Fighting for the Soul of Germany

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Fighting for the Soul of Germany –
The Catholic Struggle for Inclusion After Unification
By Rebecca Ayako Bennette
Harvard University Press – £36.95

While reasserting what many people already know about religiosity within Germany, Catholicism in particular, this book asks us to re-think about the country’s national identity, especially towards the end of the nineteenth-century. A questionably volatile, if not complex period in said country’s history to say the least.

To be sure, Rebecca Ayako Bennette – who is Asisstant Professor of History at Middlebury College – has herein written a book that sheds new light on what many believed was theologicaly, already set in stone. As is boldly noted on the inside sleeve of Fighting for the Soul of Germany – The Catholic Struggle for Inclusion After Unification: ”Historians have long believed that Catholics were late and ambivalent supporters of the German nation […]. 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.”

Indeed, they did not.

As these nine chapters emphatically demonstrate, Catholic hopes were to become embroiled, then entrenched, and eventually enhanced by way of a ”feminine alternative” to that of Bismarckian militarism. Although not before an initial stasis of its own rhetorical design, with the emphasis on rhetorical design. Reason being, so many segments of German, Catholic society, were consumed by consistent paranoias invariably reported and promoted in the country’s then media: ”Newspapers were a widespread medium in which Catholic notables could articulate their view of the German nation, reaching far more individuals than, for example, any address in parliament or speech at an associated meeting […]. Catholics both encountered and constructed ”their” vision of Germany on a daily basis in the newspapers.”

And like any association of newspapers, there is always going to be an undercurrent of (sometimes warped) opinion; whereby words and rhetoric are carefully, and quite often, very subliminally chosen. One need only reflect upon the horribly racist, often inflammatory ideology of The Sun newspaper in England. In relation to Fighting for the Soul of Germany, this is somewhat clarified when Bennette writes: ”But words mattered, and rhetoric not only stemmed from the reality of the conditions but had a way of shaping it as well.”

This is particulary brought to bear in chapter four (‘The Real Threat Emerges’): ”at which point Catholic efforts at creating a national identity switched from being primarily positive and inclusive constructions to heavily negative ones as well. The anti-Semitic content of Catholic rhetoric dramatically increased at this point. Considering Catholics’ own difficulties as a religious minority, however, the anti-Semitism turned to non-religious issues with Jews. Hence, despite the repeated emphasis on the virtues of intense religiousness among Catholics, the efforts produced an anti-Semitism that largely disregarded theology and instead focused on the type of people Jews were, a version of hate that was informed by the increased attention to science during the ninteenth century and would be taken to a completely different level in the twentieth century.”

That the above ”version of hate […] would be taken to a completely different level of hate in the twentieth century,” is something the entire world was to soon know about, and unfortunately experience in all its ghastly, xenophobic repetition. That its theological kernel is herein mentioned in such a detailed and commendably, well-researched manner (”Several weeks before the rash of anti-Semitic rabble-rousing in the Catholic press, the Kreuzzeitung had run a set of articles beginning in late June that alledgedly uncovered the liberal-Jewish plot of economic fraud plaguing the Reich from the outset”), makes for an altogether thought provoking and provocative read.

The likes of which – given the subject matter – one doesn’t often stumble across.

David Marx

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