February 2008 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

February 2008— Vol. XIV, no. 2

Dear Friends,


1) Book reviews:

a) Burleigh, Sacred Causes
b) Dembowski, Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto
c) Zurek, The Churches and German-Polish Reconciliation

2) Journal article. Baran, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

3) Conference report: Sandford, Christian Science in East Germany

4) Book note: Gerhard Besier Festschrift

5) 10th International Bonhoeffer Congress, Prague, July 2008

1a) Michael Burleigh, Sacred Causes, New York/ London: HarperCollins Publishers 2006 556 pp. ISBN: 978-0-06-058095-7

The British historian and journalist Michael Burleigh has already gained a notable reputation for his books on Nazi Germany. He has now embarked on a broader survey of European history since the French Revolution in two volumes, of which Sacred Causes is the second, covering the period from the first world war to the present.

Burleigh’s focus is on the clashes between religion and politics, which he analyses in a series of well-researched episodes, drawing his material from widely separated parts of Europe. His overall aim is clear. He seeks to dispute the claim put forward in numerous surveys of European history, that, since religion plays only a marginal role in most European societies, it can be treated as an irrelevant factor in twentieth century history.

To the contrary, Burleigh asserts, the major conflicts of this century which brought such disasters to Europe were in fact the result of attempts by pseudo-religious movements, such as Fascism, Nazism or Communism, to supplant and replace the institutions and values of the established Christian churches from Spain to the Soviet Union, in pursuit of their own totalitarian ambitions. Despite the continuing divisions of the Christian churches, their resistance to these ideologically-based challenges, and their determination to outlast such ephemeral political experiments in social and political engineering, have proved successful. In Burleigh’s view, the Christian religion in its various forms still constitutes a valid component of Europe’s social and intellectual perspectives, both as the upholders of the moral and spiritual values of the past, and also as the guardians against other future totalitarian dangers.

Burleigh is not the first, but possibly the most forceful advocate of the view that the political extremism which swept over Europe after 1917 can be attributed to the catastrophes of the first world war. Not only did the slaughter of a whole generation of leaders produce a sweeping loss of confidence in the established classes, but even more vitally the collapse of credibility in the moral and spiritual values of the previous era had fateful consequences. To be sure, Burleigh admits, the Christian churches, especially the Protestants, had brought on these ominous developments by their over-eager support for jingoism, militarism and nationalism. The spectacle of each opponent claiming to have God on their side, while demonizing the enemy as un-Christian, in mutually contradictory and exclusive terms, had discredited their entire witness for many years to come.

In the aftermath, liberal churchmen sought to rebuild their faith through a naive support for peace movements and institutions, such as the League of Nations, while conservatives concentrated on a nostalgic longing for a return of the past, as seen in the universal commemoration of the war dead in cenotaphs and war memorials. Neither strategy was to be sufficient to equip the churches to resist the new forces of political radicalism, which appealed to the disillusioned populations. The offers of a secular vision of political recovery and reform, through the creation of a new man and a new society while repudiating the religious traditions of the past, proved to be alluring whether in a Fascist, Nazi or Communist guise. These are all effectively examined and analyzed comparatively in Burleigh’s narrative.

The rise of totalitarian movements, Burleigh believes, was brought on by the demands of so many millions of insecure and frustrated people looking for some powerful object or person in whom they could place their trust and faith. As was clear in the German case, this cult of the pseudo-divinity of the modern state or leader was not the invention of singular individuals, however charismatic, such as Hitler. Rather, it pointed to the apocalyptic mood amongst the people, which gave support to forms of political messianism or ersatz religious symbols and practices. The appeal of blood and soil was particularly seductive.

In the same way, the Bolsheviks in Russia campaigned as saviours of their country through the eradication of traditional religious life in pursuit of applied rationality along Marxist-Leninist lines. The cost in human suffering was indisputably enormous. The political extremism which accompanied the Bolshevik experiment in social engineering was ruthless and implacable. At least twenty-five million people are believed to have starved in the Volga and Ukrainian regions. Relief efforts by foreign church agencies were virtually prohibited. The plight of the peasants was used as an opportunity to smash the opposition from Russia’s church population, Burleigh is particularly good at evoking the pseudo-religious mentality of these persecutors, and in quoting from their writings. Opposition to the dominant secular creed was left to a handful of the faithful, mainly elderly women.

