March 1996 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway,Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter no 14 – March 1996


Vancouver, B.C.

Dear Friends,

1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer

To mark Bonhoeffer’s ninetieth birthday, the International Bonhoeffer Society organised its 7th Congress in Cape Town, under the capable leadership of John de Gruchy, attended by 280 scholars from all continents, which undoubtedly helped to recognise that, in the new South Africa, the universities are now welcomed back as fully members of the international scholarly community.

John Moses reports that a number of African speakers who had been prominent opponents and victims of apartheid bore testimony to the relevance of Bonhoeffer’s witness in their situation. John himself delivered a paper on “Bonhoeffer reception in the GDR 1945-89”, which was much appreciated by several former East Germans, many of whom had formed cells of Bonhoeffer students, drawing inspiration from his works. The proceedings will be published by Erdmanns in the USA.

Meanwhile in Germany, new efforts are being made to overturn the legal rulings by SS courts, under which Bonhoeffer was condemned to death, which are still considered to be in force. Legal rehabilitation would finally put an end to the defamatory view that Bonhoeffer was a “traitor” to his nation, an opinion which was still widely held in the 1950s as for instance by a 1956 court which upheld “the right of the state to maintain itself” against such “dissident elements”.

In the United States and Canada, a new initiative has started a new Internet forum on Bonhoeffer. To subscribe, send a message to with the text

2) New Books:

It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you a first rate study by a Canadian author, which has significant findings for us all.

Duff Crerar, Padres in No Man’s Land. Canadian chaplains in the Great War. (McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Religion, 16), McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston 1995, xvi + 424 pp, Can$ 39.95 Duff Crerar’s excellent description of the Canadian military chaplaincy during the first world war does much more than cover a long-neglected and largely unknown chapter in Canadian ecclesiastical and military history. This account of how the Canadian church mobilized its manpower in response to the call to arms should be read by friend and foe alike, because the issues raised were, and still are, relevant not only to the events of eighty years ago, or to the troops of a minor overseas participant. Through his careful research, his generous and tolerant ecumenical tone, and his obvious sympathy for those involved, Crerar has given us a significant and heartfelt tribute to the men who served their country with such devotion. It deserves to be read and studied, not just by Canadians, but by anyone concerned with the successes and failures of Christian witness in the twentieth century.

The Canadian chaplaincy service began in a bumbling amateur fashion, high on inflated patriotic rhetoric, strongly influenced by political and social jobbery and lacking in support from either the military authorities or even its home church constituency. Crerar’s opening chapter describes the organization of the service under a self-seeking opinionated Anglican clergyman with connections to the Orange lodges of southern Ontario, whose inadequacies finally led to a revolt from his own staff. Not until 1916, when John Almond of Montreal took over, did the chaplaincy gain an effective presence, and establish its credibility with both the military and civilian authorities. By 1918 Almond had command of a multi- denominational force of dedicated priests, whose prowess in the field and the gratitude they had earned from the soldiers would, he believed, be indispensable for the spiritul regeneration of post-war Canada.

Crerar’s writing becomes more vivid as he describes the padres’ progress from home parish to battalion or division headquarters, to assembly points and training camps, to overseas staging areas, and to the initial and often prolonged stay in England. It was often a disillusioning process. The padres preached a heady mixture of personal consecration, moral purity, duty and self-sacrifice. But they were often appalled to find that their men preferred to find solace in drunkenness, profanity and sexual misconduct in order to alleviate the disruptions and boredoms of army life. Equally depressing was the frequent disdain and lack of support from commanding officers. A continuing battle ensued with the army medical service’s attempts to combat venereal disease by adequate prophylactic devices and lectures, which the chaplains could only regard as an open invitation to immorality. Compulsory church parades proved to be counter-productive to any real spiritual growth, as chaplains struggled to get a hearing from reluctant audiences, who increasingly resented this usurpation of their spare time. By contrast hospital visiting offered the chance to admire the quiet courage and heroic endurance of the wounded, which helped to relieve the chaplains’ sense of fatigue and discouragement. “In their progress towards the front, chaplains passed through a powerful psychological process in which they increasingly identified with the soldier, idealized his character and ascribed a sacramental quality to his endurance and loyalty.” (p.109).

The following chapters on the chaplain’s service in the field of battle are most moving. Despite Army regulations barring non- combatants from the trenches, chaplains increasingly recognized that their hold on the men grew as they shared the perils and dangers of the front lines In the face of so much death, the chaplains refused to accept their original relegation to the rear. >From 1916 onwards, the terrible demands of attritional trench warfare made morale a compelling concern to the military leaders, and the chaplains’ role was correspondingly upgraded. But despite their displays of heroism and valour, the mood of the chaplains’ reports shifted from optimism to grim endurance. The awful toll of the casualty rates, and the suffering they daily.witnessed in the dressing stations and field hospitals, belied the patriotic rhetoric of earlier years. Their underlying assumption that moral courage and spiritual devotion would surely triumph, and their constant sermons on the virtues of decency, duty, obedience and sacrifice, now had to be re-thought. Increasingly they came to place their hopes on the prospects of a post-war revival and renewal. Most of the chaplains testified that their years overseas had been an edifying and deepening experience for them, and were sure that the comradeship of the battle-fields would continue and give them strength in their post-war lives.

