December 1996 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter no 24 Vol II, no 12 – December 1996

Contents “Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Colloquium, Heidelberg”

Friedl Lang, “Hitler’s visit in 1934 to the Oberammergau Passion Play – an eye-witness account”

Review: Saul Friedman, The Oberammergau Passion Play: A Lance against Civilisation, Southern Illinois U.Press 1984

“Jehovah’s Witnesses: A new documentary video-Stand Firm” Index of books reviewed or noticed in 1996

Dear Friends,

New Format: As you see I have adopted a new format, by establishing a new LIST = KIRZEIT-L. This avoids printing out all your addresses on the first page. But if you need to know, please write and ask. Please write anyway. I am always glad to receive contributions, reviews of new books, notices of church developments, conference reports etc. Also suggestions for improvements will be most welcome. JSC

Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Colloquium, Heidelberg

Early last month I went to Heidelberg to attend a colloquium on the subject of Religion and Civil War, with special reference to Northern Ireland and Bosnia. It was good to see a number of you there. The underlying topic was the question: has religion done more to stimulate or to overcome the current outbursts of murder, bloodshed, plunder and bigotry, which seem to have been the hallmarks of the conflict in both areas? We had a representative of Sinn Fein present, who outlined his party’s programme, which, to me at least, was surprisingly secular and socialist, not to say utopian. When pressed by others from N.Ireland, he had to admit that, while his party was opposed to violent solutions, there were a number of adherents who had ties to the I.R.A. But we also heard that deliberate incitement of religious hatreds was not part of the current scene. Instead, religious affiliation was more a kind of identity card, serving to separate the population into rival camps, with all too little opportunities for ecumenical contacts. The influence of those members of the clergy seeking reconciliation was notably weak, and the struggle should rather be placed in a wider economic and political context.

In Bosnia, on the other hand, the religious factor was considered more significant. We heard a chilling report from a very well informed observer who claimed that no serious effort was being made to overcome the long and entrenched hostilities between the Serbian Orthodox, the Croatian Catholics and the Bosnian Muslims. Moreover, the attempts of outside church bodies such as the World Council of Churches or the Conference of European Churches were dismissed as nothing more than “Reconciliation Tourism”.

I came away very much sobered and disillusioned. I would like to hear from any of you who were also there if you came to similar conclusions. JSC


Hitler’s visit in 1934 to the Oberammergau Passion Play – an eye-witness account – by Friedl Lang


(Prof. Gottfried Lang, son of Anton Lang, who played Christ in three successive Passion Plays, grew up in Oberammergau, and himself participated in the Passion Play as a young boy. He was also, as he describes, much involved with the Catholic youth movement, and as a result was obliged to leave Germany in 1937. He subsequently came to Canada and the USA, and eventually became Prof. of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. He now lives in Santa Fe. We are greatly obliged to Prof. Lang for this Zeitzeugenbericht.)

1934 marked the 300th anniversary of Oberammergau’s Passion Play. In 1633 the plague had approximately halved the village population, which led to a vow to perform the Passion Play every ten years, beginning in the following year 1634. After 1670 the Play was performed on the decennial years.

At that time, 1934, I was student at the Realschule in Weilheim, which had suddenly become “politicized” shortly after the Nazis came to power in the previous year. Many of my schoolmates now appeared in Hitler Youth (HJ) uniforms. Even some of the teachers suddenly wore the Hakenkreuz insignia on their jacket lapels. But those of us in the boarding school accommodation were warned by its director, a priest and a W.W.1 veteran, not to join the HJ., on the grounds that this whole Nazi movement was a thing which would not last.

Also we were Catholics, and our parents supported the Bavarian Volkspartei, so we were not very happy about the course of events – all the more so when the SA and HJ demonstrated on Sunday mornings during Sunday masses and called those of us who refused to join the HJ “schwarze Hunde”. So it was a real relief when I was allowed to transfer to the Benedictine Monastery School at Ettal, near Oberammergau, for the next school year.

