September 1997 Newsletter
Association of Contemporary Church Historians
(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)
John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia
Newsletter – September 1997 – Vol III, no.9
August has been a holiday month, but I have pleasure in sending you two reviews of books by distinguished Canadian
scholars, one from Quebec and one from Ontario.
Table of Contents
1) Conference announcement: Wittenberg, November 1997
2) Book reviews: Baum, The Church for Others, Vance, Death so Noble
3) Journal article: Heilbronner and Muhlberger, “Catholics in 1933”
4) Member’s publication: Hilmar Pabel on Erasmus
1) Conference announcement. The 1997 meeting of the Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte group, together with LUISA (Luther in Sachsen- Anhalt), will be held in Wittenberg from November 6-9th, on the subject of “Religion and Denominations – Foundations of Current and Future Societies in Europe?” Papers will be offered by M. Funcke, Bonn, N.Hope, Glasgow, D.Pollack, N.Hjalm, J.Bowden, London, under the leadership of Profs. Martin Onnasch, Jorg Ohlemacher, Peter Steinbach. The address is Luisa@esc.de
2a) Gregory Baum, The Church for Others. Protestant Theology in Communist East Germany. Grand Rapids,Michigan: William Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1996 xvii + 156pp US $ 15.00
Gregory Baum was brought up in Berlin but was forced to flee by the Nazis as a teenager. He subsequently has become Canada’s leading Catholic theologian with a strong interest in ecumenical affairs. In 1992 a return visit to Berlin gave him an opportunity to study the fate of the East German churches, particularly the Protestants, during the unlamented forty years of communist rule. To his surprise, he found that the Protestant theology advanced there was a pastoral and intellectual achievement very different from the kind of liberation theology he knew from Latin America. This short insightful work seeks to analyse the contours of this notable accomplishment, to make his findings available to a North American audience, and at the same time to explain the “brilliant contextual theology that steered a Protestant church through an important period of its history”. It is a most welcome addition to our awareness of these issues. In recent years, West German critics have taken considerable pains to denigrate all aspects of life under communist control, including the role of the churches of the German Democratic Republic. Their leaders have been depicted as complicit in maintaining the regime’s undemocratic totalitarianism, and even as willing accomplices of the notorious Stasi. This is, as Baum suggests in his introduction, all part of the wide-spread tendency in Germany, supported by the government, to equate the dictatorship of the GDR with that of Nazi Germany, and in so doing to co-operate with certain historical revisionists who want to minimize the singular and unparalleled horror of the Nazi period. Baum, however, describes the ideas and actions of the GDR church leaders, not from the biased reports of the hostile state, but from their own evaluations of their tasks and theological understandings. He thus strikes a much more positive note, which is both a welcome contrast to many German commentaries, a pioneering work for a Catholic theologian, and a fine ecumenical achievement. In 1945 the East German churches emerged from their twelve years of Church Struggle against Nazism and hoped to begin again in freedom. The initial attitudes of the Soviet military commanders were surprisingly favourable. But after the establishment of the communist-controlled state in 1949, they soon found themselves once again under dictatorial rule. The new state was determined to root out all potential opposition from class enemies, and in particular to control all aspects of education and youth work. Not surprisingly the church leaders reverted to the tactics which had seemed efficacious against the Nazis, adopted a fortress mentality, raised the drawbridge against any Marxist assaults, and stood watch on the ramparts eagerly hoping for rescue from their allies in West Germany. Ten years later, the defects of this defensive posture were apparent. The churches had become locked in a ghetto-like existence, and were increasingly irrelevant to the society at large. They had lost the battle to maintain their influence on young people, and communist indoctrination seemed to be succeeding. A group of the younger clergy, therefore, sought a new stance which would face up to the new reality of the permanence of their imposed “socialist society”. They sought a new pastoral relationship which would re-define their mission and encourage Christians to assume responsibility for the society in which they were, however reluctantly, obliged to live and exercise their witness. The price to be paid was to abandon nostalgia for the past, to forgo their hopes of the restoration of their former privileged position, and more practically to cut many of their links with the church in West Germany. At the same time the East German regime moderated its policies, recognising that rooting out the churches’ influence would take a lot longer than the Marxist ideologues imagined. The way was open for a new arrangement, though the church leaders were careful to avoid any grounds for the accusation that they were accepting an ideological loyalty to or accommodation with the communist-dominated state. The government, for its part, put pressure on