March 2001 Newsletter
Association of Contemporary Church Historians
(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)
John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia
Congratulations are due to Kyle Jantzen, Assistant Professor of Church
History, Canadian Theological Seminary, Regina, Saskatchewan on the
successful completion of his PhD from McGill University. The abstract of his
thesis appears below.
Since last month marked the 95th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, we bring you some items on his career as possibly the best known
German theologian of the 20th century.
1a) Notice of session “Remembering Bonhoeffer and the Church Struggle”,
Scholars’ Conference, Philadelphia, March 2001
Notice of Bonhoeffer Symposium, Boston, April 23rd, 2001
b) Bonhoeffer Session, American Academy of Religion, November 2000
c) review of Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace”.
2) PhD Abstract: Kyle Jantzen, Protestant clergymen and church-political
conflict in National Socialist Germany
3) Journal articles:
1a) “Remembering Bonhoeffer and the Church Struggle” 31st Annual Scholars’
Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, March 3rd-6th, St.Joseph’s
University, Philadelphia. A tribute to Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eberhard
Bethge, will include a video of interviews made by Martin Doblmeier of
Journey Films Inc – the last shortly before Bethge’s death last March. Short
tributes will be paid by Burton Nelson (North Park Theological Seminary),
Pat Kelley (North American Bonhoeffer Society), Victoria Barnett
(independent scholar and translator), Wayne Floyd Jr., (Editor, English
language edition of Bonhoeffer’s Works). Franklin Littell is Convenor.
A Bonhoeffer Symposium will be held at the Boston University School of
Theology, Monday, April 23rd 2001, sponsored by the Boston German Consulate,
Boston University and Fortress Press. Two panels will examine the political,
historical and theological legacy of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. The film
“Agent of Grace” and a Bonhoeffer documentary will be shown. Confirmed
speakers are Chancellor John Silber of Boston University, Dean Robert
Beville, Clifford Green, Wayne Floyd and Victoria Barnett.
More details available from Dorothee von Arnim at the German Consulate =
b) American Academy of Religion session: “Bonhoeffer, the Jews and Judaism”,
November 19th, 2000 A report by Victoria Barnett
Richard Rubenstein, presenter; Victoria Barnett and Robert Ericksen,
In some respects, the discussion about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in recent years
has paralleled the ongoing debate about Pius XII. Both are complex figures,
historically and theologically; each has his detractors and defenders. Two
years ago, a petition to declare Bonhoeffer a “righteous gentile” was
submitted to Yad Vashem. That petition was rejected, as was a recent appeal.
The argument about this petition and Yad Vashem’s response became the focus
of the AAR panel. As a participant on this panel, I will declare my own
bias. I believe that part of the problem with most recent discussions about
Bonhoeffer and the Jews is that they focus too much on rendering a
definitive verdict. Was Bonhoeffer a “good guy” or a “bad guy”? While it is
certainly appropriate to make ethical judgments about the behavior of
historical figures, the debates about such judgments often leaves complexity
by the wayside. Indeed I would argue that Bonhoeffer’s most profound work
emerged from the thoughtfulness and courage with which he faced the ethical
demands and consequences of his complex situation.
Richard Rubenstein presented the case for viewing Bonhoeffer as a “righteous
gentile,” not by Yad Vashem’s standards, but in “lowercase,” as it were.
Christian readers of Bonhoeffer’s early theological writings about Judaism
(notably “The Church and the Jewish Question”) often gloss over the genuine
offense and pain these give to Jewish readers. Rubenstein offered a direct
and nuanced response to this essay, noting that the Lutheran heritage that
shaped Bonhoeffer’s theology also led him to fight the introduction of
“Aryan laws” in the church. Taking into account both the striking
anti-Nazism of the entire Bonhoeffer family and Bonhoeffer’s resistance
work, Rubenstein concluded that Bonhoeffer was “unable to extricate himself
from the traditional Christian view of Jews and Judaism,” yet became one of
the few in his church to transcend that tradition to fight Nazism and resist
While agreeing with many of Rubenstein’s observations, I argued for a
reading of “The Church and the Jewish Question” in its church-historical and
ecumenical context. The purpose of such a contextual reading is not
apologia. Rather, it enables us to trace where Bonhoeffer’s thinking went in
later writings. While Bonhoeffer did not later write explicitly on the
church and the Jews, there are some indications of a real shift in his
thinking about Judaism in his Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison.
