Bismarck’s Failure: the Kulturkampf

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“Bismarck’s Failure: the Kulturkampf”

by Heather Statton

In the history of Germany no one man has single-handedly accomplished more for his country than Otto von Bismarck. As Prussian prime minister and German chancellor, he was determined to unite all of Prussia and make a new Second Reich. In this struggle, he sough to make Germany the greatest power in Europe, but realized that to achieve this goal, national unity was essential. Thus, he and the National Liberals introduced measurers into the country that dealt with threats of division. One target of persecution was the German Catholics of southern Germany and Alsace and Lorraine. Through the harsh measures such as the May Laws, School Inspection Laws, and persecution of the clergy, Bismarck divided rather than united the German people through the Kulturkampf.

Kulturkampf (a hard word to translate perfectly) means “a struggle for control of the minds of Germans” or as most have translated, “the battle of civilizations.”1 The “battle” referred to was the one between Bismarck and Catholics beginning as early as 1864 when Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus Errorum or Catalogue of the Principal Errors of Our Time. The pope in this papal statement condemned the practices of modern actions such as civil marriage and civil education. The Church stated that only marriage inside the Roman Catholic Church was legal and that education should also be in the hands of the Church. As Taylor surmises in his book Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, “the Church itself was a combative mood against ever modern idea.”2 The could not stand to see their conservative, narrow-minded view of life shattered by German nationalism and liberalism. Even greater was the dust in that air that was created when the Vatican Council in 1870 adopted the doctrine of papal infallibility, that is, that when the pope spoke on issues that had to deal with faith or morals, all the pope said or did was right. Soon people feared that the Church would go one step further and declare the pope infallible on all matters and try to establish a Holy Roman Empire again.

These two proclamations angered Bismarck, but because he needed the support of the Rhinesh states and Catholic southern Germany in the war with France, he decided to act after the war.3 His first aim, according to Synder and Brown was “to subdue all people, Protestants and Catholics alike, to the triumphant power of the State.”4 But even though he included the Protestants, the concern at the time was the rising Catholic vote. Ever since the acquisition of the regions of Alsace and Lorraine from France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the new German Empire had a very large Catholic representation of approximately one-third of the population. These Catholics established the Catholic Centre Party “to win some written assurance that the Roman Catholic Church would be allowed to order it’s own affairs without interferences.”5 In the process, it became the second strongest political party in Germany. “Because it cut across class and state lines, Bismarck regarded it as a dangerous rival.”6 The Catholic Centre Party formed and the hostility from Bismarck was mostly for their political leader, Ludwig Windthorst. As Bismarck said, “Everyone must have someone to love and someone to hate. I have my wife to love and Windthorst to hate.”7 But as always, Bismarck used this inconveniences of the political rivalry with the Centre Party and authorized his anti-papal campaign. “He objected to the existence of a confessional party because it seemed to stand for allegiance to an authority other than the national state.”8 This, he thought, made it an enemy to the unity he so craved. His fears grew when, in March 1871, the new party won 58 seats in the lower house of the Reichstag, the new imperial parliament.

The National Liberalists were just the party that Bismarck needed to campaign against the Pope and the Catholic Centre Party. They too saw the doctrine of papal infallibility as “an aggressive act” and decided to reflect the strong anti-papal feelings shown by the middle and working class. Thus without any hesitation, they carried out the plan of Kulturkampf and made it their campaign platform. But surely, as Craig points out, they would not have been able to carry out this desire without the encouragement of Bismarck. Certainly this encouragement did not come out of doctrinal zeal or hatred of the Catholics. He was a very religious man who sought out the guidance of God in his administration of state affairs.9 There was another reason that he so disliked them; he truly thought Catholicism was a “state within a state” and that the people could not follow the true unified State if it had attachments to Rome.10 Bismarck “could not conceive that a faithful child of the Church could also be a loyal son of the fatherland.”11

With the abolishment of the Catholic department of the Prussian Ministry of Public Worship and Education and the appointment of Adalbert Falk to the position of Prussian Ministry of Public Worship, Bismarck was ready to disperse his anti-Catholic measures throughout Germany. Falk, a anti-clerical rationalist, was about the same as a pawn in a chess game. He desired to please Bismarck and managed to bring the Liberals closer to Bismarck through his harsh laws created to diminish the power and independence of the church. When he asked Bismarck what he was to do, Bismarck replied, “Restore the rights of the state over the church and do it with the least possible fuss.”12 Although this was impossible, Falk began his tasks by trying to get the school inspection provisions made law. On 1872, the School Inspection Law was passed. Intended as a warning to the Roman Catholic Church, it became represented later as the first stroke in the Kulturkampf.13 The law required that a special school inspectorate be established which would allow the Prussian authorities mandatory power to inspect all schools instead of the Church. The conflict against the Catholics spread and in 1872, Bismarck ordered the Bunderstandt to bring a law directly against the liberals traditional enemy, the Jesuits.14 This was a blow towards the education of Germany, since from the Counter Reformation, the Jesuits had established themselves in education. Indeed a law was passed that expelled the Jesuits and their institutions from Germany. But this was not all the ammunition in Falk’s gun. In 1873, the Prussian Landtag passed the May Laws. The strictest of measures yet, these laws were intended to remove all the priests from state service, separate Church and State, remove Catholic influences on marriage and education, and make the inclusion of political propaganda in sermons illegal. As a result of the May Laws , two archbishops were imprisoned and 1300 parishes were without priests. What the National Liberals did not realize was “that in fashioning a rod to beat off the pope they were making a scourge for their own backs.”15

