Helmut Smith
German Nationalism and Religious Conflict

The nationalist dream of spiritual unity, evidently frustrated by the reality of cultural heterogeneity within the national state, could be achieved only by severing the fetters of Germany's feudal and particularist past. Here German nationalists insisted that naivete vis-a-vis the power of the Roman church would have a deleterious effect on the young empire. Roman Catholicism, they believed, threatened a unified German identity with an institutionally supported web of cultural attachments opposed, in so many ways at once, to a progressive and modern and therefore Protestant conception of that identity. Though partly a matter of images and representation, of literary canons and historical traditions, this was also an issue of high politics. In order to combat the influence of ultramontanism on German culture, nationalist intellectuals considered it necessary to destroy church power, especially in the schools but also in parliament, in social life, and in the press.

In the struggle against this religious culture, for which nationalist intellectuals had little understanding and even less patience, the interventionist state, and not the people, constituted the most reliable ally. Treitschke observed: 'For us the state is not, as it is for the Americans, a power to be contained so that the will of the individual may remain uninhibited, but rather a cultural power from which we expect positive achievements in all areas of national life.' Heinrich von Sybel also urged state intervention. The 'most essential tasks in the struggle against the clerical system could be mastered,' he argued, 'only through the positive influence of state power.' Although Treitschke and Sybel both tended to the conservative side of the Liberal party, it would be a mistake to consider these views as somehow in opposition to a more principled German liberalism. Eugen Richter, the leader of the Progressive party, much to the left of Sybel and Treitschke, and considerably more suspicious of the state, also realized that 'it was not possible for the state to liberate itself from clerical domination without interfering in the course of the events.'

To German liberals, of both the left and the right, the state represented, at least in its potential, an agent of modernization; the church, by contrast, a bulwark of backwardness. But German liberals, whose relation to the vox populi had always been equivocal, did not necessarily equate a more modern with a more democratic polity. Indeed, German liberals worried deeply about the implications of a democratically mobilized Catholic dissent. Treitschke feared that universal suffrage, 'which grants to the powers of custom and stupidity such an unfair superiority' would be 'an invaluable weapon of the Jesuits,' while von Sybel argued that Catholics did not simply constitute a minority religion but rather 'a militarily organized corporation which in Germany contains more than 30,000 agents sworn to absolute obedience.' Democracy, far from hindering the malicious influence of the church, fortified Catholic power anew. 'The more democratic the current of the times,' Sybel thought, 'the more important will be the party that controls one and a half million voters with military command.' The very existence of a large religious culture that did not necessarily share the values of the new national state posed a dilemma to the democratic sentiments of German liberals—even to those whose commitment to the parliament and to constitutionalism was otherwise unimpeachable. Rudolf Virchow, the left-liberal pathologist, in every sense a bearer of enlightened values and civic responsibility, pondered the necessity of a 'dictatorship of ministers' to combat Catholic resistance to the Kulturkampf.

It is typically assumed that the German-liberal appeal to state power represented a distortion of true liberal values, that in the universal conflict between force and freedom German liberals exalted the former at the expense of the latter. But, in fact, many did not perceive the tension. Force, argued Treitschke, would be harnessed in the service of freedom. Indeed, given the spiritual poverty of the people (as they actually existed), force was necessary in order to create a common high culture, the precondition for the development of liberal values. 'Many precious benefits of freedom are given to peoples only through state coercion,' Treitschke maintained. Freedom from clerical bondage constituted one such benefit. Constantin Rossler argued that should the clergy continue to resist the Kulturkampf measures of the state, then 'the state will have no choice but to deny its citizens, regardless of confession [sic!], the guidance of the Roman clergy.' The school issue, mercury by which one could measure the intensity of the conflict between nationalist intellectuals and ultramontane Catholics, provided another example of what liberals imagined as a happy marriage between force and freedom. Compulsory education in secular, confessionally mixed schools was, they believed, the best means by which to integrate the confessions while recasting an ignorant and apathetic populace into a respectable, responsible citizenry. But Catholics, mired in their own backwardness, feared such schools as institutions that taught children to criticize their traditional beliefs, that exposed them to blasphemous works, and that indoctrinated them in the materialist beliefs of an increasingly godless age. The resistance of Catholics to compulsory education was particularly tenacious in the countryside and in small towns, where, especially during harvest season, school alarms rarely rang in consonance with time marked out by the requirements of rural life. Nevertheless, argued German liberals, the age demanded change. 'The German State,' declared Treitschke, 'forces parents to have their children educated; it does not give them 'the right to their Catholic stupidity.'

Not freedom from state coercion, but rather the creation of a national state in which culture and values were shared, in which there was a common commitment to a common destiny, constituted the precondition for a truly, not just a formally, free polity. The state, which 'fights on the side of freedom,' was to carve out the cultural contours of the new empire, to give form to an emerging national consensus of values. Here too national intellectuals across the liberal spectrum shared common assumptions. Both Treitschke and the public-minded pathologist Rudolf Virchow expected the state to give shape to the 'incomplete form of our young German empire.' The emerging profile, both men hoped, would be progressive and modern—free of particularism, parochialism, feudal privilege, and fanatical religion. It is with this vision in mind that German liberals pursued the Kulturkampf with a sense of newfound idealism.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.