April 1996 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway,Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter no 15 (Vol II, no 3) – April 1996


Dear Friends,

Conference Report:

The Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, Minneapolis, March 3rd-6th.

Doris Bergen reports:

“The participation of some 250 people dedicated to studying the Holocaust and its implications generated an impressive energy. But the size of the conference had its disadvantages, since many speakers were limited to only 10 minutes(!) and so did not have time to make their points clearly or fully. Too many simultaneous sessions present a danger to the scholarly integrity of the conference. (As usual the Holocaust predominated over the churches’ responses). My own paper dealt with military chaplains and the Holocaust. I produced evidence that German chaplains were aware of genocidal crimes, that in some cases they promoted attacks on Jews, but that their most significant contribution was probably to “normalize” for many of their men the brutality in which they were implicated. I also touched on the role of British and U.S. chaplains after the opening of Nazi camps at the end of the war. In contrast to their German counterparts, Allied chaplains served to raise awareness of the scale of Nazi crimes, by organizing religious burials and memorial services and in some cases, by requiring local Germans to attend.”

Book reviews:

1) It gives me great pleasure to offer you a review of a book by one of our own members, and to congratulate her on her fine achievement. (This will appear later in German Studies Review) Doris Bergen. Twisted Cross: the German Christian movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill and London: U. of N.Carolina Press 1996. Pp. xiv, 341. Cloth $39.95, Paper $16.95.

In the historiography of the German Church Struggle, the group of pro-Nazis, calling themselves the “German Christians”, are usually dismissed as extremists, heretics, career opportunists, political adventurers disguised as clergymen, or in other pejorative terms. Their attempt to synthesize Christianity and National Socialism, and to purge it of all Jewish influences, was rightly regarded as a dangerous deviation. No one had a good word to say for them.

Doris Bergen is the first English-speaking scholar to take the movement seriously enough to produce an excellently-crafted analysis of the factors which gave rise to this attempt to unite Volk and Church, and which enabled them to maintain a significant presence throughout the Nazi years. As a Canadian, now teaching in the USA, she is far enough removed from the polemical in- fighting within the German Protestant Church, which fuelled the campaign of disparagement both before and after 1945. Her insights are therefore all the more revealing of the weaknesses apparent in German Protestant theology in these crucial years.

Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the expulsion of the Kaiser and his fellow sovereigns removed Protestantism’s overarching and governing rulers. Subsequently each provincial church body was engaged in heated and often conflicting theological debate about their identity and authority. No issue was more vital than the relations of church to society and to the newly-established secular democracy of the Weimar Republic. Confusion and contradictions resulted. Much of the support of the German Christians came from their appeal for a unified national church, overcoming these divisive tendencies, and hand-in-glove with the cause of national and political revival as espoused by the Nazis. Their adoption of ethnic Germanness as the essential characteristic of the church easily incorporated traditional anti-Jewish prejudices and added the new Nazi categories of blood and race as prerequisites for membership in the Volkskirche. They enthusiastically adopted Luther’s vicious polemic against “the Jews and their lies”, and vigorously attacked such debilitating Jewish survivals in the church as the Old Testament, the pharisaic morality of the Apostle Paul, or the “weakness” of the crucifixion iconography. Hence too their antagonism to their colleagues’ rigidly dogmatic defence of inherited orthodoxy. Instead they proclaimed the virtues of a strong, manly and heroic Christianity, and readily saw the Nazi revolution as issuing in a new era of “positive Christianity”.

The German Christians were in fact fighting on two fronts. They were attacked by the traditionalists in the Confessing Church for having sold out the Gospel by advocating such non-biblical criteria as blood and race. On the other hand, they were also attacked by the more radical Nazis, who, like Hitler, saw all branches of the Christian church as being “the illegitimate offspring of Judaism”. In fact, when it became clear that the German Christians could not unite all sections of the Protestant churches behind the Nazi Party, its leaders lost interest in them and withdrew their support. Despite their fervent claims to be the Fuehrer’s most loyal followers, the German Christians were subjected to the same discriminatory measures taken by the Party and/or the Gestapo to marginalize the churches, and to drive them out of the public arena.

