Centre Party (Germany)
|German Centre Party
|Founded||December 13, 1870
|Headquarters||Straberger Weg 12 41542, Dormagen, NRW|
|European affiliation||European Christian Political Movement|
|European Parliament group||No MEPs|
Yellow, white (historical)
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|Ministers-president of states||
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|Politics of Germany
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The German Centre Party (German: Deutsche Zentrumspartei or just Zentrum) is a lay Catholic political party in Germany during the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. In English it is often called the Catholic Centre Party. Formed in 1870, it battled the Kulturkampf which the Prussian government launched to reduce the power of the Catholic Church. It soon won a quarter of the seats in the Reichstag (Imperial Parliament), and its middle position on most issues allowed it to play a decisive role in the formation of majorities.
After World War II, the party was refounded, but could not rise again to its former importance, as most of its members joined the new Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The Centre Party was represented in the German parliament until 1957. It exists as a marginal party, mainly based in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
- 1 Origins
- 2 The Soest programme and the founding of the "Centre Party"
- 3 Kulturkampf
- 4 "Out of the tower!"
- 5 Anti-Polish policies
- 6 In war and revolution
- 7 In the Weimar Republic
- 8 The Brüning administration
- 9 Between coup d'état and "authoritarian democracy"
- 10 The Hitler government and new elections
- 11 The Enabling Act
- 12 The end of the Centre Party
- 13 Refounding and post-war history
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
- 16 External links
The Centre Party belongs to the political spectrum of "Political Catholicism" that, emerging in the early 19th century after the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, had changed the political face of Germany. Many Catholics found themselves in Protestant dominated states.
The first major conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and a Protestant state was the "Colonian Church conflict", when the Prussian government interfered in the question of mixed marriages and the religious affiliation of children resulting from these. This led to serious aggressions against the Catholic population of the Rhineland and Westphalia and culminated in the arrest of the Archbishop of Cologne
At that time, one of the founding fathers of Political Catholicism was journalist Joseph Görres, who called upon Catholics to "stand united" for their common goals, "religious liberty and political and civil equality of the denominations". The conflict relaxed after 1840, with Frederick William IV's accession to the throne.
The Revolution of 1848 brought new opportunities for German Catholics. In October, the bishops had their first meeting in 40 years in Würzburg and the local "Catholic Federations" assembled in Mainz to found the "Catholic Federation of Germany". In the National Assembly, which was convened to draw up a German constitution, a "Catholic club" was formed. This was not yet a comprehensive party, but a loose union aimed at protecting the Church's liberties in a future Germany, supported by many petitions from the "Pius federations for religious liberty". The later demise of the National Assembly proved to be a major setback for Political Catholicism.
In Prussia, the revised constitution of 1850 granted liberties, which in parts even exceeded those of the Frankfurt draft constitution, yet two years later the minister for culture, von Raumer, issued decrees directed mainly against the Jesuits. In reaction this led to a doubling of Catholic representatives in the subsequent elections and the formation of a Catholic club in the Prussian Diet. In 1858, when the "New Era" governments of Wilhelm I adopted more lenient policies, the club renamed itself "Fraction of the Centre" in order to open itself up to include non-Catholics. This name stemmed from the fact that in the Prussian Diet the Catholic representatives were seated in the centre, between the Conservatives on the right and the Liberals on the left. Faced with military and constitutional issues, where there was no definite Church position, the group soon disintegrated and disappeared from parliament after 1867.
The Soest programme and the founding of the "Centre Party"
Growing anti-Catholic sentiment and policies, including plans for dissolving all monasteries in Prussia, made it clear that a reorganisation of the group was urgently needed in order to protect Catholic minority rights, enshrined in the 1850 constitution, and to bring them over to the emerging nation state.
In June 1870 Peter Reichersberger called on Catholics to unite and, in October, priests, representatives of Catholic federations and the Catholic gentry met at Soest and drew up an election programme. The main points were:
- Preservation of the Church's autonomy and rights, as accepted by the constitution. Defense against any attack on the independence of Church bodies, on the development of religious life and on the practice of Christian charity.
- Effectual implementation of parity for recognised denominations.
- Rejection of any attempt to de-Christianise marriage.
- Preservation or founding of denominational schools.
