October 2007 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

October 2007— Vol. XIII, no. 10
Dear Friends,

October is the month when Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. Although this is now a secular holiday, it obviously looks back to the earlier religious services of gratitude which the first European settlers held, and also to the traditions of Harvest Festivals which acknowledged God’s bounty and loving kindness. In Vancouver we have had a magnificent September, so we too have every inducement to be unfeigned thankful for all the blessings we have received. I trust that many of you also may feel the same at this time of the year, and send my greetings to all five hundred of you, scattered across the globe from Poland to Australia. I am always glad to hear from you if you care to write, but please only to my private address: Jconway@interchange.ubc.ca


1) Book reviews:

a) Coupland, British Churches and European Integration

b) Schidtmann, German Catholic Students post-1945

c) Snape, God and the British Soldier

1a) Philip M. Coupland, Britannia, Europa and Christendom: British Christians and European Integration. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan 2006. ix + 284 pp. ISBN 1-4039-3912-8.

The contribution made by the Christian churches of Europe to the evolution of what has now become the European Union is little known. So Philip Coupland’s comprehensive and illuminating account of the role of the British churches, and especially of their leaders, in these developments over the past sixty years is a welcome addition to our knowledge. Little in their past had fitted these churchmen to be interested in the niceties of political structures or organizations, or to embrace ideas of European integration. Public and private morality not political science was their concern. The Protestant churches, created four centuries ago by individual rulers, had become established parts of their respective nations, providing religious validation for each state’s national identity. The Orthodox churches, at least until 1917, followed the same course. Only the Catholics could claim to belong to a supranational institution, but their image was heavily influenced by a nostalgia for the mediaeval past, when all of Europe belonged to Christendom, and owed allegiance to the Pope.

The traumatic and violent events of the early twentieth century, however, challenged European church leaders to reexamine their traditional loyalties. The catastrophes inflicted by two major wars were seen to be the result of unbridled national rivalries, heightened by political and totalitarian extremism. With the failure of the first attempts to solve these problems in the League of Nations, churchmen were obliged to recognize that they needed to think more deeply and `carefully about the problems of power, the nature of the nation state, and the role of the churches as the guardians of public morality. If the preservation of peace demanded an abandonment of traditional nation states, and their attendant ideological support systems, what should replace them? Should the reconstruction of Europe lead to new political structures rising above the existing national borders, and if so, what were the moral and ideological implications?

Philip Coupland provides us with a masterly description of the often intense debates conducted in Britain ever since 1939 on the subject of the future of Europe. These issues were an integral part of the planning for the post-war era. It was notable that leading churchmen, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Bishop George Bell of Chichester, and the ecumenical strategist William Paton, joined in these debates with academics and politicians. They were convinced that the international anarchy they were living through could be attributed to the misalignment of political power and moral authority. The churches too needed to overcome their internal cleavages which had added to national animosities. What was now required was a reborn Christendom in a reborn Europe.

The leadership given by these churchmen assured that their contributions were taken seriously and that the voice of the churches has continued to play a small but significant part in the on-going deliberations and planning for the integration of Europe. Coupland’s research into the intricacies of the various schemes adumbrated in the immediate post-war years makes clear that the churches’ moral impetus was an important factor. The church leaders learnt from their experiences after 1919 that naive idealism and wishful thinking were not enough. They needed to face the issues of power seriously and precisely. And on this basis they were often listened to. For their part the politicians also began to realize the advantages of having the moral backing of the churches. As the Cold War began, so the value of the Christian churches’ ideological support was recognized by all.

In 1945 Britain faced a variety of political choices. She could seek to uphold and rebuild her status as a world power either in association with a reborn Europe; or by recasting, on some new co-operative basis, the existing structures of her Empire and Commonwealth; or she could place her future alongside the growing power of the United States in some new Atlantic arrangement. Each alternative had its advantages and more pertinently its bloc of followers among the British electorate. The churches were equally divided, and so called on their leaders to provide guidance and expertise. The result was a period of vigorous and lively debates. The factors of history and tradition had to be weighed against the pragmatic necessities of a now much impoverished economy. By the end of 1947, however, the early hopes were to be disappointed for a co-operative relationship with the Soviet Union in rebuilding a democratic Europe, and thus maintaining peace in a disarmed continent. Instead, the menace of Soviet aggression limited the options and swung the balance to supporting western Europe as a Christian alternative to Marxist totalitarianism. The British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, himself called for “a spiritual union of the west” and saw the churches as indispensable partners in propping up an anti-Communist front.