This shift occurs in the context of his reflections on the necessarily
changed role of Christianity in modern secular society. Bonhoeffer’s focus
was always Christianity, not Judaism, and so we may learn more here from his
later writings on church and state.
Robert Ericksen responded by analyzing the search for heroes of the
Holocaust. “Our desire for heroes,” he noted, should be balanced with a
“sense of the magnitude of the disaster.” The Holocaust was made possible by
widespread and terrible complicity among all professions in Germany,
including the ranks of theologians and pastors. Quoting Stanley Rosenbaum’s
description of Bonhoeffer as “the best of a bad lot,” Ericksen reminded the
audience of how bad that theological lot actually was in its prejudice
against Jews. In his opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer distinguished
himself — yet this may have been despite his theology, not because of it.
Ericksen’s analysis is particularly interesting in light of the chapter,
“Twentieth Century Antiheroism: Camus and Bonhoeffer,” in the recently
published Heroism and the Christian Life, by Brian Hook and Russell Reno.
The consensus of the panel seemed to be that it is less important to declare
Bonhoeffer a “Righteous Gentile” than to continue an honest and open
discussion about his work and its legacy.
Victoria Barnett kindly made available to us the text of her commentary,
which we share with you – somewhat abridged.
The growing attention to Christian complicity in the Holocaust, the long
history of Christian anti-Judaism, and the abysmal failure of many Christian
leaders to withstand Nazism or act on behalf of its victims has led us
Christians to examine both our history and theology more critically. We
re-examine figures such as Bonhoeffer because we want to see where they
stood on this spectrum of behavior. Bonhoeffer is a hero to many Christians
because of his theological writings and early opposition to the Nazi regime,
his role in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, and his execution. They
would like to assume that this means he was also a hero within the context
of the Holocaust.
The resulting problem, however, is that this discussion tends to focus on
Bonhoeffer’s thought and action within a narrow framework. By examining his
life and work purely in terms of its significance for the history of the
persecution and genocide of the Jews, it separates his statements about
Judaism and the Jews from their larger context within the German
Kirchenkampf, thereby leaving out other aspects of Bonhoeffer’s ministry and
thought that might prove relevant here. This leaves us to draw our
conclusions from the rather short list of the relevant writings, anecdotes
and events from Bonhoeffer’s career that make direct mention of the Jews. .
Those who view Bonhoeffer as a hero of the Holocaust argue that these
documents and actions are the foundation for his subsequent resistance,
imprisonment and execution. They conclude that Bonhoeffer’s resistance,
throughout the Nazi era, was grounded in his opposition to the Nazi
persecution of the Jews.
