September 2009 Newsletter
Association of Contemporary Church Historians
(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)
John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia
September 2009 — Vol. XV, no. 9
As we start the new academic year in the northern hemisphere, it is good to know that our subject of contemporary church history continues to be of interest to so many people, even though, institutionally, it is established in the curriculum of all too few universities. But judging by the publications in this field, or by the controversies which still swirl around to challenge or intrigue us, we can surely believe that there is still much more of interest and value to come.
So I hope that you will find future issues of this Newsletter to be of help and encouragement, and will of course be delighted to have your comments on the contents if you care to send them to my home address as indicated at the end of each month’s issue.
1) Book reviews:
a) Sheehan, Where have all the soldiers gone?
b) Lichti, Pacifist denominations in Nazi Germany
c) Coupland, Britannia, Europa and Christendom
2) Book notes:
a) Churches in Europe and Africa
b) Steinacher, Nazis auf der Flucht
3) Journal issue: Ecumenical review: The Barmen Declaration
1a) James J. Sheehan, Where have all the soldiers gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company 2008. 284 Pp. ISBN-13 978-0-618-35396-5.
Historians of twentieth century Europe have rightly stressed the discontinuity between the first half of the century and the second. Before 1945, Europe was racked by wars and violence, political extremism and propaganda, ideological fanaticism, economic dislocations, mass murder and genocide, and unprecedented physical destruction and devastation. In the subsequent fifty years, the record is one of peace, political cooperation and integration, economic recovery and prosperity, and a remarkable overcoming of the multiple antagonisms which had marked Europe’s history for so long. In his valuable and perceptive study, Jim Sheehan, the distinguished American scholar from Stanford University, seeks to account for this notable change. Principally, he suggests, it is due to the obsolescence of the military establishment and its replacement by a “civilian” mentality in virtually all of Europe.
This extended essay examines the physical and also the psychological conditions which governed the conduct of both war and peace in Europe during the past century. It was, in his view, the terrible destructiveness of the second German war which convinced the European leaders to abandon their cultivation of the mentality of war, and instead to embrace and hold fast to the cause of peace. Together this metanoia has led to the creation of a dramatically new international order in Europe and a new kind of European state.
War and bloodshed had always been endemic in Europe. Every state had responded by maintaining its own army for national defence. But in the nineteenth century, the technological advances in military hardware, and the spread of new communications systems, such as railways, had brought major changes. No longer was it enough to forge armies from the ranks of the peasantry, turning these unwillingly conscripted recruits into soldiers by brutal discipline and endless drill. Modern armaments required their users to have some education, and even more significantly some incentive. By the end of the nineteenth century, each state had made massive investments in its armed forces, had altered the structures of government in order to mobilize its male populations, and had devoted an increasing proportion of its national wealth to the provision of armaments. Such steps required justification. An increasingly educated public had now to be convinced of the necessity of such sacrifices.
Before 1914, the military and political leaders had successfully organized mass publicity campaigns which stressed the individual’s patriotic duty to defend the existing political order, and to offer his services to King and Country, when the call came, without hesitation or regret.
In such a climate, only a few percipient voices, such as those of Ivan Bloch or Norman Angell, recognized that modern weaponry would make any war unprofitable, even unwinnable These opinions were however dismissed as the naive outpourings of men unable to recognise the heroism which the call to battle demanded.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Sheehan’s view, a relatively peaceful Europe lived in a dangerously violent world. A good deal was due to the aggressive measures taken by Europeans to extend their control over, or gain access to, resources or riches in other parts of the world. This was the violent face of globalization. Sheehan does not argue that the militarism which justified such expansion was diverted back to Europe in 1914. But he does point out that the endemic instability on Europe`s periphery, especially in the Balkans, along with the great power rivalry, was a major contributing factor. Given the almost certain demise of the Ottoman Empire, and the probable collapse of Austria-Hungary, some violent clash between the major European states seemed highly likely. But war was certainly not inevitable, nor did it have to take the form it did. Sheehan rightly points out that none of the leading figures chose they war they got. It was more the result of mistakes and miscalculations by all concerned. For many, fighting a war was the least unattractive alternative. But Sheehan also claims that belligerency for war only came after it broke out, and cannot be seen as a major causal factor.
