Review of Sean Brennan, The Politics of Religion in Soviet-Occupied Germany: The Case of Berlin-Brandenburg, 1945-1949

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 18, Number 4 (December 2012)

Review of Sean Brennan, The Politics of Religion in Soviet-Occupied Germany: The Case of Berlin-Brandenburg, 1945-1949 (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 2011), 235 Pp.

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Bowling Green State University

Brennan’s book opens with the question, what was Soviet rule in Germany like? Or, more specifically, what was Soviet policy like with regards to religious issues in the hot spot of Berlin-Brandenburg in the immediate post-WWII environment? Through the examination of the SVAG (Soviet military administration in Germany) and the SED (the Socialist Unity Party of Germany), Brennan’s work seeks to explain how Stalinist religious policies were devised and implemented within the Soviet-controlled zone of Germany. His work reveals the complex and often contradictory approaches that the SVAG and the SED leaders took towards religious policy issues and it contributes to a neglected area of research: that of the Soviet occupation zone, the Soviet’s formation of religious policies, and the role of both the German Catholic and Protestant Churches in reacting to those policies. The Churches, for their part, worked to ensure the continued existence of religion in Germany, while the SVAG and SED leaders were never in doubt that their policies would end “outmoded” religious belief.

Chapter One offers a brief overview of the struggles of both the German Protestant and Catholic Churches under the Nazi dictatorship, documenting Nazi policies on the seizure of church property, youth groups, and charitable organizations. Brennan also shows how leaders in both Churches were divided as to how their organizations should respond to Nazi policies. Likewise, he addresses the mixed approaches of the Nazi regime towards the churches- from outright attempts to eradicate Church influence in Germany to more restrained attacks which sought to limit the Church’s political and social role. In many respects, the SVAG and the SED would follow some of these same approaches in the aftermath of the war.

Perhaps the most divisive issue facing the churches in the Soviet zone in 1945 was the relationship with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). To the SVAG and SED leadership, the churches, in league with the CDU, were a reactionary front whose sole purpose was to prevent the establishment of an anti-fascist German state. Chapters Two and Three examine the connections made between the CDU and the churches and how that relationship was perceived by the SVAG authorities. Colonel Sergei Tiul’panov, leader of the SVAG section that dealt with religious questions, Jakob Kaiser and Andreas Hermes, the two leaders of the CDU in the Soviet zone, all emerge as key players in these chapters.  From 1945 through the fall elections of 1946, Tiul’panov expected (as did many others in the SVAG), that the SED would sweep the elections, and thus, the SVAG authorities primarily sought to limit the political role churches could play, and they waged a propaganda campaign against the CDU’s idea of “Christian Socialism.” Throughout the campaign season, SED leadership stressed through newspaper articles and speeches that the “true Christians” (p.35) would be supportive of an antifascist Germany while implying that voting for the CDU meant pursuing reactionary attitudes found in both the Protestant and Catholic Churches. The CDU, for its part, was particularly successful in stressing that the SED was an atheistic party which could never represent religious Germans’ concerns.  When the votes were counted, the SED had not achieved a majority of votes. Despite the poor showing of the SED in the fall 1946 elections, Brennan’s study of the SVAG and SED correspondence reveals that both the Soviets and their “German friends” were not afraid of the long term influence of the churches and the CDU. In effect, they believed that it was only a matter of time before the democratic transformation of the Soviet zone would go unchallenged.

Chapter Three documents the decline and fall of Jakob Kaiser and an independent CDU. For Tiul’panov, once Kaiser was removed from his leadership position in the CDU, this meant that reactionary clergy would no longer have a political ally. The breaking point that led to Kaiser’s removal as leader of the CDU was the Volkscongress planned for December 1946. Kaiser publically and repeatedly denounced the congress while the SVAG and the SED attacked Kaiser for not supporting the meeting. Tiul’panov met with Kaiser, rebuked him for his “antidemocratic stance,” and removed him from his leadership position. Kaiser was replaced by Otto Nuschke, who abandoned the CDU policy of “Christian Socialism,” and understood that if the CDU was to continue to exist in the Soviet zone, it would have to follow the SED. At this point, church leaders such as Otto Dibelius and Cardinal Konrad von Preysing, began to speak out against the anti-religious policies developing in the Soviet zone. Both Preysing and Dibelius, from late 1947 through 1948, denounced what they perceived as the threat to their religious freedoms. Although Tiul’panov and other SVAG and SED authorities suspected that the forces of conservative reactionaries were working in league together, Brennan effectively demonstrates how church leaders preferred to work independently from CDU leaders when addressing religious issues with the Soviet zonal leaders.

