November 2004 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


Newsletter — November 2004— Vol. X, no. 11

Dear Friends,


1) Book reviews

a) Kohlbrugge, Mein unberechenbares Leben
b) B-Rubinstein, Reading Hochhuth’s The Deputy
c) Linn, Escaping Auschwitz

2) Journal articles

a) Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte
b) Zucotti, Pius XII and rescue of Jews
c) Sun, Catholic workers in the Weimar Republic.

3) Kirchliche Tourismus: Montgomery, The Last Heathen in Melanesia
1a) Hebe Kohlbrugge, Zweimal zwei ist fünf. Mein unberechenbares Leben seit 1914. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt 2003. ISBN 3-374-02051-6 380pp. Eur.12.80

Hebe Kohlbrugge is clearly one of those indomitable Dutchwomen whose staunch Calvinist background makes it impossible for her to tolerate injustice or compromise with evil. Equally clearly these glimpses of her life story can’t do justice to her vibrant personality, but they do illustrate her resolute commitment to her faith in a succession of conflictual situations.

As a student in the 1930s she was sent to Berlin to learn household management and there sat in on Martin Niemöller’s bible classes and later assisted Günther Harder, one of the champions of the Confessing Church. Here she learnt about the evils of Nazism at first hand, and the need for the church to stand fast in Christian witness.

Returning to Holland, she hoped to study theology with Karl Barth in Basle. But the outbreak of war and the later
German occupation of her homeland instead drew her into a variety of perilous resistance activities. She even managed to undertake a highly dangerous journey to Switzerland, where she took messages from the Dutch church leaders to the officers of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies in Geneva. But for this and other acts of defiance, she was arrested and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where her fellow Dutchwoman Corrie ten Boom was already incarcerated.

After the war, she was equally determined to play her part in reconstruction efforts, and served the Dutch Reformed Church in a number of enterprising activities in witness of reconciliation, peace and justice. In the 1950s she was mainly involved in establishing links to fellow Christians in East Germany, but later took on wider assignments in Mississippi, Soweto and Israel. One of the agencies she got involved with was the Christian Peace Conference, organized in Prague by the Czech Professor Hromadka. This attempt to build Christian bridges across the Iron Curtain was a brave endeavour but too full of wishful thinking to succeed. In any case, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 broke Hromadka’s heart and destroyed what little credibility the Conference had left. As one of the survivors, her report is interesting on this ill-fated undertaking and the failure of its peace moves. It showed her the limits of Christian idealism in a world of ruthless power politics and official hypocrisy.

Nevertheless Hebe Kohlbrugge’s commitment to finding ways to express her Christian political witness kept her going. Numerous visits to Germany, Czechoslovakia and other eastern European countries, as a Dutch guest, gave her the opportunity to see the dangers of compromise with the Communist state, but also to support the church in pursuit of its and her nobler aims. She helped to organize student exchanges, seminars and house groups, even in illegal circumstances, in order to keep the lines of Christian communication open. Her reports on the tyrannical surveillance and the nerve-wracking oppression of dissident churches by the Communist authorities in Roumania and Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s are a valuable witness to the conditions then prevailing.

Naturally she rejoiced to be present in November 1989 to bring ecumenical greetings to the East German and Czech churches in the aftermath of the downfall of the Communist system. And she was delighted when in 1990 she was awarded an honourary degree from the Charles University in Prague, acknowledging her services in promoting international friendship and intellectual dialogue between East and West.
Hebe Kohlbrugge stands in a long and honourable tradition of Protestant social activists, whose determination to follow the faith’s commands leads to speaking the truth uncompromisingly and unflinchingly. Her witness, against both Nazism and Communism, will be an encouragement to her successors along the on-going path of Christian discipleship in the coming century.
1b) Emanuela Barrasch-Rubinstein, The Devil, the Saints, and the Church. Reading Hochhuth’s The Deputy.
New York etc: Peter Lang 2003 xi,124 pp ISBN 0-8204-6358-2 U.S. $53.95