This secular triumphalism was also the hall-mark of Fascism, which, according to Mussolini, “is a religious conception in which man is caught up in his immanent relationship with a superior Law and an objective Will”.

The responses of the Catholic Church to these challenges is still a matter of dispute and debate among historians. The Vatican’s strategy after 1918 was to attempt to create legally-binding relationships with the new European states through treaties or concordats. But these did little to combat the extremist tendencies of the totalitarians. In predominantly Catholic states, such as Portugal, Austria and Ireland, a semi-autocratic Catholic regime was established, but in Spain such an attempt only provided the fuel for a convulsive civil war, for widespread and horrendous murders of opponents, and for the imposition of a political religion of the right.

All these developments are described by Burleigh with mordant exactitude, based on his extensive researches, particularly in English and German sources. In his view, only the mobilized integrity of a continent-wide Catholicism had the ability to withstand the forceful onslaughts into which it had been drawn.

By contrast, the Protestants were too divided or confused to be of much use. He can even state that “there is no evidence that the Nazis persecuted the Protestant Churches. . . despite what happened to a few dissenting individuals”. Such an astonishing misjudgment ignores the undoubted fact that the Nazi ambitions for total control made no exceptions. To be sure, in 1933, too many Protestants – as well as too many Catholics – welcomed Hitler as a national saviour, but the subsequent staunch opposition of a significant portion of German Protestantism, in the ranks of the Confessing Church, who also supplied numerous members of the Resistance Movement, cannot be so easily overlooked.

Despite such oversimplifications, Burleigh is surely right in stating that the relationships between the churches and the totalitarian political regimes were infinitely complicated and require considerable effort to reconstruct. His verdict on Pope Pius XII is suitably balanced. He admits that there may be many criticisms one might make of this Pope regarding what could or could not be done during the second world war. But he resolutely refutes the idea that Pius was “Hitler’s Pope”, and suggests that many of the attacks on this enigmatic pope derive from the kind of anticlericalism in which both the Nazis and the Communists excelled.

His chapter on the religious roots of the troubles in Northern Ireland is written both in sorrow and anger at the narrow-minded bigotry displayed on both sides, But his analysis is undoubtedly a most convincing one for the general reader. Here is a nutshell has been a case of religiously-propagated tribal warfare, in a province suffering periodic explosions of communal violence, and caught in a web of historical traditions, from which they are unwilling or unable to escape. Here the lamentable effects of the clash between religion and politics has been clear for all to see.

On the whole Burleigh does a masterly job in depicting these challenges to the churches’ life and witness across the continent. In the post-1945 conflicts, he stresses the more positive role played by churchmen in helping to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Empire. His hero in this account is undoubtedly Pope John Paul II, but he equally praises the insights on these matters of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately at times his bias shows in unnecessary passages of vitriol against “trendy left-wing professors, especially of sociology”, which may possibly be merited, but do not belong in such a valuable historical survey.

Burleigh’s achievement is to provide a synoptic view of the last century which restores the religious dimension, and makes an effective case for its relevance in European history.


1b) Peter Dembowski, Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto. An epitaph for the unremembered. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2005. Pp xii,160. This review first appeared in the Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 93, April 2007.

In the writings about the Warsaw Ghetto, little is made of the some five thousand Christians of Jewish origin, mostly Catholics, who shared this plight. Jewish contemporary observers ignored this small group, or made disparaging comments about them. Afterwards, political factors dominated the writing of histories of these events. Archival sources were unavailable, and survivors were often too intimidated to speak out. So it has been left to Peter Dembowski, as an eye-witness, to describe the complexity and perils of their lives and deaths in the Warsaw Ghetto.

These Jewish Christians were a minority within a minority. Most of them had no sense of belonging to the Jewish community, and were only forced to accept this designation when expelled to the ghetto in February 1941. There they shared the fate of 300,000 full Jews in being murdered in the series of enforced deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942. In Dembowski’s view the Jewish Christian community ceased to exist in the early stages of the Nazi Aktion.