The British churches had not yet achieved a sufficient degree of ecumenical harmony to speak with one voice, let alone to agree on practical details for any integrative ideas of European unity. But the politicians were equally divided. Churchill spoke warmly about European unity but made it clear that Britain was not to be included. Britain’s destiny lay elsewhere. What form of unity the continental Europeans would choose was their affair. Britons would watch from the sidelines.

For its part, the newly-created World Council of Churches, based in Geneva but heavily staffed by British churchmen, was also involved. While opposed to totalitarianism, the WCC sought to avoid becoming the religious auxiliary of any western crusade against communism. At its first Assembly in 1948, even though the participants were mainly European survivors of German nationalism and its evils, the WCC did not support any practical plans for European political integration but concentrated on the need to avoid any nuclear Armageddon.

These debates threw up the issue of whether Christianity was to be seen as the cement of the new post-war Europe, as it had been of the old. Churchmen naturally held the view that the moral force of the Christian tradition should be seen as a paramount factor, even a prerequisite for any rebuilt structure. On the other hand, such arguments met with vigorous opposition from anti-Christian secularists, in whose eyes the churches had played a sinister role in the past, especially in support of such regimes as those of Hitler and Mussolini. In their definition of the continent’s future, only a non-religious pragmatism was necessary. The ownership of the idea of Europe between these two groups was to become a potent source of friction, which has continued unresolved until the present.

The dramatic political events at the end of the 1940s, with the Communist seizure of Czechoslovakia, the institution of the Berlin blockade, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and even the outbreak of the Korean War – all served to hasten developments. Paradoxically however, British opinion about European Union became even more divided. Whereas the churches could unite in supporting the spiritual but vaguely-defined dimensions of the movement, there was little or no agreement on practical matters, especially on the extent of British involvement. By contrast, the initiative for unity was surprisingly seized by the Europeans themselves, particularly the French and Germans, who led the way by starting with small but significant steps of economic co-operation. The leading advocates were Catholics such as Robert Schumann, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer, but the impetus was explicitly pragmatic not ideological.

The result was that in Britain the relationship became deeply ambiguous, almost schizophrenic in its varying moods of enthusiasm and engagement, disenchantment and retreat. Ultimately, however, the disinclination by both the Conservative and Labour Parties to be drawn into any European commitments which might compromise wider British interests blocked any more positive steps. As one commentator noted at the end of 1951: “Individuals from Britain have done much to advocate this idea, but when it comes to action, both national parties begin to lean backwards” (p. 128-9). Indeed, under Churchill’s second government, the opportunity to take a leading role in European integration was finally discarded. The British churches raised no protests.

Coupland’s explanation for these developments is that the cause of European integration had never enjoyed popular confidence. Despite having several notable churchmen, writers and political pundits on its letterhead, support for the European movement in Britain was never more than an inch thick. Protestant suspicions that this was essentially a Catholic power grab were still evident and fears were even expressed that Britain’s Protestant identity would be compromised. In the 1950s, other concerns, such as the need for nuclear disarmament, or the evils of apartheid, captured the churches’ attention and focused awareness elsewhere. And for many Anglicans, the residual ties to the British imperial heritage proved stronger. As the general secretary of the British Council of Churches stated in 1964: “We British feel we only belong in a very partial way to Europe. It is not only our island state .`. . It is that our lines have gone out to Canada and Nysasaland, to New`Zealand and India every bit as much as across the narrow strait of Dover” (p.138).

