July 1996 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter no. 19 (Vol II, no. 7) – July 1996


1. Forthcoming conference: Kirkliche Zeitgeschichte

2. Works in progress

3. New Books: The Bickersteth Diaries 1914-1918, introduction by John Terraine, ed. John Bickersteth, Leo Cooper, London 1995, 332 pp. Reviewed by John S. Conway.

Dear Friends,

Despite the onset of the northern hemisphere’s summer vacations, and the delay in promised contributions (DB:NB), I am hoping to keep in touch with you all, and that you will continue to find these Newsletters of interest. I will be very glad to have your news and views to pass around.

Forthcoming conference:

Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte (Prof. Gerhard Besier, Heidelberg) in conjunction with the Bundeszentrale fuer Politische Bildung is organizing its 1996 conference to be held in Heidelberg on November 1-3. The subject will be: Civil War and Religion. The Churches’ and Denominations’ Role in Europe’s Ethnic, Economic and Political Conflicts.

Works in progress:

Mrs. Heike Kreutzer, Bonn, is writing her thesis under the direction of Prof.Anselm-Duehring (Tuebingen) on the personnel of the Reich Kirchenministerium, and making use of the remaining files which were for so long inaccessible in the G.D.R. Her main topics will concern the tactics of Hanns Kerrl and his staff, their struggles with the Nazi bureaucracy, especially the Gestapo and the Parteikanzlei, and the legal and financial policies imposed on the churches. Richard Wiggers, Georgetown U,Virginia, is working on the career of Bishop (later Cardinal) Aloisius Muench and his 1946 appointment as Papal Visitator to Germany, and examining the records in the USA, Germany and Rome in order to describe the remarkable and unprecedented experience of this hitherto unknown American bishop when he was in fact fulfilling the office of Papal Nuncio. His somewhat chequered career throws light on the difficulties he met in dealing both with the Vatican and the American occupation authorities, due certainly to his lack of diplomatic experience, and the conflicting interests of the various hierarchies involved.

Bob Ericksen and Susannah Heschel are collaborating on a book of essays dealing with Christian-Jewish relations during and after the Nazi era, which is nearing completion this summer..

Chris Clark (St Catherine’s College, Cambridge) is giving a short summer school on the career of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and hopes to publish the results in order to give a somewhat more positive appraisal of this flamboyant monarch.

Bob Goeckel, who has spent the last year in Berlin, announces the translation of his book The Lutheran Church and the East German State. He continues to work on the role of the East German CDU and its Kirchenpolitik.

Mark Lindsay (U of Western Australia, Perth) is writing his thesis on the attitude of the German Confessing Church theologians, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, towards Israel, both theologically and politically.

Kevin Spicer (Boston College) is shortly leaving for Germany to continue his research into the German Catholic Church’s response to the Third Reich, which he describes as a “selective resistance”. Richard Weikart (California State U, Stanislaus) has completed a manuscript entitled The Myth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which seeks to show that Bonhoeffer’s theology is incompatible with traditional American evangelical doctrine.

Richard Ruggle, Chaplain, Canadian Forces Base, Camp Borden, Ontario (see address above) has compiled a bibliography of items on German military chaplaincy. He would doubtless be glad to share this, and would appreciate hearing of new items to add. Ronald Webster has been given tenure and promotion at York University, Toronto. Congratulations, Ronald.

New Books:

The Bickersteth Diaries 1914-1918, introduction by John Terraine, ed. John Bickersteth, Leo Cooper, London 1995, 332 pp #21.00

As a sequel to my review of Duff Crerar’s splendid “Padres in No- man’s land”, (Newsletter no 14) I can highly recommend The Bickersteth Diaries 1914-1918. The Bickersteths were, and are, a distinguished Church of England family, liberally decorated with bishops. In 1914 five of the six sons of Canon Sam Bickersteth volunteered for military service, fully persuaded that their fervent patriotism and religion should be dedicated to the nation’s cause by joining the armies in France. Their letters to their parents at home were carefully copied, sent round to the other siblings, and then preserved along with their mother’s comments and newspaper clippings. >From the resulting eleven fat volumes, their nephew, the now retired Bishop of Bath and Wells, has distilled a selection which gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of conditions on the western front, exceptional for the graphic and detailed descriptions, and highly revealing of the changes of mood experienced by this strongly-motivated and well-educated segment of the officer corps. The bulk of the letters were written by Julian, who rushed home from Australia in order to volunteer as a padre to an infantry division, and by his younger brother Burgon, a cavalry officer, who was disillusioned to discover that the cavalry were virtually useless in the mud and shell-holes of the Flanders fields, and not enamoured to be transformed into a machine-gun trooper. Their third brother Morris was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, a tragedy which deeply affected the whole family, despite their Christian conviction that his death was a heroic sacrifice for King and Country. Both Julian and Burgon sought relief in writing extremely lengthy accounts of their lives at the front, obviously as a form of psychological antidote against the increasing ferocity of the war. Even though their letters had to be tailored to the sensitivities of their parents, and the regulations of the army’s censors, they bring out to the full the horror, futility and frustrations felt by the serving soldiers. As such, they recapitulate for the modern reader a picture which has long been familiar, but add significant details, particularly of the padres’ preoccupations, and thus are an enormously valuable contemporary witness.