This public enthusiasm for the war undercut hopes of organizing any opposition. Even the members of the international socialist movement, which had long denounced aggressive nationalism and promoted international cooperation, fell into disarray, and many ended up by supporting their country`s war effort. Too many young men were caught up by the prospect and glamour of military adventure. But it was to be short-lived. As the poet Peter Larkin said: `Never such innocence again`.
The actual course of the war after August 1914 demolished the reputation of the military leaders, shattered the careers of the politicians who had promoted hostilities, and destroyed the credibility of those, like the Christian clergy, who had proclaimed that God was on their side and would grant them immediate victory. The horrendous losses of so many of Europe`s youth, and the many instances of civilian deaths, even genocide, forced a change in mentalities. A biting pessimistic climate of opinion received with scepticism the more positive suggestions for a new world order, as proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, and undermined the values and institutions which had served Europe until 1914.
The consequent disillusionment, and the failure of the victor powers to enforce a viable peace settlement, can be seen as the root causes of the second European war. Sheehan rightly points to the role of Germany, but could possibly have made more of the responsibility of the German conservative elites for their refusal to accept the verdict of 1918 or to learn the lessons of their defeat. In fact, already by the early 1920s, these Germans had united their fellow countrymen in their determination to get their revenge. Their propaganda campaign was particularly successful in stirring up outrage against the so-called punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty. It attacked reparations as ruinous and unjust. It mobilized widespread fears of the dangers of a world Communist revolution. It invented the convenient myth that the German army had been stabbed in the back by treacherous civilian elements, particularly the Jews, It sabotaged attempts to rebuild German society on democratic lines, and as Sheehan notes, continued to believe in the regenerative value of violence. All these sinister developments were in place before Adolf Hitler began his meteoric rise to power. His contribution was to build effectually on these beliefs, to bring an inflexible determination to restore Germany to greatness, and to provide the political framework for Germany`s renewed aggression in 1939.
Hitler`s success, as Sheehan notes, was symptomatic of the fact that millions of European were attracted by the extremism of fascism and communism, no longer believing in a peaceful or liberal future, but persuaded that bold and radical measures were required to usher in a new political and social order. For millions of other Europeans, however, the memory of their dead weighed more heavily. The disenchantment with war and its glorification, which was amply reflected in the post-war literature and art, led to deeper political overtones. Pacifism was no longer an eccentric opinion but an unavoidable response to the logic of history. But the hopes for European peace were too shallow to offset the militancy of the extremists, which was only heightened by the financial collapse and social disorders of the 1930s. In Sheehan`s view, it was this legacy of violence left by the war which Hitler exploited in consolidating his totalitarian control over Germany and encouraged his limitless ambitions.
1939-1945 was, in Sheehan’s view, the last European war. Germany’s aggressive thrusts were overthrown, and the country was militarily occupied and subsequently politically divided. But the keystone of the post-war order was the superpowers’ sometimes perilous, occasionally precarious, and always problematic answer to the German question. For decades Germany was the source of crises usually involving the militarily vulnerable but symbolically potent city of Berlin. But the dangers of nuclear catastrophe now honed the realization that war was too disastrous to be an instrument of political statecraft. Europe’s small national armies were an irrelevance in face of intercontinental missiles. The overwhelming power of extra-European powers in a bipolar political landscape made it possible for Europeans to live at peace with one another. The goals of economic prosperity, technological progress and social modernization now superseded the appeal of military and imperial grandeur across all of Europe.
