Monday, April 18, 2005

Wehler: Stuck in the Tower?

I’ve been reviewing Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s German Empire. I am a little taken aback by his statements with regard to Catholicism and the politics of the Center Party:
The Catholic minority’s relationship with the Reichstag and the federal assemblies ... was frequently crippled by the overbearing influence of neo-Thomist ideas. Catholicism was even less likely than Protestantism to make an active and lasting contribution to spread of parliamentary influence in Germany ... It gradually came to terms with the Protestant-dominated empire.

At any rate no devout Catholic seriously question either the authoritarian structure of the Constitution or the state’s authoritarian policies.

... on the family, education and its own associations, ... [the Center] took a line no less authoritarian than the monarchical state. ... It encouraged the formation of a Catholic ‘subculture’ within German society, a clearly separate social milieu which in many places came to resemble a ghetto.

The paradigm of ultramontane Catholic politicians is not unique to Germany. And to some degree it is true. Support of the Center grew in the context of the Kulturkampf: German Catholics reacted against persecution and wanted their religious liberties and institutions protected. Ludwig Windthorst, the party founder, described the Center as the tower wherein Catholicism was protected.

These experiences made the Center a narrow party under during the years of Bismarck. Even Windthorst complained that the party contributed little to German politics and had been reduced to defending the Church. As Margaret Anderson notes, he wanted to restrain Prussian militarism and wanted to promote social works.

Newer historiography was moved away from this paradigm, in particular with regard to the development of the Center after Bismarck. In the 1890s Carl Bachem started a controversy within the party by declaring that Catholics “must get out of the tower.”

According to Thomas Bredohl, Bachem insisted that the nature of the threats to Catholicism had changed since the Kulturkampf. Furthermore, the party would not survive if it remained a confessional party. It must welcome Protestants, and it must take a stronger interest in workers.

Bachem’s statement created a rift within the party between regional factions that were either traditional or modern. It also created a rift with Polish Catholics who did not agree with the implications of “getting out of the tower”: integration.

Bredohl further asserts that the goals of the Center were to isolate Catholics: “Since unification ... Catholics had been anxious to be accepted as true patriots; but their efforts, however strenuous, had been hampered by anti-Catholic sentiments.”

Karl Rohe notes that it was difficult to diversify as a party and keep the divergent forces together as a single group. By 1914 the Center was no longer considered unpatriotic, although it was still Catholic. But when WWI ended, it was in a position to join a coalition of almost every government in the Weimar years.

Did the Center fail to critique authoritarianism? It made to blanket critique of the empire, but it supported religious freedoms for all. It also worked for the protection of minorities in Poland and Alsace. And in general, the Center opposed the expansion of Prussian influence throughout Germany. I believe that further research will show that the Center was struggling to become more "progressive" in German politics.

Wehler is the premier German social historian, and The German Empire is a concise and useful outline of the complex society of the Kaiserreich. But it is also the product of an older viewpoint that regards the Reich as Bismarck’s achievement that was poorly understood without him. The Reich under Wilhelm II was an unsteerable juggernaut. It fits with Robert Massie’s portrait of a befuddled emperor who would wear the naval uniform given to him by Queen Victoria at all occasions – a boy with his toys.

Over the last fifteen years the Wilhelmine Reich has been examined on its own merits. John Röhl’s works – The Kaiser and his Court and his two-part biography – reveal the emperor deeply involved in the business of state, particularly through personal politics. The documentary Majistaet brauchen Sonne examines Wilhelm II as the first media star: he was aware of the power of film in communication, and he obsessed with perfecting how he appeared in public.

Wehler’s Center belongs to the traditional Wilhemine Reich, the one which never figured out how to keep diverse forces together, that was overcome by desire for expansion, domination, and empire, and that went headlong into calamity.

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