To Bismarck, this was just another struggle between the Church and State, nothing more than what German history was filled with during the Middle Ages. Bismarck was going to ensure that he would not be humiliated like the German King Henry IV, who in 1077 was forced to go barefoot and, clad in sackcloth and ashes, to wait three days in the courtyard of Canossa to beg forgiveness from the pope. Thus he declared, “You need not be afraid, we shall never go to the Canossa, either actually or in spirit.”16

The outcry of the Kulturkampf finally came on July 13, 1874 as Bismarck rode by in his carriage in Kissingen. A Catholic cooper named Heinz Kullmann attempted to assassinate the Iron Chancellor. Although only wounded on his right hand, Bismarck jumped on this failed assassination attempt and charged the Catholic Centre Party with inspiring the would-be assassin. “You may try to disown the assassin, but nonetheless he clings to your coattails...Moreover,” he added, “you will never be able to shake this murderer loose.”17 But the desired affect was not achieved. The hatred of the Kulturkampf was still felt over the nation, and Bismarck finally realized the need for dissolving this monster that was running rampant over Germany.

In 1879, Bismarck finally reversed his domestic policies and scrapped the Kulturkampf. He repealed most of the May Laws and allowed the religious orders to return and for the Roman Catholic Church to recover control of its seminaries. He quickly used Falk as his scapegoat and declared that he did not have the time to read the May Laws that Falk had published. He wished to shake himself free from the National Liberals and saw that if he ended the Kulturkampf he would have the favor of the Centre Party.18 In this statement, he tried to show that his only concern at the end of Kulturkampf was German unification. “What do I care whether the appointment of a Catholic priest is notified in the state or not--Germany must be one!”19 Thus he used the same argument that he started the Kulturkampf with to end it.

The Kulturkampf was a disaster. Many German Catholics resented the pope’s assumption of infallibility but resented what Bismarck and the National Liberals did even more. Instead of going to Bismarck’s side, they rallied behind the Church. The Centre Party increased like the Christians under Nero had, and persecution and imprisonment only strengthened their numbers to 94 seats by 1874. Lord Odo Russell, British ambassador to Berlin hit the nail on the head in his quote:

Bismarck utterly misunderstands and underrates the power of the Church. Thinking himself more infallible than the pope, he cannot tolerate two infallibilities in Europe and fancies he can select and appoint the next pontiff as we would a Prussian general, who will carry our his orders to the Catholic clergy.20

Through all this, Bismarck only divided the people. Catholics that were angered by the pope were more outraged at Bismarck’s actions against the Church. The Centre Party gained more prestige and power as the struggle continued. Although he had not gone to Canossa “in body”, he certainly went “in spirit.”21 Bismarck at last realized that this was a battle he could not win. He had tried to oust the Church out of domestic affairs but only accomplished “losing his temper and by his bullying tactics not only reunited the divided Catholics in opposition to his politics but turned many of the Protestant conservatives into active opponents...”22 Although a genius in foreign policy, he failed miserably in his attempts in domestic affairs on the home front. The episode with Kulturkampf “was for all practical purposes a nervous breakdown on the part of the man who could have presided as a tranquilizing influence but instead... preferred to practice violence at home while in foreign affairs seeking security for Germany...”23

But, Bismarck was determined not to go down with the ship. Instead, he made Falk appear the “captain” of the entire Kulturkampf and bailed out right before it sank. Knowing that he needed the support of the majority in order to pass his new economic reforms, he abandoned his precious Liberals and began to negotiate with the Centre Party. His recovery allowed him to adopt a new interest: the welfare of German industries and reforms to the government’s policies of free trade. In the process of erasing the failure of Kulturkampf from the minds of the people, Bismarck introduced his Protective Tariff Policy. By doing so, “he brought in more revenue by his customs duties, reducing his dependence on parliamentary budgets, he gave federated states more power to combat subversive socialism, and he extricated himself from conflict with the Church.”24 Although he had torn apart the nation with Kulturkampf, he had certainly redeemed himself with the Protective Tariff and gave Germans a real reason to be united. No longer were they merely just a strong European power. Bismarck had indeed made Germany into a world power and proved himself once more to be a remarkable statesman even in the overcast of Kulturkampf.

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