Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany

A conflict between the German imperial government and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany was launched by the imperial chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. His policy of national unification required the Church to be subordinate in authority to the state. He failed to achieve this subordination of the Church, primarily because of an inept bureaucracy and effective passive resistance sustained by the Church despite extensive persecution.

Summary of Event

The Kulturkampf, or “cultural conflict,” against the Roman Catholic Church in Germany took place against the background of two brilliant military and foreign policy triumphs by Otto von Bismarck as prime minister of Prussia. Over a five-year span from 1866 to 1871, Bismarck’s armies had delivered crushing defeats to Austria and France, Prussia’s chief rivals for supremacy in continental Europe. Prussia’s defeat of Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866 had given Prussia control of the North German Confederation, a loose conglomeration of industrial cities and duchies in the Rhineland. Based on these acquisitions, William I, William I (king of Prussia)
[p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf] king of Prussia, had assumed the title of king of Germany. The delicate balance-of-power system under Austria that had kept the peace in Europe for more than one-half century after the defeat of Napoleon I was permanently shattered by the Seven Weeks’ War. Kulturkampf
Roman Catholic Church;and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf]
Roman Catholic Church;in Germany[Germany]
Germany;and Roman Catholic Church[Roman Catholic Church]
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf]
[kw]Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany (1871-1877)
[kw]Catholic Church in Germany, Kulturkampf Against the (1871-1877)
[kw]Church in Germany, Kulturkampf Against the Catholic (1871-1877)
[kw]Germany, Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in (1871-1877)
Roman Catholic Church;and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf]
Roman Catholic Church;in Germany[Germany]
Germany;and Roman Catholic Church[Roman Catholic Church]
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf]
[g]Germany;1871-1877: Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany[4490]
[c]Government and politics;1871-1877: Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany[4490]
[c]Religion and theology;1871-1877: Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany[4490]
William I (king of Prussia)
[p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf]
Windthorst, Ludwig
Falk, Adalbert

[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf]

Four years later, Bismarck provoked France into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. At the 1871 Treaty of Versailles, which confirmed Prussia’s triumph, King William I William I (king of Prussia)
[p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf] of Germany was, at Bismarck’s urging, crowned emperor of Germany. Two French duchies and several southern German states, including Bavaria Bavaria;and German Empire[German Empire] , were absorbed into the new German Empire. Bismarck himself became imperial chancellor, the emperor’s chief executive in the realm. He would preside over a federal system of states and cities effectively dominated by Prussia. The official reunification of the German lands after more than seven centuries of fragmentation was the supreme achievement of Otto von Bismarck, who was soon to be called the Iron Chancellor.

Despite his astonishing foreign policy successes up to 1871, Bismarck had no desire for further conquests. He was a conservative nationalist whose prime goal as chancellor was to consolidate the new German nation he had created. At the outset, however, the staunchly Protestant Bismarck saw an imminent threat from a resurgent Roman Catholic Church under the dynamic Pope Pius Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf] IX. Particularly troubling to Bismarck was the recently promulgated doctrine of papal infallibility, according to which the pope could not err when pronouncing on matters of Catholic faith and morals. Bismarck was convinced that this doctrine empowered any pope, as defender of the faith, to intervene even in the internal politics of a sovereign nation. This possibility the German chancellor found intolerable. He also believed that a potentially deadly coalition might be forming against him, foremost among them the vengeful Austrians and French, possibly directed by the pope.

In any case, Bismarck regarded the Roman Catholic Church in Germany as the major obstacle to his dream of a powerful Protestant German nation under the firm guiding hand of his native Prussia. He strongly suspected the loyalty of a church whose members constituted nearly one-third of the population of the empire, gave their religious allegiance to the pope, and enjoyed virtual independence from German state authorities in religious matters.

In his campaign against the Catholic peril in the German Empire, the pragmatic Bismarck found a ready ally in the National Liberal Party National Liberal Party
Germany;National Liberal Party in the Prussian parliament. Founded in 1867, the party was committed to an agenda that included the national unification of Germany, state control of the schools, and the strict separation of church and state. Its members sought to advance the secular values of the urban, middle-class Germans who formed the party’s base constituency. They were even more hostile to the Catholic Church than Bismarck. While Bismarck did not share the overall secular orientation of the National Liberals, he found their majority position in the Prussian parliament indispensable to obtaining the legislation he needed to carry out his Kulturkampf.

Between 1871 and 1877, Chancellor Bismarck, through his agents and his parliamentary allies, waged a wide-ranging program of intimidation and open persecution upon the Catholic Church, especially in Prussia. Bismarck’s goal was to reduce the Church and its ally, the Catholic Center Party, to complete subservience to the government. Following a few preliminary moves in 1871, Bismarck launched a barrage of anti-Church legislation, which was introduced for him by a compliant National Liberal majority in parliament. His chief agent in implementing these measures was a Prussian civil official named Adalbert Falk Falk, Adalbert . In January, 1872, Falk was appointed Kulturminister, or minister for religion and education, in charge of the department of the Prussian bureaucracy directly responsible for dealing with the churches and the religious schools of the state. Falk, well known for his liberal, anticlerical views, eagerly assumed this position.

