Bismarck's influence upon German domestic affairs was no less apparent than his international stature. The empire, soon after its establishment, was disturbed by the Kulturkampf, a fierce struggle between the state on the one hand and the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic Center party on the other. The conflict initiated a period of cooperation between Bismarck and the liberals, who were violently anticlerical. However, the struggle lost intensity after Bismarck failed to break the power of the Center party, which made large gains in the Reichstag in 1878. The detente with the liberals foundered in the late 1870s after Bismarck's refusal to appoint three liberals to his ministry and his adoption of protective tariffs in place of the liberals' free trade position.
Relations between Bismarck and the Center party continued to improve, and the chancellor turned his attention toward the socialists, who had increased their strength in the Reichstag, particularly after the fusion of the Lassalle and Marxian socialists (1875). Bismarck at first met the socialist opposition with extremely repressive measures. The antisocialist law passed in 1878 prohibited the circulation of socialist literature, empowered the police to break up socialist meetings, and put the trial and punishment of socialists under the jurisdiction of police courts.
Although the socialists were initially weakened, they again began to increase their number in parliament. Now, partly to weaken the socialists and partly as a result of his policy of economic nationalism, Bismarck instituted a program of sweeping social reform. Between 1883 and 1887, despite violent opposition, laws were passed providing for sickness, accident, and old age insurance; limiting woman and child labor; and establishing maximum working hours. Bismarck's new economic policy also resulted in the rapid expansion of German commerce and industry and the acquisition of overseas colonies and spheres of influence (see Germany).
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