Forty years ago, Rolf Hochhuth, a young Swiss-German author, wrote his play Der Stellvertreter (in English The Deputy or The Representative). It caused tremendous controversy because of the defamatory depiction of Pope Pius XII, whose cynical indifference to and silence about the fate of the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust was caustically attacked. The dramatic confrontation between the frigid ecclesiastical statesman and a young idealist Jesuit priest was one of the highlights of the play. So too was the depiction of the sinister German medical doctor, Mengele, responsible for horrendous cruelties and mass death in Auschwitz.

Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein’s short book successfully analyses the character of the play and Hochhuth’s reasons for making use of this form. She points out that it appeared twenty years after the events it sought to portray, at a time when the Nazi atrocities had been extensively researched, and one of the perpetrators, Adolf Eichmann, had just been on trial in Israel. Hochhuth was not old enough to have been involved himself in these events in all their complexity, but young enough to want to find some idealistic explanation. Like many of the survivors, he engaged in the wishful thinking that some more positive response to the Nazi crimes could have saved many more lives or even prevented the Holocaust from happening. Pope Pius XII became a scapegoat, who could be blamed for his refusal to take a more forceful, and therefore more appropriate, stand.
But Hochhuth’s awareness that the conventional explanations for the Holocaust, based on political, military or social factors, were inadequate led him to recast the narrative as a mediaeval morality play. He placed the well-known historical events within a transcendental framework in a cosmic conflict between Good and Evil. The overtones of Goethe are obvious. Auschwitz is represented as the Kingdom of Evil where all the moral traditions and restrictions of Christian civilisation have been overthrown. Here Dr Mengele operates as the devil incarnate, and the young Jesuit who identifies with the Jewish victims and is prepared to share their fate in Auschwitz, is portrayed as a saint. So too, as a saintly figure, we have a Protestant SS officer, Kurt Gerstein, who seeks to prevent further loss of life by informing his church superiors of what is happening, and indirectly loses his life as a result. By contrast, Pope Pius XII’s cold-hearted selfishness represents the defeat of the church at the hands of evil and hence the victory of death and destruction. God fails in his ancient battle with the devil.

In recent decades, the moral issues raise by Hochhuth have not gone away. No more satisfactory explanation of the Holocaust’s extreme destructiveness has emerged. The renewed debate about Pius XII’s actions or inactions has once more stirred up controversy about the role of the church. The distortions of wishful thinking about what might have happened, if only . . . . have again become apparent. But Hochhuth’s attempt to portray the historical record in a transcendental dimension as part of a continuing spiritual conflict has remained a one-time occurrence. It stemmed from the ambivalences of the 1960s which saw both imaginative schemes for reforming the Christian church and at the same time theologians proclaiming that “God is dead”.

It was to Hochhuth’s credit that he was the first to challenge the comfortable amnesia of received orthodoxy about the Nazis’ crimes, as well as pointing an accusatory finger at Pius XII and the Vatican for their policies during the second world war. The impact of the play was such that it popularized a pejorative view of the pope which has been widely prevalent ever since. Despite all the conscientious attempts by historians to correct the errors in history contained in the play, its success rested on compelling the audiences to face the moral issues presented.
We are indebted to Ms Barasch-Rubinstein for this insightful, if belated, anaysis of this unique literary-political experiment.


1c) Ruth Linn, Escaping Auschwitz. A culture of forgetting. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 2004. 154pp. ISBN 0-8014-4130-7
(The following is not a book about ecclesiastical history, but its relevance to the subject of the previous review is obvious, and so I believe it will be of interest to many of our list-members.)