These developments enabled what Sheehan calls the rise of the civilian state. He then charts the political and institutional steps which saw the switch of government priorities from military expenditure to social programmes. At the same time the significance of Europe’s conscript armies diminished dramatically. Discipline, self-sacrifice and patriotism were no longer prized values. Organized violence, both internally or internationally, no longer enjoyed public support as a legitimate political weapon. Military symbolism, except for once or twice a year, no longer resonated. The change was made peacefully, without much protest, almost imperceptibly.
This process spread across Europe from west to east. The civilian demands for a better standard of living mobilized political opposition throughout the Soviet-controlled states, and eventually secured the overthrow of all its repressive regimes. The overthrow of the Soviet Empire led to complete collapse, but also offered the opportunity to build a more democratic civilian system of government. It was a transformation which had no historical precedent.
Since 1989 this peace process has continued unabated, despite the outbursts of awful but localized violence in the former Yugoslavia. The stages of peaceful integration have proved robust enough to flourish, and clearly Sheehan expects they will continue. His final concluding paragraph is therefore worth quoting in full:
“Since the 1950s, Europeans have enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity unparalleled in their history. Never before have so many of them lived so well and so few died because of political violence. Dreams of perpetual peace, born in the Enlightenment and sustained through some of the most destructive decades in history, seem finally to be realized. Of course there are no resting places in human affairs, nowhere to hide from the insistent pressure of change. To sustain their remarkable achievements, Europeans must face a number of economic, political, cultural and environmental challenges. Many of these challenges come from, or are influenced by, that long and ill-defined frontier that joins Europe to its neighbours,. Along this frontier, where affluence and poverty, law and violence, peace and war. continually meet and uneasily coexist, the future of Europe’s civilian states will be determined.”
1b) James I. Lichti, Houses on the Sand?. Pacifist denominations in Nazi Germany. (Studies in modern European History, Vol. 31). New York/Bern/Oxford: Peter Lang 2008. ISBN 978-0-8204-6732-3 292 Pp.
James Lichti, who now teaches in California, and is of Mennonite extraction, has now provided us with a well-researched account of the witness of three of Germany’s smaller Protestant free churches, the Mennonites, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Quakers, during the traumatic and repressive years of National Socialism. This revised doctoral dissertation is largely drawn from a thorough examination of the political commentary contained in these societies’ periodicals, at least until most of them were suppressed during the Second World War. Essentially this is a study of the gradual accommodation made by two of these communities to the prevalent Nazi pressures, and of the compromises to their Christian faith in which they more or less willingly participated.
In actual fact, the book’s sub-title is somewhat misleading. Only the Quakers could be described as a pacifist denomination at this time. German Mennonites had already, before the First World War, largely abandoned the pacifist teachings of their founders, or the religious traditions they had shared with the long-persecuted Anabaptists. The ideal of non-resistance shifted from being a community-binding principle to an affair of the individual conscience. Nonetheless, as small minority denominations, they counted themselves as free churches and not tied to the official state-influenced or -regulated main churches, such as the German Evangelical Church or the Roman Catholics. As such, they stood for freedom of worship and of the individual conscience. They campaigned for the separation of church and state, and gave priority to their own denominational loyalties and heritage.
The Mennonite tradition combined piety and persecution, industry and isolation. In the eighteenth century, a significant number had been resettled in Russia, successfully building agricultural colonies, while fully separated from the local inhabitants both religiously and linguistically. But after the Revolution of 1917 these settlements became the target of Communist revolutionary zealotry. Violence, spoliation, persecution and expulsion spread widely. Only with the aid of the German government was a large-scale emigration possible in 1929. The shocking sufferings they endured dominated the political attitudes of the whole denomination for many years to come. Those who returned to Germany were not surprisingly imbued with a deep-seated hatred of the Bolshevism which had destroyed their lives. They were therefore easily susceptible to Nazi propaganda and its various anti-Communist overtones and mythologies, all of which came to be influential in the political commentary of their denomination’s otherwise highly pious periodicals.
