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Kulturkampf ("culture war" in English), which lasted from 1871 to 1887, was Otto von Bismarck's unsuccessful effort to persecute and break the independent power of the Roman Catholic Church in the newly unified Germany. It was caused, not by Catholic actions or threats, but by the anxiety of Germany's Lutheran and Reformed elites faced with the sudden emergence of mass politics in which the Catholics could for the first time play a major role in politics. The failure was caused by weakness of the Prussian government and lack of public support from most Protestants.

The arrest and imprisonment of dissident bishops was unpopular and ineffective. Resistors among the parish clergy experienced much harsher imprisonment, but remained steadfast in their opposition. The Prussian legal system was too cumbersome and the police force was too small to handle the massive numbers of resistors, while the army provided ineffectual support. Moreover, the Catholic laity stalwartly supported the Catholic Church. Ultimately Bismarck failed because he lacked the will to employ more extreme measures.

Severe methods were used especially in the Polish Catholic areas in the east that Germany had annexed with the division of Poland in the 1790s.


The Kulturkampf caused a massive political mobilization of Catholics. Before the Kulturkampf, there was little connection between Catholicism and political conservatism. In response to the attacks by the government, the Catholics rallied almost unanimously to the new "Center Party", which remained a major force until 1933.


Bismarck's "School Supervision Law of 1872" and the administration of Adalbert Falk as minister of education from 1872 to 1879 was a key element of the Kulturkampf in Prussia. Bismark's goal was to weaken the power of the Catholic Church by replacing religious supervisors with secular ones in the schools. Liberal[1] Protestant school teachers and administrators supported the reform because they believed educational benefits would come from the change. Because the new secular supervisors were used primarily in Catholic schools, priests saw the reform as a political whip. The resulting radicalization of the priests offset any positive benefits of the reform.[2]

May Laws

May Laws were a series of laws enacted in 1873 to place the Catholic Church entirely under state control and remove it from control by the Pope. The goal was for German civil authorities to gain authority over the clergy to discipline them, and to make church appointments depend on state examinations. Any priest or bishop who objected was to forfeit his position and income.

These laws remained in effect until 1887, when there were mostly relaxed, and then in 1905 these laws were repealed.

See also

Further reading

  • Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. "The Kulturkampf and the Course of German History". Central European History 1986 19(1): 82-115. emphasizes the impact on Catholic voters in JSTOR
  • Blackbourn, David. "Progress and Piety: Liberalism, Catholicism and the State in Imperial Germany." History Workshop Journal (1988) (26): 57–78.
  • Clark, Christopher and Wolfram Kaiser, eds. Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2003) online edition, broad overview of similar conflicts across Europe, with strong bibliography.
  • Evans, Ellen Lovell. The German Center Party 1870-1933: A Study in Political Catholicism (1981) online edition
  • Hatfield, Douglas W. "Kulturkampf: The Relationship of Church and State and the Failure of German Political Reform." Journal of Church and State 1981 23(3): 465–484. online version
  • Heilbronner, Oded. "Review: From Ghetto to Ghetto: The Place of German Catholic Society in Recent Historiography," Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 453–495 in JSTOR
  • Lamberti, Marjorie. "State, Church, and the Politics of School Reform during the Kulturkampf," Central European History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 63–81 in JSTOR
  • Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany, vol. II: The Period of Consolidation, 1871—1880 (1990).
  • Ross, Ronald J. "The Kulturkampf and the Limitations of Power in Bismarck's Germany." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 1995 46(4): 669–688.
  • Ross, Ronald J. "Enforcing the Kulturkampf in the Bismarckian State and the Limits of Coercion in Imperial Germany". Journal of Modern History 1984 56(3): 456–482. in JSTOR
  • Ross, Ronald J. Beleaguered Tower: The Dilemma of Political Catholicism in Wilhelmine Germany (1976)
  • Ross, Ronald J. The Failure of Bismarck's Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871-1887 (1998), standard scholarly history; failure caused by weakness of the government and lack of public support from most Protestants
  • Trzeciakowski, Lech. "The Prussian State and the Catholic Church in Prussian Poland 1871-1914," Slavic Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), pp. 618-637 in JSTOR
  • Trzeciakowski, Lech. The Kulturkampf in Prussian Poland. (1990). 223 pp.


  1. In the 19th century sense.
  2. Marjorie Lamberti, "State, Church, and the Politics of School Reform during the Kulturkampf." Central European History 1986 19(1): 63-81.