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National Liberal Party (Germany)

National Liberal Party
Nationalliberale Partei
Founded 1867 (1867)
Dissolved 1918 (1918)
Merger of German Progress Party, German National Association
Succeeded by German People's Party
Ideology National liberalism (Germany)
Political position Centre-right
International affiliation None
Politics of Germany
Political parties
Leading politicians of the National Liberal Party: Wilhelm Wehrenpfennig, Eduard Lasker, Heinrich von Treitschke, Johannes von Miquel; Bottom row (L-R): Franz von Roggenbach, Karl Braun, Rudolf Gneist, Ludwig Bamberger (woodcut c. 1878).

The National Liberal Party (German: Nationalliberale Partei) was a liberal political party of the German Empire, which flourished between 1867 and 1918.


  • Origins 1
  • Dominance in 1870s 2
  • Decline 3
  • Allies of big business 4
  • World War I 5
  • Further reading 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8


A first national liberal parliamentary group was formed on 17 November 1866 by several right-wing deputies of the German Progress Party in the Prussian Landtag around Eduard Lasker and Hans Victor von Unruh. They put aside their differences with Minister President Otto von Bismarck over domestic policy due to their support for his highly successful foreign policy, which resulted in the unification of Germany as a constitutional monarchy. The National Liberal Party was founded in 1867, it advocated the interests of the Grand Burghers (German Großbürger) and business magnates. Its first chairman was Rudolf von Bennigsen. In the 1871 election the party reached 30.1% of the votes, becoming the strongest group in the Reichstag parliament with 119 seats.

Dominance in 1870s

The National Liberals' period of great dominance was between 1871 and 1879, when they were Bismarck's chief allies in the Reichstag, and were avid supporters of the Kulturkampf measures. The stabilization of the new state was in a large degree only feasible because of National Liberal party support and guidance of Bismarck´s domestic policies, especially in regards to national economics and the legal foundations of the second German empire. Weights and measurements were standardized, a common German market and a national bank, the Reichsbank, created and the numerous regional currencies replaced with the Reichsmark. The liberal economic policies, although temporarily unpopular in the recession of the 1870s, laid the groundworks for the economic boom the German nation experienced at the end of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.


When Bismarck broke with the National Liberals in 1879 and turned to protectionist policies, the shift was so important, that it has been characterized as Bismarck´s "conservative turn". This meant an enduring shift of the Chancellor to the right, which changed the political climate of the fledging nation and soured relations between Bismarck and a number of leading German liberals. Bismarck after 1879 began to favour a more protectionist approach, which violated the free trade principles of both liberal parties, the National-Liberals and the more left-leaning liberal German Progressive Party. One year later the NLP´s left wing, the Liberal Union split off, which merged with the Progressive Party into the German Free-minded Party in 1884. The remaining partisans approached to the Conservatives, being the strongest supporters of von Tirpitz's various Fleet Acts starting in 1898, which pushed Great Britain into an arms race with Germany until World War I.

As for the Kulturkampf, Bismarck deserted the liberals, came to terms with a new, less confrontational Pope, and started working politically with the Catholic Center Party. Historian Hajo Holborn examines the contradictions between the Kulturkampf and liberal values:

only those laws that separated state and church could be defended from a liberal point of view. Full state control over schools was a liberal ideal. It was also logical to introduce the obligatory civil marriage law and entrust civil agencies with the keeping of vital statistics....But all the other measures constituted shocking violations of liberal principles. German liberalism showed no loyalty to the ideas of lawful procedure or of political and cultural freedom which had formerly been its lifeblood. With few exceptions the German liberals were hypnotized by the national state, which they wished to imbue with a uniform pattern of culture. They were unable to recognize that the Kulturkampf was bound to undermine the belief in the Rechtsstaat (government by law) and to divide the German people profoundly.[1]

David Blackbourn says the liberal attacks on the Catholic Church:

left a political legacy that was the opposite of what liberals wanted. It made them beholden to Bismarck; and helped consolidate political Catholicism in Germany.[2]

Allies of big business

The National Liberals came to be closely associated with the interests of big business. Increasingly threatened by the growing strength of the Socialists, the party gradually became more conservative, although it was generally split between a more liberal wing that sought to strengthen ties with the dissident liberals to their left, and a right wing that came to support more protectionist policies and close relations with the Conservatives and the imperial government.

World War I

During World War I, most of the National Liberals, including such leaders of their left wing as Gustav Stresemann, avidly supported the expansionist goals of the imperial government, although they also called for reform at home. Following the war, the party broke up. Stresemann led the main body of the party, including most of its moderate and conservative elements, into the conservative liberal German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei). Its left wing merged with the left-liberal Progressives to form the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei). The extreme right wing of the National Liberals joined the German National People's Party.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. "Voter, Junker, Landrat, Priest: The Old Authorities and the New Franchise in Imperial Germany," American Historical Review (1993) 98#5 pp. 1448–1474 in JSTOR
  • Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. Practicing democracy: Elections and political culture in Imperial Germany (2000).
  • Dorpalen, Andreas. "Emperor Frederick III and the German Liberal Movement," American Historical Review (1948) 54#1 pp. 1–31 in JSTOR
  • Gross, Michael B. "Kulturkampf and unification: German liberalism and the war against the Jesuits." Central European History 30#4 (1997): 545-566. in JSTOR
  • Krieger, Leonard. The German Idea of Freedom: History of a Political Tradition (1957).
  • Mork, Gordon R. "Bismarck and the 'Capitulation' of German Liberalism," Journal of Modern History (1971) 43#1 pp. 59–75 in JSTOR
  • O'Boyle, Lenore. "Liberal Political Leadership in Germany, 1867-1884." Journal of Modern History (1956): 338-352. in JSTOR
  • Sheehan, James J. "Political Leadership in the German Reichstag, 1871-1918." American Historical Review (1968): 511-528. in JSTOR
  • von Strandmann, Hartmut Pogge. "Domestic origins of Germany's colonial expansion under Bismarck." Past and Present (1969): 140-159. in JSTOR
  • Suval, Stanley. Electoral Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (1985) online
  • White, Dan S. The Splintered Party: National Liberalism in Hessen and the Reich, 1867-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1976)

See also

Preceded by
German Progress Party
German liberal parties
Succeeded by
German People's Party
Preceded by
German National Association


  1. ^ Hajo Holborn, A History of Modern Germany: 1840-1945 (1969) p 264
  2. ^ David Blackbourn (2014). Populists and Patricians: Essays in Modern German History. Routledge. p. 160. 
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