How Bismark Lost Kulturkampf

Now that the Affordable Care Act has survived its Supreme Court challenge, there comes the fight over its implementation. Moral considerations rank high on the list of casus belli for Catholics and other religious groups. They fear that the Act will force them to pay for procedures which they abhor, like the morning-after pill, abortion, and sterilisation. The price of resistance could be “institutional martyrdom”, according to University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley.

He is not alone in his forebodings. The Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, has said that “The long-term effect is that the Catholic Church will be stripped of the institutions that are her instruments for public service. We will lose hospitals, we will lose universities.”

Is their alarm justified? Or is all this just huffing and puffing by embittered losers? Only time will tell, but there are precedents for a war between the Catholic Church and a democratic government. The paradigm case is the Kulturkampf – the culture war – waged by the Iron Chancellor of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, in the 1870s. The differences are obvious — President Obama does not make  a habit of wearing spiked Prussian helmets — but there are thought-provoking parallels as well.

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Throughout the 19th century Church and State were often at loggerheads, even in European countries with centuries of Catholic tradition behind them. Enlightenment progressives everywhere favoured a radically secularised society in which religion played only a marginal role. In Prussia, the forerunner state to modern Germany, this problem burst a gasket in 1871.

Bismarck’s life’s work was the unification, through conquest and treaty, of an archipelago of German-speaking states (with the conspicuous exception of Austria). In 1870 Prussia humiliated France in the Franco-German War. Bismarck’s army took Emperor Napoleon III prisoner and starved Paris into submission. The Prussians did a triumphal march through the streets of Paris. Bismarck was on a roll. In 1871 the hold-out states of southern Germany joined a Prussian-led federation with Kaiser Wilhelm I as head of state. In many ways this prosperous new country was authoritarian, but it was also a democracy with active political parties.

Even in the flush of triumph, however, the master politician saw problems ahead. As Prussia expanded and became Germany, it lost its original character – a highly-centralised, largely Protestant state. Catholics – mostly in the Rhineland, southern Germany and in the Polish-speaking East – now constituted about a third of the new nation. Bismarck believed that he needed to press hard for unity of language, religion and education, drawing all of society under government control.

In this, he was supported by liberals who detested the Catholic Church as the archetypal foe of progress. It was the famous scientist and social reformer Rudolph Virchow who gave Bismarck’s “reforms” the name Kulturkampf. He praised them as “a great struggle in the interest of humanity” which would eliminate medieval traditionalism, obscurantism, and authoritarianism.

The flavour of the times can be tasted in these words from a Prussian politician in 1875. To “enthusiastic cheers”, he said: “Gentlemen, anyone who believes in our day and age that he must carry his religion around with him; anyone who feels obliged to wear a particular dress, who swears grotesque vows, who bands together in herds, and who, when all is said and done, swears unconditional loyalty to Rome, the bitterest enemy of our young German and Prussian glory – such people can have no place in our state. That is why I say: away with them as soon as possible!”

In painting the Church as an anachronism, Exhibit A was Pius IX, who was Pope throughout most of the Kulturkampf era. Pius did not take the progressive assault on European Catholicism lying down. In 1864 he published the Syllabus, a denunciation of the errors of modern thought, and in 1870 the First Vatican Council proclaimed papal infallibility. Nowadays most people understand that the Pope’s claim to infallibility extends only to Christian faith and morals, but in those feverishly anti-clerical and anti-Catholic times, infallibility was interpreted as an attack on the principle of secular government. Pius IX’s stand appeared to weaken his authority among German Catholics, as well. A number of intellectuals had rejected Papal infallibility and formed the Old Catholic Church, with its own hierarchy and priests. To Bismarck, the troubled reign of Pius IX seemed like a golden moment to assert control.

In July 1871 the assault began with the abolition of the Catholic bureau of worship and control of government-Church relations was handed over to Protestant bureaucrats. In November Bismarck passed the Kanzelparagraph (the Pulpit Law) which severely penalised criticism of the government by the clergy. In March 1872, all schools were placed under government control. In July 1872 the Jesuits (and later other religious orders) were expelled or interned. In December 1872 he broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

The pressure on Catholics intensified in May 1873 with the so-called May Laws (or Falk Laws). These were four drastic measures designed to crush the hierarchy and subject the Church totally to government control. At the same time, Bismarck fostered relations with the Old Catholics and tried to establish them as an alternative to the Catholic hierarchy.

