November 2001 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


Newsletter- November 2001- Vol. VII, no. 11

Dear Friends,

1) Book reviews:

a) J.Dixon, Divine Feminine
b) W.Ustorf, Sailing on the next tide. Missions, missiology and the Third Reich

2) New journal articles
3) Short notices:

Remembering for the Future
Anderson, Practicing Democracy
Zugger, Catholics in Soviet Union
O.Bartov and P.Mack, In God,s Name
Liebster, Facing the Lion

1a) Joy Dixon, Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in
England. (The Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and
Political Science, 119th Series) Baltimore and London: The
Johns Hopkins University Press 2000. 293pp
ISBN 0-8018-6499-2

Joy Dixon, who teaches at the University of British
Columbia, breaks new ground in describing the links between
the rising feminist movements of early twentieth-century
England and the esoteric religions, particularly theosophy,
which enjoyed a considerable boom in the same period.
Historians – mostly men – have dismissed theosophy and the
antics of its foundress, Madame Blavatsky, as a crackpot cult
unworthy of serious attention. Joy Dixon is more sympathetic.
While she does not seek to examine the truth-claims of this
sect, she is prepared to recognize that it had a considerable
impact, especially among women. Her interest lies in the
historical context in which such movements operated. Both
the political branch of feminism and such “spiritual groups as
the Theosophical Society, she claims, can be regarded as a
kind of counter-culture which challenged the male domination
of British politics, society and the churches. Her sprightly and
well-researched account argues that, in fact, theosophy can be
said to be still at work in such counter-cultural movements as
New Age.

In the early years of the last century the members of the
Theosophical Society believed they were about to lead the
world into a new dispensation, spiritually and politically. The
success of the T.S. was due at least in part to its attempt to
reconcile all religions, philosophies and scientific systems in a
higher synthesis. When combined with the exotic glamour of a
mystic East, the attraction was undoubted, especially since its
founder was a woman. At a time when conventional religion
was being undermined by the claims of secular science, Mme
Blavatsky,s appeal was a combination of mystery and
scientism. She spent much of her time in India where she
claimed to be in touch with her spiritual sources, but
successfully translated these esoteric teachings and practices to
the upper middle-classes of London. Of course she met with
opposition. One of the rival movements, the Society for
Psychical Research, even commissioned an investigation of her
activities, which concluded that she was to be regarded
“neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a vulgar
adventuress; we think she has achieved a title to permanent
remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and
interesting imposters in history.

Nevertheless, by the time of her death in 1891, the
Theosophical Society had established itself in London,s
clubland, and when the leadership fell to another equally
forceful woman, Annie Besant, its influence grew still further.
After she had lost her faith and divorced her husband, an
Anglican vicar, at the age of 25, Besant developed considerable
administrative and oratorical skills, which brought her the
same kind of publicity, or notoriety, as her suffragette
counterparts. With women of such calibre in leadership
positions, it was more difficult to see theosophy as being based
on moonshine or its devotees recruited from the moonstricken.
Rather, by stressing her Irish roots and Indian connections,
Besant made a claim to have greater spiritual insight than the
average “Anglo-Saxon philistine. The impression that
emerges from the writings of English theosophists is that India
and the “Celtic fringe, along with women, were the repository
of a spirituality that English men had forfeited in exchange for
material progress.

Under Besant, the Theosophical Society became
dominated by women, and its spiritual activities would be
characterized, or criticized, as distinctly feminine. But this
evolution was complex. As over against the rationalist and
materialist culture of main-stream Christianity, theosophy,s
emphasis on “astral forces and the importance of emotion,
even when it led to excessive credulity or sentimentality, was
seen by many women to be a more valid and vital experience
in their lives. Devotional services began to displace the earlier
reliance on cerebral lectures as a more appropriate way to
support a feminine agenda and to express the wisdom of the
East in a suitable western idiom. And particularly after the
outbreak of war in 1914, theosophy capitalized on its female
adherents, need for spiritual consolation in the face of death
and bereavement. Theosophy offered unambiguous spiritual
answers and supplied comfort to some of the war,s despairing