There were also more general demands such as for a more federal, decentralised state, a limitation of state expenditure, a just distribution of taxes, the financial strengthening of the middle classes and the legal "removal of such evil states, that threaten the worker with moral or bodily ruin".
With such a manifesto, the number of Catholic representatives in the Prussian Diet rose considerably and in December 1870. They formed a new "Centre" faction, also called the "Constitution Party" to emphasise its adherence to constitutional liberties.
Three months later, early in 1871, the Catholic representatives to the new national parliament, the Reichstag, also formed a "Centre" faction. The party not only defended the Church's liberties, but also supported representative government and minority rights in general, in particular those of German Poles, Alsatians and Hannoverians. The Centre's main leader was the Hannoverian advocate Ludwig Windthorst and other major figures included Karl Friedrich von Savigny, Hermann von Mallinckrodt, Burghard Freiherr von Schorlemer-Alst, the brothers August Reichensperger and Peter Reichensperger, and Georg Count Hertling.
Also in other German states Catholic parties were formed, cooperating with the Prussian Centre Party in the Reichstag:
- in Bavaria, the "Bavarian Patriotic Party", with a particularistic-conservative bent, since 1887 called the "Bavarian Centre".
- in Baden, the "Catholic People's Party", since 1881 formally linked to the national "Centre Party" and since 1888 adopting the name "Centre Party".
In the age of nationalism, Protestant Germans, whether Conservative (like Otto von Bismarck) or Liberal, accused the Centre of Ultramontanism or having a greater loyalty towards the Pope than to their own nation. After the First Vatican Council, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf or "cultural struggle" against the Catholic Church. But the Catholics fought back vigorously and with near-unanimity. The Centre party gained greater support from the Catholic population. Following Bismarck's 1878 turn from free trade to protectionism and from the National Liberal party to the Conservative parties, he also abandoned the unsuccessful Kulturkampf.
The Centre party remained a party of opposition to Bismarck, but after his resignation in 1890, it frequently supported the following administrations' policies in the Reichstag, particularly in the field of social security.
"Out of the tower!"
The Kulturkampf had reinforced the Catholic character of the Centre Party, but even during it Ludwig Windthorst had defended the party against Bismarck's accusation of being a "denominational party" in describing the Centre as "a political party with a comprehensive political programme and open to anyone, who accepts it". However, few Protestants took up this offer and the Centre remained - by the composition of its members, politicians and voters, an essentially Catholic party.
Loyal to the Pope in church matters, the Centre party steered a course independent of the Holy See on secular matters. This became apparent in the "septennat dispute" of 1886. Since the Centre Party rejected Bismarck's military budget, the Chancellor negotiated with the Holy See and promised to abolish some Kulturkampf-related laws and to support the Pope in the Roman question, if the Vatican persuaded the Centre Party to accept his bill. Despite this agreement, the Centre Party rejected the budget and Bismarck called new elections. He also published the letters with the Vatican, intending to drive a wedge between Catholic voters loyal to the Pope and the Centre Party with the slogan: "The Pope against the Centre!" Windhorst managed to avert this by reaffirming the Party's autonomy, which the Pope had accepted, and by interpreting the published letters as expressions of papal confidence in the party.
As the Kulturkampf declined, debates about the character of the party emerged culminating in the Centre dispute, in 1906, after Julius Bachem had published the article "We must get out of the tower!" He called upon Catholic politicians to fulfill Windthorst's word and get out of their perpetual minority position by an effort to increase Protestant numbers among their representatives in parliament. His proposal was met with passionate opposition by the greater part of Catholic public, especially since it also included the Christian trade unions and other Catholic organisations. No side could win the upper hand, when the outbreak of World War I ended the dispute.
After the war, Adam Stegerwald, leader of the Christian trade unions, made another attempt at transcending the party's exclusively Catholic character and uniting Germany's fragmented party spectrum. In 1920 he advocated the formation of a broad Christian middle-party, that would transcend denominations and social classes and which could push back the Social Democrats' influence.
Polish minority in German Empire formed one of the largest Catholic groups, despite this the Center Party pursued a steady anti-Polish course in its politics and even as members of opposition the enmity between Centre Party and Poles remained
In war and revolution
The party boldly supported the imperial government in the years prior to World War I openly declaring Germany's "great political and moral mission" in the world. With the outbreak of World War I, the party also used the debates about war bonds to push for a repeal of the last remnants of anti-Jesuit laws. As the war continued, many of the leaders of the Centre's left wing, particularly Matthias Erzberger, came to support a negotiated settlement, and Erzberger was key in the passage of the Reichstag Peace Resolution of 1917.
