Article Note: Luke Fenwick, “The Protestant Churches in Saxony-Anhalt in the Shadow of the German Christian Movement and National Socialism, 1945-1949”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 3 (September 2014)

Article Note: Luke Fenwick, “The Protestant Churches in Saxony-Anhalt in the Shadow of the German Christian Movement and National Socialism, 1945-1949,” Church History 82, no. 4 (December 2013): 877-903.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

In the years immediately following the Second World War, the denazification of the German churches exhibited many of the same shortcomings as denazification in the broader society.  Church leaders rarely acknowledged the complicity of their institutions during the Third Reich, and many former supporters of Nazism remained in positions of authority in the postwar era.  The broad contours of this story are well-known, but there is still a need for further research on regional and local variations, and this is where Luke Fenwick’s article makes an important contribution.  His close analysis of the postwar “self-purification” of two regional Protestant churches in Saxony-Anhalt reveals diverse motives and priorities among key players as well as the continuation of the “church struggle” under new circumstances.

In his analysis of the Church Province of Saxony, Fenwick notes that in 1946, 170 of the approximately 1400 pastors and other church employees were former members of the German Christian Movement or the Nazi Party.  The regional church administration dismissed only four of these pastors, while four others were placed on probation, six were transferred, and ninety were encouraged to participate in re-education seminars.  Not surprisingly, state authorities found these measures to be insufficient.  However, religious leaders insisted that the Church Province had been a bastion of resistance against Nazism, the state had no right to interfere in church affairs, and church policy had to be oriented around forgiveness rather than vengeance.  Fenwick argues that an additional, unacknowledged motive was simply the need to maintain adequate staffing at the parish level.

The State Church of Anhalt had a different history and followed a slightly different path forward.  About half of the pastors in this regional church had belonged to the most radical faction within the German Christian Movement.  The postwar church administration established a commission to determine which of those clergy had been “activists” and which had been purely “nominal” affiliates, and by May 1946 it had dismissed ten pastors and transferred six others.  In addition to mandatory re-education for former members of the German Christian Movement, church authorities required individual declarations of repentance from those who hoped to remain in office.  Overall, denazification in Anhalt was as lenient as in the Church Province of Saxony, yet in this case state authorities expressed their approval rather than their displeasure, because they had been consulted throughout the process.

Fenwick draws a number of important conclusions from his study of these two regional churches.  He confirms for the Soviet zone what Doris Bergen (Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich)found to be true in the American zone—that a more accurate description of clerical denazification would be “de-German-Christianization.”  Though both regional churches were now controlled by former Confessing Church members, these postwar leaders were willing to leave former German Christians in office for the sake of church unity, pastoral care and evangelization—so long as they submitted to the new church regime and its theology.  However, church unity was elusive.  On the one hand, Confessing Church pastors complained that former German Christians were still in the pulpit.  Some also invoked their Confessing Church credentials to gain advantage when competing for positions or when in conflict with other clergy.  On the other hand, ordinary parishioners were inclined to protest the dismissal or transfer of clergy, for personal rapport often mattered more to them than whether their pastor had supported the German Christian Movement.

Fenwick’s article focuses primarily on the highest levels of authority in the two regional churches, but some of the most provocative illustrations revolve around individual pastors and their parishioners.  For example, we see Pastor Erich Elster (Dessau-Ziebigk) explain his former affiliation with the German Christians in such a way as to satisfy the Anhalt church council, and we see Pastor K. at the church of St. Martin continue to preach nationalistic sermons and use the German Christian hymn book until he is transferred in 1946 (much to the dismay of his congregation).  The local particularities and variations revealed by such examples suggest that additional research on denazification at the parish level would yield important insights.