Those who disagree with this interpretation view Bonhoeffer more as part of
the problem than the solution. They concur with the Yad Vashem committee’s
statement that Bonhoeffer’s public record upholds “the traditional Christian
delegitimization of Judaism” and that the only record of his opposition to
the Nazi persecution of the Jews consists of undocumented statements made
With respect to his 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question”, I
would argue for an examination of the theological section together with the
political analysis. As I have written elsewhere, the so-called “Jewish
question” actually encompassed a number of political and cultural issues for
Germans at the time. At its core was the question of assimilation and, thus,
in reality it was the “German question” – the search for a German national
and cultural identity, accompanied (as so often in such quests) by prejudice
and the scapegoating of a particular group. Bonhoeffer’s critique of the
resulting ideology, the legitimacy of the new Nazi government, and the
dangers of church accommodation to Nazi ideology quickly placed him on the
radical fringe of the Kirchenkampf, in the view of most German Protestant
leaders. His 1933 essay merged what were originally two separate essays,
which Bonhoeffer combined in the wake of the April 1 boycott of Jewish
businesses in Berlin. The section of the essay that deals with church and
state questions expresses some clear political attitudes, including
Bonhoeffer’s clear sense that the Nazi measures against the Jews were a
violation of their civil rights. He recognized that the Jews in early 1933
were indeed victims; and the church’s responsibility, he wrote, was to “aid
the victims of state action.even if they do not belong to the Christian
Bonhoeffer’s recognition of Nazi measures as a civil liberties issue was
certainly based, in part, on his firsthand observation of racism and Jim
Crow legislation during his studies in the United States during 1930-31. In
February 1933 he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr of the threat of “gruesome cultural
barbarization, so that here, too, we will have to open a Civil Liberties
Union before long.” In September 1933, Bonhoeffer helped formulate the
anti-racism declaration made by the World Alliance for Promoting
International Friendship through the Churches at its meeting in Sofia,
Bulgaria. Although the Yad Vashem committee, in rejecting this piece of
evidence on behalf of Bonhoeffer, contended that the World Alliance confined
its concern to church members affected by Nazi racial laws, in point of fact
the declaration (in addition to condemning the “Aryan clause” in the church)
explicitly condemns “the treatment that people of Jewish descent and ties
have suffered in Germany. We especially deplore the fact that the state
measures against the Jews in Germany have had such an effect on public
opinion that in some circles the Jewish race is considered a race of
inferior status.” . . .
Bonhoeffer’s thinking along these lines is even more remarkable when
compared with the statements of some other ecumenical leaders at the time
(such as William Paton) who viewed a “rechristianized” Europe as the means
for repairing the damage wrought by Nazism. Bonhoeffer explicitly argues
against this understanding. What is needed, he writes, is not
“rechristianization,” but a rethinking of how Christians understand their
own place in the world. . . . .
Bonhoeffer’s Christology at this point includes a new acknowledgment of the
legitimacy of non-Christians and of the secular state and its institutions.
To the Christian, the worldly order still falls “under the dominion of
Christ,” but this is joined with an affirmation of secular society that
includes members of other religions. . . .
This broader vision underscores the incredible tension that Dohnanyi,
Bonhoeffer, and other resisters felt between their role in helping the
German resistance by seeking allies abroad and their detailed knowledge
about what was happening to the Jews of Europe. And, I would suggest, it
compels us to read Bonhoeffer’s statements, especially his essay “After Ten
Years,” with new eyes. . . .
In the final analysis, Bonhoeffer’s focus was Christianity and its church,
not Judaism. If he changed his mind about Judaism, this occurred within the
context of his rethinking of his own Christian tradition. Yet the radical
conclusions he drew about the future role of Christianity (e.g.,
“religionless Christianity”) are precisely the concepts that open the way
for a deeper respect for, and acceptance of, other religions. By rethinking
the essence of Christianity and its place in the world, and its relationship
to the state, Bonhoeffer laid an essential part of the foundation for how we
Christians view other faiths, and a rethinking of how we live in the world.
Even here, however, the most we can do is tease out where we think he was
moving. We do not know where he would have ended up.
c) The film, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace was repeated in North America on PBS
television on January 18th. In view of this wide audience, and despite the
fact that we printed an insightful review by John Matthews in last July’s
Newsletter, we now reprint a critical review by G.B.Kelly, President,
International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section.
“After I had been informed that Bonhoeffer:Agent of Grace had been chosen
the “Best Film” at the 40th Annual Monte Carlo Television Festival in
February 2000, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to view an
advance copy. My expectations were high. Finally, I was going to view a film
that would do justice to Bonhoeffer, one of my great heroes, a dialogue
partner for the past thirty-six years, and a theologian to whom I have
devoted most of my professional research and publishing.
