July-August 2009 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

July-August 2009 — Vol. XV, no. 7-8


Dear Friends,

I am sending this Newsletter out to you today, July 20th, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the failed plot against Hitler’s life, which led to such disastrous consequences for the members of the German resistance movement, including the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I thought it would be appropriate therefore to draw your attention today to two important new contributions to Bomhoeffer studies . My particular thanks on this occasion go to Matthew Hockenos and Victoria Barnett for their stimulating essays printed below, which give a fresh and valuable assessment of the life and ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

May I remind you that I always welcome comments sent to me at jconway@interchange.ubc.ca, and would be most grateful for any suggestions about new books in our field which you think deserve a mention. Or better still, if you would send in a review of any books which have appealed to you, I would welcome such a contribution most heartily.


1) Obituary: Horst Symanowski
2) Book reviews

a) Moses, A reluctant revolutionary: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
b) Nicosia, Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany

3) Barnett, Evaluation of the English edition of Bonhoeffer’s Collected Works

1) Obituary: Horst Symanowski

We were saddened to hear of the death of Horst Symanowski in Mainz at the age of 97. He was one of the veterans of the German Church Struggle in the 1930s, who valiantly upheld the cause of the Confessing Church in those distressing days. As a student of Hans Iwand and a follower of Karl Barth, he resolutely sought to prevent the infiltration of Nazi ideas, and to promote the relevance of Christian orthodox theology. He was repeatedly imprisoned for such behaviour. Called up in 1939, he was early on seriously wounded but was forbidden to return to parish life. Instead he joined the Gossner Mission, and lived on the edges of society. This impelled him to be active in trying to assist Jewish victims of Nazi repression. After the war, he moved to Mainz where he became a worker priest in a cement plant, and spent his career linking the world of industry to the gospel by personal witness (This information was kindly supplied by Pastor Rudolf Weckerling, now aged 98!).

2a) Book reviews: John A.Moses, The Reluctant Revolutionary: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Collision with Prusso-German History. New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books 2009. 298 Pp. ISBN 978-1-84545-531-6.

In this book, John Moses brings to bear his considerable historical and theological acumen to the problem of interpreting and understanding Bonhoeffer’s place in German history and more specifically in the Church Struggle. The result is a highly readable and informative introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. Moses, a German historian and Anglican priest in Australia, weaves together seamlessly the Prusso-German historical traditions and the Protestant theological movements that shaped Bonhoeffer’s response to Hitler’s rise to power and the catastrophic racial policy of the Nazi state. Moses’ text is a spirited defense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and choices during the Third Reich, presenting Bonhoeffer as one of the very few individuals to have seen clearly from the start the dangers associated with the Nazi movement. For Moses Bonhoeffer was a “peculiarly German Lutheran kind of revolutionary” who rebelled against the conservative Protestant traditions prevalent at the time and “posthumously ushered in a new dialogical age” between Jews and Christians.

Moses begins by examining the cultural and intellectual currents that shaped Bonhoeffer’s early life and held sway among Germany’s educated middle-class, the Bildungsburgertum of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany. German churchmen played a leading role in developing the conservative, Lutheran, deutschnational mindset that characterized the Bildungsburgertum and aided Hitler’s rise to power. For this reason Moses contends that, “Bonhoeffer’s protest against the Third Reich was also a protest against this ‘peculiar’ religious culture of nineteenth-century Germany.” Moses does a splendid job of depicting the cultural and intellectual milieu of theBildungsburgertum and Bonhoeffer’s struggle to free himself from its stifling traditions.

Several of Bonhoeffer’s professors and mentors such as Adolf von Harnack and Reinhold Seeberg were leading figures in shaping what Moses calls the neo-Lutheran-Hegelian paradigm. They rejected democratic principles and parliamentary democracy in favor of monarchy with a strong state. War in the name of German kultur was defended as holy and just and God was depicted as a warrior God who acted in the world through the German nation and state. They interpreted Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms in such a way that gave the appearance that the church, although autonomous from the state, divinely sanctioned the state and its actions. Kulturprotestantismus and Ordnungstheologie dominated theology faculties in Bonhoeffer’s day, as did a definite hostility to ecumenism. And most important for understanding why Moses describes Bonhoeffer as a revolutionary was the prevailing mood of antisemitism and the conviction that Jews, even baptized Jews, could never be true members of the Bildungsburgertum.

