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The Failure of Bismarck's Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887 Hardcover – June, 1998
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An in-depth examination of the Kulturkampf, how it was implemented, and why it failed. Few conflicts in Imperial Germany were more important than the Kulturkampf or "struggle for civilization," a major conflict during the 1870s and early 1880s between the Catholic Church and Otto von Bismarck's Prussian government. Despite all its drama (the attempted assassination of governmental officials, the arrest and trial of prominent churchmen, even riots and mass demonstrations), the Kulturkampf remains among the neglected subjects of nineteenth-century German history. Because the customary focus for studies of the Kulturkampf is on church policy and its development, little is known about how those policies worked in practice or how effectively the government compelled obedience and deterred resistance to its new ecclesiastical regulations. To determine what the Kulturkampf did-or, more importantly, did not-achieve, Ronald J. Ross shifts the traditional focus to an interesting examination of how church policy was implemented, enforced, and resisted. His findings are based on extensive archival research in Germany (including the former East Germany), Poland, Austria, and Vatican City. Ross's assessment of the Kulturkampf makes clear that repression as an instrument of policy failed of its purpose. Although Bismarck's ecclesiastical regulations crippled the operation of the Roman church, disrupted its organization, and inflicted genuine pain on the faithful at large, the Iron Chancellor failed to convince Catholics of the futility of resistance. The book will be of interest to political, religious, and social historians, to political scientists or sociologists concerned with the state and its administration, and to readers interested in German history or church history.
The Kulturkampf as a game of chess. Bismarck has just made a shrewd move. As Pius IX contemplates his countermove in the form of a papal encyclical (Quod nunquam), he reminds Bismarck that the match is not over yet.
Ronald J. Ross, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the author of Beleaguered Tower: The Dilemma of Political Catholicism in Wilhelmine Germany.
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Ross expands on this insight and argues that even in detail, the legislation of the Kulturkampf could not accomplish its objectives because the Reich lacked the police power to enforce the law, the court resources to try the cases, the power to frighten recalcitrant Catholics from engaging in active and passive resistance, or the will to inflict the cruelty necessary to break Catholicism. Instead, the administration of the Kulturkampf was legalistic and committed to due process and legal forms in a way that we would not associate with a dictatorship. In fact, as I read this book, I noticed how it seemed that the National Socialists had learned from the Kulturkampf and were not going to make the mistakes made by Bismarck; instead, the Nazis would have the police and the informants and would use terror and would have no problem in placing enemies in the harsh conditions of concentration camps.
Ross ascribes the Kulturkampf to the "generalized public anxiety, uncertainty, and hostility - shared by high and low alike - toward Germany's Catholic minority." (p. 5). This anxiety was transformed into policy by Bismarck's decision to launch an "internal preventive war" "against what he mistakenly perceived to be the revolutionary potential of Catholics, Poles and Socialists who threatened the consolidation of the newly unified Reich." (Id.) In addition, there was a fear of Catholicism founded on ignorance of the real tenets of Catholicism; "Catholic beliefs, especially the primacy of the Holy See and the claim of papal infallibility, the veneration of the saints, the cult of the Virgin, and the like either invited ridicule and contempt or aroused widespread hostility among broad sections of the Protestant population throughout Prussia and Germany."(p. 17.)(This attitude is found in Thompson's essay.)
Catholics were deemed to be superstitious because of their belief in miracles. (p. 18.) In addition, traditional tropes about priests sexually assaulting women and children played into the hostility toward Catholicsim.(p. 19.) Jesuits were blamed for the death of diplomats and, even, in 1874, a popular lion in the Berlin zoo. (p. 3.) The protestant theme was that Protestantism constituted a belief in `material progress, civic emancipation and moral improvement" against `Catholic backwardness, provincialism and cultural inferiority." (p. 23.)
Ross states that Bismarck did not share the "left-liberal hope" that the religion would atrophy and eventually disappear altogether. (p. 28.) Instead, his goal was to reduce the role of the Catholic Church in Prussian society to the lowest level compatible with its legitimate religious function - a concession that disappointed his liberal allies and imposed constraints on the coercive methods that might be employed during the struggle. (p. 28.) (In that regard, Bismarck's goal seems to be the same as Hitler's.)
