Kulturkampf Then: Ludwig Windthorst vs. Bismarck

Author: Richard H. Schaefer

Kulturkampf Then: Ludwig Windthorst vs. Bismarck

by Richard H. Schaefer

It is hard to understand how a man as remarkable as Ludwig Windthorst (1812-1891) could disappear so completely from modern history, especially Catholic history where he wrote some remarkable pages defending the Faith in the first Kulturkampf, when the Prussian state, through its disordered genius Bismarck, sought to emasculate the Church. A hydrocephalic at birth, legally blind most of his adult life, barely five feet tall, of misshapen appearance, this little man led his fellow Catholics through the decades of the 1870s and 1880s against the leadership of the most powerful state in Europe, newly victorious over Catholic Austria and France. Consider this panegyric of his public life as summarized by his English biographer Margaret Lavinia Anderson:

Ludwig Windthorst was Imperial Germany's greatest parliamentarian. Counting his terms in the diet of the Kingdom of Hanover, he served 35 years in the various legislatures of his country. His skill in debate was equalled by no other deputy; his tactical genius, only by Bismarck. August Bebel can compare with Windthorst in his skill at keeping warring factions together in a powerful, disciplined party, but the Social Democrats faced neither the opportunities nor the dangers confronting Windthorst's party - the Catholic Zentrum-and consequently Bebel's parliamentary task was a much simpler one.... Windthorst's influence outside parliament was in many ways as powerful as his influence in it. In his handling of party machinery and his relation to the masses-his nearest analogues are Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. In the Church he came to exercise an influence over appointments that rivaled that of any bishop and that was no less decisive for being informal....

The uncrowned king of Catholic Germany, he was also its unofficial Kultusminister.... By his opponents Windthorst was continually vilified as the 'Father of Lies', an 'enemy of the state', a 'democrat', and the 'evil genius of the German nation'. Within Catholic Germany, on the other hand, he was revered long after his death, and the Windthorstbund, established to keep his legacy green, was dissolved only by Hitler. Yet today, except among professional historians, the man is forgotten (Anderson, whose biography is the source of most of the information in this article, examines some of the reasons for this serious neglect, the legacy Windthorst opponents of a hundred years ago. This neglect is no longer merely a question of doing justice to Catholic history, important as that is. For though German Catholics lost that first Kulturkampf, in spite of having an extraordinary leader, a mass political party and a flourishing press, they left a rich, complex history of political and social struggle, which as America's own sharpens, cries out for examination and evaluation. If we conclude there are no lessons to be drawn-the situations are too disparate-we can still take heart from the titanic battle little Windthorst and his brave fellow Catholics waged against the most powerful state in Europe, very much in the spirit Pope John Paul II exhorts us to battle-"Do Not Be Afraid"-against the most powerful ideologies of our time.

The "why" of the first Kulturkampf is still a matter of debate. Anderson insists it was no accident. "'State builder' from Henry VIII and Peter the Great to Richelieu and Cavour have invariably attempted to suppress the institutional church. Bismarck was no exception. He had intended for some time to attack-or reform-the established positions of both churches in Prussia and to disengage them from public affairs by ending their authority over schools, introducing civil marriage and making it easier to end affiliation." And what better time to challenge the Roman Church (the Protestants were largely ignored) than the early 1870s, with the papacy freshly stripped of its temporal holdings and Prussia still exultant from its victories over the great Catholic powers, Austria (1866) and France (1871) E.E.Y. Hales' observation made a number of years ago is still accurate: "The prestige of the Pope within the Church may have been very high after 1870, but outside the Church, and especially in the chancelleries of the great states, it was desperately low, and governments felt free, as never before, to attack both the Church and her head with impunity."

