Review of Akten deutscher Bischöfe seit 1945, Kommission für Zeitgeschichte

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 2 (June 2013)

Review of Akten deutscher Bischöfe seit 1945, Kommission für Zeitgeschichte

Ulrich Helbach (Bearbeitet), Akten deutscher Bischöfe seit 1945: Westliche Besatzungszonen, 1945 – 1947, I (Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag, 2012), 764 pp.

Ulrich Helbach (Bearbeitet), Akten deutscher Bischöfe seit 1945: Westliche Besatzungzonen, 1945 – 1947, II (Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag, 2012),  pp. 765- 1495.

Annette Mertens (Bearbeitet), Akten deutscher Bischöfe seit 1945: Westliche Besatzungszonen und Gründung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1948/1949 (Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag, 2010), 901 pp.

By Mark Edward Ruff, St. Louis University

By any measure, these three volumes, Documents of the German Bishops since 1945, represent a massive achievement. Spanning the years 1945 to 1949, these collections of primary-source materials from the three western zones of occupation in Germany appear in the highly-regarded documentary editions of the  “Blue Series” put out by the German Catholic historical association, die Kommission für Zeitgeschichte (or Association of Contemporary History.) These volumes are integral parts in a new seven-volume documentary series for the postwar era, for which two additional volumes, including a separate volume for the Soviet occupation, will appear  in the coming years. These seven volumes represent the continuation of a series of documentary editions begun in 1968 by the researcher Bernhard Stasiewski and carried through to the year 1945 by the historian Ludwig Volk, SJ, in 1985.

Helbach-AktenThe research behind these editions is tremendous. These three tomes collectively occupy approximately 2400 pages and bring together nearly 725 documents from more than fifty archives, including more than 40 church archives in Germany, German state archives, private papers and two archives from the United States.  Before making their final selections, the archivists and research teams assisting them had to wade through thousands of folders of documents and pre-select more than two thousand documents for possible inclusion. The documents themselves include correspondence and addresses not only in German but also in English, French and Latin, as the bishops were in regular correspondence with occupation officials from the Western Allies and the Vatican.  Fortunately, the two editors, Dr. Ulrich Helbach, the director of the archive for the archdiocese of Cologne, and Dr. Annette Mertens of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, ensured that adept translations into German were provided for the foreign documents.

This brief description should make clear that these three volumes are far more than a simple compendium of documents hastily slapped together. The editors intended these to provide not just a launching pad but a sure-proof foundation for significant research into the Roman Catholic Church’s past in the immediate postwar era. Helbach’s two volumes resemble a biblical concordance thanks to his cross-references to other documents, short biographical sketches of the documents’ authors and subjects, descriptions of these documents’ origins and discussions of other versions of individual letters.

These three volumes overflow with primary-source material because the Roman Catholic Church arguably reached the zenith of its political power and influence in the immediate postwar years. At a time when other political authorities had collapsed, both churches emerged as mouthpieces for the defeated German nations and regular negotiators with the Western Allies over charged questions of refugees, prisoners of war, food rations, war trials, denazification and educational reform. Dozens of these documents testify to the sometimes cordial but more often than not rancorous discussions over these subjects; many were resolved in a manner not always to the church’s immediate liking but to its ultimate and long-term favor.

At the same time, these documents also shed light into the process of reconstruction both on the ecclesiastical and national level. They show how church leaders approached the rebuilding of churches, ancillary organizations dissolved by the Nazis, political parties, including the CDU, CSU and the Center Party. Few of these efforts at rebuilding proceeded without conflict. In some cases, they summoned up intra-denominational rifts and tensions dating back to the Weimar era. In other cases, they led to feuds with leaders from ideologically hostile political parties, including the Social Democratic Party, the liberals and the Communists. Debates over the confessional nature of the public school system and the validity of the Reichskonkordat on the floors of the Parliamentary Council meeting in Bonn between September 1948 and May 1949 underscored just how contested the political agenda of the church could be. Its efforts to enshrine into the new West German constitution guaranteeing parents the rights to send their children to schools segregated confessionally (at least in theory) foundered on the opposition of the liberals, Communists and socialists. Mertens accordingly makes the Roman Catholic contributions to the West German Basic Law a chief focus, with all of the messiness, wrangling and politicking that the work on this constitution entailed.

To their credit, the editors make no effort to whitewash the past. They include voices critical of the church as well as documents that do not always present church leaders at their finest.  Helbach, for instance, included one English-language report found in the papers of John Riedl at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Riedl was an American occupation official who interviewed four of the German bishops, including Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn, Bishop Johannes Dietz of Fulda and Bishop Albert Stohr of Mainz, during the meeting of the Fulda Bishops Conference between August 19 and 21, 1947.  His fellow occupation official, Richard G. Akselrad, asked for their response to a critical article by Eugen Kogon in the Frankfurter Hefte, the journal Kogon co-edited with Walter Dirks.  Kogon  argued that the German church leaders, “should have defended their stand during the Third Reich with more courage and determination.” Kogon was a concentration camp survivor, and Stohr attempted to diminish Kogon’s witness by casting doubt on the motives of many concentration camp inmates. Few were genuine martyrs, he argued: “Many of them were thrown in concentration camps against their will as a result of indirect utterances and secret actions. Also, many of them became victims of their own imprudence and rashness which have nothing to do with courage. I am far from counting Dr. Kogon among the latter. I know him personally very well and value him highly as a courageous and true Catholic. But I have the impression that this article is the expression of a concentration camp psychosis which had not remained without influence even on such a sharp and analytic mind as Dr. Kogon’s.”

In sum, these volumes are a must-have for any serious research library. They come with a staggering price-tag–216 Euro alone for Helbach’s two volumes and 138 Euros for Merten’s work–but they are an investment worth making for any university library. They provide neither an apology nor a denunciation of the church’s conduct in the immediate postwar era. Rather, they serve as a meticulous and indispensable foundation for rigorous scholarship.