Conference Abstract: “Confessions of a Protestant Past: The Memorialisation of the Kirchenkampf in Contemporary Berlin”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2012

Conference Abstract: “Confessions of a Protestant Past: The Memorialisation of the Kirchenkampf in Contemporary Berlin”

By Diana Jane Beech, University of Cambridge

Anyone visiting Berlin for the first time will be struck by the wealth of heritage sites dedicated to remembering the tyranny of Germany’s Nazi past. From the haunting spectres of the sinister strength of the Third Reich (as epitomised by the Olympiastadion or the former home of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium) to the plethora of memorials commemorating the various victims of Nazi atrocities around the Reichstag, Berlin is a city with a showcase on both the perpetrators and the casualties of its dark history. But what of those institutions in the Third Reich like the Protestant Church, which comprised both pro- and anti-Nazi movements and, as such, do not fit neatly into Berlin’s dualistic memorial landscape?

At first glance, one would be forgiven for focusing on the bombed-out shell of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church located in the centre of Berlin’s main shopping district, which presents the Protestant Church as an innocent bystander and a tragic casualty of Allied bombings—a convenient illusion perhaps for an institution whose resistance to Nazism was less than glorious, save for the heroism of Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer or outspoken leader of the Confessing Church resistance group, Martin Niemoeller? A closer examination of Berlin’s Protestant landscape off the ‘tourist track’ nonetheless reveals the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Mariendorf, which is a lesser-known place of worship kept under lock and key due to its Nazi-inspired interior, demonstrating only too well the complicity of the Protestant Church in furthering the Nazis’ hold over the German nation. Even the St. Annen Church in Dahlem, famous for its associations with the Confessing Church, cannot escape the shadow of guilt of its fellow Protestant institutions when counterbalancing its visible, outdoor memorial against racial fanaticism, war and dictatorship with a concealed, indoor display of Doris Pollatschek’s critique of the churches’ ambivalent conduct in the Third Reich: the ‘Triptych for Auschwitz’.

And it is not just Berlin’s churches that have been affected by the parallel need to acknowledge the resistance efforts of some of their members yet, all the while, emphasising their overall ineffectiveness in preventing Nazi crimes and, in some cases, even facilitating them. Physical memorials, too, erected to honour the Confessing Church, have paled in significance against their more prominent counterparts and have been left to decay just like the reputation of the churchmen they were designed to uphold. The plaque erected opposite the ‘Topography of Terror’ at Wilhelmstrasse 36 to commemorate the meeting place of the Protestant resistance movement demonstrates this perfectly. Inconspicuously placed on a graffitied and now boarded-up YMCA building and hardly noticed by the throngs of visitors at the ruins of the SS headquarters nearby, it reflects a paradoxical obligation to remember but also to relativise this contentious aspect of Third Reich history.

By focusing on the Berlin cityscape as a whole, then, my paper seeks to show how the debate over the significance of the Protestant Kirchenkampf (Church Struggle) in the Third Reich has come to be reflected both in patterns of heritagisation and memorialisation. As well as examining the preservation of sites of historical interest, my paper will explore how aspects of Kirchenkampf history have permeated Berlin’s urban landscape, through street names, building dedications and commemorative plaques. It will explore the nature and location of the sites used, and question how in the long term these sites can not only come to shape public perceptions of the history of the Kirchenkampf, but also transmit powerful ideological messages about the value of virtue and morality in modern society.