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Ernst Maria Lieber

Ernst Maria Lieber

Born at Camberg in the Duchy of Nassau, 16 Nov., 1838; died 31 March, 1902. He was the principal leader of the Centre Party in the German Imperial Parliament (Reichstag) and the Prussian Diet (Landtag) after the death of Dr. Windthorst. Lieber's father, Moritz Lieber, Councillor of Legation, had long endeared himself to his Catholic countrymen by boldly defending their rights against bureaucratic aggressions in the petty German states. Ernst Maria was trained from his earliest years to take an active interest in public and especially Catholic, affairs. After graduating from the gymnasium, he studied law at Würzburg, Munich, Bonn, and Heidelberg, and received the degree of Doctor of Civil and Canon Law, 30 July, 1861. The next four years he devoted to a profound study of philosophy, history, literature, and law, with the hope of becoming a university professor. He was obliged, however, to abandon his purpose and retired to his native town, where he established his regular abode. In the meantime he became actively interested in the political life of the Duchy of Nassau. The Catholics of that small state desired a system of separate schools, such as existed in Prussia, instead of the mixed public schools where all were educated together without regard to creed. In the agitation carried on for this purpose Lieber was a zealous worker.

When Garibaldi invaded (1868) the Papal States, Lieber called a great mass-meeting in Walmerod to protest against this aggression. In 1870 the peasants of the Westerwald (West Forest) elected him their representative in the Prussian Diet, and later, when the German Empire was created (1871), in the Reichstag. In this capacity he took an active part in founding the famous Centre Party, which was organized at Berlin in December, 1870, by about fifty Catholic members of the Reichstag. These deputies had foreseen the conflict with the Church (Kulturkampf), and announced their intention to act on purely constitutional lines. From 1870 to 1878 the members of the new party were mostly engaged in the great battle for the interests of the Church. During this time Lieber developed his talent as a parliamentary orator and popular speaker. The Kulturkampf was chiefly the work of the individual states, the Empire taking no great part in it, except in the matter of the expulsion of the Jesuits, carried out by virtue of an imperial law. In 1878 a decided change took place in the inner political situation of Germany. Bismarck was meditating a change of attitude toward the tariff and needed the votes of the Centre to secure a majority in the coming parliamentary contest. Windthorst took advantage of the situation to win influence for his party in the Reichstag. His diplomatic attitude on the social question, and the abilities of many of his followers, aided him in the accomplishment of his purpose. Among these followers was Lieber. For the moment, however, he was too interested in the great question of the relations between Church and State to devote himself to social questions, though he fully realized what a prominent place the social programme was to hold in the history of the German Empire. He also knew that the Centre might hope for great success, should it manifest a sincere interest in the cause of social improvement. In the years that followed Lieber advocated unceasingly his party's programme for the protection of the labouring classes, a policy that was gradually adopted by all other groups.

The Centre did not, however, become identified with the Government as a result of its temporary alliance. Though the Kulturkampf was gradually discontinued, other difficulties with Bismarck succeeded, especially in regard to the socio-political agitation. The great chancellor understood its importance, but believed that the duty of the State in respect of social reform was limited to the insurance of labourers against sickness, accidents, and disability. The Centre, on the other hand, paid more attention to the legal protection of labourers against extortion and overtaxation. In the meantime the chancellor's demands in the matter of the army led to a rupture between himself and the Centre. In the debates on the Army Bill (1887), the so-called Septennate, Bismarck strenuously resisted the influence of the hated party. He even tried to diminish the power of the Reichstag, and to increase that of the Prussian Landtag, in order to effect his object. During the heated debates which followed it was Lieber who attacked Bismarck and his associates in the Landtag with the greatest vehemence. In 1890 Emperor William II relieved Bismarck of the chancellorship, and declared himself in favour of state protection for the labouring classes. In succeeding years, almost every bill for this purpose advocated by the Centre since 1877 has received imperial sanction. The Prussian ministry and Landtag, however, retained their power in local politics, notwithstanding Bismarck's retirement. On 14 March, 1891, the Centre lost its leader by the death of Windthorst. Several prominent members of the party were of opinion that they should come to an understanding with the Prussian Government and with the Conservative Party, in order to obtain more influence in Prussian affairs. This policy met with Lieber's approval, but fell through temporarily, when, in the spring of 1892, the Government withdrew a bill in the interest of Christian public schools. This bill endorsed the principles of Christian education, but failed owing to the violent opposition of the Liberals. A few weeks later, the Prussian Liberals and Conservatives formed a coalition in order to cripple the Centre policy of extending to the miners the advantages already granted to the labourers. The Catholic party was hopelessly outvoted.