Sixty years ago, in April 1944, Fred Wetzler and Rudi Vrba escaped from Auschwitz. They were two of the only five Jews who succeeded in doing so and survived. A few days later they managed to cross the border to their homeland, Slovakia, and quickly contacted representatives of the Jewish Council. Their dramatic feat was made all the significant by the momentous information they brought with them, comprising details of the mass murder procedures in Auschwitz, the record of numerous transports arriving from countries all over German-held Europe, sketches of the annihilation facilities, and an overall estimate of the total number of Jews murdered in the gas chambers during the previous two years. Their eye-witness account, they insisted, should be shared at once with the Jews of Hungary, for whose arrival in the camp and subsequent murder, preparations were being actively speeded up. But in fact, this information, later referred to as the Vrba-Wetzler Report or the Auschwitz Protocols, never reached its intended audience. A month later, nearly half a million Jews were deported to their deaths. None of them knew what was in store for them. As a result, Vrba and Wetzler concluded that their information had been suppressed. Vrba, for one, remains convinced that if the intended victims had been warned, they would have resisted or hid or fled. The tragedy of the Hungarian Jewry would have taken a very different course.

Ruth Linn, now Dean of the Faculty of Education at Haifa University, had never heard of Vrba’s exploits. Despite the centrality of Holocaust remembrance in Israel’s national consciousness, she only learnt about this escape while viewing Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah. Several years later, however, she had an opportunity to meet Vrba personally and to read his autobiographical memoirs, written in English in 1963. This made her all the more curious as to why, fifty years after the Holocaust, the unique actions and memories of these Auschwitz escapees had remained completely unfamiliar to the average Hebrew reader.

It was only when she realized that the silence about Vrba’s life and writings was no accident that her curiosity turned to dismay and then to indignation. She made it her mission to break a thirty-five year silence by encouraging the publication of a Hebrew version of Vrba’s autobiography, and to urge Haifa University to grant him an honorary degree. These endeavors were opposed by Israeli scholars. But with this short book, she now seeks to restore Vrba’s name by probing the mystery of his disappearance not only from Auschwitz but from the Israeli textbooks and the Israeli Holocaust narrative.

This is not, as she admits, a balanced account. But her succinct and hard-hitting chapters seek to trace how Israeli historians have conspired to remove these participants from the Holocaust story by misnaming, misreporting, miscrediting and misrepresenting the secretive tale of their escape from Auschwitz.

The reason is simple. Vrba’s belief was and is that the information about Auschwitz was suppressed in order that leading members of the Slovakian and Hungarian Jewish Councils, could do a deal with Eichmann and his henchmen. In return for their silence, these men purchased survival for themselves, their relatives, a coterie of Zionists, and a number of wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs. In June 1944 these fortunate individuals boarded a train which eventually carried them to freedom in Switzerland. Many went on, subsequently, to hold prominent positions in the newly-established state of Israel. They were also responsible for the formulation of the heroic myth of Zionist resistance and rescue from their Nazi persecutors. Official Israeli historiography had no place for alternative interpretations of what had happened in Hungary, or for any analysis of the role of the Judenrat and their collaboration with the Nazis.

Ruth Linn incisively analyses how unwelcome critics, such as Vrba, have been silenced, and how the process of repressing, denying, or avoiding the charges they make has been put in place.

In the first place, the escapees from Auschwitz were reduced to anonymity and their names were never mentioned. As late as 1994, more than half a century after they fled from Auschwitz, Israel TV in a commemorative programme to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust did not give their true identity. To be sure, a version of their Report is displayed in the entrance hall of the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, but the names of its authors are not provided, and the Hebrew label on the wall refers only to “two young Slovak Jews”. The Report itself is not available in Hebrew to visitors, since the Museum only has a version in German or Hungarian.

Secondly, the credibility of the Report is challenged, and its factual accuracy disputed. Particularly the carefully-calculated total number of Jewish victims is considered by many Israeli historians as greatly inflated, though they have failed to provide convincing evidence of this contention.. Above all, Vrba’s legitimate questioning as to whether widespread distribution of the information about Auschwitz could have disrupted the deportations is dismissed as unrealistic. And his accusation that the Hungarian Zionist leaders’ failure to warn the Jews in the provinces made them complicit in the subsequent mass murders is dismissed as an outrageous calumny. For these reasons, energetic steps were taken for more than thirty years to prevent Vrba’s version of events from appearing in Hebrew.