The actual life story of Bonhoeffer is filled with action, intrigue,
inspiration, romance and behind-the-scenes attempts to bring World War II to
an end and stop the killing on the battlefields and death camps of occupied
Europe. Bonhoeffer was a man of action, a preacher of note, a successful
university teacher, an outspoken ecumenist, an agitator for peace, a critic
of the injustices of a criminal government, a defender of the Jews against
Nazi racism, a pastor involved in a violent conspiracy to assassinate the
head of state, and a martyr who gave his life in the struggle to free his
nation and the world from Adolf Hitler and his evil ideology. How could a
film about such a fascinating person fail? I believed I was in for an
evening of seeing a great story on the screen and, at last, the contentment
of seeing a film that could capture all that Bonhoeffer was and meant to
generations of his countless admirers. Or so I thought!
From the opening scenes in Harlem until the closing scene of a naked
Bonhoeffer walking alone without an SS escort toward a single scaffold, my
emotions ranged from disappointment to irritation that a film so exalted in
the advance publicity should end with so little impact. As a film
consultant, and having read so many bad scripts for a commercial film on the
life of Bonhoeffer, I didn’t think anything could get worse than the scripts
I had already rejected. Unfortunately this film strikes me as being just as
bad, and, in my opinion is inherently flawed by dullness, distortion,
significant omissions, and clumsy editing. One of the most glaring omissions
is the nearly complete absence of Eberhard Bethge from the film, which is
like telling the story of Jean Paul Satre without any mention of Simone de
Beauvoir. The scriptwriter and the director misuse the talents of the
prominent German actor who plays Bonhoeffer by turning him into a figure who
mopes about filled with scruples over whether he should join the conspiracy.
Where is the decisive, outspoken Bonhoeffer whom his students and
seminarians admired for his ability to speak out with force and conviction
about the treatment of the Jews?
At this juncture of the film enter Hans von Dohnanyi who uses mere still
photos and sterile documents of Nazi atrocities (the audience is supposed to
guess the contents) to convince Bonhoeffer to overcome his pastor’s
reticence and join the conspirators. Given that Bonhoeffer was privy to this
information and that this may have weighed on his mind as he decided to use
his energies to oppose Nazi policies, did the process shown on screen have
to be so boring? There were unbelievable horrors perpetrated against the
Jews during this period. To convey the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s opposition
to the victimization of the Jews, the film desperately needed action scenes,
even film clips from the historical record that could graphically depict the
sufferings of an innocent people. Bonhoeffer was neither wavering nor
silent. Yet the film lacks the dramatic scenes of the brutalization and
genocidal persecution of the Jews or scenes depicting the utter ruthlessness
of the Nazi death squads. Bonhoeffer spoke publicly and with vehemence
against Nazi policies and actions. His passion is missing from this film.
Instead, the filmgoer is treated only to monotonous ruminations of
conscience by an indecisive clergyman bearing little resemblance to the real
life Bonhoeffer. Where are the scenes of and reactions to Crystal Night?
Where are Bonhoeffer’s demands for church action to speak out, to aid the
victims and, if necessary, to jam a spoke in the wheel of state? Where are
the exciting challenges of his sermon before the World Alliance of Churches
declaring that “Peace must be dared. It is the great venture.” Instead, this
made-for-television Bonhoeffer is made to say mundane things that are out of
character with the documented and widely known biography. His angry
questions to the Church Synod that weaseled out of the challenge to refuse
to take the oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler as a birthday gift to the
Fuehrer are muted. The dramatic words of so many of his sermons and the
incisive power of so many passages of his book on Christian discipleship are
absent. This is a more peaceful, pious Bonhoeffer out of character with the
fiery pastor of the historical record.
Bonhoeffer’s secret mission to Sigtuna, Sweden in 1942 is, likewise,
divested of any of the excitement that attended this moment in which his
role in the resistance movement took on added risk and importance. Where is
the angry demand, amply recorded by Bishop Bell, that Germany make
reparations to the occupied victimized countries of Nazi expansionism?
Bonhoeffer is reduced to a pious churchman lamenting the suffering inflicted
on his people and nation but hardly aroused to the fever pitch of prophetic
outrage and action that marked the real life Bonhoeffer.
