Centre Party (Germany)

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German Centre Party

Deutsche Zentrumspartei
President Gerhard Woitzik
Founder Joseph Görres
  • 13 December 1870 (1870-12-13)(historical)
  • 1945 (1945)(modern)
HeadquartersStraberger Weg 12 41542, Dormagen, NRW
Paramilitary wing Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold (1924-1933)
Membership (2006)600[ needs update ]
Political position Centre-right
Until late 1920s:
Centre [1]
Late 1920s to 1945:
Right-wing [2]
European affiliation European Christian Political Movement
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European Parliament
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Ministers-president of states
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The German Centre Party (German : Deutsche Zentrumspartei or just Zentrum) is a lay Catholic political party in Germany, primarily influential during the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. In English it is often called the Catholic Centre Party. Formed in 1870, it successfully battled the Kulturkampf waged by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck against 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. [3]


For most of the Weimar Republic, the Centre Party was the third-largest party in the Reichstag. Following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in early 1933, the Centre Party was among the parties who voted for the Enabling Act, which granted legislative powers to Hitler's government. Nevertheless, the party was pressured into dissolving itself on 5 July, as the Nazi Party became the only legally permitted party in the country shortly thereafter.

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) and, in Bavaria, the Christian-Social Union (CSU). The Centre Party was represented in the German federal parliament until 1957. It exists as a marginal party, mainly based in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Before and during the German Empire


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 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 "[Pope] 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.

Soest programme and founding

The official flag between 1870-1933. Flag of Deutsche Zentrumspartei.svg
The official flag between 1870-1933.

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 Reichensberger 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:

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. 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 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 the German nation. After the First Vatican Council, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf ("cultural struggle") against the Catholic Church. Catholics fought back vigorously and with near-unanimity. The Centre party gained greater support from the Catholic population. Following Bismarck's 1879 turn from free trade to protectionism and from the National Liberal party to the Conservative parties, he also abandoned the unsuccessful Kulturkampf . [4] [5] 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.

Attempts to broaden appeal beyond Catholics

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, there were many proposals on how the reform the party. Heinrich Brauns published the Cologne Program (Kölner Programm), which proposed the re-formation of the Zentrum under a new name (Christliche Volkspartei, CVP). This proposal was rejected, with only a few regions adopting it for the 1919 election; the party instead adopted the Berlin Guidelines (Berliner Leitzätze), which were far more moderate, which failed at making the Zentrum attractive for Protestant voters too. [6] 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.

The Polish minority in the German Empire formed one of the largest Catholic groups, but the Centre Party pursued a steady anti-Polish course in its politics and even as members of opposition, the enmity between it and Poles remained. [7]

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" [8] 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 Minister-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. [ citation needed ]

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 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. [ citation needed ]

Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany

In the Weimar Republic

Presidium of the Zentrum, 1920. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2008-0617-505, Deutsche Zentrumspartei, Prasidium.jpg
Presidium of the Zentrum, 1920.

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, comprising republican politicians like Matthias Erzberger and Joseph Wirth as well as right-wingers like Franz von Papen. As a result of the party's flexibility, it participated in every government between 1919 and 1932, both with parties to their left and to their right. The Centre mainly provided the ministers for finance and labour and, on four occasions, the Chancellor. 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 German defeat in World War I in the Stab-in-the-back myth, 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 1921.[ citation needed ]

The parties of the Weimar Coalition (Social Democrats, Centre and the left-liberal German Democratic Party (DDP) were the base of the Weimar Republic but lost their majority in the 1920 elections. After this, majority governments were seldom as they required the support of the Weimar Coalition and the national liberal German People's Party (DVP). Social Democrats and DVP found it hard to agree on economoc policy while Social Democrats disagreed with the Centre Party on issues like religious schools or a nationwide Concordat with the Holy See.

Following the 1920 elections, the Centre's Konstantin Fehrenbach formed a minority government in a coaltion with the DDP and the DVP. In May 1921 the Weimar Coalition once again joined forces with the Centre's Joseph Wirth as Chancellor, but this minority government 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.

Cabinet with Kanzler Wilhelm Marx, 1927. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2004-0143, Berlin, Kabinett Marx IV.jpg
Cabinet with Kanzler Wilhelm Marx, 1927.