Ruth Linn’s work is a long overdue act of reparation to rectify a historiographical injustice. But she also raises the wider issue of how to evaluate the rival interpretations, on the one hand of expert historians, or on the other of survivors whose testimony was derived from being eye-witnesses to the Nazis’ crimes in Auschwitz. She equally and rightly questions how the Israeli historical establishment has built up its own layers of national myths and explanations. They have succeeded in laying stress on certain events and individuals, but also have created a culture of forgetting others, like Vrba, whose witness they find not to be convenient. She seeks to pay tribute to an intrepid participant in the whole tragedy of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the same time, we can surely agree that her book is, as Professor Stephen Feinstein, Director of the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, commented, “a first-rate treatment of a crucially important event that might be called an emerging black hole: Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz and the aftermath within the context of Holocaust history. The book is exceptionally important in its discussion of how a country can engage in critical thinking about a morally problematic past and its analysis of the political forces that try to control that past”. This still remains one of the most controversial chapters in the traumatic history of the Nazis’ war against the Jews.


2) Journal articles: a) Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 17, no 1.

This journal, now being edited from Dresden by Prof. G.Besier, is the “founder father” of our enterprise. This latest issue is devoted to a comparative study of the national uprisings in Eastern Europe against Communist rule, namely, Berlin 1953, Budapest, 1956 and Prague 1968. Accounts, written in German, of the secular developments are matched by essays on the religious dimensions and consequences felt in and by the churches in these areas, which will be particularly illuminating for western scholars. Andrea Strubind shows that in East Germany the churches deliberately abstained from participating in the uprising, while in Hungary, as Jozsef Fuisz notes, the churches were seen as victims of Communist aggression. But in Prague, as described by Ladislav Benes, their spokesmen gave active support to the reform movement, and were consequently disciplined, but sought to preserve traditional Christian values for as long as possible. Only in the 1980s did the churches gain enough space to be able to play a more active role in combatting totalitarianism

2b) Susan Zucotti, Pope Pius XII and the Rescue of Jews in Italy: Evidence of a Papal Directive, in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 18 no 2, Fall 2004. Susan Zucotti still believes, as she wrote earlier her book on the subject, that Pope Pius XII never issued directives to save Jews. She is now prepared to acknowledge that many Jews were indeed hidden and thus saved in church institutions, but affirms that this was likely due to individual initiatives. Since no piece of paper for a papal directive has been found, she concludes that none existed, even though other scholars have produced at least second-hand evidence that various priests claimed to have received such instructions

2c) Ray Sun, “Hammer Blows”: Work, the Workplace and the Culture of Masculinity among Catholic workers in the Weimar Republic in Central European History, Vol. 37 no 2, Summer 2004, p245 ff.

A stimulating examination of the Catholic propaganda towards young workers, especially in the Rhineland, following the disasters of the first world war. Finding themselves in direct competition with the Marxist parties, Catholic writers tried to adapt suitable themes for their specific audiences. The elements of struggle, strength and physical achievement were common to both groups, but Sun shows how Catholic writers gave a deliberate Christian slant to this literature. He quotes a number of poems, posters and songs used for this purpose.

3) Kirchliche Tourismus

C .Montgomery, The Last Heathen. Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre 2004. $24.95 CAN.

The Vancouver writer Charles Montgomery’s great-grandfather was a missionary bishop. Over a hundred years ago he was sent out to Melanesia, a corner of the south-west Pacific Ocean, encompassing the area now known as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. He was due to carry on the work of his predecessor, Bishop Patteson, who had been brutally murdered by the pagan inhabitants of a remote corral-reefed island. When the news of the Bishop’s martyrdom reached England, it resulted in a wave of support for the Melanesian Mission, and a demand that the British Navy intervene. Both actions were seen as part of the British imperial destiny to spread Christianity and civilization to the uttermost parts of the earth.