Under Besant, more stress was laid on political
activities. The T.S. became part of a loosely socialist and
feminist political culture. Its immanentist theology posed a
challenge to middle-class masculinity with its capitalistic and
imperialistic individualism. Theosophism was welcomed both
by feminists and by Indian nationalists, following Besant,s
statement that: “India is in advance in things spiritual, England
in things material. They are two complementary halves which
if put together might make the greatest empire ever known.
Social reform was at first seen as a spiritual duty and a
necessary preparation for the New Age. But after the
disillusionment of the first world war, the rise of Communism –
distinctly unspiritual – cooled such enthusiasms. Indeed in the
1920s and 1930s, some theosophists turned to corporatist
movements, such as the British Union of Fascists. Here the
T.S.,s hierarchical and elitist mentality felt more at home, but
in fact, as Joy Dixon rightly notes, theosophy could sustain
both a corporatist and a collectivist vision, and as such its
occult body politics existed in an unstable relationship with the
existing British political parties.

Equally interesting is the author,s analysis of the
various trends within femininism. Some women sought to
recreate Christianity in a femininist guise, while others
condemned it, and Judaism, as irremediably patriarchal.
Theosophy sought to incorporate the insights of the great
religions of the East, but these were also suspect for failing to
overcome the subjection of women. Opinion was also divided
about the suffragettes, whose behaviour appeared more
masculine than feminine. To be sure, the roots of the world,s
evil lay in male supremacy and the misuse of male power. But
the Divine Feminine Principle required a higher consciousness,
which would lead to a democratic and communistic society.
This of course could be combined with a belief in women,s
superior sexuality, untainted by masculine bestiality.

Joy Dixon is particularly good at describing the crucial
nexus of theosophy in the wider feminist cause. For a
significant number of women, and particularly for women in
the militant wing of the suffrage movement, spirituality was a
constitutive element in their feminist politics. It was, of course,
an eclectic, as yet unformed, spirituality. And, therefore, the
vagueness of theosophy,s beliefs encouraged an inclusive
debate as part of a wider spiritual crusade. The fact that
theosophy celebrated women,s special excellence over men
fitted well with the suffrage movement,s political instincts. It
was all part of the attempt to reclaim the public and political
realms as a sacred space. Dixon,s brief biographies of several
leading women in her final chapters are revealing of the
strengths and weaknesses of such spiritual searchings. But, as
conditions changed, so the Theosophical Society was no longer
so influential in England. Its numbers, never large, have since
declined almost to vanishing point.

Although the debates here described took place less
than a hundred years ago, they now seem passé. Feminism has
won its battles and is now politically correct. But the Divine
Feminine Messiah has not appeared. Utopianism is at a
discount, even if the wisdom of the East is still capable of
finding adherents. The current New Age, with its hedonistic
self-indulgence, is a far cry from the ascetic spirituality of its
predecessors. So these earnest and dedicated women
influenced by theosophy,s high ideals, seem distant. And
because we see them only through their writings, rather
desiccated. Did they ever laugh? Perhaps some interviews
with surviving family members would help to make their
personalities more rounded, and fill out the legacy they left

In any case, we owe Joy Dixon a debt for two things:
first, for her capable research into a considerable number of
obscure printed sources and for surveying the records of the
Theosophical Society, as far as she was allowed; second, for
steering a fine line through unknown territory, avoiding both
admiration and denigration. Given the exotic and esoteric
links between theosophy and feminism, this was no mean

1b) Werner Ustorf, Sailing on the next tide. Missions,
missiology and the Third Reich (Studies in the Intercultural
History of Christianity 125) Frankfurt, New York: Peter Lang.
2000. 274 pp ISBN 3-631-37060-1

