A Catholic Political Party in Wilhelmine Germany

In order to understand modern Catholic Social Teaching it is helpful to understand the context in which it was developed. The teachings of Pope Leo XIII were informed by the experience of 19th century Catholic political action. One of the first countries to have a modern, Catholic parliamentary party was Imperial Germany. The following description the Zentrumspartei is taken from the non-Catholic historian Golo Mann’s The History of Germany Since 1789, trans. Marian Jackson (London, Chatto and Windus: 1996 [orig. 1958]), pp. 212-214, the translation has been slightly modified.

The Zentrumspartei [Party of the Centre] was a strange product of German history and also of conditions in Europe around 1870. There was no other great European country in which the Catholics were a minority but at the same time such a very strong minority. This, in the middle of the enlightened nineteenth century, was result of decisions taken in the sixteenth. As Protestantism appeared to have won great victory recently—it was the Protestant Prussian state that had set up the national state, and, what is more, it had done so in league with the un-Catholic intellectual strength of liberalism—it was felt that the German Catholics too must take up the new weapons of party politics so as not to lose their heritage to an estranged world. The church must remain independent of the ever more powerful state. It must be able to teach freely in churches and schools, it must preserve its influence over men’s souls by using the old methods, and strengthen it by founding modern institutions, newspapers and clubs, for the welfare of the working masses. To do all this it was necessary to enter the political arena. The Catholic Church felt that constitutions served a purpose if they were utilised properly; if the invention of liberalism was used to restrict liberalism. Religious freedom was one of the basic rights of the citizen listed in the Prussian constitution, and hitherto the Prussian state had treated all great religious communities with exemplary fairness. But there was reason to believe that things would not continue so smoothly in the ‘Protestant empire’.

The Catholic Church suspected the spirit of the age in which the foundation of the German Reich was a typical event. This followed on the foundation of the kingdom of Italy, completed by the proclamation of Rome as the national capital during the Franco-German war. Only a few weeks before Pius IX had wrested from the great assembly of bishops, the Vatican Council, the dogma of papal infallibility which proclaimed with a clarity never achieved before his absolute spiritual supremacy. It was the same Pope who in 1864 had practically declared war on the Zeitgeist by announcing that it was an error to think that the Pope ‘can and must reconcile Himself with progress, Liberalism and modern civilization’. This was one side of the medal, the other was the fall of the Papal State, the triumph of Prussia over Catholic Austria and France, and revolutionary unrest even in arch-Catholic Spain. No wonder that the church felt threaten by the liberal state and that the liberal state felt threatened by the Ecclesia militans reviving its claims from the distant past. The two adversaries over-estimated each other.

Such was the background against which in the late autumn of 1870 the Zentrumspartei was founded or revived— at first only in Prussia; the party organization which covered the whole Reich was the result of many years of alliances and mergers. To start with it was not intended to be an exclusively Catholic party. Its founders Peter Reichensberger, von Mallinckrodt, and Bishop Ketteler, hoped for a Protestant wing.  Christianity instead of religious indifference, religious and natural obligations instead of the neo-Machiavellianism of the state, social responsibility instead of laissez-faire, the historic rights of the German states instead of the increasing power of Prussia—those were the principles that inspired the party’s founders. Some of them had voted against the constitution of the North German Confederation and against the treaties of alliance of 1870 because the treaties did not provide the same guarantees for religious freedom as the Prussian constitution, because the separation between the authority of the Reich and that of the states was not sufficiently distinct, and because these treaties opened the certain road to militarism and imperialism. The threat to peace presented by militarism, stated another proclamation, was far greater than the safeguard which it provided.