What could have been an exciting scene of smuggling Jews out of Germany was
reduced to a more placid advice to the Jewish escapees in question to simply
trust the Abwehr. There seemed to be no attempt by the filmmaker to create
any suspense in those actions so fraught with danger. There are many
liberties taken with this presentation of Bonhoeffer. It is puzzling why no
artistic liberty was taken in the scenes of rescue in order to add some life
to this sluggish film and to recreate the actual risks that people like
Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators were taking in saving Jews from the
death camps and attempting to undermine the Nazi regime.
In one of the most poorly directed scenes of the film, Bonhoeffer appears to
be reduced to a pathetic fumbling for words before the relentless
questioning of the Gestapo official, Manfred Roeder, again a strange
falsifying of the historical record and an undermining of the real
personality strengths of Bonhoeffer. What we end up with is an
uninteresting, anxiety-ridden character doing rather ho-hum things until in
prison he is able to be of spiritual comfort to a fellow prisoner. The
exchanges between Roeder and Bonhoeffer are too long and wearying to the
film viewer. There is little of the personality of the Bonhoeffer so evident
in documentary attestations by those who knew him closely and that we find
so well developed in Bethge’s biography. The high point seems to come when
Bonhoeffer becomes man enough to say “no” to an offer from the prosecutor,
Manfred Roeder (given ironically and unbelievably a touch of humanity here
for the sake of the story line!), to negotiate with the allies on behalf of
leading Nazis desirous of saving their own skin – something both inaccurate
and preposterous. [Even worse is the implication that Bonhoeffer was hung
for refusing to go along with this suggestion: Ed] There are, to be sure, a
couple of very touching scenes, such as the prayer shared with a condemned
fellow prisoner and the exchanges with his cell guard. But these hardly
rescue the film from its doldrums.
In sum, this film is bereft of riveting action scenes. It lacks suspense
adequate to capture the imagination of the film audience. The story seems to
operate on the unfounded presumption that the film viewers are familiar
enough with the main character to supply for themselves the missing pieces.
Maria is pretty enough and fetching, but the similarity with the real life
Maria von Wedemeyer stops there, although this dull Bonhoeffer is a good
match for this Maria. This film gives us only a smattering of how and why
his actions are important. With so many expectations, this film is a major
disappointment. The truth of Bonhoeffer’s life was much more absorbing. He
was a man of courage, a man of vision, one of the most significant figures
in the religious history of the twentieth century. This film utterly fails
to convey the personal strengths and character of the man. Nor does it
adequately indicate to the viewer why he has been so admired as a hero of
the German resistance to Hitler and widely honored as a Christian martyr.
Geoffrey Kelly, La Salle University
2) Kyle Jantzen, Protestant clergymen and church-political conflict in
National Socialist Germany: studies from rural Brandenburg, Saxony and
This dissertation is a comparison of local church conditions in three German
Protestant church districts during the National Socialist era: the Nauen
district in the Brandenburg Church Province of the Old Prussian Union
Church, the Pirna district in the Saxon Evangelical Land Church and the
Ravensburg district in the Wurttemberg Evangelical Land Church. It focuses
on the attitudes and roles of the pastors, curates and vicars who served in
the primarily rural parishes of these districts, analyses the effect of the
‘national renewal’ movement that accompanied the National Socialist seizure
of power in 1933 upon these parishes, and probes their own attitudes towards
the prevalent religious nationalism of the day. Following a comparison of
the controversies surrounding pastoral appointments in Nauen, Pirna and
Ravensburg, the study examines the nature and intensity of church-political
conflict in each of the districts during the National Socialist era.
Finally, the study closes with a consideration of clerical attitudes towards
the National Socialist euthanasia programme and the antisemitism that led to
the Holocaust. Drawing on official church correspondence at three levels
(parish, district and land church), parish newsletters, accounts of meetings
throughout the period, the study concludes that while these Protestant
clergymen generally shared a common conservative nationalist outlook, the
manifestation of the church struggle in their parishes took diverse forms.
Parishioners in Nauen and especially Pirna (but not Ravensburg) displayed a
high level of interest in their churches in 1933, in part a result of the
strength of the national renewal in their regions. In Nauen, the church
struggle was channeled into the quest for control of pastoral appointments.