From 1872 through 1874, Falk’s Ministry for Religion and Education relentlessly targeted the Catholic clergy and the Catholic schools. Seminaries were taken over by the government in order to imbue seminarians with the nationalist and broadly secular values of the state. All church appointments had to be approved by the government, especially appointments of teachers conducting religious instruction in Catholic schools. Between 1872 and 1875, nearly 250 Catholic priests were arrested in Prussia, most for disobeying the Kulturkampf decrees. By 1875, all 11 Prussian bishops were either in jail or exiled. Pope Pius Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Kulturkampf[Kulturkampf] IX declared the Kulturkampf laws invalid and threatened to excommunicate any Catholics who accepted their legality.

Other laws struck at old enemies of the liberals, such as the Jesuits. Jesuits;in Germany[Germany] Their schools and residences were shut down throughout the German Empire, and Jesuit priests were forced to flee the country. Other priestly orders later endured the same fate, along with all Prussian monasteries. The Catholic laity suffered as well. Nearly 150 Catholic newspaper editors were arrested, 20 newspapers were seized, and 210 members of the Catholic Center party were jailed at various points after 1871, mostly for their public opposition to the Kulturkampf. Probably the most controversial of the new laws affected both the Catholic laity and their church. The Civil Marriage Act of 1875 specified that only a purely secular service, conducted under state auspices, was legally valid in Prussia. Thenceforth, the state would control the official records, removing the church from another of its traditional functions.

By 1875, the government campaign against the Catholic Church was in serious trouble. Exasperated by mounting opposition to his policies, Bismarck took personal charge. Adalbert Falk Falk, Adalbert was marginalized and pressured to resign. One clear sign of the chancellor’s predicament was the large volume of church properties forfeited to the state in lieu of unpaid fines. Church officials regularly refused any cooperation with the Kulturkampf. Passive resistance proved to be the most effective tactic for Catholics in Germany. The nonviolent reaction to persecution was for many Catholics personified by Ludwig Windthorst Windthorst, Ludwig , the leader of the Catholic Center Party. Many Protestant Germans, increasingly resentful of the harshness and ruthlessness of so many of the prescribed measures, came to sympathize with the plight of their Catholic countrymen.

Probably the most important single factor in the failure of the Kulturkampf was the inability of the sluggish, tradition-bound Prussian bureaucracy to compel compliance. Bismarck could not correct this problem. He had also badly underestimated the resiliency of the Catholic Church to weather systematic persecution. In the process, German Catholics had built a more cohesive and committed religious community and had even experienced a notable spiritual renewal. By 1878 Bismarck, ever the pragmatist, had determined to cut his losses and move on to other pressing problems, such as the economy and the challenge of socialism. Falk Falk, Adalbert became the scapegoat for Bismarck’s failure, while most of the Kulturkampf measures were repealed outright or allowed to languish. Only the laws on civil marriage and the state control of education remained permanently on the books.


The Kulturkampf in Germany was part of a broader European conflict between Catholicism and liberalism during the late nineteenth century. In Germany, this conflict was complicated by the presence of a solid conservative Protestant element led by Bismarck. Bismarck’s greatest achievement was to make the German Empire a world power. Among his worst setbacks was his failure to reduce the German Catholic Church to the position of state servant. He had found that there were severe limits to the means he could muster to this end. In short, Bismarck’s genius in foreign policy was not matched by his understanding of the power of religious faith. He lost prestige from this episode, although it was not a complete debacle. Kulturkampf laws on state control of schools and mandatory civil marriages survived in modified form.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Margaret Livinia. Windthorst: A Political Biography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986. Sympathetic, scholarly assessment of the career of the German Catholic politician who most effectively opposed Bismarck’s Kulturkampf.
  • Lerman, Katherine Anne. Bismarck. New York: Pierson and Longman, 2004. Places the Kulturkampf within the context of Bismark’s overall political motives and goals.
  • Ross, Ronald J. The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Wilhelmine, Germany. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998. Contends that Bismarck’s Kulturkampf failed largely because of the government’s inability to enforce its laws and decrees
  • Smith, Helmut W. German Nationalism and Political Conflict, 1870-1912. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. First section describes the impact of the Kulturkampf on the national unification of Germany.

Jesuits Are Expelled from Russia, Naples, and Spain

Strauss Publishes The Life of Jesus Critically Examined

Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President

North German Confederation Is Formed

Vatican I Decrees Papal Infallibility Dogma

Franco-Prussian War

German States Unite Within German Empire

Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law

Bismarck Introduces Social Security Programs in Germany

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