the churches to support its claims for international recognition, and used its power to promote sympathetic pastors in the state-supported faculties of theology. Church delegates were allowed to travel to international conferences to argue in favour of the independent existence of the G.D.R. or its alleged “peace policies”, such as presented at the Christian Peace Congresses based in Prague. By such means the state sought to gain acceptance for its political aims, while the church sought to dispel communist suspicions that it was a Trojan horse working for the overthrow of the regime, and at the same time avoiding counter- charges that it had become a mere lackey of the new state. Baum’s chief concern is with the theology developed in this tension-ridden setting, which “allowed the Christian community to reflect critically on the church’s own past and draw important lessons from it, to invent and evaluate new pastoral approaches and policies, to react to initiatives taken by the government, and to respond to the challenges of a new historical situation”.(p.20) This theology rejected two extreme positions: either to deny any legitimacy to the G.D.R. regime, or to surrender to an uncritical acceptance of the socialist state. Rather, the church leaders called for a recognition that God had called them to exercise their ministry in this particular place, and to seek ways to bring the Christian message to bear on all of its concerns, social and political, as well as personal. Such a witness called for recognition of the theologically problematic character of the Constantinian era, and the associated idea of the duty of Christendom to act as the normative and regulative body providing ethical and spiritual guidance in society. Instead, in the new situation, Christians should discover a more biblically based sense of community. Baum rightly points out two distinguishing and important features: discernment of place (Ortsbestimmung) and the learning process (Lernprozess). The former called not merely for the abandonment of the privileged position of the past, but for an acknowledgement that the church in a secularized society could no longer command but only serve as a creative witnessing minority. The latter invited a critical examination of the church’s past record, including its too close reliance on former governments, its neglect of the industrial masses, and the need to take seriously the Marxist critique of religion. The impulse for this theology came from the fact that most of these leaders had been members of the Confessing Church during the Church Struggle against Nazism, and heeded the critical post-war evaluations, such as the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt and the more concrete Darmstadt declaration of 1947. This latter had called for a renunciation of the church’s traditional nationalism and militarism, and chided the church for thinking too much about preserving its own institutional autonomy instead of supporting the victims of Nazi violence. Baum rightly notes that, as a result, the East German church made strenuous efforts to overcome the legacy of antisemitism and frequently expressed both its repentance for its past attitudes towards Judaism, and an explicit solidarity with Israel, a view which the GDR state greatly disliked. This impulse was also much influenced by the theology of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, whose proto-Calvinist writings, his critique of the “establishmentarianism” of Lutheran orthodoxy, his optimistic assessment of Marxist socialism and his anti- Americanism, all seemed to suit the new East German church situation. In the 1960s and 1970s this theology was greatly strengthened by the reception of the prison writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945. Bonhoeffer’s call for radical reform, abandonment of past shibboleths, and in particular his appeal for the church to become “the church for others” – here excellently summarised by Baum (p.87-102) – was eagerly taken up by his former associates such as the Presiding Bishop in East Berlin, Albrecht Schonherr. Bonhoeffer’s stress on the ethical and pastoral witness of the church provided the basis on which the church could minister in the new reality, seeking to play its role as a witnessing church, not against, not beside, not for, but within Socialism. Undoubtedly many of these leaders were ready to believe that the socialist regime could live up to the humanistic idealism it propagated, or when it did not, were prepared, like Heino Falcke, to call for “an improvable socialism”. They called this “critical solidarity” or “discriminating co-operation”, and appealed for a constructive dialogue. This illusion, that here was a preferable political and social order to the discredited forms of western capitalism, was shared by most of these church leaders. Hence their grievous disappointment in 1989-90 at the haste with which their congregations supported re-unification with West Germany. As one bishop ruefully remarked afterwards: “the consensus in the church must have been smaller than we then thought”. Baum clearly finds this theology appealing. He correctly notes that it was enthusiastically endorsed in the 1970s and 1980s by such international bodies as the World Council of Churches. In these circles it appeared as a model of Christian pastoral witness and service fully in line with the new emphasis on the church becoming “the voice of the voiceless”, and giving a prophetic lead to a world still too