Has religion slowed down national progress?

The German Empire 1871-1918

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Ziemann

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Ziemann

Prof. Dr. Benjamin Ziemann teaches as Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield in Great Britain. He was visiting scholar at the University of York, the Humboldt University in Berlin and the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen. His main areas of work are German history in the 19th and 20th centuries - especially the German Empire and the Weimar Republic - the military and violence history of the two world wars, and historical peace research. He is a member of the editorial team of the Archives for Social History. He is currently working on a biography of Martin Niemöller.

Recent book publications

Republic Veterans. War memory and democratic politics 1918–1933, Bonn 2014;

Encounters with Modernity. The Catholic Church in West Germany, 1945–1975, New York / Oxford 2014;

Violence in the First World War. Kill - Survive - Refuse, Essen 2013;

Social history of religion. From the Reformation to the Present, Frankfurt / M. / New York 2009;

with Bernd Ulrich (ed.), Everyday life at the front in the First World War. A historical reading book, Essen 2008;

with Thomas Mergel (ed.), European Political History 1870–1913, Aldershot 2007.

Otto von Bismarck went down in German history as one of the most successful power politicians. In changing alliances and in an authoritarian manner, he tries to enforce his political goals, but measures such as the Kulturkampf and the Socialist Law ensure progressive de-liberalization and internal political polarization of the empire.

Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), here during a speech in the Reichstag on February 6, 1888, determined the politics of the German Empire for many years and implemented its political goals with changing coalitions. (& copy akg-images / DeAgostini Picture Library)

The politics of the "liberal era" from 1871 onwards was characterized by cooperation between Bismarck and the National Liberals. Together with the left-wing liberals of the German Progressive Party and a smaller liberal party, they had a comfortable majority in the Reichstag. This cooperation was not free from conflicts, as was shown in the dispute over the military budget in 1874. In that year, the so-called lump sum, a four-year budget that the Reichstag of the North German Confederation approved in 1867 and then extended for another three years in 1871, expired. The left-wing liberals now demanded an annual allowance for military spending. But the majority of the National Liberals agreed to a compromise according to which the Reichstag only approved military spending in every second legislative period, every seven years (Septennat). Overall, however, the cooperation prevailed. The liberal majority in the Reichstag continued the reform work begun in the North German Confederation in 1867 and created the foundations for a modern, capitalist transport society across the empire through the legislative abolition of corporate-class barriers.

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Otto von Bismarck - the "white revolutionary"

Even before his death in 1898, Otto von Bismarck had become the subject of mythological exaggeration. On his 80th birthday in 1895, hundreds of honorary citizenships were offered to him. After his death, Bismarck monuments and Bismarck towers were built all over Germany. In their massive, defiant depiction of the figure of Bismarck in uniform and pickled hat, they embody the image of the "Iron Chancellor" who, as the founders of the German Empire, led the Germans into national unity. With his memoirs, published as "Thoughts and Memories", Bismarck himself had reinforced the idea that German unity was a systematically pursued goal of his policy. National self-determination was actually anything but a guiding value for the Prussian power politician Bismarck.

Otto von Bismarck was born in 1815 as the son of a noble landowner in the Mark Brandenburg region. His mother, however, came from an educated middle class family. She ensured that he received an unusually broad education for the provincial world of the aristocratic "Junkers". After attending the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, he went on to study law. But Bismarck was extremely dissatisfied with the monotonous routine of the state administrative career to which this training led and broke off the legal clerkship in 1839. He withdrew to the family estate and devoted himself to the management of three estates for several years.

It was only by chance that he entered the United Landtag, which King Friedrich Wilhelm IV had convened in 1847, as a successor. There he quickly acquired the reputation of an ultra-royalist who unconditionally supported the king. Bismarck was quite open to constitutional ideas, even if he also defended the economic interests of the landed nobility. In order to assert the interests of Prussia in terms of power politics, he was ready to enter into tactical compromises and to disregard the monarchical principle of legitimacy with other rulers. The liberal Ludwig Bamberger (1823–1899) aptly described Bismarck as a "white revolutionary" who tried to achieve the goals of the power state by revolutionary means.

From 1851 to 1859 Bismarck was the Prussian envoy to the Bundestag of the German Confederation in Frankfurt am Main. There he received practical object lessons on the dualism between Austria and Prussia in the German Confederation. Bismarck opposed Austria's claim to continue to be the supreme power in the German Confederation and, in retrospect, complained with due exaggeration that its representatives had tried to use the Confederation as an instrument to "reduce Prussia". After stations as the Prussian envoy in St. Petersburg and Paris, he returned to Berlin in September 1862, where Wilhelm I appointed him Prussian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. His first major test was the constitutional conflict over army reform. This dispute between the liberal majority-ruled House of Representatives and the military culminated when parliament refused to approve spending on reform. Bismarck advocated the thesis of a "loophole" in the constitution in the event that the crown, the House of Representatives and the Manor did not come to an agreement on the budget. According to this "gap theory", the government, with the approval of the king, could then also officiate without a valid budget.

