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German Catholics under the Iron Fist: Bismarck and the Kulturkampf

by Matthew Bunson


In this article Matthew E. Bunson examines the persecution and oppression of the Catholic Church by the German government — mostly at the hands of Kaiser Wilhelm I and "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck.

Larger Work

This Rock


22 – 27

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, December 2008

In a popular cartoon of 1875, the French artist and writer Felix Regamey lampooned the powerful Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck. In the cartoon, the Chancellor tries to pull a rope attached to St. Peter's Basilica and declares to Satan that he intends to destroy the papacy. Satan replies, "I have been trying to do it all my life. If you manage it, I shall give you full marks."

Regamey's cartoon was a humorous but biting expression of Catholic resentment and anger across Europe for one of the most forgotten events of the 19th century: the persecution and oppression of the Church at the hands of the German government under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck. For a period of nearly 20 years, from 1871 to 1890, Catholics in the German Empire, especially in the German states of Prussia, Bavaria, Hesse, Baden, and occupied Poland, faced legal disabilities, imprisonment, and exile, all in the name of German national pride and unity. For their part, Catholics and Germans of good will fought for their rights, defended the Catholic faith and institutions, and above all, refused to allow a secular government to trample on the Holy See and their beloved pontiff Bl. Pius IX.

The name given to the struggle in the German Empire was the Kulturkampf, meaning the struggle for culture, or the culture war. It proved only the first of many similar conflicts between anti-religious governments and the Church that afflicted Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the Kulturkampf had even greater ramifications than its counterparts in Italy, France, and Spain. The clash in the German Empire laid the groundwork for the repression of Catholics in Germany and Europe under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

State vs. Church

The history of the Church in Europe is replete with conflict over secular and ecclesiastical rights and privileges. The Middle Ages witnessed the Investiture Controversy between the Holy Roman Emperors and the Holy See and the sometimes violent disputes between the popes and the monarchs of England and France. The Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment ushered in a new age of monarchial despotism marked by the promotion of Enlightenment rationalism, the central authority of the crown, and the ruthless suppression of all opposition or democratic tendencies in the population. The period was characterized by a willingness to remove the Catholic Church from all areas of public life, as Church teachings were seen as a hindrance to the formation of national unity and scientific progress. The chief exemplar of such absolutism was Emperor Joseph II, whose program against the Church was dubbed Josephinism — a policy that influenced Bismarck 100 years later. (See "The Roots of the Kulturkampf," page 25.)

The 19th century brought more despotism under Napoleon Bonaparte, who persecuted the Church across the French Empire and even imprisoned the saintly Pope Pius VII from 1808 to 1813. Napoleon's fall in 1815 was greeted with joy by Catholics in Europe, but his time as emperor had wrought lasting changes to European politics. One of the most significant was the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the subsequent ascendancy in German-speaking regions of a Protestant state, Prussia, at the expense of Catholic Austria. In 1866, Austria and the remaining German states were defeated by Prussia at the Battle of Koniggratz. Henceforth, Prussia was the driving force for German cultural and national unity.

As Prussia amassed larger sway over the other German states, Catholic populations found themselves suddenly under Protestant administration. The risks of this became apparent in the 1830s in the Rhineland and Westphalia. There, a disagreement between civil and ecclesiastical authorities over mixed marriages climaxed with the two-year imprisonment of the archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August von Droste zu Vischering. In 1852, decrees were issued against the Jesuits in Prussia.

The Reich Begins

A new era began in Prussia in 1858 with the appointment of Prince Wilhelm I, the Prussian King Frederick William IV's brother, as prince regent for the mentally incapacitated monarch. On January 2, 1861, Frederick William died and Wilhelm became King of Prussia. As head of the Prussian state, he inherited a long-simmering dispute with the Prussian Parliament, the Landtag, over military reforms. His solution was the appointment in 1862 of Otto von Bismarck as Prime Minister (Ministerpräsident) and Foreign Minister of Prussia. In 1871, Bismarck was also named the first Chancellor of Germany.