(John Paul II's papacy is vigorous. Circumspection and deference mark the relations of today's chancelleries with the Vatican. No head of state, remembering events in eastern Europe, would deliberately confront the Pope or his Catholic constituents as did Bismarck. Yet President Clinton, charm itself when he greets John Paul on American soil, impervious to the warnings of the Pope, Mother Teresa, and the American cardinals and bishops, still plunges ahead with his pro-abortion agenda. His confidence, of course, comes from the polls which show (truthfully or not) a "majority" of American Catholics disagree with their Church on matters as serious as contraception, divorce and even abortion. But here, as did Bismarck's decades ago, he may make a major miscalculation. Bismarck's repeated accusations that the Center Party was unpatriotic, was opposed to the new Reich, was subject to alien directives, etc., quickly united Catholics from the Rhineland, Bavaria, Prussia and scattered enclaves throughout Germany with Alsatians and Polish Catholics in Silesia. Windthorst often remarked that Bismarck made the Center Party and with his Kulturkampf shaped it. Nowhere else in Europe did such a confessional party come into being. Clinton's zealous advocacy of the Kultur of Death, as demonstrated once more by his veto of the partial birth abortion ban, may eventually lead him into who knows what further excess, until finally the most hardened Catholic conscience in America awakes with Horror to what it has condoned. The boyish Clinton could prove to be a bloodier enemy of the Catholic Church than the "Iron Chancellor of the Prussians.")

Anderson dates the from January 1871. Windthorst had delivered a "routine attack" on the Prussian state's discriminatory policy against Catholics in the civil service Bismarck's rebuttal stunned the House. For length and abusiveness it was "without precedent. When I returned from France," he concluded, "I could not consider the formation of this fraction (the Center Party) in any other light than a mobilization of a party against the state.

"Thereafter followed a week of Bismarck's rage, hoping to isolate Windthorst from his party, to the point where he barely stopped short of accusing Windthorst of treason. The Little Giant gave as roundly as he received. "For my part, you may be assured, I will not submit to this pressure." And his party still unsure of itself in this early stage of the Kulturkampf, rallied staunchly to his defense. "We are proud to have in our midst so distinguished a member as the Deputy for Meppen.... do not believe, gentlemen, that our taste is so unique here in this land. Be assured that there are few names which in wide circles and also in the Prussian provinces, are so popular as the name of the Deputy for Meppen," a party spokesman declared to the House. This was true. Windthorst's name was well known to the leaders of European governments also. Ironically, in Protestant England, which would soon be Germany's bitter foe, Bismarck was the hero, the champion of modern ideas; Windthorst and Pius IX were the leaders of reaction.

But Bismarck pushed on. He discovered a governing technique that was to serve him well in the next two decades-invoking the Roman menace. According to Anderson, certain sections of the publishing industry, seeing quick profits in the new climate the Chancellor had breathed into German public life, responded with a comic satire of the Jesuits, .

This work, previously withheld from release for fear of prosecution "for impiety," quickly became a best seller and established the cartoonist's popularity across Germany. It also prefigured the anti Semitic cartoons of later years.

Within a few months, May 1872, petitions denouncing and supporting the Jesuits, flooded the Reichstag. By a huge majority deputies called on the government for legislation regulating the order. When the government's proposals proved too mild, the legislators passed their own laws, abolishing all Jesuits settlements within six months, deporting foreign Jesuits and excluding the Society completely from the empire. This was the first of the so-called "May laws" directed against the Catholic Church and one of the most rigorously enforced.

In May of the following year priests were forbidden to study in Rome or at any diocesan seminary not under state control. Discipline of the clergy was taken away from the church and given to a Royal Tribunal. If a priest refused to initiate proceedings against his bishop, the Tribunal could move on its own.

The May law of 1874 enabled a provincial governor to take over in the name of the state a rebellious parish or bishop's see. In May of 1875 Catholics, and even their sympathizers in the civil service could be removed by law from their positions. Also in that year the remaining religious orders, with the exception of nursing orders, were dissolved. (Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland", commemorated the death by drowning of five of these sisters, exiled by the May laws.)

