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Bismarck’s Conception of a modus vivendi with Rome (December 19, 1882)

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Today, in all Catholic countries, in France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and even Spain, the power of the Roman church is declining; in Germany and in England, it draws its vitality from the friction with Protestant governments and their legislation. When the doctrine of papal infallibility was issued, it was my impression that the exaggeration of clerical pretensions entailed by it would prove dangerous to these same pretensions in the long run, and that a setback would follow as the natural result of this exaggeration. I still believe this, and for my part, I would not have intervened in this conflict with the church if the Catholic section of our government under the influence of the Radziwills* had not become subversive to the point of Polonizing parts of the German population.** The purpose of eliminating this section required my personal involvement, and from that point onward, the aggressive opposition was directed against me. With the [anti-clerical] May Laws, I merely demanded the constitutional changes that eventually resulted, and I demanded that they be implemented in a more sweeping manner than my fearful colleagues wished to authorize; I even allowed my colleagues of the juridical school of thought to undertake all of the detailed juridical lawmaking. Here, in my opinion, lies the only thing that the Roman correspondent may rightfully call an “erroneous measure,” and with respect to the juridical rather than the political part of the May Laws, I would have been more accommodating in German speaking-areas than my current colleagues are; in the Polish-speaking area, however, anything that we concede to the priests would be used as a lever for national revolutions.

The Roman correspondent views things through a microscope that exaggerates the size and importance of the small slice of the historical and political field that is visible to the Vatican, and his rebuke of past events is that of a dilettante far removed from practical business. He offers me a welcome opportunity to express once again to Your Imperial and Royal Highness my conviction that, with respect to the church question, diplomatic negotiations will achieve nothing but concordats or concordat-like moral obligations of honor that are binding nonetheless, and this entire area is, in my view, unacceptable for Prussia. I have always made every effort to rob Mr. von Schlözer of any hope that his mission might bring about an acceptable agreement concerning peace or an armistice or a lasting modus vivendi; I believe that I was finally able to get through to him on this point and to convince him that it would be our biggest mistake to show any zeal or need in Rome for a change in our situation. The state can bear the status quo for longer than the church, and the struggle must be conducted cunctando [with procrastination]. In the establishment of the embassy and the affairs thereof, I see nothing but a patient continuation of the status quo, until such time as the force of habit may give rise to a de facto modus vivendi. This may require generations of steadfast politicians who expect their success to come not from the art of diplomacy but from official educational policy. We will never win over the priests; they will always remain sworn officers in the army of a non-Prussian sovereign. In my view, the education of laypersons is the only effective weapon available to the state, and it might be managed even more resolutely than in the past. The objective of our operations cannot focus on Rome and the Pope, not even on our bishops, but on our Catholic lay population in Germany and their opinions about the state, the church, and the priests.

* The persons alluded to are: Prince Boguslaw Radziwill (1809-73), an influential Catholic-clerical politician; his son, Prince Ferdinand Radziwill (1834-1926), the leader of the Polish parliamentary party in the Reichstag, of which Prince Boguslaw was a member from 1874-1918; and Prince Anton Radziwill
** i.e., making them like Poles – trans.

Source: Bismarck’s Report to Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, December 19, 1882, in Otto von Bismarck, Die gesammelten Werke [The Collected Works], ed. Gerhard Ritter and Rudolf Stadelmann (Friedrichsruh edition), 15 vols., vol. 6c, Berlin, 1924-1935, pp. 266ff.

Orignal German text reprinted in Ernst Rudolf Huber and Wolfgang Huber, Staat und Kirche im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Dokumente zur Geschichte des deutschen Staatskirchenrechts [State and Church in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Documents on the History of German State-Church Legislation], vol. 2, Staat und Kirche im Zeitalter des Hochkonstitutionalismus und des Kulturkampfs 1848-1890 [State and Church in the Period of High Constitutionalism and the Kulturkampf, 1848-1890]. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1976, pp. 832-35.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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