March 1995 Newsletter (2)

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


Newsletter 2 – March 1995

1. 25th Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, Provo, Utah, March 4-8, 1995

2. Introductions

3. Book review

a) David Blackbourn, Marpingen Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Ninteenth-Century Germany, published by Oxford U.P 1993.

Dear Friends,


1. 25th Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, Provo, Utah, March 4-8, 1995

The Silver anniversary conference of this organisation was held in the idyllic setting of the Salt Lake Valley in Utah under cloudless skies, with marvellous vistas of the snow capped mountains. However, the contrast was startling between the strongly moralistic (some would say rigidly puritanical) ethos of the Mormon community and the horrendous deeds of violence, death and dehumanization of the Holocaust, about which we heard during four days of a very full programme. Perhaps it was appropriate that, for the first time, this conference should be held at Brigham Young University, in order to help to overcome the “incomprehensibility” which many prominent Mormons expressed as their reaction to the Holocaust. Over three hundred persons registered, perhaps too many to avoid having overlapping sessions, or several papers which did not meet the appropriate academic standards. On the other hand, it was once again very valuable to hear the testimonies of some 25 survivors of the Holocaust, including several who related their experiences in concentration camps. An excellent innovation was the invitation to some 50 former U.S. army personnel who had participated in the liberation of these camps just 5o years ago. All of them, and their families were appreciative of this mark of recognition. The “Liberators” session provided a most interesting example of the difficulty of combining eye-witness testimony with the more critical analysis of professional historians. Historians are, of course, paid to be sceptical, and are well aware of the dangers of post-hoc elaboration and glorification. But, as Henry Huttenbach found, his well-founded account of the US Army’s battle plans in 1945, which, he contended, did not include any direct provision for the liberation of forced-labour or concentration camps, aroused great emotional revulsion from those who had actually been there. Despite his clear disclaimer that he was not casting aspersions of any individuals involved, the strong reaction against this dry-as-dust academic presentation evoked a clear emotional hostility against all such “demythologising” by professional historians. The impact of these terrifying events of 50 years ago was obviously still too strong to allow for any rational admission of the Army’s failure to forsee the need for support measures for the liberated victims, who naturally enough poured out their gratitude to their rescuers, even if the latter were only passing by in their pursuit of the enemy forces.

Several German participants took part in the conference, though unfortunately none of them was a church historian. However, there was one useful session on the German churches. Doris Bergen presented an interesting analysis of the “Deutsche Christen” and German missionary endeavours; Robert Ross updated his account of the American religious press’ descriptions of the Church Struggle; Ronald Webster of Toronto described the efforts of leading German protestants after the war to give not only pastoral care, but also political support to convicted German war criminals, largely from a mistaken nationalistic sympathy; and a young Polish scholar presented a well-researched paper on the religious affiliations of concentration camp guards, which confirmed our impressions that moral allegiances played virtually no role in the actions of such men.

Another fine feature of the programme was the perfomance by Al Staggs, a Baptist minister, of his 45 minute monologue on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This reenactment of Bonhoeffer in his prison cell uses the material to be found in the Letters and Papers from prison, as well as other pieces of Bonhoeffer’s writings. Staggs now perfoms this professionally all over the United States, in a most convincing and thoughtful production. It was an entirely appropriate way to mark our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom which falls on April 9th. (I would be interested to hear of any other such commemorative events.)

Since this was the 25th anniversary conference, the opportunity was taken to pay tribute to the founders, Franklin Littell and Hubert Locke, who were presented with appropriate plaques of recognition at the main banquet. Their skilful overcoming of the innumerable difficulties involved in holding such conferences, peripatetically in different sites in the United States, and their fine upholding of the conferences’ main purpose of advancing the cause of reconciliation between Jews and Christians, despite the appalling record of Christian passivity and Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, were once again acknowledged and applauded.

Next year’s conference will be held on the first weekend in March in Minneapolis.


2. Introductions:

A new member to our list is Hubert Locke,Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. As mentioned above, Hubert was the co-founder of the Scholars’ Conference in 1970, when he was then attached to Wayne State University in Detroit. He tells me that he was once a policeman, but then came to the Chicago Theological Seminary to study theology, and was amazed to find, in the 1950s, that the discussions were almost all about German theologians, despite this topic being conspicuously absent from the curriculum.

This aroused his interest in the German Church Struggle, and led him to collaborate with Franklin Littell to relate these events with the Holocaust. His notable contribution on the German Church Struggle is to be found in the book he edited, The Church Confronts the Nazis, which was prepared for the 1984 conference in Seattle marking the 50th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration. But, in addition, his interest in his Afro-American heritage, and the deeply-felt parallels between the experience of exile felt by both blacks and Jews, has led to his writing a new book, The black anti-semitism controversy,(1994) which expresses his hurt and pain at the recent sad outbursts of black resentment against the Jewish people. I can commend it highly.


3. Book review

Very briefly: A splendid new book by David Blackbourn, published by Oxford U.P 1993, is Marpingen. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Ninteenth-Century Germany. This is a fascinating account of a small village near Trier, where children “saw” the Virgin in a nearby wood in 1876. Blackbourn skilfully analyses the whole background of heightened religious feelings during the onslaught of the Kulturkampf and the economic depression of those years, and describes the heavy-handed reaction of the Prussian authorities against such ‘mediaeval obscurantism”. He steers an excellent line between sympathy and scepticism, and demonstrates very well how historians should deal with this troublesome matter of finding the right balance between demythologising and credulity.

Best wishes to you all

John Conway