Within the largely Jewish part of northern Warsaw, there already existed three Catholic parishes: St. Augustine, where the priests lived outside the ghetto, but were later forbidden to enter, and services ceased; All Saints which was the largest church building in Warsaw, built in an imposing classical style; and the Church of the Nativity whose courageous priest resided there throughout the ghetto period, refusing to leave and helping Jews where he could. Like many others, these priests did not consider “their” Catholics to be Jews at all, and were shocked by the Nazi decision to include them in the ruthless isolation and persecution.

Since most of the Jewish Christians were educated and assimilated to Polish society, they were often resented as “enemies of Israel” by the Yiddish-speaking majority of full Jews. But Dembowski, who knew many of them personally, takes a more favourable stance. For their part, the Jewish Christians, usually of a higher social class, sought to maintain their former contacts in Polish Catholic society, attended the church services with diligence, and avoided contact with the majority of Yiddish-speakers around them. For those who had lost any contact with their Jewish roots, or had not been aware that they had any, the shock of being thrust into the ghetto was traumatic.

Another feature of the distance between the two groups can be seen over the plans made by the Catholic clergy to rescue Jewish children by finding places for them to hide in monasteries or convents. These efforts were misinterpreted as “soul snatching”, or in order to gain extra income for these institutions. Jewish observers had a long memory of such Catholic attempts to gain converts. They were rarely convinced by the priests’ assurances that these children would not be subject to proselytism. In fact, even though giving assistance to Jews of any age was punishable by death according to Nazi rules, the evidence is that many children were rescued, especially in 1942. Far more was at stake for these “righteous Gentiles” than monetary gain or conversionary fervour.

One moving testimony is the memoir, as yet untranslated into English, of the prominent Jewish Christian doctor, Ludwig Hirszfeld. His career was suddenly cut short by the Germans in 1939, but he was allowed for a few more months to practice in his hospital for typhus patients until forced to relocate to the ghetto. There he became one of the leading personalities in All Saints parish, and a great admirer of the selfless work of the priest Fr. Godlewski. Luckily he was able to escape just before the deportation Aktion of July-August 1942 when the remaining members of this parish were transported to their deaths in Treblinka. After this terrible atrocity, nothing more is to be found about the Christians in the Warsaw ghetto. In her post-war novel Hana Krall recalled “When the Germans cleared the church of all the Christian Jews, there was only one Jew left in the church: the crucified Jesus above the altar”.

Dembowski is well aware that the converts held an ambiguous position, often resented by both Catholics and Jews, and unable to convince others of the genuineness of their spiritual motivations. Forty-five post-war years of censorship, self-censorship, half-truths, “official” truths, lies and silences have made discussions of this difficult problem in Polish-Jewish relations highly problematic. But the fact that these Christians from the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered along with their fellow Jews undoubtedly affected the basis of the church-synagogue relationship. Today’s fully altered attitude in the Christian church towards Judaism may be said to be the mostfitting epitaph for these unremembered martyrs.


1c) Robert Zurek, Zwischen Nationalismus und Versöhnung. Die Kirchen und die deutsch-polnischen Beziehungen 1945-1956. (Forschungen und Quiellen zur Kirchen- und Kulturgeschichte Ostdeutschlands. Cologne: Böhlau 2005 413pp
ISBN 3-412-10805-7. This review appeared first on H-German on December 10th 2007

The churches played an important role in improving German-Polish relations, which traditionally have been difficult. At the end of 1965, an exchange of letters between the Polish and the East and West German Catholic bishops prepared the way for a change in politics, which led to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Warsaw ghetto monument in 1970. Robert Zurek focuses on the relationship between the national Catholic churches in Poland, East Germany and West Germany after World War II until 1956 when the Stalinist regime in Poland ended. One of the most important factors in all three societies was the Church, which constituted the largest mass organization and was committed to Christian love for one’s “neighbour”. This book will be of interest to all church historians, as well as scholars dealing with the relationship between politics and cultural history.