much attached to the ethos of capitalism and exploitation, especially in the Third World. This aspiration for a world transformed, witnessing to the values of peace and justice, and expressing solidarity with the oppressed in their struggle for emancipation, even when coupled with a consciousness of human sin, was and remains very appealing, especially to theologians with left-wing views. But just how much support it received from the GDR’s rank and file church members remains unclear. The harsh fact is that the church’s nominal membership dropped drastically during these years from 80% to 31% of the population, and is probably even less today. It must also be acknowledged that there was a certain elitism in this small band of church leaders, who sometimes did not take pains to contradict the view that theirs was a superior theology to that propounded in West Germany. Their optimistic assessment of their role in the “real socialism” of the GDR was to be cruelly thwarted by secular events, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But they continued to believe that theirs was the better way, and hence have been deeply hurt by all the discredit poured upon them in the years since 1990, and in effect have been reduced to an impotent silence. Baum’s sympathetic portrayal of this experiment and the theology behind it, at least sets the record straight by faithfully depicting how these ideas were developed in the difficult and tense situation of the communist dictatorship. He rightly defends these theologians from the charge that they were communist stooges, or alternatively, naive innocents who were taken in by the duplicities of the regime. Since he only briefly discusses the actual church- political practices of the period, he avoids any detailed analysis of the more problematic questions of the church leaders’ dealings with the Stasi, or the charge that they silently failed to protest the regime’s tyrannical injustices.. This is a theological not a historical treatise. Shortly after 1989 one of these leaders commented: “In the beginning there was too much praise; now there is too much blame”. Baum’s skilful account seeks to achieve a more balanced assessment. Particularly helpful is his account of the ideas which enabled the church to steer between total repudiation or total assimilation in the Marxist society, rejecting both pietistic individualism and subservient conformism, in favour of taking the risk of faith in the service of the wider community, in line with Bonhoeffer’s legacy. It was just this kind of witness which was reflected in the World Council’s radical stance of the 1980s with its call for the church to support the ideals of peace, justice and the integrity of creation. This theme indeed was central to the GDR churches’ activity, and can be seen as formative in the growth of the protest movements which eventually helped to bring down the regime. This vision of “God’s Shalom” in today’s world remains a powerful impulse, and owes much to the GDR theologians’ interpretations of faith as discipleship. Now that political events have irrevocably altered the life of the East German churches, in effect leading to an annexation of the East without recognizing the positive and constructive elements of their experience, Baum’s evaluation of this legacy is a fitting and thoughtful tribute to a notable endeavour. J.S.C.
2b) Jonathan F.Vance: Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press 1997. xv + 319pp. Can $39.95
The casualties suffered on the Western Front in the First World War were so numerous, so unexpected, and so emotionally overwhelming that the people of every country involved were obliged to find some way of coming to terms with these irreparable losses. Personal, corporate and national grief had to be assuaged. For the victors, these sacrifices could be seen as a necessary price in a just war; for the vanquished there was not even this consolation. Jonathan Vance is to be congratulated on his fine achievement in spelling out how Canadians met this collective need to commemorate their war-time participation, suffering and death. Canada was not alone in contributing a usable mythology for this purpose, and Vance’s study is one of several in this genre, notably those by Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers, or Modris Ekstein, Rites of Spring. But his success in pulling together the previous Canadian writings and sources, including his splendid use of illustrations – a very desirable recourse in such a book – is altogether admirable, excellently researched, finely published, and to a large extent convincing. Vance begins with the entirely valid point that the memory, and subsequent mythology, of Canada’s war became so appealing because it filled explicit needs. For some it was consolatory; for others, explanatory. It could also be didactic, inspirational or even entertaining. Above all it served to remind the survivors of their good fortune, and to enable them to alleviate their hurt by paying tribute to their fallen comrades. Their leaders quickly exploited the war for their own political purposes, either to break the stranglehold of British imperial control, or to seek to forge a stronger internal bond in the Confederation. Moralists could claim that victory was a deserved reward for defeating German aggression. Others sought ways to fashion a usable past out of the war. After 1918, far more Canadians sought to celebrate their triumph on the battlefield than were appalled by the senselessness