Article Note: Olaf Blaschke, “Geschichtsdeutung und Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Kommission für Zeitgeschichte und das Netzwerk kirchenloyaler Katholizismusforscher, 1945-2000”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2012

Article Note: Olaf Blaschke, “Geschichtsdeutung und Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Kommission für Zeitgeschichte und das Netzwerk kirchenloyaler Katholizismusforscher, 1945-2000,” in Thomas Pittrof and Walter Schmitz, eds., Freie Anerkennung übergeschichtlicher Bindungen. Katholische Geschichtswahrnehmung im deutschsprachigen Raum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Freiburg: Rombach Verlag, 2009), 479-521.

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

In this massive forty-two page article, the German historian, Olaf Blaschke, sets his sights on the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte (Commission for Contemporary History). This Roman Catholic historical association founded in the fall of 1962 and now based in Bonn is perhaps best known in historical circles for having produced the so-called “Blue Series,” more than 175 documentary volumes and monographs on the history of German Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It has served as a nexus for historical research, bringing together historians for research on many projects including many pertaining to the history of the Roman Catholic Church during the Nazi era.  The Commission has also emerged as a public relations outpost, dispatching its team of historical experts or the names of trusted colleagues to the press when pressing questions about the church’s past arrived in the headlines.

For Blaschke, the Commission provides the ideal example of a network that for decades succeeded in determining how the church’s past would be viewed. Or in his words, this is the account of “how a well positioned group stabilized a social network of support and succeeded in establishing hegemony over a specific discourse and partially maintaining this until today.” Its approach, he argues, was “apologetic.” By this term, Blaschke means that the historians writing about the church’s past during these terrible years tended to underscore the church’s positive achievements rather than to focus on its failings, omissions and missteps. They were also more likely to underscore resistance rather than collaboration and to put the church on the side of the victims and martyrs rather than the oppressors.  And hence his goal:  reconstructing the inner workings of the network at the heart of the Commission.

This task leads him to pore over lists of the Commission’s board members put together by one of the Commission’s founders, Rudolf Morsey, in 2004.  Blaschke draws three diagrams for the intervals 1965-1976, 1977-1988, and 1989-2000, showing the frequency with which network members thanked each other in the introductions and forewords to their works. He notes constants and changes over nearly fifty years. The proportion of churchmen and politicians shrank over the decades, while the ranks of professional academics, mostly but not exclusively historians, accordingly rose. Two founders remained fixtures: the historians Konrad Repgen and Rudolf Morsey, who helped direct the institute itself and oversaw many of its publications. Other men played central roles: Dieter Albrecht, Ludwig Volk, SJ, Klaus Gotto and Ulrich von Hehl. Blaschke hones in on the network’s mechanisms of exclusion. The board was the terrain of men. Only one woman took part (whom he does not name), and her role was peripheral. Voices particularly critical of the church’s past were not permitted entry. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, whose critical article about German Catholicism in 1933 published in Hochland sparked something of a firestorm, was not invited to a conference held in Würzburg in May 1961 that provided momentum for the Commission’s founding.  Indeed, he did not receive an acknowledgment of thanks in a volume from the Blue Series until 1998.

Written from the hand of an outsider, Blaschke’s analysis represents an admirable first stab into the mechanics of this network, even if an aggrieved tone reveals something of the author’s motives.  Blaschke correctly anchors the founding of this network in the political and ideological currents of the 1950s—in the spat over the validity of the Reichskonkordat which culminated in a widely-publicized and massive hearing before Germany’s Constitutional Court in June, 1956, into the rediscovery of the Nazi past from the second half of the 1950s and in attempts to overcome educational deficits amongst German Catholics.

Blaschke’s foray into the politics of history nonetheless has to rely predominantly on published sources. He repeatedly turns to Rudolf Morsey’s insider account of the Commission’s founding, the forwards to the volumes in the Blue Series and other retrospective glimpses offered by Commission members. More meticulous archival research into his topic, however, makes clear that the Commission, all outward appearances notwithstanding, was actually less homogeneous and united than portrayed here. Strategies and tactics varied. Personalities clashed. As Blaschke himself observes, founding members like Morsey and Repgen had to fight their own battles of sorts against the politicians of past and present like Heinrich Krone of the CDU in their effort to bring “truth to light.” Volk’s papers in the Jesuit Archives in Munich leave little doubt that his connections to the other Commission members were less substantial than a reading of acknowledgments might reveal. Though a tireless researcher, the more solitary Volk moved in intellectual and social circles that did not always overlap with those of other prominent members of this network.

Its many noteworthy volumes notwithstanding, the Commission also did not succeed in painting the definite discourse on the church’s role in the Third Reich—neither in the academy nor in the mainstream press. In the sweeping surveys of the Third Reich, its research was often eclipsed by the findings of church critics, its documentary editions less frequently consulted. Against the critical writings of the Hochhuths, Cornwalls and Lewys, its fervent protests had a lesser impact, undoubtedly because the mechanisms of the international press rarely intersected with this network formally anchored in the church. The mainstream news media, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, tended to bypass the findings of the Commission and to give print and air time instead to the exposes of church critics. Language was one obvious barrier. The works of the Commission have not been translated into English.  But the Commission’s dense monograph and documentary editions have proven nearly impossible to distill into easily digestible nuggets. In hindsight, the outcome of battles between critical sound-bytes and dense works of scholarship was never in dispute.

Further limiting the Commission’s impact on the mainstream historical profession was the fact that its members were exclusively Roman Catholic.  Most of its authors sought to write “objective” history in a Rankean sense by letting the sources speak for themselves in a strict reconstruction of the past. To no great surprise, the Commission’s publications were not absorbed into the great initial waves of social and cultural history that began sweeping through the German historical landscapes in the 1970s and 1990s respectively. By the 1990s, however, social history became part of the Commission’s corpus of literature, as evidenced by volumes produced by Antonius Liedhegener on Protestants and Catholics in Bochum and Münster or by Christoph Kösters on youth organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. These volumes, along with others from the 1990s and 2000s, were heavily informed by the model of the “Catholic milieu.”  Inspired by the work of the sociologist, M. Rainer Lepsius, this model was first used by historians to explain the history of the German Empire (1871-1914). But only in 2006 did the Commission publish its first volume of cultural history, an account of Catholic students in the postwar era by Christian Schmidtmann.

These volumes notwithstanding, many of the earlier volumes of the Commission, particularly those pertaining to the late Weimar and National Socialist eras were most likely to be cited by fellow network members. But this was true, as Blaschke notes, of the other side as well. Operating with an equal degree of methodological insularity, the advocates of social and cultural history emerging from bastions like Bielefeld preferred the output of their friends, colleagues and mentors as models of inspiration and citation. Blaschke’s essay thus opens the door for an analysis of the mechanics behind other historical networks including the Bielefelders or the Protestant Commission for the History of the Church Struggle during the Nazi Era. Were they also male-dominated? Did they foster ties to politicians and the media? And was their work an offshoot of larger ideological and political struggles?

Blaschke ultimately paints a picture of a parallel universe, even while acknowledging that the bunker mentality of the past is history. New networks like the Schwerter Arbeitskreis für Katholizismusforschung, he points out, have emerged to supplant the Commission’s research monopoly, and leaders of the Commission have joined in the discussions that they have launched.  Blaschke is right in calling for those in the field to bury the hatchets from the past. The battles from the 1950s through the 1990s need to be historicized and given their proper place in history. But will the ongoing controversies over the Roman Catholic past and the divergent moral lessons so many have drawn from these harrowing years allow this to happen?