The same year, the Centre's Georg Count Hertling, formerly Ministers-President of Bavaria, was appointed Chancellor, but he could not overcome the dominance of the military leadership of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. When a parliamentary system of government was introduced in October 1918, the new chancellor Max von Baden appointed representatives from the Centre party, the Social Democrats and the left-liberals as ministers.
After the fall of the monarchy, conflict arose between the party and the new Social Democratic government. Adolf Hofmann, the Prussian minister for culture, attempted to decree a total separation of church and state, forcing religion out of schools. This stirred up a wave of protest among the Catholic population, and bishops, Catholic organisations and the Centre Party itself united to combat the "red danger". This conflict bridged internal tensions within the party and secured its continual existence despite the turmoil of the revolution.
The party however was weakened by its Bavarian wing splitting off and forming the Bavarian People's Party (BVP), which emphasised autonomy of the states and also took a more conservative course.
In the 1919 elections for the National Assembly the Centre Party gained 91 representatives, being the second largest party after the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Centre's Konstantin Fehrenbach was elected president of the National Assembly. The party actively cooperated with Social Democrats and left-liberal German Democratic Party (DDP) in drawing up the Weimar Constitution, which guaranteed what the Centre had been fighting for since its founding: equality for Catholics and autonomy for Roman Catholic Church throughout Germany. The party was less successful in the school question. Although religious education remained an ordinary subject in most schools, the comprehensive, inter-denominational schools became default.
In the Weimar Republic
The Centre Party, whose pragmatic principles generally left it open to supporting either a monarchical or republican form of government, proved one of the mainstays of the Weimar Republic, continuing the cooperation with SPD and DDP in the Weimar Coalition. This combination, however, lost its majority in the 1920 elections.
The party was a polyglot coalition of Catholic politicians, ranging from leftists like Matthias Erzberger and Joseph Wirth to right-wingers like Franz von Papen. As a result of the party's flexibility, it was a member of nearly every government coalition in the Weimar Republic, both with the left and right. However, this also damaged the party's prospects because it was increasingly associated with all of the conflicts, problems, and failures of the Republic.
The Centre had a share of the odium attached to the so-called "Weimar Establishment" which was blamed, especially on the right, for the "stab in the back" of the German army at the end of the war, as well as for the humiliations of the Versailles Treaty and reparations. Erzberger himself, who had signed the armistice, was assassinated by right-wing extremists in 1920.
Although the parties of the Weimar Coalition remained the base of the Weimar Republic, they could not agree to resume a formal coalition government, especially because of disagreements between the Centre Party and the Social Democrats on issues like religious schools or a nationwide Concordat with the Holy See. Between 1919 and 1932 the Centre participated in all administrations, providing mainly the ministers for finance and labour and, on four occasions, the Chancellor.
After the break-up of the Weimar Coalition, in June 1920 the Centre's Konstantin Fehrenbach formed a new cabinet that also included the left-liberal DDP and the national-liberal German People's Party (DVP).
In May 1921 the Weimar Coalition once again resumed government under the Centre's Joseph Wirth as Chancellor, but this Coalition collapsed again in November 1922. After this, the Centre participated in the non-affiliated Wilhelm Cuno's "government of the economy", together with both liberal parties and the Bavarian People's Party (BVP).
In August 1923 the DVP's Gustav Stresemann formed a Grand Coalition administration, comprising the Centre, both Liberal parties and the Social Democrats, which lasted until November, when the Social Democrats left the coalition and the Centre's Wilhelm Marx became chancellor of a cabinet of the remaining parties.
In January 1925 the non-affiliated Hans Luther was appointed chancellor and formed a coalition between the Centre, both Liberal parties, the BVP and, for the first time, the right-wing German National People's Party (DNVP). The Centre, the BVP and the DNVP jointly supported legislation to expand religious schools.
In the same year Wilhelm Marx was the Centre's candidate in the presidential elections. In the second round, combining the support of the Weimar coalition parties, he gained 45.3% of the vote and finished a close second to the victorious right-wing candidate Paul von Hindenburg with 48.3%.
