May 1995 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor.

University of British Columbia

Newsletter no. 4, May 1995


1.”Christianity and Resistance” Conference, Birmingham, April 19-23 1995

2. 7th International Bonhoeffer Congress

3. Meetings


1. “Christianity and Resistance” Conference, Birmingham, April 19-23 1995.

This conference held last month in Birmingham University with the full title “Christianity and Resistance: National Socialist Germany 1933-1945”. A conference on Moral Responsibility and Citizenship. In memory of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester 1929-1957″ was the main occasion in Britain to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, and other members of the German Resistance at the Nazis’ hands in the last days of the war in April 1945. The meeting was splendidly organised by Andrew Chandler, a young member of the History Department, and proved to be a stimulating, academically scholarly, and yet sobering occasion.

Some 125 participants attended, including several from various countries overseas, Germany, U.S.A., Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand. Many members of the British section of the Bonhoeffer Society and numerous clergy, including 5 Anglican bishops, were present. I am glad to say that several of our fellowship were also present, so they may wish to add their comments and reflections.

The conference had two foci – first the moral dilemmas of the German Resistance Movement, and second, the response of the churches. On the former, Klemens von Klemperer and Beate Ruhm von Oppen gave thoughtful addresses about the moral climate in which the German Resistance had to operate, while Peter Hoffmann of McGill spoke feelingly about the various steps which led these men to the desperate attempt to assassinate Hitler. In addition, we had a unique presentation by two eye-witnesses, Chistabel Bielenburg and Marion Grafin Donhoff, who spoke of their personal experiences during this traumatic time Ursula Buttner from Hamburg gave a most excellent paper about the plight of those persons in “mixed” Christian-Jewish families. My own paper dealt with the question of why the German churches did not do more to resist, when I suggested that part of the reason lay in the loss of Christian credibility as a result of the mutually contradictory stances taken by the churches during the first world war. (Mirabile dictu, this was printed (almost in full) by the Church Times in its issue of April 21st, p. 5, including photographs they had somewhere dug up. If there is any interest, I could retype it for you in a subsequent Newsletter).

The second focus was on the Church in Britain, then and now. Erwin Robertson came to introduce his new little book on Bishop Bell and the Germans, which is useful in giving more detail than contained in Jasper’s biography, but hardly said anything new, or examined the question: why? More stimulating was the presentation by Frank Field, a prominent member of the Labour Party and MP for Birkenhead, who gave his “Political Reflections on Bishop George Bell” , and suggested that Bell might well have been an appropriate choice for the Archbishopric of Canterbury even earlier in his career, but that his well-known stance on the bombing of German civilians dished his chances in 1944, after the death of Archbishop Temple, and he was never given another chance. He speculated as to what kind of stance the Church of England might have taken in the post-war years if Bell had been in charge instead of Fisher. All very good stuff, but perhaps a closer acquaintance with Bell’s papers, now in Lambeth Palace Library, would have induced a more cautious assessment. The key-note speech in the final banquet was given by Shirley Williams, also a prominent member, formerly, of the Labour Party, and later of the S.D.P., and now a Baroness in the House of Lords as well as a Professor at Harvard. She spoke movingly about the dictates of conscience for resistance, and cited the example of her mother Vera Brittain, whose work during and after the first world war is certainly an inspiration for church members.

The conference concluded with a most moving service in Birmingham Cathedral, when the readings and service programme included references to those murdered 50 years ago, at which the Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, preached. Unfortunately I was not able to be present at the final plenary when I believed some resolutions were agreed upon for church members’ guidance. If any of you brought this back and could share it, I would be glad to circulate it to everyone on our list.


2. 7th International Bonhoeffer Congress.

This will take place in Cape Town from January 7-12 1996, under the auspices of John de Gruchy ( Anyone who would like to offer papers should contact John, or write to the American contact, Prf. Michael Lukens, St Norbert Coll., DePere, Wisconsin 54115,


3. In the meanwhile Roland Blaich, Walla Walla College, Washington State USA attended a meeting of the Assoc. of Seventh-day Adventist Historians to read a paper on “Health Reform and Race Hygiene. Adventists and the Biomedical Vision of the Third Reich”. He has kindly sent us a summary of his paper as follows:

“A foreign sect that resembled Jews in many respects, German Seventh-day Adventists were particularly vulnerable in the Third Reich. Since Nazi leaders were advocates of health reform, German Adventists used their strengths in health reform asa basis on which to work with the Nazi state, and to court its goodwill. As the church joined the state in working for health reform, its “health message” underwent a transformation. German Adventist publications soon adopted elements of the Nazi biomedical/racist agenda as well. A curious path led from caritas, the caring for the weak and less fortunate, to endorsing elimination of the weak through eugenics, as the work of God. Collaboration with the state may have saved the church, but at what cost?” Must have been an interesting occasion. I wonder what the Adventists made of this episode?

I will be glad to hear from any of you who would like to contribute to subsequent Newsletters, and hope next time to report on some new books in this field.


John Conway