Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Otto von Bismarck, Imperial Germany’s chancellor, attempted to preempt the rising Social Democratic movement in the empire by introducing various social welfare measures to benefit Germany’s workers. Bismarck’s social security programs marked the beginning of what would become known as the welfare state.

Summary of Event

In 1881, Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Imperial Germany since its formation in 1871, introduced into the German Reichstag Germany;Reichstag , or parliament, the Accident Insurance Bill, which aimed to provide pensions for laborers who were injured while working in the nation’s most dangerous industries. During the next several years, Bismarck’s leadership led to the passage of several such insurance laws, together constituting the first comprehensive social welfare measures to be adopted in the industrial world. Germany;social security programs Social security, German Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and social security[Social security] William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and social security[Social security] [kw]Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany (1881-1889) [kw]Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany, Bismarck (1881-1889) [kw]Social Security Programs in Germany, Bismarck Introduces (1881-1889) [kw]Programs in Germany, Bismarck Introduces Social Security (1881-1889) [kw]Germany, Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in (1881-1889) Germany;social security programs Social security, German Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and social security[Social security] William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and social security[Social security] [g]Germany;1881-1889: Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany[5120] [c]Government and politics;1881-1889: Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany[5120] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1881-1889: Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany[5120] [c]Social issues and reform;1881-1889: Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany[5120] Lohmann, Theodor

Bismarck had been the primary force in bringing about the German Empire, Germany;empire or the Second Reich, in 1871. A conservative Prussian aristocrat, he had used his Machiavellian diplomatic skills in peace and war to weld the several German Germany;unification of states into an empire dominated by Prussia. Together, the German states formed a nation in the heart of Europe that changed the political and military balance of power on the Continent. The industrial development of the empire’s economy was such that by the 1880’s, Germany was challenging Great Britain’s economic supremacy. The Iron Chancellor, as Bismarck was known, continued to dominate the new Germany in the two decades after its unification. Under his guidance, the empire forged a series of alliances aimed at ensuring its international security by isolating France. Domestically, he was equally effective at overcoming potential opponents and challengers.

Always an advocate of a centralized, even authoritarian, state, Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Roman Catholic Church[Roman Catholic Church] perceived two of his enemies during the 1870’s to be the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;in Germany[Germany] and the socialists, including the government’s Social Democratic Party. Social Democratic Party (Germany) Germany;Social Democratic Party Bismarck was Prussian, and the kingdom of Prussia dominated Imperial Germany. Moreover, as a Protestant—like most Prussians—Bismarck was concerned about southern Germany’s Catholic influence. Although Bismarck was conservative, most liberals in Germany and elsewhere were opposed to Pope Pius IX’s Roman Catholic Church;Syllabus of Errors Syllabus of Errors Pius IX [p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Syllabus of Errors[Syllabus of Errors] condemnation of all forms of liberalism and modernism in his Syllabus of Errors (1864). They were also concerned by his dogma of papal infallibility, promulgated in 1870 by the First Vatican Council. A number of laws were passed during the Kulturkampf, Germany;Kulturkampf Kulturkampf Roman Catholic Church;and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf] or culture war, against the Catholic Church. These included the requirement of a civil rather than religious marriage, the banning of the Jesuits, and the monitoring of clerical education. However, by 1878, Bismarck had largely abandoned his campaign against the Catholic Church in favor of his new nemesis, the socialists.

Industrialization in Germany accelerated during the 1860’s and 1870’s, creating a sizeable industrial working class that made up a majority of the population in many German cities. The economic depression of the early 1870’s led to the formation in 1875 of the Social Democratic Party, a socialist party with some Marxist Marxism;and socialism[Socialism] influences. The party was adamantly opposed to the traditional liberal nostrums of lower tariffs Tariffs;German and free trade as means to solve the empire’s economic problems.

Bismarck attacked the Social Democratic Party’s leaders, claiming they were committed to revolution, destruction, and anarchy. Bismarck, who knew little of Marxism, sincerely believed that socialism was a danger not only to those who owned property but also to the unity of Germany itself. Moreover, it was a good political strategy for Bismarck to isolate the socialists and gain the support of the middle classes. Two failed assassination William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];assassination attempts on attempts on the life of Emperor William I in 1878 gave Bismarck the opportunity to force through the Reichstag Germany;Reichstag the Anti-Socialist Law, which outlawed all socialist, social democratic, and communist organizations. The Social Democratic Party was weakened, as were many labor unions, but the party survived, because its members could still run for office and could not be prevented from meeting at the Reichstag once they were elected.

Otto von Bismarck.

(Library of Congress)

Against the Catholics, Bismarck had relied upon the liberals, including the National Liberal National Liberal Party Germany;National Liberal Party Party. His move against the socialists had split the liberals, not because they had any sympathy for the socialist economic program, but rather because some liberals were advocates of laissez-faire practices and limited governmental power. These liberals were committed to civil rights and opposed Bismarck’s heavy-handed repression of his political foes. After isolating the socialists and dividing the liberals, Bismarck turned to the conservative Center Party, a party that was mainly but not entirely made up of Catholics, his former opponents. He sought the Center Party’s support, together with that of other political factions in the Reichstag, for his most radical measure in the domestic arena.