In May 1926 Chancellor Luther resigned and Marx again assumed his former office.
In June 1928, the general elections had resulted in losses for the government parties and in gains for the Social Democrats and the Communists. The Grand Coalition of 1923 was resumed, this time including the BVP and the Social Democrat Hermann Müller became chancellor.
During the years of the Weimar Republic debates about the Catholic character of the party, as described above, persisted. The left wing of the party, led by Erzberger and Wirth, had close ties to the Christian trade unions led by Adam Stegerwald. The right wing advocated a move towards the right and a closer cooperation with the national movements. The middle-ground emphasised their loyalty to the Church and rejected both extremes. To mediate the tension between the wings and to strengthen their ties with the Bishops, the party in September 1928 did not elect the two favourites Joseph Joos and Adam Stegerwald, but rather the cleric Ludwig Kaas as chairman.
The Brüning administration
In 1930 the Grand Coalition fell apart and Heinrich Brüning, from the moderate-conservative wing of the party, was appointed as Chancellor. Brüning was confronted with economic crises exacerbated by the Great Depression and had to tackle the difficult tasks of consolidating both budget and currency when faced with rising unemployment, and of also negotiating changes to the war reparations payments. His course of strict budget discipline, with severe cuts in public expenditure, and tax increases made him extremely unpopular among the lower and middle classes as well as among the Prussian Junkers.
In the 1930 elections, the parties of the Grand coalition lost their majority, forcing Brüning to base his administration not on the support of a party coalition but on that of the presidential decree ("Notverordnung") of article 48 of the Constitution. This provided for the circumventing of parliament, and the informal toleration of this practice by the parties. For this way of government based on both the President and cooperation of parliament, Brüning coined the term "authoritative (or authoritarian) democracy".
The Centre consistently supported Brüning's government and in 1932 vigorously campaigned for the re-election of Paul von Hindenburg, calling him a "venerate historical personality" and "the keeper of the constitution". Hindenburg was re-elected against Adolf Hitler, but his moving further to the right shortly afterwards resulted in Brüning's resignation on 30 May 1932.
President Hindenburg, advised by General Kurt von Schleicher, appointed the Catholic nobleman Franz von Papen as Chancellor, a member of the Centre's right wing and former cavalry captain. The intention was to break the connection of the Centre with the other republican parties or to split the party and integrate it into a comprehensive conservative movement. However, the Centre refused to support Papen's government in any way and criticised him for "distorting and abusing good old ideals of the Centre, acting as the representative of reactionary circles". Papen forestalled being expelled by leaving the party.
Following Brüning's resignation, the Centre Party entered the opposition. Though they also opposed the National Socialists, their energies were directed mainly against the renegade Papen. Some Centre politicians were soothed by Hitler's strategy of legality into downplaying the Nazi threat. This hampered their ability of being a bulwark of the republic against the rising National Socialists.
In regard to the government, the Centre Party rejected a "temporal solution", such as Papen's presidial cabinets, and rather advocated a "total solution", i.e., a government according to the rules of the constitution. Since the Centre considered Papen's administration of being "in a dangerous way dependent on radical right-wing parties", chairman Ludwig Kaas advised the President to recognise this connection by basing the government on a coalition with the rising right-wing parties, the "logical result of current development". This would force the radicals to "take their share in responsibility" and "acquainting them with international politics". The Centre would then act as the party of opposition to this administration.
As Papen was faced with almost uniform opposition by the parties, he had the Reichstag dissolved. In the subsequent elections, the Centre Party campaigned on two fronts, against both the Papen government and National Socialists and reaffirmed their stance as the "constitution party" opposed to "any measure contrary to constitution, justice and law" and "unwilling to yield to terror". The July 1932 elections brought further losses to the mainstream parties and gains to the extremist parties. The National Socialists supplanted the Social Democrats as the largest party in parliament.
As Communists and National Socialists together had won the majority of seats, no government coalition could be formed without one of them. Papen tried to justify his authoritarian style of government by pointing out that parliament could no longer function properly. Countering this reasoning, the Centre and the BVP tried to re-establish a working parliament by cooperation with the National Socialists, since the three parties together had attained 53% of the seats. When Papen called upon the people to "reject the dictatorship of a single party", the Centre Party agreed "without reservation", but it also stated that "with the same resolution we reject the dictatorship of the nameless party, now in power … even if cloaked with the illusion of non-partisanship".