Bismarck gave the crown a firm hand in its dealings with the Landtag and soon earned both his reputation as the most feared diplomat and statesman in Europe and his title of "Iron Chancellor." He took as one of the central objectives for Prussian ambitions the unification of Germany. In this he was joined by the two other chief figures of the Prussian government, Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of Staff for the Prussian Army, and Albrecht von Roon, Prussian Minister of War. This triad of ministers built Prussia into a military juggernaut and shocked Europe with their triumph over Austria in 1866. The final achievement of German unification followed swiftly from Prussia's shattering defeat of France and Napoleon III in 1870-1871 in the Franco-Prussian War. On January 18, 1871, King Wilhelm was proclaimed German Emperor, or Kaiser, in the Chateau de Versailles' Hall of Mirrors in conquered France. The patchwork of German kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free cities was now brought together into one collective polity called the Deutsches Reich, the German Empire, under the headship of the Kaiser and his ministers (chiefly Bismarck), but with some legislative authority vested in the bicameral parliament, including a lower house elected by universal male suffrage, the Reichstag.

Strange Bedfellows

For Bismarck, the solidification of German national and cultural unity faced obstacles, and one was the sizable Catholic population in the new Germany, whose loyalties he deeply suspected. Bismarck's long mistrust of the Church was only exacerbated by the definition of papal infallibility by the Vatican Council (1869-1870) which to a pragmatic politician seemed to suggest supremacy for the pope that outweighed loyalty to the state among the Catholic faithful. As a point of statecraft, then, Catholic influence had to be subjugated to the new imperial order.

Bismarck found allies against the Church in two seemingly disparate political parties. On the one hand, there were his natural supporters, the Conservatives, and especially their leader Moritz von Blankenburg. Blankenburg was openly opposed to the Catholic Church in Germany and determined to maintain the Protestant character of the government.

Surprisingly, however, Bismarck's strongest supporters in the Prussian Landtag and then in the Reichstag were the Liberals. The Liberal Party in Germany had long opposed absolutism and called for constitutional government, but they were also united in their antipathy for the Catholic Church; many Liberal leaders were anti-clerical and ardent students of the German Enlightenment. This hatred for the Church naturally extended into their calls for a pure German culture freed from the supposed superstitions, dogmatism, and obscurantism of the Church. Their influence in German politics increased in the middle of the 19th century, when they used public sentiment for German nationalism to their advantage. Their presence increased steadily in the Landtag after 1860, and in that year they were permitted to introduce harsh anti-Catholic educational measures in traditionally Catholic Bavaria.

Having found common ground with the Liberals, Bismarck allowed them to hold many offices in the imperial government, climaxing in 1870 with the role of the Liberals in waging the Franco-Prussian War. When, therefore, Bismarck set out upon the Kulturkampf, the Liberals were his most enthusiastic foot-soldiers. In fact, it was a Liberal member of the Prussian Landtag in 1873, Rudolf Virchow, who first used the term Kulturkampf.

The Faithful under Seige

The program was inaugurated through a legal measure appended to the Strafgesetzbuch, the German Criminal Code, that threatened two years in prison should a clergyman address any political topics from the pulpit. Passed in 1871, the new law was termed the Kanzelparagraf (or pulpit paragraph). That same year, the Roman Catholic department for religious affairs in the Prussian government was closed for being pro-Polish. The following year, the Jesuits were expelled from the German Empire (only returning in 1917) and all religious schools were required to accept official government inspections. In June, all religious teachers were removed from government schools. In December, the German government broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

In March 1873, the Landtag passed a series of laws drafted by Adalbert Falk, the German minister of education, that regulated Catholic life in Prussia. The new laws were then approved for the entire German Empire on May 15, 1873 by the Reichstag and came to be called the Maigesetze (May Laws). Ecclesiastical punishments were prohibited save in purely spiritual matters. In areas of religious law, appeal was permitted to the state, and from the state's decision there would be no further ecclesiastical appeal.

All seminarians, both Catholic and Protestant, had to study at state-controlled high schools and universities, where they had to pass an examination in German culture, including history, philosophy, and literature. Once ordained, all priests and clergy faced state approval before they could be appointed to any positions. If the Church installed an unapproved priest or bishop, the offending cleric was removed and charged with a civil crime.

