Review of Rebecca Ayako Bennette, Fighting for the Soul of Germany: The Catholic Struggle for Inclusion after Unification

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 1 (March 2015)

Review of Rebecca Ayako Bennette, Fighting for the Soul of Germany: The Catholic Struggle for Inclusion after Unification (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). 380 Pp., ISBN 9780674065635.

By Lauren Faulker Rossi, University of Notre Dame

Beginning in the 1990s, the history of Germany’s Catholics – and German Catholicism, by extension – enjoyed an abrupt surge of scholarly attention.  As this surge picked up speed, one German historian lamented that German Catholics had moved out of their “traditional methodological ghetto” into one of mental and cultural isolation, as scholars focused on the supposed backwardness of Catholic social, political, and economic life during the Second Reich.[1] Since Oded Heilbronner made that remark, historians have worked resolutely to qualify, revise, or alter this image of German Catholics as always a step behind their Protestant co-nationals. Rebecca Ayako Bennette’s recent monograph, Fighting for the Soul of Germany: The Catholic Struggle for Inclusion after Unification, is a strong contribution to this historiography. In it, she shows deftly that, far from being out of touch with current events or politically estranged by the events of unification, Catholics in Germany in the 1870s were fully committed to the new nation. Defying established scholarship, which has stressed that Catholics achieved a sense of Germanness only after the Kulturkampf had waned, Bennette argues that it was during the Kulturkampf that German Catholics worked hard to develop a full sense of German national identity for themselves. The significance and legacy of the Kulturkampf was not simply, and negatively, that it reinforced conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Germany, but rather that it allowed for “the management of confessional differences in the service of national integration.” (14)

bennette-fightingBennette’s book is organized in two parts. The first, consisting of five chapters, relates the familiar story of the Kulturkampf with particular attention to events that served the construction of national identity and integration. The second, more original section is composed of four thematic chapters, devoted to the examination of “significant, sustained elements in the construction of Catholic national identity” (12); these elements include gender and femininity, schools and education, and the geographies of both Germany and Europe. Based on the evidence she offers, Bennette’s conclusions are difficult to disagree with: beginning immediately after German unification, German Catholics worked actively to build a national identity, one that differed from the mainstream Protestant version of Germanness and embraced their own religious particularity. The Kulturkampf not only failed to distance Catholics from their German identity; in fact, it solidified their attachment to the new nation and convinced them that they were an integral part of it.

Bennette’s book begins with Catholic journalist Joseph Görres and the role that religion played in the nineteenth-century grossdeutsch-kleindeutsch debate that continued until unification. She then moves quickly through the wars of unification, which settled the debate in favor of the kleindeutsch option, and the opening of the Kulturkampf. At this point, she stresses, Catholics in newly unified Germany may have found themselves on the defensive against Protestant and liberal opponents in the Reichstag, but they continued to profess love and loyalty to the Kaiser and to Germany. Even at the height of the Kulturkampf, between 1873 and 1875, when they distanced themselves from the Kaiser and showed a fierce willingness to oppose the state and actively resist its policies, Catholics engaged in rhetoric that emphasized their continued commitment to the idea of national belonging. While some of this rhetoric employed antisemitic language, this “outburst” was relatively short-lived in Catholic newspapers (less than a year, according to Bennette), which quickly identified socialists as the more enduring threat to Catholic integration. As the Kulturkampf began to wind down in 1877, Center Party politicians retooled their message to the voting public, broadening their appeal beyond religious issues, inevitably leading the Center to move closer to other political parties.

The real punch of Bennette’s book is delivered in the four longer, theme-based chapters. Catholic newspapers’ attempts to bring the periphery – Catholic Germany, especially the vibrant regions of the Rhineland and Westphalia – to the center, in Berlin, and vice versa, contributed significantly to a Catholic German identity. Such activity went beyond merely contesting Berlin as the epicenter of the nation, as well, arguing that Germanness was not homogeneous but in fact regional and varied. This kind of identity set itself in opposition to the mainstream Protestant version, which emphasized militarism and masculinity. The Catholic identity, in contrast, was feminine – it was Germania herself. Catholic rhetoric on this point argued the necessity of Catholic integration into the nation in order to safeguard the national moral impulse, counterbalancing the potential “militarism and social debauchery” (120) of a Germany without Catholics. Education was another realm in which Catholics set foot, claiming that Catholic achievements in schools and scholarship were essential for the new nation. While at the primary level it continued to insist on confessional education, at the higher levels the rhetoric of Catholic newspapers sought to displace liberals as the vanguard of deutsche Wissenschaft and promoted Catholic scholarship as the true embodiment of German ideals. While Bennette cautions against accepting discourse as reality – integration of Catholics into mainstream education did not occur until the 1890s – she nonetheless shows that education was a central talking point for Catholics invested in creating a German identity. Nor did this identity limit itself to Germany; German Catholics, no less than German Protestants, identified themselves politically and morally against their non-German neighbors, especially France, Austria, and Russia. They also invested in and promoted the German idea of mission, and the spreading of German culture abroad through colonialism.

