November 2003 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Newsletter- November 2003- Vol. IX, no . 11

Dear Friends,

November is the time when German Protestants hold their
annual services of Prayer and Repentance, coinciding with the 65th
anniversary of the notorious Crystal Night pogrom, as well as the
85th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Herewith an
appropriate comment by the Jewish poet Gerty Spies:

“Was ist des Unschuldigen Schuld –
Wo beginnt sie?
wo er gelassen, mit hängenden Armen,
schulterzuckend daneben steht,
den Mantel zuknöpft,
die Zigarette anzündet
und spricht:
Da kann man nichts machen . . .
Seht, da beginnt des Unschuldigen Schuld

Translation for North Americans: “NIMBY” – or – “I couldn’t care


1) International Bonhoeffer Congress
2) Christian Pacifism: a review article

1) The IX International Bonhoeffer Congress will be held on June
6-11, 2004, at the Casa La Salle (Christian Brothers’ Conference
Centre) on the Via Aurelia, Rome, Italy. Organized by the English
Language Section of the International Bonhoeffer Society, the
conference theme is: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christian
Humanism”. A website has been created for further information,
registration and contact persons:

Conference sub-themes include: “Christianity and Humanism, past
and present”, “Bonhoeffer, Catholicism and Catholic Humanism”,
“Ethics, Responsibility and Christian Humanism”, and “Judaism and
Humanism”. The conference will be structrured around plenary
sessions, seminars and special events in Rome. For immediate
information contact one of the conference co-chairs, Dr Michael
Lukens at or Rev. John Matthews at

2) Christian Pacifism in the early twentieth century

a) Julian Jenkins, Christian Pacifism confronts German Nationalism
– The Ecumenical Movement and the Cause of Peace in Germany,
1914-1933. Lewiston, N.Y./Kingston, Ont./Lampeter: Edwin Mellen
Press 2002. 494 pp ISBN 0-7734-7137-5

b) Harmjan Dam, Der Weltbund für Freundschaftsarbeit der
Kirchen, 1914-1948. Eine ökumenische Friedensorganisation.
Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Otto Lembeck. 476 pp. ISBN

Throughout the twentieth century, Christian pacifism was a
lost cause. During all the years from the British conquest of the
Boers in South Africa to the American onslaught against
Afghanistan or Iraq, the religious establishments of the major
western churches approved the use of military force as a means of
settling international disputes, encouraged their members to take up
arms, and even supported the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Their theologically-based justifications were drawn from a
traditional armoury of arguments supporting a “Just War”. Not even
the frightful excesses of the atomic or hydrogen bombs, and the
certainty of resulting genocide, could make more than a temporary
impact on the upholders of Christian militarism.

Christian pacifists by contrast upheld a spiritual view of
peace which only a few church members were prepared to adopt,
and lost out to the rival claims of national security for the allegiance
of most Christians. As a result, the cause has been discredited and
dismissed as the product of sentimental or unrealistic enthusiasts
indulging themselves in vain utopian dreams. The record of their
activities has also been largely ignored by the historians of the major
denominations who have no incentive to question the militaristic
stances adopted by their leaders, and who are still not prepared to
acknowledge the theological validity of the Christian pacifists’

For this reason, it has been left up to two younger scholars,
one from Australia and one from the Netherlands, working
independently of each other, to produce these new and scholarly
accounts of the valiant, if ineffective, efforts of the Christian peace
movement in the first half of the twentieth century. Both books are
the product of careful and insightful research, giving a valuably
fresh perspective on this neglected subject.

Julian Jenkins’ study of Christian pacifism in Germany in
this period is an important book which most capably introduces
English-speaking readers to this topic. Christian pacifism was a
voice in the wilderness at a time when Germany’s militant
aggressions plunged the world twice into a terrible abyss and
inflicted death on millions of innocent victims. The scandal is that
the overwhelming majority of Christians in Germany approved such
actions. Only a tiny minority were opposed, and of these only a
handful did so for Christian pacifist reasons. The most prominent
of these men was a now largely unknown pastor, Friedrich
Siegmund-Schultze, who vigorously championed the cause until he
was effectively silenced after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.
Jenkins’ detailed description of his early career is drawn from the
voluminous records Siegmund-Schultze collected over sixty years of
public life, and provides a excellent case study of the hopes and
disappointments of the followers of the Christian pacifist