The situation now became very critical for the Centre. Their failure to pass their bills was aggravated by discord within the party itself, so serious as to jeopardize its existence. Its unity had suffered by the loss of Windthorst. The defence of the rights of the Church, on which his followers had hitherto been as one man, no longer held the first place in the political field, being overshadowed by the differences, mostly economical, which had arisen between North and South Germany. To protect their diverging interests it appeared best to dissolve the party. The possibility of a split between the northern and southern members of the Centre grew more threatening when, in 1893, a great agrarian agitation arose in Germany. This led the Catholic voters of Bavaria, nearly all farmers, to desert the Prussian followers of the Centre, whose interests in this matter diverged from theirs. The crisis was approaching its culmination, but was obviated when in December, 1893, the government introduced a bill in the Reichstag to increase the army. This caused great excitement throughout the Empire. All the members of the Centre were united in their determination to grant only a part of the Kaiser's demands. The two most prominent, however, Baron von Huene and Dr. Lieber, disagreed on one point, namely as to whether only a part of the estimates should be voted for without the guarantees of the several state-governments. Lieber learned that the governments would not give the required guarantees, and moved for the consideration of the estimates only. The majority of the Centre seconded him, especially the southern members, thereby constituting him unquestionable leader of the party and Windthorst's successor. The Reichstag was dissolved by the emperor and a new election took place amid great popular interest and enthusiasm. The Centre Party returned to the Reichstag as the most numerous and important political factor in Germany.

Lieber's great qualities as a leader were demonstrated from 1893 to 1898, during which period his prominence became more and more manifest; at the same time took place the greatest domestic development of the Empire since 1870. In those years Germany so developed its political organization and became so self-reliant that the imperial idea has ever since dominated the popular mind, completely overshadowing the local patriotism of the individual states. This is primarily due to three main factors: the Russo-German commercial treaty of 1894; the civil code of 1896 with its resultant commercial law; as well as the reform of the procedure in army cases and the law of 1898 concerning the navy, the foundation of the actual German navy. These measures were so thoroughly discussed in Parliament as to bring home to the German people the full significance of an united Empire. It is to Lieber's credit that he grasped this idea fully and that he induced his party, and others in the Reichstag, to forget their differences and finish this great work in union with the Government. At the same time he re-organized his party. Its former organization, dating from the time of the Kulturkampf, owed its origin to a politico-religious condition of affairs, and it aimed at special legislation. Beginning with 1890, a new organization had come into existence with social reform as its principal object, the Volksverein für das Katholische Deutschland (People's Union for Catholic Germany). Lieber made numerous speeches in many cities on behalf of this association. He regarded it as the most important means of ensuring the continuance of the Centre by giving it a wider sphere of activity in the domain of politics than was attainable by a merely ecclesiastical party, also by reshaping it along such lines as would make it permanently influential as an imperial party, extending to all the states of the Empire, with social reform for its chief object (eine sociale und föderative Reichspartei).

Leiber was very active during these years; his great speeches are full of vivid German patriotic sentiment, and recall at once the political romanticists of 1813- 60 and the heroes of 1848. His idea was the political unity of Germany, so established, however, as to preserve the historical peculiarities of the different nationalities, with German science and educational methods, German industrial life, and the unifying power of a universal system of commerce. He was ever mindful of the prestige of the fatherland abroad, and was ever a sincere friend of universal peace and of an amicable rivalry in the pursuit and furtherance of civilization. He crossed the ocean three times to visit the United States. In his speeches he urged the preservation of the German racial characteristics. He was anxious for this in proportion as he studied American institutions, and realized their value, especially in their possible application to Germany.

When the election for the Reichstag took place in 1898, Lieber's party returned to Berlin with its former strength. New, and perhaps more difficult, problems awaited solution: the completion of the navy, the renewal of the commercial treaties, and the reform of the financial affairs of the Empire. Prussia was also endeavouring to secure greater influence in German politics by the construction of a large canal-system, and by the execution of Bismarck's policy against the Poles. The Prussian Government was ably led by Miquel, Minister of Finance, formerly Lieber's friend, but now his intriguing opponent.

Lieber now fell fatally ill. He continued his work without flinching, however, until January, 1900, though he no longer took part in any important proceedings. He recognized clearly that the Centre might henceforth have a standing in the Prussian Landtag. But the Canal bill, by means of which he hoped to achieve this end, failed at the last moment; he himself prevented the financial reform which he had desired only as a means of cancelling debts, and not as a measure for regulating the financial relations of the Empire with the confederated states, that were at this time overburdened by their share of imperial taxation. In the Polish question, he went no further than to outline a positive programme, by no means committing his party to a policy of opposition. He endorsed, however, the completion of the navy, and emphasized the need of a united national spirit in Parliament by means of which such great results had been obtained in the former Reichstag. In a word, he was the Catholic parliamentarian who attained the most definite results for the nation in the Reichstag, a skilled tactician, a politician ripe in knowledge and experience, discreet, shrewd and cautious, inspired by lofty aims and an enthusiasm for high ideals. He was a brave German citizen, unselfish, yet eager for action, a true Catholic Christian both in principle and in conduct.

Stenographic Records of the Reichstag and Landtag; Held, Eulogium (delivered on 3 April, 1903), pp. 63; Spahn, Ernst Lieber, a biographical essay (1906).

M. Spahn.

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