and slaughter of the trenches. The idea of having fought for the preservation of intrinsic Canadian values against the “barbarous Hun” was staunchly maintained, and played no small part in 1939 when such participation was again invoked. The attempts by some liberal clergymen, energetic but wrong-headed ladies in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a few radical academics, to challenge this interpretation was largely in vain. And the widespread acceptance and nurture of this Canadian war mythology brought about the eclipse of Canadian pacifism. Vance is also correct to point out that the Canadian clergy and chaplains were staunch upholders of the righteousness of the Allied cause. At the same time, they readily enough equated the soldiers’ sacrifices with the sacrifice of Christ. Thus their suffering and loss could be reconciled with Christian idealism. This imagery found its way on to numerous war memorials, persisting in Canada long after it had been challenged elsewhere. In front of several CPR stations, the angel of victory bears the fallen soldier to heaven. So too churchmen provided the argument that the loss of 60,000 Canadian youths was not in vain, since they had become “immortalized” in the service of their country – and Christ. Both the liturgy and imagery of the annual Remembrance Day parades still invokes this Christian symbolism even if often transmuted into secularized or “multicultured” forms. By turning the soldiers’ graveyards into dignified gardens of the dead across the face of France, the spiritual character of their sacrifice could be emphasized. The statuary on Vimy Ridge became and remains the cathedral of Canadian war memorials, symbolizing both national pride and collective loss in a semi-Christian allegorical but very impressive manner. The paradox was that, even though many (most?) veterans returned with a strong opposition to “organized religion”, nevertheless they accepted and reinforced the image of Jesus and his passion as a fellow sufferer. By such means could meaning be given both to the enormity of the sacrifices and the greatness of the cause. To be fair, Vance could have made more of the fact that most chaplains returned from the war disillusioned by their earlier glorification of war and the crusading militarism of their sermons. On this point the recently-published Bickersteth diaries give trenchant witness. Many chaplains sought to carry over the spirit of war-time fellowship into civilian life, but found little response for any large-scale acceptance of the need for political and social reform. Comradeship was welcome but communism was not. Nevertheless, Vance suggests, Canadians were much slower than others at being disillusioned by the impact and memory of the war. For years they remained attached to the edifying, romanticised and necessarily sanitized version put out for home consumption. One reason lay in the fact that there was no available alternative either in literature or painting. Another was that Canadians wanted it that way. Perhaps Vance could have been on stronger ground if he had been able to quantify such assertions. But he rightly points out how valuable was the image of the civilian-soldier defending the decent values of his Canadian homeland, and commemorating this sense of dedication in annual reunions in the years that followed. Such themes, as spelled out by poets, artists and regimental histories, outweighed the more critical voices who sought to focus on the mismanagement of the war or on the senseless slaughter of young lives. Today the vast majority of Canadians have never fought in a war. They find it difficult, eighty years later, to see why so many men were seduced by the notions of imperial loyalty, or heroic warfare, and took part so readily in far-off battles from which they did not return. Vance’s skill is to show how and why these now- faded ideals not only gave Canadians the impulse to join in but were preserved in post-war commemorations. This spirit was best incorporated in John McCrae’s famous appeal to maintain the faith “In Flanders Field”, which is still recalled with sincere fidelity in countless annual ceremonies and not just by Canadians. Mobilizing this idealism for the cause of a new Canadian national consciousness proved, however, to be problematic. Vance rightly stresses that the rhetoric of the war’s mythology was too often contradicted by peace-time realities. The belief that the sacrifices of the war would lead to an assimilated Canadian population united around the ideals of national greatness and social justice for which the dead had allegedly fought, was and is still unrealised. Nevertheless Vance’s conclusion is eminently fair. The memory of the Great War in Canadian hearts was not artificially induced, nor imposed from above. Rather it sprouted from the grief, the hope, and the search for meaning of a thousand Canadian communities. J S.C.
3) Journal article: O Heilbronner and D.Muhlberger, “The Achilles Heel of German Catholicism: ‘Who voted for Hitler?’ Revisited” in European History Quarterly, vol 27, no 2, April 1997, p.221 ff.
4) Hilmar Pabel, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C. has just published the following: Conversing with God: Prayer in Erasmus’ Pastoral Writings, U.of Toronto Press 1997; also “Erasmus of Rotterdam and Judaism” in Archiv fuer Reformationsgeschichte, 87 (1996), 9-37.
Best wishes to you all, especially those starting a new academic season. John S.Conway firstname.lastname@example.org