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7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization
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Overview: Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866-1890   |   1. Demographic and Economic Development   |   2. Society   |   3. Culture   |   4. Religion, Education, Social Welfare   |   5. Politics I: Forging an Empire   |   6. Military and International Relations   |   7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization

“Enemies of the Reich.” In an age of rapid social and economic change, when the new empire’s political culture was still in flux, the tactic of labeling certain out-groups “enemies of the Reich” seemed to offer Bismarck the opportunity to create an alliance of state-supporting parties in the Prussian Landtag and the national Reichstag. Among such “enemies” Bismarck focused his attacks on German Catholics from 1871 onward, on Social Democrats after 1878, on left liberals in the early- and mid-1880s, and on the Poles of eastern Prussia starting in 1885 (D7). The first two groups receive special attention here because they most clearly demonstrated that this strategy was prone to backfire on the Chancellor. It created or strengthened the common identity of members of the victimized groups where such solidarities had previously been absent or less apparent. Earlier scholars approached the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church and the Anti-Socialist Law of 1878-90 as evidence of Bismarck’s successful manipulation of public opinion to safeguard his fragile Reich. Now, historians stress the degree to which both anti-Catholic and anti-Socialist campaigns accorded with the wishes of large segments of the Protestant middle classes. Both struggles also contributed to the destabilization and loss of authority of the Bismarckian state, not its fortification.

The Kulturkampf was probably Bismarck’s boldest and most ill-conceived gamble. It was heralded by a gradual escalation in tensions between state authorities and the Catholic hierarchy in the second half of the 1860s in Baden, Prussia, and other German states. Shortly after unification Bismarck and his Minister of Culture, Adalbert Falk, inaugurated a series of legislative initiatives designed to undermine the Catholic Church’s autonomy in Germany, to reduce its financial independence, to lessen its influence in the schools, and to banish the Jesuit Order from German lands (D1, D2, D3). Left liberals and National Liberals enthusiastically supported this initiative. Some of them agonized over the discrepancy between liberalism’s commitment to civil liberties and the obvious fact that Bismarck was targeting a specific group for repression (D4). Most, however, hoped that struggle against the Catholic Church would achieve three aims: reduce the influence of groups on the empire’s borderlands (Prussian Poland, Bavaria, the Rhineland, and Alsace-Lorraine) who might be tempted to ally with their coreligionists in France or Austria, drive back the forces of “obscurantism” that had allegedly remained ascendant in the Catholic Church since medieval times, and ensure that the liberal parties remained indispensable to Bismarck so that constitutional and economic liberties would continue to expand.

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