Review of Carsten Linden, Die Bedeutung des Beziehungsgeflechts der Osnabrücker ev.-luth. Pastoren für den Verlauf der Osnabrücker Kirchenpolitik 1907-1936

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 3 (September 2013)

Review of Carsten Linden, Die Bedeutung des Beziehungsgeflechts der Osnabrücker ev.-luth. Pastoren für den Verlauf der Osnabrücker Kirchenpolitik 1907-1936 (Hamburg: Dr. Kovac Verlag, 2012), 2 Vol., 960 Pp.

By Hansjörg Buss, Universität des Saarlandes

Carsten Linden’s work, accepted by the University of Osnabrück as a doctoral thesis in 2012, examines the networks of protestant pastors in the Osnabrück church district in the first third of the twentieth century. As to method, it is based on social network analysis (in the sense that concept is used by German historian Wolfgang Reinhard), attributing to the interpersonal relationship between these pastors great importance in determining issues of church policy (p. 17). Despite some changes in these relationships, there was a lot of continuity: of nine pastors serving their parish in 1910, four still held their ministry in 1936.

 Linden-BedeutungThe work is divided into four “complexes” which Linden has assigned to the years 1907-1910, 1920, 1926-1930 and 1933-1936 respectively. According to the author, these times saw greater changes in inter-pastoral relationships than did the political watersheds of 1914, 1918 and 1933. Linden explains the beginning of the time period considered by referring to comprehensive changes in the churchly life of Osnabrück, especially the increasing passivity of the laymen and therefore the increasing importance of the pastor in the parish. By contrast, why the time period ends in 1936 is not explained. According to the attached short biographies, there was no significant change to church staffing in that year with the exception of Rudolf Detering, who went to Goslar for a better position. However, Linden states at the end that the intensity of the relationships had decreased since 1935, with increasing isolation leading to fewer opportunities for networking or cooperation (p. 793).

 Linden first quickly introduces the history of the Protestant Church in Osnabrück, reaching back into the reformation years in 1542/1543, and explains the standing of local Protestantism in the early twentieth century. He then describes certain main events and conflicts concerning the several chapters, which he analyzes in terms of his chosen method of social network analysis. Examples for the years 1907-1910 are the reorganisation of churchly offices and changes in church staff. For the “complex 1920”, he refers to the public conflicts between the minority of so-called churchly “Positivives” and the majority of liberal pastors. Finally, for the years 1926-1930, he refers to the reorganization of pastoral care in special care institutions, the use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship, and (once again) the staffing of pastoral offices. In the expansive fifth chapter (1933-1936), which forms the main part of the book, Linden provides an overview of the general development of church affairs in the Reich as well as the church of Hannover, before turning to their impact on the Osnabrück church district. Above all, this concerns the formation of religious and church-political groups and the attitude of the church towards the NSDAP and the Nazi state. This is followed by a short review of the position of Osnabrück superintendent Ernst Rolffs, by a survey of conflicts in the Luther-Gemeinde, a newly independent parish, in the years from 1929 to 1933, and finally by the longest sub-chapter (one single section of two hundred pages) on “process and relationship structures” during that time period. In sum, the way the book is structured is unconvincing, a problem that extends down into individual sections. Furthermore, Linden is unable to give a short and concise statement of his results beyond a repetitive and somewhat tiresome recapitulation.

 From this reviewer’s perspective, the main problem is that the method chosen by the author cannot carry the work. It is of course true that group building processes and networks, interpersonal relationships, the enforcement of common interests, and not least personal sympathy or antipathy play an important role in social processes, especially in a more or less clearly defined socio-moral milieu. This is well known from the research of contemporary church history. There is also no doubt that these processes strongly influence decisions and actions. But the very narrow way in which the topic is considered here, exhausting itself in an isolated and decontextualised observation of relevant actors, does not do much to help enlighten the social and historical decision-making processes. The voluminous and detailed description of the historical background does not seem to be linked to the real object of the study, the structure of relationships of protestant pastors of Osnabrück, and remains a mere accessory part. Even the pastors are hardly made tangible beyond their position as actors within a social network, since explanations for their actions are not provided.

 If non-consideration of the existing results of research into social history and history of mentalities is generally a problem of Linden’s work, this is exacerbated by the fact that he does not offer any guidance or orientation, refusing to put his results into context. To give one example, Linden describes in quite some detail the social commitment of liberal pastor Friedrich Grußendorf against the widespread abuse of alcohol, which he convincingly explains as a result of the pastor’s personal experiences (pp. 134-154). But the social function of this ecclesial commitment remains unmentioned, as does its being a part of a romanticized and backward-looking utopia propagated by the church under the popular term of “morality”. This lack of context becomes quite clear in the consideration of the play ‘It will be fine in the end’ (Es wird noch werden gut), penned by Grußendorf and first shown in 1914, on the well-known closure of the mine in neighbouring Piesberg (1898). Grußendorf, in a work containing some anti-catholic undertones, had explained this closure as the result of a strike which in turn was caused by a witch seducing the coal miners with a poisoned drink (i.e. alcohol). Linden does mention contemporary criticism of Grußendorf’s “falsification of history”, but he does not state that the closure was in fact approved by the shareholders simply because the mine was not profitable anymore after several water leaks. But the social significance of the play lies precisely in the fact that it misrepresents a calculated business decision as a necessity caused by (alleged and real) alcohol abuse of the coal miners.

