How do state bureaucracies become high-quality organizations? Leading comparative politics studies assume that bureaucratic quality is forged by the introduction of meritocratic personnel systems because meritocracies, in contrast to politicized bureaucracies, select the most competent applicants for the jobs at hand. However, in line with principal-agent theory I propose that without a certain level of responsiveness of bureaucrats to the government in place and its policies, the positive consequences of meritocracy for bureaucratic quality are drastically reduced. Meritocracy is likewise essential to bureaucratic quality but, given that it demands some bureaucratic autonomy, meritocracy also creates a control problem. To study the consequences of meritocracy for bureaucratic quality, I revisit bureaucratic developments in the paradigmatically important historical cases of Prussia as well as Imperial and Weimar Germany. Based on extant scholarship of Prussian and German bureaucratic history, the analysis shows that bureaucratic quality varies over time with responsiveness even when meritocraticness is constant at high and low levels, and that governments knowing this hesitate to adopt meritocratic systems despite their advantages if they believe the bureaucracy will be unresponsive. Studying Prussia and Germany historically helps distinguish between the consequences for bureaucratic quality of meritocracy from those of responsiveness. On this basis, I identify where comparative politics studies may benefit from adding, in a comparative historical perspective, responsiveness to the explanation of bureaucratic quality.