April 2003 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

 John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter- April 2003- Vol. IX, no . 4

100th Issue

Dear Friends,
To my considerable astonishment, I calculate that this comes to you as the
100th issue of our Newsletter. When I began to send out this Newsletter,
as my retirement project after so many years of teaching at the University
of British Columbia, I imagined that some reviews of recent books on church
history might be of some help to colleagues interested in our field of
research and scholarship. I supposed that a few issues would suffice to
take care of the backlog. But due to your unabated interest and support
over the last eight and a half years, as well as to the flood of new works
constantly appearing in our field of contemporary church history, I have
been encouraged to continue. Despite some unfortunate technical
difficulties, which I trust have now been resolved, the replies you have so
kindly and warmly sent back to me have given me the incentive to keep
going. This gives me an opportunity to thank those members whose
assistance over the years has been particularly helpful: Doris Bergen,
Matthew Hockenos, Mike Phayer, and Jay Hughes.

In view of this 100th milestone, and in consideration of my own long-time
interest in German church history, I thought it might be of help to us all
to ask our colleague Prof. Gerhard Besier (Heidelberg) to give us a broad
survey of the situation of the German churches over the past seventy years
since Hitler’s rise to power. His essay will be carried in two parts. We
would like also to congratulate him on his new appointment as Director of
the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism at the
Technical University in Dresden, where he will be moving to shortly.


Seventy Years after “Machtergreifung”. The German Churches’
Political Stance 1933-2003 (Part I)

Gerhard Besier
Churches and religious communities in 1933

When Hitler seized power, Germany was an almost completely
bi-denominational country. About 63% (in absolute numbers: 39.5 million)
were members of the Protestant state churches, and 32% (24.5 million) were
Roman Catholics. Of the smaller religious and ideological groups, the
Jewish communities were the largest with an amount of 0.9% (in absolute
numbers: half a million). There were considerable
differences in mentality between the two large denominations. While Roman
Catholicism had ceased being an “Empire Church” since the decline of the
Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and, independent from state protection, had
developed to a strong power in society paired with solid milieus,
Protestantism experienced the division of Church and State only at the
beginning of the Weimar Republic. Neither before 1918 nor afterwards did
Protestantism manage to create mass structures similar to those of the
Catholics. There was no “Protestant party”, and Protestant associations
could not compare themselves with Catholic organisations, neither in size
nor by inner consistence. Socialist subculture, which was quite
heterogeneous itself, contributed considerably to loosen religious bonds,
especially in milieus with a Protestant background. The majority of people
did not adopt Socialist rites of passage, but they did distance themselves
from what the churches offered. The complaint of the church about the
“dying Sunday” pointed to the fact that after the constitutional division
of Church and State, many people felt no longer obliged to go to church.
This process of distancing oneself from the church, however, had already
begun in the last third of the 19th century and would gain more ground.The National Socialist movement as a hope of new departures for the churches

Both for those persons who were ideologically indifferent, and for official
representatives of the churches, the National Socialist movement seemed to
offer a great hope. Some recognized in it a modern response to the crisis of the
day, and looked forward to a new future under vigorous Nazi leadership. On
the other hand, many bishops and lay members of the church establishment counted on a
state-supported re-Christianisation and trusted that the conditions as they existed before
1919 would be restored. Both believed that the unifying factor of religion
was vital for Germany’s political future.

Hitler won broad support from the churches with his government’s
declaration of 23 March 1933, which contained far-reaching assurances to the
churches as “most important factors for the preservation of our ethnicity.”
Protestants especially were reminded of the “spirit of 1914”, and were
gratified to see growing numbers of church-goers. They presumed the churches would be included
in the “national revolution” in the weeks that followed 30 January 1933.The vast majority was not affected by the measures taken against political, ideological and religious minorities and therefore took a rather
indifferent stance towards their persecution. The new government’s
unequivocal breaches of human rights raised no critique among the churches;
many Protestants indeed welcomed the restrictions of basic rights and the
strong measures taken for the development of the dictatorship as a step
back to the reestablishment of law and order.

