October 1996 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter no. 22 (Vol II, no 10) – October 1996




Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, Vol 9, no 1, 1996, essays on the two German dictatiorships.

J.S.Conway, “The European Churches’ search for a new international order 1919-89” in C.Baechler and C.Fink, The establishment of European Frontiers after two world wars, P. Lang: Berne 1996.

Book reviews:

Gerhard Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche 1983-1991. Hoehenflug und Absturz. Berlin: Propylaen Verlag 1995, reviewed by Robert Goeckel.

Winfried Siebert, Das Maedchen, das nicht Esther heissen darf: Eine exemplarische Geschichte. Leipzig: Reklam Verlag 1996, reviewed by Marion Grau.

Kurt Nowak, ed., Adolf von Harnack als Zeitgenosse: Reden und Schriften aus den Jahren des Kaiserreichs und der Weimarer Republik. Vol 1: Der Theologe und Historiker; Vol 2: Der Wissenschaftsorganisator und Gelehrtenpolitiker. Berlin/New York De Gruyter Verlag DM 460.00 and Johanna Jantsch, Der Briefwechsel zwischen A. v. H und Martin Rade (1879-1930): Theologie auf dem oeffentlichen Markt, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter Verlag 1996, ca. 920 Seiten, reviewed by Uwe Rieske-Braun.

Dear Friends,

Since I shall be away in Germany at the end of the month, attending the meeting of the Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte group in Heidelberg, next month’s Newsletter will have to be somewhat delayed. My apologies, but I hope to return to the usual date by December.


New issue of journal:


Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, Vol 9, no 1, 1996 prints eight essays on the subject of Resistance to the two German dictatorships of this century. The authors examine both the comparable, but also the distinguishing features of the Resistance movements before and after 1945. Despite the common repressive features of both the Nazi and Communist regimes, their ideological goals were directly antithetical. Correspondingly those who opposed them had widely differing goals and strategies. The churches’ role is carefully examined, especially the issues of their compliance with, or opposition to, the dictatorships. Attention is paid to the hefty debates over their alleged collaboration, which essentially revolve around the character of the church as a public institution. Their apologists’ argument, both after 1945 and 1989, is that they “durch ihre Kooperation das Schlimme vielleicht gefoerdet, das Schlimmste aber verhindert haben”. On the other hand, the resisters’ claims are known to be subject to legend-building. The obstacles to evaluating the extent of theologically-based resistance are readily apparent, and are here specifically analysed in a number of case studies.


Book reviews:


In August I sent you a review by Gerhard Besier of the German edition of Bob Goeckel’s “The Lutheran Church and the East German State”. I therefore thought it would be valuable to have a review by Bob of Gerhard’s third volume on the same subject.

Gerhard Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche 1983-1991. Hoehenflug und Absturz.
Berlin: Propylaen Verlag 1995. 976pp, DM 98.00

Judging from the prodigious work of Gerhard Besier, the current angst of Germans regarding the competitivesness of Standort-Deutschland seems exaggerated. With this in-depth and extensively-footnoted volume Besier has completed in three years his trilogy on the history of church-state relations in the former GDR. Like the earlier volumes, this one relies primarily on the author’s extensive use of church, state, party, and secret police archives. No scholar has more exhaustively researched the documentary record of this relationship. Since his 1992 book, in which he charged the Protestant churches with Kumpanei (complicity) with the regime, Besier’s interpretation has been clear if controversial; his treatment of the denouement of the GDR in this volume remains consistent. In his view, this complicity was facilitated not only by the penetration of the church by the Stasi – often a result of personal avarice and psychological needs of church leaders – but also by an identification with the idea of socialism among many Protestant leaders. Hence his argument that this complicity continued even after the collapse of communism, as manifested in the apologetic writing of church history, and the debates over the church’s role in contemporary Germany.

Besier’s treatment is heavily informed by his critique of the politicization of the EKD, which has “increasingly steered a decisively leftist course” (p.112). On numerous occasions he attacks the “interlinking of personnel between parties and churches” (p.263), stressing particularly the close relationship between the EKD and the SPD. In his view the East German churches likewise tilted towards the SPD, engaging in high-level diplomacy and promoting “polit-tourism” to the GDR. Besier suggests that the alleged complicity with the SED regime is an all-German phenomenon: “even after the church reunification there is a split going through the Protestant church, which has its origins only minimally in the twenty-year division of the EKD” (p.479). West German church journalists are viewed largely as apologists, even myth-makers for the “Church within Socialism”.