In 1875 the fight intensified. A “Breadbasket Bill” was passed which suspended all grants to dioceses if the clergy had not complied with the new laws. All religious orders were dissolved, except socially useful ones involved in nursing and social work. Civil marriage was made obligatory. All Church property was confiscated and ownership was transferred to parish laymen acting as trustees.

By 1878 the Catholic Church appeared to be in a sorry state. Most of its bishops were in exile; thousands of parishes had no priest. It had lost most of its property and power. But in fact Bismarck’s Kulturkampf had run out of steam and most of his measures were about to be dismantled.

Repression, far from crippling the Church, had united it. Although Papal infallibility had not been popular with many German Catholics, nearly all of them closed ranks and presented a united front. In 1870 Catholics formed the Centre Party under the leadership first of Hermann von Mallinckrodt and then of Ludwig Windthorst, two politicians who were remarkable for their eloquence and shrewdness. Their party grew rapidly into a major political force. When Bismarck lost the support of his anti-Catholic political allies, a coalition of National Liberals and Conservatives, he realised that he needed to be reconciled with the Centre. Furthermore, a Marxist-inspired party, the Social Democrats, was also rising rapidly. In Bismarck’s eyes, Catholics were far more congenial than socialists. Nor did Catholics resort to violent resistance – although a Catholic did try to assassinate Bismarck in 1874, an event which just gave him an excuse for more repressive measures.

Pius IX was succeeded as Pope in 1878 by Leo XIII, who took a far more conciliatory line. Bit by bit the May Laws were dismantled. Diplomatic ties with the Vatican were resumed in 1882. By 1890, most of the anti-Catholic legislation was reversed – although it was not until 1917 that Jesuits were allowed to return.

In short, the Kulturkampf had failed miserably and in many ways, it had actually been counterproductive. Instead of uniting the new Germany, Bismarck’s policy had intensified bitter divisions, reduced the moral authority of the state and helped to promote socialism.

Are there any lessons in this history lesson for anxious Americans? MercatorNet consulted Ronald J. Ross, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, whose book The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf analyses this tumultuous era. “My sense is that the differences far outweigh any similarities,” he says. “Viewed from my vantage point, I see nothing comparable in the governmental intentions of the present day and those of Bismarck’s Prussia or Imperial Germany back in the 19th Century. Certainly the kinds of sanctions deployed against the Church during the Kulturkampf are conspicuously absent in the present situation.”

However, in the virulence of the debate, says Professor Ross, there are some similarities. “The term [Kulturkampf] embodied all the confidence, optimism, and belief in progress so characteristic of liberal thinking during the 1860s and 1870s. Without the encouragement and aid of liberals like Virchow, other interest groups, and constituencies, which in turn were energized and emboldened by Bismarck’s endorsement of their cause, it is difficult to see how the Kulturkampf could have descended to the levels of loathing it did, dividing the country into two mutually uncomprehending, uncompromising universes. It is here, in this limited sense, with the strident tone of debate, that I can see something of a similarity between the Kulturkampf and the present situation.”

Perhaps the most useful lessons are the most obvious ones. First, it can happen here. Although Prussia was an authoritarian society without a bill of rights, it was not a dictatorship. Harsh restrictions on Catholics were passed democratically after debates in a parliament. Prussia’s progressive intellectual elite supported something which was clearly unjust: suppression of freedom of religion in the name of protecting freedom of thought.

Second, democracy works slowly, but it works. German Catholics worked within the political process to reverse Bismarck’s reforms. In this they found allies amongst Prussian Protestants who objected to state control of religious affairs. With time Bismarck’s strategy for national unity, or rather national uniformity, ran out of steam.

Third, so what if there is institutional martyrdom? Catholics in Prussia lost everything. A few years later they got it back. And what they had lost in property they gained in solidarity.

Finally, the resilience of the Catholic Church should not be underestimated. In 1870 the Church had just lost the Papal States and Pius IX was nursing his wounds behind the walls of the Vatican. Intellectually, the Church’s prestige seemed to have hit rock-bottom. The yellow press was full of stories about sexual abuse by priests and depravity in convents. Catholicism seemed like a dinosaur thrashing in its death throes. Yet, within a couple of decades, the picture was quite different.

Unhappily for the historian, there was no tidy, fairy-tale ending to the Kulturkampf. But as everyone knows, after the era of repression had faded, Germany entered dark new tunnels of terror and hatred. Did the Iron Chancellor’s attempt to crush religious freedom pave the path to that?

This article was originally published on under a Creative Commons Licence.


  • Michael Cook

    Michael Cook is the editor of He earned a BA at Harvard University and later moved to Australia where he pursued a career in journalism.

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