A Frankfurt newspaper that year published "a list of flees, arrests, and other acts of enforcement" carried out during the two years of antiCatholic legislations: 241 priests had been arrested, 136 editors and 210 Center Party members. Twenty newspapers were confiscated, 74 houses searches, 103 expulsions and internments effected and 55 meetings and organizations dissolved. Five Prussian bishoprics were vacant by Judicial removal; 989 parishes, one fourth of the parishes of Prussia, were without priests.

(One can only imagine the human cost of this onslaught on Germany's Catholics in terms of livings lost, families split and the unavoidable recriminations, accusations, suspicions and griefs such upheavals must bring. Yet in the elections of November 1873, when the Zentrum urged Catholics to turn the election into a "great plebiscite" for their Church, they did. The popular vote for the Center Party almost doubled. (Unfortunately, the government parties gained also, if not as dramatically, and remained the largest bloc in the Reichstag.) Although at different periods the Center Party became the largest in the Reichstag, it was never the majority party. It was this fact of political life that dictated strategy for Windthorst and provided the setting in which he built his great reputation and won the grudging respect of his foes.)

The resistance of Catholics during this war waged by their government against them was awesome. Prussian bishops refused cooperation completely. Not a single seminary applied for state accreditation, nor would any bishop register his clerical appointments. When they refused to pay their fines their property was confiscated and finally they were imprisoned.

Nor was the laity passive. They left their dead unburied rather than have a state appointed priest officiate. In Trier in the Rhineland infantry and cavalry had to be called out when over a thousand Catholics surrounded seminary professors the state had expelled. And in parish after parish, parishioners bought back church property and clerical belongings confiscated for unpaid fines.

Excepting pro-choice and gay rights groups there is really no anti-Catholic feeling in America that equals in ferocity and wide public support what German Catholics faced during the Kulturkampf. At that time the first Vatican Council had roused anticlericals and Protestants across Europe. In Germany one result was petitions calling for the expulsion of all monastic orders, "hotbeds of superstition, fornication and sloth." In Vienna, the German Journalists Convention "proclaimed it a "debt of honor for every thinking man to enter the lists' for the abolition of cloisters and the expulsion of the Jesuits." Vatican II was different. The media portrayed it as a great liberating event in the history of the Church. That interpretation promoted a false peace with modern society, at least in media stories replaced now by hostility, as the message of John Paul, repeated again and again around the world slowly sink in: namely, that the Council taught what the Church has always taught. So instead of the invective heaped on Plus IX and Vatican I, there is a smouldering hate today, looking for scandal, for missteps, for another opportunity to tell another false tale about Pius MI or a documentary on the Bible, full of solemnity and lies. AntiCatholicism in Bismarck's day was bold and arrogant and in your face. Anderson quotes one contemporary: "Every day the Catholic had to read-in the great newspapers that he was an enemy of the Fatherland, a little papist, a dumbhead and that his clergy were the scum of humanity." The Augsburger Allgemeine described the Zentrum as a poisonous "fungus feeding relentlessly on our viscera." Its very presence in the Reichstag a worse misfortune than "the loss of a great battle on the Loire." These characterizations manifested themselves in public life where Zenkum delegates were often hooted and jeered inside and outside the legislative chambers. Even the distinguished Bishop von Ketteler suffered the hoots of Berlin's skeet urchins. In 1869 a small Dominican chapel in one of the capital's suburbs was vandalized by a mob and its two priests expelled.

If the American media piously disclaim any anti-Catholic agenda, their reporting of her history -her teaching, her hierarchy is so weighed down with the views of Catholic dissenters that the same end is achieved: slander of the Church and the Faith. In the German Kulturkampf the battle was out in the open, the issues were clear (At least initially. Windthorst frequently remarked that the first phase of the struggle, for all of its ferocity, was the easiest to counter. Later, as Bismarck feigned conciliation, as division entered Catholic ranks, as the role of the papacy changed, as weariness and spiritual fatigue took its toll, the defense and counter attack was much more difficult to manage. Even Windthorst, fighter that he was, in his later years suffered much from depression and despair.

