Bismarck’s struggle for unification

In the history of Germany no one man has single-handedly accomplished more for his country than Otto von Bismarck who, among his other achievements, orchestrated the foundation of the German Empire in 1871. As Prussian prime minister and German chancellor, he was determined to unite all of Prussia. In this struggle, he sought to make Germany the greatest power in Europe, but realized that to achieve this goal, national (cultural, religious, political) unity was essential. He identified the main obstacle to German unification the extensive presence of Catholicism in the southern Germany. Thus, he undertook measures dealing with threats of division.

Kulturkampf (as this “struggle for unification” came to be known) was a struggle between Bismarck and Catholics beginning as early as 1864 when Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus Errorum. The pope in this papal statement condemned the practices of modern actions such as civil marriage and civil education. This was the response of the Church to the Industrial Revolution and modernization sweeping aside their conservative, tradition-bound views of life. Liberal feelings were more exacerbated when the First Vatican Council in 1870 adopted the doctrine of papal infallibility (on issues of faith and morality). There were fears the pope will declare himself infallible on all matters and try to establish a new Holy Roman Empire.

These two proclamations angered Bismarck, but his hands were tied with the war (Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71). His first aim was to unify Protestants and Catholics under one State. But even though he included the Protestants, the concern was the rising Catholic vote. The war brought Catholic Alsace and Lorraine into German hands, resulting in a large (30%) Catholic representation in the new Empire. These Catholics established the Catholic Centre Party to reassure themselves of the support of the Church. In a short period, it became the second strongest political party in Germany. Bismarck used these inconveniences of the political rivalry with the Centre Party and authorized his anti-papal campaign. “He objected to the existence of a confessional party because it seemed to stand for allegiance to an authority other than the national state.” Bismarck simply “could not conceive that a faithful child of the Church could also be a loyal son of the fatherland.” Bismarck himself was a very religious man who sought out the guidance of God in his administration of state affairs.

The National Liberal Party was what Bismarck needed to campaign against the Pope and the Catholic Centre Party. They too saw the doctrine of papal infallibility as unacceptable. Thus without any hesitation, they carried out the plan of Kulturkampf and made it their campaign platform, being encouraged by Bismarck.

With the abolishment of the Catholic department of the Prussian Ministry of Public Worship and Education and the appointment of Adalbert Falk to the position of Prussian Ministry of Public Worship, Bismarck was ready to disperse his anti-Catholic measures throughout Germany. Falk was an anti-clerical rationalist who desired to please Bismarck and managed to bring the Liberals closer to Bismarck. Falk began by trying to get the school inspection provisions made into law, passing the School Inspection Law in 1872. The law required that a special school inspectorate be established, which would allow the Prussian authorities mandatory power to inspect all schools instead of the Church. Falk then brought a law directly against the liberals traditional enemy, the Jesuits. This was a blow towards the education of Germany, since from the Counter Reformation, the Jesuits had established themselves firmly in education. Furthermore, in 1873, he passed the May Laws intended to remove all the priests from state service, legalize civil marriage and education, and make the inclusion of political propaganda in sermons illegal. As a result of the May Laws, two archbishops were imprisoned and 1300 parishes found themselves without priests. German people were becoming more and more alienated and while many German Catholics resented the pope’s assumption of infallibility, they resented even more what Bismarck and the National Liberals did. Instead of going to Bismarck’s side, they rallied behind the Church. The Centre Party increased, and persecution and imprisonment only strengthened their numbers to 94 seats by 1874 (from 58 in 1871).

The outcry of the Kulturkampf finally came on July 13, 1874, as Bismarck rode by in his carriage in Bad Kissingen. A Catholic cooper Eduard Kullmann attempted to assassinate him (managed only to wound his right hand). Bismarck charged the Catholic Centre Party for inspiring the would-be assassin. But the desired affect was not achieved. The hatred and failure of the Kulturkampf was still felt over the nation.

In 1879, Bismarck finally reversed his domestic policies and scrapped the Kulturkampf. He repealed most of the May Laws and allowed the religious orders to return and for the Roman Catholic Church to recover control of its seminaries. He made Falk appear the mastermind of the entire Kulturkampf (claiming he did not have the time to read the May Laws that Falk had published). Knowing that he needed the support of the majority in order to pass his new economic reforms, he abandoned Liberals and began to negotiate with the Centre Party. His recovery allowed him to adopt a new interest: the welfare of German industries and reforms to the government’s policies of free trade. In the process of erasing the failure of Kulturkampf from the minds of the people, Bismarck introduced protectionist tariffs, which alienated the National Liberals who supported free trade but brought a much-sought support of embattled German industrialists in addition to working and middle classes, which was what eventually united Germany.

Bismarck had indeed made Germany into a world power and proved himself once more to be a remarkable statesman even in the aftermath of Kulturkampf.

Source: Heather Statton