Jenkins begins by outlining the kind of theological-political
views held by the majority of German Protestant churchmen in the
period after 1900, and the reasons for their support of Germany’s
extreme nationalism and aggression. He also gives a notable picture
of the whole ecumenical movement and its frustrated efforts to build
a world of justice and peace. But central to his argument is the
incompatible positions and rival worldviews of the liberal western
churches on the one hand, and the conservative German Lutheran
tradition on the other. In Jenkins’ view, this polarization was a
crucial factor in the failure of Christian peace movement during the
brief intermission of the 1920s. He thus adds significantly to our
knowledge of the history of this period by pointing to the intrepid, if
unsuccessful, efforts to direct German Protestantism away from its
introverted and militaristic heritage, and by demonstrating that the
cause of peace had its upholders, even in those traumatic years.

In analyzing why so many German churchmen in 1914
eagerly supported the pursuit of war, Jenkins follows the arguments
of the noted Hamburg historian, Fritz Fischer. Fischer drew a sharp
dividing line between the German ideological stance and the
western European religious tradition. The former was based on
Luther, Ranke and Hegel, with its exaltation of the authority of the
state, the ever-growing readiness to identify the nation-state with a
divine mission to expand German culture, and the subordination of
the individual to these goals. By contrast, the more democratic
individualistic Protestantism of Britain, France and the United States
owed more to Calvinism, and saw the duty of the church more often
in the role of resisting the misuse of state authority. The divergence
between these views was clearly marked in the churches’ respective
responses to the challenge of war in 1914 and indeed continued to
affect the attitudes and relationships throughout the interwar period.

Only a tiny minority of German Protestants, mainly those
who had earlier established friendly relations with some British
churchmen, shared the western views and were ready to oppose their
colleagues’ bellicose glorification of the German nation. German
Christian pacifism was therefore a cause adopted only by a few
valiant mavericks, who had to struggle hard against the mainstream.
At the same time, they themselves were not immune to the claims of
loyalty to their nation, especially in wartime. It took great courage –
or in some cases recklessness – to adopt such a stance.
Siegmund-Schultze’s career exemplified exactly this dilemma, as is
ably shown in Jenkins’ analysis of the tensions and passions
experienced by the advocates of the German peace movement
before and after the first world war.

Harmjan Dam’s chief emphasis is on the rise and fall of the
main institution created by churchmen to promote the cause of
peace, the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship
through the Churches. This now long forgotten experiment is often
deliberately ignored even by historians of the Ecumenical
Movement. And given the disdain with which the leading German
Protestants treated this organization, it is hardly surprising that this
is the first comprehensive account of its activities to appear in
German, or that it was written by a Dutchman.

In Dam’s view, in the first decade of the century, the desire
to mobilize the churches internationally for the cause of peace was a
bold and forward-looking initiative. The impetus was derived from
the optimistic thinking of the pre-1914 period, especially amongst
the politically liberal wing of Protestantism, promoted by the
advocates of the Social Gospel, as well as by the sponsors of the
international missionary movement. Dam recognizes that the
creation and fostering of the World Alliance was due to the
remarkable talents of a limited number of charismatic individuals,
whose contributions are here sketched vividly and percipiently. He
rightly points out that virtually everyone involved later in the whole
ecumenical movement came to it though their initial contacts in the
World Alliance.

The founder was the Canadian-born, J.Allen Baker, a liberal
Member of Parliament in Britain, and a leading Quaker. He fully
supported the view that the Christian power of love should be
deployed throughout the world to overcome systemic evils such as
war. The Christian churches should therefore play an active role in
resolving international disputes, and should act together in this
endeavour. Siegmund-Schultze was Baker’s most ardent disciple in
this cause, and was therefore deputed to organize the World
Alliance’s founding conference on the shores of Lake Constance.
Fatefully the date was set for 1 August 1914.

The resulting crisis for these lovers of peace as the guns of
August began to explode was predictable, and is excellently
described by both authors. Fervent earnest prayer was shown to be
not enough. But the flame was lit. And in 1919, after the traumatic
tragedies of the first world war, the idea was taken up again in new

The post-war revulsion against the militarism, pointless
slaughter, and mindless patriotism of the jingoists, all added to the
World Alliance’s initial success. In the 1920s it became the largest
and most popular institution for mobilizing churchmen of many
nations to work for peace and reconciliation.