Yet his evidence gives room for considerable nuance as well. He discusses cases of disagreement between the EKD and the GDR churches over such issues as nuclear deterrence and pacifism. The EKD and GDR churches had drifted apart considerably by the 1980s, despite the continuous consultations which Besier chronicles. His research also suggests that the SED was hardly unified regarding the impact of these inter-German ties: as in earlier periods, so in the 1980s, some in the SED saw the leftist shift in the EKD as an opportunity to influence West German foreign policy; others saw it as a threat to efforts to separate themselves from all contacts with the west. The churches’ affinity with the SPD, which this reviewer would confirm, was in fact more of a bane than a boon for them in their relationship with the Communists, who had viewed social democracy as the chief enemy since 1917.

The author’s rich detail regarding the leading church personalities also reveals more nuance and change than the complicity theory suggests. He portrays, for example, how Bishop Johannes Hempel of Saxony moved from a stance critical of Berlin-based church-state summitry, to one asserting a “basic trust between church and state” in 1985, and then back to a critical stance in the waning years of the GDR. Besier tends to deal in heroes and villains, but even his heroes, such as Bishop Gottfried Forck of Berlin-Brandenburg and Dean Heino Falcke of Erfurt, are steeped in “socialism in the colours of the GDR” and his villains, such as General Superintendant Gunter Krusche of Berlin, became critical as the revolution gathered steam in 1989.

The heroes and villains are largely determined by their stance regarding the “groups”, namely the non-religious dissent that arose in the 1980s and devloped largely under the auspices of the church. The state’s attempts to use the church to discipline and domesticate this dissent are amply demonstrated by Besier, as well as the churches’ responses. The pattern of the 1970s – internal church dissent which increased the bargaining of the church with the regime – was replaced by one of opposition outside the control of either the church hierarchy or the regime.

Despite this changed context Besier underscores aspects of continuity in state policy. The differentiation policy developed in the 1950s remained throughout a fundamental tenet of the state’s strategy. For example, the regime sought to set the regional churches against Berlin-Brandenburg with its more active dissident community. He chronicles the regime’s steadfast and repeated rejection of meetings with the churches on such issues as educational discrimination and altenatives to military service. The detachment of SED officials from societal reality loomed larger in 1985-9, but was certainly characteristic of the entire GDR period. Misperception by both church and state is an undercurrent of this analysis; the church tended to assume more benign intentions on the part of the regime and to overestimate its ability to reform socialism; the regime assumed a coherent antagonistic long-term strategy on the part of the churches and overestimated the hierarchy’s ability to control its ranks.

Yet misperceptions remove the moral onus from the actors and this is certainly far from Besier’s intention. Collaboration with the Stasi and the compromising statements of church leaders are a major focus of this work, but hardly dominate it to the extent that they do in his journalistic contributions to such magazines as Spiegel and Focus. To be sure, the collaboration with the regime in efforts to dampen dissent by Manfred Stolpe, former leading church administrator and now SPD premier of the state of Brandenburg, receive extensive treatment. But Besier is fair: no one is spared from scrutiny, including conservatives such as Hans-Wilhelm Ebeling (pastor in Leipzig and founder of the German Social Union Party) and Stefan Heitmann (former Saxon church leader and a major CDU politician in Dresden) (p.668-9,696). Besier might have plumbed more deeply the moral onus in some cases which were major issues at the time, such as the arrest and removal from church service of Vicar Lothar Rochau for environmental activism in 1983. Also underplayed here are the church debates surrounding Chernobyl and the efforts to create a United Evangelical Church in the GDR.

As a social scientist this reviewer would like to have seen more discussion of the broader political context of developments in the relationship. For example, the church debate over “basic trust between church and state” occurred against the backdrop of the Soviets’ cancellation of Honecker’s planned visit to West Germany in 1984, and his apparent efforts at damage limitation in inter-German relations. Or the criticism of the rigged local elections of May 1989 should be placed in the context of the Soviet’s own multicandidate elections in 1989. The general refusal of the SED to introduce Soviet-style perestroika comes up short as a contextual factor in the Church-State relationship.

