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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 341-342

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Book Review

The Failure of Bismarck's Kulturkampf:
Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887

The Failure of Bismarck's Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887. By Ronald J. Ross. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 1998. Pp. xvi, 219. $66.95.)

Historical conflicts take a particularly violent course when cultural issues are at stake. Conflicts about cultural homogeneity are especially prone to materialize in uncountable ways and on various levels of contestation. The German Kulturkampf between the Catholic Church on the one hand and liberalism and the Prussian state bureaucracy on the other engulfed much of the 1870's and 1880's, though with waning energy. The dichotomies of this "hot family feud" within German society dominated the formative period of the German party system and had a long-term impact on Germany's political culture well into the twentieth century. According to Ronald J. Ross, the Kulturkampf ended in complete failure--a conclusion quite contrary to recent German scholarship, which celebrated the triumph of civil marriage. Indeed, the German Catholic Church was by no means subordinated to the interests of the newly founded nation-state. Instead, its spiritual as well as its political leaders emerged with a considerably higher degree of autonomy than before.

Accounts of the Kulturkampf differ according to the working definition of its historical character and origins. Who were the warriors? Was it fought between the ultramontane Catholic Church and Bismarck or between Catholicism and liberalism or between the Center Party and Bismarck? Ross sees the Kulturkampf primarily as a struggle between state authority ultimately embodied in the person of the imperial chancellor Otto von Bismarck and his minister of school affairs, Adalbert Falk, fighting the historically embedded rights of the Catholic Church, which, according to Bismarck, constituted a "state within the state." While subscribing to a view of the Kulturkampf centered on state authority--a view favored by Borussian historiography--Ross discusses the various mechanisms through which the Prussian state tried to win the undivided loyalty of its Catholic subjects by forcefully loosening them from ultramontanism. Attempts to produce a decidedly anti-ultramontane loyalty to the Prussian state encountered widespread resistance due to the failure to enforce the political will of Bismarck and his allies in at least six areas discussed by Ross: establishment of a "new reformation," the Old Catholic Church, enforcement of the May Laws and the pulpit decree, expulsion of Catholic orders, the legal entanglements state officials were facing, as well as pressure applied to political Catholicism and the Catholic press.

"The Kulturkampf ultimately failed, however, because it was backed by political institutions and managerial arrangements that were inappropriate for effective enforcement" (p. 186f.). Ross's star witness is Bismarck himself, who criticized his ministers for taking a legalistic approach and wearing velvet gloves, when the situation called for an iron fist to silence Catholic priests, expel members of various orders and especially nuns, punish bishops and journalists more severely than with four-digit fines or a few weeks in jail. Still, Ross's account of state reprisals shows that the bureaucracy had far fewer restraints [End Page 341] when the religious conflict was infused with an ethnic component among Polish Catholics in the Prussian eastern provinces. On the other side, Catholic resistance never went so far as to question the Prussian military or to bring the loyalty of Catholic soldiers into play.

Ross's results point to a rather weak Prussian state authority on the ground. Surprisingly few police officers were stationed in the centers of Catholic mobilization. In many cases, moreover, the courts ruled against state reprisals. Hence, the long-term reasons for the failure of the Kulturkampf in Prussia as well as in the German Empire lay in the widely established notions and practices of the rule of law--the German Rechtsstaat--and particularly in the federal political order, which worked against abrupt changes and nationwide interventions.

However, Ross's underlying assumption...


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