It is impossible to detail all the issues, aside from those affecting the Church, on which Windthorst had to give leadership as the Center Party grew and the Kulturkampf dragged on. His positions (and almost always the positions of the party, no matter how much haranguing and browbeating Windthorst had to administer) are heroic testimony to the man and his fellow Catholic believers. Liberal historians scorn the Church's role in modern history as one of reaction and defense of the status quo. But Windthorst and the Center Party are blazing refutations of such dishonest scholarship (as are many other instances-to name just one, the leading role of Catholics in the founding of European and American labor unions)When Bismarck demanded, after an assassination attempt on the Kaiser, that the fledging Social Democratic Party be outlawed. Windthorst retorted "We cannot fight Socialism any better than by striving very seriously and persistently to find out in what points the gentlemen of Social Democracy are correct... We should do everything we can think of to come to the aid of the working classes.... If Socialism is now reaping a very great harvests this is because of the misery of the times, which to be sure, the gentlemen of 'capital' do not grasp." Windthorst maintained this position even after a second attempt on the Kaiser's life brought horrendous pressure to pass an even stricter antiSocialist law. Windthorst was never enticed by Socialist ideas, but as a leading member of a harshly persecuted minority, he appreciated the protection of constitutional law against an evil and vindictive state. (Windthorst new full well that sometimes even that protection failed. Many of Bismarck's laws had been declared unconstitutional and yet still remained on the books and were enforced. Nevertheless, Windthorst insisted: "Equal rights and equal protection for all." This included Protestants and assimilated Jewish deputies whom he noted again and again-, along with the anti clericals, voted away Catholic rights. "I will on every occasion represent the right that I claim for the Catholic Church and her servants for the Protestants also, and not least for the Jews. I want this right for all," he told the Reichstag. And he was as good as his word, again and again, often alone in his party and the Reichstag, combating the anti-Semitism that "suffused the atmosphere of Imperial Germany."

(A bright spot in the alignment of forces in our American contrasted with 19th century Germany's, is the remarkable unity of purpose between Catholic and Evangelical Protestants. Though organizational unity is minimal, the prolife agenda unites both confessions at all levels of society. Windthorst, who repeatedly pled with Protestants and Jews to join the Center Party, never saw such results. If one asks whether German Catholics might have been more successful if they had joined other political parties rather than "isolating" themselves within their own, consider the words of historian Ellen Evans in her study of the Center Party: ". . it should be pointed out that the Center Party in its final form was organized after existing parties had defined. . .themselves in terms which specifically excluded Catholic interests;. . .the liberal parties had become belligerently anti-clerical...while the Conservatives remained closely tied to the Protestant faith and issued no welcoming invitation." Windthorst's orthodoxy which combined "an unembarrassed" even exuberant assertion of Catholicism as the true faith with a complete lack of bigotry toward others was as rare in his day as in ours.)

With the election of Leo XIII to the papacy in 1878 began the most difficult and controversial period of the . Both men obviously wanted what was best for the Church and her German sons and daughters. But Windthorst's years of struggle of the most intense nature, gave him a perspective that not even the Roman pontiff could change. Eventually the two became estranged without ever giving any public hint of discord. Windthorst loyally trying to meet the pontiff's wishes, even if in a barely minimal, less than straight forward manner, and Leo ever protesting the great value he placed upon the Center Party and its leaders. Between them both, of course, stalked the ominous figure of Bismarck, exploiting every advantage (during this period he was often better informed than Windthorst about Vatican affairs and through his press continually painted Windthorst and his Party as the only obstacles to the end of the , even though all his anti-Catholic laws were in force. He had won the . His state controlled the education, appointment and discipline of the clergy," and "could perform the only legally valid marriage ceremony." But he wanted more, namely a docile Reichstag and to achieve that, he needed to break Windthorst's hold on the Center Party. This he never accomplished. The devotion of the Center Party faithful to Windthorst never diminished, even after his death.