In its declaration of 28 March 1933, the Catholic episcopacy recanted
its condemnations of National Socialism as expressed in previous years.
Catholicism had a significantly smaller problem with National Socialism,
since believers as well as theologians were hardly affected by this
“political religion.” With the help of the Reich Concordat and by assuming
a diplomatic position, the Catholic Church believed it would be able to defend
its rights even under a dictatorship. The “anti-bolshevism” shared with
National Socialism was, for both churches, an important factor of
ideological and political consensus.Attempts to synthesize Christianity and National Socialism
In Protestantism, on the contrary, there existed a group who aimed to
create a synthesis of National Socialism and Christianity even before
Hitler seized power: the so-called German Christians (Deutsche Christen,
DC). This new ideology had multiple sources. The völkische Bewegung
(‘national’ or ‘ethnic’ movement), which sprang up in the last third of the
19th century, played a significant role. The younger generation of pastors
were greatly influenced by this völkisch and national body of thought. Even
the majority of the small opposition group of Confessing Church (Bekennende
Kirche, BK) within the church was of the opinion that National Socialism
had created a political system appropriate to the Germans. They only wanted
to keep the Church out of the hands of those Nazis who advocated state
control – a position which would soon prove illusory. Although the German Christians
(DC) were a minority too, it may be assumed that the majority of church
members who were not very close to the Church shared a vast part of
DC-convictions. The readiness for obedience towards state authorities and
an opportunistic philosophy of survival did their part. Had the more
radical Nazis not continually distanced themselves from the DC and expelled
them with more and more determination from their own “movement,” a final
victory of the DC-movement and the creation of a “national church” might
have been the result. After all, the decline of the “Confessing Church”
after 1938 was obvious. The so-called “intact” churches of Hannover,
Wuerttemberg and Bavaria were more ready to compromise than the “destroyed”
Prussian churches. Whereas the former did not want to endanger their
status, the latter ones had nothing left to lose. This viewpoint deserves
priority beyond inner-Protestant denominational differences.

Privileged position of the Churches in postwar-Germany

The end of WWII led – with the exception of the churches – to the breakdown
of German society. The Western Allies were aware that the churches had
heavily compromised themselves, but they were convinced, due to the
conditions existing in their own countries, that a democratic society could
not be built without Christianity. This is why they granted privileges to
the churches and gave them much scope for renewed activity. Under the
pressure of the Allies, however, both major churches had to draft an admission of guilt
first. From then on the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt issued in October
1945 was a notable document, but raised considerable objections in many
Protestant circles. Much more welcome was the attempt made by the churches
to see themselves as resistance organisations – an interpretation strongly
supported by the early post-war historiography of the Confessing Church.
Within Protestantism, the old dispute among Lutherans and United
Protestants revived in summer 1945. In order to circumvent this problem,
the traditional structures of the state churches were maintained and
reforms were mostly foregone.

On the wider scene, Protestants and Catholics were united in a
common negative opinion about the Allies’ military occupation policies. In
their struggle against denazification they withdrew to a position of legal positivism
which made all efforts of the Allies look like vindictive legislation.
Furthermore, they frequently explained away their own former positive
attitudes towards National Socialism as venial, comprehensible political errors in
reasoning, and pleaded for an end to all attempts to brand Germans as
collectively guilty. With this interpretation, the church leadership
strongly responded to the expectations of church members and improved their
social reputation. Yet, there was no lasting “movement of return to the
churches.” The numbers of people joining the churches reached their peak in
1946. In 1949, there were already 86,000 people leaving the
church versus 43,000 joining it. So, after a brief interruption, the
erosion of folk Protestantism went on. The Roman Catholic Church was spared
this erosion at first, but in the 1960s its own milieus began giving in too.
Churches and Church Policy in the GDR

When the GDR was founded, 80.5 % of the population were members of the
Protestant Church, while in 1989 the number had sunk to 24 %. While the
level of people leaving the church remained high until the mid-1970s, the
peaks lay in the years 1958 and 1975. From the mid-1970s the rate of
deserters sank, or was reduced by people joining the church. After the
collapse of the GDR, the rate of deserters increased again. The Roman
Catholic Church was in a classical minority position. Due to the refugees
from the former East German areas (now belonging to Poland) and the
Sudetenland, the number of Catholics increased from 4.7 % to 13.9 % between
1945 and 1949, but until 1954, it dropped again by a third because of
further migration and people leaving the country. In 1989, only 5.9 % of
the population were Catholics.

Two of the eight Protestant state churches, and seven Catholic dioceses
(Jurisdiktionsbezirke), covering the territory of the GDR, suffered severe
losses of territory and members because of the new frontier to Poland along
the rivers Oder and Neisse. These political factors caused substantial
reassessments in church policy and required special efforts for the
necessary re-structuring. Already in 1945, the “Conference of Eastern Churches”, called “Conference of Governing
Bodies of the Protestant Churches in the territory of the GDR” (KKL) from
1950 on, constituted itself. After the founding of both German states, the
Catholic church too established a regional bishops’ board in the territory
of the GDR, which was called “Berlin Conference of Diocesan Authorities”
(Berliner Ordinarienkonferenz, BOK).

