Windthorst, Ludwig

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early career
after 1870

WINDTHORST, LUDWIG (1812–1891), German politician.

Germany's greatest parliamentarian, Ludwig Josef Ferdinand Gustav Windthorst, served simultaneously in the Prussian and the German national parliament (Reichstag), where as leader of the Center Party he took the floor more than any other speaker. His wit, sang-froid, and tactical genius were the marvel of all. When political upheavals in 1878 made the Center and its associate members the Reichstag's largest grouping, a position it would keep until 1912, Windthorst held the parliamentary balance of power.

early career

Windthorst's politics were colored by an early Anglophilia (born in Hanover, he was a subject of the English crown until he was twenty-five) and a libertarianism nourished by his experience as member of a religious and political minority: as a Catholic in Protestant Hanover, and after its annexation in 1866, as a Hanoverian loyalist in a Germany first truncated and then dominated by Prussia. After education at the Universities of Göttingen (1830–1831) and Heidelberg (1832–1833), Windthorst quickly became the leading lawyer in his native Osnabrück, although he was functionally blind by his thirtieth year. Appointed to several prestigious offices, he was serving on the Hanoverian Supreme Court when in 1848 revolution opened the possibility of a political career. In 1849 he was elected to the diet's lower chamber, and in 1851, its president.

Windthorst was twice appointed Justice Minister (1851–1853 and 1862–1865), the only Catholic to hold cabinet rank in the history of the kingdom. In spite of Hanover's chronic constitutional crisis, he succeeded in putting the reforms of 1848 into effect: public judicial proceedings, jury trials, reorganization of the courts, separation of justice from administration. Although distrusted by George V (r. 1851–1866) as a "jesuit," Windthorst's support for the German Confederation and his opposition to Prussian-led nationalism made him well known in particularist and pro-Austrian circles throughout Germany. After Prussia's annexation of Hanover in 1866, he represented his deposed monarch in negotiations with Otto von Bismarck (r. 1871–1890) over Hanoverian royal property (Welfenfonds), beginning an adversarial relationship that would last a lifetime. Contrary to agreement, Bismarck impounded the Welfenfonds in 1868, feeding Windthorst's pessimism about the future of rule of law in a Prussian-dominated Germany.

Elected to the Prussian lower house as deputy for Meppen, Windthorst could find no party to his liking, yet isolation did not intimidate a man that wags soon dubbed "the Meppen Party." In the Reichstag of the North German Confederation, he attracted allies from other recently annexed or marginalized states, forming a short-lived Federal-Constitutional Union. Elections to the all-German Customs Parliament in 1867, by returning like-minded deputies from the predominantly Catholic south, opened his eyes to the advantages of a democratic franchise. Working behind the scenes to unite particularists of all stripes, Windthorst succeeded in thwarting German nationalist hopes of turning the Customs Parliament into a forum for coaxing the southern states voluntarily into Bismarck's Confederation, foreshadowing his later reputation as "father of all hindrances." Windthorst voted against the constitution of the North German Confederation and later, of the German Empire, for failing to provide a house of lords, a supreme court, a cabinet collectively responsible to the Reichstag, and safeguards for the rights of member states. Cool to nationalism himself, Windthorst offered irritating reminders of his countrymen's double standard in applying the nationality principle. Thus he protested against annexing Alsace-Lorraine without consulting its population, demanded parliamentary representation for its citizens, and excoriated the suspension of civil law under the guise of military emergency.

after 1870

In the Reichstag, Windthorst brought together in the Center Party a diverse collection of outsiders in the new empire—Prussian and southern Catholics, Poles and Alsace-Lorrainers, and Lutheran legitimists from Hanover (the latter as affiliated members). Even as they instilled the concept of a loyal opposition among their constituents, they were branded as Reichsfeinde ("enemies of the Reich") by the Bismarckian press. Although his hopes that the Center might attract Protestants beyond Hanover were disappointed, Windthorst insisted that his party champion the same rights for Protestants and Jews that it demanded for Catholics. In November 1880 he repeatedly threatened to resign his seat if the Center supported the anti-Semitic side in a debate on the Jewish Question in the Prussian House of Deputies. In January 1886 he sponsored a successful Reichstag motion censuring the Prussian government for expelling, almost overnight, more than thirty thousand undocumented Poles and Jews in the East.

Windthorst's distrust of state power had intensified during the Kulturkampf ("battle for civilization," 1872–1887), when Bismarck, with broad support in parliament and the public, sponsored legislation to subordinate the Catholic Church to the state. Windthorst joined the bishops in calling for civil disobedience to laws that conflicted with conscience.