Werner Ustorf is a German scholar, now professor of
Mission at Birmingham University. U.K. In this book he looks
into the theory of missions as developed in his homeland
during the first half of the last century. He begins by widening
the concept of mission to examine how this notion could be
taken up by non-Christian groups such as Hitler,s Nazi Party or
by Professor Hauer,s neo-pagan Germanic religion. Ustorf
agrees with those who see Nazism as a political religion,
affirms that much of its ideology was derived from Christian
sources, and demonstrates that Hitler consciously used (and
perverted) religious language in pursuit of his racial goals. He
therefore rejects a purely instrumental view of Nazi cult
performances or propaganda, and instead stresses its
missionary endeavour to save the German Volk in its
life-and-death struggle against the forces of evil, as incarnated
in the Jews. The mission of the German people was to
safeguard their blood and soil from contamination by outside
forces and thus show the way of salvation to other nations.
The Christian hope for deliverance was transferred to the
political sphere, whereby Hitler became the Saviour, or indeed
the Messiah, of the Third Reich.
This ethno-centric religious ideology found a partner in
the German Faith Movement, propagated by Professor Hauer
of Tubingen University. Both challenged the Christian
churches by insisting on the priority of national faith-identity.
The impact, in the political circumstances of 1933, was
considerable. But Ustorf,s chief concern is to show how such
notions affected the thinking of the German missionary
community, especially among the Protestants. He advances the
view that sympathy for the Nazi political and ideological goals
led many of the German missionaries to accept the idea of a
“special revelation to be found in each nation, and thus to
attempt a kind of syncretism between “blood and soil and
traditional Christianity.
By contrast, the emphasis of the historic mission
societies under British or American auspices was on
universalism. The Gospel was to be preached to all the world,
and this task was often equated with the advance of
“civilization. Missionaries abroad may have had some
reservations about the methods by which imperialism imposed
its rule over so much of Asia and Africa, but they readily
accepted the “white man,s burden, and rejected all attempts to
syncretize with local ethnic beliefs. But in the 1930s, both
European imperialism and Christian exclusivism came to be
increasingly challenged, and the traditional missionary
structures and ideas came under corrosive attack both at home
and in the field.
Creative thinkers on the future of Christian missions in
this decade, such as Joe Oldham, Visser t Hooft, John Mott or
William Hocking, believed that a new impetus was now
necessary. They criticized the institutional inertia of the
existing missionary bodies, and argued that a new injection of
mainly lay talent was now required. Less stress on traditional
dogmatism and more on humanitarian engagement, less
paternalism from colonialist structures, more local initiative
and control. But the resistance of the mission boards and their
conservative constituencies delayed such an agenda for another
thirty years.
In the meanwhile, the shock of the world-wide
depression and the onslaught of totalitarian regimes, such as
Nazism, overshadowed the debate about missions abroad. By
the end of the 1930s there was a widespread recognition that
there was now a “life and death struggle between Christian
faith and the secular and pagan tendencies of our time
(Oxford Life and Work Conference, 1937). In view of such
enormous dangers, the Church must “assert the claim of Jesus
Christ, as the incarnate Word of God, to the Lordship of all
human life. There were authoritarian overtones to this
demand, largely unrecognized at the time. But such a
Christo-centric doctrine rallied the Church even though it made
the task of relating to other religions more difficult.
In his third section Ustorf describes the German
mission scene during the Third Reich, mainly concentrating on
the leading figures in their home base.Virtually all were
conservative nationalists, antisemitic and anti-bolshevik, and
totally opposed to the iniquitous Versailles Treaty. The
missionaries had a special grievance against the 1919
