Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law

The Anti-Socialist Law of 1878 attempted to destroy the Social Democratic Party by prohibiting Social Democrats from forming associations, holding public meetings, collecting funds, or publicizing their views. The government allowed Social Democratic deputies to continue their work in the German parliament and to field candidates for election. The law remained in effect until 1890 but failed to stop the growth of the Social Democratic party.

Summary of Event

Germany’s Law Against the Publicly Dangerous Endeavors of Social Democracy, commonly known as the Anti-Socialist Law or simply the Socialist Law, was essentially the brain child of Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. It prohibited all associations and societies that advocated social democratic, socialist, or communist endeavors, which were seen as threatening the existing political or social order. The prohibition applied not only to private societies but also to the Social Democratic Party. The law was first passed on October 19, 1878, and was subsequently renewed four times, in May, 1880, in May, 1884, in April, 1886, and—despite considerable opposition—in February, 1888. Its provisions remained in effect until September 30, 1890. Germany;Anti-Socialist Law[AntiSocialist Law]
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and socialism[Socialism]
Social Democratic Party (Germany)
Germany;Social Democratic Party
[kw]Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law (Oct. 19, 1878)
[kw]Passes Anti-Socialist Law, Germany (Oct. 19, 1878)
[kw]Anti-Socialist Law, Germany Passes (Oct. 19, 1878)
[kw]Socialist Law, Germany Passes Anti- (Oct. 19, 1878)
[kw]Law, Germany Passes Anti-Socialist (Oct. 19, 1878)
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Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and socialism[Socialism]
Social Democratic Party (Germany)
Germany;Social Democratic Party
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[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 19, 1878: Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law[5030]
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[c]Government and politics;Oct. 19, 1878: Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law[5030]
Bebel, August
Bennigsen, Rudolf von

Enforcement of the law’s sweeping provisions was entrusted to the State Police Authorities in the various states of the German Empire. They could attend all meetings of suspect societies, arrest and interrogate individuals, and prohibit or dissolve meetings. They also had the power to punish anyone who served as a member of a prohibited society or who carried out activities on its behalf. Offenders were subject to monetary fines or to imprisonment, depending on the gravity of the offense.

To curtail the spread of socialist propaganda, the police were given the power to confiscate all publications that could be viewed as threatening the public peace or as disturbing the peaceful relations among the various classes of society. Printers and distributors of such materials, as well as booksellers and even librarians in lending libraries or the owners of reading rooms, could be fined or imprisoned. Furthermore, innkeepers and persons engaged in the retail liquor business could be forbidden from continuing in their business if they participated in prohibited meetings.

To reduce the effectiveness of the Social Democratic Party, the authorities were also empowered to confiscate party assets. More serious was the provision that in larger cities like Berlin or Hamburg, which had an exceptionally high concentration of Social Democrats, the authorities could proclaim a so-called minor state of siege, during which persons deemed especially dangerous to the public order could be expelled from the city.

The law was implemented with brutality and ruthlessness and drove the Social Democratic Party underground. Many of its leaders, as well as rank and file members, were frequently given jail sentences or driven into exile. The party’s newspaper, the Sozialdemokrat (social democrat), had to be published in Zurich, Switzerland, and smuggled into Germany, while the party leadership was compelled to hold its congresses abroad. At the same time, the law dealt a serious blow to the Independent Trade Unions, who were affiliated with the Social Democratic Party.

However, much to Bimarck’s chagrin, the National Liberal Party
Germany;National Liberal Party National Liberals in the Reichstag Germany;Reichstag , or German parliament, had managed to limit the terms of the law to two and one-half years. Another obstacle in his efforts to silence the Social Democrats was that the law did not affect the Social Democratic deputies in the parliament, who were led by August Bebel Bebel, August . In addition to participating in the frequently heated debates, the deputies also functioned as the party’s unofficial executive committee, since they could not be prevented from meeting together.

Bismarck’s campaign against the Social Democrats derived from his conviction that as internationalists, republicans, and atheists, these “enemies of the empire” represented a danger to the stability of the state and to the security of the monarchy. The struggle against the Social Democrats was intertwined with Bismarck’s plan to reduce the influence of Rudolf von Bennigsen’s Bennigsen, Rudolf von National Liberal Party, which was generally sympathetic to Social Democratic efforts to reform the German political system. Above all, Bismarck wanted to bring the National Liberals in line with his move toward protectionism.

