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The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany.

The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany. By Michael B. Gross (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004. xiii plus 354 pp. $70.00).

The main topic is the evolution and character of liberalism in Germany from 1848 to the passage of Kulturkampf legislation in 1873. Why did German liberals say and feel that nothing less than an all-out "war" against Catholicism was necessary? They feared that the victory over the French in 1870 would prove nugatory; another foreign power would ruin the opportunity to establish the German Empire as a progressive nation of rational, scientifically educated, free citizens. Some ingredients of this conviction are well known. Others, hitherto more obscure, played a significant role, as the author shows.

Gross counters the impression that the involvement of liberal notables in Bismarck's anti-Catholic legislative program was a lapse from liberal principles as they understood them. On the contrary, he shows that liberals in Prussia and in the Reichstag signed on to the anti-Jesuit exceptional law out of conviction. For them, ultramontane Catholicism was not just backward and anti-liberal, but positively subversive, despite all its protestations of honoring legalities. This had not been the case in 1848: liberals did not then consider Catholicism as such to be a political threat of the highest order. In the 1850s and 1860s a new and complex context took shape for liberal-minded Bildungsburger. The bulk of the book assembles the elements of this development with the means of cultural and social history.

A familiar part of this story tells of the desperate reactions of the Vatican to the impending loss of the Papal States, including the condemnation of liberalism in the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 and the proclamation of papal primacy and infallibility by the First Vatican Council in 1870, coincident with the Franco-Prussian War. This book, however, concentrates on the other side of the story, how German liberals saw their world and how Catholicism in Germany assumed a pre-eminent place in their apprehensions. While liberals licked their wounds after 1849, a campaign of parish missions was orchestrated by Catholic bishops, utilizing mission bands of order priests, especially Jesuits. They would descend upon a locality after much publicity and stay for week or so, preaching daily sermons mostly on basic Christian or catechetical topics, with an emphasis on approaching the sacraments of penance (confession) and holy communion. Gross has combed the archives for records, church and civil, of these Catholic revivals and has noted in particular how they attracted a mixed crowd to a public event. This in itself aroused suspicions, especially for a liberal outlook anxious to see the public sphere dominated by progressive, educated men. Given that Protestants were also attracted to these events, Protestant clergy responded with polemical literature (1) and with what Gross hypothesizes was a parallel Protestant revival.

It is clear from the data presented that liberals took advantage of renewed Protestant anti-Catholicism and echoed it in their popular press. But Gross probes under the surface and asserts that it was also the feminine character of Catholicism, partly real enough (women's practice of and attachment to the church; growth of religious orders) and partly a matter of image, that challenged the masculine self-image of the liberals. In a sort of dialectic, liberals constructed their counter-image of Catholics. The one was critically educated, the other close-minded, with a definite Bildungsdefizit; the one favoring modern industrial cities, the other backward country towns; the one reserving the private sphere for women, the other giving sway to women even in public roles; the one proud, free, propertied and male, the other advocating poverty, obedience, and celibacy while influencing women in the confessional against their husbands' wishes. With the exception of liberal sexism, none of these are neglected topoi of nineteenth-century anticlericalism. Their combination in the psyche of German liberals, however, just as the German Empire was being formed against the resistance of foreign and domestic Catholics, gives a somewhat different complexion to the Kulturkampf itself.

As liberals and conservatives (monarchists) drew closer to one another (a development not treated in this book), it would seem that international Catholicism became the adversary to the right, as Communism became on the left (p. 235). Catholics, of course, saw themselves in the virtuous middle as a third way (of "solidarity") between liberal individualism and socialist collectivism (cf. the much reprinted Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism, 1851, by Juan Donoso Cortes). Catholic liberals, meanwhile, such as the Rhenish bourgeois, found themselves expected to choose between their liberalism and their Catholicism. The party that up till then had enjoyed their support, the Liberale Reichspartei, could not hold on to sufficient Catholic voters to matter as a competitor of the strengthened Center Party. The Kulturkampf, concludes Gross (p. 302), though meant to consolidate the new Empire, "divided Germany along the lines of culture, class, gender, confession, and politics, and merely made German unity more elusive."

If the focus on the parish missions of the post-1848 generation is a bit too tight, their role in making Catholicism the threat that it appeared to be to the unity of the new German Reich is on the whole persuasive, as presented here. Integrating the other themes with that of the Catholic revival lends cogency to the connection of liberalism with an aggressive culture war against a large minority of the Germany population. The book is a well documented contribution to the understanding of German liberalism and the Kulturkampf.

Paul Misner, Professor emeritus

Marquette University


1. A phrase Jesuits used of themselves is quoted in garbled fashion on p. 90. It does not appear likely to me that the Protestant polemicists who turned it against the Society of Jesus had misquoted it, since the original would serve their purpose: "Sint ut sunt, aut non sint:" "Let them [Jesuits] be as they are, or let them cease to be!" See for the origin of the saying.
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Author:Misner, Paul
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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