If such traditional ties barred the way to joining any western European union, the barriers to establishing good relations with eastern Europe were even greater. The temporary sentiment of sympathy for the Soviet Union during the war was quickly replaced by the pronounced hostility of the post-war years. From Moscow’s point of view, the projects for western European integration inevitably appeared as anti-Soviet in intent. So too did the creation of NATO in April 1949. As Coupland rightly points out:` “for the Kremlin to see this bloc as defensive rather than a political threat would have required a miracle of faith and optimism which neither Marxist teleology nor contemporary Russian history made possible” (p.155). In addition the only British churchman advocating for the Soviet Union was the fellow-travelling Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson. He enjoyed no support inside the Church of England, and less outside it. He was in fact the last ecclesiastic to share the illusion that Communism and Christianity were much the same thing. British Catholics were even more determined in their hostility. The containment of Communism was, for them, a sacred Christian duty.
In these circumstances, British churchmen cannot be acquitted of having contributed to the sterile political culture of the Cold War. Although only a few subscribed to the ideological extremism of American anti-Communists, those churchmen who sought to keep open the lines of communication to the churches under communist control found it difficult to establish credibility for their ecumenical and eirenic policies. For the majority of churchmen, prudence outweighed prophecy, and continued to do so until whole political scene changed in 1989.

The British churches therefore watched with hesitation the various moves taken in the 1950s and 1960s to promote European integration, and followed with even more ambivalence Britain’s belated attempts to join the Common Market after 1967. But by the 1970s the climate of opinion was more favourable than before. Churchmen were no longer persuaded that they need jealously guard British sovereignty from the ambitions of greedy foreigners. Instead the gradualist approach of small accretions gave the cause of European integration more credibility and hence support. No moral reasons could be found for continued abstention. Certainly the incredible success with which the western Europeans had dispelled the fateful legacy of their past played a significant role. International conflict between western European states was now unthinkable. Instead Europe could unite in undertaking new projects to bind up the wounds of the wider world. This was an agenda which all Christians could endorse.

Even if British Christians for the last thirty years have maintained only a sporadic interest in the growth of the European Union, nevertheless no significant opposition has been voiced. The most recent attempts to give the Union a specifically Christian character in the proposed constitution have failed. The current forces of multiculturalism are now too evident to allow any one element to claim such a spiritual pre-eminence. But Christians can live in a pluralistic political world, and in Coupland’s view should welcome the opportunity to do so. Their task is not to try and recreate a unified Christendom in Europe, but rather to stress the Union’s continuing and world-wide ethical responsibilities. At the same time, the churches’ watchful eye will have to be focused on possible misuses of the power now enjoyed by this multinational Union. In an era when the churches no longer enjoy their former political or cultural influence, such tasks will require the witness of resolute individuals conscious of their opportunities and responsibilities. In Coupland’s opinion, in an increasingly fluid and multicultural situation, the Christian churches can provide the foundations for a strong and stable community, which can encompass differences and set generous margins of tolerance. This would be a fitting fulfillment of Europe’s Christian heritage.


1b) Christian Schmidtmann. Katholische Studierende 1945-1973: Eine Studie zur Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Zeitgeschichte. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2006. 535 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index. EUR 69.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-506-72873-9.

(This review first appeared on H-German on September 6th 2007, and is here reprinted by kind permission of the author).

The volume under review is a revised version of Christian Schmidtmann’s dissertation. It fills a gap in the research of postwar German Catholicism while at the same time confirming scholarly trends established by Mark Edward Ruff in The Wayward Flock (2005) and other scholars of postwar German Catholicism.

In the introduction, Schmidtmann explains that his work is not a “coherent, stringent narrative of Catholic students and their organizations, but a postmodern analysis of a constructed reality” (p. 15). Katholische Studierende is not a typical organizational history–although there is much of that in this work–but rather an analysis of the way in which German Catholic university students defined their relationship with their faith, their social organizations, and their church hierarchy. The work itself is free of explicitly postmodern analyses; indeed, in the body of the work, Schmidtmann does not address the “constructed” nature of reality. Instead, he offers an excellent analysis of the ways in which German Catholic university students took ownership of their faith in ways the Church hierarchy found difficult to accept. When the Church, by means of the Second Vatican Council caught up, so to speak, with the students, they were already moving on to a new understanding of their faith that almost made the Church seem irrelevant.

