Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"Knowledge Is Power" the Borromausverein and Catholic Reading Habits in Imperial Germany

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"Knowledge Is Power" the Borromausverein and Catholic Reading Habits in Imperial Germany

Article excerpt

I

The history of Catholicism in Imperial Germany (1871-1918) features the intellectual and spiritual difficulties of coming to terms with the modern world. Beginning with the foundation of the new Reich on the Kleindeutsch model, Catholics assumed pariah status. Thus commenced a long-enduring struggle for acceptance by their fellow citizens who, moved by a spirit that was Liberal and Protestant in political, social, and cultural outlook, discriminated against their Catholic neighbors. Stock-in-trade stereotypes of Catholics as intellectually inferior, economically backward, culturally incompetent, and politically treacherous reinforced the institutional bias. A satirical poem entitled "No Peace!" captured these sentiments in 1871: "It must become light, where it was dark./Even in this year we must/do away with the Army of Darkness./No peace with the lingering riff raff,/no peace with the pride of the narrow-minded./Attack! Attack! Through darkness to the light:" The image of the medieval, retrograde Catholic was a painful stigma for Catholics to bear, and its effects influenced the trajectory of their history in the Imperial era.

An important turn in this history came around 1900, when a group of intellectuals concerned with Catholic literary culture launched a movement associated with Reform Catholicism. Their flagship journal, Hochland, edited by the young journalist Karl Muth, began publication in 1903. The contributors to this journal, through critical reviews of art, history, literature, society and politics, attempted to lead Catholics out of their perceived "Ghetto" and into the mainstream of German intellectual life. Many scholars begin and end their discussion of Reform Catholicism with Karl Muth and Hochland.2 But the history of the massive Association of Saint Charles Borromeo shows that Catholic contact with"modern" literature was not confined to university-educated elites and the Hochland circle. Rather, in the thousands of libraries and reading rooms that were sponsored by the Association, large numbers of Catholics from an expanding middle class appropriated through "modernized" reading habits the dominant values of German cultural superiority, nationalism, and scientific awareness. On the basis of the BorromausBlatter, the Association's journal of book reviews and literary criticism, which also began publication in 1903>j I shall analyze a concerted effort by its contributors to negotiate a compromise between the Catholic faith and the canon of German national literature. This effort, led by a faction in an ongoing debate within German Catholicism over the best way to meet the challenges posed by modern life and thinking, represented a confessionally informed adoption of the tradition of German self-cultivation or Bildung. After introducing the Borromausverein and its activities in the German Empire, I shall examine the idea of Bildung and its implications for Catholics. Then I shall turn to the strategies the Borromdusverein employed to promote Bildung among the Catholic reading population, to "cultivate cultivation," and to insist upon the obligation of Catholics to be well-versed in the German cultural canon.' For in the opinion of the Association's leadership, exposing Catholics to German art and letters meant more than expanding their field of cultural experience. In adopting the idiom of the dominant cultural discourse, Catholics would come into possession of the codes that deciphered German culture. This acquisition would allow them to move up the hierarchy of cultural tastes in order to enjoy the prestige with which these tastes were associated.' Through the consumption-and even the mere possession-of the "right" books, the Association believed that Catholics could acquire cultural competence and thereby reach full participation in German society

II.

Devoted to promoting popular education, the Borromausverein was founded in 1844. In co-ordination with the German hierarchy throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, it helped formulate the relationship between faith, culture, and pedagogy at a time of rapid social change. …

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