bismarck and Pius the ninth Bismarck and Pope Pius IX playing chess. The caption:
"..I have another very nice move in reserve! / That will be your last one, then it will be checkmate in a few moves, at least for Germany."
Kladderadatsch, 1875

The Kulturkampf
Book Essay on: W.M. Simon, Germany in the Age of Bismarck (London: Allen and Unwin, 1968), 246 pages.
UCSB: DD217.S5

by Ismael Ulloa
December 11, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

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About Ismael Ulloa

I am a second-year senior, History major and German Studies minor. I have always been fascinated by history. Since a young age, I have been specifically interested in the age of nationalism. I found the formation of the German state, specifically the role of Prussia. I have studied the German language since the summer of 2005. I spent four months in Potsdam, Germany (near Berlin) as part of a UC-wide Education Abroad Program in the summer of 2006 and studied German at Potsdam Universität. I chose to write on this topic because of my own Catholic background and my fascination with Otto von Bismarck.

Abstract (back to top)

Creating and maintaining a unified Germany was one of Bismarck’s main goals as Chancellor of Germany in the 19th century. He would not tolerate anything that would threaten that unity. All seemed to be going well until the Papacy issued the dogma of Papal Infallibility. It was not the major cause but can be seen as the starting line from which the Kulturkampf began. It was a struggle between the Catholic Centre party and Bismarck. The battle was the kind that Bismarck was familiar with, political. With a series of legislation, including the May Laws, the Catholic Church’s power in Germany was weakened. Mandatory civil marriages and appointed school inspections were only some of the measures used to eat away at the church’s power. The most extreme being the banning of non-German Polish people and Catholic orders, such as the Jesuits. The threat was that if the Center Party became too powerful, then Germany would owe its first allegiance to a foreign power, the Vatican and not the German Empire itself.

Essay (back to top)

Otto von Bismarck is arguably one of the most influential figures in 19 th century history. He accomplished much in the time he was prime minister of Prussia, but one of his most outstanding roles was that which he had in the unification of Germany as a nation under Prussian hegemony. What was life under Bismarck like? W.M. Simon’s book, Germany in the Age of Bismarck, gives the readers a broad idea. The book covers the long career of Bismarck and gives an overview of his conflicts, failures and successes. Most interesting is the use of sources in the second half of the book, which help to give life to the occurrences of the time. The Kulturkampf is the area of Bismarck’s career that I will examine here. The Kulturkampf was the conflict between Bismarck and the Center (Catholic) Party. I will be argue that, whether right or wrong, the actions taken against the Catholics in this period can be justified as an attempt to keep the newly-formed empire unified. The questions addressed here will be: How did it start? Who was involved? What actions were taken? Why? What, if any, long-term repercussions were there?

The sources used in Simon’s book are varied: excerpts from meetings, letters between important figures (philosophers, politicians, etc.), or books written by contemporary figures, including Bismarck himself. The section of sources takes up the last two-thirds of the book, while the first third is an overview of Bismarck’s career in Prussia. As stated above, this gives readers a chance to imagine the occurrences of the time by seeing how contemporaries reacted to them. For example: the reactions to the announcement of the new dogma of papal infallibility by Wilhelm I (Simon, p. 163) and by Heinrich von Mühler, Minister of Public Worship and Education (Simon, p. 162). Parenthetical notations lead readers to the appropriate source at the appropriate places. I chose this book because of Simon’s use of sources. Unfortunately, since Simon’s book is an overview of Bismarck’s whole career, I have opted to use to supplementary sources to get a better view of the subject; those sources are: Michael Kitchen’s A History of Modern Germany 1800-2000, and Lothar Gall’s Bismarck: The White Revolutionary, vol. 2 1871-1898.

“Kulturkampf” in its most basic definition means “culture fight”. The most basic idea of “culture fight” is a conflict between two cultures for dominance of a region or people. Who were the two cultures fighting for dominance? The term itself gives very little background unless you are already familiar with the history. The term refers to the conflict between the Center Party (formerly the Catholic Party, but now including the Polish minority in Prussia) and Bismarck, as well as other members of government. It can be boiled down to a conflict between Catholics and the government in Germany.

The Center Party remained on the side of the Roman Catholic Church. The Center also opposed the creation of a strong federal government and the hegemony of Prussia (Kitchen, p. 141). Since its creation, the Center Party has tried to have the government intervene on behalf of the Catholic Church. In 1872, the Center wanted the German government to intervene on behalf of the pope against Italy (Kitchen, p. 141). This proposal was shot down because Bismarck held that it was now time to maintain peace, the time for international conflicts was over. Such a conflict, he argued, could create rifts amongst the people for or against a conflict with Germany. Not to mention that a war with another European power could prove disastrous for Germany. The Center Party would not have been a threat to the empire except for the fact that it was the second largest party in the Reichstag (Simon, 48). Bismarck’s attacks on the Catholics are summed up by Kitchen as a “‘preventive war’ against the Catholic ‘enemies of the Reich’” (Kitchen, p. 141), and so an attack against the Catholics and the Center was an attack against a national threat.