After Papen's attempts to attain Hitler's support for his administration had failed, the Centre began their own negotiations with the National Socialists. They started in the state of Prussia, where the Weimar Coalition had lost its majority. An alternative majority could be not found and the Papen administration had seized this opportunity to assume control of Germany's largest state in the "Prussian coup" via presidential decree. Now, the National Socialists proposed to end this direct rule by forming a coalition with the Centre Party, promising an equal share in government. Since this went too far for the Centre's national leadership, the negotiations were transferred to the national level, where Heinrich Brüning conferred with Gregor Strasser. During that period the anti-Nazi polemics ceased in order not to disturb the negotiations. Since the NSDAP was the larger party, the Centre was willing to accept a Nazi as Chancellor, provided he could gain the trust of the President, which at that time seemed quite a difficult task.
The negotiations were bound for failure, since the aims of the two groups were largely incompatible. The Centre argued that the vote of July had "called Hitler not to dictatorship but to responsibility, to getting in line with law and constitution". They hoped to "build a strong government without touching the substance of the constitution", to create "clear responsibilities" and to "preclude anti-constitutional experiments". The Centre advocated a return to Brüning's "authoritarian democracy", which they considered up to the times and tested by experience, against Papen's "omnipotent state and independent leadership", while the Nazis would only accept a coalition that would serve their purpose of achieving total dominance. Not expecting a successful conclusion, Hitler used the Centre negotiations in order to put pressure on the Papen administration.
The negotiations were also met with criticism from within the Centre Party. Some rejected them as "currying favour with the National Socialists" and giving credence to Hitler's strategy of legality. The journalists Fritz Gerlich and Ingbert Naab dismissed as "illusionary" the attempt to "uphold the constitution and the legal order" with a man such as Hitler with his "unconditional propensity to evil". Instead of "driving out the devil by Belzebub", the Centre should act as the parliament's conscience. The party leadership answered their critics by calling it a "duty of conscience" to try to achieve a constitutional government.
Though Papen did not expect the negotiations to succeed, he was nonetheless concerned as a success would have led to a presidential crisis, as Hindenburg was unwilling to have a coalition parties dictate the administration. In September he ended all speculations by dissolving the Reichstag again, almost immediately after its first meeting.
Papen's act did not end the negotiations between Centre and NSDAP. In fact, it made further meetings possible, since the Centre Party's leadership blamed the failure not on the parties' incompatibility but on Papen calling for new elections. Since the NSDAP vote dropped again in the elections of November 1932, the Centre Party considered their strategy successful and resumed negotiations, this time under the slogan of forming a "Notgemeinschaft" ("community of need"), even though the Centre, BVP, and NSDAP together no longer formed a majority in parliament.
Chairman Ludwig Kaas advised President von Hindenburg not to continue Papen's "administration of conflict"; he advocated "national concentration including the National Socialists", but did not comment on an alternative Chancellor, since he considered that the "personal prerogative of President". Hindenburg's negotiations with Hitler failed, however, as did Kaas' attempt to form a coalition in parliament. By avoiding a clear statement, Hitler managed to pin the blame for this failure on the DNVP's Alfred Hugenberg, who had rejected Kaas' proposals.
In December, the President appointed General Kurt von Schleicher Chancellor, since the cabinet had refused to support Papen's planned coup d'état, a permanent dissolution of the Reichstag. The Centre Party contributed to the failure of Schleichers "Querfront" policy, since it could not bring itself to supporting the new administration actively. This pushed the General-Chancellor further in the direction of Papen's proposed coup d'état, a move the Centre Party, as well as the other parties, refused to condone. Under these circumstances, President Hindenburg refused to back the coup and Schleicher accordingly resigned on 28 January 1933.
The Hitler government and new elections
Meanwhile von Papen had formed an intrigue to oust his successor. He conferred with Hugenberg and industrial magnates and bankers and after a feverish night, in which the outcome was unclear to all participants. On 30 January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor with Franz von Papen as Vice-Chancellor and Hugenberg as minister for economics. President of the Reichsbank under the Weimar Republic was Hjalmar Schacht.