Windthorst amazed contemporaries by his skill not only in holding his extremely heterogeneous party together, but in shifting it rapidly right and left, as opportunities appeared. In 1873, hoping to split the National Liberals or at least to force them to choose between angering Bismarck or their own voters, he persuaded his instinctively conservative colleagues to sponsor a series of democratic motions: to replace the plutocratic franchise and open voting in Prussian state elections with the Reichstag's manhood suffrage and secret ballot; to end the newspaper tax and other press restrictions; and to institute salaries for Reichstag deputies. Liberal leaders, warning that association with Windthorst was a political "kiss of death," succeeded in tabling the motions. Although the defense of the Reichstag's rights and its democratic franchise became central to the Center Party's program, Windthorst's residual monarchism, and fears of the tyranny of the majority, kept him from advocating parliamentary sovereignty.

Not alarmed by the rise of Social Democracy, Windthorst worked to integrate socialism's adherents into parliamentary life, supporting motions to release socialist deputies from prison and, when they were too few to sponsor motions of their own, lending them Center signatures to enable their motions to come to the floor. Opposing all laws designed against specific groups ("exceptional legislation") as contrary to the principle of equality before the law, Windthorst led his party to reject Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Law in 1878 and, with some defections, its biannual renewals thereafter.

Votes such as these incurred the displeasure of Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903), as did Windthorst's electoral alliances with Left Liberals in the 1880s. Already suspect for having voiced opposition in 1869, both privately and with other Catholic deputies in a hastily assembled "Berlin Laymen's Council," to the prospective declaration of papal infallibility, Windthorst was increasingly seen by the pontiff as an obstacle to his own plans to negotiate a solution to the Kulturkampf. Aiming also to enlist Bismarck's help in recovering Rome for the Holy See (a cause Windthorst considered not only lost, but no longer even desirable), Leo kept Windthorst ignorant of the course of negotiations and stymied Center Party initiatives in parliament, hoping to offer the chancellor the party's votes on political matters as an inducement for ecclesiastical concessions. Windthorst declined to oblige, suggesting that separation of church and state on the North American model was preferable to compromising constitutional principles.

In 1887, when the Center, in accord with its platform's demand for parliamentary control of the purse, defeated Bismarck's seven-year military budget (Septennat), the chancellor dissolved the Reichstag and waged an uproarious election campaign against the Reichsfeinde. Leo gave Bismarck permission to leak a papal note that had instructed Windthorst to support the Septennat as quid pro quo for a prospective settlement of the Kulturkampf. The Bismarckian press, which had previously scoffed at the Center's professed independence of church authority on political questions, now expressed itself scandalized at Windthorst's "disobedience," gloating at the pope's apparent disavowal of the overwhelmingly Catholic party. The Center was returned unscathed, but Windthorst was forced to acquiesce in Leo's ecclesiastical "Peace Settlement" that same year, although it left many Catholic demands unsatisfied.

Windthorst shared little of the passion of Catholic thinkers for social reform, although he gave tepid support to the Center's sponsorship of factory legislation in 1877. His experience in Osnabrück, whose Protestant patriciate controlled access to guilds, made him sympathetic to free enterprise and free trade. He resisted Bismarck's plans for a tobacco monopoly and for the nationalization of railways, fearing abuses if vast numbers of workers became dependent on an employer-state. The Center supported compulsory health insurance for workers in 1883 and workman's compensation in 1884, financed by contributions from workers and employers, or, in the latter case, by employers alone. But in 1889, when substantial numbers of older and conservative colleagues broke ranks to support Bismarck's old age and disability insurance, partially funded by the state, Windthorst felt betrayed.

Yet he was rarely dogmatic on economic questions. The demands of its constituency led the Center to precede Bismarck in advocating tariffs in 1879 and to support increases in grain duties in 1885 and 1889. Even so, Windthorst succeeded in passing a provision to distribute much of the income generated by the tariff to Germany's member states, thus frustrating Bismarck's hopes for an imperial revenue-producing mechanism beyond the control of representative bodies.

After years of Bismarck's vilification ("Two things sustain my life and make it sweet: my wife and Windthorst. One is for love, the other for hate" [Tiedemann, vol. 2, p. 3]), it was to Windthorst that the chancellor turned in March 1890, when national elections deprived him of a reliable majority. Bismarck agreed to a number of ecclesiastical concessions, but his approach to Windthorst was itself a sign that the chancellor's power was waning. When word of the interview leaked out, the ensuing scandal gave William II (r. 1888–1918), furious at being left in the dark about so signal a change of course, the excuse he needed for Bismarck's dismissal.