Zurek’s study offers an important insight into the powerful German-Polish and Polish-German resentments in place after World War II, even among Christians. The German attack on Poland and the persecution of its population and its priests strengthened :the existing Polish bias against Germany and Prussia. After Germany’s defeat, no amends or restitution payments and only general confessions of guilt were made. Instead, German fugitives and expellees published accounts of Polish atrocities after 1945, which strengthened existing prejudices. Catholics, Protestants and their clergy in Poland and East and West Germany did not differ in their attitudes from their societies at large, which they sought to influence. This state of affairs is hardly surprising in light of the war and events in its aftermath, such as the expulsion of Germans. The wounds of many were still open and fresh, so forgiveness and reconciliation between Germany and Poland were not on the agenda for some time to come. The title of the book appears to imply that the national churches and German-Polish relations were dominated by nationalism in the early period and the will to reconciliation in the latter. This apparent dichotomy does not accurately describe the situation. During the years 1945-56, only a few attempts were made at reconciliation, and no significant differences in attitude existed between the churches, despite the multi-layered situation.

After a short introduction, Zurek focuses on the German-Polish relationship between 1772 and 1956, yet only briefly mentions the role of the national churches in events between 1939 and 1945. This portion of the book is plagued by some problems: for instance, the author uses the unfortunate terms “German Christians” (deutsche Christen) for the Nazi period and also for the period after 1945, which suggests an (ecumenical) unity of Christians which did not exist. The study is then subdivided into seven chapters: “The Churches and National Socialist Crimes”; “The Church, the Expulsion of Germans and the Problems of the German-Polish border”; “The Church and National Minorities”; “The Church and Respective National Views of the Other”; “The German Church and the Persecution of the Polish Church”; “The Churches and their Mutual Contacts”; and “The Church and German-Polish Reconciliation”. In all of the chapters, the author addresses both the Catholic and Protestant perspectives.

Each section concludes with a summary and evaluation. This repetitive presentation does at times impede reading. More importantly a lack of contextual information plagues the analysis throughout. The author refers to different concepts of Kollektivschuld, for instance, but does not provide a rigorous historical discussion of this issue. Sweeping generalizations like “Christian ethics”, “principles of Christian morality” and “Polish reasons of state” are not explained or elaborated upon. In general, readers will expect more information than Zurek provides as to how these principles applied in particular contexts, why they were not followed, and why Christians seemed to have behaved in a very un-Christian manner. Apart from the four main causes of failure to live up to Christian ideals – the antagonistic constellation of German-Polish relations, negative national stereotypes, a difficult socio-political, economic and social situation, and thinking in categories of power and politics but not in religious or ethical ones – as summarized on p. 364 – others factors might have been taken into account. Mentioned in passing is the papal wish, expressed to the head of the German bishops, not to discuss the topics of the pope, Poland and the German-Polish border. This may have been one reason for silence on the German Catholic part. Another factor may have been the pressures put upon the Christian press by the Stalinist political authorities, not discussed here. Moreover at least theologically, reconciliation demands the recognition of guilt and its confession. As there was little consciousness of guilt on either side, forgiveness and reconciliation were impossible.

Among the strengths of the books are the sources. The author relies heavily on the Christian press in order to investigate reconciliation approaches and activities. He consulted thirty-eight newspapers and periodicals from Catholic and Protestant churches in each country. The newspapers heralded even a few private or unofficial initiatives. Exploiting these sources makes it possible to analyze the positions within the churches in all three countries and to draw comparisons. Often biases and similar concepts on opposing sides were revealed, which in turn crystallized the mentalities of the Christians involved. From this approach the reader is given well-documented insights into both mainstream and marginalized voices within the opposing churches.

