The name given to the political struggle for the rights and self-government of the Catholic Church carried on chiefly in Prussia, Baden, Hesse, and Bavaria. It was the distinguished Liberal politician and scientist, Professor Rudolph Virchow, who flrst called it the Kulturkampf, or struggle for civilization. The principal leaders in the Kulturkampf were Bismarck, the Chancellor, and Falk, minister of worship, both of whom were supported by the enemies of the Church within and without Parliament. The aim was to destroy Ultramontanism or the papal influence in Germany and to set up a national Church subject to an omnipotent state.

The causes of the Kulturkampf were various but especially might be mentioned:

1) The political party-life of Germany. There were the Prussian Conservatives who represented the Orthodox Protestants holding fast to the principle of a Protestant Prussia as formerly constituted (i.e., up to the German Revolution of 1848). This party was led by Maurice Blankenburg who declared himself openly in Parliament for an anti-Roman policy. There were also the German Liberals who were the real instigators of the onslaught on German Catholicism. This party was composed of anti-clerical disciples of French Deism or Austrian Josephinism, of enthusiastic admirers of German poetry and philosophy, strictly opposed to dogmatic and ecclesiastical Christianity as represented by Rome. With the help of legislation and State schools they hoped to secure for “free and independent science” (die freie Wissenschaft) an absolute control over the intellectual life of the whole German nation. Shortly after 1860 the Liberals of Prussia and of other states gained the ascendency in Parliament, and under Otto von Bismarck, the Minister, began more and more to encroach on the rights of the Church.

2) A second cause that led to the Kulturkampf was the strong feeling that the national unity was incomplete so long as the Germans were divided in religion. Both the Protestant and the Liberal Party united in the opinion that a permanent political unity of Germany depended absolutely on unity of religion, language and education. On this ground they proclaimed the Catholic minority a foreign element to be either assimilated or exterminated.

3) A third cause for the Kulturkampf was the powerful Chancellor himself, Otto von Bismarck, who after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was dominated by the fear that new wars would soon be necessary to maintain the unity of Germany. In this temper he was deeply concerned lest the growing inimical party of Catholics should receive support from possible anti-Prussian elements and prove a positive danger to the new German Empire. He therefore determined to crush the Church and secure the unity of the empire.

The progress of the Kulturkampf briefly was as follows: Bismarck abolished the Catholic section of the Prussian Ministry of Worship, 8 July 1871, and appointed mostly Protestant officials to conduct all matters pertaining to the Catholic Church and her schools. Education was put exclusively into the hands of the state and the Jesuits were expelled from the empire in 1873. A year later a like expulsion was decreed against the Redemptorists, Lazarists, Fathers of the Holy Ghost, and Religious of the Sacred Heart as being communities allied with the Jesuits. Then followed the May Laws of 1873 dealing with the training and nomination of the clergy, the powers of ecclesiastical superiors, the establishment of a secular court for deciding ecclesiastical questions and bestowing on it the right of dismissing the clergy from their posts, curtailing the Church‘s power of punishing, and prescribing rules for those desirous of leaving the Church. Upon refusal to obey these laws bishops and priests were fined and imprisoned and the laws became more severe. In 1874, Divinity students were declared non-exempt from military service, and it was decided that ecclesiastics who refused to obey the May Laws could be expelled from the empire. Civil marriage became compulsory, 1875, and all religious communities except those devoted to the care of the sick were expelled from the empire. It was not long before most of the dioceses and hundreds of parishes were bereft of their tenants, thus rendering Catholic worship impossible.

The efforts of the “Iron Chancellor” were in vain. The great majority of clergy and laity remained loyal to the episcopate, and their power of resistance grew with the progress of the conflict. Under the able leadership of Ludwig Windthorst, the Catholic Center Party, strengthened by the accession of Protestants who were above bigotry and persecution, increased its membership both in the Prussian Diet and in the Imperial Parliament. Soon the government was compelled to retreat, and Bismarck was forced to “Canossa.” A twofold attempt on the life of Emperor William demonstrated that by suppressing the Church and religion, the basis of the social order had suffered. The growth of socialism convinced Bismarck that the State had a far greater enemy in this revolutionary movement than in the conservative Catholic Church.

With the election of Pope Leo XIII in 1878, the restoration of peace began. One by one the obnoxious laws were either repealed or accorded milder interpretation. In 1882 Prussia established an embassy at the Vatican. Under William II Catholic students of Divinity were again declared exempt from military service in time of peace; in 1891 the accumulated funds of the dioceses were restored to their owners; the Redemptorists were readmitted in 1894, and the laws against the Jesuits were modified in 1905. The Kulturkampf finally resulted in consolidating the Catholics into a powerful political party which proved a bulwark against German socialism and enabled its members to participate more earnestly than heretofore in the public life of the Fatherland.

MLA Citation

  • “Kulturkampf”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 16 January 2021. Web. 14 June 2021. <>