Throughout the book, Bennette is careful not to overstep her evidence. Thus, she offers many qualifiers: her primary subject is the “outlook shared by most [Catholics]”, but she acknowledges that “not all Catholics thought or acted alike regarding the nation” (5-6); in the chapter on German geography, Bennette’s analysis is centered on the Rhineland and Westphalia, following her sources’ disproportionate emphasis on “the area that appeared most easy to integrate into what their opponents envisioned as appropriately German” (13) – so, no scrutiny of Bavaria, Silesia, or Alsace-Lorraine, the other notable regions of Germany where Catholicism was dominant; as mentioned above regarding education, the distinction between what newspapers and politicians were claiming Catholic scholarship did, and what it had actually achieved, must be kept in mind. Pointing out these qualifiers is not meant as a criticism. They are examples of the meticulous attention to detail and context that Bennette has employed in her narrative. Her care in clearly defining two of her central terms – national identity (as opposed to nationalism) and integration – in the introduction is a further example.

While the chapters on gender and femininity and education are measured and insightful, the chapters dealing with geography are the most intriguing and provocative parts of Bennette’s argument. Here she lays out her case most strongly, that Catholic newspapers, periodicals, politicians, and religious leaders participated in the construction of a German Catholic identity through the reimagining of the nation’s contours, vis-à-vis both their German co-nationals and their European neighbors. Such alternative reimaginings stressed the longevity, dynamism, even modernism of the Rhineland and Westphalia, centers of industrialization and urbanization. The intrinsic Catholicity of these areas was as significant as their Germanness. Beyond Geramny’s borders, Catholics’ attachment to their German identity was reinforced by other events in the 1870s, notably the threat represented by Russia both to Germany and to the rest of Europe. In this they found common ground with German Protestants. It was up to Germany to step forward as a world leader and bulwark, to defend civilization from “‘further pan-Slavic development’” (182). This could only be done, according to Catholic rhetoric, if Germans were united. While firm Catholic backing for other national projects, including the military build-up and the maintenance of overseas colonies, gathered speed only in the 1880s, Bennette points to their roots in the first decade of German unification. It was at this time that German Catholics began to feel closer to their fellow Germans than to their cross-border co-religionists, whether in France or in Austria.

Bennette uses multiple sources, including popular novels of the time and personal correspondence, but her main source is Catholics newspapers and periodicals. This explains why so much of her investigation is taken up with rhetoric, which she also refers to as reporting. She is after the elusive and unstable “imagining” of the nation to which Benedict Anderson, among other theorists of nationalism, has referred. This is also why she offers the qualifications she does. This critic wondered if she might have done more extensive interrogation of her source base (i.e. who is running the papers, who is funding them, who is writing the articles, though she does sometimes identify the authors) as well as source reception: how widely did the main Catholic papers circulate, and what relations did they enjoy with Center politicians or with clergy? Admittedly Bennette is asking different questions, about national identity and Catholic integration, but some background on the central newspapers would be helpful. This is especially salient in light of the fact that her sources lead her to concentrate on the Rhineland and Westphalia, to the exclusion of other Catholic areas of Germany. What shall the reader assume about the reception of this rhetoric in Munich or Posen? Did Bavaria and Silesia have competing German identities in development? Bennette is silent on this note. One also wonders why the brief surge of antisemitism in the mid-1870s so quickly petered out: what doused the flames? This is especially pertinent considering that it was at this time that extremist political parties on the right began to emerge that were increasingly willing to employ such language.

Aside from these lingering questions, however, Bennette’s book proves that the molding of a German Catholic identity began earlier than scholarship has previously argued. Catholics were deeply invested in forging a national identity during the Kulturkampf years, and not even a hostile state could disrupt this commitment. Using their example, Bennette has given us an impressive and valuable testament for scholars of German Catholicism as well as nationalism more generally: she has rendered both the determination of Catholics in Germany not to capitulate to Bismarck’s anti-Catholic legislation, even as they articulated a particular German identity, as well as the powerful draw of national belonging even at a time of domestic crisis.

[1] Oded Heilbronner, “From Ghetto to Ghetto: The Place of German Catholics in Modern German Historiography,” in Journal of Modern History 72 (2000) 456-457.