The Soviet Military Administration (SMAD), which ruled Eastern Germany at
that time, gave the churches free rein at the beginning. The SED party,
founded by a forced unification of the Communist (KPD) and Social
Democratic (SPD) Parties in February 1946, expressed its tolerance and will
to cooperate with religious convictions and churches at the beginning, too.
This behaviour, which was mainly motivated by tactical reasons, was based
on the Basic Principles formulated by the “working group for religious
questions” of the National Committee for a Free Germany (Nationales Komitee
Freies Deutschland, NKFD) in the USSR since 1944. After 1945, some
clergymen of the NKFD had a secondary function as secret informants of the
Soviet and, later, the GDR secret service. In 1947, a “Department for
Church, Christendom and Religion” was integrated in the party structure,
while from 1949 on Walter Ulbricht’s “Small Secretariat” or some
ad-hoc-Commissions of the Politburo were appointed to treat church
questions. In 1950, a sector on “Churches and Religious Questions” was
formed within the SED State Administration, which was made an independent
department in 1954. The leaders of the Eastern Christian Democratic Union
(CDU) appointed a “Main Department on Church Questions” also. From the
beginning, the State Security Department (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit,
MfS) – that is, the Secret Service of East Germany -, founded in 1950,
worked for the SED regarding church questions too. The “political police”
K5, existing since 1947 and working closely with the Soviet Committee for a
Free Germany, had already been dealing with church questions. Still in
1950, a “Main Department for Contact with the Churches” was instituted
under the rule of Vice Prime Minister and CDU Chairman Otto Nuschke. This
department remained active until Nuschke’s death in 1957, but it gradually
lost importance. During the entire existence of the GDR, the SED party was
convinced, because of its ideological principles, that the churches were
bound to die out. The only matter of discussion over the years was the idea
of how this state-church relationship, which was expected to be limited in
time, should be organized.

The first and only summit meeting (“Spitzengespräch”) – a dialogue among
top officials – between representatives of the state and the churches of
both denominations took place in April 1950, with the aim to put an end to
church opposition against the communist development in society. Prime
Minister (Ministerpräsident) Otto Grotewohl, Walther Ulbricht, Otto
Nuschke, and MfS-Minister Wilhelm Zaisser among others, took part as
representatives of the state. This meeting brought about only a temporary
relief, which was destroyed by the forced Stalinization in 1952/53. After
Stalin’s death, the SED had to give up its policy of repression against the
“Youth Communities” and “Protestant Student Communities” at the beginning
of 1953. A second summit meeting with representatives of the churches ended
with the issuing of a communiqué stating that the conflicts were over. But
in 1954, the atheist Youth Consecration Ceremony enactment brought a new
escalation. This so-called Youth Consecration Ceremony was a secular rite
of passage intended for children of about 13 or 14 years of age by the
state. Its aim was to gradually offer a substitute for the religious rites such as
communion and confirmation maintained by the churches, an aim which was almost reached,
considering that up to the present time, about 13 years after the end of the
GDR, a much larger number of young East Germans still prefer the Youth
Consecration Ceremony to its religious equivalent.

In the spring of 1957, the office of the “State Secretary for Church
Questions” took the place of Nuschke’s “main department”. In a third summit
meeting on July 21, 1958, the representatives of the Protestant Church
declared that they acknowledged the development towards Socialism in the GDR
(“Church within Socialism”). Preceding these talks, the state had managed
to drive a wedge between the leaders of the Protestant churches by finding
certain individuals who were ready to cooperate with the regime, such as
the Bishop of Thuringia, Moritz Mitzenheim. Furthermore, the
State Security Department (MfS) had started to successfully infiltrate the
churches up to the bishops’ level with “unofficial collaborators” (IMs).
After setting up the Berlin Wall in 1961, the SED Party wanted to split the
Protestant national umbrella organisation, the EKD. In 1967, the EKD Synod
still rejected this demand, but the basis of discussion changed when a new GDR
Constitution was introduced in 1968. When the Federation of Protestant
Churches in the GDR (BEK) was founded, a new phase in state-church
relations began, the peaks of which were marked by the fourth summit
meeting of BEK chairman Bishop Albrecht Schönherr and state President Erich
Honecker on March 6, 1978, and by the agreement for cooperation between state
and church during the (500th) Martin Luther anniversary year in 1983. An
example of the poor way of “solving” conflicts during this period is the
appeasement policy followed – inclusive of the Western churches – when
dealing with the suicide of pastor Oskar Brüsewitz in 1976, who burnt
himself to death in protest against the GDR’s lack of religious freedom.
After having criticized the west German state-church-relationship in
connection with the rearmament policy in 1983, in 1984/85 BEK Chairman
Bishop Johannes Hempel could even speak of a “fundamental trust” existing
between church and state in the GDR. However,
soon after Hempel’s summit meeting with Honecker in mid-February 1985, the
tensions between state and church grew stronger again, because of the
opposition groups who gathered on the fringes of the churches, and the
repressions directed against them. But still, leading members of the BEK
stood up for a democratically renewed but now as before socialist GDR even
after the fall of 1989.

