Responsibility of Governments – Past and Present Approaches
In a recent edition, the University of Passau’s Digital Research Magazine published an article on the devastating Bushfire crisis Australia has been experiencing since the end of 2019. It was written by none other than Dr. Bodie A. Ashton, who received his doctorate at the University of Adelaide in 2014 and joined the University of Passau as part of the ReConFort research project headed by Professor Ulrike Müßig in 2016.
Dr. Ashton’s public involvement in the debate about the Australian crisis began on Twitter, when a series of explanatory tweets he wrote on the topic went viral and prompted widespread international interest in his take on the situation in Australia. His article in the Digital Research Magazine, entitled State of Nature, provides an unexpected perspective. As a historian of identity, Dr. Ashton demonstrates the importance of questions of information leadership and lessons from state theory for the contemporary problems and challenges Australia and its government have to face. A key point of the article is Scott Morrison’s reaction to the crisis, prompting a discussion of the responsibilities of government in a wider sense. The latter is a question the ReConFort research project is well acquainted with. In this issue of our Research Blog, we would like to highlight another article from the ReConFort database dealing with the very same topic – albeit at a very different moment in time and therefore in a very different political situation.
Constitutional discussion in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche
The article in question by German philosopher Carl Rosenkranz was published in the newspaper “Deutsche Reform, politische Zeitung für das constitutionelle Deutschland” (“German Reform, political newspaper for constitutional Germany”) on Monday, 2 April 1849, one day before the rejection of the imperial crown by the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV.
Rosenkranz wrote his article in light of the constitutional discussion of the members of the German National Assembly, which at that time lasted almost a year. The latter had been convened in May 1848 as a direct reaction to the so-called March Revolution and held lively debates in the context of the constitutional consolidation. The creation of a united German nation, the basis of which was to be a single constitution, confronted the deputies with the fundamental questions of state organization that had occupied state theorists and philosophers for centuries.
Theory meets practice
Republic or monarchy, representation and responsibility - the theories put forward by Bodin, Hobbes, Locke and Co. now collided with reality and were discussed in detail not only in parliament but also in the German press, and their advantages and disadvantages weighed against each other.
Thus, the present article is a comparison of the republic and the constitutional monarchy. The constitutional monarchy, which is the form of government the constitution had already adopted at the time of the publication of the article, is described by Rosenkranz as the only way to ensure “the unity of the whole” (meaning: of the nation). He attributes this to the heredity of the princely house in the constitutional monarchy. It is precisely this concept that prevents a political competition between the deputies for power, as is necessary in the republic. Rosenkranz blames the political competition, which is characterized by the attempt of each to discredit the other, for the decline of freedom through the loss of truth in the course of the election campaign.
The question of responsibility
Rosenkranz resolutely rejects the criticism voiced by republicans and opponents of a hereditary monarchy of the prince’s irresponsibility for his actions, which is inherent in a constitutional monarchy.
The prince, like every other human being, was subject to the moral law. This concerned in particular the responsibility for crimes. However, minor “immoralities”, as Rosenkranz calls them, could not be made a reproach against the monarch – as against everyone else – on the basis of which he should be denied participation in political life. Among these minor “immoralities” are – according to the author - “making debts”, “alcoholism” and “wantonness”.
Moreover, the prince was also politically responsible for his actions - but only indirectly.
The - directly - responsible ministers would be servants of his choice, which the prince would have to replace if opposition persisted. In this case, however, the fact that the prince himself was not directly responsible was the great advantage of the constitutional monarchy over the republic. Only in this way a continuous unity of the nation could be guaranteed.
The prince was therefore less a politically active head of state than a representative of the “majesty of the people”. The latter could also appear contradictory in its individual actions, but it would always remain “the same whole and united people”. The same should also apply to the prince, whose will, despite alternating contradictory ministries, would always remain the same, providing a sense of continuity. But if, as advocated by the republicans, the principle of responsibility was taken to its extreme, the politicians in charge would function only as “mechanical organs”, which would make them redundant.
This justification of an almost untouchable prince by Rosenkranz, which is based on the continuity and permanence of the state construct, must be understood in its historical context. The philosopher writes in a time of political upheaval and an ongoing nation-building process. The primary goal of constitutional development was to ensure the unity of the nation which was to be newly defined. A direct responsibility of the prince as head of state stood in the way of this idea, as did an electoral monarchy or republic based on elections and constant campaigning. What Rosenkranz could not foresee was that - only one day after the publication of his article - King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. of Prussia would reject the imperial crown offered to him and with it the role of the indirectly responsible representative of the German nation.
This conclusion could not be more different in its result to the one Dr. Ashton arrives at in his aforementioned article, which hardly comes as a surprise considering the different historical and political situations they were written in. What they do have in common, however, is a critical and analytical approach to defining an ideal version of leadership in their respective times.
Visit our database for this article as well as many other unique historical documents, providing great insight into the constitutional debate and the implementation of fundamental theories of state in various European countries.