 Such inadequate classifications as well as other assessments which invite questioning can be found throughout the work. For example, the interpretation of a local protest event of the Protestant League against a meeting of the Catholic Church (1901) as motivated “primarily” by the need to express the displeasure of Osnabrück’s liberals with the positivism of the church (i.e. as primarily motivated by intra-protestant reasons) is hardly convincing (pp. 106-108). Another example is the early (September 1917) membership of liberal pastor August Pfannkuche in the German Fatherland Party (Deutsche Vaterlandspartei, DVLP); shortly before the end of the war Pfannkuche even found himself on the national executive committee of the party. Linden describes this engagement as a change in political attitude which “gave more consideration to the interests and ideological motives of the traditional conservative centre, without however formulating a break with the working class” (p. 131). He does so unaffected by the nearly undisputed results in research literature, according to which the function of DVLP was that of a bridge between the conservative right of the German Empire and the extreme and strictly antidemocratic right of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, well-known German historian Ulrich Wehler has characterized the DVLP as the “first right-wing proto-fascist party of the masses”. Such an understanding is absolutely vital in order to define the standing and actions of the Protestant Church in Osnabrück society along with the relationships within the protestant milieu and between pastors.

 The second volume, which deals with the early years of the Nazi state, also suffers from inaccuracies, lack of classification and unlinked narrative threads. This is exacerbated by a failure to consider the research literature on the topic. The big syntheses of Kurt Meier and Klaus Scholder are named, but hardly considered in fact, and numerous recent studies do not find any attention at all. For example, on the issue of the “German Christian Movement,” the standard works of by Kurt Meier, Doris Bergen, Peter von der Osten-Sacken and Manfred Gailus are not considered at all. The same holds true for the issue of “Protestantism, Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism”.

 It should also be mentioned that the author employs a style of writing which this reviewer found quite exhausting. Many sections are full of details, but devoid of structure and largely have the character of a retelling, losing the sense for what’s important. Also, it would have been desirable for the summaries to include more than a repetition of what has already been said, namely a targeted synthesis and, where applicable, a few words on new questions arising from the results. The permanent description of the pastoral relationships with words like “clique”, “prestige”, “activation”, “integration”, “insurance”, “coalition building”, “disturbance”, “resource development”, “weak” and “strong ties” , “in-“ and “outdegrees”, etc. are not only exhausting to read in their almost formal-seeming clustering, they also do not help one gain a better understanding of the relationship structures considered. It seems that a nomenclature is over-used without leading to any new insights, rather ending up in the middle of nowhere.

 This criticism also extends down to the smallest details of the book. In one case, Linden acknowledges a critique, formulated in 1925 by a female social democratic journalist, of a church event with former papal chaplain Bruno Doehring, known for his national-conservative and anti-catholic views and thus controversial even within the Protestant Church, with the following words: “Especially her classification of the sermon as ‘inciting the people to hatred’ was hardly suitable to begin an open-minded communication with the Osnabrück pastors” (p. 293). This fails entirely to consider the relationship between the Protestant Church and the Social Democrats, or the anti-democratic, largely nationalist and revanchist actions of prominent representatives of German Protestantism, of which Doehring was a very eloquent example. Doehring’s public appearances were no more likely to foster an “open-minded conversation” than was the coverage in the social democratic press. Indeed, neither party intended to have an “open-minded communication,” something Linden does not seem to recognize.

 Elsewhere, one wonders whether certain formulations can be considered appropriate. For instance, Linden refers to Osnabrück pastor Paul Leo, who was forced into retirement by the church in 1938, was later incarcerated in Buchenwald and finally emigrated from Germany, as a “Jew” rather than as a baptized “non-Aryan” (this is still the most correct terminology), despite being aware of the importance of this difference (p. 822, 866). To give one last example, after the spate of arrests in March 1935 (at the very latest), large parts of the Protestant Church, especially in and around the Confessing Church, no longer held any illusions about the Gestapo. For many pastors, even beyond the borders of the churches of the Old Prussian Union, sometimes existential experiences and a variety of pressures would follow, to which they reacted with a variety of strategies. The author’s formulation that Osnabrück’s pastors tried, by way of “anticipatory good conduct”, to “reduce to a minimum” acts by the Gestapo (p. 810) does not do justice to this situation.

 In sum, the present reviewer can find hardly anything positive in the work under review. The author has conducted intensive and meticulous research into the historical sources and he introduces many new people and events from local church history, but he does not succeed in binding his results together into a well-thought-out whole. Because he refrains from classifying his results or comparing them to others, his study floats in a vacuum and raises more questions rather than it answers. Certainly, the work did nothing to dispel this reviewer’s general doubts whether social network analysis is suitable for furthering historical research.