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7-10-2015, 09:36

German Peasant League

The first German Peasant League (Deutscher Bauernbund [DBB]), founded in 1885 by Ferdinand Knauer and Berthold von Ploetz, illustrated the potential and the pitfalls of German peasant politics—and its fluctuating relationship with regard to antisemitism—from the 1880s onward. The DBB’s first leaders were “respectable” antisemites in the style of Adolf Stoecker, rather than that of Hermann Ahlwardt or Otto Bockel. The Prussian provinces provided the members, to whom the league lent material support by means of a network of buying cooperatives and whose votes were supposed to muster rural backing for Otto von Bismarck’s government. However, the proindustrial policies of Bismarck’s successor, Count Leo von Caprivi, threw the league into an existential crisis in 1890. Ploetz fled into the arms of the organizers of a broader, explicitly nongovernmental, and more radically antisemitic organization, the Agrarian League. The DBB was instrumental in the success of the Agrarians, contributing 40,000 of their original 162,000 members, the bulk of the treasury, and many of the original functionaries. Ploetz was elected president of the new association and also named leader of the antisemitic Economic Union (Wirtschaftliche Vere-inigung), a caucus organized in the Reichstag after the elections of 1893.

The second incarnation of the German Peasant League (1909—1927) was engineered by liberal agrarian dissidents who had come under attack from the right-radical Agrarian League. Eastern peasant colonists, who also resented Junker domination of agrarian politics, allied with the dissidents. The leading personalities in the revived DBB were a Hanoverian estate owner, Friedrich Wachhorst de Wente, and a renegade Agrarian League functionary, Karl Bohme. The Bauernbund designation reflected the liberal belief that an exploitable gulf existed between the interests of peasants and aristocratic estate owners and that agrarianism did not have to translate automatically into right-wing politics or antisemitism. The organization never attained a large membership base or secure finances; it was underwritten by the industrial interest group the Hansa League (Hansabund), as a means of weakening the Agrarian League’s hold on the countryside. In policy terms, the second league was most notable for its support of “moderate” tariffs, its willingness to work with the government, and its rejection of antisemitism. However, in 1911 and 1913, when the DBB incorporated several independent, largely antisemitic regional peasant groups, its opposition to antisemitism weakened.

During World War I, the DBB lobbied against government controls and supported the Reichstag’s Easter Resolution in 1917 calling for peace without annexations. This opposition to the controlled economy and identification with the Left led to an alliance with the German Democratic Party (DDP) in December 1919. The DBB acted as the party’s rural auxiliary, holding nearly one-fourth of its seats in the first postwar Reichstag. But the league split in 1924 over matters of tariff policy, and the issue of antisemitism once again contributed to the discord. Karl Bohme, supported perhaps by a majority of the DBB’s members, moved to the Center-Right German People’s Party (DVP). Wachhorst’s supporters, who retained control of the league’s treasury and newspaper, accused Bohme and his followers of covert antisemitism, a charge that Bohme vehemently denied and that remains unsubstantiated by the historical record. Acrimony reigned between the two factions until 1927, when the league dissolved.

—George S. Vascik

See also Agrarian League; Ahlwardt, Hermann;

Bockel, Otto; Memminger, Anton; Ratzinger,

Georg; Stoecker, Adolf; Weimar


Vascik, George S. “The German Peasant League and the Limits of Rural Liberalism in Wil-helmine Germany,” Central European History 24 (1991): 147-175.