Step by step as these brothers shared the lives and deaths of so many of their age-group, the clear-cut patriotism of 1914 gives way to an almost despairing war-weariness and to a realization that the sacrifices being made could never be healed. They were too clear- sighted and intelligent to allow their listeners to cling to the romantic crusading views of the early days of war-fervour, even though they still affirmed their view that good would finally prevail. In September 1916, Burgon wrote: “I think that after the war I shall write a book, and in it I shall put everything that is filthy and disgusting and revolting and degrading and terrifying about modern warfare – and hope thereby to do my bit towards preventing another”. In the same month his padre brother Julian wrote: “This war may bring out some of the good qualities in man, but the evil it does is incalculably greater. The whole thing is utterly devilish and the work of all the demons of hell. It will take generations to eradicate the evils done to civilisation by it. I feel that our whole moral outlook is being systematically lowered”.

So too, the brothers came to abandon the prevalent Germanophobia of the initial war years, when they recognised that the ordinary German soldier was undergoing the same futile sacrifices as themselves. By September 1916 Burgon was convinced that “we cannot and we shall not crush Germany; to prolong this idea is to prolong the war to no purpose”. He argues in favour of a ‘status ante bellum’ peace, since “the war has now come to be such a horrible fearful thing that one wonders whether for sheer wickedness it is not worse than the domination of the world by German ideas”. But it was not to be. For two more years the pointless daily slaughter continued, and war-weariness increased. Julian noted in June 1918: “the war becomes more terrible and soul- corroding as month succeeds month. It is now a perpetual round of dull prosaic murder, with one desire in the hearts of all – to keep alive a little longer and to see a speedy end to the business. The men don’t and won’t hate the Germans – they only hate the war, and so it goes on.”

As a padre Julian rightly and quickly recognised that the only respect the Church would gain was for the chaplains to be as closely involved with the front-line troops as possible. He was dismayed by the indifference of the much of the officer corps, and no less by the widespread ignorance of the troops who retained only the vaguest concepts of Christianity from their boyhoods. With his high-church views, Julian sought to offer a fully sacramental religion of consolation, and was indefatigable in organising ritualistic services in makeshift quarters complete with candles and altars and decorations and psalmody. But even he could not obliterate the knowledge that, for so many, these were the last rites. His time was increasingly spent on burial duties, sickenly repetitive and destructive of all his previous efforts. His caring solicitude earned him praise from those he tried to help. But his expectations that the spirit of comradeship found in the trenches, and the doubtless genuine piety of these shell-battered and frightened young men, would lead to a revival of the church after the war were to be sadly disappointed. Too many had died, and those who survived had suffered too much from the brutalizing conditions they had experienced.

Yet, notably, neither man lost his faith. In the post-war period, Julian went on to be a prominent headmaster and Burgon an influential adornment, as Warden of Hart House, of the University of Toronto, where his impact on the young men of the succeeding generation was immense. But, at the same time, when writing home, neither man faced up to the major issue for Christians – how to reconcile the incompatibility of their Christian beliefs with the appalling slaughter in which they were engaged, or the contradictions involved when both Allied and German chaplains were appealing to the same God to grant them victory over the other. In hindsight, we may claim, it was these two basic factors which most discredited Christianity for the survivors, even when they had a high respect for the padres as men. But at the time, as so many writers have recounted before, the stench of blood and the noise of guns, the bleeding bodies and the shattered limbs, the agony of wounded and dying men, were overwhelming in their impact. These diaries serve to recall the pain as well as the dedicated commitment of these two witnesses, as they sought to come to terms with the futility and sacrifices of such a war, and still bear witness to the Church they so loyally served.

John Conway

Last Reel by Andrew Parkin

Could we, for an instant, freeze the frame,
Reverse the long calamitous movie,
Our reeling past,our jabbering history,
To make the martyrs whole, unkindle flame,
And spurning every lethal bid for shame,
Undeclare the wars, undrill each army,
Unfire the guns, uncross each crimson sea,
Undo the wrongs, and then unsay the blame;
O edit out all hate to leave but love!
Could we then splice and roll the human film
Where lovers meet and trust, where laughter lives,
Where we evade the serpent, prize the dove?
There is no censor but the censure earned
From all the demon lessons left unlearned.

With very best wishes

John Conway