In 1930 the stage for the Passion Play had been rebuilt and modernized. I was an altar boy when Cardinal Falhaber had come to bless these new facilities, and of course was much impressed by the ceremony. Like all boys and girls of my age, I participated in both the 1930 and 1934 performances, taking part in both the morning crowd scene of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and in the so-called “lebende Bilder” (Tableaux) in both morning and afternoon.

By the time of the 1934 Passion Play I had become an active member of the Catholic Youth Movement, and was very much involved with its Jungschar groups, for boys under 16. About twenty of us met regularly one a week in the cabin of the soccer field, under the leadership of our “Praeses”, the curate of the parish, who was known for his excellent sermons, which invariably pointed out the moral and religious decline of the time and the need to do something about it. He never mentioned the Nazis, but of course we knew what he was talking about. Eventually he was prohibited from preaching.

As part of my activity in the Catholic youth movement I went from house to house collecting subscriptions to the weekly newspaper Junge Front which was, we thought, a strong voice against Nazism. I think I was able to get about 40 subscribers. Then suddenly it did not appear, and I was told it had been banned. After some time the package of newspapers arrived again, under the new name Michael. But it too was eventually banned. Delivering the paper on my bicycle was very exciting because most of the subscribers were obviously not in sympathy with what the Nazis were doing. Some of them would involve me in a discussion, especially the older people who longed for a return of the “good old days” or others who confided in me, saying how terrible the political and moral state of the country was.

I think many of those longing for the “good old days” were loyal to the Bavarian crown. King Ludwig II had donated to the village a massive monument depicting Christ crucified with Mary and John at the foot of the cross, and had employed many Oberammergauers while building his nearby castle at Linderhof. Every August 24th the villagers celebrate the King’s Birthday with bonfires on the mountains and a huge fiery cross halfway up the local Kofel Mtn. (This event is still celebrated today). Others were not so romanticaly inclined, or were fearful that the policing of the population or even a war might be the goal of the Nazi regime. In 1934 none of the emergency measures on food or other amenities had as yet been introduced; nor was the Gestapo as yet a household word. So people still felt they could talk. Besides, the Passion Play and tourism in general was bringing many foreigners, especially British and Americans. By 1935, however, the situation changed, possibly because by then the Nazis had firm control over the whole country.

The Passion Play attracted not only tourists, but also many young people, including the Catholic Youth Movement members. As an active member of the Jungschar I got involved in providing tickets and sleeping quarters for these young people, often when members of the Sturmschar (the Catholic youth for older boys famous for their outdoor life and travels) wrote and enquired. Outside the village but close to the Passion Play theatre my family had a large barn, used mainly for storage. We helped to fix up the loft with hay, so that we could accommodate as many as 15 people there. My friend Karl’s father was the executive secretary of the village corporation responsible for the sale of tickets to the play. He was also a practising Catholic, so that when these young people came to us, he would always provide cheap tickets. Sometimes only standing room was available, which cost a mere 25 cents! What was important to us was that we got to know young Catholics from many parts of Germany, which again helped us in our conviction that we were not alone.

I used to sell German and English Passion Play texts to passers-by on their way to the theatre. Our house was right on the Theaterstrasse, and I stood in front of the shop door, a little elevated above the street level, which gave me a good view of the people passing on their way to the theatre. In late July or August, suddenly a black open Mercedes drove by. On its front fender was the swastika flag, and suddenly some people yelled “Heil Hitler”. The car swept on to the theatre, where Hitler was given a prominent seat. He actually sat through the whole performance, lasting from 8 a.m. to noon, and again from 2 p.m. to 6. During the play an annoucement was made to the cast that the “Fuehrer” would come onto the stage to shake hands with the actors. But I did not myself attend. I was told that Hitler was impressed by the Play and promised to see that it would always be performed according to the ancient vow. Saying that this was a great cultural achievement and true to the villagers of Oberammergau, he shook hands with all the principal actors (including my father who then played the role of Prologue). The only major actor who refused to come on stage was Kaiaphas (my maternal uncle).

