Center Party

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The Center was one of the leading parties in the Reichstag in Germany between 1871 and 1933. Its achievements in uniting Catholics of widely different social backgrounds, defending Catholic interests, and promoting social reform had a marked influence on Catholic parties elsewhere in Europe.

Definition. The Centrist leaders always insisted that it was a nonconfessional party open to non-Catholics; its founders made serious efforts to attract Protestant members in the early 1870s. But the substantial failure of the initial attempt, the ability of the party to play an important political role on a Catholic basis, and extensive Catholic opposition to the Center's conversion into a real interconfessional party made the leadership cool to anything but a formal definition of nonconfessionalism in its later history. The party name described its favorite position in the Reichstagbetween the conservative parties (chiefly Prussian and representative of authoritarian monarchical traditions, Prussian hegemony, and state control over the churches) and the democratic parties (desirous of a secular and centralized democratic state). The pre-1918 Center regarded constitutional monarchy and a federal-state system as necessary safeguards against a possible democratic majority that would separate Church and State, secularize education, and tend toward socialism. The party placed itself on a factual basis after the overthrow of monarchical institutions in November 1918 and collaborated with the liberal and democratic parties in trying to create a viable republic. Its leaders justified their change of course on the grounds that the Weimar Republic liberated the Church, provided support for the clergy and ecclesiastical institutions, and ensured Catholics of complete civic equality. In the later 1920s and early 1930s the party's basic concern with Catholic cultural objectives and its social structure drove it toward the right and to a consideration of the advisability of supporting constitutional changes along semiauthoritarian lines.

Origins and Early History. Neither the party name nor its basic position from 1871 to 1918 were new, since three of its first leaders, Peter Reichensperger, his brother August, and Hermann von Mallinckrodt, had helped to found in 1852 the Catholic fraction in Prussia, later renamed the Center fraction, after the Protestant monarchy withdrew some of the Church's constitutional liberties. The party, however, foundered in 186263 when many Catholic voters, especially in the liberal Rhineland, chose to back the liberal parties in their conflict with the Bismarck ministry over expansion of the Prussian army rather than the Center, which sought to preserve the constitutional status quo in the contest. A more basic cause of its failure was the absence of any deep Catholic concern about the Church in a state in which it still enjoyed considerable freedom and in which the monarchy and liberal majority seemed to be hopelessly at odds with each other.

The action by representative personalities throughout Catholic Germany to create new Center parties in the Reichstag and Prussian Landtag sprang essentially from their fear of an anti-Catholic alliance between the hegemonic Prussian government and the liberal parties after the unification of Germany (187071). Catholics in Prussia and southern Germany alike had not concealed their dismay over Prussia's replacement of Catholic Austria as the leading state in Germany; their acceptance of the definition of papal infallibility by vatican council i led secular and nationalistic liberals to believe that Catholics could not be loyal Germans while under papal authority. The appearance of 57 Catholic Centrists in the first Reichstag session indicates that many Catholics shared the fears of the party's founders regarding the freedom and rights of the Church. The prime factor, however, in the party's growth from a respectable 57 members in 1871 to 100 in 1881 was Bismarck's major error in associating his person and the Prussian state with the liberal parties in a massive legislative and administrative assault on the Catholic Church, which he believed to be the source of the Center's strength and a part of a general Catholic alliance trying to weaken the Protestant empire.

The Center met its severest test not in the kulturkampf but in the 1880s when Bismarck became fully conscious of its legislative power following the disintegration of the National Liberal party. By negotiating a settlement with the Vatican and appealing to the monarchical sentiments of the Center's aristocratic conservative wing, the chancellor hoped to split the party in two. windthorst, the Center's leader since 1874, was deeply discouraged by his exclusion from the negotiations between Bismarck and the Vatican that ended the Kulturkampf, but he was able to preserve his party's unity. His colleagues and followers substantially backed him when he twice refused papal requests that the Center support the chancellor in his military legislation (1887). After the 1890 elections, even Bismarck recognized that the government would have to work with the Center Party unless it was willing to abolish universal and equal suffrage.

The Center from 1890 to 1918. After Bismarck's forced retirement (1890), the Centrist leadership envisioned considerable domestic influence. Bismarck's successors rejected all suggestions of a coup d'ét against the constitution and sought a working relationship with the Center. But Windthorst's sudden death (March 1891) deprived the Center of the one personality able to draw the Catholic electorate into the new course without serious difficulty. The task was all the greater because the government sought the Center's support for heavy military expenditures and for legislation favorable to labor, industry, and commerce in a time of deep agricultural depression. Ernst Lieber, Windthorst's successor, was too uncertain about his own position and too worried about party unity in the face of serious agrarian disaffection to support wholeheartedly the government's policies before the later 1890s. Deep concern lest reactionary advisers convince Emperor William II that the monarchy could not govern with a Reichstag under Centrist leadership led Lieber to move his party steadily in the government's direction after 1895. Before his premature death (1902), Lieber received credit for the passage of the new national civic code, two major naval bills, and legislation supporting Germany's colonial program.

Insurgency by younger Centrists who opposed the colonial administration's treatment of natives and of Catholic missions disrupted the party's relationship with the government (1906). It was restored in 1909 because the Conservative Party found it more comfortable to collaborate with the Center than with democratic liberals who wanted political reforms in Prussia, the Conservative stronghold.

