Catholic Phoenix


Bismarck and Pio Nono: Blood and Iron, Sand and Rock

The bloody and barbarous persecution of Christians of all confessions in the 20th-century Europe of Hitler and Communism seems to have been given its due in the formation of the 21st-century Christian’s historical consciousness.  It can be said that the life of Karol Wojtyla dramatized this oppression; he discerned his vocation to the priesthood during a time when clergy were being summarily shot and seminaries were banned by the German occupiers, and he served the Polish Church for three decades under a suffocating Communist regime that, while much less murderous than the Nazis, harassed, intimidated, and spied on clergy and laity alike.

But modern oppression of Catholic Christians in by European states was not confined to the years 1933-1989, and by no means was it only carried out by totalitarian regimes.  One such episode in 19th century history is often unknown to Americans: the Kulturkampf, or “culture-struggle”, of the then-newly-founded German Empire—the “Second Reich”—against the social power of the Catholic Church in the 1870s.  While most of the anti-Catholic legislation of that decade was rolled back, the struggle weakened the legitimacy of the authoritarian state while simultaneously compromising the moral authority of the progressive political and Protestant Christian forces in Germany that had been complicit in it.  The costs of the Kulturkampf proved to be a dead-weight loss on the balance sheets of civil society in the Reich, weakening a culture that was about to bring upon itself the ruinous adventure of the Great War. 

Bl. Pope Pius IX

The 1860s and ‘70s were a tumultuous time in the lives of Europe’s peoples and nations, and the temporal and spiritual policies of the long-reigning Roman pontiff Pius IX were often at the center of the strife.  Pio Nono, who sat on the chair of Peter from 1846 until 1878, is perhaps the giant figure of the era, rivaled only by one other man.

1861 saw the national unification of Italy under the king of Piedmont, a serious blow to the temporal power of the Pope that left him with direct government only of the city of Rome, and that only because of the presence of French troops as a counterweight to the newly-forged Italian national power.   (An aborted Roman revolution against his authority in 1848 had briefly sent him into exile.)  In 1864 Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical Quanta cura and its famous appendix known as the “Syllabus of Errors”, a sweeping and explicit condemnation of all that European political progressives held dear, including civil marriage, absolute freedom of opinion, the autonomy of science, the complete separation of church and state, and the total state control of all education. 

The same pope convened the Vatican Council in 1869, the principal fruit of which was the proclamation of the dogma of infallibility, widely misunderstood in the non-Catholic world as an assault against intellectual freedom, and only reluctantly supported by many of the leading clergy, fearful of what the dogma would be construed to mean at the time.  The council was interrupted in the pivotal year of 1870, when Rome’s garrison of French troops left to wage war against Prussia and her German allies, with dramatic consequences:  Rome was immediately captured and annexed by the forces of the Italian king, rendering the pope a virtual prisoner in the Vatican.  By all worldly accounts, Pius IX had lost everything.  He had begun his reign as a popular figure with a reputation for progressive social views; for the last 8 years of his life he was widely reviled as “medieval” and “reactionary”, someone whose meaningless dogmatic pronunciations and denunciations were completely out of step with the modern world, and whose loss of land and power were just desserts for such trogloditism.


The French troops that abandoned the Pope in 1870 left Rome to fight for their own country against a coalition of German powers put together by the only other man whose significance in this era can rival that of Pio Nono’s: the Prussian Minister-President and, after 1871, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). Bismarck was a genius in the practice of power-politics, shrewdly managing domestic affairs, foreign policy, and even his often-unwilling king Wilhelm I to remake the order of Europe.  He famously spoke early in his career of the "blood and iron" that he believed would answer all of the day's pressing political questions, and the nickname of the "Iron Chancellor" has been rightly bestowed upon him by posterity.

In 8 brief years from his accession as Prussian Minister-President in 1862, through a mixture of persuasion, force, intelligent free-market economic policy and ruthless manipulation, Bismarck changed the face of Germany and thus of Europe forever.  With all the amoral ruthlessness of a chess grand master, he first forced a quick and decisive war with the ancient Austrian Empire in 1866, forcing her ejection from the affairs of the German states and securing Prussia’s rise to economic and military dominance.  He then established an economic and political confederation in the north and then added to it military alliances with southern German powers, thus establishing a virtual union of all Germany by 1870.