The volume is divided into four larger sections and numerous chapters and sub-chapters. The first three sections are arranged chronologically, while the chapters and sub-headings are arranged thematically or by groups of students. Schmidtmann examines students organized in the Catholic student fraternities, who made up the majority of all organized Catholic students, and then students in other organizations, as well as women as a special category of Catholic student.Schmidtmann notes that the share of Catholic students formally organized in fraternities or other groups never was more than a third of all registered Catholic university students. In this regard, the book’s title is a little misleading, since Schmidtmann leaves more than half of all Catholic students unconsidered. In part, this is caused by the author’s reliance on the records of the Katholische Deutsche Studentvereinigung (KDSE), the umbrella group of Catholic student groups in Germany, in the historical archives of the Cologne archdiocese. Still, one would have liked to have learned more about the majority of Catholic students and their attitudes towards ecclesiastical and civic roles as well as towards student life and academic preparation.

Schmidtmann notes the crucial role the Catholic Church played in the immediate postwar years at the local level. As the universities resumed classes, Catholic chaplains often provided both material and spiritual support to a generation seeking new values and goals. Quickly, however, a development began in the student body that Schmidtmann, without explicitly acknowledging it, sees coming to its fulfillment in the radicalization of the Catholic student movement in the late sixties and early seventies. Catholic students no longer considered mass attendance and participation in exclusively milieu-driven activities sufficient or even necessary markers of their Catholic identity. In the wake of National Socialism, living a Christian life meant bringing Christ into one’s everyday life and work. As Schmidtmann himself puts it, Catholic students did not seek a restoration of a pre-national socialist order, but rather something qualitatively new (pp. 43-45). Although recognizing that the postwar generation desired a qualitatively different Catholicism is not a new scholarly insight, Schmidtmann’s research shows how this desire for Catholicism in and of the world extended to Germany’s future Catholic elites.

Indeed, Schmidtmann’s more original contribution is to demonstrate the difficulties younger German Catholics faced in their dealings with the older generations in preparing for future leadership in economic, political, and social life. The older generation included the Catholic hierarchy, whose efforts to control Catholic student groups lasted almost thirty years, until the bishops gave up their attempts in the early seventies. Schmidtmann shows younger Catholics who joined the student fraternities reshaped these according to their own values, often to the dismay of the fraternities’ alumni. For example, in the early fifties, when university rectors banned uniformed fraternity members from marching in university processions for fear of resurrecting nationalist attitudes that fraternities had demonstrated in the twenties, the students insisted on wearing their colors as equal members in a tolerant, pluralistic society (p. 129).

Schmidtmann traces carefully how, during the later fifties and throughout the sixties, Catholic student groups began to struggle with the same conflicts that their fellow students faced: confronting the Holocaust, the Cold War, and so on. Catholic students, however, increasingly questioned the KDSE’s alignment with the Christian Democrats, much to the hierarchy’s dismay. By the early sixties, KDSE functionaries rejected grass-roots requests for open dialogue about the political roles of Catholic students in the modern world. Functionaries, even lay ones, blamed the students for declining participation in Catholic student group activities. This attitude was particular noticeable in activities aimed at female students, for whom the dominant message that a Catholic woman should prioritize her role as wife and mother over her academic prospects became irrelevant, if not off-putting. Students increasingly went their own way, organizing their own groups that relied on the hierarchy only for considerable financial support.

By the late sixties, Catholic student groups in Germany were fully in the throes of the early excitement surrounding the implementation of the reforms introduced at the Second Vatican Council. Sermons on Marxism were the least of the bishops’ concerns. By the early seventies, the bishops decided to withdraw their financial support from the student groups, which led to the demise of many of them.

At this point, Schmidtmann unfortunately leaves the reader without a fully developed analytical conclusion. Instead, the reader isoffered the fourth section of the work, in which Schmidtmann presents the results of his interviews with members of Catholic student groups from the period in question. It would have been useful had the analysis of these sources been integrated better into the main body of the work, rather than left as a separate section. Furthermore, Schmidtmann notes much of the relevant literature in the footnotes and in his extensive bibliography, but one wishes that he might have engaged the scholarly context more directly. One wonders what Protestant student groups were doing during the same time and about the same issues? Furthermore, as mentioned above, one wished that at least some statistical data had been included about the activities of those Catholic students who were not formally members of Catholic student organizations.