Only Bonhoeffer and a handful of his colleagues, Moses argues, were astute enough to perceive how these religious and cultural traditions were leading Germany into the hands of Hitler and ultimately to ruin. Moses attributes Bonhoeffer’s break with the Bildungsburgertum to his upbringing in a relatively liberal household, his youthful experiences abroad in Italy, Spain, and the United States, and his extraordinary theological insights. Bonhoeffer found that extricating himself from the mentality of his professors was not nearly as daunting a task as convincing his coreligionists to follow. His endorsement of ecumenism, development of a theology of ethical responsibility, and repudiation of anti-Judaism and antisemitism, Moses contends, were simply too radical for the German pastorate.

Bonhoeffer became committed to strengthening the ecumenical movement in the early 1930s when the nationalist and antisemitic rhetoric of the Nazi movement was winning over increasing numbers of unemployed and alienated Germans. Moses describes the ecumenical peace movement as Bonhoeffer’s “all-consuming project until 1937” when it was no longer a serious possibility. (82) Bonhoeffer sought to develop a more theologically rigorous ecumenism based in part on the themes he had developed in his early writings and sermons. In these Bonhoeffer argued that the church was (or should be) Christ’s presence in the world. He called on the ecumenical movement to reformulate itself as the universal church that proclaimed the truth of the gospel to the world. “Above all differences of race, nationality, and custom,” Bonhoeffer proclaimed, “there is an invisible community of the children of God.” Thus Bonhoeffer came to understand the gospel as transcending national borders and called on fellow Christians to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice for others for the brotherhood of humankind. Did Bonhoeffer include Jews in this brotherhood for which Christians should be willing to sacrifice? Moses argues that he does.

Moses’ chapters on Bonhoeffer and the Jewish Question are likely to be the most controversial. He asserts that Bonhoeffer offered a “spirited defense of fellow German citizens of Jewish faith” and that he called on his fellow Christians to show solidarity with all Jews, not just those who had converted to Christianity. In addition Moses praises Bonhoeffer for revising the traditional relationship between church and synagogue from one of irreconcilable hostility to one of interdependence. There is no disputing that Bonhoeffer rejected the racial antisemitism that was paradigmatic for the Bildungsburgertum and most of his fellow Protestant clergymen. However not all Bonhoeffer scholars would agree that Bonhoeffer ultimately repudiated Christian anti-Judaism and embraced Jews as Jews.

Moses maintains that although Bonhoeffer’s early understanding of the Jewish Question in his April 1933 The Church and the Jewish Question exhibited many of the signs of traditional Lutheran anti-Judaism, such as the doctrine of substitution, support for the church’s mission to the Jews, and reference to the Jews as cursed, this changed in the late 1930s, culminating in rejection of both anti-Judaism and antisemitism in Ethics. In explaining Bonhoeffer’s earlier anti-Judaism Moses urges his readers to take into account that Bonhoeffer was responding to the German Christians attempt to introduce the Aryan paragraph into the church, which would have excluded all baptized Jews from the pastorate. “To oppose this by upholding the right of the church to baptize whomsoever it chose without racial restriction of any kind was, under the circumstances, an act of considerable defiance against a blatantly aberrant government and heretical state church that wanted to exclude all Jews from the racial community, and that meant also the church proper.” (115) Bonhoeffer’s undeniably anti-Judaic perspective at the beginning of the Nazi era Moses insists was replaced in the late 1930s and early 1940s by a “theology of ecumenical outreach toward the Jewish community” and the demand “for the church to stand up courageously for all Jews.”

The strength and uniqueness of The Reluctant Revolutionary is that it combines a historical and theological analysis of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, eschewing both the standard biographical narrative and theological textual approaches. Moses overarching thesis that Bonhoeffer reluctantly entered into his struggle with Nazism and the firmly established traditions of the Bildungsburgertum, and that he did so from a uniquely Lutheran perspective is persuasive. This thesis is most eloquently argued in chapter 8 where Moses addresses Bonhoeffer’s theological justification for his role in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. Moses ends his study with two very useful chapters on the importance of Bonhoeffer’s legacy for the church’s postwar confrontation with the Nazi past and Bonhoeffer’s reception in East and West Germany during the Cold War. For Moses, the legacy of Bonhoeffer’s revolutionary critique of the Nazi regime is that he has become an inspiration for many societies suffering oppression and as such has become “a prophet for our times.”
Matthew Hockenos, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York State, USA

2b) Francis Nicosia, Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Cambridge University Press 2008. 324 p. ISBN 978-0-521-88392-4

This review appeared first on H-German on 5 May 2009, and is here reproduced by kind permission of the author. It had to be somewhat abridged due to space reasons.

