By the end of 1878, more than half of Prussia's Catholic bishops were in exile or in prison. More than 1,800 priests had been incarcerated or exiled and over 16 million marks' worth of ecclesiastical property seized. In the first four months of 1875 alone, 241 priests, 136 Catholic newspaper editors and 210 Catholic laymen were fined or imprisoned, 20 newspapers were confiscated, 74 Catholic houses were searched, 103 Catholic political activists were expelled or interned and 55 Catholic associations or clubs were closed down. As late as 1881, a quarter of all Prussian parishes remained without priests. This was Prussia at the height of the Kulturkampf, a 'struggle of cultures' that would shape German politics and public life for generations.
Prussia was not the only European state to see tension over confessional questions in this era. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was heightened conflict between Catholics and secular liberal movements across the European continent. But the Prussian case stands out. Nowhere else did the state proceed so systematically against Catholic institutions and personnel. Administrative reform and law were the two main instruments of discrimination. In 1871, the government abolished the 'Catholic section' in the Prussian ministry for church affairs, thereby depriving the Catholics of a separate representation within the senior echelons of the bureaucracy. The criminal code was amended to enable the authorities to prosecute priests who used the pulpit 'for political ends.' In 1872, further state measures eliminated the influence of ecclesiastical personnel over the planning and implementation of school curricula and the supervision of schools. Members of religious orders were prohibited from teaching in the state school system and the Jesuits were expelled from the German Empire. Under the May Laws of 1873, the training and appointment of clergy in Prussia were placed under state supervision. In 1874, the Prussian government introduced compulsory civil marriage, a step extended to the entire German Empire a year later. Additional legislation in 1875 abolished various allegedly suspect religious orders, choked off state subsidies to the church, and deleted religious guarantees from the Prussian constitution. As Catholic religious personnel were expelled, jailed and forced into hiding, the authorities imposed statutes permitting state-authorized agents to take charge of vacated bishoprics.
Bismarck was the driving force behind this unprecedented campaign. Why did he undertake it? The answer lies pertly in his highly confessionalized understanding of the German national question. In the 1850s, during his posting to the German Confederal authority in Frankfurt, he had come to believe that political Catholicism was the chief 'enemy of Prussia' in southern Germany. The spectacle of Catholic revivalist piety, with its demonstrative pilgrimages and public festivities, filled him with disgust, as did the increasingly Roman orientation of mid-century Catholicism. At times, indeed, he doubted whether this 'hypocritical idolatrous papism full of hate and cunning,' whose 'presumptuous dogma falsified God's revelation and nurtured idolatry as a basis for worldly domination' was a religion at all. A variety of themes were bundled together here: a fastidious Protestant contempt (accentuated by Bismarck's Pietist spirituality) for the outward display so characteristic of the Catholic revival blended with a strain of half-submerged German idealism and political apprehensions (shading into paranoia) about the church's capacity to manipulate minds and mobilize masses.
These antipathies deepened during the conflicts that brought about the unification of Germany. The German Catholics had traditionally looked to Austria for leadership in German affairs and they were unenthusiastic about the prospect of a Prussian-dominated 'small Germany' excluding the 6 million (mainly Catholic) Austrian Germans. In 1866, the news of Prussian victory triggered Catholic riots in the south, while the Catholic caucus in the Prussian Landtag opposed the government on a number of key symbolic initiatives, including the indemnity bill, the Prussian annexation programme and the proposal to reward Bismarck and the Prussian generals financially for the recent victory. In 1867-8, the Prussian minister-president—now chancellor of the North German Confederation—was infuriated by the strength of Catholic resistance in the south to a closer union with the north. Particularly alarming was the Bavarian campaign of 1869 against the pro-Prussian policies of the liberal government in Munich. The clergy played a crucial role in mobilizing support for the Catholic-particularist programme of the opposition, agitating from pulpits and collecting petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures. After 1871, doubts about the political reliability of the Catholics were further reinforced by the fact that, of the three main ethnic minorities (Poles, Alsatians and Danes), whose representatives formed opposition parties in the Reichstag, two were emphatically Catholic. Bismarck was utterly persuaded of the political 'disloyalty' of the 2.5 million Catholic Poles in the Prussian East, and he suspected that the church and its networks were deeply implicated in the Polish nationalist movement.
