Catholic-Marxist Competition in the Working-Class Parishes of Cologne during the Weimar Republic

By Sun, Raymond C | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Catholic-Marxist Competition in the Working-Class Parishes of Cologne during the Weimar Republic


Sun, Raymond C, The Catholic Historical Review


Catholic-Marxist competition for the political and spiritual loyalties of Catholic workers constitutes one of the central themes of German labor and religious history before 1933. Since 1884, when Franz Hitze charged the Catholic labor movement to "organize our Christian workers before it is too late. . before the enemy is within out walls," church leaders struggled to isolate their working-class followers from socialist and, after 1918, communist influences. To retain workers' loyalties to the Church and the larger confessional community, Catholic labor leaders established clerically led workers' clubs (katholische Arbettervereine), which aimed to immerse members into a wholly Catholic cultural milieu through a mixture of religious, social, and material services. Including the nominally interconfessional Christian Trade Unions, the Catholic labor movement represented the single largest alternative to the Marxist movements, and was even able to mount a challenge for primacy in key industrial districts in the Ruhr and the Rhineland.2

Even before World War I, however, the limits of Catholic hegemony were apparent. The walls of religious identity and clerical authority failed to prevent an estimated 800,000 Catholic workers from joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD) or the allied Free Unions by 1914, enabling the SPD to capture the Catholic strongholds of Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Munich by the last prewar elections of 1912.3 Under the Weimar Republic, this trend accelerated and took a still more radical course with the advent of the German Communist Party (KPD). By the mid-1920's, the deterioration of personal and institutional religious loyalty among workers was so pronounced that Catholic labor leaders warned openly of an impending crisis in workers' commitment to the larger confessional community in its religious, political, and cultural dimensions.

This article explores Catholic workers' growing ambivalence toward the confessional community in the 1920's, their rising tolerance or active support for Social Democracy and Communism, and the fears and frustrations that troubled the clergy forced to confront this situation. Specifically, the study will focus on conditions in working-class parishes in and around Cologne as described by local pastors in ecclesiastical visitation reports. Previous work on Catholic workers' troubled role in the confessional community under the republic has concentrated on institutional studies of the Center Party and the various elements of the Catholic labor movement.4 Little effort has been made to reconstruct the relationship between workers and the Church at the level of the local parish. This was, however, the most crucial setting of all in the battle for labor's loyalty, for it was here where workers formed the social relationships based upon work, neighborhood, class, and confession that their sense of social and political identity was decisively shaped.

Cologne was a singularly appropriate site for an initial case study: the metropolis of the Rhineland was the seat for both one of Germany's most important archdioceses and a powerful regional branch of the Center Party. Given Cologne's religious and political importance for German Catholicism, the evidence of strong socialist and communist penetration among the local Catholic working-class population is especially striking. The Cologne visitation reports contain a wealth of material that allow a detailed reconstruction of the quality of religious life in working-class parishes, the tactics employed by the clergy in their desperate struggle to maintain, or rather to regain, a degree of influence among workers, and the Church's long-term prospects to overcome broad popular indifference joined with fierce competition from the Marxist parties.

Fundamental to understanding the clergy's difficulties in the battle for Catholic labor is the realization that developments in the 1920's were essentially an intensification of a pattern of deteriorating trust between workers and the religious and political institutions of German Catholicism dating from the turn of the century. …

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