Cohesion Through Coercion: A Historiography of the Confessional Challenges to Imperial German Unification

The year 1871 marks a major epoch in German history. This year saw the German-speaking Central European states, which had lacked a robust central government, finally unite under one imperial crown and achieve continental hegemony at the expense of the other Great Powers. In other words, 1871 marked the year of German Unification, when the Germanies became Germany.

But unification does not practically describe the Central European situation in this otherwise watershed year. This term connotes a consenting amalgamation among all parties involved in the process, implying that these parties each projected a common goal and drew from the same, or at least a similar, historical and cultural legacy. Following German Unification, however, the nascent Reich still faced profound challenges from within, as it had failed to transcend the centuries-old religious dualism between Catholics and Protestants. In fact, the imperial government had exacerbated this dualism by seeking coercive legislation to cripple Catholic institutions in Germany.

Because German Unification wrongfully suggests a finished cohesion process, one might distinguish between Unification and unification—between an event and a compromised ideal.  One might also infer that the five historians reviewed in this essay acknowledge this distinction and, furthermore, that they recognize confessional conflict as the chief source of the Second German Empire’s lack of practical unity.

In German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914, author Helmut Wasler Smith analyzes the ubiquitous religious division that accompanied Germany into Unification. In the simplest of terms, Smith “[studies]…what set Protestants and Catholics apart [in imperial Germany].”[1] His work serves to show that Protestants and Catholics were divided in their visions of how the Reich should derive its cultural legacy and how the Reich should function according to each confession’s worldview.

In light of this divide, Smith illustrates how intellectuals from various disciplines tasked themselves with fortifying the newly formed Reich with a homogenous high culture that could provide unity across confessional lines.[2] This confession-transcending culture would invite a sense of camaraderie between Protestants and Catholics, who could thereby celebrate the historical and literary legacies that culminated in the proclamation of the German Empire. But by promoting a national high culture with such zeal, these intellectuals also sought to curtail the unsavory influences of popular folk culture, which carried superstitious, devotional, and irrational connotations commonly associated with a Catholic, ultramontanist, and therefore un-German worldview.[3] With its rational and practical underpinnings, an exclusively Protestant high culture was to be the province of a Germany that epitomized progress and modernity.[4]

Smith thoroughly deconstructs his primary sources to draw out the Protestant biases that governed these intellectuals’ pursuit of a confession-transcending culture.  Enjoying a practical monopoly in establishing the foundations of a German cultural legacy, literary critics such as William Scherer—who stated that “‘Luther’s Bible was the decisive act toward the establishment of a unified German culture and language’”[5]—sought to create a canon based upon the primacy of Protestant literary contributions. Also enjoying this monopoly, kleindeutsch (small-German) historians such as Johan von Droysen, Heinrich von Sybel, and Heinrich von Treitscke, who had all produced work at the time of Unification, adhered to a methodology that teleologically narrated a history that justified, or rationalized, a Reich founded upon Protestant and Prussian virtues.[6]

The imperial government also sought a Reich comprising these virtues. To this end, Otto von Bismarck’s government conceived of the Kulturkampf (1871) as a nation-building strategy that would implement the societal changes necessary to effect cultural homogeneity along Protestant lines.[7] In other words, the imperial government wanted to use the weight of its authority to compel Catholic institutions—and, by implication, Catholics themselves—to acknowledge the primacy of Protestant values in the empire. These repressive Kulturkampf measures only deepened the wounds of an already religiously divided nation.[8] In fact, these measures strengthened Catholic resolve and, in a figurative sense, made martyrs of those on the receiving end of the oppression.

The manner in which Smith describes the failure of the Kulturkampf is reliable for students seeking to measure the degree of unity (or lack thereof) within the empire. But while the Kulturkampf is important for Smith in his study, the struggle itself occupies a sub-section of his greater analysis of what fundamentally set Catholics and Protestants apart in imperial Germany. Students might therefore consult Ronald J. Ross’s The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887, which focuses entirely on the Kulturkampf Era.  In his study, Ross challenges a common thread in the historiography by actually holding the government responsible for the Kulturkampf’s failure.[9] In other words, the Kulturkampf failed because of the government’s aims, not in spite of them.