Besier’s interpretation is controversial in the church today, particularly given his extrapolation that the church is unable to come to terms with its past. The historian is amply rewarded for the effort of a careful reading of this detail-laden book.

Robert Goeckel, State University of New York. Geneseo


Winfried Siebert, Das Maedchen, das nicht Esther heissen darf: Eine exemplarische Geschichte. Leipzig: Reklam Verlag 1996


Winfried Siebert is a lawyer who saw an article in a law journal about a special appeal in 1938. On August 11, 1938, the Protestant pastor Friedrich Luncke reported the birth of his daughter Esther to the authorities. But he was refused permission to call the girl Esther because it was a “typical Jewish” name. Pastor Luncke fought the issue all the way through the courts, but in vain. Esther is a name that is “not German”.

Winfried Siebert, whose daughter is also called Esther, got interested and researched the case. He then looked for the family and for the woman who wasn’t allowed to be called Esther, but who resumed her name after the war. Eventually he found her. This interesting unconventional book recounts the struggle for a name. It is both a personal document and a psychogram of German law at the time, with overtones of the national psychology. Why did the pastor insist on calling his daughter Esther? It would have been easy enough to choose another name. But quite possibly this was in a small way a form of resistance to the regnant Nazi ideology.

Marion Grau,Tubingen


Contribution to book:


In ed. C.Baechler and C.Fink, The establishment of European Frontiers after two world wars, P.Lang: Berne 1996, J.S.Conway contributed an article (p.71-80) on “The European Churches’ search for a new international order 1919-89” which examines the strengths and weaknesses of liberal churchmen’s thinking about the reconstruction of the European state system after both wars, particularly through such agencies as the World Alliance for Promoting Intenational Friendship through the Churches, and later the Prague-based Christian Peace Conference.


Adolf von Harnack:


Uwe Rieske-Braun, Aachen, reports on new publications and a revival of interest in Harnack’s life and work. ed. Kurt Nowak, Adolf von Harnack als Zeitgenosse: Reden und Schriften aus den Jahren des Kaiserreichs und der Weimarer Republik.Vol 1: Der Theologe und Historiker; Vol 2: Der Wissenschaftsorganisator und Gelehrtenpolitiker. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter Verlag DM 460.00! Zwar sind die hier abgedruckten Schriften Harnacks bereits andernorts veroeffentlicht, doch die Einfuehrung des Herausgebers verdient besonderes Interesse. Uwe herself has now published a shorter work about H’s earlier career: Uwe Rieske-Braun, Moderne Theologie. Der Briefwechsel Adolf von Harnack – Christoph Ernst Luthardt 1878-1897, Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag 1996, 154 pp DM 48. In dieser Edition werden insbesondere Harnacks Abloesung von der bekenntnisorientierten Theologie und seine Beziehung zu Albrecht Ritschl, die Kontroverse um Harnacks Edition der “Didache” 1884, und die Quellen anlaesslich der gescheiterten Berufung Harnacks nach Leipzig im Winter 1885/6 dokumentiert. Die spannungsreiche Beziehung zu Chr. Ernst Luthardt (1838-1902), die H. trotz der bald gravierenden theologischen Distanz zum einflussreichen Vertreter des bekenntnisorientierten Luthertums gepflegt hat, ist theologisch und auch menschlich bewegend.

Angekuendigt sind auch: Johanna Jantsch, Der Briefwechsel zwischen A. v. H und Martin Rade (1879-1930): Theologie auf dem oeffentlichen Markt, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter Verlag 1996, ca. 920 Seiten. Dieser Briefwechsel wirft ein helles Licht auf mannigfache Auseinandersetzungen und Debatten, in die Harnack und Rade verstrickt waren – etwa nach den Veroeffentlichung des 1.Band des Lehrbuchs der Dogmengeschichte 1885, und beleuchtet besonders instruktiv die Gruendungsphase de “Christlichen Welt”.

Stefan Rebenich, Theodor Mommsen und Adolf Harnack:

Wissenschaft und Politik im Berlin des ausgehenden 19. Jahrhunderts, ca. 800 Seiten – liegt noch nicht vor. Zwei weitere Arbeiten, eins in Bonn, eins in Leipzig, sind in Vorbereitung.

Uwe Rieske-Braun, Aachen

All best wishes,
John S.Conway