What influence did Hitler’s visit have on the villagers? Those who called themselves “traditionalists” (without much of a religious conviction) may well have been convinced by Hitler’s “promise” to assure the Passion Play’s decennial performance. Others who had already joined the NSDAP were influenced by the idea that Hitler stood for strong leadership, obviously needed to keep the socialists and communists in check. Clearly Hitler represented a new time, a new approach to economic problems and an end to the uncertainties of the Weimar Republic. But there were also those who felt highly ambivalent about these new political changes. Some, like my parents, were already aware of such new institutions as the Dachau concentration camp, where political opponents of any color were incarcerated. A priest relative of my moher’s one day appeared after a long absence with a shaved head. When asked if this was the latest style, he jokingly remarked that this depended on your political “Einstellung”., and that Dachau was indeed the place where one could familiarize oneself with the “der Mode des Tages”.

We in the Jungschar understood little of the political implications of Nazism. We knew that at school history textbooks were being rewritten, though none of our teachers at Ettal used them. In the meantime, those of us who reached our 16th birthday moved from the Jungschar to the Sturmschar. In the Easter holidays of 1935 Karl and I were selected to join a group of Sturmschar on a trip to Rome. We camped there, wore off-white shirts with big silver buttons, and stood in cruxiform formation in front of St Peter’s to receive the Pope’s blessing. Then with banners flying we marched to the Colosseum, where our leaders made speeches reminding us that, like Peter and Paul, we also had to suffer for the ultimate victory of Christ. On our way back to Germany, our buses were stopped at the border in Constance. The guards seized our cameras, our shirts and buckles, tents, banners etc, and took our names. After running the guantlet of a bevy of abusing HJ boys, we were allowed to proceed to Munich. There the police were already waiting for us. We were again arrested, and taken to the Police Headquarters where our passports were checked and our names registered. In the morning they let us go.

As we learned much later, one of our leaders, from the Catholic Youth headquarters in Dusseldorf was arrested and shot by the SA. All of this was for us a persecution of Christianity, and we felt it would only get worse. But those of us who lived in the provincial remoteness of Oberammergau, though anti-Nazi, were ruefully ignorant of the world-shaking implications of Nazism.


An opposing view:


Saul Friedman, The Oberammergau Passion Play: A Lance against Civilisation, Southern Illinois U.Press 1984

(I include my short review of this book, written in 1989, to give an idea of how others regard the Passion Play)

Professor Friedman’s analysis of the passion play and its milieu is markedly hostile. Sustained polemic makes for invigorating reading and Friedman’s 200 pages of invective will not disappoint. This vestige of mediaeval bigotry, he claims, has been touted unjustifiably as a major world tourist attraction by playing on the credulity and superstition of those gullible enough to seduced by their neighbourhood travel agency. The play itself, he affirms, survived from the earliest years because of the church’s encouragement of religious zealotry, a deep-seated arrogance and anti-Semitism not uncommon in Bavarian peasants or art, and a developed pursuit of profit. Thanks to the work of gifted editors, the play has become a spectacle for foreign tourists, unwilling or unable to recognise its basic prejudice and vitriol against the Jews. The anti-Semitic overtones of the play, Friedman asserts, are dangerous. Too many scenes go far beyond the gospel narratives in depicting the Jews in the worst light: the portrayal of the crucifixion is shown to be solely Jewish-inspired; the Romans are exonerated; and the discontinuity between Christianity and Judaism is frequently stressed. It is not a hymn to reconciliation, but rather an exhortation to revenge. No wonder the villagers, and presumably their audiences, were immune to any appeals for sympathy from their fellow citizens of Jewish origins during the Nazi era. Friedman investigates closely the political attitudes of Oberammergau in the 1930s, when in honour of Hitler’s visit, “never were Oberammergau’s Jewish mobs more violent, never have the scribes and Pharisees who invoke the mob been more vehement than this year”. What particularly distresses Friedman has been the villagers’ sttempts since 1945 to deny any sympathy for Nazism and their refusal to alter the play’s text to remove its most offensive parts [This has been subsequently achieved: JSC] It remains, he says, despite some tinkering, essentially a lance against civilisation, a witness to the durability of both anti-Semitism and cupidity.

