Mr. Everett to Mr. Evarts.
Berlin , March 13, 1879. (Received April 5.)
Sir: Since the opening of the Reichstag, of which I gave an account in my dispatch No. 85, of the 15th February, that assembly has been principally occupied in debating the commercial treaty with Austria and the parliamentary discipline bill.
The Austrian treaty passed regularly through its three readings on the 20th February, the 22d February, and the 26th February, and met with no serious opposition, as only a formal consent of the legislature was required to a prolongation of the old treaty ratified in December last by the Austrian Government, whose parliament was then in session, and signed by the Emperor of Germany in anticipation and on condition of the approval of the present Reichstag, in order that it might go into operation on the 1st January, 1879. The occasion of the readings was utilized, however, to attack Prince Bismarck for his new protectionist principles. In his defense he fell back on his right, from his long services and his position, to have opinions of his own on economic questions, to which he had given less attention in former years. He concluded his speech with the following words:
I remember that at the time I became minister the liberal papers of the day said of me, “How could they confer the first place in the empire on that person?” with a characteristic picture of my person. I do not know if this first place in Germany, which was then given to me, and which I have since occupied for seventeen years—a longer time than any constitutional minister has held office in face of publicity with its attacks and criticisms—I do not know, I say, if this place has been filled in a satisfactory manner, whether the deputy, Mr. Richter, will be approved by his contemporaries and by posterity for the cutting and disdainful opinion he pronounces of me, or whether they will recognize my right, after seventeen years passed at the head of public affairs, to have an opinion on economic questions. On that point I await with confidence the judgment of my fellow-citizens. I will not speak of posterity; it is too pathetic for me.
The law for the punishment of the members of the Reichstag, of which I inclose the bill as finally presented to that assembly on the 4th of [Page 366] March, somewhat softened from its original draft as laid before the council, was the occasion of much acrimonious debate. The ultimate rejection which it eventually received by a very large majority was generally anticipated from the fate which befel, a few days before, the efforts of the government to carry out a sentence of arrest, on taking their seats, against two of the social democratic members who had been expelled from Berlin before the Reichstag opened, under the operation of the law for the repression of social democracy.
The debate on the discipline bill gave rise, as usual, to a personal altercation between the Deputy Lasker and Prince Bismarck. The prince claimed that the members of the council having their seats in the chamber were without the legal safeguards accorded to the members of the Reichstag; he doubted the power of the president of the Reichstag always clearly to appreciate and decide breaches of order against the members of the council. A grave fact also, in his opinion, was the publicity allowed to the remarks, of members, which were often made expressly with a view to this publicity; and he thought that the patriotic views of the Reichstag, as shown by their passing the anti-socialist law, had greatly cooled, their recent action being a severe check to the good work of repressing socialism. While admitting that he had in 1870 approved the law exempting deputies from all prosecution for remarks made in debate, he claimed that circumstances had since changed by the consolidation of the German Empire. The prince also cited England, France, and the United States as having much more stringent rules for the discipline of their members, and assured the house that without some such measure as the one the government had proposed, the law against the social democrats could not be carried into effect.
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On the second reading (4th March) the clauses of the bill were first voted down individually, and then the bill as a whole was negatived and replaced by an amendment, proposing to refer the whole question to a standing committee of the Reichstag, which should decide whether further legislation was necessary.
Such a signal defeat of a ministerial measure in any other kingdom would have cost the ministry their places, or the Parliament would have been at once dismissed, but the chancellor prefers in this respect to imitate our republican institutions, by allowing the ministry and the Parliament to remain in opposition. I was told by good authority that he had in his pocket authority from the Emperor to dissolve the Parliament if the vote were unfavorable. As, however, the protective tariff scheme is soon to be brought forward, it is generally supposed that the chancellor prefers to wait till he sees how the Reichstag will treat him on that question.
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I have, &c.,