Before 1918. The gradual improvement of the position of German Catholics after 1895 justified the Center's course. All religious orders, except the Jesuits, regained corporative rights. The Church regained some supervisory influence over Prussian confessional schools. Some concessions were made toward parity for Catholics in the Prussian and imperial civil service. But Catholic support of the party declined from 85 percent during the Kulturkampf to 55 percent in the 1912 elections. Much of the defection occurred in the working classes. The Center had not been late in its awareness of the humane and political necessity of social action. It had supported Bismarck's insurance legislation for the aged, injured, and ill in the 1880s and assisted in the introduction of the sixday workweek, labor courts, better working conditions, and pensions for widows and orphans. It had cooperated in the formation of Catholic unions and, later, of interconfessional ones. The Center had also helped to establish and to direct the People's League for Catholic Germany, which promoted Christian social reform among middle-class German Catholics and educated Catholic labor leaders. These efforts did much to keep large numbers of Catholic workers loyal to the party and to the Church. But the predominant influence of urban and rural propertied elements in the Center, its conservative policy on taxation and tariffs, its silent opposition to democratic suffrage in Prussia, and its initial inability to win general ecclesiastical approval for interconfessional unions alienated all but devoutly Catholic workers.

World War I. During this war of total mobilization, the question of workers' rights in Prussia and of Catholic labor's place in the Center assumed new significance. Throughout most of the war, the Centrist leadership, concerned about the future of Church-State relations and confessional education in Prussia, and under heavy pressure from Catholic business and agrarian groups, refused to sponsor Prussian electoral reform. Catholic labor leaders, in heavy competition with the Social Democratic unions for the allegiance of Catholic workers, insisted on labor suffrage in Prussia. Even the major representatives of Catholic labor followed Matthias Erzberger without enthusiasm when he argued convincingly in 1917 that the war was at best a stalemate and that the Center should join with the democratic parties in an effort to secure a compromise peace. Early in 1918, when Germany's war prospects had brightened, the old leaders isolated Erzberger by pledging support of electoral reform in Prussia. But they had to follow Erzberger's lead when Ludendorff informed the government (September 1918) that the war was lost and that the emperor should appoint a democratic cabinet to negotiate peace with the U.S. and its allies. All the Centrist leaders were taken unawares by the November revolution that they considered unnecessary in view of recent constitutional changes. Nevertheless, they accepted the revolution and aided the early convocation of a democratically elected constitutional assembly that would restore parliamentary government and the rule of law.

The Center in the Weimar Republic (191933). In postwar Germany the Center party achieved influence and assumed responsibilities beyond anything it had known in its earlier history. Despite heavy criticism from Catholic rightists and conservatives, it collaborated with the Social Democrats and Democrats in providing Germany with a moderate constitution and a responsible government in this critical period. Under Erzberger's direction the party insisted that Germany must accept the Versailles Treaty. Later it supported Stresemann's policy of reconciliation with the other Western powers, though concern for its conservative supporters made the party do so cautiously. But the Center's responsible conduct and the frequency with which prominent Centrists held the chancellor's office did not satisfy the party's Bavarian wing, which had broken away in 1920, and other Catholic critics of the Center's course prior to the later 1920s. Internally, the party was increasingly wracked by disagreements among agrarians, laborites, and civil servants over economic policy. The German bishops were disturbed over the Center's inability to win the support of its democratic allies for a national confessional school law, placing confessional schools on the same legal plane as the interconfessional schools of the Weimar constitution. The election of a priest, Ludwig kaas, as party chairman (1928) reflected the belief of many members that only a clergyman could restore party unity. The concern with unity, the desire for a school law, and the essential weakness of the party's democratic elements were important factors in the Center's steady movement toward political alliance with the non-Nazi right. Kaas's efforts in this direction were thwarted by the intransigence of the conservative Nationalist leader, Alfred Hugenberg, and by President Hindenburg's replacement of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, a moderate conservative Centrist, by the Catholic reactionary Franz von Papen (June 1932).

Dissolution of the Center. Both anger against von Papen and fear of his intentions led the Center's leaders to seek a coalition with national socialism, which they underestimated as a threat to parliamentary government. They were bitterly disappointed when Hitler was appointed chancellor by Hindenburg in January 1933 after the failure of von Papen's successor, General von Schleicher, and did not invite the Center to join his coalition cabinet. Two months later the party voted for the Enabling Act, which gave legal sanction to Hitler's dictatorship. The party leadership had decided that it was hopeless to resist Hitler and hoped that their action would cause him to preserve the Reichstag, respect the rights of the Church, and permit Catholic civil servants to continue in office. Most scholars believe there was a connection between the Center's approval of the Enabling Act and Kaas's interest in a German concordat with Rome. It is also the preponderant opinion that the sudden dissolution of the party in early July 1933 stood in direct relationship to the concordat negotiations then reaching their high point in Rome. But Hitler's possession of total power and the flight of members from the party between March and July would in any case have made it virtually impossible to avoid dissolution. The Nazi dictator was wise enough to focus his attack on the party and not on the Church as Bismarck had done.

See Also: pius xii.

Bibliography: c. bachem, Vorgeschichte, Geschichte, und Politik der deutschen Zentrumspartei, 9 v. (Cologne 192732). k. epstein, Matthias Erzberger and the Dilemma of German Democracy (Princeton 1959). r. morsey, Staatslexikon, ed. Görres-Gesellschaft, 8 v. (6th, new and enl. ed. Freiburg 195763) 8:966970. j. rovan, Le Catholicisme politique en Allemagne (Histoire de la démocratie chrétienne 2; Paris 1956). e. alexander, "Church and Society in Germany," Church and Society, ed. j. n. moody (New York 1953).

[j. k. zeender]

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Center Party

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