Unlike most previous studies of relations between Germans and Jews, which have focused on the incompatibility of German ethnic nationalism and the dominant liberalism of most German Jews, Nicosia’s well-researched study examines the relationship of völkisch German nationalism and anti-semitism to Zionism during the Nazi years. Determined to reassert a positive Jewish identity and convinced of the futility of assimilation, German Zionist leaders tended to underestimate the threat of the Nazis coming to power and to overestimate the opportunities that a Nazi government might open up for the Zionist movement. In his chapter on “Nazi confusion, Zionist illusion”, Nicosia successfully fleshes out the complexities and contradictions in “the dual nature of Nazi policies towards Zionism”. On the one hand,, the Nazi regime exploited Zionism to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine (though not to create a Jewish state). For example, he traces the pragmatic cooperation of the early Nazi years, which led to the signing of the Haavara Transfer Agreement of September 1933. This made it possible for German Jews to emigrate to Palestine without leaving all their assets behind, while boosting the German economy by promoting exports to Palestine. On the other hand, the regime refused to grant Zionist demands for Jewish civil rights as an officially recognized national minority in Germany. Aware that German economic restrictions on Jews impeded Jewish emigration, Hitler sought to shift the blame to Britain for restricting Jewish emigration to Palestine and for imposing fees on those Jews who succeeded in getting there.

For their part, German Zionists operated under the illusion that by endorsing Germany’s national rebirth under National Socialism as well as its principles of ethnic or racial descent and its consciousness of national uniqueness, they could secure German cooperation in establishing a Jewish national state. German Revisionist Zionists also proved useful to the Nazis in opposing an international boycott of German goods, as planned by leading figures such as Vladimir Jabotinsky, who were outraged at the Nazis’ early harassment and persecution. So too, these Zionists who supported the Nazi ban on racial intermarriage, served the Nazi cause by countering foreign criticism of the Nuremberg Laws. In later chapters, Nicosia describes in detail the fitful collaboration, even after the traumatic Kristallnacht pogrom, between German Zionists, preparing for Jewish renewal in Palestine, and Nazis eager to expel Jews in preparation for the coming war for German living space in the east. But, as Nicosia repeatedly emphasizes, for the Nazis, `Zionists were nothing more than convenient tools for facilitating the removal of Jews from Germany“. To assist this end, they were prepared, for example, even after Jews were prohibited from immigrating or returning to Germany in 1938, to allow representatives of the Jewish Agency in Palestine to make repeated trips to Germany and Austria to work for Jewish emigration. The regime also supported occupational retraining and Hebrew-language instruction for Jews so long as they promised to emigrate, even though such moves aroused opposition from some ideological hard-liners who believed that such retraining would lead to undesirable contacts between Jews and Aryans. The German authorities preferred to have the Jews depart for Palestine, as any closer destination might well arouse anti-German feelings amongst their neighbours in Europe. As a consequence, the Nazi regime showed no sympathy for Arab nationalism, at least before the start of the war, since Arab opposition to Jews arriving in Palestine would affect the German plans for their emigration from Germany. However, this did not translate into support for a Jewish state. Both the Nazis and the Revisionist Zionists opposed the British Peel Commission`s plan of July 1937 to partition Palestine – the Nazis because they opposed a Jewish state, the Revisionists because they opposed an Arab state. But since the British Government refused to implement this scheme, the Mandate remained as an obstacle to both Nazis and Zionists alike.

1938 did mark a turning point in Nazi anti-Jewish policies, not only because the Anschluss of Austria ( and a year later, the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia) added urgency to Nazi efforts to force Jews out of the Greater German Reich, but also because the violence and destructiveness of the Kristallnacht pogrom had the paradoxical effect of shifting authority to those Nazi agencies who regarded Radauantisemitismus as counterproductive, both for the damage it did to the German economy and for its adverse effects on Germany`s image abroad. In the bureaucratic infighting on how best to solve Germany`s `Jewish question`, the SS favoured a more `rational`and `systematic`approach than street violence. But they also sought to introduce more punitive measures to force Jews to leave than those enacted by the Interior Ministry. In 1939 all independent Jewish organizations were dissolved and brought under Gestapo control as the Reichsvereiningung der Juden in Deutschland. Forced emigration of German Jews remained official German policy right up to the dissolution of the Jewish Agency`s Palestine Office in Berlin in May 1941. Earlier in 1938 and 1939, the SD had begun to work with agents of the Jewish Mossad le`Àliyah Bet (Committee for Illegal Immigration) to step up the illegal movement of Jews from central Europe past the British authorities in Palestine, and thus circumvent the British introduction of tighter immigration controls.