Though seeing their adversaries Papen and Hugenberg join forces with Hitler, the Centre Party still did not give up building a broad coalition government. Since the new administration was still lacking a majority in parliament, the Centre was ready to support it, either by toleration or by coalition. Hitler intended to minimise non-Nazi participation, but feigned a willingness to cooperate with the Centre and blamed Papen and Hugenberg for denying cabinet posts to the Centre. When Kaas requested a broad outline of his government's objectives, Hitler used his questionnaire to declare the talks a failure and obtain the President's approval for calling for new elections for the third time in about half a year.
These elections in March 1933 were already marred by the SA's terror, after the Reichstag fire and civil rights had been suspended by President Hindenburg through the Reichstag Fire Decree. Still the Centre Party campaigned hard against the Hitler administration and managed to preserve their former vote of roughly 11%. The government parties NSDAP and DNVP however jointly won 52% of the vote.
This result shattered the Centre Party's hopes of being indispensable for obtaining a majority in parliament. The party was now faced with two alternatives – either to persist in protesting and suffer reprisals like Communists and Social Democrats, or to declare their loyal cooperation, in order to protect their members. As shown by subsequent events, the party, though deeply uncomfortable with the new government, opted for the latter alternative.
The Enabling Act
The government confronted the newly elected Reichstag with the Enabling Act that would have vested the government with legislative powers for a period of four years. As the bill required a two-thirds majority in order to pass and the coalition parties only controlled 340 of the 647 seats (52.5 percent), the government needed the support of other parties.
The Centre Party, whose vote was going to be decisive, was split on the issue of the Enabling Act. Chairman Kaas advocated supporting the bill in parliament in return for government guarantees. These mainly included respecting the President's Office retaining veto power, religious liberty, its involvement in culture, schools and education, the concordats signed by German states and the existence of the Centre Party. Via Papen, Hitler responded positively and personally addressed the issues in his Reichstag speech but he repeatedly put off signing a written letter of agreement.
Kaas was aware of the doubtful nature of such guarantees but when the Centre Party assembled on 23 March to decide on their vote, Kaas advised his fellow party members to support the bill, given the "precarious state of the party". He described his reasons as follows: "On the one hand we must preserve our soul, but on the other hand a rejection of the Enabling Act would result in unpleasant consequences for faction and party. What is left is only to guard us against the worst. Were a two-thirds majority not obtained, the government's plans would be carried through by other means. The President has acquiesced in the Enabling Act. From the DNVP no attempt of relieving the situation is to be expected."
A considerable number of parliamentarians opposed the chairman's course, among these former Chancellors Heinrich Brüning, Joseph Wirth and former minister Adam Stegerwald. Brüning called the Act the "most monstrous resolution ever demanded of a parliament" and was sceptical about Kaas' efforts: "The party has difficult years ahead, no matter how it would decide. Sureties for the government fulfilling its promises have not been given. Without a doubt, the future of the Centre Party is in danger and once it is destroyed it cannot be revived again."
The opponents also argued that Catholic social teaching ruled out participating in acts of revolution. The proponents argued that a "national revolution" had already occurred with Hitler's appointment and the presidential decree suspending civil rights. The Enabling Act would contain the revolutionary forces and move the government back to a legal order. Both groupings were not unaffected by Hitler's self-portrayal as a moderate seeking cooperation as opposed to the more revolutionary SA led by Ernst Röhm. Even Brüning thought it would be "decisive which groups of the NSDAP will be in power in the future. Will Hitler's power increase or will he fail, that is the question."
In the end the majority of Centre parliamentarians supported Kaas' proposal. Brüning and his followers agreed to respect party discipline by also voting in favour of the bill. The Reichstag assembled under turbulent circumstances. SA men served as guards and crowded outside the building to intimidate any opposition while the Communist and some Social Democratic members of the Reichstag had been imprisoned and were thus prevented from voting. In the end, the Centre voted as planned in favour of the Enabling Act, as did all the other parties apart from the SPD, which was also the only party to speak against the act. The support of the Centre party proved to be decisive and the act was passed on 23 March 1933.
The end of the Centre Party
With the passing of the Enabling Act the Centre Party had set in motion in its own demise. As promised during the negotiations, a working committee chaired by Hitler and Kaas and supposed to inform about further legislative measures, met three times (31 March, 2 April and 7 April) without any major impact.
