Review of Steven M. Schroeder, To Forget It All and Begin Anew: Reconciliation in Occupied Germany, 1944-1954

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 4 (December 2013)

Review of Steven M. Schroeder, To Forget It All and Begin Anew: Reconciliation in Occupied Germany, 1944-1954 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 237 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4426-1399-7.

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

In To Forget It All and Begin Anew: Reconciliation in Occupied Germany, 1944-1954, Steven Schroeder provides a lucid account of the grassroots efforts of Germans from 1944 to 1954 to foster reconciliation with the former victims and enemies of Nazi Germany. Although the reconciliatory activities of these rather marginal grassroots figures in the churches, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other groups were not broadly endorsed by Germans and had little direct impact on the major geopolitical questions of the day, Schroeder maintains that they were surprisingly successful in overcoming the seemingly insurmountable barriers to reconciliation. More often than not the success was due to the willingness of the victims of Nazi aggression to take the first step in the reconciliation process by extending an invitation to Germans to begin a dialogue. It also helped to have the support of one or more of the Allies.

SchroederToForgetUnlike most of the studies of postwar Germany that focus on the origins of the Cold War and high stakes political maneuvering of the Allies, Schroeder takes a bottom-up approach that illuminates the less conspicuous reconciliation work of German groups such as the Association of the Victim of Nazism (VVN) and religiously-affiliated international groups such as International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), Moral Re-Armament (MRA), Pax Chrisiti, the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), and the World Council of Churches (WCC). His study compares and contrasts reconciliation, defined as “the establishment of peaceful – or at least non-hostile – relations between former enemies” in the four zones of occupation in the immediate postwar years and in East and West Germany after 1949.

The book’s title as well as the epigraph by Victor Gollancz, “For what matters is not a man’s motive but any practical result that may follow from his work,” makes clear that Schroeder does not believe that the success of German efforts at reconciliation were primarily the result of German altruism or good will. In most cases, reconciliatory work by Germans was calculated to placate the Allies by demonstrating that Germans had learned their lesson, wanted to contribute to postwar stability, and were ready to govern themselves. Schroeder refers to this as “pragmatic reconciliation” because the motive was not altruism but rather self-interest, particularly the desire to move on from the Nazi past.

During the first stage of reconciliation from 1944 to 1947 pragmatic reconciliation dominated. The Allied policies of non-fraternization, expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe, and de-Nazification treated Germans like pariahs, focusing on punishment and forced democratization. Allied policies did little to engender genuine feelings of contrition among a mostly unrepentant population. Reparation policies imposed by the Allies were another sore spot for many Germans, who were focused on their own needs.

Hans Asmussen, a Lutheran churchman and head of Protestant Church Chancellery, serves as Schroeder’s prototype of this type of pragmatic reconciliation. A central player in the Confessing Church’s struggle against the Nazis and their supporters in the churches from 1933 to 1945, Asmussen resented deeply the severity of Allied postwar policies, especially the Allies’ persistent efforts to compel Germans to atone for their Nazi past. Like so many of his countrymen, Asmussen believed that most Germans were not only innocent of Nazi crimes but were, in fact, victims of the Nazis and thus did not deserve to be bullied by the occupation authorities. In a January 1946 letter to the Allied Control Council he bemoaned that the world would not allow Germans “to forget it all and begin anew.” Instead the Allies insisted that Germans acknowledge their responsibility, accept their punishment, and engage in reconciliatory activities. Asmussen regretted this state of affairs but conceded that Germans had no choice but to appease the Allies.

The priority of the German churches in the immediate postwar years was to provide material and spiritual relief for their worshippers. To this end, the Protestant and Catholic churches created relief agencies in 1945 that offered food, shelter, and clothing to gentile Germans suffering from deprivations caused by the loss of the war and Allied postwar policies. Leaders of these agencies were willing to extend their aid to Christians of Jewish descent but not to Jews. Schroeder believes that these agencies and others like them contributed to interpretations of the Nazi past that ignored German responsibility for the plight of Jews in the postwar years.

