The Religious and Moral Origins of German Conservative Social Policy

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While discussing a newly published book, The Natural History of Work , by the physician and labor expert Leopold Besser, the Prussian conservative social magazine Berliner Revue declared in one of its first issues, in 1855, that "social policy recognizes God's order in the entirety of creation; not merely in the laws of nature but also in those laws on which the life and growth of society rests. It [social policy] originates in the conviction that it is the obligation of the individual, as well as of the government, to obey those natural and social laws in which God's will is revealed." Many scholars who have written about the social politics of nineteenth-century German conservatism do not seem to have assigned adequate attention to religious motivation as a factor in the formation of conservative social policy or in the conservative social worldview. Indeed, the religiosity of conservatives, the hardcore of whom belonged to the Prussian agrarian aristocracy, occupies a significant place in explaining the cultural background of the supporters of tradition and defenders of the hierarchical social order. The Christian religion has received little consideration as a mainspring behind the forging of conservative social policy from the first half of the nineteenth century until the foundation of the German welfare state during the 1880s. In fact, the most extensive discussion of such ideas and policy, that of Hermann Beck, barely addresses the subject of religious motivation at all. Historians have tended to focus on political and social interests as the main incentives behind the politics of the conservative agrarian and bureaucratic aristocracy. This group sought to preserve the remnants of the eroding privileged status of the nobility through the modern state that gradually replaced the old Ständestaat. Others have contended that the endorsement by bureaucrats--many of them of aristocratic descent--of the authoritative state made conservatives turn toward social policy. Still other scholars have pointed toward the "bourgeois" nature of part of this policy, which was intended to create self-disciplined and responsible individuals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-161
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Policy History
Issue number1
Early online date2015
StatePublished - 15 Dec 2015


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