The conflict began on the Catholic side with the introduction of the dogma of Papal Infallibility in 1870. Papal infallibility is the statement that doctrine set down and defined by the Pope and his Ecumenical council is true because it is handed down by God. This “Kulturkampf” was not an immediate conflict, even though one-third of the German population was Catholic (Kitchen, p. 140). The government in charge at the time saw no need for conflict because they deemed it as “an entirely internal matter of the Catholic Church” (Simon, p. 162). Any action was deemed unnecessary by Education and Religion Minister von Mühler until “Church authorities should draw practical consequences from it which were liable to damage the right or interest of the state” (Simon, p. 162).That is where the matter seemed destined to lie. The Catholic Church was in no shape to interfere with a state the size of Germany.

In Germany, the response to the announcement of Papal Infallibility met a negative response from the “Old Catholics” (Simon, p. 49) and a majority of German Bishops (Kitchen, p. 140); this led to those Catholics being excommunicated (Kitchen, p. 141). Excommunication should have led to the dismissal of these Catholics from their teaching or spiritual occupations, but the Prussian government refused. At the same time, there was a ban on priests in administrative positions in Polish areas (Kitchen, p. 141). Both actions could be seen as a way to keep the peace domestically, if not the peace between Germany and a weakened Vatican. Kitchen says that this was to keep the Polish-speaking populations in Prussia docile (Kitchen, p. 141).

Speaking of the Polish, why were they of such great interest to Bismarck? Quite simply put, they were another culture. The Polish were predominantly Catholic and spoke Polish. To be able to create a nation, there must be a common shared identity to unite all of the people under one government. If there is no common identity, then the dominant identity must be adopted. This was very hard considering that the Polish population of Germany also had their own ideas about nationalism that did not include being part of the German Empire. It was one culture against another, again the definition of “Kulturkampf.” The Polish population was not just fighting for their right as Catholics, but for their right to be Polish in their own Polish land. This disturbed the government because if the Polish populations were to achieve their own nation, that would take land and resources away from the empire. It might also inspire other areas in the empire to secede. The government issued laws trying to better help with the situation. Two laws in 1873 and 1876 made German the official language in schools and official business (Simon, p. 52).

Not only was it important to get the Polish population of Prussia to start speaking German as their primary language, but it was also important to remove any sources of agitation that might be found nearby. That is why in 1886, a law was passed evicting all Austrian or Russian Polish people from Prussia, because as Bismarck said, “we have enough of our own” (Simon, p. 52). This was good thinking, especially considering that fewer the people meant less resistance. The Polish population speaking any other language but German was a source of instability, because it was harder to enforce a single shared identity on the entire empire. Also, any introduction of outside ideas might have led to further notions of refusing to join in with the common identity. Other Polish people were not the only agitators amongst the Prussian Poles, there also were the Jesuits.

Adalbert Falk, the current Minister of Public Worship and Education, in a letter to Wilhelm I on 5 March 1872, placed the blame for the agitation in the province of Posnania on the Jesuits. He stated that the agitators in Posnania received their support from “the public and secret activities of the Jesuit Order” (Simon, p. 166), and the only way peace could be restored was “by expelling [the Jesuit Order’s] foreign members” (Simon, p. 166). In July of that year, the suggestion became law and all foreign Jesuits were expelled from Prussia, not just Polish areas (Simon, p. 53). Bismarck later tried to get a law passed that would ban all foreign Jesuits from Germany as a whole, which after a preliminary failure was ultimately passed (Simon, p. 53). The Jesuit Order was not the only one banned from Germany. Also in 1872, Falk extended the ban to include all other Catholic orders (Simon, p. 54).

The Polish region of Prussia was not the only place inspiring laws restricting the powers of the Catholic Church in Germany. In 1871, Bavaria passed legislation prohibiting clergy from making subversive sermons; this legislation is referred to as the “Pulpit Paragraph” (Kitchen, p. 141-2). Falk began his career in 1872 by further diminishing Catholic power in Germany with the School Inspection Bill (Gall, p. 22). The rationale behind this law was to “prevent occurrences damaging to public order” (Simon, p. 165). This bill gave the state the power to control the curricula of public schools while keeping a very close eye on private schools (Simon, p. 165). This was damaging to the Catholic Church because before this it was up to the clergy that ran the schools or gave instruction to determine what and how subjects were taught. Again, these measures were all attempts to keep the empire together. This was not the last attack against the Catholic Church’s powers in Germany.