After November 1918 the chaplains were convinced that victory proved that God had been on their side. Their war-time idealism and fellowship could and should be transplanted to the parishes, and translated into a grand crusade for the realization of the coming Kingdom of God. They called for reforms in both church and state. They advocated the democratization of church structures, the updating of archaic liturgies, the abandonment of sectarian denominationalism, and the promotion of an active social gospel. They sought political reforms with a strongly socialist tendency. In short, as Crerar convincingly points out, the war confirmed the kind of national idealism and evangelical fervour they had learnt in the pre-war seminaries.

But the results were highly disillusioning. Neither the Church nor the state authorities were willing to take their advice. The government rapidly dismantled the chaplaincy service. The churches sidelined the returning veterans, and many were too burnt out to mobilize support for their millenial campign for post-war regeneration. Few Canadians seems to be listening for such a clarion call to action.

Crerar clearly takes the chaplains’ side in blaming the ecclesiastical and government leaders for not responding to this opportunity, even though he admits that the radicalism of many chaplains evaporated as they returned to parish duties. Their vision faded as internal struggles in both church and state took up more energy and attention.

But in fact Crerar’s charitable appreciation of the chaplains’ endeavours fails to look at the larger picture. After 1918, a world- wide wave of scepticism cast corrosive doubts upon the credibility of all Christian churches. Increasingly Christians were challenged to face the question they had avoided before – and which Crerar skirts around – how could such a war, with such appalling losses, be reconciled with the Gospel of Jesus, the Prince of Peace? How could each of the warring sides have made such confident, but mutually contradictory, appeals to the same God, or have claimed to have had divine approval for such murderous slaughter? The chaplains’ readiness to portray the war in moral and spiritual terms, the propagation of the idea of personal sacrifice and death as a means of moral regeneration, the invocation of the spirit of militarism, the demonization of the nations’ enemies, and the belief that the testing of war would lead the populations back to the churches, all now came back to haunt the proponents of this religious patriotism. The cynical anger expressed in the anti-war literature of the late 1920s and 1930s not merely attacked these warrior-priests as hypocrites, but more fundamentally challenged the faith they had sought to uphold. It would not be too much to say that much of Christianity has never recovered from these disastrous wounds.

John S.Conway
University of British Columbia

3) Just arrived today:

Doris Bergen, Twisted Cross. The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich, University of North Carolina Press 1996.

Congratulations, Doris!.

To be reviewed in my next Newsletter.

4)The Church in the Palatinate (continued)

Following my review of H.Reichrath’s biography of Landesbischof Diehl (Newsletter no 12), I received a sharply critical letter from the publisher, accusing me of portraying the Pfalz Church in overly black (mainly) and white terms. Fortunately we now have a more scholarly, if brief, account in the two chapters by K.H.Debus in eds. G.Nestler and H.Ziegler, Die Pfalz unterm Hakenkreuz, Pfalzische Verlagsanstalt 1993, pp 227-292, which reproduces the text of Diehl’s declaration on the occasion of the National Plebiscite of 19 August 1934:

“Der evangelische Landesbischof an das Pfalzer Volk. Noch niemals ist ein Volk so nach den Grundlagen der christlichen Sittlichkeit regiert worden, wie es im Dritten Reich Adolf Hitlers geschieht. Es ist deshalb unbedingte Gewissenspflicht all derer, die es mit ihrem Volk und mit ihrem Glauben ernst nehmen, in unerschutterlicher Treue zu diesem Manne zu stehen, der in hochster Not uns als Retter von Gott gesandt worden ist. Ohne ihn waren unsere Gotteshauser in Rauch und Flammen aufgegangen, ohne sein Kommen wurden entmenschte Christenhasser uns verfolgen und knebeln. Wer wagt es als Christ, da noch teilnahmelos und gleichgultig beiseite zu stehen? Evangelisches Christenvolk der Pfalz! Sei nicht undankbar, bekenne Dich as Glied Deines Volkes, mit dem Du auf Leben und Tod verbunden bist, zu unserem unvergleichlichen Fuhrer. Fur uns gibt es am Sonntag nur eins: Wir stimmen freudigen Herzens:”Ja”.

5) Joining us are:

Wesley Smith, 210 Route 31 South,
Pennington, N.J. 08534, USA
(5th yr Ph.D stud.Princeton)

Rev.Frans Nelson,
2155 Angus St. Unit#1,
Regina, Sask S4T 2A1
(co-organiser of the Bonhoeffer Network)

Scott Kline,
McGill University,
Montreal, P.Q.

Richard Wiggers,
Dept. of History,
Georgetown University,
Washington, D.C. USA

Professor Dr Josef Becker,
University of Augsburg,
Bavaria, Germany

Peggy Obrecht,
1000 St George’s Road,
Baltimore MD 21210, USA

Dr Chris Clark,
St Catherine’s College,
Cambridge. U.K.

Dr H.Ritter,
Western Washington University,
Bellingham, Wash. USA

Karen A.Dunaway,
Kansas State University

A Lenten thought from 2 Timothy 4: 2-4:
Preach the Word; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, will turn to teachers to suit their own desires. They will not listen to the truth, but instead will wander away to myths.

With best wishes to you all,
John Conway