Chapters Four through Six explore the issues of religious education in the school system, youth and women’s organizations, and charitable church-run activities within the Soviet zone.  With respect to the realm of education, the SVAG and SED leaders were absolutely determined to secularize the school system. Yet, from 1945 to 1949, one of the bitterest struggles in the Berlin-Brandenburg area, was over the issue of religion in the school system.  The SVAG and SED authorities had determined that there would be no place in the school system for religion. Only dialectical materialism would be taught in the schools yet, because of complaints by men such as Dibelius and Preysing, an agreement was reached in 1946 regarding religion in the educational system. The compromise of 1946 allowed for religious educational courses to be taught in school buildings, after school hours, with churches having to provide the instructors (as well as pay for their salaries).  In addition, the courses could not be required for students and parental permission was needed for students to attend the courses. Further additions to the compromise included proving that all of the religious teachers had never been members of the Nazi Party. As time progressed, more and more obstacles were placed in the way of the courses actually being taught, denying religious institutions the ability to offer religious education in the schools. To the SED leaders, the schools had to be completely secularized while to Church authorities, the roadblocks they encountered in the realm of religious education only confirmed in their minds that Nazism was being replaced by yet another totalitarian system.

In the area of youth and women’s organizational activities, Soviet authorities assumed that antifascist groups such as the Free German Youth and the Democratic Women’s Federation, would naturally attract a large following. SVAG and SED policies towards religious organizations increased in intensity over the years 1945-49. Escalating from propaganda attacks, to the banning of public meetings to finally arresting and imprisoning the leaders of religious youth and women’s organizations, the SED and SVAG revealed their belief that any religious organization was an impediment to creating a democratic, antifascist Germany modeled on the Soviet Union. Their goal was to render these religious organizations to the margins of German society while still promoting ideas of “religious freedom” in the zone.

In contrast with the SVAG and SED policies to erode the power of youth and women’s religious organizations, Soviet policies toward charitable work of the Churches was quite different. In this area, the churches were left relatively free to engage in charitable activity although the SVAG did create an umbrella organization, Volkssolidarität, which was there to supposedly bring all charitable work into one, coordinated mass effort to bring relief. Brennan notes, however, that within the idea of charitable work, SVAG authorities had differing opinions. For example, in the realm of running orphanages, most SVAG leaders believed they could leave them in the hands of religious institutions while the issue of controlling hospitals elicited the exact opposite reaction from SVAG authorities, who imagined that church-run hospitals were using their powers to coerce their patients into accepting Western imperialism.  Despite the takeover of church-run hospitals, the field of charitable relief was relatively free of the bitter conflict found in other church-state struggles in the Soviet zone.

Throughout all of the battles being waged over the churches’ rights to participate in the Soviet zone of control loomed the larger issue of religious freedom. This idea, that true religious freedom, could and would exist in a socialist society, was at the root of all of these fights. The SVAG and SED authorities engaged in a propaganda campaign which contrasted with the reality of their religious policies. Brennan demonstrates that this attempt to win over German support for a socialist society began long before the war’s end with various Communist Party conferences promising the promotion of religious freedom, however, the reality of the persecution of religion in Stalinist Russia, did much to dissuade Germans from truly believing in the truthfulness of the campaign. Within the Berlin-Brandenburg region of Soviet control, there was an attempt to drive a wedge between the “reactionary” Catholic Church and the “progressive” Protestant denominations, yet there is no evidence that reveals animosity between men such as Dibelius and Preysing. In the end, this religious freedom campaign was abandoned by the SVAG and the SED by 1948.

In the final chapter, Brennan examines why the Allied Religious Affairs Committee (ARAC) failed in its mission to provide a unified religious policy for the four occupation zones of Germany. In many respects ARAC’s inability to recommend a unified religious policy simply serves as a microcosm of the emerging Cold War with the Western Powers agreeing to one strategy while the Soviets pursue a different one. ARAC in particular developed the habit of sending two differing recommendations to higher occupation authorities except when it came to items such as endorsing supplying wine for church services. In most cases, ARAC leaders simply could not arrive at unanimous recommendations, thus revealing that even in the realm of religious issues, a single, unified policy for the divided German zones was impossible.

Brennan’s work is truly a wonderful addition to the field of church-state policy history. His work in Soviet, German, and U.S. archives makes this book a very strong examination of emerging Soviet policies in the earliest days of the Cold War. However, the book is rife with typographical and grammatical errors that often distract the reader from following the argument. For example, “This chapter examines how the experience of religious youth and women’s organizations and so to illuminate power realities in the Soviet zone of Germany,…” (p.102) or, “Much like the DFD or the antifascist women’s committees, the bulletin argued.” (p.110). In addition, simple mistakes such as misspelling author’s names Tischer on p.XXI for Tischner  or Bishop August von Galen, omitting Clemens from the Bishop’s name, (p. 2), distract from the overall effectiveness of Brennan’s persuasive argument. Overall, however, these are minor points that will not interfere with the fascinating study Brennan has produced.