At the same time, Mennonites saw it as their duty to uphold a Christian state. Too many were ready to perceive Nazism as upholding Christianity, and hence were increasingly drawn to affirming the unity of Volk and state, as Nazi propaganda proclaimed. On the other hand, they still clung to the idea that church and state should be separated, which led to what Lichti rightly calls a stunning incoherence in their discourse.
Very similar divisions occurred among the Seventh-day Adventists, who similarly sought to prove their loyalty to the new regime by declaring their support, especially for the Nazi health programmes, which ran parallel to their own opposition to narcotics, drugs and alcohol. Not surprisingly, these Adventists also admired Adolf Hitler for his personal example and championship of these same health goals. They even extended their praise to the Nazi eugenics programmes and projects. Only the Quakers maintained their own independent line by never affirming Nazi church-state policies, or supporting the ethnic nationalism displayed by so many German Protestants. German Quakers instead sought to guide the state towards conduct in line with the “inner light”, and all too often allowed their propensity to naive optimism to sway their minds. But since their numbers were so small, their influence was negligible.
Given the heightened political consciousness of the early Nazi years, all the small Protestant groups, especially those who derived from non-Germanic origins, such as the Baptists, the Mormons, the Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were at pains to stress their national loyalty. The Mennonites had the advantage of being ur-deutsch, so had no difficulty in conforming to the ethnic concepts of the new German state. They also readily enough subscribed to the “orders of creation” theology, propagated by noted Lutheran theologians. They proclaimed the view that the distribution of humanity into higher and lower nations and races was part of God’s creative will, which it was the Christian’s duty to uphold. Such opinions easily coincided with the Nazi views on racial purity and segregation, and led to the encouragement and spread of the kind of anti-judaic and even anti-semitic vocabularies, already present in these anti-liberal Protestant ranks. The Mennonites could easily see themselves as the upholders of German culture and racial stock. So too they could portray themselves as champions of a defensive alignment against the dangerous forces of modernity, such as those derived from the Enlightenment, or associated with Jewish influences, or culminating in Bolshevism. Thus the public face of German Mennonitism consistently supported the Nazi regime, and failed to provide their constituents with any perspective transcending their culture or their era.
By contrast the German Quakers were unrepentant in maintaining their internationalist and humanitarian ideals, despite the restrictions imposed on their activities and the harassment they suffered for their cause.
Lichti’s chapter on the policies pursued by these three communities towards the Nazis’ virulent anti-semitic campaigns is important and illuminating. Mennonites and Adventists both had a long history of anti-judaic indoctrination, so were highly susceptible to the kind of pressures brought by the Nazis. Even though horrified by such outbursts of brutality as the November 1938 pogrom, the Kristallnacht, they lacked any prophylactic theology, and like the other major churches were silent in face of these injustices. Only the Quakers sought to provide immediate assistance to the victims, or to help with their plans to emigrate. Too often, however, Mennonites and Adventists shared the age-old view that Jews stood under a divine and on-going curse for their failure to accept Jesus as Christ. Mennonite discourses on the fate of the Jews were therefore well positioned to accommodate Nazi propaganda. Already in 1933, one editor of a pious Mennonite magazine had warned his readers that” all calamity comes from the Jews”. He was to remain editor for more than thirty years from 1925 t0 1956, and even afterwards showed no sign of remorse or regret for such a stance.
In Lichti’s view, given the expression of such widely-held opinions, it would be too tidy to characterize these free churchmen as merely bystanders to the subsequent genocide. At worst they were unwilling actors but nonetheless accessories to these crimes. Their deep-seated anti-judaic prejudices and projections have to be seen as providing a legitimating source of reassurance and even motivation for Germans directly engaged in the Final Solution.
In summary, Lichti argues that, given the unremitting hostility and the draconian measures imposed by the Nazi regime, the churches in Nazi Germany can be seen as having done all that could be expected of them. On the other hand, they failed to witness more courageously to the transcendent beliefs of their Christian faith, but rather retreated into policies of self-preservation. Lichti therefore concurs with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s verdict that such a retreat rendered them “incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world”. This was to be their tragedy in the awful and turbulent years of Nazi tyranny.