Ross gives some attention to the Old Catholic split. The Old Catholic membership was made up of civil servants (10 to 20%) and affluent bourgeoisie and salaried employees (One-third to one-half of the Old Catholic rank and file.) (p. 37.) The anti-ultramontane grouping was composed of "socially superior elements" that induced Bismarck to believe that the Old Catholic movement would have a greater impact than it would eventually demonstrate. (p. 37.) Nonetheless, in 1875, Germany passed the "Old Catholic Law" that forced the Catholic Church to divide Catholic property with dissenting Old Catholic congregations. (p. 46.) Old Catholicism failed because it did not attract sympathy and cooperation from Catholics. (p. 48.) Two decades of religious revival had strengthened Catholic loyalties and community. (p. 48.) Moreover, once Old Catholics left the Catholic communion, they jettisoned Catholic doctrine and practice to become more Protestant (p. 48 - 49) (something that exists today as the Old Catholic Church is more liberal than most liberal Protestant sects.) By 1873, there were 22 Old Catholic priests; by 1878, that number was 24.(p. 51.)
Ross discusses the "May Law", chief of which, in his telling, was the law requiring approval for the appointment of priests. This law was backed up by fines, and, eventually, imprisonment, and bishops who invariably failed to comply, incurred substantial fines. (p. 55.) Bishops were arrested, but treated with more care than the common criminal; priests were by far the more typical victim of the law and would be incarcerated with criminal, which had the effect of making them heroes to their community. (p. 62 - 63, 69.) During the Kulturkampf, as many as 7 bishops and 1,800 priests were arrested and jailed. (p. 72.)
Ross describes the papal encyclical that declared Kulturkampf legislation as null and void as the precipitant for the 1875 laws that resulted in the suppression of Catholic religious orders.(p. 75.) This law was flawed by its own unwillingness to expel the nurses and teachers that were necessary to provide a social support system in Germany. (p. 80 - 81.) Catholics devised ruses to avoid the law, such as laicization in name, selling to Catholics and backdating documents.
Bismarck also saw the development of Catholic mob violence (p. 92, 141 - 142) and condemnation from international sources: "The Wreck of the Deutschland" by Gerald Manley Hopkins described the sinking of a German ship off the English coast which contained nuns expelled under the Cloister law.(p. 93.)
In addition, enforcement of the Kulturkampf was made difficult by jurisdictional anomalies between Reich and Prussia and other German states and by Germany's ingrained legalism. Catholics in some parts of Germany never experienced the laws and there were some bishops whose headquarters were located outside of Germany, but who had dioceses inside Germany. (p. 117, 118.)The ingrained legalism of the Reich was demonstrated by examples where Prussian authorities rigorously obeyed laws prohibiting arrests between 6 pm and 6 am (p. 97), something that would not trouble Hitler in the 1930s. Likewise, recidivism clogged the German legal system (p. 100)(something that would not trouble the Nazis.) Similarly, Prussia did not have the police resources to gather intelligence or to deal with mobs or to catch fleeing priests, etc. (p. 104.) Likewise, parliamentary immunity permitted Catholics to publish otherwise unpublishable papal encyclicals and Catholic newspapers printed anti-government texts, although they did have their editions confiscated and were fined. (See p. 159.) Catholics also organized through the "General Assembly of German Catholics," aka the "Katholikentag" which met outside of Prussia during the Kulturkampf. (p. 131.) Bismarck was the subject of an assassination attempt in 1874, and fears of a second assassination plot surfaced five months later. (p. 145)
Ross provides an excellent discussion of the Center party and its leadership.
