News from Bismarck’s Germany

Margarethenhof, Siebengebirge
Margarethenhof, Siebengebirge

[Germany, around 1880] Germany was united, and a deeply felt wish of many people had been fulfilled. However, with 10 million Austrian Germans outside, Prussia’s dominance was overwhelming.

It was by far the biggest state, had the largest army, the crown was hereditary within the Hohenzollern dynast. The Prussian Prime Minister was in personal union Imperial Chancellor. The German Empire was not the democracy the 1848ers had fought for, and chancellor Bismarck waged a fierce battle against anyone who opposed him and his state – especially the Catholics and the Socialists.

Cologne Cathedral (1880, Germany)

“You won’t believe it, you won’t believe it,” began a letter which Lorenz received at the end of the year 1880. Obviously, Emil could hardly believe himself what he wrote. Finally, Cologne Cathedral was completed!

From the laying of the foundation stone in 1248 through the late Middle Ages, the people of Cologne had wanted to build a massive Gothic church, but it quickly became apparent that the funds would not be sufficient. At the beginning of the 16th century, they had stopped building, and since then the unfinished south tower with the crane on top has towered into the Cologne sky. Then, in 1842, people from Cologne and all over the land solemnly started completing the Cologne Cathedral. It had been a big event, and even king Frederick William IV, a Protestant, had been present.

And now the Cologne Cathedral had been completed. In August 1880, Emperor William I and Empress Augusta had come to Cologne, to celebrate and seal the peace between the State and the Catholic Church. However, the Archbishop of Cologne had not been there, and the atmosphere had been frosty.

Lorenz’ family had been in Cologne, Count Andras Csabany on the VIP rostrum, Sophie and her children with Lena and Emil at their winemaker’s stand. “No wonder,” Lorenz thought, “Bismarck’s campaign against the Catholic Church has done too much damage.”

Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf” (1871-1880, Germany)

For much of the 1870s, the “Iron Chancellor” had pursued a Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) against the Catholic Church, who made up 36 percent of Germany’s population. He had parochial schools placed under state control and expelled the Jesuits. The authorities arrested and expelled the archbishops of Cologne, Münster, and Trier. Soon, bishoprics and parishes stood vacant. Catholic schools and orders did not exist anymore.

As the Church had also been doing much of the social welfare work, many people were suffering without their help. The world economic crisis of 1875 had hit the German economy hard, destroyed many existences. Now many people were pushing into the big cities as industrial workers, but the living conditions were devastating.

Once again, Anni’s “Stübchen” was refuge for many who were at a loss, preparing and distributing food. Dear Anni! She did not agree with the Pope and many of the high clergy, not at all – their dogmatic, intolerant nature was unbearable. And this Pope in Rome, Pius IX, condemned all views that did not follow his extremely conservative understanding of Christianity. Even wourse, he had Pope’s infallibility proclaimed by the First Vatican Council of 1870. But Bismarck had gone too far. Compassion and concern for the poor and the weak were Christian values in which she believed, and they were crucial to any society. This did not require dogmatists, neither in Rome nor in Berlin.

Eventually, also loyal Protestants, including members of the Royal family, perceived Bismarck’s laws as harassment. In 1878, Bismarck gave in.


At the same time, another grim fight began. By 1875, two previous parties had united into the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei). As chairman August Bebel had put it, the SPD saw in Bismarck’s state the class enemy of the proletariat, and therefore they stood against the Empire and the Hohenzollern monarchy. Bismarck used two failed assassination attempts on Emperor Wilhelm I as pretext to introduce an Anti-Socialist Law in the Reichstag, although he knew that the Social Democrats had nothing to do with the attacks. The majority in the Reichstag passed it. From 1878 until 1890, all Social Democratic clubs and events, press and books were prohibited. Moreover, many Social Democrats were imprisoned or expelled from the country. However, the hardships endured strengthened cohesion among the Social Democrats, and they got more votes with every election.

A funny coincidence of events

What a funny coincidence of events, Lorenz thought and grinned to himself. Up in North Dakota they had renamed the capital to “Bismarck”, to attract German immigrants. Billy the Kid was still on the run, In Tombstone, Arizona, the Earps and the Clantons clashed violently. “It’s somewhat weird,” he thought, “back home in Cologne, Kaiser Wilhelm celebrates with all the dignitaries the inauguration of the cathedral, here in the West the colts celebrate. If Wilhelm and Bismarck ever came to the West, they would probably experience a culture shock.”

Bismarck’s social security system

Bismarck fought the socialists grimly because they fought his state. At the same time, he saw the great need of the working class and considered it the state’s duty to help. Against fierce resistance from the Left and from the Right, he implemented a remarkable social security system. Health care in 1883, accident insurance in 1884, invalidity and old-age insurance in 1889. Back then, it was the best in the world. However, it did not win the working class over for the state.

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