settlement. After the British conquest of the German colonies
in Africa and Asia in 1915, the missionaries had been sent
packing. Very quickly they saw themselves as maltreated
victims of the British rape of their mission posts, and readily
told the tale of their sufferings to the war-time German press.
Versailles confirmed their unanimously-held suspicions of a
British plot to confiscate their missions, and hence reinforced
the trauma of their expulsion. In fact, Article 438, which had
been included at the specific desire of Joe Oldham and his
colleagues in London, rescued these German properties from
being seized as war reparations, and instead stipulated that they
be placed under the trusteeship of non-German representatives
of the same denomination – usually Swedish. But the whining
tone of resentment and victimization echoed throughout the
German missionary press for many years, reinforcing their
anti-ecumenical and nationalist stance, and hence making them
particularly susceptible to Hitler,s appeal. In the field, where
German missionaries were again active, Hitler,s propaganda
was easily and eagerly perused. In such British-controlled
territories as Tanganyika or southern India, it was hardly
surprising that the missions were suspect of creating Nazi cells.
Indeed the enthusiasm with which the Nazi take-over of power
was greeted in these circles is rightly characterized by Ustorf as
“an amalgamation of racist thought, political ideology and
Pietistic elements.
The leaders of the Protestant missions, such as
Siegfried Knak, Martin Schlunk and Walter Freytag, were all
captivated by the spirit of the new regime. To be sure they
were subsequently to become disillusioned when the Nazi
radicals made clear their disdain for all church support. The
consequent friction could later be used as an alibi, and in the
post-1945 world enabled these men to retain their positions
without any damaging enquiries. But Ustorf carefully records
just how compromised their behaviour after 1933 was.
Plans to integrate the overseas missions under the
control of the “German Christian dominated Reich Church
were thwarted. But the leaders eagerly enough supported the
Nazi plans to re-establish a German colonial empire. It was
then hardly surprising that Nazi attitudes towards the Jews
pervaded the missionary societies. But here the answer lay in
conversion, which would put a stop to “the Jewish peril.
Overall, the missions sailed with the Nazi tide and made
willing and easy accommodations to its demands.
With the defeat of Nazism, the German mission seemed
finished. For the mission agencies,survival was paramount.
But very soon they joined the politically conservative
campaign for the re-Christianization of the nation. As
defenders of the true faith, they now claimed they had opposed
Nazism all along. And surely their services would be required
for the even greater struggle against atheistic Communism?
They also sought the return of their missionaries to their
overseas posts, and the restoration of their properties. But the
International Missionary Council demanded that, before that
happened, there had to be some coming to terms with their
Nazi past. This provoked lengthy discussions and at last a
reluctant acceptance of a modified Declaration of Guilt. By
this time, however, the ecumenical context had moved on. The
younger churches now had to be consulted as to whether they
wanted the Germans back. To their great chagrin, for example
in India, these missionaries, who had spent the war interned in
a hill-station, now found themselves rejected by their own
parishioners and obliged to return to a war-devastated
Germany. Their dismissal marked the end of a chapter.
Ustorf pertinently points out that the German
Protestants had sought to propagate their faith by relying both
on the political aid of the state and on the ideology of German
nationalism, with its racialist and imperialist overtones. In so
doing they had failed to come to terms with the 20th century,s
most important issues, particularly religious pluralism and
secular materialism. We can be grateful for Ustorf,s
description of the illusionary nature of the voyage on which
these German missionaries set sail, and for his encouragement
to tackle the renewed missiological debate for the years ahead.