May of 1873 saw the introduction of a new barrage of anti-Catholic legislation in Germany. These are now referred to as the “May Laws”. The May Laws did not stop at interfering with the educational role of the Catholic Church in Germany, but stretched out to other areas of their authority. Germany was becoming a very unpleasant place for the Catholic Church to exist. The state took control over the training and appointments of priests in Germany. They also put a restriction on the disciplinary powers of the Catholic hierarchy (Simon, p. 53). Another diminishing act of the May Laws was concerned with compulsory civil marriage. Whereas hitherto a marriage through the church had carried more weight than a civil marriage, roles were now reversed. This de-legitimatizing of a marriage through the church further emphasized the point that the state came before the church.

The papacy did not take this abuse sitting down; it declared that these laws in Prussia were not legitimate. The state, not wanting to be outdone, decided to take away support and more powers. The state decided that it would no longer fund any Catholic activities; not to mention the seizure of church lands and the closure of seminaries (Simon, p. 54). The state also removed protections found in the constitution having to do specifically with Catholics (Simon, p. 54). It was necessary to maintain a dominant relationship so that there could be no threat from this quarter.

After everything that had been done to the Catholics, Bismarck realized this game had gone on long enough. Instead of being pacified, the Catholic and Polish populations in the empire united with other minorities to create a political force against the government. The number of Catholic newspapers was also increasing, thus giving more power to the Center, the Polish and their allies. They were gaining seats rapidly, and “the liberal tradition” was “in jeopardy” (Simon, p. 55). Bismarck needed a way out so that it would not seem as though the German state was looking for forgiveness. He found the opportunity with the new pope, Leo XIII. Pope Leo XIII was more compromising then his predecessor Pius IX had been. Leo XIII encouraged a compromise between the Center and the government (Simon, p. 56). Eventually some of the May Laws were repealed. According to Simon, somewhere around two-thirds of the laws were retained. These laws included: the ban on Jesuits, compulsory civil marriage and school appointed inspections (Simon, p. 56).

After all of this, there is another question left to answer: Why? According to Bismarck, these measures were a defensive action against the “power-hungry policy of the Catholic party” (Gall, p. 26). Nothing could stand between the people and the state, and this included the Catholic Church or its advocate party in Germany (Kitchen, p. 140). The possibility of the Center revolting against the government in favor of the church was real for Bismarck and his contemporaries.

It all started with the negative reaction from theologians in Germany to the new dogma of Papal Infallibility, it included the German state (Bismarck) versus the Catholic Church (the Center Party) and the German Polish population. It ended with a form of reconciliation between those involved. Even with this outcome, Germany and the status of Catholics in Germany did not come out unscathed. Still, Bismarck’s main goal of maintaining the empire can be said to have been realized. Whether the threat was real and the actions justified is arguable. At the end of the day, the empire proved that it would not bow to any power but its own.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Book Reviews:

  • Balfour, Michael. “Short Notices,” The English Historical Review 84, no. 333 (Oct., 1969), 868. JSTOR
    Balfour likes the summary of the times and the use of notations leading to the documents in the back as a way to give readers more information. He wishes the book was more about Bismarck’s “background than the man himself”, but is still favorable to the book.
  • Dorpalen, Andreas. “Review of Books,” The American Historical Review 74, no. 3(Feb., 1969), 1023-1024. JSTOR
    Dorpalen thinks that this book is good enough for European and German history graduate classes. Some reservations are: the omission of some of Bismarck’s critics from the document section, the general sense that Bismarck single-handedly made and pushed through policy and, the need for more focus on Bismarck’s foreign policy.

Books and Articles:

  • Gall, Lothar. Bismarck: The White Revolutionaryvol.2 1871-1898. Trans. J.A. Underwood. London: Allen & Unwin. 1986.
    This book is part of a large two-volume biography of Bismarck. It is probably one of the more intimidating looking books on Bismarck. The series cover a lot of information and gives the detailed info necessary to readers a better idea of what happened during Bismarck’s long career. The volumes are broken up chronologically. Each chapter is broken up into larger topics and within each chapter specific sub-topics flow into the next seamlessly. These sub-topics are sometimes hard to discern because all of the information is attractive. Approximately twenty pages in the first chapter are dedicated to the Kulturkampf and give large and varied details giving a better rounded feel of the conflict and time.
  • Kitchen, Martin. A History of Modern Germany: 1800-2000. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 2006.
    Kitchen covers the Kulturkampf only spans a few pages but is filled with helpful facts. He gives a broad overview but gives the important facts that give readers a better understanding of the highlights of the conflict between Bismarck and the Center Party. The book overall is a great help to students trying to understand the events in Germany beginning with the 19 th century. As with the section on the Kulturkampf, Kitchen gives a lot of key information in only a few pages.


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Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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