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 resulted in losses for the government parties and in gains for the Social Democrats and the Communists. The Grand Coalition of 1923 was revived, 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 Catholic workers' associations led by Joseph Joos. [9] Some politicians on the right wing of the party, including Heinrich Brauns and Franz von Papen, advocated a move towards the right and a closer cooperation with the national movements. [10] 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

Bruning and others at Corpus Christi Procession, 1932 Bundesarchiv Bild 102-13517, Berlin, Fronleichnam-Prozession, Bruning.jpg
Brüning and others at Corpus Christi Procession, 1932

In 1930 the Grand Coalition fell apart. Heinrich Brüning, from the moderate-conservative wing of the party, was appointed as Chancellor with a cabinet that, apart from the missing Social Democrats, was virtually unchanged. 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 1930, Brüning's failure to gain a majority for his policies in parliament prompted him to call early elections, in which the four parties of the former Grand coalition lost their majority. After this, Brüning based his administration entirely on the support of the presidential decrees ("Notverordnung") through article 48 of the Constitution. This allowed him to circumvent of parliament, as long as the Social Democrats - who feared another election - tolerated this practice. For this way of government based on both the President and cooperation of parliament, Brüning coined the term "authoritarian democracy".

By this time, the party had become increasingly ambivalent toward democracy. Many elements of the party, including Kaas, had come to believe that only an authoritarian regime could protect the position of the Church. [11]

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 shortly afterwards dismissed Brüning 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.

Between coup d'état and "authoritarian democracy"

Following Brüning's resignation, the Centre Party entered the opposition. Though they also opposed the Nazis, 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. [12]

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. [13]

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 just 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. Catholic 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.

Kaas advised President 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, but so did Kaas's 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's 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. After Schleicher's attempt at a "Querfront" policy, an alliance involving willing members of both left-wing and right-wing parties, failed, Chancellor moved into 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. [14]

The Hitler government and new elections

Meanwhile, 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 Papen as Vice-Chancellor and Hugenberg as minister for economics.

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 the questionnaire presented by Kaas 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 per cent. The government parties NSDAP and DNVP however jointly won 52 per cent 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 risk 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 opted for the latter alternative. [15] [ page needed ]

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. [16]

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 fraction 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." [17]

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's 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's 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. The act was passed on 23 March 1933.

The end of the Centre Party

The passing of the Enabling Act did not, as Kaas had suggested, prevent the Centre Party's demise. As promised during the negotiations, a working committee chaired by Hitler and Kaas was supposed to inform about further legislative measures. However, it met only 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. [18] [19]

The issue of the concordat prolonged Kaas's stay in Rome, leaving the party without an effective chairman: On 5 May Kaas finally resigned from his post and the party now elected Brüning as his successor. The party adopted a tempered version of the leadership principle; pro-Centre papers now declared that the party's members, or "retinue", would fully submit itself to Brüning. It was not enough, however, to relieve the growing pressure that it and other parties faced in the wake of the process of Gleichschaltung. Prominent members were frequently arrested and beaten, and pro-Centre civil servants were fired. As the summer of 1933 wore on, several government officials — including Papen — demanded that the Centre either dissolve or be closed down by the government.

By July, the Centre was the only non-Nazi party that still even nominally existed; the SPD and KPD had been banned outright, while the others had been browbeaten into dissolving themselves. On 1 July, Papen and Kaas agreed that as part of the concordat, German priests would stay out of politics. As it turned out, the party dissolved on 5 July — much to the dismay of Cardinal Pacelli, who felt the party should at least have waited until after the conclusion of negotiations. The day after, the government issued a law outlawing the formation of new political parties, thereby making the NSDAP the only legally permitted party in Germany.

Refounding and post-war history

After the war, the 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, such as Konrad Adenauer, were founding members or joined the CDU, and Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne endorsed the new party, the party lost its 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, its Rudolf Amelunxen had been the new state's first Ministers-President, and it participated in the state government until 1958, when it left the state parliament. Until 1959, the Centre was also represented in the state parliament of Lower Saxony.