In contrast to the Protestants, the Catholic Church had kept a clear distance
from the SED state until 1974. Despite the bishops’ resistance, Pope
Paul VI opted for a policy of détente in 1974. In 1976, an independent
Berlin Board of Bishops was founded. However, the separation from west German
Catholicism, which was already planned, was not in the end made due to the
election of a new pope. John Paul II was, in his turn, a decided adversary
of the Eastern bloc.

The division of the Protestant Church in Germany

Against the background of the Cold War, the SED (Socialist Unity Party)
regime in Eastern Germany tried to force the eastern member churches to
leave the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany), the VELKD (Union of Lutheran
Churches) and the EKU (United Churches formerly in Prussia). The treaty
signed by the EKD and the western Federal Republic of Germany in 1957
concerning pastoral care in the armed forces was the occasion for the
German Democratic Republic (GDR) to demand a division of these organisations. The GDR’s state secretariat for
church questions, led by Hans Seigewasser and founded on April 1st,
1957, received orders to keep in touch only with the eight churches
existing within the boundaries of the GDR from then on. On May 17, 1958,
GDR Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl cut diplomatic contacts to the EKD’s
appointee for the GDR, Heinrich Grüber. In 1962, one year after the
building of the Berlin Wall, the Conference of Governing Bodies of the
Protestant Churches in GDR (abbreviated as KKL – Konferenz der
Kirchenleitungen), instituted its own office in East Berlin, which was run
by a young church lawyer, Manfred Stolpe. In 1967, the Politburo of the
communist SED party which ruled East Germany, insisted on the existence of
two divided German nations and refused any legitimacy to a “pan-German”
Protestant Church organisation (EKD). In the same year, the EKD synod
sitting in Fürstenwalde refused to accede to the GDR government’s demand
for dividing and possibly disbanding the EKD. However, the Protestant
Student Communities (Evangelische Studentengemeinden, ESG) and the Work
Group of Protestant Youth (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der evangelischen Jugend,
AEJ) split in 1967. One of the causes, next to structural impediments to
any work in common, was the one-sided political indoctrination of young people.

However, against the background of the new Constitution of the GDR established in 1968, Bishop Moritz Mitzenheim of Thuringia declared on February 29, 1968: “The state boundaries of GDR
also constitute the limits for an organisation of the churches.” Without
any prior consultation with their western partner churches, the eastern churches
belonging to the VELKD (Union of Lutheran Churches) left this organisation
in order to form the separate VELKDDR in 1968. In 1969 there followed the
founding of the Federation of Protestant Churches in the GDR (Bund der
Evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR, BEK), an organisation totally independent
from the (western) EKD. The official recognition of the BEK by the SED-state did not however occur until
February 24, 1971. A reason for this delay may have been article 4, paragraph 4 of the
Constitution of the BEK, which stated: “The Federation acknowledges a
special union of the entire Protestant Christianity in Germany.” As a kind of contradiction
to this affirmation of unity, attempts were made to give theological
reasons for this institutional detachment from the EKD. A peculiar interpretation
of the theological theories proposed by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
as well as of the so-called “Darmstädter Wort”, the Declaration of
Darmstadt of 1947 which acknowledged the mistakes made by the Protestant
churches during the Third Reich, served this purpose. In addition to the
slogans “church for the others” and “community of witness and service”, the
ambivalent expression “church within Socialism” was used. When trying to
shape a theological profile of the BEK, the theologians in question
profited from differing concepts of what is a church, as could be seen in
the rival views expressed in German Protestantism since 1949. The BEK saw
itself more and more as the true “Confessing Church,” which however was being
scorned by the West. Some theologians from the Federal Republic and from
the ecumenical movement agreed with this estimation, thus reinforcing this
self-assessment. In this view, the western EKD seemed a rich
façade-organisation bound to capitalism and militarism, preserving only a few
spiritual qualities.

