Smith, Helmut Walser. German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
“Although unified politically, the German empire of 1871 was a deeply divided state,” Smith states (233). This was not due to any lack of nationalism to bind the loyalties of the multiple localities to a single state. Instead, this division was the result of multiple nationalisms based on confessional divides, each of which was trying to define, in its own terms, what it meant to be German. In this regard, Smith’s book is not just a study of political or cultural nationalism, but of religious nationalism as well.
Smith positions himself against previous historians who viewed nationalism as a functionalist tool used by elites to forge a unified sentiment of loyalty to the new nation and empire. Smith’s work displays a plurality of nationalities arising from below and trying to define the boundaries of German identity. So, rather than diminishing Protestant and Catholic divides, nationalism(s) actually exacerbated differences among Protestants and Catholics. “The move toward national unity intensified group tensions within the society by raising settled cultural forms out of their particular context, expanding them into general allegiances, and politicizing them” (239). Protestants, who were the majority in the newly unified Germany, saw their Reich as being deeply tied to Protestantism, and so when Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf, they did not necessarily see it as a struggle between Church and state, but instead understood it as the imperial government forging a Protestant nation.
The Protestant League was founded in 1866 in an effort to further these goals. But the end of Bismarck’s official Kulturkampf a year later did not mean that German Catholics and Protestants had settled their differences. On the contrary, the Protestant League picked up the slack and tried to “break the power of Rome on German soil” (52). They tried to emphasize that Germany was a specifically Protestant nation, and they went as far as supporting the turn of the century “Away from Rome” Protestant uprisings in the Habsburg territories. These efforts were ultimately a failure and only resulted in the Protestant League losing money and its reputation.
By the first years of the twentieth century, the Protestant League had radicalized and was even willing to oppose the German government, which they saw as weak in the face of Catholic influence, particularly when it legalized Catholic religious orders in 1902. In an effort to defeat the Center Party, which was open to Catholics, the Protestant League had to endorse the Social Democrat party, an act that caused more strife and divisions in the conservative League.
Ultimately, Smith’s book reveals that there were a multitude of nationalisms in existence during this period. While Catholics and Protestants were busy promoting national identities based on confessional divides, other nationalist associations like the Agrarian League and Pan Germans sought to promote the Germanness of the Reich and downplay confessional loyalties.
Smith’s work also questions the role of religion in the “modern” world. In other words, by bringing attention back to religion in the process of nation-building, he re-conceptualizes the role of confessional loyalties in the process of modernization. Whereas a defining attribute of being modern is traditionally understood as being secular, Smith shows that religion and confessional divides were at the heart of issues of national identity. Instead of being a “backward” hold out of a previous era, confessional conflict was an “integral part” of becoming modern for people who “often perceived themselves as forward looking” (235).
Fore more books on German history, see my list of book reviews HERE.