Much of Dr Bergen’s account of this ill-fated movement has been told before, though she adds some well-chosen examples of its rhetoric. But the most novel and perhaps more interesting chapters of her book deal with the treatment of gender issues. She rightly recognizes the centrality of “manliness” in this male- dominated movement, with its extensive use of militaristic language and metaphor, its pronounced campaigning ideology against the threat of Judaism, and its portrayal of Christianity solely in heroic triumphant terms. These “storm-troopers of Jesus Christ” sought to keep alive the memories of their comradeship from the first world war, saw the Nazi movement as a continuation of masculine revival, deplored the effeminateness of much church life, and tried to persuade more men to return to the church. But why did so many women contribute legitimacy, energy and resources to such a movement in which their involvement was essentially ironic? In Bergen’s view, these women were eager to conflate their religious and political loyalties. They welcomed Hitler’s re-imposition of authoritarian leadership, and enthusiastically endorsed the Nazi adulation of motherhood as complementing the military virtues of their men-folk. The cult of motherhood provided a space and identity for such women. As the guardians of Christian morality, they willingly supported the ideas of racial purity and devotion to Nazi ideology which characterized the German Christian faith. But the prevalence of women’s groups and activities, though indispensable, challenged the male hierarchy. Prominent women leaders, such Guida Diehl, despite their political reliability, found themselves excluded from the inner counsels. They could never become Christian storm-troopers. This ambivalence was never resolved. Most shameful of all, and ultimately self-destructive were the German Christian’s resolute efforts to remove all traces of Judaism from church life. Ultimately the German Christians preached Christianity as the polar opposite of Judaism, Jesus as the arch-antisemite, and the cross as the symbol of war against the Jews. Their campaign found institutional form in 1939 with the founding of the Institute for Research into and Elimination of Jewish Influence in German Church Life. Prominent theologians lent their services to this Institute. Both directly and indirectly its publications and services underwrote the Nazi efforts to destroy Jews. Only the exigencies of the war brought its polemics to an end.

Doris Bergen steers a fine line between describing the German Christians’ activities and deploring the results. She rightly points out that their promotion of anti-intellectualism, anticlericalism and antilegalism produced only confusion The collapse of the Nazi regime put a quick end to all of their aspirations, and led to a general amnesia about their former exploits. Some of the more prominent clergymen were dismissed or relegated to distant rural parishes. But no general reckoning followed, as the victorious Confessing Church was anxious to incorporate the rank and file into the rebuilding of the new German Evangelical Church. There was never any open expression of regret that the German Christians for twelve years had tried to create an anti-Jewish people’s church, or acknowledgment of how much their polemics had contributed to blocking any more favourable opinion about Jews and Judaism. But just because such views were already present in German society before the Nazis came to power, so their romanticized notion of church doctrine and gendered version of the church flowed easily back into the mainstream of the society around them.

Doris Bergen’s account stands as a trenchant warning about the dangers which so easily then, and indeed still, beset a church which forsakes doctrinal orthodoxy in pursuit of popular political favour, or cultivates nationalist ethnicity at the expense of the Gospel. She is to be congratulated on so vividly depicting this dismal story.


2) Erich Loest, Nikolaikirche, Linden Verlag Leipzig 1995 A novel about the personalities around the Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the centre of events leading to the overthrow of the unlamented German Democratic Republic in 1989. A good knowledge of colloquial German is required. (See review by S.Hilsberg in DAS PARLAMENT, Nr.8, 16 Feb 96, p.22)

3)Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of mourning. The Great War in European cultural history. Cambridge University Press 1995. 310pp

In the Great War of 1914-1918, millions of young men were killed in action, unpredictably, without warning and often without any known grave. Jay Winter’s sad but splendid book is essentially about mass bereavement, and how the families and those who survived sought to come to terms with this unprecedented loss. The religious dimension was ambivalently present from the beginning. For many, the Christian Church’s endorsement of this bloody slaughter was too much of a contradiction, and the Christian message of hope and love too inadequate to console their despair and hopelessness. Even on the battlefield, the soldiers turned to an older tradition of folk-religion or fatalism; at home some of their relatives turned to spiritualism to retain their contact with the newly dead.

