Review of Martin Greschat, Protestantismus im Kalten Krieg. Kirche, Politik und Gesellschaft im geteilten Deutschland 1945-1963

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

Review of Martin Greschat, Protestantismus im Kalten Krieg. Kirche, Politik und Gesellschaft im geteilten Deutschland 1945-1963 (Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag, 2010), 450 Pp., ISBN 978-3-506-76806-3.

By Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität, Berlin

This review was first published in theologie.geschichte – Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kulturgeschichte (Universität Saarbrücken) Band 6 (2011). Translation courtesy of John S. Conway.

This book is the first overview of the history of German Protestantism in the early post-1945 period up to the year 1963. (Why the author chose to end there is not explained). His study begins with a broad survey of international relations and personalities, such as the Great Power rivalries between the USA and the USSR, the Korean War, Stalin and his diplomacy, Konrad Adenauer and Walter Ulbricht. This makes for an extremely lengthy introduction of nearly two hundred pages before the main topic is reached. But the author sees these events, as described in his Chapter 1, as important historical preconditions for the division of Germany The second chapter describes the establishment of the two German states. On the one hand, West Germany adopted a course of integration with the West and of rearmament, despite much internal opposition. On the other hand, the German Democratic Republic under Ulbricht underwent a similar process of integration into the Soviet sphere of influence. The third chapter briefly describes the turbulent years of the 1950s with the Geneva Conference of 1955, the uprisings in the Soviet bloc in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Communists in 1956, Khruschchev’s ultimatum over Berlin, and the Cuban crisis. Finally, in chapter 4, Greschat arrives at his main theme, namely the developments in the Protestant churches. He deals first with the situation in the German Democratic Republic, in a far too detailed and hence rather wearying fashion, in my view. He then turns to West Germany. Despite the fact that both Protestant communities were decisively in favour of upholding the notion of German national unity, they slowly drifted apart from one another. In the following chapter 5, developments in the life and witness of the Protestant churches in the 1950s are analyzed These years saw the erosion of the traditional pietistic forms of worship, heated theological debates over Rudolf Bultmann’s “demythologizing” contentions, institutional innovations such as the Church Rallies, and the notable establishment of the Evangelical Academies, which did so much to foster the Protestant churches’ life and their involvement in the wider international and ecumenical discourse of the World Council of Churches and similar bodies.

This is indeed a vast undertaking. The reader will undoubtedly gain much on these various topics. But there are problems. For one thing, the author gives us several chronological accounts, first for the international scene, then for the national political level, and thirdly for the churches’ own historical developments—and in this case, twice over, one for the west, one for the east. This leads to numerous repetitions, to frequent recapitulations of items already covered (“as already mentioned”), or to redundant digressions.

Furthermore, the author does not tackle the problematical issue of how best such a history of recent German Protestantism should be written. Since 1945, despite the strong fixation on tradition, the evident trend has been to create a constellation of about two dozen separate provincial churches, each with its own theological, ecclesial and church-political character. Greschat’s concentration on the top-level deliberations of the Evangelical Church leadership, and on the significant political disputes of two divergent groups, one around Ehlers, Dibelius and Lilje and the other around Niemoller, Heinemann and Gollwitzer, hardly does justice to the diversity of the situation. Another more serious defect is the astonishing decision to omit any discussion of Germany’s recent past, which the historian Friedrich Meinecke so rightly called “The German Catastrophe”. In fact, this was also the catastrophe of German Protestants who constituted a two-thirds majority in the “Third Reich”. Greschat’s discussion of the internal and highly divisive disputes in the post-war period are really inexplicable without reference to the Nazi period, or to the Church Struggle against Nazism. In this regard Matthew Hockenos’ A Church Divided. German Protestants confront the Nazi Past (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004) is a model study. Unfortunately Greschat doesn’t even mention it.

Many sections of German Protestantism incurred a heavy burden of guilt for their highly regrettable behaviour during the Nazi period. But their stance is hardly mentioned in Greschat’s 450 pages. Likewise, no attention is given to the process of de-nazification, or what in the church was the wholly inadequate process of “self-cleansing”. Christian anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism or the Holocaust as such are not mentioned. And even the timorous Protestant attempts to begin to come to terms with a scholarly examination of the recent past, as in the Evangelical Association of Contemporary Church History after 1955, are not thoroughly discussed. The book by Bjorn Krondorfer, Katharina von Kellenbach and Norbert Reck, Mit Blick auf die Täter. Fragen an die deutsche Theologie nach 1945 (Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2006), with its pertinent and often biting criticisms is not taken into account.

The outbreak of the Korean War, or more widely the Cold War, appears to have engrossed the attitudes of most contemporary Germans, and thus covered over that unspeakable darkness which burdened them, and in some cases still does. And so, one might suggest, it was highly convenient that the Cold War diverted attention away from those other more fateful events, about which they were unwilling to speak. But are these considerations still valid for scholarly accounts today? It is incomprehensible why this book omits mentioning the widespread silence, or more particularly the active evasiveness, the frequently well-rehearsed tissue of lies or alibis, or the habit of sweeping such unwelcome matters under the carpet, as engaged in by many Protestants.

Of course there may have been numerous understandable reasons why contemporaries in the 1950s wanted to suppress their personal pasts. But to continue suppressing such lamentable episodes in the Protestant collective past seems wholly reprehensible. Any history of German Protestantism in the 1950s needs to be written, not from the perspective of “Korea”, but from the viewpoint of the participants themselves. Herein lies what would appear to be an inexplicable omission in an otherwise significant study. As a first attempt to provide an overall account of post-war German Protestantism, this study needs to be substantially enhanced and improved.