Catholicism, Popular Culture, and the Arts in Germany, 1880-1933

By Sun, Raymond C. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Catholicism, Popular Culture, and the Arts in Germany, 1880-1933


Sun, Raymond C., The Catholic Historical Review


Catholicism, Popular Culture, and the Arts in Germany, 1880-1933. By Margaret Stieg Dalton. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press. 2005. Pp. xi, 378. $35.00 paperback.)

"In the absence of anything better, kitsch with a Catholic gloss passed for culture....Catholic culture was too Catholic even for most Catholics" (p. 233). Such is Margaret Stieg Dalton's devastating commentary on fifty years of struggle by German Catholic elites to create an alternative to materialist, individualist, and secular modernity. Dalton's diligently researched study thus raises major questions about the relationship between religion and the arts in general, and the possibilities and limits of creative cultural production within the ideological and institutional framework of an embattled late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholicism. Moreover, Dalton's examination of the ultimately futile efforts to develop a confessional alternative to both high and popular culture in literature, music, theater, and film represents a potentially important addition to scholarship on the Catholic social-cultural milieu. However, Dalton's decision to extract her cultural subject matter from its political, social, and economic context, based on the questionable assertion that cultural values and debates "had an only indirect connection to [the political] arena" (p. 5) blunts the book's overall impact. Lacking grounding in the many political and social currents and crises that radically challenged Catholic identity and beliefs, Dalton's analysis of cultural theorizing and production among intellectual elites often seems abstract, self-referential, and divorced from larger historical realities.

Recent scholarship has shown how perceptions of Catholic cultural inferiority played a central role in the formation of modern German society. Michael Gross's reassessment of nineteenth-century liberalism's cultural "war against Catholicism" and David Blackbourn's study of the Marian apparitions at Marpingen are two powerful examples of how conflicts in religion, culture, and politics have become inextricable and constitutive elements of modern German history. Dalton's research on the Catholic cultural movement, a loosely connected set of initiatives to achieve aesthetic excellence infused with Catholic spirituality, and to disseminate the resulting cultural products to an idealized Volk, thus addresses issues of immediate interest to scholars. She presents in a comprehensive and accessible manner the wide array of projects dedicated to the common goal of overcoming the culture gap while inspiring a higher commitment to Catholic identity. Literary journals, lending libraries, musical associations, playwriting, even film and radio productions-Dalton covers these with appropriate treatment of key personalities, theoretical debates, institutional histories, and relevant scholarship.

Helpful too is Dalton's analysis of the inherent self-contradictions that crippled the best-intentioned efforts at Catholic cultural renewal. …

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