On the national level, in the elections of 1949, it won ten seats in the first Bundestag. However, in 1953, the party (with the aid from the regional CDU) only retained three 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 because of 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 to Save the 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 All-German People's Party (Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei, 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 gained only the support of the "Bavarian Party". The two parties joined forces under the name "Federalist Union", first in parliament since 1951 and in the 1957 the general elections, but the results were disappointing.

In 1988, the right wing of the party split and formed the "Christian Centre Party". In 2003 the evangelical "Christian Party of Germany" (CPD) joined the Centre Party.

Since its demise on the national level, the 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 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". [20]

The chairman of the party is Gerhard Woitzik, vice-mayor of the city of Dormagen in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The party is affiliated with the European Christian Political Movement.

Election results

German Reichstag

Election yearConstituencyParty listSeats won+/–
18671868 315,7779.6
36 / 382
Increase2.svg 36
1871 724,00018.6
63 / 382
Increase2.svg 37
1874 1,446,00027.9
91 / 397
Increase2.svg 28
1877 1,341,30024.8
93 / 397
Increase2.svg 2
1878 1,328,10023.1
94 / 397
Increase2.svg 1
1881 1,182,90023.2
100 / 397
Increase2.svg 6
1884 1,282,00022.6
99 / 397
Decrease2.svg 1
1887 1,516,20020.1
98 / 397
Decrease2.svg 1
1890 1,342,10018.6
106 / 397
Increase2.svg 8
1893 1,468,50019.1
96 / 397
Decrease2.svg 10
1898 1,455,10018.8
102 / 397
Increase2.svg 6
1903 1,875,30019.8
100 / 397
Decrease2.svg 2
1907 2,179,80019.4
105 / 397
Increase2.svg 5
1912 1,996,80016.4
91 / 397
Decrease2.svg 14
1919 5,980,21619.67
91 / 423
1920 3,845,00113.6
64 / 459
Decrease2.svg 27
May 1924 3,914,37913.4
65 / 472
Increase2.svg 1
December 1924 4,118,84913.6
69 / 493
Increase2.svg 4
1928 3,712,15212.1
61 / 491
Decrease2.svg 8
1930 4,127,00011.81
68 / 577
Increase2.svg 7
July 1932 4,589,43012.44
75 / 608
Increase2.svg 7
November 1932 4,230,54511.93
70 / 584
Decrease2.svg 5
March 1933 4,424,90511.25
73 / 647
Increase2.svg 3
November 1933 Banned. National Socialist German Workers Party sole legal party.
1949 727,5053.1
10 / 402
Decrease2.svg 63
1953 55,8350.2217,0780.8
3 / 509
Decrease2.svg 7
1957 [lower-alpha 1] 295,5331.0254,3220.9
0 / 519
Decrease2.svg 3
1961 Did not participate
1965 [lower-alpha 2] 11,9780.019,8320.1
0 / 518
1969 15,9330.0
0 / 518
1972 Did not participate
1987 4,0200.019,0350.1
0 / 519
1990 Did not participate
1994 1,4890.03,7570.0
0 / 672
1998 2,0760.0
0 / 669
2002 1,8230.03,1270.0
0 / 603
2005 1,2970.04,0100.0
0 / 614
2009 3690.06,0870.0
0 / 622
2013 Did not participate

Volkstag of Danzig

Election yearVotes%Seats won+/–
1920 21,26213.88
17 / 120
Increase2.svg 17
1923 21,11412.81
15 / 120
Decrease2.svg 2
1927 26,09614.27
18 / 120
Increase2.svg 3
1930 30,23015.28
11 / 72
Decrease2.svg 7
1933 31,33614.63
10 / 72
Decrease2.svg 1
1935 31,52213.41
10 / 72

Landesrat of the Territory of the Saar Basin

Election yearVotes%Seats won+/–
1922 92,25247.7
16 / 30
1924 3,246,511 [21] 42.8
14 / 30
Decrease2.svg 2
1928 129,16246.4
14 / 30
1932 156,61543.2
14 / 30


  1. As member of the Federalist Union.
  2. As member of the Christian People's Party (CVP).

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  15. Evans, The German Center Party, 1870-1933
  16. Evans, The German Center Party, 1870-1933
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  18. Zeender, (1984), pp. 428-441.
  19. Evans, (1981).
  20. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2008-01-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. every voter had 30 votes

Further reading