In 1881, Bismarck proposed a comprehensive state insurance plan for Germany’s workers. The plan was radical, because it contradicted the prevailing laissez-faire liberalism of the day and because nothing of the kind had yet been attempted on the scale that Bismarck envisioned. The Accident Insurance Bill was presented to the Reichstag Germany;Reichstag in March, 1881. It would provide workers in the most dangerous industries with pensions for injuries that either ended or reduced their incomes. These pensions would be awarded to the workers’ dependents in the event of fatal injuries. Employers were to pay two-thirds of the insurance premiums, employees would pay one-third, and the government would provide an additional subsidy, as well as administering the program.

The few Social Democrats Social Democratic Party (Germany) Germany;Social Democratic Party in the Reichstag opposed Bismarck’s program because they thought it did not go far enough. The legislative body’s liberals opposed it because it violated their commitment to laissez-faire government and liberal individualism. The bill was withdrawn, but a revised bill was submitted to a newly elected Reichstag Germany;Reichstag in November. The revised bill was accompanied by an imperial message from William I, who did not author the document but who had influence upon it. The message included the emperor’s policy statement that social reform would be an ongoing commitment of the government, which should continue to respond to whatever social needs existed rather than being satisfied with the passage of a single law. The revised accident insurance bill did not become law until June, 1884, taking effect on October 1, 1885. It covered more industries and trades than in the original bill, and the entire cost of the premiums was paid by the employers, who preferred not to have a government subsidy that could lead to additional bureaucratic interference with their businesses.

Bismarck introduced a comprehensive sickness insurance bill in May, 1882, that proposed two-thirds of the benefits were to be paid by employers and one-third by the workers. After considerable discussion and debate, it became law in May, 1883, and went into force in December, 1884. A compulsory old age and disability pension bill, with the cost divided equally between employers and employees along with a state subsidy, became law in May, 1889. Provisions for unemployment insurance were postponed and did not become law until the 1920’s—during the Weimar Republic, after the demise of Imperial Germany.

There is no question that Bismarck was the driving force behind the social security legislation, although Theodor Lohmann, Lohmann, Theodor an undersecretary in the Ministry of Trade and the Imperial Office of the Interior, played a major role in drafting the accident and sickness insurance bills until he resigned in 1883. The old age pension bill was delayed until 1889 in part because Bismarck’s interest in social matters waned during the mid-1880’s. His motives had been debated since the social legislation was first introduced. Almost everyone has recognized the revolutionary nature of his proposals, but Bismarck’s motives have often been seen to be merely the result of his authoritarianism and amoral political calculations. That is, some historians believe they were a tactic to reduce the lure of socialism and of the Social Democratic Social Democratic Party (Germany) Germany;Social Democratic Party Party to Germany’s industrial workers.

Such political considerations undoubtedly did play a role, but Bismarck had always doubted the moral efficacy of liberalism’s individualist, self-help ethos. As an aristocrat and a Christian, there was an element of religious paternalism in Bismarck’s actions, and he likely sincerely believed that the empire had an obligation to provide some security for its less fortunate citizens.


Although it is likely that Bismarck did not fully understand the long-term implications of his own accomplishments, his social security programs, including accident, sickness, and old-age pension benefits, were revolutionary. They set the precedent followed by Great Britain in the early twentieth century and by the United States in the New Deal of the 1930’s. Because he opposed any interference in the workplace between employers and employees—such as limiting hours, regulating working conditions, or eliminating child labor—Bismarck’s reforms benefited what might be called the passive rather than active citizens and workers. By restricting his reforms to the unemployed rather than the employed, he failed to integrate Germany’s working class into the politics of the empire, particularly in his attack on working-class leadership as exemplified by the Social Democratic Party and labor unions. Bismarck’s legacy was a German Empire that was more oligarchic and elitist than democratic and that would collapse in the maelstrom of Germany’s defeat in World War I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashley, Annie. Social Policy of Bismarck: A Critical Study. London: Longman, 1912. One of the earliest comparison studies of Bismarck’s social reforms with those of Great Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: Viking, 1981. One of the most popular biographies of Bismarck.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Bismarck. New York: Routledge, 2002. Excellent discussion of Bismarck’s motives and tactics in his attack on the Social Democrats and his social reforms, part of the Routledge Historical Biographies series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lerman, Katharine Anne. Bismarck. London: Pearson Longman, 2004. A volume in the Profiles in Power series, in this work the author argues that Bismarck’s reforms were significant but only halfway measures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waller, Bruce. Bismarck. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1997. 2d ed. Part of the Historical Association Studies series, this well-written and insightful analysis claims that Bismarck’s welfare legislation was his greatest achievement.

Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President

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Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma

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