Bismarck shrewdly provoked France into making war against Prussia in 1870, the event that precipitated the Italian capture of Rome and the Pope’s loss of temporal power, by turning a quarrel over German prince’s claim to the Spanish throne into one of the most fateful sequences of events in modern European history.  In a few swift months of action, the French armies were routed in the field, the French Emperor Napoleon III was captured by his Prussian foes, the citizens of Paris revolted and established a republic that would last into the 20th century, and, early in 1871, in the famous “Hall of Mirrors” at Versailles, the combined princes and dukes of the German states, basking in their total victory over France, proclaimed the Prussian King Wilhelm I Kaiser of a united Germany.  The virtual union had become a real Reich, and Bismarck, the new Kaiser’s right hand, was at the pinnacle of his power and reputation. 

Proclamation of the German Empire, Versailles, 1871

Pius IX sat a prisoner in the Vatican; the triumphant Bismarck posed for the painter in the Hall of Mirrors.   It seemed clear enough to the minds of Europe whose star was in the ascent, and whose was slipping below the horizon.

But it is one of the truths of politics that nothing breeds problems like success, and Prussia’s triumph in Germany begat a host of them.  The new Reich Chancellor Bismarck had to manage a new state of 70 million people, from agrarian aristocrats in the far east to nouveau-riche industrialists on the Rhine, liberal intelligentsia, the restive proletarian masses of the industrial cities, and—of particular concern to Bismarck—Roman Catholics in the millions, historically never a part of Protestant Prussia, concentrated in barely-subjugated Bavaria, and dangerously beholden to the will of their pope.   In pursuit of national unity, Bismarck took advantage of deep-seated Protestant distrust of Catholics and the newly-ardent liberal hatred of Pius IX to isolate and dismantle the elements of Catholic power in Germany.  With a series of punitive anti-Catholic laws that began in 1871 and that commanded broad support from German conservatives and liberals alike, the Kulturkampf was underway.

The German Empire as constituted in 1871

First, Bismarck appointed a vigorous anti-Catholic to head the Prussian Ministry of Culture.  Next, he saw to the passage of a law forbidding Church influence in education, effectively ending Catholic schools in Germany.  In 1872, Bismarck authorized a punitive anti-Jesuit bill that was striking for its directness: it forbade the existence of any and all Jesuit institutions in Germany and gave local authorities the power to prohibit Jesuits from residing in their districts and even to expel them from the Reich.  1873 saw a new law that required all Catholic priests to obtain a diploma from a state high school AND a state university before being legally allowed employment in a parish; in 1874, Reich authorities were given the authority to expel priests from the country if they persisted in parish ministry without the necessary civil diplomas.  Bishops and priests were arrested and ejected from the country in vast numbers; according to one source, over 1,400 Catholic parishes in Prussia were without a pastor as a result of these harsh measures (Gordon Craig, Germany 1866-1945, p. 75).  Talk about a “vocations crisis”.

Bismarck, a privately pious Protestant, insisted publicly that the Reich’s Kulturkampf against Catholicism had nothing to do with theological or confessional differences.  With a frankness that is startling when compared to the mush-minded evasions of contemporary politicians, Bismarck declared in 1873:

The question that confronts us becomes in my opinion distorted and the light in which we regard it falsified if it is looked on as a confessional or religious one.  It is essentially political.  It is not a matter of an attack by a Protestant dynasty against the Catholic Church, as our Catholic fellow-citizens are being told; it is not a matter of a struggle between faith and unbelief.  What we have here is the age-old struggle for power, as old as the human race itself, between the kingship and the priestly caste, a struggle for power that goes back far beyond the coming of our Saviour to this world…(Craig 71-72)

In 1875, Pope Pius IX, a prolific author of encyclicals, issued Quod nunquam, declaring all of Bismarck’s anti-Catholic measures to be invalid and therefore not binding in conscience upon the Catholic subjects of the Reich.  “You who refuse to give to Caesar what belongs to God will bring no harm to the authority of the king and will subtract nothing from it,” wrote the Pope, echoing a principle famously exemplified and declared by St. Thomas More: that a man who obeys God instead of the unjust decree of his king is a better subject of the king than the one who complies with the monarch. 

Strengthened by the invigorating words of their Roman shepherd and by the solidarity that has always characterized Catholic life in majority-Protestant cultures, the Catholic faithful of the German Reich banded together: the Catholic Centre Party doubled its share of the vote in the Reichstag elections, and Bismarck began to embark upon the most drastic about-face of a thirty-year career.  He began to publicly express a new take on the Kulturkampf, namely, that it was all Pio Nono’s fault, and that soon enough a new pope would come along with whom one could do business.  On the international front, Bismarck pursued his anti-Catholicism to irrational lengths, threatening war with a resurgent France in 1875 in part because the new Third Republic refused to silence French clergy who were publicly speaking out against the oppression of their brethren in the Reich next door; pressure from both Britain and Russia forced Bismarck to back down on his threats, resulting in a rare diplomatic defeat and humiliation for the Chancellor.  