All in all, however, Schmidtmann has offered an important contribution to our understanding of postwar Catholicism and the transition of German Catholicism to the supposed age of the laity. The Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, Germany’s leading Catholic historical research organization, is to be commended for its increasing focus on postwar Catholicism and its movement beyond strictly institutional church history.

Martin Menke, Rivier College, New Hampshire

1c) Michael Snape, God and the British Soldier. Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars. London/New York: Routledge 2005 xv + 315 pp. ISBN 0-415-33452 – 7 (Pbk).

Michael Snape begins his well-researched and sprightly account of religion and the British soldier by challenging the widely-held view that the de-Christianization of Britain in the last century was due to the violence and disasters of the world wars, particularly the first. Instead he seeks to absolve both the military leadership and the individual soldier from blame. He does admit that, over the century, there was an obvious decline in individual church attendance and a widening of the social oral parameters, including personal ethics. But he argues that Christianity continues to characterize British institutional life, from the monarchy down. Britain’s historic Christian identity, and the sacrifices made to uphold it by the soldiers of both wars, are stressed every year in well-attended Remembrance Day services. The military establishment, and its attendant chaplaincy branch, are still held with regard, even by those who are no longer observant Christians.

Snape acknowledges the corrosive impact of the post-1919 mood of remorse over the nationalism and blood-letting of the First World War, especially as interpreted by such writers as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Their attacks on the hypocrisy, self-serving and ultra-imperialism of the army brass, including the chaplains, found much resonance in the pacifist-inclined and repentant elite circles of the 1920s. But how representative were the examples they cited? Snape sets out to present a much more nuanced picture, which is sympathetic in tone both to the army establishment and to the individual soldier. The sources he uses were drawn from an extensive array of personal memoirs, reports and contemporary publications, which he has diligently researched to present an excellently rounded picture.

The British army has had a long tradition of adhering to an Erastian form of Protestant Christianity, when duty to God and King could be combined to form the essential bond of military service. Such feelings were only reinforced by the fact that virtually all of the regular army’s officers were trained in the public school variety of British Christianity, strong on personal morality and service to the community. Compulsory church parades stressed the morale-building unity of the army under God’s guiding hand, and drew upon whatever background its recruits may have had in popular hymn singing and prayer. In short,throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Christianity remained dominant in shaping the moral and spiritual horizons of the populace and hence of the vast numbers of young men who joined the army, whether as volunteers or conscripts.

Snape shows how, in both wars, several leading generals, such as Douglas Haig and Bernard Montgomery, were explicit and keen advocates of an evangelical form of Christian obedience. He rightly believes their faith in God’s leadership gave them added determination and consolation, though he admits it could also increase their sense of infallibility. In the aftermath of the first war, Haig’s confidence in God’s guidance came to be much criticized, whereas Montgomery escaped, largely because his successes in public relations and his victories were more evident. Whether either general’s religious devotion was taken as a role model by lesser ranks remains unclear. But certainly, their form of Christian commitment was widely seen as proof of the morality of the war effort, and of the conviction that God was indeed on Britain’s side.

The British army leaders regarded religion and religious agencies as important sources of inspiration and discipline. Indeed, as the recognition grew, especially in the second war, that large numbers of men needed to be inspired to fight rather than merely commanded, so the matter of morale came to be seen as vitally important. Both Haig and Montgomery saw the role of chaplains as essentially morale-builders, and encouraged those chaplains who best succeeded in such a prophetic and missionary task. Montgomery was himself a magnificent morale-booster who readily used Judeo-Christian imagery to claim that the Lord mighty in battle would be sure to give them victory. The evidence is that many chaplains followed his example, and were consequently appreciated by the men.