Though Windthorst insisted that the Center was a political, not a religious party, the Catholic clergy provided its electoral machinery and Germany's bishops, a power base that he employed against both Leo XIII and the occasional obstreperous clerical colleague. His own influence within the church in Germany was unequaled, extending to episcopal appointments and other ostensibly ecclesiastical matters. Within the Center delegation, priests were his most reliable allies. Although by the 1880s some aristocratic rivals, dismayed by their party's continued oppositional course, chaffed under one-man rule, they commanded no comparable support. Windthorst discouraged the formation of other mass organizations of Catholics, whose moves outside parliament might limit his own tactical flexibility. When in summer of 1890 Catholic aristocrats met to establish an organization to respond in kind to the religious polemics of the recently founded Protestant League, Windthorst reacted with horror. Marshalling allies in party, clergy, and press, he transformed the nascent Catholic League into the very different Volksverein für das Katholische Deutschland (People's Association for Catholic Germany), which combined the functions of adult education, information bureau, and training program for the Center's party workers. With 805,000 members by 1914, it became one of the largest voluntary organizations in Germany.

More than any figure of his generation, Windthorst embodied the transition from notable to mass politics. Even in old age, he was a tireless presence at rallies throughout the country, drawing crowds of thousands, who burst into song ("The Little Excellency," composed in his honor) at his entrance. He turned disadvantages into assets: his lack of the noble title customary among his peers fostered the rumor (which he never denied) that he was the son of peasants. Conspicuous ugliness and a stature that did not reach five feet made him the darling of cartoonists, especially during debating duals with the giant Bismarck. The elfin, bespectacled, eminently civilian parliamentarian ("the Civilian Moltke"; "General Schlauberger" [sly dog]) offered a counter-symbol to the authoritarian values exemplified by Germany's field marshals, elite officials, and aristocratic chancellors. At his death he was given all the honors of a state funeral, critics complained, and the Social Democratic press proclaimed him "the most popular man in Germany." Yet anti-parliamentary and anti-Catholic sentiment continued to color his image among nationalists of both liberal and conservative persuasions, and the currents that Windthorst embodied—Catholic, federalist, and constitutionalist—became fully acceptable to the majority only after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.

See alsoCatholicism, Political; Center Party; Germany; Kulturkampf; Prussia.


Primary Sources

Tiedemann, Christoph von. Aus sieben Jahrzehnten. Erinnerungen. 2 vols. Leipzig, 1905–1909.

Windthorst, Ludwig Josef Ferdinand Gustav. Ausgewählte Reden gehalten in der Zeit von 1861–1891. 1903. 3 vols. Reprint, Hildesheim, Zurich, and New York, 2003.

——. Briefe 1834–1880. Edited by Hans-Georg Aschoff with Heinz-Jörg Heinrich. Paderborn, Germany, 1995.

Briefe 1881–1891: um einen Nachtrag mit Briefen von 1834 bis 1880 ergänzt. Edited by Hans-Georg Aschoff with Heinz-Jörg Heinrich. Paderborn, Germany, 2002.

——. Ludwig Windthorst, 1812–1891. Edited by Hans-Georg Aschoff. Paderborn, Germany, 1991. Brief edition of Windthorst's most important speeches, annotated and put in context.

Secondary Sources

Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. Windthorst: A Political Biography. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1981. Translated into German as Windthorst: Zentrumspolitiker und Gegenspieler Bismarcks, with an expanded bibliography, 1988. First critical scholarly biography, notable for uncovering Windthorst's close relations to the clergy and conflicts with Leo XIII.

Bachem, Karl. Vorgeschichte, Geschichte und Politik der Deutschen Zentrumspartei: Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der katholischen Bewegung, sowie zur allgemeinen Geschichte des neueren und neuesten Deutschland 1815–1914. Vols. 3–5. Cologne, 1927–1932. Invaluable resource by knowledgeable Center politician, personally close to Windthorst in his later years, based on a rich collection of contemporary materials.

Colonge, Paul. Ludwig Windthorst (1812–1891): (Sa pensée et son action politiques jusqu'en 1875). 2 vols. Lille and Paris, 1983. Exhaustive coverage.

Goldberg, Hans-Peter. Bismarck und seine Gegner: die politische Rhetorik im kaiserlichen Reichstag. Düsseldorf, 1998. Analyzes Bismarck's rhetoric and that of his principal parliamentary antagonists: Windthorst; the Social Democrat August Bebel; and the Progressive Eugen Richter.

Hüsgen, Eduard. Ludwig Windthorst. Cologne, 1907. Classic, if uncritical, biography by editor of a Center Party newspaper in Düsseldorf who was eyewitness to some of the events described. Enriched with contemporary caricatures, campaign doggerel, and long quotations.

Meemken, Hermann, ed. Ludwig Windthorst, 1812–1891: christlicher Parlamentarier und Gegenspieler Bismarcks: Begleitbuch zur Gedenkausstellung aus Anlass des 100. Todestages. Meppen, Germany, 1991. Revealing photographs, caricatures, and other contemporary graphics along with articles that are valuable for illuminating Windthorst's connections with his Emsland constituency in northwestern Germany.

Margaret Lavinia Anderson