Still, the author’s source examination is not as strong as it might be. Aside from printed sources, unprinted material was also consulted. Fifteen archives are listed, although their contents are not specified. A survey of the footnotes suggests that some archives were only consulted for rare printed periodicals or books. Somewhat surprisingly, the author boldly claims that it was unnecessary to consult Catholic archives in the former German Democratic Republic. In contemporary history, such an attitude might prove fatal, as it is nearly always possible to find new material, particularly background information about church leaders or on the minutes of ecclesiastical conferences, which are discussed insufficiently in this work. It is to the author’s credit that he consulted both Polish and German sources for a balanced account. There are some errors in his bibliography, and it is a shame that he did not consult the works of Gerhard Besier to amplify his discussion. It would have helped to include the 2002 issue of the journal Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, which specifically dealt with the role of the churches in German-Polish relations during the past two centuries. Finally, given that the topic is one of such contemporaneous history, it would have been enriched by the inclusion of more eyewitness accounts.
Overall this books fills in a blank space on the historical map. But, in essence the balance sheet has to be a negative one, since, for the period covered by Zurek, hardly any attempts were made at reconciliation. Despite their Christian ideals, little or no action followed. Only in the following decade did the ice begin to melt, and a new more positive relationship result. But, for the years covered in this book, the author has given us a balanced and fitting account of the situation as it unfolded.

Klaus-Bernward Springer, University of Erfurt, Germany..

2) Journal article: Emily Baran, “Continental Victims. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Russian Orthodox Church 1990-2004” in Religion, State and Society, Vol. 35, no. 3, September 2007, p. 261 ff.

Coming to terms with the past has proved to be a difficult task for many of the churches who lived under dictatorial regimes. Emily Baran examines the rival strategies adopted after the collapse of the Communist empire in Russia amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Russian Orthodox Church. Both wanted not so much to reveal the story of their repressive experiences under Stalin and his successors, but to use these for more presentist concerns, and in fact to avail themselves of this ammunition to dispute the claims of the other.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have since 1990, so Ms Baran claims, become the fastest growing community in the new Russia. As elsewhere, their steadfast witness has drawn in new supporters, and their record of intrepid resistance to state tyranny has been a valuable drawing card. Indeed, as in other countries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses seek to be the barometer of religious freedom in general in the new Russia. But the Russian Orthodox Church sees things differently. They view the Jehovah’s Witnesses as undermining the traditional religious heritage of Russia and as exploiting the Soviet victimization in order to lure citizens away from Russian Orthodoxy. Both organizations see the role of religion as central in Russia’s transition to democracy and have looked to the state to confirm their map of Russia’s religious boundaries.

The new Russian rulers have yet to work to come to terms with the Communist past. No consensus is to be found. Consequently both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Russian Orthodox Church can portray themselves as victims of repression, while denying that the other had any credible case to speak for the whole religious community. These rivalries are only likely to grow. But who were collaborators, who perpetrators, who victims? Ms Baran’s analysis of these issues brings up a lively discussion which undoubtedly has international repercussions, of which we should take note.


3) Conference report: Greg Sandford: The Church that came in from the cold. The experiences of Christian Science in East Germany.
This paper was read at the 2008 meeting of the American Historical Association.

The Communist policies towards religious communities in the former East Germany were marked by repression and harassment. The strategy was clear. The Marxist regime sought to eliminate any possible political or ideological rival, to seize control of the education and media outlets, and to monopolize all sections of the national economy. In short, they set out to build up a socialist state through the emergence of a new socialist man. Using the model of the Soviet Union, and availing themselves of many of the former Gestapo’s tactics, the early years of the regime’s governance after 1949 saw a deliberately-induced Church Struggle, which sought to reduce church membership and limit its practices to private pursuits within church walls. Several lesser sects were prohibited outright, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Salvation Army. These regulations continued until the whole experiment was overthrown in 1989
But there were some exceptions. One of these was the Christian Science community about whom Greg Sandford reported at the AHA meeting. Sandford teaches at the Christian Science College in Elsah, Illinois, so his account is predictably one written with filial piety. But he was able to find documentary sources which revealed the surprising reversal of fortunes for this small sect at the end of the Communist era.

When they were banned in the early 1950s by the East German authorities, the sect’s members were faced with the same difficulties as they had experienced under the Nazis, who had placed a ban on their activities in 1941. Nevertheless, so Sandford believes, the unrelenting determination of the surviving members to continue their allegiance to their principles finally brought about a change in their fortunes, and recognition as a legitimate religious society.

