June 1996 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter no. 18 (Vol II, no. 6) – June 1996



1. Book review: Christopher M.Clark, The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia 1728-1941, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995, 340 pp. Reviewed by David Diephouse.

Vancouver, B.C.

Dear Friends,

I apologise for the delay in sending you this month’s Newsletter, due to my absence in Europe for the past three weeks. I hope to catch up to my usual schedule by next month.

New Books:

As before, there are a large number of interesting new works appearing. I hope the following reviews will be of help:

Christopher M.Clark, The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia 1728-1941, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995, 340 pp.

Chris Clark’s survey of Protestant missionary endeavours to convert the Jews of Prussia from the eighteenth century to the Nazi era is both erudite and informative. This is essentially a study in missionary attitudes and strategies, being the first to use such archives as those of the Berlin Missionary Society, which fortunately survived their confiscation by the Gestapo in 1941. The Jews themselves, or their communal responses to attempts to convert them are not elucidated. Rather Clark concentrates principally on the non-theological factors which strongly affected this enterprise throughout, and adds thereby substantially to our knowledge of the political climate of Prussian Protestantism and the intense struggles within in its ranks.

During the eighteenth century, mission to the Jews was regarded as an essential, indeed highly significant, obligation by the group of pietists based in Halle under the leadership of Francke and Spener. Their importance in the growth of the Prussian state is well- known. The support of successive Prussian monarchs, both on religious and nation-building grounds, was a vital ingredient in the promotion of their endeavours. Bolstered by chiliastic expectations of mass conversions, the pietists saw this mission as an integral responsibility for Christians, and challenged the long-held Lutheran pessimism on this subject. Spener was notable in realizing the need to make material provision for potential converts, even though this led to accusations of bribery and/or opportunism. These missionaries, however, like their monarchs, believed that the social problems caused by the vagrancy and poverty of the outcast Jews could be overcome if they were trained for useful trades along with conversion. The Church’s missionary imperative could thus be blended with the desire for social integration.

In the nineteenth century, this highly conservative social image was increasingly challenged by the growth of industry, by the spread of liberal ideas, and by the increasing self-confidence of the Jewish community. The missionaries and their aristocratic patrons were thus forced to fight on several fronts. Political emancipation of the Jews came to be an ambiguous programme, since the liberals’ support of individual rights was anathema to the authoritarian state, as can be seen in the various edicts dealing with Prussian Jews. The missionaries naturally continued to believe that conversion to the Christian basis of the state was the most effective way to resolve the “Jewish question”. But the political upheavals of 1848, the growing rationalism within the clergy’s ranks, and the quarrels brought about by the heavy-handed centralization policies of the Prussian royal governance of the churches, all induced a sense of crisis for missions to the Jews. The expectation of a religious revival which would unite all segments of the Prussian nation now became even more illusory and utopian. The rise of a new reformist Judaism, with its strong support for liberal principles, came to be regarded as a most sinister development, and as a threat not only to traditional Jewry but to the Christian state as well.

Another important handicap was the reluctance of the established church structures to participate. Many leading clergymen were suspicious both of the eschatalogical hope and the evangelical activism of the missionaries. Such endeavours were left up to the private voluntary efforts of unregulated societies. The Church itself was hesitant to be committed to the cause – if only because the results were predictably meagre and controversial, due to the Jews’ alleged obduracy. Such traditional religious aversion was only accentuated by the growing secular prejudice against Jews which affected increasing segments of the population.

After 1871, the “Jewish problem” became a central issue in the forging of German national identity. Liberals were disappointed that the Jews were not becoming fully German; conservatives that they were not becoming Christians. Neither camp envisaged a pluralistic solution, nor had they any inclination to foster ideas of philosemitism. The rise of organized antisemitism, the dramatic increase of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, and the birth of the Zionist movement necessitated a re-thinking of the missionaries’ previous strategies. Notable was the revival of academic interest in Jewish studies and Hebrew for mssionary trainees, since, as Franz Delitzsch stated, “the evangelization of Israel was their aim and the study of Judaism was the means”. But even this training did little to counteract the increasingly widespread and academically-propagated perception that the Jews were Germany’s “misfortune”. As for Zionism, while some missionaries saw this project as a desirable prerequisite for the eventual apocalypse, others more percipiently saw it as a secular movement seeking to allow Jews to escape entirely from their divinely-appointed destiny.

From their strongly conservative social perspective, missionaries deplored the spread of unbridled capitalism, which had seemingly been exploited by the Jews. They lamented the resultant corrosive effects of materialism which threatened the integrity of the Christian message and the Christian state. But, while their utterances often overlapped with those of the rising antisemitic tide, missionaries became aware that such diatribes would only make their task harder, both by increasing the general opposition to their goal of conversion, and by strengthening the defensive barriers amongst the Jewish community. Similarly they vigourously opposed the views of such writers as Wilhelm Marr, who was as anti-Christian as he was antisemitic. The missionaries were both appalled and isolated by the increasingly polemic stridency of debates over the “Jewish question”. But because they imbibed the rhetoric of Volk and Nation, and upheld their anti- modernist views of a monolithic Christian state, most missionaries remained ambiguous on the subject of antisemitism.