To all of this, it can only be said that Friedman seems to live in an ivory tower. Religious pilgrimages and shrines have alwys produced their zealotry and commercialism. The high-minded efforts of advocates of Christian-Jewish reconciliation have made considerable advances but it would be wishful thinking to expect such theological revision to begin in an Alpine village. The Oberammergauers’ pride in their play is matched by a conservative distrust against the meddling of outsiders. Having myself been to the passion play twice, I found that a repeat visit was disappointing, not because of the survivals of anti-Judaism, but rather because the mobilization of hosts of amateur actors is neither great art nor great theatre. The Oberammergau passion play is essentially a primitive peasant pageant. JSC


Jehovah’s Witnesses:


A new documentary video _Stand Firm_ portraying the Nazi persecution of this sect, published by the Watchtower Society in Brooklyn, has recently been released. The German-language version premiered at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp Memorial on November 6th.

This is an hour-long and excellently edited account, which incorporates extensive survivor testimony, as well as commentary by historians of Nazi Germany, such as Dietlef Garbe, Susannah Heschel, and myself. It is very suitable for showing to audiences interested in the Nazi persecution of religious groups, and while narrowly focussed on the sufferings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, conveys the atmosphere of the steadfast resistance especially in the concentration camps to which some 1200 were sent, and where 200 were murdered for their refusal to abandon their beliefs. The video is presumably available from your local Jehovah’s Witnesses’ meeting hall. See also Christian Science Monitor, Nov.6th 1996, p 1 and 13. JSC

May I take this final opportunity for 1996 to wish you all a very blessed and happy Christmas, and to send you my very best wishes for all your endeavours for 1997.

Dona nobis pacem

John S.Conway

Dept. of History, University of British Columbia,

Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z1, Canada

.Index of books reviewed or noticed in 1996 – Newsletters 13-24 (Vol II, 1-12). Newsletter no. in brackets (All reviews by JSC unless noted)

Bergen D, The Twisted Cross The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (15)

Besier G, Der SED Staat und die Kirche 1983-1991 (R.Goeckel) (22) Bickersteth Diaries (19)

Clark C, The Politics of Conversion (18)

Crerar D, Padres in No Man’s Land (14)

Goeckel R, Die evangelische Kirche und die DDR (G.Besier) (20)

Hering R, Theologische Wissenschaft und Dritte Reich (13)

Huttner M, Britische Presse und nationalsozialistische Kirchenkampf (13)

Laechele R, Ein Volk,Ein Reich,ein Glaube (D.Diephouse) (18)

Lehmann B, Katholische Kirche und Besatzungsmacht in Bayern (17) Loest E, Nicolaikirche (15)

Marshall Joan, A solitary Pillar. Montreal’s Anglican Church and the Quebec Revolution (21)

Mau R, Eingebunden in den Realsozialismus? (20)

Mehlhausen J. ed., und uber Barmen hinaus (13)

Passelecq G and Suchecky B, L’encyclique cache de Pie XI (M Phayer) (21)

Pollmann K ed., Der schwierige Weg in die Nackriegszeit. Die evangluth.Kirche in Braunsweig 1945-50 (21)

Reichrath.H, Ludwig Diehl (12)

Rendtorff T. ed., Protestantische Revolution (J.Burgess) (23)

Schlie U, Kein Friede mit Deutschland (13)

Schneider T.M., Reichsbischof Ludwig Muller (D.Bergen) (21)

Siebert W, Das Maedchen das nicht Esther heissen darf (22)

Siegele-Wenschkewitz L. ed., Theologische Fakutaten im Nationalsozialismus (13)

Tomaszewski I and Werbowski T, Zegota. The rescue of Jews in Poland (12)

Vollnhals C and Brauer S, In der DDR gibt es keine Zensur (20)

Wilhelmy H, Aus meinem Leben (23)

Winter J, Sites of memory, sites of mourning (15)

Zeilstra, J.A., European Unity in Ecumenical Thinking 1931-48 (13)