In Pirna, the church struggle mirrored the course of events in Saxony as a
whole, and included extreme “German Christians”, radical members of the
Confessing Church and a moderate movement for church peace. In Ravensburg,
“German Christian” pastor Karl Steger dominated local church politics and
fostered pro-National Socialist groups throughout the district. Finally the
study found almost no evidence among clergymen of official or public
engagement with the moral and theological challenges posed by National
Socialist racial policy.
3) Journal articles: Kauders, Catholics, Jews and democratization
Lees, Deviant sexuality and Protestant Conservatives before 1914
Williamson, Christian Conservatives and totalitarianism
Greschat, Tubingen Memorandum von 1961.
3 a)Anthony Kauders, Catholics, the Jews and Democratization in Post-war
Germany, Munich 1945-65, in German History, Vol 18, no 4, 2000 p.461-484.
Kauders convincingly outlines the responses of the largely Catholic
political elite in Munich after the fall of Nazism, and the various
arguments put forward to block or delay the recognition of their complicity
in the Nazi regime, and the acceptance of democratic practices in the
building of a pluralistic society. Not until the end of the 1950s, Kauders
argues, were Catholics ready to accept the new situation. But they still
reluctance to accept the need for Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, which they
complained “was lumped into the coffee every morning, cooked into the soup
every mid-day, and spread on to the sandwich every evening”.
b) Andrew Lees, Deviant Sexuality and other “Sins”: the views of Protestant
Conservatives in Imperial Germany. in German Studies Review, Vol XXIII, no
3, Oct 2000, 453-76.
After 1870, Germany saw an explosion of rapid urbanization, and consequent
social upheaval to the established patters of morality drawn from a rural
Protestant clergy who saw themselves as the guardians of social ethics early
on recognized the danger signals and tried to forge new measures to ensure
social control. In the event, the attempt to prolong conservative practices,
especially in the field of sexual morality, were unsuccessful. Denunciation
of such “sins” did little to remedy the conditions of urban overcrowding,
exploitation and poor housing which were really to blame. But the clergy
still clung to the idea that a return to the Gospel, and the propagation of
middle class morality, would cure such failings, and were supported by such
institutions as the Inner Mission. The conservative character of these
appeals from the religious “right” did much to turn the mass of the people
to other creeds, such as Social Democracy.
c) Philip Williamson, Christian Conservatives and the challenge of
English Historical Review, Vol CXV, no 462, June 2000, p 607-42
The inter-war period from 1919-1939 was a particularly difficult time to
discern how Christian values could be applied in the political arena.
Especially in Britain, the shock of the Great War led many Christians to
support a pacifist stance. But to such practising Christian politicians as
the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, or the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax,
the need to balance the rival claims of justice as well as peace, the call
of national preservation as well as international harmony, meant that they
were obliged to seek a more nuanced position. Williamson cogently examines
these dilemmas, and argues in favour of the stance taken, reluctantly but
with Christian sanction, in favour of taking up arms against Germany for the
second time in a generation.
d) Martin Greschat, “Mehr Wahrheit in der Politik”. Das Tuebinger Memorandum
von 1961 in Vierteljahrshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte, Vol 48, no 3, 2000.
Martin Greschat continues his excellent record of publishing articles
dealing with the political stances of the German Evangelical Church by
examining the impact of an important memorandum published in 1961 by some
leading Germans, which called for a more honest approach to West Germany’s
strategic situation. In particular, they appealed for the abandonment of the
nationalistic claims to the lands taken by Poland after 1945, suggesting
that such a renunciation would be a true sign of German acceptance of their
defeat. This move was taken up in the councils of the German Evangelical
Church and became the basis of the outspoken Declaration on the Situation of
the Refugees and the German people’s relationship to its eastern neighbours,
published in 1965. Together these documents prepared the way for the Social
Democratic Party’s change of policy, signaled by Willy Brandt’s later and
spectacular visit to Warsaw.