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.

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.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Bismark’s own religious history is curious.

    had been a rationalist, but his friend Moritz von Blankenberg, introduced to him to his fiancée, Marie von Thadden and to Johanna von Puttkammer, who became Bismarck’s wife.  Both devout Lutheran Pietists.

    On 10 November 1846, Marie von Thadden, now Blankenberg’s wife,  died,.  Bismarck was present and seems to have undergone a profound religious conversion.  He was 31.

    He embraced Pietism, with its strong emphasis on justification by faith alone, through grace alone, through Christ alone, sensible conversion and an almost total disregard for the externals of religion. He had a strong sense of personal providence and a Hegelian belief in a manifestation of God in the processes of world history.

    Bismarck believed that Protestantism had been the making of Prussia, and not only in the obvious historical sense of its being created when Albrecht von Hohenzollern-Ansbach, the last Catholic Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights converted to Lutheranism and turned their lands into a secular duchy.  Bismarck believed that Protestantism informed the institutions of Prussia and had moulded the character of its people.  In short, he believed in the confessional state and an extremely Erastian one at that – He merged the Reformed (Calvinist) and Lutheran Churches into the Prussian Evangelical Church, by a raw exercise of state power.  He was devoted to the House of Hohenzollern, to Prussia and to a greater Germany, very much in that order.

  • While the situations are scarcely analogous, this post offers considerable food for thought in light of the situation of the Church in China, where the state is very much involved in the affairs of the Church, in the face of a persistent defiance, most recently in the person of newly-ordained bishop Ma Daqin.

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  • Ultramonta

    I don’t think this article laid out a very clear path from the Catholic reaction to the Kulturkampf to a course of conduct that the Church could follow in the US in 2012.  And there probably isn’t any because the real secret of the Catholic success in 19th Century Germany is that the Church forced change through a confessional political party that could never work in the US.  Although the author cryptically acknowledges that the “German Catholics worked within the political process to reverse Bismarck’s reforms,” he doesn’t even mention the Centre Party which was the largest party in the Reichstag most of the time for the next fifty years after the Kulturkampf, even though Catholics represented but one-third of the German People.  That is the real reason Bismarck backed down.

    A confessional party would almost certainly not work here in the US (for a lot of reasons unnecessary to sketch out here) and we need to come up with a more practicable plan for preventing this unconscionable attack on Catholicism.  The fact is that the Catholic Church’s position on contraception is hardly outside the mainstream of acceptable religious beliefs.  It was the majority opinion until the Supreme Court invented a right to contraception (but not a welfare element) out of the penumbra of the Constitution in Griswold v Connecticut.  To force the Church and its institutions to engage in conduct it considers sinful so as to shift the cost of exercising that “right” from people who are gainfully employed and  can buy their own birth control if they want it, is surely not something the state must do or should do. Simply put, the mandate was ANTI-CATHOLIC TRIUMPHALISM that could have been avoided. 

     We should make our opposition to this straightforwardly without resort to questionable analogues that just take us off topic.  OUR ARGUMENT SHOULD BE: Catholics have a reasonable view of what is sinful even if others disagree with it and the Church should not be forced to sin so that people who are paid enough can avoid a small cost.  If the Government wants people to avoid the costs of contraception, it should pay for the service directly.

  • An Observer

    Also, this devil was a major promoter of the Masonic plot to murder the great Catholic statesman and martyr Dr. Gabriel Garcia Moreno (1821-1875),  President of Ecuador.  His martyrdom is commemorated on August 6th.

  • Innocent Smith

    Very interesting article. But, I fail to see how this author of the book quoted in the above article cannot see the similarities. Theft is theft. In Germany they outright stripped the Catholics of their property. In the USA, they are planning on stealing our institutions by stealth. The HHS Mandate is a way to our hospitals, bought by the pennies and small coins of our immigrant Church. The 501(c)3 Tax Exempt status in which our  Church operates keeps political discourse away from the pulpit. Sounds like Germany’s situation was more drastic, but I would argue that the tactics are more refined, with the results being the same. 

    Our once Catholic Universities are already gone. Undermined by the Land of Lakes Conferences and Father Hesbergh at Notre Dame when he saw that money coming down the pike from the Rockefeller Foundation. Another similarity I see here, is this banding together with Protestants. Here in the USA, they have taken to cloaking their argument within the guise of Religious Liberty. With ultimate respect going to The Constitution of the United States. That is a fool’s game in my opinion. 

    And I also do not share in the view that losing or institutions is a “so-what”, if it develops unity. What kind of unity are we talking about? 

    This so-called victory against the Kulturkampf, appears a hollow one to me looking through the long lens of history. Was it not the modernist German Theologians who seemed to have the most voice in Vatican II? Which is ironic in the fact that it was Germany that lost WWII. Looking back, I see it as something of a face saving move for Germany and a fear of laying the blame for Germany’s treatment of Jews on the Church that led to Nostra Aetate and the new ecumenism, which is a false one. But, I do thank you for a very interesting and informative article, Mr. Cook. Just thought I would throw in my two cents. 

  • Tom

    Interesting, thank you. To me, this confirms why “infallibility” was introduced, despite the fact that the Church survived for almost 2000 years without it. It was an act of siege mentality.  This is regrettable, because it only weakens the authority of the Church, it seems to me.
    The other very good point is this: “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?”
    It so happens that although Virchow proclaimed to be against anti-Semitism, he conducted an anthropological study of 6.7 million children to determine racial characteristics between Jewish and non Jewish children. This study was used to justified racial conception German nationalism, according to The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History, by Helmut Walser Smith.

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