German Culture Wars

In a blizzard, 30 miles off course, with emergency flares and beacons going unanswered, the German ship aptly named the Deutschland was wrecked and sinking near Kentish Knock near Harwich on the coast of England, just beyond the Thames Estuary.

It was St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, 1875, and five Franciscan nuns drowned that night, caught in the perfect storm of the Prussian Kulturkampf instituted by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

They had left their convent in Salzkotten, Westphalia, embarking on a voyage to New York and thence to Wheaton, Ill., from the port at Bremerhaven, because Bismarck’s government had passed the Congregation Law of 1875, abolishing religious orders. The Catholic convert and poet Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a narrative poem titled “The Wreck of the Deutschland” commemorating the Franciscans’ deaths (not published until 1918), and the Franciscan Sisters of Wheaton, Ill., honor them every year on the anniversary of their deaths in the cemetery of St. Patrick’s Church in Leytonshire, where four of the five were buried.

Prussian State vs. Catholic Church

Why were these teaching sisters on their way to the United States? Why was Bismarck’s government passing laws restricting Catholic religious orders and other aspects of Catholic life in Prussia through the program of Kulturkampf? The German word Kulturkampf is translated in English as “culture struggle.” The answers to those questions provide us greater insight into the relationship between Church and state and the issues of religious freedom, as well as the struggle Catholics faced in 19th-century Germany.

Otto von Bismarck had served in various state offices in the German Empire, culminating in the office of chancellor from 1871 to 1890 after he led the effort to unify the empire under Prussian control. After the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine concerning infallibility of the pope in matters of faith and morals, Bismarck and his anti-Catholic political allies feared the loyalty and the power of Catholics in mostly Lutheran Germany. Bismarck thought that Protestant Prussia faced a culture war and was under attack by Catholics — a Kulturkampf.

In England, former Prime Minister William Gladstone publicly announced that Catholics in his country were once again not to be trusted; that their loyalties were as divided in 1870 as they had been during the reign of Elizabeth I; and that the Vatican aimed at world domination and control. Blessed John Henry Newman answered Gladstone’s charges in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, demonstrating the limitations of papal infallibility and, indeed, authority over practical and political actions taken by Catholics in England.

In England, the government took no legislative actions against the Catholic Church (having just granted Catholics full civic freedom in 1829), but Bismarck, fearing the same divided loyalties — and the increase of Catholics in the population of Prussia, and the power of the Catholic Centre Party in politics — led the passing of a series of laws to seize control of the Church and destroy its influence. The laws focused on education, seminaries, marriage, political speech and religious orders (the last focus forcing the Franciscans into exile and catastrophe on the Deutschland).

The Pulpit Law of 1871 (which was technically in force until 1953 in Germany) forbade priests from discussing state affairs from the pulpit and sentenced priests who violated the law to at least two years imprisonment. Passage of this law meant that priests could not even preach about the dangers of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf from the pulpit. If such a law were in effect in the United States today, for example, our priests could not preach for the cause of religious freedom, the true definition of marriage and its purposes, or about protection of the unborn and overturning Roe v. Wade — because all of those could be construed as affairs of state since the federal and state governments had passed legislation regarding them.

In 1872, after abolishing the Catholic Department of the Prussian Ministry of Culture, Bismarck expelled the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits — from Prussia. The state began a campaign of inspecting religious schools and dismissing religious educators from their positions in secular schools; priests in their parishes no longer had any official influence in the schools. Church and state had been cooperating in the administration of education, but now the government took over control completely.

Also in 1872, Bismarck attempted to assert Prussian state control over whether or not Catholics in his country would be able to accept the next pope elected at the Vatican, and he broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Comparing himself, inaccurately as it turned out, to the medieval German King Henry IV, Bismarck proclaimed that he “would not go to Canossa” (“Nach Canossa gehen wir nicht”) where Henry had done penance before Pope Gregory VII in 1077.

With the May Laws of 1873, the government took over the training and selection of Prussian men for the priesthood, reviewing candidates and their preparation. Half of the seminaries in Prussia soon closed, and many parishes were soon without priests, as many priests were arrested for protesting against the Pulpit Law. In some communities, the laity banded together to provide housing for seminarians as they studied in secret. The May Laws also set up government boards for disciplining clergy, rather than allowing the bishop of the diocese control over the priests, who’d sworn loyalty to him.

In 1875, the government required civil ceremonies for marriage, hoping to drive a wedge between Catholic laity and their priests, because priests could no longer sign a marriage license. Couples had to be married in a civil ceremony before their sacramental marriage could be witnessed by a priest, and this law remained in effect in Germany until 2008.

In 1875, the Reichstag, the German Parliament, passed the Congregations Act, which immediately affected the Deutschland nuns: the act abolished religious orders (readers might recall the dissolution of the monasteries in Reformation England and Revolutionary France), stopped subsidies to the Church and removed religious protections from the Prussian constitution. The state confiscated Church property.

Legacy of the Kulturkampf

The Kulturkampf devastated the hierarchy, the clergy and the religious in Prussia: half of the bishops were either in prison or exile and half of the monks and nuns left the country; a third of the monasteries and one quarter of the parishes were without a priest; almost 2,000 parish priests were in prison or in exile; and the laity suffered imprisonment by the hundreds for supporting their religious, priests and bishops.

The Catholic laity, however, united behind the cause of religious freedom and fought back against Bismarck in a way the pragmatic politician clearly understood: with votes and political influence. The Catholic laity voted for members of the Catholic Centre Party — if Bismarck had hoped to reduce that party’s influence in the Reichstag, he had clearly failed. Bismarck also tried to establish the Old Catholic Church as an alternative. The Old Catholic Church coalesced around the rejection of papal authority in 18th-century Utrecht, so its opposition to the 1870 definition of papal infallibility was perfect for Bismarck’s purposes.

According to most accounts, Bismarck ended the policies of Kulturkampf when he began to see that his opposition to Catholicism was being extended to opposition to all religion. As a good Protestant, Bismarck did not want Christianity itself attacked. By 1880 he could not form a government without acknowledging the influence of the Catholic Centre Party, and thus he had to admit defeat in his battle against the Catholic Church.

The Prussian state of Kulturkampf has a strange legacy. It was a testing of the power of the state that Bismarck finally realized he could not control. He was enough of a statesman to realize that the German Catholic laity had united to help protect the Church in the political system. He could not govern without recognizing their freedom of religion. Political realities triumphed over his animus against the Catholic Church. Like Henry IV, he had to back down. This history provides Catholic laity today with an example to follow — to use our public influence in voting, legislation and other political means to protect religious freedom.

Another legacy of this era is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” in which Father Hopkins celebrated the sacrifice of the five German Franciscans, while naming the cause of their death, beyond the storm and the waves: “Loathed for a love men knew in them, / Banned by the land of their birth, / Rhine refused them. Thames would ruin them” (lines 162 and 163). Before death, one of the sisters cried, “O Christ, Christ, come quickly” (line 191).

Since the beginning of Church history, there has always been some conflict between the state and the Church — and many Catholics have, and do, suffer for it.

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation” (Scepter Publishers). She resides in Wichita, Kan., and blogs at