Unfortunately the country where the World Alliance was
least successful was Germany. The majority of the Protestant clergy
and laity continued to uphold the militaristic and nationalistic views
expressed in their Kriegstheologie, refused to recognize any need for
repentance, lamented the fact that they had not been granted the
victory for which they had prayed so ardently, were appalled by the
forced abdication of the Kaiser and fervently championed his return,
poured scorn on the newly-established parliamentary democracy and
on the so-called “November criminals” of the Socialist-led
Republic, and above all were unanimously opposed to the
“vindictive and oppressive” Treaty of Versailles. Even staunch
supporters of the World Alliance were convinced that this
“infamous Diktat” had attacked Germany’s national honour and
stolen her territory in a conspiracy to humiliate and destroy the
German nation. In such an atmosphere as this, the soft liberal
admonitions for peace and reconciliation as advocated by the World
Alliance had little chance of success. In fact, as Jenkins points out,
the collapse of Imperial Germany, the defeat of World War I, and
the end of Prussian autocracy paradoxically did not lead German
Protestants to any political or theological metanoia, but rather
confirmed their ideological presuppositions and underlined their
prejudices against internationalism, pacifism and Social Democracy.

Both authors skillfully make this clear, using the plethora of
documentary sources and marshaling the evidence in a manner
highly critical of this regrettable German theological tradition. They
show how even dedicated pacifists, such as Siegmund-Schultze,
suffered from an extreme clash of loyalties. These men wanted to
uphold Germany’s national cause, and indeed sought to persuade
their friends abroad of the calamity caused by the Versailles Treaty;
but at the same time they tried to persuade their constituents at
home that another and a very different Germany was desirable.
They were widely accused at home of being traitors to the nation,
and suspect abroad as coming from the pariah nation, Germany. As
Jenkins notes, “unwilling to renounce their national identity or their
commitment to internationalism, the champions of the peace
movement of the churches in Germany were caught on the horns of
an unsolvable dilemma” (p.324).

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1920s, the pacifist cause had
achieved some successes. It is the strength of Harmjan Dam’s book
that he describes in detail the rapid development of the World
Alliance and its various activities, including the debates at its major
conferences. By the end of the decade the World Alliance had 34
national councils and numerous local branches undertaking
activities to advance the cause of peace. The popularity of its
meetings, the eminence of its speakers, and the nobility of the ideals
expressed, seemed to herald the success of its endeavours. At the
same time, the signing of the Locarno Treaty in 1925, and of the
Briand-Kellogg Pact in 1928, seemed to create a new climate in
favour of peace, strengthened by such secular phenomena as
Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front which made a
great impact. .

Dam thus complements Jenkins’ findings, which are more
focused on Germany, and puts them in their wider setting. He shows
how the leaders sought to turn the World Alliance into the spiritual
arm of the League of Nations, not realizing that it suffered from the
same defects as this wider organization. To be sure, the World
Alliance undertook thorough studies of such topics as disarmament
or the European minorities question. Its regional meetings were
particularly helpful, as Dam describes, in finding solutions to the
abrasive problems of religious minorities in the new European
states. Its meetings were filled with inspiring rhetoric and its
resolutions outlined ideal conditions to these thorny issues. The high
point came in 1928 when the World Alliance Conference in Prague
was judged a huge success. But, as Dam shows very well, it had no
executive powers, and since it lacked any firmly-established
political base, it had in fact very little political influence and its
wide-ranging but usually vaguely general resolutions were ignored.

Both authors note that the World Alliance’s impact was
dependent on a mood of international optimism. The person of
Woodrow Wilson and the establishment of the League of Nations
gave some hope that their vision of a world order based on moral
principles was more than an utopia. But the death of Stresemann in
1929, and the onset of the Great Depression, worsened the situation.
Increasingly the political classes in Germany looked for more
effective, or extreme, solutions, both left and right. Nightly battles
began on the streets of Berlin between Communist and Nazi gangs.