Although it is impossible to do justice to the courage and faithfulness of Windthorst's life in a short article, Anderson's brief summary of his mature political objective-he began his political life as a monarchist-show how profoundly democratic and Catholic the man was. "Unlike the Church's representatives in centuries past, Windthorst did not seek an island of security for Catholics within the existing order. Unlike Zentrum leaders of the early 20th century, he was not satisfied with the assimilation of Catholics into the order either.... Instead, he accepted the necessity of critically resisting and thus eventually reforming ("Renewing all things in Christ.") the entire political order that was the source of Catholic distress. Under Windthorst's leadership German Catholics generalized their particular confessional complaints to make them maxims for all of society. In Windthorst's view in order to solve the problems of the Church, it was necessary to 'deabsolutize' the State. He did not expect to see it happen in his lifetime." Nor, can we probably expect it in our lifetime.

After a-brief bout of pneumonia, Ludwig Windthorst went to his death bed at age seventy-nine. ". . the was given last rites by a Jesuit. Since the Society of Jesus was still outlawed, it was the Zentrum leader's last political act. Most of the time Windthorst was delirious, constantly trying to get out of bed. On his last night he delivered a long, well-constructed speech, in a loud, clear voice, against the Jesuit law. In one of his lucid moments he was able to bless Maria, his only remaining child (of eight children), and to send his last words of love to Julie (his wife of 55 years).- As the end approached, he joined the Sister of Mercy at his side in the prayer for the dying. At the words 'Father into your hands I commend my spirit, Windthorst expired. It was 8: 15 a.m., March 15, 1891."

From our perspective, two world wars later, it is certainly easy to agree with Bismarck's successor as Chancellor, General Caprivi, that Windthorst's death was "the worst blow that could have struck the German state at this time." By the turn of the century, without Windthorst's strong hand, the Center Party had become a government party, unable to resist the blandishments of German nationalism, eager after so many years on the outside to finally have the door opened and be welcomed.

But what about us, our ? What can we possibly learn from this 19th century Prussian world, so different from our own? First of all, any young aspiring Catholic politician should read and study Windthorst's public and parliamentary life. The material there is rich and applicable today as it was in his day. Secondly, all Catholics can draw inspiration from Windthorst's spirit, dwelling in a small, misshapen body, struggling with poor eyesight, subject to despair and depression, he continued to fight the good fight. Thirdly, we must never forget that the Kulturkampf is spiritual war, the struggle for men's souls. Gifted heroic leaders, mass parties, powerful media, important as they all are, may not carry the day. We face a subtler foe, a more patient foe than Bismarck and his Prussians. At least so it seems. That will mean more prayer, even fasting if we are to persevere, not lose our own souls. If we are given someone as gifted as Windthorst to lead us, let us be grateful. But we may get no one. We may have to stand alone or in small groups. We will have to constantly remind ourselves of our Lord's words, repeated to us again and again by the Holy Father, "Do Not Be Afraid"'

Barely a year after Windthorst's death the new Reichstag building was completed, dedicated, believe-it or not, to the German people. Inside its impressive courtyard stood three larger than life statues of famous Germans. Windthorst, the great parliamentarian, was not one of them, nor was any other parliamentarian. The three, all in uniform, were Bismarck, Moltke, the conqueror of France, and Roon, the Prussian Minister of War. A more ominous portend for the future of any nation could hardly be imagined. ..unless one imagined heaps of fetuses, Dr. Kervorkian, and an AIDS ward.


Anderson, Margaret L. , Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Evans, Ellen L. , Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981.

Kiefer, Br. William J., S.M. , Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1961.

Hales, E.E Y. , Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1960.

Taylor, A.J., P, , New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Richard H. Schaefer writes from Fresno, California.

Taken from the June 1996 issue of "Fidelity" Magazine, 206 Marquette Avenue, South Bend, IN 46617. Subscription price is $25.00 per year. Letters to the editor may be sent by fax, 219- 289-1461, or by electronic mail to CompuServe 71554,445.