2c) Philip M.Coupland, Britannia, Europa and Christendom. British Christians and European Integration. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2006. 284 pp ISBN 987-1403-39128
(This review first appeared in European History Quarterly, April 2009, and is here reprinted by kind permission of the author.).
The growth of interest in the role of religion in international politics has since 9/11 been huge. Media focus on “Islam”, in practice meaning the radicalized element associated with the Al Qaida network, has increased exponentially as politicians and diplomats have struggled to devise effective foreign, defence and security policies to deal with the threat posed by this enemy, which is at the same time everywhere but apparently nowhere. From the academic world, Samuel Huntingdon’s badly flawed ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis has been dredged up both to support and explain contemporary conflicts, with religions identified as a key source of global tensions.
The danger with these highly ‘presentist’ security discourses is that they ignore the part religion has always played, positively or negatively, in the political life of states the world over, in times of war and peace. From Kosovo to 9/11, Afghanistan to Iraq, religion only seems to get noticed when it is factored in to explain inter-state or intra-state conflicts which in and of themselves might have very little to do with religion. A broadly secular “Western” academic community working in rational, Enlightenment epistemologies might well have played a part in this, with scholars relying on empirical observation and reporting rather than on notions of Divine Providence to explain the interactions among states. Take the discipline of International relations, for example. Nowhere do we see a better example of the triumph of modernist empiricism than in the establishment of the field in the aftermath of the First World War, and especially after 1945 with the intervention of the American Realists. It is only in the last two decades or so that the field has opened up to be a genuinely pluralist encounter with post-positivist methodologies, and even then religion has played a bit part until relatively recently.
By contrast, in the realm of European integration history, the impact of religion has been researched far better. The European project was at heart a Christian Democratic enterprise and there have been ongoing and publicised disputes over the enlargement of the notional “borders” of Europe – religious, geographical, ethnic and cultural. Philip Coupland’s book seeks to embed the religious angle within the wider historiography of Britain’s relations with the nascent European Communities, which he believes has wrongly tended to overlook this wider input into the” politics determining the nation’s relationship to continental Europe” (3). In so doing, he follows the conventional periodization by studying the growth of religious thinking on a unified Europe during the Second World War and then moves on to the early post-war years and the Christian churches’ inputs to British decision-making on the thorny question of Europe in the 1950s. A much shorter and less detailed chapter takes the story through both the failed British applications in the 1960s and accession in 1973.
The story Coupland tells is one of “retreat” (11). The churches like politicians in Downing Street and civil servants in Whitehall gradually lost their wartime fervour for a unified Europe with active British participation and ended up accepting that the British could not and would not confine themselves to a regional role. Contradictions, he suggests, ran right through the British approach in the later 1940s and beyond. “At different times and in different ways Britain was European and not European, part of the (European) Movement but not part of the movement” (89) The onset of the Cold War did little to help the cause of the Europeanists in Britain as national security increasingly became dependent upon the involvement of the United States in European affairs, while a the same time exaggerating Britain’s global focus. Coupland suggests that by the time the British had come round to the idea of joining “Europe” they were already entering the era of a “post-Christian society” (171), although the voice of the churches could and sometimes did make itself heard in national debates.
The relevance of the story told in this book for events today is obvious and important in at least three respects. First of all, it highlights the historical theme of Britain’s ambiguous attitude to Europe. Compare, for example, Blairite rhetoric about giving Britain a leadership role in the European Union with what he actually achieved after a full decade in office. Secondly, it casts valuable light on the role of religion in constructing ideas about British national identity and on the part these ideas played have played in keeping the British psychologically isolated from integrative developments on the continent. Finally this book reminds us of the sheer ideological dominance of the British state in the post-war era. It is striking to read in this book how the inertia and muddled thinking among politicians and diplomas sapped the life out of the British Europeanists. By the time of the applications in the 1960s, it was more a case of choosing the least harmful option for Britain rather than proactively pursuing a positive, principled foreign policy strategy. One suspects that Gordon Brown and his successor might soon be faced with the same conundrum over the Euro.