Yet at the same time, there remained substantial ties between the east and
west branches of the EKD. The western EKD continued to give strong
financial and manifold support to its sister organisation. In a variety of
ways, the western churches subsidized their eastern partners, despite these
differences of political view, often openly expressed. For example, in
order to promote such closer relations, both at the parish and regional
levels, a so-called “advisory board”, consisting of members of both
federations, was instituted in 1969, followed by an additional “consultation board” in 1980.
The protocols of their meetings document the ambivalence of closeness and
at the same time a growing estrangement. Despite this, subsidies both for
the maintenance of partner parishes, as well as for building costs, and
even for the “rescue” of church personnel in danger from the GDR’s secret
police, were paid by the western churches to the GDR

Plans for a reform of the state churches and for the formation of a
“United Protestant Church of the GDR” (Vereinigte Evangelische Kirche in
der DDR, VEK), which had been proposed since the end of the 1970s, failed
due to the opposition of some individual state churches. But this discussion led to a
self-dissolution of the VELKDDR. After the end of the GDR in 1989, some
representatives of EKD and BEK declared their wish for a re-unification of
state and church in the Loccum declaration of January 17, 1990. On the
other side, some left-wing church representatives sought to present an
alternative strategy, as expressed, for example, in the “Berlin Declaration” of February 9, 1990. Nevertheless
these opinions were ignored and the re-unification process took place
faster than expected. It was basically completed by June 1991

.On the History of a Change: Church within Socialism

The re-organisation of the eight eastern state churches in the Federation
of Protestant Churches in the GDR (BEK) at the end of the 1960s was
followed by a theological “reconsideration.” Its result was the ambiguous
expression: “a church within socialism.” This expression seemed ideal as a
central category of an ecclesiological theory, because it allowed
different self- and exterior descriptions and thus enabled both the SED
state and the churches to follow a flexible policy. However, this undefined
expression was motivated and limited by the (contemporary) historical and
ideological frame set by the “first German socialist” constitution of 1968.
The state secretary for church questions in the GDR, Hans Seigewasser,
proclaimed the principle that the church policy had to submit itself to
“general politics for the benefit of a full development of the socialist
human society.” Although some theologians (H. J. Fränkel) expressed a
substantial critique of the expression “socialist” and of its actual
meaning under the GDR-dictatorship, the Conference of Governing Bodies of
the Protestant Churches in the GDR declared on February 15, 1968: “As
citizens of a socialist state, we face the task of manifesting socialism as
a more just form of co-existence.” This self-assessment was regarded as an
important phase on the “path” towards a “learning process.” There had
already been some “road markers” before. For example, a common declaration
of state and church in 1958 stated: “They [that is, the Christians in the
GDR] respect the development towards socialism and contribute to a peaceful
establishment of everyday life.” In his formulation on the “foundations of
the relationship of state and church” of 1962, Manfred Stolpe, the
architect of the BEK, had already used the expression “church within
socialism” when describing this relationship. The concept of socialism was
definitely integrated in the church’s teachings during the Federal Synod of
Eisenach in 1971. From then on, many BEK-theologians adopted this
propagandistic key expression from their political-social surroundings
without reflecting that, within the structure taught by the communist SED,
it was granted metaphysical qualities. By doing this, they did not put the
spiritual autonomy of the church at the center of their ecclesiology, but
instead a semantic participation in the officially established political
reality. As the social context gained a normative quality, some church
people managed to see the reality of the GDR only in a distorted way, namely
through its own official self-definition.

Protestantism in the Federal Republic was also considerably influenced by
the ideas of social democracy at that time. This gave rise to considerable
debate on the question whether Christians should be socialists. These
tendencies were motivated by a perception of guilt towards the poor and
those deprived of their rights in the past (see, for example, the Darmstadt
Declaration of 1947). Furthermore, the churches in the GDR tried to
disprove the manipulative suspicion of the state that they were acting as a
“fifth column” of the “class enemy”. Although a steady approximation of the
BEK to the terminology and semantics of the “real socialist” ideology
was undeniable, the SED state had no reason to rejoice about it, since some
BEK theologians, due to their accommodation to the socialist surroundings,
claimed that they had a right to give further impulses to the future
development of socialism. One of the protagonists of this theological
direction was the Dean of Erfurt, Heino Falcke, who against the background
of the “Theology of the Word of God” supported an “improvable [form of]
socialism” (“verbesserlicher Sozialismus”). But, such views were not shared by all.
Several theologians, as a consequence of the repressive measures taken by
the SED regime against the churches, questioned the use of the
“compromising metaphor” (G. Planer-Friedrich) “church within socialism”.
These doubters were increasingly more vocal from the beginning of 1988.
But not until the fall of 1989, was Bishop W. Leich (from Thuringia) the
first bishop to openly reject the “idea of socialism” (“Sozialismus-Begriff”).

(To be continued)

With best wishes to you all
John S.Conway,