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The Original Culture War Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 18 May 2011

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Last month, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger raved on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review about Jonathan Steinberg’s new work on nineteenth-century power broker Otto von Bismarck. The “master statesman,” Dr. Kissinger wrote, “was a rationalist whose appropriate philosopher was not Descartes but Darwin; not ‘I think therefore I am’ but the ‘survival of the fittest.’” Kissinger failed to mention, however, that Bismarck was also a rabid anti-Catholic who ruthlessly wielded his power to destroy the Church.

Bismarck (1815-1898), born into a family of Prussian county squires – the “Junkers” – ruled Germany from 1862 to 1889 under three kings of the House of Hohenzollern. He was not a charismatic figure or a great orator, but he was a brilliant political manipulator who dominated his nation’s government by sheer force of will.

To consolidate the numerous German principalities under Protestant Prussia and not Catholic Austria, Bismarck engineered three victorious wars in less than a decade. In 1864, after a limited war with Denmark, Prussia extended its hegemony by annexing the Duchy of Schleswig.

Next, Prussia took on Austria in 1866 who sued for peace after being badly defeated at the Battle of Konigrantz. The agreement Bismarck negotiated established that Austria would withdraw from the association of German states. 

Then Bismarck’s Prussian Army defeated France at the Battle Sedan in 1871 and swallowed up the Alsace-Lorraine region. During the peace negotiations at the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles, Bismarck achieved his ultimate goal: King Wilhelm I of Prussia was declared Emperor of Germany, a new federation comprising twenty-five states.

To weaken the autonomy of the constituent states, now Imperial Chancellor Bismarck – introduced universal suffrage. He quickly regretted this move, however, after he realized one-third of the population of the expanded Prussian state were Roman Catholics.

         Otto von Bismarck: anti-Catholic

To counter the growing influence of the Zentrum, the Catholic Center Party, Bismarck, a materialist who held there was no power superior to the state, used the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility to declare the Kulturkampf – the struggle for civilization. “It is the infallible pope,” Bismarck spewed, “who threatens the state! He arrogates to himself whatever secular rights he pleases. . .declares our laws null and void, levies taxes. . .in a word, no one in Prussia is so powerful as this foreigner.”

Bismarck abolished constitutional clauses protecting the Church and closed the Catholic department of worship and instruction. Anti-Catholics laws terminated religious instruction in schools, abolished legal recognition of Catholic marriage, and expelled the Jesuits. Bishops were condemned as enemy agents. In a circular, Bismarck declared, “The bishops are only [the pope’s] tools. . . .Toward the government they have become officials of a foreign sovereign. . .who because of his infallibility, has become an absolute one – more absolute than any absolute monarch in the world.”

One-quarter of the Catholic Churches, a thousand rectories, and twenty Catholic newspapers were closed. Outspoken Catholic laymen were imprisoned; their properties and incomes were confiscated. Reacting to life under the Kulturkampf, a noted activist priest Father Karl Jentsch said, “Every day the Catholic had to read. . .that he was an enemy of the Fatherland, a little papist, a block-head and that his clergy were the scum of humanity.” (Some things never change.)

In 1873, Bismarck rammed through the legislature the anti-Catholic May Laws that decreed all seminarians had to be German and had to be educated in German schools; only German bishops could exercise discipline, which had to be approved by the royal court for church affairs; ecclesiastical appointments had to be approved by provincial governors; and priests who disobeyed the May Laws would be fined and imprisoned.

“The May Laws,” Steinberg argues, “were an outrage in two senses. They violated the rights of subjects under the Prussian constitution and every principle of liberal society.  They attacked the very idea of the Roman Catholic Church as ‘the mystical body of Christ Incarnate.’”

Bismarck, who shouted to his opponents, “You need not be anxious. We are not going to Canossa, either bodily or spiritually,” came to regret those words. The tenacious and brilliant leader of the Catholic Center Party, Ludwig Windthorst, urged passive resistance to the May Laws. The Archbishops of Paderborn and Munster preferred jail to compliance. The Vatican condemnation of the government and Pius IX’s references to Bismarck as “Satan in a helmet” and the “grand sorcerer,” gave the faithful the will to resist.

In the elections of 1874, the vote for the Center Party doubled to 1.493 million and it gained a record-breaking ninety-five seats in the Reichstag. As a result, the weakened government lost the will to enforce the anti-Catholic legislation and a vanquished Bismarck used the 1878 death of his nemesis Pius IX as an excuse to negotiate a concordant with Pope Leo XIII that eliminated most of the laws.

Chancellor Bismarck, who Steinberg concludes, “embodied everything brutal and ruthless about Prussian culture,” set his country on the road to perdition. After the fall of the Reich’s last chancellor, Adolph Hitler, the victorious Allies officially abolished Bismarck’s cherished Prussia on the grounds that from its “early days has been a bearer of militarism.” The final irony: Bismarck’s last anti-Catholic law which made it a crime for priests to voice political opinions from the pulpit, was repealed in 1953 by the ruling Christian Democratic Party headed by the distinguished Catholic leader, Konrad Adenauer.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Manfred, May 18, 2011
I hope Dr. Kissinger, a German-born Jew who served as a Sgt. in the U.S. Army in Europe in 1945, is not extolling the virtues of either Bismarck or Darwin, as Europe's Jews themselves felt the brunt of "the survival of the fittest" in the Holocaust of 1932 through 1945.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 18, 2011
Bismarck was by no means a materialist. Under the influence of the Blankenberg circle, he underwent a profound religious conversion. Henceforth he did not doubt the power of God in the direction of the world, and he felt to the full the significance of the need for human redemption from sin

“If I was not a Christian,” he told Ferrières in the stress of the Franco-Prussian War, “I could not hold my position for an hour. If I could not count on God’s help, I could sacrifice nothing for the sake of earthly masters. If I lost my faith, of what avail would be my fatherland ?”

Like most Evangelical Christians, with a firm belief in justification by faith alone, Bismarck lacked any deep sense of an institutional and organised Church. Indeed, he would probably have denied that religion, as internally grounded, has any need of external form, since, so he would have argued, it finds its most adequate expression in political action.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., May 18, 2011
And many imagine that it cannot happen here! Already we have schismatics appointed the highest government position with the President describing the Pro-abor, pro-homosexual marrige Biden as a "committed Cathoilic." So the powers that be dub the errant as the "good Ctholics," while those who accept the teachings of the Church are called haters. San Francisco has, in fact, offically labaled the Church a hate group for Her opposition to homosexual adoption and marriage, and the right of that city, named for one of the most famous men in the history of Christianity, to amke such a proclamation has been upheld by the highest courts of our country! It's already happening!
written by Aeneas, May 19, 2011
Very interesting article! I had heard of Bismarck before, but I only knew of his attempts to reunify Germany, not how he actually did it. And I never knew he was a rabid anti-catholic, ouch.
But looking at this article and Michael Paterson-Seymour's comments on it, I have a qustion...
What was he, rationalist materialist, or devout lutheran? According to Marlin, a materialist, but according to Seymour and Wikipedia, a devout lutheran. Is there some debate over this? If anyone knows the answer, please share it with me.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 20, 2011

Bismarck 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 died, now Blankenberg’s wife. 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.

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