Once the basic framework was in place through the May Laws of 1873, a new round of even tighter restrictions was launched. In 1874, the government decreed that bishops who were deposed by the state could be replaced only by a prelate acceptable to the state. Appointments of pastors over parishes were no longer the right off local bishops but were given to the parishioners or local government officials. In 1875 all priests were stripped of any stipends or endowments granted by the government. That same year, all religious orders and communities in the Empire were outlawed except for those engaged directly in nursing or hospital care. Marriage was decreed a mandatory civil ceremony and taken completely out of ecclesiastical hands. These acts climaxed on June 20, 1875, when all Church property was confiscated. By 1875, over 200 priests had been arrested, along with over 130 newspaper editors. Five bishops in Prussia had been forcibly deposed, and nearly 1,000 parishes had been stripped of their priests.

The May Laws were felt most harshly in German-occupied Poland (the so-called Provinz Posen) where the Kulturkampf went hand in hand with anti-Polish and anti-Slavic prejudices. As the Catholic Church was the primary defender of Polish rights and culture, Catholic leaders were singled out. The seminaries in Poznari and Gniezno were shut down, and the monasteries were ordered to close. When Polish priests and bishops resisted the measures, German police arrested and imprisoned 185 priests and bishops, including the primate of Poland, Archbishop Mieczyslaw Leddchowski. Even when, at last, the German government released the priests and bishops, most were sent immediately into exile. And, when the Kulturkampf was eventually eased in most of the German Empire, it continued largely unabated in Poland for many more years, a grim harbinger of the anti-Catholic and anti-Polish terror that descended on the Poles under the Nazis.

Political and Spiritual Resistance

On November 21, 1873, Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical Etsi Multa on the persecution of the Church in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. He wrote of Germany: "No wonder, then, that the former religious tranquility has been gravely disturbed in that Empire by this kind of law and other plans and actions of the Prussian government most hostile to the Church. But who would wish to falsely cast the blame of this disturbance on the Catholics of the German Empire!" (EM 15).

On February 5, 1875, Pio Nono wrote again, this time addressing Germany exclusively in a new encyclical, Quod Nunquam. He declared that the May Laws were invalid, "insofar as they totally oppose the divine order of the Church" (QN 5). In harsh reply, the German state arrested more priests, nuns, laypeople, bishops, and archbishops.

The bishops of Prussia, meanwhile, issued a pastoral letter in May 1873 in which they called on the faithful to resist the new laws and informed the Prussian government that they would not cooperate. Minister Falk grew irate at the obdurate stubbornness of Prussian bishops and their priests. He imposed steep fines and then punitively collected them from parishes, to the outrage of the parishioners. When this did not budge the priests and laypeople, arrests began anew.

German Catholics had already recognized the need to resist anti-Catholic political moves by forming popular associations, called Vereinswesen. By 1870, a greater sense of cohesion was needed, and German Catholic associations formed a new national political party, the Zentrum (or Center) Party. Its goals were to preserve Catholic rights as promised and to defend the practice of the Catholic faith and Catholic education. The party also spoke for the rights of minorities in the German Empire, including the Poles and the Jews. The party took its name from the fact that its members sat in the Reichstag between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

The leader of the Zentrum from 1874, and one of the great forgotten heroes of German Catholic history, was a Hanoverian by the name of Ludwig Windthorst. Windthorst had already proven himself an able opponent to Bismarck in the Landtag, but as leader of the Zentrum, he emerged as the Iron Chancellor's primary legislative nemesis.

Like Napoleon before him, Bismarck found that crushing the Church was far more difficult than he had initially anticipated. With each new piece of legislation and every new outrage and arrest, the levels of Catholic anger grew. But Catholics did not riot in the streets or plot violent revolution. Windthorst called repeatedly for a patient and moderate reply to the government's actions lest the Catholic cause be damaged by violence. The German bishops adopted a similar approach. Catholics instead celebrated more fervently the Catholic faith, supported their priests and bishops, and organized politically. Parish councils declined to elect new pastors or accept parish administrators. Parishioners used their own money to buy back Church property or the priests' possessions sold off by the government. Exiled or imprisoned bishops used underground networks to stay in touch with their faithful and continued to run their dioceses. In the elections of 1873, the Center Party nearly doubled its membership in the Landtag and jumped to 91 members in the Reichstag. In the 1874 elections, the Zentrum doubled its membership in the Reichstag.

