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The years 1825 1o 1939 in both Russia and Germany were characterised by the existence of authoritarian and autocratic government. Germany at this time did not exist, the areas which would become Germany in a loose confederation which included Austria. These states were however largely autocratic, and the unification of Germany culminated in an establishment dominated by oppressive Prussian elites and the authority of the Kaiser and his Chancellor.

Little similar constitutional wrangling took place in Russia during this era, in which the century began much as it ended politically, with the Tsar and his advisers directing a slow and bloated bureaucracy with the vast majority of Russians excluded completely from political influence or expression.It is possible to argue, however, that the reforms and revolutions that took place in both Russia and Germany created genuine opportunities for political participation and a more equitable distribution of power.

For example, the 1848 revolution in Prussia gave way to an elected assembly – although the electorate and seats were organised so as to give Junkers and the bourgeois massive overrepresentation. In Russia, again, the emancipation of the serfs, probably the most extensive single reform which took place during 19th century Russia, gave a huge majority of the population personal freedoms which had been denied them longer than the peasantry of virtually every other country in Europe; and the other reforms that Alexander II instituted – military, educational, and of censorship, all tended towards an easing of autocratic and repressive rule (for example the abolition of flogging as a punishment in the army and the loosening of censorship in universities and in general).

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Superficially these reforms did indeed seem to reduce the grip of the ruling establishments on social and political hegemony, but it is important to remember that they were instituted primarily in order to preserve that grip (the nobility feared serfs and serfdom as a “powder keg under Tsarism”), and largely by pressure from above rather than below: source A, for example, claims that Alexander was “prepared to put the full weight of his autocratic powers behind emancipation”; while Source B is an example of Bismarck arguing the workers will be “more content” (that is, less likely to revolt or vote SPD) with his suggested reforms. Of course the Tsarist system only allowed for the Tsar to be the catalyst for change, and similarly the German system only allowed for the Chancellor to suggest laws – the Reichstag was a docile and undynamic part of the political system.This shows, contrastingly to the argument that reforms achieved genuine political change, that reforms were mainly the brainchild and in the interest of the political status quo. Indeed they did so little to change the fundaments of the system that revolutions occurred anyway, although they do succeed in contesting any assertion that there was a progressive trend of increasing “authoritarianisation” or strengthening of autocratic rule during the period: while the fundaments of the system were largely unchanged for most of the period there were significant events which did result in a bucking of the period of autocratic rule.The revolutions of 1917 in Russia and 1918 in Germany both succeeded in ending the autocratic rule of the Tsar and Kaiser respectively. They both resulted in short-lived periods of comparatively very free societies (although the period after the February revolution and before the civil war in Russia cannot be said to have been at all socially stable), somewhat shorter-lived on Russia’s part. Source C points out: “Russia had become the country in the world with the greatest freedom”. Weimar Germany, similarly, had a degree of participatory democracy and constitutional freedom beyond anything previously (it granted universal suffrage, for example), and which continued for around a decade.In neither country did it last, however: the freedom under the provisional government eventually gave way to collective dictatorship under the Bolshevik party, which gave way to autocratic dictatorship under Stalin. Weimar Germany, meanwhile, was under attack from its inception – large sections of the German population on the left and right (the KPD advocated its overthrow), as well as establishment figures from the Kaiserreich.This is also an important feature of specifically German descent back into autocracy – while in Russia freedom was short-lived, and the vagaries of civil war meant that there was an almost unbroken chain of repressive government which gradually worsened (even during the Tsars’ reigns: Alexander III and Nicholas II were less liberal than their predecessors, and the concessions that Nicholas made in the October Manifesto and elsewhere were superficial and made only to preserve his power) and became more violent and totalitarian, in Germany this sustained period of democracy, while unstable, does much damage to the contention that autocratic rule was strengthened in Germany throughout the period. Source D even does damage to the contention that Nazi Germany was entirely autocratic: “A crucial element in popular consent to the regime was the fact that Nazism embodied many of the basic attitudes of a very large section of the German people”.While it rested on a method of government which placed power, theoretically, in the person of Hitler himself, that power was in the main charismatic and symbolic, and thus depended partly on the willing acceptance of his position by the mass of the German people. In practice government in neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union was strictly autocratic; various individuals had influence in government, their own agendas and the ability to use initiative and act on their own terms (for example, Ian Kershaw argues that much of the structure of the Nazi apparatus was based on individuals “working towards the Fuhrer” rather than receiving top-down orders from Hitler himself; while in the Soviet Union the ability of the NKVD to condemn even its own leaders, e.g. Yagoda suggested that no one in the leadership was safe from the machine of oppression, except probably Stalin). It is however the case that the NSDAP managed to exert control over the state and people to a greater extent than had been seen before in Germany (Gleichshaltung, it seemed, was highly successful).Overall, it is fair to say that revolutions and attempts to achieve reform did, in some instances, have significant success (in the case of the 1918 revolution and subsequent consitution), and did disrupt, dilute or destroy autocratic systems of government in both Russia and Germany. However, it is the case that those reforms were ultimately ineffective and creating lasting and stable free societies, and that in some cases the reforms in question were either aimed at preserving the status quo (as in Bismarck’s Germany) or at a “dictatorship” of a different kind (in the Bolshevik’s case, “of the proletariat”, or in practice, of the Bolsheviks). So in terms of the entire period, the statement does have a large degree of validity in that neither country succeeded in destroying authoritarian and autocratic tendency completely and both ended the period in question with a greater degree of totalitarian rule than at any previous point in their histories.

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Autocratic Rule Was Seen In Russia As
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