As Snape makes clear in his first-rate chapter on Command and the Clergy, the chaplains filled an important role in providing supportfor the soldiers, both collectively and individually. They developed a powerful moral and religious idiom, prepared the troops for battle, consoled and comforted them in their losses, and offered a vestige of dignity in death. Behind the lines, the chaplains, assisted by an enormous array of church-related philanthropic groups, led by the YMCA, were invaluable in providing recreational and rest facilities, looked after the wounded in hospital, and acted as welfare officers with the men’s’ domestic problems. The most famous of such services was given by Toc H and its ebullient pastor, Tubby Clayton. His witness was indeed to be carried forward and in part mitigated the post-war mood of disillusionment.

In attempting to assess the religious impact of such chaplaincy and welfare services, Snape points out that many of those who availed themselves were drawn from the church-attending constituency. But, particularly in the First World War, the devastating casualty rate wiped out most of that generation of young men and leaders. The introduction of conscription brought in a different sort of men with less enthusiasm and often less religious commitment. Nevertheless, in the extreme conditions of the battle front or in the grim condition of prisoner-of-war camps, religion and British loyalties combined as a moral force to enhearten and uplift.

Yet, as Snape admits, the conditions of war created moral problems, both collectively and individually, of a particularly intractable kind. The contradiction between the war’s conduct and Christianity’s call for love and peace posed for many men a crisis of credibility. As the brutalities of the wars escalated, so the belief in the “just war” theory, so rigidly held by their commanders, came to be subject to ever-increasing doubt. And the mounting toll of casualties and suffering confronted every soldier with the insoluble problems of evil and death. The chaplains’ responses to such challenges were closely observed, and any prevarication or evasion served only to discredit not only his ministry but the religion he supposedly served. The chaplains’ duty to uphold the image of a loving and merciful God presented many difficulties in the midst of ruthless and costly slaughter. Particularly the temptation to engage in hatred for the enemy had somehow to be resisted even in the bloody and bitter circumstances of battle. Many men lost their faith after such experiences.

But in Snape’s view, it was not so much the loss of faith per se as the widespread deterioration in moral standards which undermined the churches’ hold and esteem amongst the soldiers in the years of the two world wars. Indeed, the immoral behaviour of so many of their charges concerned the chaplains far more than the apparent disregard for church doctrine. The ubiquity of swearing, the widespread incidence of petty theft and gambling, the acceptance of drunkenness, the temptations of sexual promiscuity and its consequent venereal diseases, were evidence of the coarsening, even the brutalizing of a predominantly male society.

At a deeper level, the impact of mass slaughter in the trenches in the First World War, or the horrific effects of mechanized destruction in the second, did not affect religious attitudes as much as some commentators feared. In Snape’s opinion, the mores of Victorian religiosity remained largely entrenched in British Christianity. There was no widespread slide into atheism, even though the social and personal disruption of war-time experiences undoubtedly hastened the erosion of pre-war religious values.

Snape does not touch on the equally problematic issue of how British Christians could reconcile the readily apparent contradiction that both they and their enemy were praying to the same God The more militant zealots of the first world war easily demonized the enemy as anti-Christian, but in the second church leaders, such as Archbishop Temple and Bishop George Bell, were more circumspect. Snape could have said more about the costly lead such bishops gave in refusing to cut off hopes for a re-Christianization of Europe, including the defeated Germans and Italians, and their resistance to theories of their enemies’ collective guilt. The word reconciliation prevailed over revenge. This was an aspect of religious witness about which more needs to be said.

In conclusion, Snape contends that the experience of two world wars cannot be described as a secularizing influence in relation to British public life. Religion clearly remained close to the centre of British national consciousness. In terms of the historiography, Snape’s evidence goes a long way to refute the negative assessments of religion in army life, and expressly of the chaplains engaged in what he rightly sees as a difficult. but often greatly appreciated role. So too those church historians whose pacifist sympathies led them to regret the churches’ active involvement in the two wars should now be encouraged to revise their verdicts. Above all, military historians who are tempted to see the role of religion as an obsolete survival, and chaplains as dubious or peripheral figures, should also look again with greater sympathy and understanding. If this can be achieved, Snape’s forthright and excellently readable contribution will be vindicated.


With every best wish
John Conway