Christian-Jewish reconciliation was rare indeed but not entirely absent. Pastors for the most part ignored Jewish suffering or if they had contact with Jews at all it was in an effort to convert them. There were exceptions such as Gertrud Luckner and Karl Thieme in the Catholic Church and Ernst Lichtenstein and Otto von Harling in the Protestant Church, who made significant strides in building bridges to the Jewish community and in bringing to light Christian anti-Judaism and its ties to modern anti-Semitism. The Western Allies played an important role in encouraging German participation in Christian-Jewish cooperation. Between 1948 and 1953 the American Religious Affairs Branch helped to establish thirteen Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation. The response by German Jews was understandably suspicious at first but they warmed up to the idea when they realized that their Christian counterparts were not interested in proselytizing but rather were serious about eradicating anti-Semitism in the churches and society at large. Prominent German Jews such as Benno Ostertag, Alfred Mayer, Hans-Joachim Schoeps, and Norbert Wollheim participated actively. Schroeder argues that the societies successfully launched Christian-Jewish reconciliatory work into the public sphere in West Germany, where it became part of the official agenda in 1949 when president Theodore Heuss called on Germans to take responsibility for Germany’s crimes against the Jewish people.

In Stalinist East Germany reconciliation efforts had little chance of getting off the ground if they didn’t coincide with the political interests of the Soviet Union.  The Association of the Victims of Nazism (VVN), the most active group in the East, advocated for reparations, including lump sums of money, food, clothing, and shelter, for Nazi victims. But in keeping with Communist ideology, VVN was concerned primarily with compensating those who had politically resisted the Nazis. Marginalized in the group’s discussions as “second-class victims,” Jews were forced to seek assistance from international Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Schroeder believes that although VVN and other groups operating in the Soviet zone were mostly fronts for Communist power, they did serve the reconciliation process in their own small way by bringing attention to Nazi crimes.

When the initiative for reconciliation came from non-Germans, often former enemies or victims, or from international organizations with religious affiliations, German participation tended to be more genuine and less forced. But as Schroeder points out “the effectiveness of all the organizations depended on their ideological alignment with the guiding politics in their sphere of operation” (98). The pacifist organization International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), founded by the British Quaker Henry Hodgkin and German Protestant Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze in 1914, opened three chapters in Germany in 1948. Although the German chapters had several dedicated members committed to a religiously based reconciliation, their influence was not terribly significant. The World Council of Churches (WCC) also reached out to German Protestants after the war and sought to incorporate Germans into the growing ecumenical movement. German Protestants reacted warmly to this initiative with their famous Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in 1945 and participated in all of the postwar meetings of the WCC. Christian ecumenism was certainly a significant tool for breaking down old animosities but alone was only a partial answer. The Catholic movement Pax Christi had more success in West Germany than either IFOR or the WCC because its political affiliation was more in line with the western Allies. Although Pax Christi was a pacifist organization it was also decidedly anti-Communist and it focused on a central goal of the Allies, Franco-German reconciliation. German Catholics found Pax Christi attractive because its leader, the French Bishop Théas, did not focus on the Nazi past and encouraged French and German Catholics to focus on deepening personal piety and fostering international solidarity.

The most successful of the Christian-based international organizations was Moral Re-Armament (MRA). MRA strove for the moral rehabilitation of all Europeans, the advancement of Christian Democracy, and countering the spread of Communism. Schroeder believes that the Allie’s encouragement of MRA work was crucial to its success and coincided with the shift in U.S. foreign policy towards aggressively confronting the Soviet Union and containing Communism. MRA was particularly active in pursuing Franco-German reconciliation and even helped to arrange some of the early meetings between the German chancellor and French foreign minister that eventually led to the Schuman Plan of September 1950. Both Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman credited MRA with having done the groundwork that led to peaceful relations between the two countries.

With the exception of the Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation, none of the above-mentioned groups focused on reconciliation with Jews. German politicians and church leaders showed very little leadership when it came to Jewish reconciliation work. It was left to Jewish groups in Germany and abroad as well as the state of Israel to pressure the German government to recognize Germany’s responsibility to compensate Jewish victims of Nazism. Political pragmatism, Schroeder believes, more than anything else led to the West German government’s 1952 reparations agreement with Israel, in which the Federal Republic agreed to pay Israel for the persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime and to compensate for Jewish property that was stolen. Politics also explains why the East Germans refused to pay reparations to Jewish victims.

By examining the grassroots reconciliatory efforts of Germans during the decade following the end of the Second World War, Schroeder’s book offers a fresh approach to studying the period. His extensive archival digging has also yielded valuable new information about a number of the groups and individuals engaged in forging better relationships between German and her former enemies. The central thesis of the book, that reconciliation work pursued out of self-interest or compulsion could be as successful as altruistic acts of reconciliation, is counter-intuitive but Schroeder argues it persuasively and defends it with ample evidence.