He targeted two groups—the Catholic Church and the Socialists. In his view, both posed a threat to the new German state.
Bismarck was a leader in international affairs, using a mix of force and diplomacy to further German interests. Bismarck (center) at the 1878 Congress of Berlin.
After unification, Catholics made up about a third of the German population. Bismarck, who was Lutheran, distrusted Catholics—especially the clergy—whose first loyalty, he believed, was to the pope instead of to Germany.
In response to what he saw as the Catholic threat, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf (kool TOOR kahmpf), or “battle for civilization,” which lasted from 1871 to 1878. His goal was to make Catholics put loyalty to the state above allegiance to the Church. The chancellor had laws passed that gave the state the right to supervise Catholic education and approve the appointment of priests. Other laws closed some religious orders, expelled the Jesuits from Prussia, and made it compulsory for couples to be married by civil authority.
Bismarck's moves against the Catholic Church backfired. The faithful rallied behind the Church, and the Catholic Center party gained strength in the Reichstag. A realist, Bismarck saw his mistake and worked to make peace with the Church.
Bismarck also saw a threat to the new German empire in the growing power of socialism. Under socialism, the people are supposed to own and operate the means of production. Socialism had support among some Germans. By the late 1870s, German Marxists had organized the Social Democratic party, which called for parliamentary democracy and laws to improve conditions for the working class. Bismarck feared that socialists would undermine the loyalty of German workers and turn them toward revolution. Bismarck had laws passed that dissolved socialist groups, shut down their newspapers, and banned their meetings. Once again, repression backfired. It served to unite workers to support the socialist cause.
In this political game of chess, Bismarck and Pope Pius IX try to checkmate each other. How does this image reflect the relationship between Bismarck and the Pope? How would each player define victory?
Bismarck then changed course. He set out to woo workers away from socialism by sponsoring laws to protect them. By the 1890s, Germans had health and accident insurance as well as old-age insurance to provide retirement benefits. Thus, under Bismarck, Germany was a pioneer in social reform. Its system of economic safeguards became the model for other European nations.
Although workers benefited from Bismarck's plan, they did not abandon socialism. In fact, the Social Democratic party continued to grow. By 1912, it held more seats in the Reichstag than any other party.