By 1879, the first year of Leo XIII’s reign, Bismarck was in full-tilt retreat in the Kulturkampf: after a series of diplomatic letters with Leo, he had gotten repealed all of the harshest anti-Jesuit and anti-clerical legislation, and he dismissed the Prussian minister who had faithfully led the struggle with the Church since 1871, though the state retained control of schools. 

While the Kulturkampf was a short-term loss for Bismarck and for the liberals who enthusiastically supported it, historian Gordon Craig judges it to be a long-term defeat for all of German civil society:

Much that had been won for the cause of national unity during the war against France had been trifled away during the years in which Germans had deliberately been set against Germans on confessional grounds…the great mass of Roman Catholic believers had been imbued with a distrust of their government that was to last for years.  The state bureaucracy and the courts had acted in ways—or had been made to act in ways—that could only damage their reputation for strict impartiality in the eyes of German citizens of all faiths, and that was a serious loss indeed.  The Protestant Churches suffered a similar loss, for, although their leaders protested bitterly, for selfish reasons, against the institution of civil marriage, they were silent in the face of the repression of their fellow Christians and confirmed the already prevalent impression that the Protestant establishment was merely an instrument of the authoritarian state.  Finally, the cause of German liberalism received another and, in this case, an almost irreparable blow.  (Craig, p. 77)


It is said that, for all of Bismarck’s genius in manipulating the affairs of Europe to Germany’s advantage, the fatal flaw of his “system” was that it required a Bismarck to maintain it; when he departed the scene, dismissed by the young and impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, the delicate international balancing act he had maintained for three decades quickly began to tip out of control, resulting in a cataclysmic world war within a generation, a war that saw the destruction of the very imperial system Bismarck had devoted his life to strengthening.  The republic that followed Bismarck’s Reich limped along for 14 years, never quite seeming to gain the loyalty of a critical mass of its citizens.  The failed Kulturkampf had done its part to sow seeds of discord among Germany’s Catholics, who, for generations retained their mistrust of the German state and of the liberals who had joined in their persecution in the 1870s; when the German republic and the liberals alike were under attack from the far right in the 1930s, Catholic Germans found themselves rather unmotivated to defend either.

But what of Pio Nono’s legacy?  In the long run, the foundations that he laid seem to have lasted somewhat longer than those of Bismarck’s Germany, which was reduced to flames and rubble in 1945.  As the first “modern” pope, deprived of real temporal authority in Italy, Pius IX showed subsequent popes how to assert theological and moral authority in a world increasingly dominated by blood and iron.   In the first Vatican Council he set out an explicit assertion of Petrine teaching authority, even over the modern and secular world, that has continued to challenge the faithful and provoke the faithless right up to the present day.  In such encyclicals as Quanta cura he established a template for how Catholic Christians ought to think about and reject mass-movements in politics and society at odds with the essential orientation of the Gospel; when Pope John Paul II raised his voice first against Marxism and then against materialist capitalism, he was speaking solidly in the “no! no!” tradition of Pio Nono. 

Bismarck famously quipped that it was “blood and iron” that would decide the crucial questions of his day.  In the end, the stuff he built upon seemed so much sand.  Pius IX, in contrast, built upon the Rock, laying the foundations for the papacy as we know it today.

c. 33 A.D.-present

5 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. James

    The quote provided is a smokescreen. It may have been political, but it masked his and the Empress’ seething disgust for Bavarian Catholicism. I have Bismarck and his grandson Wilhelm saying quite the opposite; that it was about crushing the Catholics, who to the Prussians seemed overly socialist and against the military order. Also, it might have been worthy to mention the grandmother, Victoria, a political leftist and her hatred for all things religion and details about Bismarck’s own son who became an all-out Anglophile, which in turn doubled-up in a most reactionary way the political ambitions of both Bismarck and Wilhelm II to stamp out Catholicism; that is, anything that reeked of socialism.

    One might also mention the concentration camps that had begun in the 1870′s, putting priests and brothers, mostly monastics, and interestingly enough Jews to internment. To bracket this we might also introduce the legislation of the 1840′s forbidding celibacy of any type whatsoever, although we cannot blame the Prussians entirely for this since these two same activities began at the very breaking of the 1789 revolution with the French, who had also forbade celibacy, monastics, with internment camps of their own.

    With that said, space is an issue. You wrote a very good article.



  3. TeaPot562

    The January 30, 1937 edition of the NY Times, front page, announces that the then German govt. (the Nazis) have closed all parochial schools in Germany. Hatred of Catholicism seems to cross generations.


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