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  • Class and Religious Identity: The Rhenish Center Party in Wilhelmine Germany
  • Eric Yonke
Class and Religious Identity: The Rhenish Center Party in Wilhelmine Germany. By Thomas M. Bredohl. [Marquette Studies in Theology, Volume 18.] (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. 2000. Pp. 288. $35.00 paperback.)

In this well researched political history, Thomas Bredohl provides a careful study that condenses the regional historiography and forwards a convincing argument. After sketching out the background of nineteenth-century Rhenish Catholicism, Bredohl re-examines the Center Party's failed courtship of the working class and the party's internal power struggles. He devotes separate chapters to the Center's organizational development under Karl Trimborn, the various initiatives to attract industrial laborers to the party, and the public battles over Christian Trade Unionism (Gewerkschaftsstreit) and party reform (Zentrumsstreit). He also includes a fine chapter on the Rhenish Center Party and national politics. As a history of the regional party, this book demonstrates how thorough our knowledge of politics in the Kaiserreich has become. Trimborn's efforts to reform the party apparatus reveal for us the dynamics of an internal contest to preserve and to expand the Center. Historical debates over the Kölner Richtung, the Bachem family, and Matthias Erzberger's early career are given full treatment, as are other significant arguments.

The Cologne-based reform movement hinged on questions of class and religious identity, and our understanding of German Catholic culture and society is profoundly important for the conceptual framework of this monograph. Yet the historical analysis of these issues is notably brief. Missing from this study are several important contributions on class and Catholic identity in the German-speaking countries, particularly the research of the 1990's. While David Blackbourn's work is included, the more recent studies of identity and modernity by Michael Klöcker, Urs Altermatt, and Wilfried Loth are absent. Raymond Sun's study of working-class Catholics in Cologne was probably unavailable, but Thomas Mergel's weighty analysis of the Rhenish Catholic Bürgertum certainly was. Helmut Walser Smith's German Nationalism and Religious Conflict (1995) [End Page 335] and Noel Carey's The Path to Christian Democracy (1996) would have strengthened the analysis of religious identity and political culture in Wilhelmine Germany.

By examining the various efforts to reach working-class voters in the Rhineland and the struggle to limit aristocratic and clerical control within the party structure, Bredohl reveals what was specifically modern in this political history. He rightly points out that democratic initiatives were confined solely to internal party reform. But his research begs a larger question that looms over all studies of political Catholicism in Wilhelmine Germany: What were the Catholic political issues of the post-Kulturkampf era? Aristocratic, rural, and small-town elements favored the status quo in the party, effectively blocking urban and industrial interests. Bredohl provides several clear examples of this, but none so telling as the fundamental issue of redistricting. Redistricting for the new city populations was never seriously entertained by the Center even if reformers could demonstrate that these populations were overwhelmingly Catholic. At the same time, working class voters came to view politics as a matter of economic interests and not a struggle to preserve a traditionalist Christian Weltanschauung. One wonders how much this political viewpoint can be attributed to the actions rather than the ideology of the Center. The Center may have been the party to protect Catholic interests, whenever they needed protection, but political Catholicism provides more questions than answers about class and religious identity in modern Germany.

Eric Yonke
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point


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pp. 335-336
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