After 1919 the Protestant missions declined rapidly. Not only did their remedy of conversion appear more and more irrelevant, but the infiltration of voelkisch and racial ideas into the ranks of the Evangelical Church, culminating in the rise of the “German Christian” movement, led to demands for the complete cessation of Jewish missions, and indeed paved the way for their suppression by the Nazis. Only the minority Confessing Church continued to stress the Church’s obligation to offer salvation to all peoples, including the Jews, defended teaching the Old Testament, and justified baptism of sincerely-motivated Jews. But here too, Nazi propaganda had its impact. Neither the Confessing Church nor the Protestant missionary societies mobilized any protests against the Nazi crimes of the Holocaust.

Clark’s book will surely become the definitive study of this lost cause. He remains studiously neutral on the theological merits of this enterprise, but acquits the missionaries of being bigoted agents of the kind of Jew-hatred which culminated in the mass murders of the 1940s. Rather his analysis points to the complex interweaving of theological and racial-ethnic elements which characterized much of the missionary discourse. In fact, however, these men were always too strongly Prussian to be truly philosemites. The absence of any genuine sympathy for Judaism, as could be found elsewhere in Christian circles, was a notable feature of their historical development. Moreover both their eschatological perspective and their regressive social outlook effectively blocked any meaningful relationships either with Jews or more liberal Christians. This was truly a dialogue of the deaf.

John Conway

Rainer Laechele, Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Glaube. Die “Deutschen Christen” in Wuerttemberg 1925-1960. (Quellen und Forschungen zur wuerttembergischen Kirchengeschichte 12) Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1994, 319 pp. DM 44

(Reviewed more extensively in Church History, March 1996)

Rainer Laechele has produced the first detailed regional study of the German Christians to appear since the 1970s. His decision to focus on his native Wuerttemberg is as commendable as it is understandable. With its close-knit clerical caste and vibrant associational sub-cultures, the Protestant church in Wuerttemberg was one of the few major “intact” Landeskirchen of the Nazi era; local German Christians therefore operated perforce within a stable framework of well-established institutional practices and loyalties.

Laechele’s straightforward narrative demonstrates that the shape of the German Christians’ career in Wuerttemberg, from their heyday of activism at the beginning of the Third Reich to their subsequent protracted drift towards fragmentation and marginalization, owed at least as much the dynamics of local church life as to stimuli from Berlin or Thuringia. From the beginning, Laechele argues, the German Christian agenda combined two ultimately incompatible impulses, one rooted in politics and the other in missions. For political activists the paramount aim was to capture the church for the “national revolution”; for the missionary faction it was to reclaim the nation for the church. Attempts to force a full-fledged ecclesiastical Gleichschaltung a la Prussia served primarily to demonstrate how ill attuned political activists were to the actual pulsebeat of parish life. The result was a mass exodus of early supporters and, for those who remained, a choice between re-accommodation in some fashion to traditional church norms or withdrawal into the sectarian confines of a self-proclaimed but effectively apolitical “national church”. Thanks to a cadre of leaders such as the charismatic Stuttgart preacher Georg Schneider, the latter option proved surprisingly durable; splinter groups of German Christians managed to survive well into the Adenauer era.

One of Laechele’s most striking findings is that none of the social historian’s conventional markers, be it age, family background, or even Nazi party membership, reliably distinguishes German Christians from their fellow Protestants. In fact, as his account implies, the Wuerttemberg “church struggle” after 1933 revolved primarily around issues of church order. What set German Christians apart was not so much who they were or what they believed as the fact that their church-political practice threatened established authority structures and flouted time-honoured rules of clerical procedure. Significantly, the major mark of differentiation that Laechele succeeds in identifying – Georg Schneider constitutes a notable case in point – is that German Christian clergy were less likely than their mainstream colleagues to have come to ordination by way of the time-honoured Wuerttemberg system of preparatory seminaries and the Tuebingen Stift, suggesting that the individuals in question may have been marginally less influenced than the majority by traditional forms of occupational socialization.

While Laechele clearly abhors the theological and political commitments of his subjects, he refuses to demonize them as “heretics or fascists” (p.4), pointing out that in many respects they were unexceptional indeed. His account thereby calls attention to strengths as well as weaknesses in the Volkskirche tradition; on the one hand a healthy measure of pastoral flexibility, on the other a lack of clear theological definition and a dangerous susceptibility to the idolatry of state and nation. In presenting the German Christian project as a case of Protestant syncretism that both antedates and considerably outlived the Third Reich, Laechele reinforces many of the findings of fellow Arbeitsgemeinschaftler Doris Bergen in her recent study of the movement as a whole (Reviewed in Newsletter #15). The two books in fact complement each other nicely – and their conclusions resonate well beyond the narrow confines of Kirchenkampf historiography.

David Diephouse.


With every best wish

John Conway



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