2) New Journal Articles:
Wolfgang Hardtwig, Political religion in Modern Germany:
Reflections on Nationalism, Socialism, and National
Socialism: in Bulletin of the German Historical Institute,
Washington D.C., Spring 2001, no. 28 p.3ff

This perceptive article takes up the theme discussed in last
month,s review of Hans Mommsen,s chapter on Nazism as a
political religion. Hardtwig rejects the view that Nazism was
an ersatz faith, but adopts Hitler,s own view that this was a
“political belief. The reason it gained so much ground,
especially among Protestants, was largely because of the
disarray in the theology of the 1920s. Nazism offered a wholly
immanentist view of the possibility of political salvation once
Germany,s enemies had been eliminated. This is a secular
belief not a religion, which, in Hardtwig,s view, must include a
transcendent dimension. He thus reinforces the arguments
advanced in the massively-researched volume by
Calus-Ekkehard Bärsch, Die politische Religion des
Nationalsozialismus, (Munich 1998) which examines the
thought and writings of the leading Nazis, finding a large
diversity of views, but powerfully expressed.

The June issue of Church History, Vol. 70 no 2, is devoted to
this Newsletter,s themes, and indeed several list members have
contributed articles:
Roland Blaich, German Methodism and the Nazi State,
Donald Dietrich, Totalitarianism
Doris Bergen, German military chaplains in world war II
Kevin Spicer, Msgr B.Lichtenberg,s conflict with Karl Adam
John Delaney, Clerical opposition to Nazi anti-Polish racial
Kyle Jantzen, Strategies for clerical survival amid the German
Church Struggle,
Michael Phayer, Questions about Catholic Resistance.

3) Short notices:
Remembering for the Future: The papers given at the July
2000 Conference in Oxford, entitled as above, have now
appeared in print in three massive volumes, each of 1000
pages, all published by Palgrave. Vol. 2: Ethics and Religion
contains a number of interesting papers, some by our
list-members. The chapters are headed: Ethical Choices,
Rescue, The Catholic Church, The Protestant Churches,
Post-Holocaust Theology and The Search for Justice. A
wonderful cornucopia, if your library manages to afford a copy.

Margaret Anderson, Practicing Democracy. Elections and
political culture in Imperial Germany. Princeton U.P 2000
This authoritative study of the initial stages of the growth of
participatory democracy under the watchful eye of the
Emperors William I and II is particularly good at showing how
precarious the whole experiment was, and how many forces
clashed in the process. Chapters 4 and 5 outline the conflict
over the role of the Catholic Church, and the viciousness of
anticlerical attacks. Such topics as Jesuit phobia and the
spectre of clerical influence are here analyzed, and placed in
their political context. Anderson skillfully describes the
political aspects of the Kulturkampf and the reasons for the
Catholics, eventual success.

Christopher L.Zugger, The Forgotten. Catholics of the Soviet
Empire from Lenin to Stalin. Syracuse U.P.2001 556 pp.
This is a splendidly compendious account of the sufferings of
the Roman Catholic minority in the Soviet Union at the hands
of the Communist revolutionaries and their leaders, Lenin and
Stalin. It makes for sad reading, all the more since the author,s
sympathies for the victims are outspoken. Excellently
researched and illustrated, this is a valuable and convincing
story of how this church survived – barely – the intolerant
bigotry of Communist political ideology and practice.

ed. O.Bartov and P.Mack, In God,s Name. Genocide and
Religion in the Twentieth Century. NewYork/Oxford:
Berghahn Books 2001 402 pp.
This collection of papers from a 1997 conference includes
contributions from a number of our list-members, Doris
Bergen, Beth Griech-Polelle, Susannah Heschel and Bob
Ericksen. Three themes are stressed -The Perpetrators,
Survival and Aftermath – but the plurality of views expressed –
some of them not very new, even in 1997 – makes for a good
mixture of stances, but not much harmonious reconciliation.
By extending the horizons to include genocide in Rwanda, we
get some balance from too much emphasis on the Jewish
Holocaust, but these essays are not fully integrated or related to
the rest – as inevitably happens as such conferences. But Ian
Kershaw,s final summary is excellent. He pinpoints the crucial
responsibility of religions over the centuries for the
perpertration of genocide, both in theory and practice, and
concludes that “the record of Christianity is probably most dire
of all religions. As a result, Kershaw laments, “there will
almost certainly be little prospect of looking to the Christian
Churches to put a brake on “future genocides, even if they are
not actively involved as they were in Rwanda.

John Conway