The German Catholics, the old Grossdeutsche, those who cared about the idyll of the German principalities, were joined by a variety of protesting allies, Catholic deputies from Alsace and Lorraine, Catholic Poles, unreconciled Hanoverians or ‘Guelfs’, as they were called after their exiled royal house. A Guelf soon became leader of the new party. Ludwig Windthorst was the most brilliant parliamentarian whom Germany has ever possessed. A sly idealist, a devout fox, a man of principles and a very clever politician, dignified and cunning, Ludwig Windthorst took pride of place in gatherings in which there was no shortage of great names; and he went on to win for his party, a combination of minorities, the key position in German politics. He did it in the face of Bismarck’s hatred, in spite of repeated blows from the Chancellor who, for the first time, experienced or could have experienced, the superiority of organized intellect; to the bitter end the great man failed to understand what was happening to him.

The cleverness of Windthorst and his friends was not the only source of the Zentrum’s  invincible strength. Working in close collaboration with the Catholic Church the party could reach the masses and offer them something to warm their souls. It appealed to human beings, not just to unilateral interests. Moreover, it stood literally at the centre, not so much because it was situated between the Left and the Right as because absorbed conservative and socialist tendencies. With the Conservatives it shared loyalty to the country, opposition to the unitary state, and the belief that historical bonds were stronger than ties dictated only by reason. For the Zentrum the philosophy of the Liberals amounted to this: unrestricted freedom of the individual and above it, abruptly, the omnipotence of the state.  Catholic policy, on the other hand, demanded a state that was more than a mere night-watchman, that protected its citizens and looked after their material and moral welfare, while at the same time recognizing the independence of the corporations and associations thriving in it, the independence for example of religious societies. One can call this conservative. But as political ideas only need a slight twist to turn them into the very opposite of what, according to current opinion, they are, the political philosophy of the Zentrum also had its socialist aspects. It believed in rights, natural or God-given. This attitude can lead either to conservative or to revolutionary demands, depending on whether people excited about existing rights or about ones that do not yet exist. The worker has a right to work, a right to a wage which gives him a decent existence. If the mechanism of supply and demand does not give him these rights then it must be adjusted either from above by legislation or from below by trade unions. We recall that even in the early days of German socialism there were curious links between active Christians and Socialists, between Ferdinand Lassalle and Bishop Ketteler. Certainly Lassalle also toyed with the Conservatives, with Bismarck, but nothing came of this game. Both sides played it for tactical reasons only. The alliance between conservatism and socialism, possible in theory and attempted again and again did not come to anything in the reality of German bourgeois society; not even after the dissolution of German bourgeois society. Only in the Zentrumspartei did the idea of a conservative-socialist link not remain mere speculation, only there did it not become a lie which upset all intellectual positions. Christian trade unions were founded and workers or former workers sat among the members of the Zentrumspartei in the Reichstag.

In a society increasingly sharply divided into classes the Centre was able to appeal to all classes because there were believing Catholics everywhere. Alone among the bourgeois parties, holding strict economic theories but at the same time dominated by massive economic interests, it judged questions of economic life from the points of view of Christian ethics, an ethics of moderation and common sense. Hence it had greater freedom of movement and could be selective. Bismarck called it reichsfeindlich, but it was only critical of the Reich. It could say yes or no, and to some of Bismarck’s projects, such as the social legislation and the protective tariffs, it said yes. Moreover, where it was not a directly interested party it could sell the votes of its members in return for concessions in other fields. Although it was a minority party and could never because of its structure become a majority in Germany, in the long run it was the most successful group in the Reichstag, the party which determined the fate of the Germany of Bismarck, Wilhelm II, and the Weimar Republic. Gradually it also acquired the reputation of faithlessness and opportunism. It could work with the Right or the Left and make bargains with everybody because everybody needed it. It could rely absolutely on the majority of its electors. It did not fall when its partners of yesterday fell, and its own inglorious end in 1933 heralded the conclusion of a long epoch of German political history.

Because of its close ties with the Catholic Church and the active part which priests took in controlling its local organizations the Zentrum contributed to the peculiarly German custom which requires a political party to have an ideology— a principle with which the parliaments of western Europe are less familiar.

3 thoughts on “A Catholic Political Party in Wilhelmine Germany

Comments are closed.