Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Conference, Kreisau, 15-17 September, 2011

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Conference, Kreisau, 15-17 September, 2011.

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University

The annual meeting of the journal, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History, took place in Kreisau, now in Poland, where Helmuth James von Moltke led the “Kreisauer Kreis,” a group of resisters against the Nazi state. We met from September 15-17, 2011, on the Moltke estate, now renovated and serving as a retreat center. German and Polish presenters spoke on the topic, “Kirchliches Versöhnungshandeln im Interesse des deutsch-polnischen Verhältnisses (1962-1989).”

Underlying issues on this topic are obvious. German-Polish relations had not been good since the re-establishment of Poland after World War I and the German bitterness that ensued. German crimes against Poland during World War II then added huge grievances on the Polish side. In the early postwar period, West Germany was tempted to downplay German guilt and complain about things such as the Polish border on the Oder-Neisse line—a border that left Germany without a large portion of its 1937 boundaries—and the perceived injustice of Germans mistreated, dispossessed of property, and driven out of Eastern Europe. This conference, focusing upon church responses to German-Polish relations from 1962-1989, dealt with three main themes found in the churches: German attitudes toward Poland, Polish attitudes toward Germany, and the underlying role of Christian identity in individual nations as well as in Europe as a whole.

Andrea Strübind presented a paper on the “Tübingen Memorandum,” a foreign policy statement by Protestant intellectuals that appeared in Die Zeit on March 2, 1962. This statement was signed by eight prominent individuals: Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker, Ludwig Raiser, Klaus von Bismarck, Georg Picht, Günter Howe, Helmut Becker, Joachim Beckmann, and Werner Heisenberg. These men identified themselves as Protestants and spoke of the need for private citizens of conscience to speak out on public issues, but the EKD and its more conservative leadership quickly distanced itself from these Protestant voices. The Memorandum offended many West Germans, even though its ideas subsequently drove West German policy. The authors included a claim for the free status of Berlin, but coupled it with the right of self-determination for the GDR, a foundation of human rights in foreign policy questions, and the need for “Wiedergutmachung” and reconciliation—including acceptance of the Oder-Neisse line—in Germany’s relationship with Eastern Europe. This statement raised hackles, not least because of its claim to a foundation in Christian ethics. In Klaus von Bismarck’s earlier words in relation to his family’s estates in Pomerania, “We have no claim on lands that God has taken from us.” Not all Germans were so magnanimous.

Polish efforts toward reconciliation in the 1960s included a correspondence between Polish and German bishops, but they mostly talked past each other. Polish bishops were willing to speak of “forgiveness,” rather than “reconciliation.” Christians forgive each other, they wrote. But they also expect confession and changed behavior. In general during the 1960s, West Germans were far more interested in the GDR and eventual reunification, than they were in questions of confession and forgiveness between Germany and Poland. Two decades later, as described in a paper by Gerhard Besier, Helmut Kohl picked up on this idea of Christian unity, making a gesture that combined his own roots in the Catholic Church with the Catholicism of Poles. In November 1989, he met in Kreisau with the Polish leader, Mazowiecki. Kohl insisted that the meeting should include a Catholic mass. This led to a “Friedensgruss” and a hug at the end of the service. It proved a powerful symbol of German-Polish reconciliation, useful both to Kohl and Mazowiecki, whether or not the emotional moment was spontaneous or planned.

Katarzyna Stoklosa presented a paper interrogating the idea of Polish Catholicism and Polish identity as reflected on Radio Maryja. This radio station, quite popular among some portions of the Catholic demographic in Poland (and among some Poles in the U.S.), emphasizes Polish nationalism with strong components of Catholic piety, ethnocentrism, and antisemitism. Willfried Spohn then offered ecumenism as the one hope for harmonious relations between the religions and nations of Europe. He leads a project at Göttingen University focusing on the ongoing effort to create European identity out of disparate nations. Noting the former widespread belief that Europeanization and secularization represent parallel processes, he acknowledged the resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russia and the Catholic Church in Poland, not to mention the place of Islam in today’s Europe, as elements in a counter-thesis that unbroken secularization is by no means a certainty in the 21st century.

Having discussed various ways in which Christian leaders tried to deal with the disharmonies of early postwar Europe, conference attendees then speculated on whether religious identity coupled with ecumenism might provide the right set of tools for a harmonious future.