The start of the war created further impediments to Jewish emigration, but as late as 1940 the SS was still focused on emigration as the solution for the Jewish question within the borders of the Greater German Reich. And in November 1939 Heydrich at the head of the SS wrote to the Foreign Ministry to say that “the opinion is unanimous that, now as before, the emigration of the Jews must continue even during the war with all the means at our disposal.“

On the basis of copious research in more than two dozen German, Israeli’ British and North American archives, Nicosia confirms the current historical consensus that the Nazis had no plan for systematic genocide before 1941, although the potential for genocide was always present in Nazi ideology and in the party`s anti-Jewish policies. Nicosia concludes that before 1941 “the Nazi obsession with removing the Jews from German life was centered primarily on Greater Germany alone . . . with a particularly critical role assigned to Zionism and Palestine.“ His findings certainly confirm the crucial importance of anti-semitism in the origins of the Holocaust, but they also ;point to the war as the key to the radicalization of these anti-semitic measures leading to the adoption of a policy of physical annihilation.

In this scrupulous work of historical research, Nicosia notes that from a post-Holocaust perspective “ìt is easy to dismiss early Zionist hopes for some form of accommodation with anti-semitism as shockingly naive and illusory“. He could also have pointed out that so too were the illusions shared by most German Jews that the Nazi regime was only a transitory phenomenon, or would soon become more moderate in its policies. But he is rightly critical of “the ever present tendency to judge the past from the present“ which is a timely reminder when dealing with such sharply controversial subjects as this one.

Rod Stackelberg, Spokane, Washington, USA

3) V. J. Barnett, Bonhoeffer’s Collected Works – the English edition evaluated

The Bonhoeffer Works project and the future of Bonhoeffer scholarship

In 2003 the British church historian Andrew Chandler published a review essay, “The quest for the historical Bonhoeffer”, in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History. Chandler was reviewing the recently edited and published German 17-volume Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke — the complete writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – which are now being translated into English and published as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (DBWE) by Fortress Press, Minneapolis, USA.
As the DBWE project enters its final stage, it seems appropriate to reflect on Chandler’s insights and the ways in which this new English edition might change how we think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the English-speaking world. Volume 12 (Berlin 1932-33) will be published this fall; volume 8 (a greatly expanded Letters and Papers from Prison) is scheduled to appear next spring. The remaining volumes (11, 14, 15) are being edited and should all be out by spring 2012. All these volumes, particularly 14 and 15 (which cover Bonhoeffer’s training of seminarians between 1935 and 1939), include a great deal of material that has never before appeared in English.

As Chandler noted, there is a tension in both the literature and popular reception of Bonhoeffer between the “theological” and the “historical” Bonhoeffer. The “theological Bonhoeffer” includes his actual theological works (volumes 1 – 6 in the series) as well as the sermons, Bible studies, essays, and lectures in the latter volumes; volumes 8 – 16 document the “historical Bonhoeffer” through his correspondence and other relevant historical documents (volume 7 is his fiction). Our understanding of Bonhoeffer as a historical figure has been shaped largely by the interpretations of his contemporaries and family, notably Eberhard Bethge, who was his closest friend, executor of his literary estate, and biographer. Virtually all of these early interpreters, including Bethge, approached and studied Bonhoeffer primarily as a theological figure, as have most of the Bonhoeffer scholars in the United States.

The result is that in much of the literature about Bonhoeffer, the “historical” and the “theological” Bonhoeffer have been conflated, and Bonhoeffer’s actual role in German history and Holocaust history has been “theologized” – that is, shaped by religious understandings of him as a modern-day Christian martyr. The details of the Nazi years, particularly the details of the persecution and genocide of European Jewry, often serve only as a generalized backdrop for the drama of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, with key points of intersection such as his 1933 essay on “The Church and the Jewish Question” and his involvement in the attempted 1944 coup to overthrow the Nazi regime. The result is an almost ahistorical identification of Bonhoeffer as a religious figure, hero and martyr that seems to lift him out of the history, even for historians.

The approach of historians has been more cautious and critical. Indeed, in much of the historical literature on Nazi Germany, the German church struggle, and the resistance, Bonhoeffer is a fairly minor figure. As Chandler writes, he was “one figure among many” in the church struggle and in the resistance. He was quite young and was just beginning his career in 1933; he spent the decisive period of the early church struggle in London (fall 1933 – spring of 1935), and upon his return to Nazi Germany he taught in a remote Confessing Church underground seminary before being drawn into the resistance circles. In the resistance, too, despite the films that place the young pastor at the very heart of the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer played a far more minor role than his brother Klaus Bonhoeffer and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi – he was a courier, useful to the resistance figures primarily because of his contacts in church circles in England and Switzerland. As Chandler notes, again, “even if he had not been arrested in March 1943 he would not have been, ultimately, a decisive force in the planning and execution of the attempted coup.”

