Volksverein (PEOPLE’S UNION) FOR CATHOLIC GERMANY, a large and important organization of German Catholics for the purpose of opposing heresies and revolutionary tendencies in the social world, and for the defense of Christian order in society.
HISTORY.—This association was the last one established by Ludwig Windthorst. After the close of the Kulturkampf new problems confronted the Catholic population of Germany. Owing to the political union of Germany and its protective commercial policy from 1879, German economic life was greatly strengthened, and trade and manufactures received an unheard-of development. The increase of manufacturing on a large scale, the partial change of many country towns into manufacturing centers, the crowding together of human beings in the manufacturing districts, all these changes made questions of social needs of increasing importance. Catholics felt strongly the necessity of protection against the revolutionary Social Democracy which was based upon undisguised materialism. The Social Democrats, in anticipation of the overthrow of the laws against Socialism, were making preparations for the establishment of a well-organized association throughout Germany, even among the Catholic population. Windthorst, the leader of the German Catholics, saw clearly that it was not sufficient for the Center party, the representative of German Catholics, to be the only champion of legislation in favor of the workingman; the public also must be won over to the support of social reform. At this time the Catholic people were especially inclined to listen to such proposals. The decree of the young Emperor William (February, 1890), the pope’s letter to the Archbishop of Cologne (April, 1890), and the pastoral letter of the Prussian bishops issued at their meeting at Fulda had all been received with joy by the Catholics of Germany. For these reasons Windthorst thought a Catholic social organization should be founded which was to include the whole of Germany. During the deliberations of the committee of organization Windthorst demanded with all the force of his personal influence an organization that should oppose above all the Social Democrats; moreover, the end to be sought in questions of social economics should be the encouragement and exercise of right principles.
The draft of a constitution, which Windthorst wrote while ill, was adopted at the meeting held on October 24,1890, for the establishment of the union at the Hotel Ernst in Cologne. Notwithstanding his illness, Windthorst attended this meeting; on the evening of the same day, the name having been agreed upon, the Volksverein for Catholic Germany was founded. From the outset Windthorst had Munchen-Gladbach in view as the chief center of the organization. The working-men’s benefit society, of which the manufacturer Franz Brandts was president and Franz Hitze, member of the Reichstag, was general secretary, had existed in this town for ten years. At Windthorst’s suggestion Brandts was chosen president, and Karl Trimborn, lawyer, of Cologne, vice-president. Dr. Joseph Drammer, of Cologne, was made secretary. Windthorst himself accepted the honorary presidency offered him, and up to his death in 1891 followed with great interest all that concerned the new society. Whenever necessary he interposed with advice and action, so that the People’s Union is justly called Windthorst’s legacy to the German Catholics.
The newly elected managing committee began work with energy. On November 22, 1890, appeared the first appeal “To the Catholic People”, which set forth the aims of the society and invited to membership. On December 20 the second appeal was issued, which called upon all supporters of the Catholic cause to work for the increase of the membership. A like appeal was sent in a circular letter to a large number of prominent Catholics of the empire. The German bishops were also requested to give their blessing and their influential aid to the union, a request which all most readily agreed to. A number of bishops officially called upon their diocesans to join the union. On December 23 the pope sent an Apostolic blessing in a gracious letter to the managing committee of the union. Owing to these measures the appeals of the association found a hearty welcome throughout Germany, and large numbers joined it. On February 14, 1891, the union held its first public mass meeting at Cologne; at this session Archbishop Krementz of Cologne made the closing address. Other assemblies were held in other sections of the country. Thus Windthorst could be told shortly before his death that the society had secured its first hundred thousand members. Since then the People’s Union has been established in all parts of Germany, though it is not equally strong everywhere. In the early years the eastern provinces of Prussia and Baden and Bavaria stood somewhat aloof from the movement. In 1891 it had 109,899 members; in 1901, 185,364; in 1911, 700,727; on April 1, 1912, 729,800.
