Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

The Break-Up of the Poor Laws— German Style: Progressivism and the Origins of the Welfare State, 1900–1918

Larry Frohmana1

a1 Department of History, Stony Brook University

While the 1834 New Poor Law and the controversies over its reform represent one of the central threads in every narrative of the history of modern Britain, the same can hardly be said of the German poor laws, whose history is far less known. This is due in large part to a historiographical tradition that sees the Bismarckian social insurance programs as the fons et origo of the German welfare state and thus marginalizes all forms of social assistance that can not be neatly fitted into the narrative pre-history or subsequent development of these programs. This contrasts with a British tradition where, as E. P. Hennock has recently argued, national insurance was primarily conceived as a means of poor law reform, and where the poor laws figure prominently in the historiography of the welfare state. On the other hand, this insurance-centered approach to the welfare state is not entirely to blame because, for their part, historians of poor relief have not been able to establish any positive connections between individualized, subsidiary, deterrent relief and social insurance or social security systems based on rights deriving from either contributions or citizenship.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Young-sun Hong, Kevin Repp, E. P. Hennock, and two anonymous CSSH readers for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this essay. All translations are my own.

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