The historical Bonhoeffer has come under particularly critical scrutiny in the growing field of Holocaust studies and the related literature in German studies and history, including the more critical scholarship about the German church struggle. There are a number of tensions within Bonhoeffer’s own writings that remain unresolved and make him difficult to situate historically. These include his theological statements about Judaism that largely reflect the Christian supersessionism of his times. This makes him a particularly problematic figure in the field of Holocaust studies, where the “theological Bonhoeffer” has undermined the credibility of the “historical Bonhoeffer”, raising the question as to whether it is possible reconcile these two aspects at all. As historian Kenneth Barnes wrote in a 1999 essay (“Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s Persecution of the Jews”, in Heschel and Ericksen, Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust): “For those who come to Bonhoeffer through a study of the German church struggle, adulation might indeed seem the appropriate response to his life. However, those who arrive at Bonhoeffer through a study of the Holocaust most likely have a different view, one that describes Bonhoeffer’s ideas as part of the problem than of the solution.”

How, then, is Bonhoeffer to be understood historically, and how might the publication of the DBWE, particularly the historical volumes, inform and shape future scholarship? Can a more historically grounded study of Bonhoeffer yield new insights into his theological work? As we enter the final editorial stage of the DBWE, here are a few observations:

First, these volumes provide a running, often daily, commentary on the theological, ecclesial, and political issues that confronted Christians in Nazi Germany. As such they give us the context for Bonhoeffer’s life and work, revealing how he is driven and shaped, both in his thought and his decisions, by his conversation partners and the challenges he confronts. But they are an equally valuable resource for understanding what the German Kirchenkampf looked like on the ground and how it developed over time.

Secondly, they offer a crucial corrective to some of the mythology, both in specific instances and in the larger sense. The story about the authorities cutting off Bonhoeffer’s February 1, 1933, radio address about the “Führer” has become a standard part of the repertoire, but in fact (as Bonhoeffer wrote his family and friends the next day in a letter published in DBWE 12) he simply ran over time and the next program had to begin. Seen on the broad screen, Bonhoeffer’s move into the resistance seems a mark of his political certainty and almost preordained. Reading him page by page and year by year, however, gives a portrait of a man far more uncertain, sometimes vacillating, sometimes even giving the cautious nod to Caesar. Much of the material in volume 14 – the Finkenwalde period – seems startlingly apolitical and theologically conservative. Throughout these volumes, there are things to surprise and challenge us, and they should open the door to a re-examination of our assumptions about Bonhoeffer. The point of such re-examination is not so much to demythologize Bonhoeffer as to understand him more accurately. In turn, a more historically accurate picture of Bonhoeffer will lead to new readings of his theology.

Thirdly, it is important to remember that the Werke/DBWE includes not only the original source material but actually marks the beginning of the “interpreted Bonhoeffer”. There are several theologically significant documents in volumes 12 and 14 that are not Bonhoeffer’s own writings, but student transcriptions and notes of his lectures – i.e., this is already mediated material. Other writings exist only in fragments and are interpreted by the German editors in notes. The Werke/DBWE volume of Ethics differs from previous editions because it was determined that key sections (including “State and Church” and “What does ‘telling the truth’ mean?”) that had been included in the previous editions of were in fact not part of his original writings for that book, and are more appropriately included in volume 16, which covers the conspiracy period.

There is a new generation of Bonhoeffer scholars; they bring different questions and a different body of research to this material. The value of the Werke/DBWE is it makes this substantive historical material available for historians, theologians and others to study and re-evaluate. It is appropriate that I write this in the centenary year of the birth of Eberhard Bethge, who was responsible for so much of the interpretation and for making the Bonhoeffer literary estate available to scholars. Bonhoeffer himself knew that in Bethge he had found his Eckermann. As he wrote from prison in November 1943, “The origin of our ideas often lay with me, but their clarification entirely with you.” I suspect that over time scholars will revise and correct some of Bethge’s interpretations. Those of us privileged to know him know that he encouraged this; in helping to create theWerke/DBWE, he opened the door for it.

Victoria J. Barnett
Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition

I trust that many of you are now enjoying a summer break, and are having rest and relaxation in the warm sunshine, as we are in Vancouver. I would like to thank my colleagues who have so helpfully contributed to this Newsletter and thus given me a short break. The next issue will appear as usual on September 1st,
With every best wish to you all,
John Conway