The Centre Party (Zentrumspartei or Zentrum) was a major party in the Reichstag and the political voice of Germany’s Catholics. During the Weimar period, the Centre Party was involved in several important coalitions and produced several significant leaders, including Matthias Erzberger, Heinrich Bruning and Franz von Papen.
Zentrum was formed in 1870, a time when Catholics made up a little over one-third of the empire (the remainder of Germans were Lutherans or other Protestant denominations).
The young party faced considerable challenges in its first years. In 1871, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, himself a Protestant, launched his Kulturkampf (or ‘culture struggle’) – a campaign to reduce or eliminate Catholic influence in the newly unified Germany.
Bismarck’s persecution of German Catholics drove many of them toward Zentrum. Its membership and voter numbers doubled through the mid-1870s. By 1880, the Centre Party was the second-largest party in the Reichstag.
After Bismarck’s retirement, Zentrum reconciled with and generally supported the imperial government. In terms of public policy, the party sought to protect the rights of German Catholics and the Landtags (state assemblies). Other than that, Zentrum had few fixed policies or ideological positions.
Like the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Centre Party was a large party that housed a large range of views. Its membership ranged from Christian liberal-democrats on the left to moderate conservatives in the middle and strong nationalists on the right.
Zentrum threw its weight behind the imperial government during World War I – but it also contained anti-war elements. By 1917, the Centre Party’s left-wing, led by Matthias Erzberger, was voicing strong criticisms of the war and demanding a resolution for peace.
A significant force
The Centre Party remained a significant political force in the post-war Republic. It won 91 seats in the first national assembly (January 1919). This made it the second-largest parliamentary party after the SPD.
Zentrum‘s share of the vote slumped in 1920. Nevertheless, its representation in the Reichstag remained consistent during the Weimar period, never slipping below 62 seats.
Matthias Erzberger, Zentrum‘s leader until his murder in 1921, promised the party would remain loyal to the constitution and prepared to participate in coalition governments. Unlike right-wing nationalist parties, Zentrum was prepared to form coalitions with the SPD.
Holding the middle ground
Zentrum deputies held the middle ground in the Reichstag during the lifespan of the Weimar Republic.
Centre Party ministers were found in every cabinet during the Weimar period, while the chancellorship was given to five different Centre Party politicians (Constantin Fehrenbach, Joseph Wirth, Wilhelm Marx, Heinrich Bruning and Franz von Papen).
A historian’s view:
“The Weimar Republic offered the Centre Party its greatest opportunities and its leaders readily rose to the challenge. Its most able politicians in these years came from the ranks of the trade union movement and the professional classes; but the influence of men from these groups received a setback in the last years of the Republic when under Bruning’s chancellorship, the leadership passed back to the traditional right-wing.”
1. The Centre Party or Zentrum was formed in 1870 to provide political representation for Germany’s Catholic population.
2. Bismarck’s Kulturkampf campaign of the 1870s marginalised German Catholics, driving them to the Centre Party and expanding its membership.
3. With its sizeable membership, the Centre Party contained a wide variety of ideological and political perspectives and policy positions.
4. Zentrum and its leadership supported the war effort in 1914-18, though this created divisions and differences of opinion within the party.
5. The party became an important political player in the Weimar era, participating in all Reichstag coalitions, supplying five chancellors and boasting ministers in every cabinet.