The Kulturkampf laws created a crisis of conscience on the part of Catholics:
"Controversy within Catholic Ranks also reinforced government suspicions about the loyalty of its officials who belonged to that creed. In 1873, for example, a Catholic theologian published a brochure arguing that Catholic civil servants could administer the laws against the church without violation of conscience and personal honor so long as there was no one else in their agency or office who could assume responsibility for the action. But the Holy See made clear its disagreements with such interpretation and silenced further discussion among Catholics." (p. 111.)
(In light of the issue in the summer of 2015 concerning a clerk in Kentucky refusing to issue wedding license for homosexual marriages because of her religious convictions, it would seem that the quandary is still with us.)
As a result Catholic officials were removed from office. (p. 115.)
A very interesting section described the "Breadbasket Law" (the Sperrgesetz) which cut off government subsidies to the Catholic Church. All the amounts involved suggest that it would have been very effective, as Ross explains it was entirely ineffective because private contributions could easily make up for the lost state subsidies. Very few Catholic clergy depended on state subsidies, earning a living from fees for masses, baptisms, funerals, etc. (p. 152.) The clergy only received from 15% to 2 to 3% of their income from subsidies. (p. 152.) "If every Catholic would skip breakfast once a year," a speaker boasted in 1875, "then the money saved would more than suffice to cover the lost state subsidies." (p. 152.) (Does this then explain why Hitler never cut off subsidies to the Catholic Church during the 1930s?)
Ross describes the effect of the Kulturkampf as follows:
"By the end of the 1870s, when the Kulturkampf began to wane, more than half of Prussia's Catholic episcopate was in exile or in prison, nearly a quarter of all parishes were without pastors, and a third or more of all religious houses and congregations had been suppressed. Less obvious but just as real were the hardships that complicated the lives of ordinary Catholics. The Last Rites often could not be administered to the dying, marriage ceremonies were inconvenienced, burials sometimes became the focus of unseemly quarrels, and the regularity of sacramental observance became increasingly difficult. Catholic newspaper editors and journalists were harassed, questions, and put under suspicion because of the news they reported and the opinions they expressed. Hundreds of civil servants - victimized by patriotic and vigilante pressure groups - lost their posts, were demoted or otherwise had their career prospects blighted because their religious beliefs were deemed insufficiently Prussian or German. The experience of this Kulturkampf, understandably enough, entered deeply into the rhetoric and imagery of German political Catholicism and continued to influence the behavior and the beliefs of Catholic politicians well into the twentieth century." (p. 7.)
Nonetheless, the Kulturkampf was a failure. (p. 180.) Persecution spurred Catholic unity and determination. (p. 182.) The May laws created an enormous bitterness and deep-seated ill feeling among Catholics. (p. 182.) Wholesale violence was precluded by the Kulturkampf's limited goals. (p. 185.) In addition, perhaps, the problem was that a habit of defiance was being inculcated; thus, in 1877, Bismarck proposed a law eliminating papal jurisdiction in Prussia, but the obvious problem was that Catholics would still continue to recognize the Pope. (p. 188.)
Ross largely ignores the international dimensions of the Kulturkampf. Thus, although Catholics are viewed as disloyal, there is no discussion of the "French connection" as in Thompson. Likewise, the Polish element, which Thompson claims, using quotes from Bismarck, was crucial for the start of the Kulturkampf, is omitted. Apart from historical prejudice, the reader does not come away from this book with a sense of the causes of the Kulturkampf. On the other hand, that was not Ross's objectives; he wanted to explain why the Kulturkampf failed, and in that objective he has been successful.
What interested me in particular was the way that the Kulturkampf mapped onto Hitler's church policies. It seems that Hitler's policies were to avoid all of Bismarck's mistakes. Thus, parties and newspapers were immediately eliminated under Hitler. Power and jurisdiction were centralized; there would be none of those embarrassing oases of tolerance in the Third Reich. Hitler had the police and the informers and was not afraid of mistreating his enemies. The subject of the Kulturkampf tends to be ignored in discussions of Hitler's church policy, but both Ross and Thompson point out that the memories of the Kulturkampf were still alive in the early 20th century, when Hitler would have been developing his political ideas. One suspects that there was more method than madness in Hitler's policies in the 1930s.