Christian Science was founded by Mary Eddy Baker in the late 19th century. In 1945 the few survivors in Germany were able to start again with the help of the Mother Church in Boston. But after the East German regime was firmly in power, restrictions and police searches began, clearly aiming at the sect’s suppression. Their connections with the United States were suspect. Christian Science was accused of having links to Free Masonry, or of being engaged in “lively propagandistic activities to recruit foreign legionaries for the predatory American war” in Korea.

Further suspicion was aroused by the Christian Science practice of healing, which the Communists believed was undertaken solely as a financial swindle. During the 1950s the net got even tighter. In March 1951 Christian Science was struck from the list of permitted religious denominations. Inevitably, members who could leave went to West Germany. Those who remained were increasingly put under surveillance by the Stasi. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, their isolation was even greater. Underground meetings of a few supporters was the only means of survival.

Not until the 1980s did the East German authorities begin to show a more flexible mood. Klaus Gysi, the State Secretary for Religious Affairs, was surprisingly favourable to this small group – only 500 people, mostly elderly – which had caused no trouble, was clearly law-abiding, and was likely to put in a good word for the regime with its American backers.

At the end of the 1980s, permission was given for the importation of Christian Science literature from Boston on a private basis. In late 1987, for the first time, an official gathering of Christian Science members was approved, when an American visitor was allowed to speak. A leading Christian Science member, also a pensioner, was allowed to travel to the USA. The Stasi reports on Christian Science grew visibly warmer. In fact the Stasi officer reported that he could find nothing negative about Christian Science and stated that he would have no objection to their recognition. This was in fact granted exactly a week before the Berlin Wall was breached.
Greg Sandford has done an admirable amount of research in the surviving Christian Science as well as Stasi records. He has also had extensive interviews with survivors, including Stasi agents. His account, however, would have been strengthened by including references to the equally surprising fortunes of the Mormon community in East Germany, which obtained even greater and more remarkable concessions at an even earlier date. Nevertheless his account adds another stone to the wider mosaic of the former East Germany’s religious history.


4) On the occasion of Gerhard Besier’s 60th birthday, his colleagues have gathered a fine tribute in a Festschrift entitled Glaube-Freiheit-Diktatur in Europa und den USA.
Edited by Katarzyna Stokosa and Andrea Strübind, and published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in Göttingen, this 900 page volume contains contributions by 53 colleagues. The essays are grouped under three headings: Historical Theology, Religious Minorities and their legal status, and European and North American contemporary church history. Your editor is one of those who was glad to send in a heartfelt acknowledgment of our debt to Besier’s leadership in the field of contemporary church history over the past twenty years.

5) International Bonhoeffer Congress, Prague, July 2008

The following letter has been received from Keith Clements, the Chairman of the next International Bonhoeffer Congress
His address is Ckwclem@aol.com

Dear Friends,

Many of you will know already that the 10th International Bonhoeffer Congress will take place in Prague, Czech Republic, 22-27 July 2008. The theme will be Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theology in Today’s World – a Way between Fundamentalism and Secularism? The theme will be treated not only by an impressive panel of plenary speakers beginning with the Professor Juergen Moltmann of Germany who will give the keynote address, but also in over thirty seminars on a wide variety of particular topics by scholars from many different parts of the world.

Those of you who are not, as yet, aware of the Congress but would like to have the full information about programme, accommodation, costs etc are encouraged to consult the Congress website, where you will find all the necessary details.

There is also a special reason, however, for my writing to all of you. Thanks to the generosity of some donors we are able to offer a number of scholarships to cover the costs of registration and accommodation at the Congress for participants who would otherwise not be able to participate for financial reasons. Priority candidates for such bursaries will be participants, especially students, from Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Congress Planning Committee especially wishes to make known this availability and you are therefore cordially invited to publicise it through your institutions and networks of communication, and wherever you have contact with people whom you consider could qualify for consideration. Application forms may be obtained from the Congress office in Prague (see webpage, above).

Thank you in anticipation of your kindness in attending to this!

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Keith Clements
Chairman, 10th International Bonhoeffer Congress

With every best wish
John Conway