These concerns resonated more destructively within the new nation-state than they had before. The new Bismarckian Reich was not in any sense an 'organic' or historically evolved entity—it was the highly artificial product of four years of diplomacy and war. In the 1870s, as so often in the history of the Prussian state, the successes of the monarchy seemed as fragile as they were impressive. There was an unsettling sense that what had so swiftly been put together could also be undone, that the Empire might never acquire the political or cultural cohesion to safeguard itself against fragmentation from within. These anxieties may appear absurd to us, but they felt real to many contemporaries. In this climate of uncertainty, it seemed plausible to view the Catholics as the most formidable domestic hindrance to national consolidation.
In lashing out against the Catholics, Bismarck knew that he could count on the enthusiastic support of the National Liberals, whose powerful positions in the new Reichstag and the Prussian Chamber of Deputies made them indispensable political allies. In Prussia, as in much of Germany (and Europe), anti-Catholicism was one of the defining strands of late-nineteenth-century liberalism. Liberals held up Catholicism as the diametrical negation of their own world-view. They denounced the 'absolutism' and 'slavery' of the doctrine of papal infallibility adopted by the Vatican Council in 1870 (according to which the authority of the pope is unchallengeable when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith or morals). Liberal journalism depicted the Catholic faithful as a servile and manipulated mass (by implied contrast with a liberal social universe centred on male tax-paying worthies with unbound consciences). A bestiary of anti-clerical stereotypes emerged: the satires in liberal journals thronged with wily, thin Jesuits and lecherous, fat priests—amenable subjects because the cartoonist's pen could make such artful play with the solid black of their garb. By vilifying the parish priest in his confessorial role or impugning the sexual propriety of nuns, they articulated through a double negative the liberal faith in the sanctity of the patriarchal nuclear family. Through their nervousness about the prominent place of women within many of the new Catholic orders and their prurient fascination with the celibacy (or not) of the priest, liberals revealed a deep-seated preoccupation with 'manliness' that was crucial (though not always explicitly) to the self-understanding of the movement. For the liberals, therefore, the campaign against the church was nothing less than a 'struggle of cultures'—the term was coined by the liberal Protestant pathologist Rudolf Virchow in a speech of February 1872 to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.
Bismarck's campaign against the Prussian Catholics was a failure. He had hoped that an anti-Catholic crusade would help to create a broad, Protestant liberal-conservative lobby that would help him to pass legislation consolidating the new Empire. But the integrating effect of the campaign was more fleeting and fragile than he had anticipated. Anti-Catholicism could not sustain a durable platform for government action, either in Prussia or in the Empire. There were many facets to this problem. Bismarck himself was less of an extremist than many of those whose passions were aroused by his policy. He was a religious man who sought the guidance of God in his administration of state affairs (and usually, as the left liberal Ludwig Bamberger sardonically noted, found the deity agreeing with him). His religion was—in the Pietist tradition—non-sectarian and ecumenical. He was opposed to the complete separation of church and state sought by the liberals, and he did not believe that religion was a purely private affair. Bismarck did not share the left-liberal hope that religion would ultimately wither away as a social force. He was thus unnerved by the anti-clerical and secularizing energies released by the Kulturkampf.
The anti-Catholic campaign also failed because the confessional divide was cross-cut by the other fault-lines in the Prussian political landscape. As the Kulturkampf wore on, the rift between left liberals and right liberals proved in some respects even deeper than that between the liberals and the Catholics. By the mid-1870s, the left liberals had begun to oppose the campaign on the grounds that it infringed fundamental rights. The increasing radicalism of anti-church measures also prompted misgivings in many Protestants on the 'clerical' wing of German conservatism. The view gained ground that the real victim of the Kulturkampf was not the Catholic church or Catholic politics as such, but religion itself.