Bismarck's Descent

By 1878, Bismarck accepted that the Kulturkampf had failed. The Iron Chancellor realized as well that the circumstances for the German Empire had also changed. No longer worried about Austrian influence in Germany, Bismarck determined closer relations with the Catholic Austrian Empire were essential as a counterweight to Russia. To pave the way for diplomacy with Austria, an improved understanding with the Church was needed. Catholic support in the Reichstag was also becoming more crucial as the inevitable rupture with the Liberals took place over their socialist agenda. The Conservatives likewise had grown disenchanted with the anti-Christian tenor of the legislation of the Liberal Minister Falk.

With the passing of Pope Plus IX in February 1878, Bismarck was presented with a way to climb down from his hard-line position. The Chancellor sought reconciliation with the new pontiff, Pope Leo XIII, but he did so slowly and at times grudgingly. In 1879, he sacked the hated Minister Falk, and in 1882, Bismarck allowed Prussia to establish an embassy to the Holy See. The Chancellor reached out even to his great enemy Windthorst, whom he invited to receptions at the Bismarck estate.

In 1882 the Conservatives reclaimed power in the Reichstag and declared no interest in perpetuating a Liberal policy against the Church. Years of negotiations followed, but in 1886 and 1887 the May Laws were modified so significantly that the Kulturkampf could be considered dead. In the succeeding years, all remaining laws were lifted. Still, the infamous Kanzelparagraf remained in effect until 1953.

Bismarck's own titanic career ended pathetically with the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888 upon the deaths of his grandfather, Wilhelm I, and then his father, Frederick III, who had reigned only 99 days because of incurable throat cancer. Raised by Bismarck, Wilhelm II was determined from the first to be a true ruler, unlike his grandfather, who had left the government in the hands of the chancellor. Wilhelm opposed Bismarck's conservative foreign policy, and the chancellor refused to embrace Wilhelm's desired social reform. The two suffered a final rupture in 1,890, and the 75-year-old Bismarck resigned at the insistence of his onetime pupil. In another famous cartoon, this time by Sir John Tenniel and first published in the British magazine Punch, Bismarck departs the German ship of state under the petulant gaze of the emperor. The title of the cartoon is "Dropping the Pilot."

History Lesson

For Catholics, the Kulturkampf had represented both a challenge and an opportunity. The Catholic faithful were oppressed and humiliated in their own country for the sake of nationalism and cultural purity. By remaining steadfast in the faith and demanding their rights as Germans, and as Catholics, they proved they were capable of being both. The Catholic Center Party remained a prominent voice in German politics throughout the period of the German Empire, and during the Weimar Republic between 1919 and 1933, it held the chancellorship eight times. The party dissolved itself in 1.933 before Hitler could disband it.

The Kulturkampf is also a cautionary tale for Catholics today as post-Christian governments in the West begin more and more to look at Catholics as enemies of progress and opponents in a vast cultural struggle for the recreation of society. As the recent trials before Canada's so-called Human Rights Commission over hate speech against homosexuality have demonstrated, Catholic should not look at the Kulturkampf as some ancient event that might never happen in their own country.

The Roots of the Kulturkampf

If some of the roots of Nazi policy toward the Church can be traced to Bismarck's Kulturkampf the claim can also be made that the origins of the Kulturkampf stem in part from Josephinism. Also called Josephism, Josephinism was an Enlightenment-era religious policy launched by Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1765-1790. In essence, Josephinism advocated the supremacy of the state in matters of religion. This meant control over the Catholic Church in all its affairs, including appointments. The emperor reorganized dioceses, stipulated the number of Masses that could be celebrated, and seized many schools, which were replaced by state-controlled institutions. Seminaries were also brought under the state, substituted with government-controlled centers with the aim of producing clerics fully indoctrinated in Josephist policies. Severe limits were placed on the number of religious who could reside within the lands of the empire, and monasteries were taken away from the authority of the pope and then dissolved on the grounds that monks and nuns spending their days in prayer were useless to society. Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-1799) protested the policies, actually traveling to Vienna in 1782 to make his point. Nevertheless, Josephinism continued until the emperor's death in 1790, and elements of it remained in force for another century.

Further Reading

  • Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe, edited by Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser
  • The Kulturkampf in Prussian Poland by Lech Trzeciakowski, tr. By Katarzyna Kretkowska
  • Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany by Jonathan Sperber
  • The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany by Michael B. Gross

Matthew E. Bunson is a contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters and a moderator of EWTN's online Church history forum.

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