Oliver Daddow, Loughorough University, England
2a) eds. Katharina Kunter. Jens Holger Schjorring. Changing Relations between churches in Europe and Africa. The Internationalization of Christianity and Politics in the 20th century. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2008 vii+223 Pp. ISBN 978-3-447-05451-5
These collected essays result from a conference held in Tanzania five years ago, under the auspices of the distinguished Danish church historian, Jens Holger Schjorring. The international contributors deliberately sought to look beyond the usual national or denominational horizons, and here tackle the broad picture of the role of the European churches, particularly in relation to Africa. The preliminary essays look back on the era of the European missionaries and their impact. This colonial survival can be said to have come to end with the All Africa Lutheran conferences in the period 1955-1965. The second section deals with the political dimensions of church life in such troubled societies as Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ethiopia, showing the difficult paths the European and African churches had to follow steering between the hazards of the Cold War, communism, imperial dismantling and the search for human rights. The final section invites larger questions, such as the future role of women in the life of Africa’s churches, as well as a concluding essay of African churches in Europe.
2b) Gerald Steinacher, Nazis auf der Flucht. Wie Kriegsverbrecher ueber Italien nach Uebersee entkamen. Inssbruck: Studien Verlag 2008. 379 pp. ISBN 978-3-7065-1026-1
This thoroughly-researched study examines the means and the routes by which Nazi war criminals managed to evade their due fate by escaping abroad, mainly to Latin America or the Near East, in the years after the defeat of the Nazi regime. Among those agencies which helped in these escapes, as has been well known for some time, were both the Vatican’s Commission for Assistance to Refugees and the American Counter Intelligence Agency. Steinacher devotes a whole chapter to the Vatican network, detailing the operations of this pontifical commission and its various branches, as well as to the more dubious activities of the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal, who had been in charge since 1925 of the German College in Rome. He had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s rule, including the seizure of Austria in 1938. He had even written a book advocating that Catholicism and Nazism should collaborate, since their political goals were so similar. Such partisanship was however not approved by his superiors, particularly Cardinal Pacelli, soon to become Pope Pius XII. In fact Hudal was frozen out of the Vatican’s establishment and was eventually dismissed from his positions in 1952.
On the other hand, there is clear evidence that Hudal assisted numerous refugees arriving in Rome, including former Nazis, by easing their way to the Vatican’s Refugee Committee. It is however far from clear that he was fully aware of the criminal records of any of those he helped. Steinacher does not produce any such proof. The fact was that approximately 100,000 such refugees passed through Italy to Latin America in these years. The fact also was that the Vatican Refugee Commission had neither the desire nor the means of checking on each individual’s true identity, let alone their past war-time record. It was enough that they claimed to be good Catholics, were declared anti-.Communists and sought refugee from being repatriated to any part of Communist-controlled Europe. In such circumstances we can certainly agree with Steinacher that the Vatican’s assistance was exploited and misplaced. But the evidence is lacking that the Vatican’s leading officials, apart from Hudal, were knowingly aware that some of those they helped to get to Latin America, and thus escape retribution, were war criminals.
3) Journal articles: Ecumenical review. Vol. 61, no. 1, March 2009
To mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the notable Barmen Declaration issued in May 1934 by the section of the German Evangelical Church, later known as the Confessing Church, this journal, which is the house organ of the World Council of Churches, devotes this whole issue to what it calls ‘The Barmen Declaration: Global Perspectives”. Three articles are particularly interesting for historians, namely those by Keith Clements, Victoria Barnett, and Heino Falcke. In line with the journal’s purpose, the emphasis is on the historical significance of this statement for the wider ecumenical fraternity, but these authors show that, even after so many years, consensus is hard to achieve.