The Protestant leaders increasingly looked for an authoritarian
leader who would restore Germany’s national greatness and
security, and only too readily found one in Adolf Hitler. When he
came to power in January 1933, the majority of German churchmen
welcomed him with enthusiasm. The hopes of the World Alliance’s
supporters in Germany were shown to be hopelessly unrealistic.
Siegmund-Schultze, for one, soon recognized the ominous
dangers of Hitler’s dictatorship. Only six months later, he was
expelled from the country by the Gestapo, and as a direct result the
work of the World Alliance in Germany collapsed. The Nazis’
propaganda machine campaigned strongly against all such
phenomena as pacifism or internationalism, as part of an alleged
Jewish-Marxist conspiracy to undermine German strength. Severe
measures were taken to intimidate any supporters of these ideas, and
also to eliminate all pacifist groups or organizations. At the same
time, the Nazis made no secret of their intent once again to use
military force to restore Germany’s world position. In the face of
such a threat, Christian pacifism was shown to be ineffective and
irresolute. As Jenkins rightly notes, the illusion that the world
would be governed by the high ideals of Christian peacemakers was
“shattered by the crunch of marching feet and the sound of fascist
slogans, by a political ideology that was neither liberal nor
international, neither Christian nor rational” (p.192).

The failure of Christian pacifism, as both authors
acknowledge, cannot be solely ascribed to the resurgence of German
nationalism and militaristic aggression. The internal faults of the
peace movement in style, ideology and organization were clear
enough to make it the target of constant criticism throughout these
years. As Winston Churchill caustically noted: “The pacifist cause
was marked by a delight in smooth sounding platitudes, a refusal to
face unpleasant facts, a desire for popularity irrespective of the vital
interests of the state, a genuine love of peace and a pathetic belief
that love can be its sole foundation”. Such an indictment certainly
applied to the World Alliance.

But as Jenkins pointedly argues, the most significant fault
lay in the unwillingness of Germany’s educated and established
classes to accept the consequences of the nation’s defeat in 1918.
Most of the German churchmen who took part in World Alliance’s
activities, or those of other branches of the ecumenical movement,
did so, not because they believed in its idealistic ideology, but
because they were given a platform where they could voice their
opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and their desire to see
Germany’s greatness restored. After Hitler came to power, they
found a more forceful advocate of these views. Even those
Protestants who opposed Nazism, and who after 1934 formed the
Confessing Church, led by Pastor Martin Niemöller, focused their
opposition on resisting the Nazis’ attempts to encroach on the
church’s autonomy. They fully supported Hitler’s foreign and
military policies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was briefly one of the World
Alliance’s Youth Secretaries, also shared in this ambivalence.
Before 1933 he was completely convinced of the pacifist cause and
expressed his admiration for Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence.
But after the Nazis came to power, Bonhoeffer altered his stance,
and eventually accepted the need to use force to overthrow Hitler’s
dictatorship, if necessary by assassination.

Jenkins sees the unwillingness of German churchmen,
particularly the Protestants, to support the aims of the Christian
peace movement as part of the fateful developments in the political
and intellectual climate of those years. Their refusal to accept the
verdict of 1918, the systematic rejection and undermining of the
nascent democracy of the Weimar Republic, the scepticism about
the League of Nations, the support given to the parties of the
extreme right, and the failure to counteract the racial ideology of
Nazi antisemitism, were all key factors which assisted Hitler’s rise
to power. In the face of such intransigent attitudes, the Christian
peacemakers’ unfocussed and often sentimental attachment to
patchwork attempts to improve the world’s condition were
increasingly irrelevant and inadequate.

The later chapters in Dam’s book, describing the rapid
decline of the World Alliance after 1933, its inactivity and
irrelevance during the second world war, and its final demise
thereafter, make for sad reading. They reveal how unrealistic had
been the hope that the course of international politics could be
altered through the fervent proclamation of Christian principles by
dedicated and committed pacifists. But Dam puts particular stress
on the failing s of the Alliance’s organization. Its founders, such as
Baker and Siegmund-Schultze, had been pioneering individuals,
acting independently and free from ecclesiastical control. They
sought to be the universal conscience of the world, arousing public
opinion to bring about their desired reforms, especially the
renunciation of war. But while they were right in recognizing that,
after the churches’ disastrous blessing of the guns in the first world
war, the credibility of Christianity was at stake, their remedy was
woefully inadequate. By the 1930s, as the clouds of war gathered
over Europe, the prophetic voices of individual peace advocates
were increasingly disregarded.

