Article Note: New Research on Churches in Postwar Germany

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2011

Article Note: New Research on Churches in Postwar Germany

Francis Graham-Dixon, “A ‘Moral Mandate’ for Occupation: The British Churches and Voluntary Organizations in North-Western Germany, 1945-1949,” German History 28, no.2 (2010): 193-213.

Ian Connor, “The Protestant Churches and German Refugees and Expellees in the Western Zones of Germany after 1945,” Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 15, no.1 (April 2007): 43-63.

By Steven Schroeder, University of the Fraser Valley

The extraordinary transformation of Germany after 1945 from Nazism to peaceful integration into international systems continues to draw considerable interest, as scholars attempt to render clarity to the complexities of postwar reconstruction. By looking at the various motives and actions of British government representatives, churchmen, and relief workers in Germany—and the interplay between them—Graham-Dixon’s study of the British zone sheds new light on the nature of occupation, and aspects of reconstruction, in this part of Germany.

The author argues that Britons agreed, in general, about their ‘moral mandate’ in Germany after the Second World War. However, some believed that the mandate “embodied a moral, Christian purpose,” whereas others wished to merely “exploit its use for propagandistic purposes” (193). Regardless of motive, the moral campaign proved useful for all British activities in Germany, especially when British policies and actions proved questionable, or even immoral. Focusing on the humanitarian crisis of the 1945-1946 population transfers (which was particularly acute in Schleswig-Holstein), Graham-Dixon asserts that it was church leaders and voluntary organization personnel (e.g., Bishop Bell of Chichester, Victor Gollancz) who ensured maintenance of the moral component in British policy, devoid of the exploitative component. Rather than resenting this action, British policy makers (e.g., Anthony Eden, Ernest Bevin)—who were generally less optimistic than churchmen about German rehabilitation—made good use of church leaders and relief workers in forging peaceful relations with a generally disgruntled German public, and in “validat[ing] … the worthiness of the British cause” (201).

The fusing of these two viewpoints became evident in 1947, when British troubles were at a peak. Some British church leaders (e.g., British Anglican Church head, Geoffrey Fischer) and some politicians (e.g., Lord Pakenham), openly tied the work of the Church and the Crown. Most politicians disavowed the connection and relied on voluntary organizations to work directly in aiding, and rehabilitating, the German people. Voluntary organizations (e.g., Save Europe Now!) labored in concert with German church organizations (e.g., Hilfswerk, Innere Mission, Caritas) to fulfill the occupiers’ goal of solving the humanitarian crisis in Germany. The British government hoped that this work would embed “higher spiritual and moral values within German society,” (208) and foster general goodwill. With demonstrable success in material aid and improved relations between Britons and the German people, these organizations filled the “policy vacuum,” and fulfilled the moral mandate claimed by the British government.

This is an important article that exposes new aspects of British occupation politics. It also reveals the significance that voluntary organizations can (and did) have in post-conflict stabilization. In this case, the British government exploited the goodwill of voluntary organization personnel by having them alleviate the humanitarian crisis it had helped create. In the end, good things came of their combined efforts regardless of motive and despite the misallocation of credit. One wonders how these elements of occupation appeared in the other zones, and about their long-term impact in Germany, and in British-German relations.

Ian Connor is well-known for his 2008 book Refugees and Expellees in Post-War Germany, in which he describes how the millions of displaced persons in occupied Germany posed numerous challenges to German reconstruction after 1945. This article is an offshoot of that larger project. It examines how some leading German Protestant churchmen and relief personnel feared that ethnic German expellees would stray from mainstream Protestantism to embrace Communism or Catholicism. Playing an “active role in the reconstruction of Germany” (44) by employing their “wide-ranging autonomy” (43), Protestant Church elites prevented, in a few cases, the escalation of political radicalism, even while operating on some misguided assumptions.

Connor argues that the central concern of Protestant elites (i.e., some pastors, but mainly key figures in Protestant relief work) was “the political and ideological implications of the refugee problem” (60). Protestant churchmen viewed the expellees as not only physically, but spiritually, dislodged and impoverished. Protestant churchmen founded the Hilfswerk of the Protestant Church in August, 1945 to assist the expellees, and to keep them from turning to political and religious alternatives. The idea was that the material aid and spiritual support of the organization would keep the expellees on the right track by providing them with stability and hope for a brighter future.

The Hilfswerk provided shelter, food, and clothing for expellees primarily in the western zones, while its eastern office operated under the wary surveillance of Soviet authorities. Indeed, fused into its material aid campaign was the Hilfswerk’s political agenda of expunging Soviet influence in the political unification of Germany. Whereas Protestant churchmen were overly concerned about the refugees embracing Communism (few voted for the KPD), they “ignored or failed to recognize the refugees’ undoubted susceptibility to the slogans of radical right-wing parties” (60). With questions lingering about the ideological and political foundation and motives of the Hilfswerk, the author offers an example of the organization’s success. When Trek Association leaders threatened to lead thousands of expellees on marches to less crowded areas within western Germany, Hilfswerk personnel intervened. Negotiations between the two organizations averted what one Protestant aid leader called, “a terrible catastrophe” (57).

Study of the immediate postwar period reveals widespread concern over political radicalism in western Germany. For example, the formation of the Catholic Kirchliche Hilfstelle in October 1945 stemmed, in part, from concerns about Catholic expellees turning to political extremism. Questions arise regarding German attitudes and agency under occupation, particularly concerning the establishment of the Federal Republic (and the GDR). Connor argues that relief organizations, like the Hilfswerk, played an important role in German reconstruction by fostering peaceful relationships. Still, the political agenda of the Hilfswerk, and other relief organizations, remains unclear. So does the broader implications of their work. Laudably, the author has contributed a significant component of an under-researched portion of the postwar development of Germany, and has opened doors for further examination of the role of relief organizations and other NGOs in the construction of the two Germanies.