German-Catholic Clergy and German Nationalism

This year, Harvard University Press will publish Fighting for the Soul of Germany: The Catholic Struggle for Inclusion after Unification, by Rebecca Ayako Bennette, Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College.  Contrary to historical assumptions, Bennette argues that—from the moment of German unification in 1871—clergy in the German-Catholic Church actively preached German national identity.  Bennette’s book dovetails with several works from the last few years detailing German-Catholic clergy’s engagement with German nationalism, even when engagement meant collaboration with the emerging Nazi party.  For example, in Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity and National Socialism (OUP, 2009), Derek Hastings—associate professor of History at Oakland University—details Catholic clergymen’s ties with the Nazi movement in 1920’s Munich.  Likewise, in Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), Fr. Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., Distinguished Professor of History at Stonehill College, reveals the history of the “brown priests.”  Brown priests were Catholic clergy who, in part from an effort to rebuild German national identity after Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War, directly allied themselves with the Nazi party to disseminate its nationalist propaganda.  For the publisher’s description of Professor Bennette’s work, please follow the jump.  For a description of Professor Hastings’ and Father Spicer’s works, please follow the links above.

Historians have long believed that Catholics were late and ambivalent supporters of the German nation. Rebecca Ayako Bennette’s bold new interpretation demonstrates definitively that from the beginning in 1871, when Wilhelm I was proclaimed Kaiser of a unified Germany, Catholics were actively promoting a German national identity for the new Reich.

In the years following unification, Germany was embroiled in a struggle to define the new nation. Otto von Bismarck and his allies looked to establish Germany as a modern nation through emphasis on Protestantism and military prowess. Many Catholics feared for their future when he launched the Kulturkampf, a program to break the political and social power of German Catholicism. But these anti-Catholic policies did not destroy Catholic hopes for the new Germany. Rather, they encouraged Catholics to develop an alternative to the Protestant and liberal visions that dominated the political culture. Bennette’s reconstruction of Catholic thought and politics sheds light on several aspects of German life. From her discovery of Catholics who favored a more “feminine” alternative to Bismarckian militarism to her claim that anti-socialism, not anti-Semitism, energized Catholic politics, Bennette’s work forces us to rethink much of what we know about religion and national identity in late nineteenth-century Germany.

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