At that time, the Centre Party was weakened by massive defections by party members. Loyal party members, in particular civil servants, and other Catholic organisations were subject to increasing reprisals, despite Hitler's previous guarantees. The party was also hurt by a declaration of the German bishops that, while maintaining their opposition to Nazi ideology, modified the ban on cooperation with the new authorities.
The issue of the concordat prolonged Kaas' stay in Rome, leaving the party without a chairman, and on 5 May Kaas finally resigned from his post. The party now elected Heinrich Brüning as chairman. At that time, the Centre party was subject to increasing pressure in the wake of the process of Gleichschaltung and after all the other parties had dissolved (or were banned like the SPD), the Centre Party dissolved itself on 6 July. During the concordat negotiations, Cardinal Pacelli was dismayed that it occurred before the negotiations had been concluded. The day after, the government issued a law banning the founding of new political parties, thus turning the NSDAP into the party of the German state.
Refounding and post-war history
After the war, the Centre party was refounded, but it was confronted with the emergence of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a new party formed as a Christian party comprising both Catholics and Protestants. As many former Centre party politicians, e.g., Konrad Adenauer, were founding members or joined the CDU and also Cardinal Frings of Cologne endorsed the new party, the Centre lost their position as the party of the Catholic population.
For some time however, the party managed to hold on to regional strongholds in North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1945 the Centre's Rudolf Amelunxen had been the new state's first Ministers-President and the Centre Party participated in the state government until 1958, when it dropped out of the state parliament. Until 1959 the Centre was also represented in the state parliament of Lower Saxony.
On the national level, the Centre Party in the elections of 1949 won ten seats in the first Bundestag. However, in 1953, the party (with the aid from the regional CDU) only retained two seats. In 1957, largely due to the massive CDU landslide that year, the party dropped out of the Bundestag completely and has never returned.
This demise is at least partly due to Helene Wessel. In 1949 she was one of the Centre's representatives in the Bundestag and also was elected chairwoman of the party, the first woman ever to lead a German party. In 1951 she vocally opposed Adenauer's policy of German rearmament and joined forces with the CDU's Gustav Heinemann, the former Minister of the Interior. The two formed the "Notgemeinschaft zur Rettung des Friedens in Europa" ("Emergency community for saving peace in Europe"), an initiative intended to prevent rearmament.
Wessel resigned from her post and in November 1952 left the party. Immediately afterwards, Wessel and Heinemann turned the "Notgemeinschaft" into a political party, the "Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei" ("Whole-German People's Party" aka GVP), that failed badly in the elections of 1953. In 1957 the GVP dissolved and most members joined the SPD.
Meanwhile the Centre Party tried to forge an alliance of small parties of Christian persuasion, to offer an alternative to disappointed CDU/CSU voters, but it only gained the support of the "Bavarian Party". The two parties joined forces under the name "Federalist Union", first in parliament since 1951, and in 1957 the general elections, but the results were disappointing.
Since its demise on the national level, the Centre Party focuses on local politics, while maintaining the same positions as in the post-war period. The party is represented in some city councils in North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt.
Despite its marginal numbers, the Centre party emphasises continuity to its history by sometimes referring to itself as the "oldest political party of Germany". According to its statutes the official name of the party is "Deutsche Zentrumspartei – Älteste Partei Deutschlands gegründet 1870", which translates as "German Centre Party – Oldest Party in Germany founded in 1870".
- David Blackbourn, "The Political Alignment of the Centre Party in Wilhelmine Germany: A Study of the Party's Emergence in Nineteenth-Century Württemberg," Historical Journal Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 821-850 in JSTOR
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- Ross, Ronald J. "Critic of the Bismarckian Constitution: Ludwig Windthorst and the Relationship Between Church and State in Imperial Germany," Journal of Church & State (1979) 21#3 pp 483-506. online
- Ross, Ronald J. Beleaguered Tower: The Dilemma of Political Catholicism in Wilhelmine Germany (1976),
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- Anderson, Margaret Lavinia. "Confessions of a Fellow Traveler," Catholic Historical Review (2013) 99#4 pp 623-648.
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- Official web site
- Website of the European Christian Political Movement, of which the Zentrumspartei is a member
- Catholic Encyclopedia article