Even after the epochal year of 1866, which with the victory of Prussia over Austria finally broke the German Confederation and at the same time permanently changed the power constellation in Europe, Bismarck did not work purposefully towards an expansion of the North German Confederation into a nation state. However, according to his conviction, the monarchical legitimacy - i.e. the justification of royal rule - could only be preserved in the long term if it could be converted into the new form of the nation state, which provided a modern, integrative constitutional order.

For this reason, Bismarck was able to enter into an alliance with the moderate wing of the liberal national movement in 1866, which first expanded the North German Confederation and then the Reich into an integrative political order. With this step, however, Bismarck alienated himself from his political home, the Prussian conservatives. They complained about the Prussian annexations of 1866 as a "crown robbery" and violation of the principle of legitimacy and saw in the alliance with the National Liberals a realpolitik that contradicted conservative principles. The epoch year 1866 also led to the split in Prussian conservatism. In 1867 the Free Conservative Party (from 1871 the German Reich Party) was founded, which, unlike the old conservatives, unreservedly supported Bismarck's policies.



The Kulturkampf

The most important domestic political conflict of the 1870s concerned the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church. Since the competence for affairs of culture and church in the federal system lay with the federal states, this culture struggle took place from 1871 mainly in Prussia. In Baden and Bavaria, the conflict had already started in the 1860s. The well-known physician and member of the Progressive Party, Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902) coined the term "Kulturkampf" in 1873. He used it to describe the struggle for the autonomy of modern culture, which he regarded as the core of the dispute. The Kulturkampf in Germany was part of a series of bitter conflicts between liberal-anti-clerical forces on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other that broke out in almost all Western European countries in the second half of the 19th century. The superimposition of this conflict with the denominational division between Protestants and Catholics was a German peculiarity.

In Germany there was no state church like the Anglican Church of England. Nevertheless, there were important areas in which the state and the churches worked together - for example in state funding for the theological faculties - and those in which competencies overlapped, such as in elementary schools. The Protestant liberals, who were a driving force in the conflict, had a negative perception of Catholicism. This appeared to them as the authoritarian counter-image of the rational and individualistic modernity. The pope-loyal orientation of the ultramontane ("over the mountains", that is, towards Rome) Catholics fed doubts about their national reliability.

For Bismarck, on the other hand, the struggle against the Catholic Center Party, founded in 1871, was the most important motive. The party supported the Reich, but cooperated in the Reichstag with the representatives of particularists and minorities. These included the Welfs, who mourned the Kingdom of Hanover annexed by Prussia in 1866, and members of the Polish minority who came mainly from the eastern Prussian provinces of Posen and West Prussia. Furthermore, the center cooperated with those MPs who represented the "Reichsland" Alsace-Lorraine, annexed by France in 1871. These approaches of an opposition were reason enough for Bismarck to denounce the center and the Catholics as "enemies of the Reich".

The liberal majority in the Reichstag and in the Prussian state parliament started the Kulturkampf by enacting laws. At the imperial level, the "pulpit paragraph" in the penal code at the end of 1871 forbade the clergy from expressing themselves on political matters in the exercise of their office. This was punished as a disturbance of the "public peace". This was followed by the ban on all branches of the Jesuit order (1872) and the mandatory introduction of civil marriage (1875).

The actual starting shot, however, was given in Prussia in July 1871 with the dissolution of the Catholic department in the Ministry of Culture. The clergy school supervision was replaced by a state school supervision, and the May laws of the year 1873 brought the clergy and their education to the state supervision. Many Catholics protested and resisted these measures, in public speeches, press comments and spontaneous expressions of discontent they became the subject of public debate. The conflict hit the church hard, especially when the state intervened in the internal structure of the church with measures and police actions. At the height of the conflict in 1875, a quarter of all Catholic parishes in Prussia were vacant due to the priest's imprisonment or flight, five of the Catholic bishops in Prussia were imprisoned, the other six deposed.

But Bismarck's and the Liberals' calculation of curtailing the public presence of the center and the Catholic Church did not work out. The Catholic people reacted with an immense mobilization, the imprisoned priests and bishops were carried by a wave of solidarity. Also in circles of the Lutheran Prussian Conservatives, who supported the Kulturkampf in principle, concerns grew in view of the aggressive action against a Christian church. In view of this situation, Bismarck tried to reduce the conflict, for which the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII. (1810–1903) from 1878 gave rise to a possibility. Negotiations between the empire and the curia in Rome succeeded in enacting so-called peace laws in 1886/87, which mitigated or withdrew most of the measures of the Kulturkampf. An important element of the separation of church and state, such as the compulsory civil marriage - i.e. the registration of every marriage with a registrar - remained in force. Also, the ban on the Jesuit order did not lift until 1917 when they needed the support of the center for unrestricted submarine warfare.

Overall, the Kulturkampf was a major defeat for Bismarck and the Liberals. These had sacrificed the political recognition of liberal freedoms to the goal of a secular public and thus strengthened the authoritarian elements of the state. This had consequences far beyond the end of the Kulturkampf. Until the outbreak of the war in 1914, a latent culture of warfare remained alive, in which liberals excluded Catholics from the Protestant nation. The center and the Catholic population emerged stronger from the conflict. The Catholic milieu, united in the resistance, sealed itself off from the outside world, and his party took no political responsibility for the state as a whole.