The Original Culture War Print
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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