GHDI logo

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

On February 20, 1878, Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) succeeded Pius IX (1792-1878). The new Pope’s policy toward Germany was more conciliatory than his predecessor’s and contributed to the de-escalation of the Kulturkampf (“cultural struggle”) between the Catholic Church and the Prussian state. The summer of 1882 saw the start of a slow thaw in relations between Bismarck and the Vatican, but a number of anti-Catholic measures – for example, the Anti-Jesuit Law – remained in place. In this letter from December 19, 1882, addressed to Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, Bismarck explains his attitude toward the Catholic Church during this period.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 2

Count Hatzfeldt* has told me about the private letter from Rome**, which Your Imperial and Royal Highness has had the good grace to send to him. I consider the characterization of the current Pope found in the letter to be entirely correct, but its worth lies less in its political value than in its value as a natural historical observation. We can change neither the character of the Pope nor the situation, which we have inherited from history, through any political means or negotiations with Rome. The result of such negotiations – if, against all odds, they were to yield any result at all – would always assume the nature of a concordat; it would introduce into Prussian legislation an alien element that is not subject to Prussian sovereignty, a type of international treaty or moral duty of honor that could be dissolved only by consent of the Pope. Anyone who expects that such negotiations will bring an end to a thousand-year-old quarrel between the Kaiser and the Pope is fooling himself. I have led these negotiations personally because the papal side requested them, and because it did not seem useful for us to assume the appearance of irreconcilability by refusing. I never expected, nor do I currently expect, any result from them. I never commissioned Mr. von Schlözer*** to conclude the conflict with the [Roman Catholic] church through peaceful negotiations; should he reach a stage at which the disclosure requirement is accepted, he would exceed my expectations and would thus considerably facilitate the reconciling forces of time and habituation, but we will always remain just as far removed from settling the perennial conflict between monarchy and priesthood as before. The author of the Roman letter is utterly mistaken with respect to the possibility of a final and lasting understanding between the Protestant Kaiserdom and the Roman Curia; for this reason, he also overestimates the significance of the termination and resumption of diplomatic relations. At the time, the termination was necessitated not by politics, but by official decorum, since the Pope used such incredibly rude language towards His Majesty the Kaiser. In those days, it was not we who treated Rome with condescension, but Rome who treated us “de haut en bas” [condescendingly]. If the author of the letter assumes that small brooks “swelled into a stream” only because of erroneous measures and a lack of information, then he is ignorant of the facts and mistaken about the principles that move history. All you can achieve through the small instruments of diplomacy and the pressuring of Roman prelates are concordats, which for Prussia are unacceptable, but you won’t be able to cure the old wounds – i.e., the fact that a considerable portion of the German population gives more credence to the political leadership of their priests than to their own king, and that these priests [depend] on a foreign, absolutist monarch who, though, in turn depends on the Jesuits and their money. This is a disease that only time and, above all, education, can heal, though perhaps never completely. Any understanding with the Jesuits is impossible, and it can only provide palliative help with regard to the current Pope. We had an agreement with the Curia, insofar as it is at all possible, until 1870. Nevertheless, the Catholic parliamentary party under Reichensperger**** (in those days, 40-60 members strong) resolutely fought any government. It was only natural that the Poles, Guelphs, Danes, and Social Democrats attached themselves to the party, since all of them were intransigently opposed to the basic idea of the Prussian monarchy and the German imperial rule. This “stream” of anti-German elements – the Pope, the Guelphs, the Slavs etc. – will never dry up completely. It supposedly arose from mistakes by the government but is actually founded on the logic of history and has existed for 1,000 years. Its inherent hierarchical element, the priesthood, has ebbed and flowed over the course of history. There are times when religious emotional life pulsates weakly, and then others when it assumes a stronger presence again. The forces behind fanaticism drive themselves to death in exaggeration, just as the exaggeration of skepticism always leads, in turn, to religious and sentimental zeal. Small diplomatic successes will change elements of this only temporarily.

* Count Paul Hatzfeldt, State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry. (Unless otherwise noted, all footnotes are adapted from: 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.)
** The author of this letter cannot be ascertained; the approximate content of the correspondence may be inferred from Bismarck’s explanations.
*** Kurd von Schlözer (1822-1894), German ambassador to the United States, 1871-1882, was named the Prussian representative to Rome in 1882; he was primarily concerned with paving the way for the laws of 1886/87 that virtually ended the Kulturkampf.
**** August Reichensperger (1808-1895), leading member of the German Center Party.

first page < previous   |   next > last page