Furthermore, one can see how the Kulturkampf even emblematized the disunity among liberals, conservatives, and other anti-Catholic parliamentary parties in addition to the disunity between Protestants and Catholics. While these parties generally held anti-Catholic sentiments, the natures of their contempt varied greatly—a setback that prevented the government from gaining the uniformity necessary to prosecute the Kulturkampf with efficiency and success. Ross aptly concludes that “[t]he Kulturkampf…revealed Imperial Germany’s inadequacies as an authoritarian state and left the nation more divided than ever…[.]”[10]

In Germany without Bismarck: the Crisis of Government in the Second Reich, 1890-1900, author J.C.G. Röhl describes the German Empire as “some exotic plant” that “had been artificially forced in the hothouse of patriotism and war.”[11] Röhl’s conclusion is apt on the basis that this federalized empire was essentially a bloated Prussia that had just digested its neighbors after its victories in the Danish War (1864), the Seven Weeks’ War with Austria (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Prussia annexed Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, North Hesse, Nassau, and Frankfurt, who had all sided with Austria in the 1866 conflict. Finding themselves on the horns of a dilemma presented by the Franco-Prussian War, the remaining German states begrudgingly opted to support Prussia, and subsequently they joined the Hohenzollern kingdom in a greater imperial union at the war’s end.[12] Thus, war did in fact force the empire into existence, but the ephemerality of unity became apparent when Bismarck’s government implemented the Kulturkampf in the same year.

Röhl does not incorporate the Kulturkampf into his argument save for three short instances, but his argument is nonetheless consistent with Smith’s and Ross’s respective arguments. Each historian acknowledges that disunity predominantly characterized the state of Germany, and the latter two historians, Smith and Ross, demonstrate how the religious dualism fueled the disunity. Furthermore, while Röhl does not explicitly follow the examples of Smith and Ross by acknowledging the gravity of religious divide, he does often revisit the uneasy relationship between Catholic southern Germany and Protestant Prussia. This uneasy relationship did nothing to assuage Bismarck’s lingering fear that Catholic Austria, coping with its recent exclusion from German affairs; or republican France, reeling from its humiliation and loss of continental hegemony; or even the pope, establishing the Papal Infallibility Doctrine at Vatican I, could offer this “particularist” Catholic region an alliance against Protestant Prussia.[13]

Yet Röhl’s assertion that Catholics, being represented by the nascent Catholic Center, resented their inclusion in a largely Protestant empire[14] might be at odds with an important thread in Smith’s work, namely, that Protestants and Catholics believed in functionally different versions of the same Reich. Smith criticizes this “two nations” characterization, a characterization that Röhl supports. Smith instead opts for a “two groups with competing visions of the [same] nation state” characterization.[15] But according to Röhl, Catholics desired an exclusion from imperial Germany.

But representing Catholics in the wake of Kulturkampf legislation, the Center did not entertain separatist sentiments; rather, it sought to modify the current nation only to make it more inclusive of the party’s Catholic constituency and that constituency’s way of life. Thus, Catholics resented their exclusion from, not their inclusion into, the Protestant empire. They did not opt for a separate nation; they opted for one with a different trajectory—for one that did not champion a Protestant cultural and historical legacy at the expense of Catholics’ rights to worship, to hold monastic orders, and to appoint clerics who did not have to pass examinations demonstrating their loyalty to a Germany with a Protestant agenda.[16] Catholics organized politically behind the Center to have a greater say in the otherwise exclusionary Protestant empire.