After the end of the war, the more urgent question was how to bury these fallen heroes in a fitting manner which could attempt to heal the sense of overwhelming grief. Winter’s descriptions of the commemorative art and rituals of the post-war period are brief but evocative. His chapters on the war memorials and the mourning process outline how both the victor and vanquished sought to preserve the memory of the fallen in tangible forms, as the places where some sort of meaning could be found for the inexplicable waste of young lives, and where individual and collective grief could be expressed. These frozen monuments scattered throughout Europe are still there today, silent witnesses of the strength of feelings of seventy or eighty years ago. Whether in traditional iconography or in more radical expressionist art, such memorials sought to give visible expression to the desire for transcendence, enabling the survivors to accept the brutal facts of death in war, and to help the bereaved recover from their sudden and irreversible loss.

In the second half of the book Winter explores the cultural codes and languages of mourning. In the new media of film, millions of viewers were able to share their common sufferings, often linked by mythic themes of redemption suffused with national pride. Artists like Otto Dix, Max Beckmann or Stanley Spencer tried to express the horrors and dehumanisation of war within more ancient traditions of allegorical and apocalyptic drama, in a language halfway between hope and despair. So too, in their anger and pain, the writers and poets of the war-time generation turned away from the sentimentalising of war to a more effective catharsis which might offer the possibility, if not of reconciliation then of healing. In the case of Henri Barbusse, for instance, the need to give an answer in the face of the silent and demanding dead was not just a matter of memory but of solidarity. Conventional religious or political sentiment was not sufficient.

In the prose and poetry of the war and post-war periods, the dead returned to the living, when these authors composed a series of meditations to keep the voices of the fallen alive, by speaking for them, to them, about them. They protested against civilian hypocrisy and self-deception, and expressed instead both the dignity and the revulsion of the lost against their inflicted degradations. They owed it to their comrades to ask the reason why. Patriotism was indeed not enough. But could they evoke compassion? The soldier-poets had witnessed fear and death and spoke about them to the yet unknowing world, seeking to find some meaning, and to proclaim the sacredness of life through the metaphors of resurrection. Yet the extent of the wreckage overwhelmed them. They remain ambivalent.

Winter’s argument is that, to the architects, artists and writers, the traditional vocabulary of mourning helped to mediate healing. The sites of memory faced the past not the future, for the past offered a form of aesthetic redemption, both remembering and forgetting, as the process of separation from the dead took place. In this task all of Europe was for once united by the bond of mutual bereavement. The galling irony was that it was not enough. When Germany marched again, the sacrifices of the dead indeed seemed to have been in vain.


New members: Wayne Holst,
Arctic Institute,
U. of Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4

Thomas Rightmyer,
Duke University,
North Carolina. USA

Prof. Dr Gerhard Besier, Editor, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte,
Faculty of Theology,
Heidelberg University, Germany

Dept of Germanic Studies,
U. of Victoria, B.C.

Dr Hilary M.Carey,
Editor, Journal of Religious History,
University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

Dr Michael Berenbaum,
U.S.Holocaust Memorial Museum,
Washington, D.C.

Ms Peggy Obrecht,
U.S.Holocaust Memorial Museum,
Washington, D.C.

Dr John Flynn,
University of the South,Sewanee,TN 37383

Rev. Stephen E.Herbert,
St James’ Church,
303 East Cordova St, Vancouver B.C. V6A 1L4

With best wishes to you all for Easter,
John Conway