck declares, is no “socialist fad.”

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If in the general debate I speak about the matter under discussion, it cannot be my intention to enter into exhaustive discourse about the whole of the subject that concerns us, and even less to anticipate in any way the special debate over the great number of articles that the proposal contains. I do consider it necessary, however, to say a few words concerning the position of the allied governments* with respect to the genesis of the present proposal and to the intentions that they hold in regard to the bill. Indeed, I should best address my remarks to a discussion of those objections that were made in the previous debate against the principle of the law in general in order to maintain a coherent focus.

I turn first to the remarks of the first speaker, Deputy von Vollmar.**

[ . . . ]

First, Representative von Vollmar avowed a certain satisfaction, which was not free from malicious pleasure, that the lofty socialist intentions that may have been the basis of the first version of this proposal had disappeared. Yes, gentlemen, but this is only seemingly the case. [ . . . ] That which we refrain today from presenting has not been consigned to the fire, but only put back in reserve. We have to explore a terra incognita. This field of legislation was first set foot on by Germany in 1871 with the law on liability. [ . . . ] At that time we eventually convinced ourselves that the difficulties become all the greater, the wider the front on which we advance, while we attempt to march through the narrow gate of your consent. We have for the present restricted ourselves – and to be sure on my own motion, and therefore I believe it my duty to comment on this matter – to the most limited and necessary scope. My colleague von Boetticher already explained yesterday that we do not thereby intend to abandon and not take heed of the remaining occupational groups, but we wish only to be on guard against those dangers to which the proverb alludes, that the better is the enemy of the good. When one attempts too much at one time, one runs the danger of achieving nothing. I wish that we and the present Reichstag might have the honor of at least doing something, and at least making a beginning in this area and thereby taking the lead among European states. Restraint is justified by the consideration that the more comprehensive the proposal is, the more are diverse interests affected, [ . . . ] so that the acceptance of the law becomes that much more difficult. [ . . . ]

[ . . . ]

* I.e., the states, including Prussia, which were united in the government of the German Empire.–ED. [All footnotes are from Jan Goldstein and John W. Boyer, eds, University of Chicago, Readings in Western Civilization, vol. 8, Nineteenth-Century Europe: Liberalism and Its Critics.]
** Georg Heinrich von Vollmar (1850–1922), German Social Democratic leader.–ED.

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