To some, like Keith Clements, the Barmen Declaration was part of a wider realization of the dangers of National Socialism and its attempt to subvert Christian doctrines in the service of its racial ideology. The Barmen Declaration’s resolute defence of Christian orthodoxy and its clear refusal to let other sources of inspiration or control seep into the church’s witness was a vital step to prevent the kind of creeping compromise with Nazism to which a good proportion of the German Evangelical Church membership, and its clergy, had already succumbed. It was also important that, for the first time, Lutherans, Reformed and United German churchmen were able to agree on a declaration, which was in fact to become the guiding document for their principled resistance to the exaggerations of Nazi theological claims, as advanced by such distinguished theologians as Emanuel Hirsh, Paul Althaus or Gerhard Kittel. To be sure, the authors of this Declaration did not intend to make any political statement against the regime. In fact, most of them approved the purely secular goals which Hitler was so loudly proclaiming. But the actions of the pro-Nazi “German Christians” in watering down of the traditional faith in order to be on the winning political side, the repressive measures taken against any dissenting voices, and the readiness to accept Nazi propaganda attacks on the Jews, were the main causative factors, which led to a unified determination to protest. As Keith Clements shows, this clear theological pronouncement was well received outside Germany, especially by the leaders of the ecumenical movement, such as Bishop George Bell, the chairman of the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work. This international Christian community, which met in Denmark only a few months later, was explicit in its condemnation of the official German church leadership, largely due to the guidance provided by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And the long-term effects of the Barmen Declaration played a significant role in the post-war willingness to receive the German Evangelical Church back into the wider ecumenical fellowship.
Victoria Barnett, who is now attached to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, takes a more critical view. She points out that, despite the months of increasingly obvious discrimination and even persecution of the Jewish population in Germany, these Protestant church leaders took no stand whatsoever against such tactics. Protests from abroad were rejected as unwarranted interference in Germany’s internal affairs. The Barmen Declaration said nothing about the Nazi racial ideology, nor did it express any sympathy for the victims of the Nazis’ violence. In fact, many years later, even some of its authors regretted that they had not added a further clause dealing with the Jewish question But at the time, and indeed even four years later, after the Kristallnacht, the Evangelical Church’s silence was stunning. So, in Barnett’s view, the Barmen Declaration cannot be seen as symbol, of resistance, a cry of conscience, let alone an act of solidarity or sympathy with the Nazis’ victims. Yet it was a theologically articulate foundation for the future of the church over against ideological demands, reminding Christians of where their ultimate allegiance should be.
Heino Falcke, who has been a leading member of the Protestant church in East Germany draws on his own experience of the relevance of the Barmen Declaration for his ministry and witness in the German Democratic Republic in the years after 1952. To be sure, the East German Protestants were never tempted to regard the ruling ideology of Marxism-Leninism as a tempting creed to follow for Christians in the churches. They had been too well indoctrinated by anti-communist propaganda. Nevertheless they were faced with the institutional pressures exercised by this totalitarian regime seeking to expunge or at least minimize the churches’ influence in society. Falcke points out that the Barmen Declaration gave impetus to a positive theological response in such a critical political situation. Defeatism, resignation or merely “inner emigration” were not to be encouraged. Rather, he suggests, the Barmen Declaration was received and interpreted in the churches of the G.D.R. in the light of Bonhoeffer’s Christology, being there for all people whether Marxists or Methodists. For Christians, all areas of life belong to Jesus Christ.
There should be no separation or handover to other political or ideological loyalties. This opened the way for an active role for the Churchwithin Socialism, for which Falcke himself was a prominent spokesman. This included a strong witness for peace and social justice, which became in fact the basis for the churches’ participation in the revolutionary movement, culminating in 1989 and the non-violent overthrow of the regime. Above all, Falcke suggests, the Barmen Declaration’s call for the church to witness fearlessly to all people, and to proclaim the free grace of God, was and is a continuing force in the subsequent life of the German Evangelical Church.
With all best wishes to you all,