The opportunity for Bismarck to advance his plans by instituting the Anti-Socialist Law had arisen on May 11, 1878, when one Max Hoedel, a deranged plumber’s apprentice, had fired two shots at Emperor William I William I (king of Prussia)
[p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];assassination attempts on . He had missed, but Bismarck, undeterred by the fact that there was no evidence to connect Hoedel with the Social Democrats, had exploited the assassination attempt and blamed the party anyway. In short order, he had submitted a hastily drawn up bill that would outlaw the Social Democratic Party. The loosely worded bill had suffered an overwhelming defeat in the Reichstag. Germany;Reichstag

However, on June 2, 1878, a second attempt on William’s life was more successful, and the aging emperor was gravely wounded. The perpetrator, Karl Nobiling Nobiling, Karl , an agronomist, shot himself before his motives could be established. Once again, Bismarck blamed the Social Democrats and started a vicious propaganda campaign against them. On June 11, he dissolved the Reichstag. The following elections resulted in a shift to the right, as both the National Liberals National Liberal Party
Germany;National Liberal Party and their progressive allies lost mandates. The Social Democrats also lost some seats but managed to increase their votes in the larger cities.

On October 19, an anti-socialist bill passed the Reichstag by a vote of 221 to 149, although the law was not as sweeping as Bismarck and the Conservatives had hoped it would be. In the years to come, Bismarck repeatedly tried but failed to strengthen the bill and make it permanent. Realizing that the outlawed Social Democrats were in fact increasing in strength, Bismarck sought to wean the workers away from the party by portraying the Social Democrats as revolutionaries who had never proposed any legislation that would benefit the working classes. He attempted to demonstrate that his government would grant to the German workers what their own party with its few deputies was unable enact. In 1881, he started a program of social legislation that culminated in the passage of the Sickness Insurance Law (1883), the Amended Accident Insurance Law (1884), and the Old Age and Disability Insurance Law (1889), effectively bringing social security to the German Empire.

On January 25, 1890, Bismarck’s effort to pass a new, permanent anti-socialist law failed in the Reichstag Germany;Reichstag . The new emperor, William II William II (emperor of Germany)
[p]William II (emperor of Germany)[William 02 (emperor of Germany)];and socialism[Socialism] , had already made it clear that, in spite of Bismarck’s threat to resign, he was not interested in another anti-socialist law but rather in a reform of protective legislation for labor. In the elections of February-March, 1890, the Social Democrats managed to strengthen their position in the Reichstag: Indeed, during the period of suppression, they had managed to increase the number of seats they held from nine to thirty-five. Bismarck, now completely at odds with his sovereign and facing the fact that he had irretrievably lost control of the parliament, resigned in March of 1890. The existing Anti-Socialist Law expired on September 30.


The major underlying reason for Bismarck’s failure to crush the Social Democrats was his inability to appreciate the changing social dynamics inherent in Germany’s growing industrialization. He believed that he could manage the growing conflict between parliamentary aspirations and monarchical power and assure the continued strength of the monarchy by threats, repression, and, if need be, by paternalistic and benevolent social legislation. By 1890, his Anti-Socialist Law had backfired and brought about the exact opposite of its original intent. At the same time, however, his attacks on the National Liberal National Liberal Party
Germany;National Liberal Party Party had met with success and had dealt a serious blow to progressive forces.

Bismarck’s ruthless parliamentary tactics and his contempt for democratic principles, which he displayed during the twelve years of the Anti-Socialist Law, did nothing to build confidence in the viability of democratic government in Germany. However, his successes in foreign policy as the unifier of Germany and his role at the Congress of Berlin (1878) as Europe’s honest broker more often than not overshadowed, at least in the popular mind, the failures of his domestic policies and their negative impact on the growth of democracy.

Further Reading

  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany, 1866-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. The chapter “The Campaign Against Social Democracy and Bismarck’s Fall, 1879-1890,” represents the standard treatment of the subject.
  • Kent, George O. Bismarck and His Times. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. Brief account of Bismarck’s policies, offering a summary of the literature on the topic since World War II.
  • Lee, Stephen J. Imperial Germany, 1871-1918. London: Routledge, 1999. Each of the brief chapters offers a narrative section and a separate analytical section. Especially useful for undergraduates.
  • Lerman, Katharine Anne. Bismarck. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Contains a brief and balanced discussion of Bismarck’s campaign against liberals and social democrats.
  • Litdke, Vernon L. “The Outlawed Party.” In Social Democracy in Germany, 1878-1890. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Well-documented and comprehensive account. An appendix of relevant documents includes the text of the Anti-Socialist Law. Indispensable.
  • Williamson, D.G. Bismarck and Germany, 1862-1890. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1998. Concise and readable account of Bismarck’s domestic and foreign policies. Useful glossary, maps, and a collection of pertinent documents.

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Otto von Bismarck. Germany;Anti-Socialist Law[AntiSocialist Law]
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and socialism[Socialism]
Social Democratic Party (Germany)
Germany;Social Democratic Party