ORGANIZATION AND WORK.—According to paragraph 1 of its bylaws the object of the Volksverein is the opposition of heresy and revolutionary tendencies in the social-economic world as well as the defense of the Christian order in society. This object is to be attained by the personal work of the members, by instructive lectures, and by the circulation of good printed matter. Every grown German Catholic who pays one mark (25 cents) annually to the society is a member of the union and entitled to a vote. The Union is governed by a board of directors of at least seven members, who are elected for one year by the general assembly; the president and vice-president are also, according to the bylaws, elected by the general assembly. The board of directors selects from its members the secretary and treasurer. The Volksverein is not merely a general organization of German Catholics; it is also intended to form a local Catholic organization in the various districts. The directors of the local organizations, some 50,000 men, who form the main strength of these local bodies, are the persons responsible for the distribution of the publications of the Union, the acquisition of new members, etc. In the individual communes the leading director is the manager; there is a district or departmental manager for every large number of connected communes. This latter manager is generally commissioned directly by the central organization or by the diocesan or provincial representatives of the central organization. In all business matters the local directors or local managers employ the services of this district or depart-mental manager. The larger cities have generally a manager of their own, who ranks with the manager of a district or department. There are 15 diocesan or provincial representatives over the managers of the departments, through whom all business matters with the central organization are arranged. The head of the entire union is the central bureau at Munchen-Gladbach, which acts for the board of directors, and which forms the chief court of appeal for the diocesan or provincial representatives. Where there are no such representatives it is the court of appeal for the managers of the departments or of the larger cities. All the members of the organization are closely united in their activity. The representatives of the board of directors meet several times a year to discuss the most pressing affairs of the union, while the central bureau sees to the execution of its decisions. In addition there is a general meeting of the board of directors annually during the session of the Catholic Congress of Germany; the most important questions are kept for the decision of this annual meeting. This annual meeting of the board of directors is supplemented by a meeting, held at the same time, of delegates of the Volksverein from all parts of Germany. The meetings of managers for the communes, government departments, and provinces are responsible in their turn for the putting into practical effect of the new proposals and advice of the higher governing body.
Formerly the legal domicile of the Volksverein was Mainz; since 1908 it has been Munchen-Gladbach. There are at the central bureau 3 directors and 15 literary assistants. Since 1905 the legal organ of the union has been the “Volksvereinsverlag, Gesellschaft mit beschrankter Haftung” (People’s Union Publishing Company, Limited), which employs about 50 salesmen and 70 workmen for the organization, the book-trade, and the printing establishment. The work of the central bureau, which is chiefly literary, is many-sided. The most important questions of the day are treated in the “Sozialkorrespondenz”, which is sent without charge every Saturday to about 300 Catholic newspapers, in order to aid the Catholic Press in its struggle against socio-economic heresies and in the promotion of social reforms. By means of the periodical “Der Volksverein”, which appears eight times annually, the members of the union are instructed especially concerning the most important apologetic and social-economic questions of the times, and as to the immediate practical problems of the various provincial diets. The central bureau issues explanatory and instructive fly-sheets and appeals in special cases and on suitable occasions; these are circulated throughout Germany to the number of many millions. In addition the central bureau publishes series of works on home economics and work for the young. It has three collections of pamphlets, at five Pfenntge a copy, on social, apologetic, and public questions; the Pfennig papers “Soziale Tagesfragen”, “Apologetische Tagesfragen”, pamphlets and six periodicals, namely: since 1901, the “Prasidenskonferenz”, for ecclesiastics who are leaders of the union; since 1907, the “Kranz”, for girls; since 1908, the “Jung Land”, for boys; “Efeuranken”, for young people with an advanced education; since 1910, “Frauenwirtschaft”, for the training of women in home and industrial economics; “Soziale Kultur”, a popular periodical for the educated, since 1905 combined with the union’s “Arbeiterwohl”. A further branch of the work of the central bureau is the bureau of social-economic information connected with it, which gives all desired information in reference to suitable writings on various questions of social economics and social institutions, on working-men’s benevolent institutions, advice as to practical work in social economics, refutation of socio-political attacks, etc.
The same object is kept in view by the sociological library of the union, containing some 35,000 volumes, which can be used without charge by any member. There is also the people’s bureaus, thirty of which have been established with the aid of the People’s Union; for a very small sum or without charge, these give information in questions as to working-men’s insurance, rent, taxes, and similar matters, and draw up any necessary legal documents. In addition economic studies are promoted by the course lasting two months annually, established at the central organization of the union for the training of officials of professional associations, and of associations for the different social classes; the courses, one each, for farmers, mechanics, merchants, clerks, teachers; a general vacation course in sociology for priests and laity, as well as courses lasting several days in the various provinces. To this work must be added the numerous meetings held by the local organizations, some 600 meetings annually, and at election times even more. With each year the People’s Union labors with much success in new fields of social-economic work, and thus devotes its efforts equally to all classes of the nation. Its greatest achievement is its success in arousing large sections’, of the Catholic population from indifference in regard to the socio-economic questions of the times, in training Catholics to social-political work in the field of legislation and to associational independence, and in making the Catholic population a bulwark against the revolutionary Social Democracy which is hostile to religion. The Volksverein, therefore, has not only gained the enthusiastic love of the Catholic people, but it has also received the recognition of the national and ecclesiastical authorities, and has been imitated in other countries.