A study by Thomas Bredohl further supports the notion that Catholics in general did not seek a separate nation. Bredohl’s Class and Religious Identity: The Rhenish Center Party in Wilhelmine Germany expands upon the nature of the Center Party. Moreover, this study juxtaposes the German character of this party with the anti-German, pro-papal depiction promulgated by kleindeutsch historians such as von Treitschke, von Sybel, and their likeminded contemporaries.[17] In essence, Bredohl portrays the Center not as a backward party of Catholics—superstitious, anti-modern, and therefore un-German. Rather, he rightfully characterizes the Center as a pragmatic party that understood the necessities of modernization and Realpolitik.[18]  Furthermore, Bredohl demonstrates that the Center never betrayed any signs of ultramontanism. Contrary to popular belief, the Center did not answer to Rome or receive its orders from the pope. In fact, the Center’s policies often lacked harmony with the Curia’s.[19]

Just as Smith does in his study, Bredohl deconstructs his sources, thus allowing his readers to view the biases of the historians he references and cites. He certainly engages the obviously biased historians of the kleindeutsch school who marshaled their intellectual resources to attack the legacy of Catholicism. But Bredohl presents himself as a responsible historian by demonstrating that he comes to his conclusions only after he criticizes the historians with whom he generally agrees. For example, Bredohl recognizes the depth and importance of historian Karl Bachem’s nine-volume work that expresses the Center’s loyalty to the Kaiserreich, but Bredohl nonetheless acknowledges that certain Catholic biases inhere in Bachem’s work, as Bachem himself belonged to the Center and wanted to promote its German character to make the party’s platform palatable to non-Catholic constituencies.[20]

Bredohl shows how disunity along confessional lines pivotally characterized Germany during Unification. The Center directed its energy toward addressing the substance of this disunity, seeking parity with its Protestant counterparts in controlling imperial institutions such as the army, the civil service, and the educational professions.[21] Furthermore, the Center had to seek this parity while assuming the Sisyphean task of convincing non-Catholics that “‘nothing was further from the minds of its founders than the creation of a fundamental opposition to the government…the new German empire…and its emperor…’”[22] Rather, the founders and those who followed their legacy fundamentally opposed the direction of the government and the political and cultural trajectory of the empire, but never the institutions themselves.

Indeed, Germany unified in 1871, but only nominally. Even the parties that had forged this empire knew that unity, in the truest sense of the word, evaded it. The Kulturkampf’s proximity to German Unification underscores the fact that religious divide qualified German unity at the most fundamental levels of culture, society, and government. In essence, the concepts of German unity and religious division are mutually inclusive: one cannot be discussed without the other also being duly cross-referenced, for example, in a hypothetical index aiming to familiarize general students with the salient themes of modern German history. The historians reviewed in this essay construct a version of the Second Reich that accounts for this qualification to German Unification along confessional lines. These otherwise nuanced studies converge to show that the kleindeutsch historians of the 19th century had failed to force a historiographical legacy of an empire that was itself conceived through force.

[1] Helmut Wasler Smith, German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 10.

[2] Ibid., passim, 20-37.

[3] Ibid., 21, 35.

[4] Ibid., passim, 27-37.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Ibid., 20. Also see Ronald J. Ross, The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 24. Ross cites Smith on the definition of the Kulturkampf.

[8] Smith, German Nationalism, 42.

[9] Ross, The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, 12-14.

[10] Ibid., p. 34.

[11] J.C.G. Röhl, Germany without Bismarck: the Crisis of Government in the Second Reich, 1890-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 17.

[12] Ibid., 15.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Ibid., 18.

[15] Smith, German Nationalism, 50.

[16] Ibid., 14; Ross, The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, 6.

[17] Thomas Bredohl, Class and Religious Identity: the Rhenish Center Party in Wilhelmine Germany (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2000), 10.

[18] Ibid., 17.

[19] Ibid., 9.

[20] Ibid., 11.

[21] Ibid., 13. Bredohl cites Ronald J. Ross’s Beleaguered Tower: the Dilemma of Political Catholicism in Wilhelmine Germany (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976). For more information on laws prohibiting Catholics from the educational professions, see Ross, The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, 6.

[22] Ibid., 11. Bredohl quotes Bachem from his nine-volume study Voregeschichte Geschichte und Politik der deutschen Zentrumspartei.


Bredohl, Thomas M. Class and Religious Identity: The Rhenish Center Party in Wilhemine Germany. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2000.

Röhl, John C.G. Germany without Bismarck: the Crisis of Government in the Second Reich, 1890-1900. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.

Ross, Ronald J. The Failure of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998.

Smith, Helmut W. German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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