This situation heightened the tensions within the World
Alliance. On the one hand, the advocates of the Ecumenical
Movement believed in the need to promote closer international
friendship of and through the churches. A common stance was
required to meet the escalating political dangers. A tighter
relationship with the official churches could bring about joint and
more effective efforts of all the Christian organizations. On the
other hand, other leaders of the World Alliance were reluctant to
sacrifice their freedom of spontaneous proclamation to the
inevitable compromises of church bureaucracies. They could
foresee that, in any such merger, their particular witness to seek
peace could be watered down. Instead, the World Alliance should
seek closer relationship with non-church peace movements, as
happened in France.

Uncertain which way to proceed, and without forceful
leadership, the World Alliance dithered, and was effectively
bypassed by more far-sighted individuals in the ecumenical ranks,
especially J.H.Oldham, who undertook to be the main architect of a
new proposal to bind the churches’ international organizations
together. In fact, in the late 1930s, the initiative passed to the Life
and Work Movement and to Faith and Order, both of which held
major conferences in 1937. As a result, guided by Oldham, they
resolved to combine forces to establish a World Council of
Churches (in process of formation). In 1938 they appointed as its
first General Secretary, a young Dutchman, Visser Œt Hooft, of
Calvinist background and a follower of Karl Barth. Visser Œt Hooft,
who was much more of a General than a Secretary, had little use for
either the liberal theology or the public pronouncements of his
predecessors in the World Alliance, and resented the unwanted
advice they poured upon him as to how they had conducted affairs
earlier. The older generation, in turn, resented being excluded,
after all their years of devoted service to the cause. As
Siegmund-Schultze lamented at the end of 1938: “The past year has
been a torture for me. . . .After all the mistakes of the last year, I
have not much hope for the World Alliance. I do my duty as the
soldier of an army which is soon to die”.

In 1939, when Germany once again plunged the world into
war, the World Alliance could find no credible basis for any peace
initiative. It had failed to follow the advice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
to rethink its theology and abandon the “social gospel” approach,
which downplayed theological considerations in favour the practical
tasks of peacemaking as the spiritual arm of the League of Nations.
But when this stance was clearly unavailing, the World Alliance had
no alternative strategy to fall back on. Its subsequent paralysis and
inactivity during the war stood in contrast to Visser Œt Hooft’s
energetic measures to keep the members of the World Council
informed and in touch across the warring lines, to take whatever
relief steps were feasible, for example, for refugees, and to begin the
task of planning for a post-war world settlement, in which the
churches should play a constructive role. Above all, he was
responsible for refashioning the theological approach adopted by the
international church bodies.

In 1945, the American branch of the World Alliance, which
had all along heavily subsidized its world-wide activities, decided
that the best way of advancing the cause of peace was to open up the
membership to all religions, not just the Christian churches. But in
Europe, only one national council supported this idea. So many of
the former supporters had either died or been lost because of the
war, and without any alternative sources of funding, it became clear
that there was no more impetus to seek a new beginning as in 1919.
By 1947 the World Alliance dissolved itself.

In 1948, the World Council of Churches held its first and
founding Assembly in Amsterdam. But after the horrendous
experiences of the second world war, it was notable that there was
very much less emphasis on the tasks of promoting peace. In fact,
the onset of the Cold War seemed to render the kind of interwar
peace rhetoric even more insubstantial and unrealistic.
In the World Council’s headquarters in Geneva there hangs a
diagram, depicting the organization’s history as a river, a confluence
of original streams with various significant places and dates
attached. The intent is to give the impression of an ongoing
dynamic body, like a river ever flowing and increasing. But it is
notable that the World Alliance is not mentioned at all. Dam’s
study is clearly designed to remedy this omission, and to pay tribute
to the pioneering and prophetic work of so many dedicated
individuals. In his view, the founding of the World Council of
Churches in its initial form was not an inevitable process but was
influenced far more by personalities than has been acknowledged.
Sufficient justice needs to be given to the existing complications,
contradictions and alternatives which eventually led to the World
Alliance’s demise.

Both these books deserve a wide audience among English
and German readers since they provide authoritative accounts of the
courageous, if flawed, efforts of the Christian peace makers of the
early twentieth century.

John S.Conway