Will liberalism ever be killed?

The renewal of liberalism

In her speech on the occasion of the 60th birthday of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Chancellor Angela Merkel rightly pointed out that the foundation was established in 1958 in a crisis of liberalism in the Federal Republic of Germany. Crises are not uncommon for political movements and thus also for liberalism. In such situations, however, the liberals have often received powerful help from outside, just think of Ralf Dahrendorf, who twice - at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s - as an "outsider" with full commitment in the service of a crisis-ridden liberalism posed.

The importance of the "outsider"

Friedrich Naumann did this several decades earlier. Like Dahrendorf, he was not a “born” liberal, but came from a different political milieu, with him the conservative, with Dahrendorf the social democratic. However, both had a clear view of the political and social developments of their respective times and the challenges that resulted from them for politics. Through their historical-political analyzes, which they both presented in voluminous form, they both found liberalism, Naumann in 1903 and Dahrendorf in 1967. And both pursued long-term strategic goals when they joined, which Dahrendorf soon gave up on science before he did a decade later, the German liberals rushed to the aid of the Naumann Foundation again.

Friedrich Naumann, on the other hand, persisted in pursuing his goals and visions despite the "history of suffering of liberalism" which he diagnosed. In 1911 he wrote in a book with the telling title "Freedom Struggles:" In Germany we need a return of attitudes to the strong spirits without whom we would not be at all, a liberalism of life and thought that goes far beyond mere party and Faction battles. To work on this liberalism is the author's heartfelt and zealous endeavor. "

Naumann's big plan

The quote describes exactly what drove Naumann and what he found. Around 1900 the German liberals were divided into various organizations and were arguing vehemently about the political path that should be taken: as a carefully corrective junior partner on the side of the conservatives and Pan-Germans - according to the National Liberals - or firmly in principle and solitary in the fight against all others, said Eugen Richter's free-thinking. Neither of the two conceptions exerted greater traction: in 1903 the liberal share of the vote had halved compared with 1871; there were still just under 90 Liberal MPs in the Reichstag, but in 1874 there were over 200. Above all, none of the liberal parties exercised any measurable political influence and the current majority voting system threatened to further reduce the crumbling electoral base in the context of mass politicization.

Naumann had clearly recognized that if you wanted to counteract this, you would first need more liberal unity. For him, however, this was only the beginning. If the liberals took their political claim seriously, they also had to develop a political strategy that was to strengthen their influence and aim at a comprehensive liberalization of the empire, ideally in the form of a parliamentary monarchy based on the British model. Of course, that couldn't be done without political allies.

Notable successes

He saw this in social democracy, an idea that not only frightened most national liberals, but also many long-serving liberals. Naumann first met with left-wing liberalism and then with younger national liberals ("young liberals") on comrades-in-arms who gradually made his strategic vision a majority within the liberal community. It is true that there were ongoing debates about it among liberals and also social democrats, which were themselves shaken by internal party struggles between “revisionists”, on which Naumann relied, and “orthodox”. But in the medium term the concept seemed to work: by 1910 the left-wing liberals came together in one party, the relationship between them and the national liberals improved so that they supported each other in the 1912 Reichstag elections. In the same election, partial agreements with the Social Democrats not only resulted in Naumann's left-wing liberals receiving more votes than ever before. In the Reichstag, for the first time, a majority of liberals and social democrats were approached.

With this, astonishing progress had been achieved within a decade, which had a positive effect on the self-image and the charisma of liberalism. Finally the Liberals were back on the offensive and their appearance was attractive. They did not have that alone, but to a large extent the pastor a. D. from Störmthal in Saxony, who apparently combined many political virtues in his person: He was able to develop long-term concepts as well as to advance things organizationally. In addition, there was a personal charisma attested by many contemporaries, which above all attracted the younger, change-willing "performers" of the empire: industrial pioneers like Robert Bosch, scholars like Lujo Brentano and Max Weber, aspiring minds like Theodor Heuss and his wife Elly.

Women in general: Naumann wanted to eliminate their political and social discrimination, which at that time was by no means the common property of all liberals. He promoted political talents like Gertrud Bäumer and sought proximity to the women's movement. After women were allowed political activity in 1908, the female part of the liberal movement was one of its most loyal followers.

A detour to the goal

We do not know whether Naumann's great plan to fundamentally reform the German Empire would have worked if the First World War had not intervened, with which the domestic political debates broke off. The resistance was also so great. But Naumann offered a political option that could be resorted to on occasion. That was already the case in the second half of the World War, when a new reform majority began to emerge, which now included political Catholicism instead of the National Liberals.

Naumann and his colleagues would certainly have preferred if the transformation of the empire into a parliamentary system had succeeded on its own - as it briefly appeared in October 1918 - and not occurred as a result of the German defeat. But he quickly placed himself on the ground of the new republic, whose democratic substance was now threatened not only from the right, but also from new dangers from the left. Its unbroken charisma was also evident in the fact that the new left-liberal party advertised with the addition of “List Naumann” in the election for the National Assembly and was very successful with it. Already in very poor health, Naumann campaigned at the constitutional deliberations in Weimar to put the relationship between church and state on a new basis. He did this in such a way that the relevant paragraphs were later incorporated into the Basic Law.

The party leader

Despite the knowledge of his own situation, which put additional strain on the Versailles peace conditions, which he vehemently rejected, Friedrich Naumann hesitated only briefly in mid-July 1919 when he was asked to take over the chairmanship of the newly founded "German Democratic Party". He immediately set about consolidating the rather heterogeneous party, made up of liberals, parts of the national liberals and political newcomers. He paid particular attention to training suitable young people, for whom the “Citizens' School”, which was founded during the war, was also supposed to take care of, but also to founding a youth association of its own, the “Young Democrats”. While on vacation in Travemünde, he fell victim to a stroke, not even at the age of sixty, at the end of August 1919.

The afterlife

He was spared having to witness the many crises that followed and the eventual demise of both traditional liberalism and the first democracy in Germany. One can only speculate whether he could have stopped the development if he had lived longer. In any case, his death at the top of liberalism left a void that none of his successors could replace, perhaps with the exception of Gustav Stresemann, who, like Naumann, enjoyed a great deal of respect across party lines, but whose authority was less within his own party and who also died early.

Naumann's large group of supporters, above all Theodor Heuss, ensured that the memory of him and his work not only survived the Weimar Republic, but also the National Socialist barbarism and ultimately became the starting point for the “renewal of liberalism”, which he himself ended 1903 had seen as a life's work.

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