A hundred years later, Charles Montgomery shares none of these values. But the memory of an impressive family portrait, the finding of an envelope filled with sand from the beach where the bishop was killed, and his own talent for travel writing, all impelled him to seek out these far-away islands. Principally he hoped to find in Melanesia an exotic, primitive but enticing paradise, unspoiled by western commerce or religion. Where were the last heathen to be found?

This romantic image of the noble Melanesian savage was soon enough disabused. But he did find plenty of evidence of surviving traditions derived from the islanders’ ancestors, and incorporated into their “kastom” notions of tribal law, politics, magic and myth, which gave meaning to both their identity and behaviour. A century of Christian mission, to be sure, had overlaid this traditional world-view, but not entirely. Many of the islanders he met held both together, ambivalently but dualistically covering all bases.

The Christian missionaries themselves were ambivalent about such entrenched beliefs. The Anglicans, drawn from some of England’s best families and Oxford-educated, were remarkably tolerant about “kastom”. They have been described as “God’s gentlemen”. But Presbyterians, Methodists and Seventh Day Adventists took a stricter tone. All too often the result was a clash of discordant cosmologies which still remains unresolved.
Overall, Montgomery affirms, the central struggle in Melanesia is no longer the fight between Christian and pagan mythology. The Christian God has pretty well won the battle. Paganism is on its last legs. But the old way of thinking still remains and indeed flourishes within the Christian community. The rejection of sorcery and magic in favour of New Testament ways of living is far from complete.

It was basically the magic of the last heathen that Montgomery had hoped to find. But his search led to the realization that proof was not to be procured. Instead he needed to cultivate his imagination and to recognize the validity of myth. Melanesia is still filled with myths, both Christian and pagan. As one wise observer told him, miracles certainly happen, but the measure of their truth lies not in the accuracy of the event so much as in the quality of the faith they inspire.

To Montgomery, perhaps the most impressive witness to the newly-planted Christian faith was to be found among the Melanesian Brotherhood, a community of young Christian laymen, first founded some eighty years ago and still thriving.

These young Anglicans have a strong missionary impulse, are credited with the power of driving out evil spirits, and are highly regarded for their holiness So much so that their spiritual authority stands higher than any other source of moral influence.

In the last decade, the Solomon Islands have been in great need of such affective forces. The indigenous government virtually collapsed, corruption was rife, tribal rivalries between different groups of islanders produced a state of endemic civil war. But the reputation of the Melanesian Brotherhood and their efforts for disarmament and peacemaking proved to have a remarkably calming effect.

Until, that is, 2002, when a party set out for Guadacanal’s weather coast, the hangout of a particularly vicious war-lord. Seven of the Brothers were murdered there. But their martyrdom, as many Melanesian Christians now believe, was truly a witness to the power of suffering and rebirth, as testified in the New Testament. The war-lord gave himself up, the brothers collected guns from both sides, the Australians sent a peacekeeping force of efficient administrators. And Montgomery recasts the story of one of the murdered men, Brother Francis, to be the modern equivalent of Bishop Patteson’s sacrifice so long ago, to be remembered in the prayers of the Melanesians and passed down in stories told by firelight from one remote reef-protected island to the next.

As the Brotherhood’s chaplain testified, with their death the curse of violence has been lifted from the nation. And the Brotherhood itself had been allowed a glimpse through the mystery of things to the promise of the eternal. It is Montgomery’s hope that this example of transcendental love will become more powerful and more illuminating as the years go by. That is the way martyrdom works. Imagination can fill the expanse between the shores of historical fact and the truths of the soul. And this was the truth which Charles Montgomery, as a sometime unbeliever and sceptic in need of rescue, learnt on that far-away Melanesian shore.
With best wishes,
John S.Conway