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  • Catholicism, Popular Culture, and the Arts in Germany, 1880-1933
  • Raymond C. Sun
Catholicism, Popular Culture, and the Arts in Germany, 1880-1933. By Margaret Stieg Dalton. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press. 2005. Pp. xi, 378. $35.00 paperback.)

"In the absence of anything better, kitsch with a Catholic gloss passed for culture. . . . Catholic culture was too Catholic even for most Catholics" (p. 233). Such is Margaret Stieg Dalton's devastating commentary on fifty years of struggle by German Catholic elites to create an alternative to materialist, individualist, and secular modernity. Dalton's diligently researched study thus raises major questions about the relationship between religion and the arts in general, and the possibilities and limits of creative cultural production within the ideological and institutional framework of an embattled late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholicism. Moreover, Dalton's examination of the ultimately futile efforts to develop a confessional alternative to both high and popular culture in literature, music, theater, and film represents a potentially important addition to scholarship on the Catholic social-cultural milieu. However, Dalton's decision to extract her cultural subject matter from its political, social, and economic context, based on the questionable assertion that cultural values and debates "had an only indirect connection to [the political] arena" (p. 5) blunts the book's overall impact. Lacking grounding in the many political and social currents and crises that radically challenged Catholic identity and beliefs, Dalton's analysis of cultural theorizing and production among intellectual elites often seems abstract, self-referential, and divorced from larger historical realities.

Recent scholarship has shown how perceptions of Catholic cultural inferiority played a central role in the formation of modern German society. Michael Gross's reassessment of nineteenth-century liberalism's cultural "war against Catholicism" and David Blackbourn's study of the Marian apparitions at Marpingen are two powerful examples of how conflicts in religion, culture, and politics have become inextricable and constitutive elements of modern German history. Dalton's research on the Catholic cultural movement, a loosely connected set of initiatives to achieve aesthetic excellence infused with Catholic spirituality, and to disseminate the resulting cultural products to an idealized Volk, thus addresses issues of immediate interest to scholars. She presents in a comprehensive and accessible manner the wide array of projects dedicated to the common goal of overcoming the culture gap while inspiring a higher commitment to Catholic identity. Literary journals, lending libraries, musical associations, playwriting, even film and radio productions—Dalton covers these with appropriate treatment of key personalities, theoretical debates, institutional histories, and relevant scholarship.

Helpful too is Dalton's analysis of the inherent self-contradictions that crippled the best-intentioned efforts at Catholic cultural renewal. She correctly notes the cultural movement's underlying flaws: its profound negativity, born of a generalized angst toward modernity; the subordination of aesthetics and culture to assertions of spiritual purity; and the never-resolved conflict between cultural [End Page 164] elites' romanticized desire to connect with a pure and pious Volk coupled to their profound doubt, bordering on distaste, regarding the masses' capacity to improve their impoverished tastes. Nor was it clear what end cultural enlightenment would serve. Was it to equip Catholics to leave the confessional ghetto and transform the larger society? Or was it to strengthen an enclosed, self-sustaining subculture and inoculate it from outside pollution? Under these conditions, the Catholic cultural movement could neither develop truly outstanding art nor appeal effectively outside a narrow circle of elites. It was, in short, the poster child of activity for its own sake: "The movement did make a contribution, but it was a contribution that did more to make its participants feel good about themselves than to improve the cultural environment" (p. 231).

The most frustrating aspect of Dalton's otherwise useful text is her treatment of Catholic cultural developments in isolation from their larger political and social context. The acute challenges created by direct competition from prewar Social Democracy for the political and cultural allegiance of working-class Catholics; the trauma of the World War I, the Revolution of 1918, and the political and economic crises of the early Weimar Republic; the linkage between fears of cultural degeneration...


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