Conference Report: “Resistance Revisited and Re-questioned: Church and Society in Scandinavia and Europe”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 1 (March 2015)

Conference Report: “Resistance Revisited and Re-questioned: Church and Society in Scandinavia and Europe”

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University

A conference hosted by the Royal Academy of Literature, History, and Antiquities met in Stockholm on September 18-19, 2014, focusing on the topic of church resistance to an unjust state. Professor Anders Jarlert of the University of Lund served as organizer and host. This conference also coincided with the annual meeting of the Board of Editors of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, with the papers expected to appear in that journal in the fall of 2015.

A total of nine presentations looked broadly at the question of church resistance, especially against the Nazi state, and then focused more narrowly on Scandinavian responses to that regime. The first paper, presented by Gerhard Besier of Dresden, described the difficulty of assuming that Christian morality and resistance to the Nazi regime were naturally congruent. Though this idea dominated early postwar church historiography, and though it remains a default position for some even today, scholarship in recent decades has complicated that picture. While some Christians in Germany resisted the Nazi state and considered this a natural outcome of their religious faith, others attributed support for the Nazi state to their Christian beliefs. Hitler’s frequent references to “Providence,” for example, were designed to nurture such a connection. Besier advised against attempting to ascribe resistance to entire confessional groups or theological stances. Rather, one must consider individual circumstances and motivations as locate and interpret actual examples of resistance. Robert Ericksen of Tacoma, WA, stressed the importance of recognizing the widespread postwar condemnation of Nazi crimes and the nearly total loss of respect for the Nazi state as we try to assess church resistance to that state. Christians in Germany and their co-religionists abroad were eager to separate Christian values from Nazi crimes, with the result that the complex story of Christian behavior in Nazi Germany tended to get distorted. As we now ponder the reality of Church responses to the Nazi state, we recognize that resistance was hardly widespread. Ericksen also stressed the importance of acknowledging national identity and national experience in our analyses. We should not expect to find a typical “Christian” response to Hitler across national borders. It was far easier for patriotic Christians in Scandinavia, for example, to question and oppose Nazi policies than for patriotic Germans to contemplate treason against their own national government.

Katarzyna Stoklosa of Sønderborg, DK, mirrored Ericksen’s concern about the importance of national borders and national perspectives. Studying churches in Eastern Europe under communism, she has found no simple relationship between Christian faith and political resistance. For example, when Germans started to flee the GDR toward Poland, the Polish Catholic Church provided shelter and assistance. By contrast, the Reformed Church of Hungary did not, almost certainly due to its greater willingness to support the communist views of the national government. Recent events in Ukraine, according to Stoklosa, show a similar divide. The Greek Orthodox Church has shown sympathy toward the demonstrators who eventually produced the present government in Kiev. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, on the other hand, has tended to follow the Russian line, condemning the new government in Kiev. In none of these examples does one find a simple Christian stance in terms of values and politics. Andrea Varriale of Weimar presented the final paper within this broad focus on Christian resistance. Examining the Italian resistance during World War II, he described a postwar tendency to create an image of resistance unified in values and in class consciousness. A closer look, however, shows internal conflict within the Italian resistance and disagreements on the question of values. Varriale argued that popular culture, especially film, proved willing to acknowledge these internal conflicts more readily than professional historians.

The balance of this conference devoted itself to Christian responses to the Nazi presence in wartime Scandinavia. This too presented a varied picture. Palle Roslyng-Jensen of Copenhagen described a complicated response within Denmark, and a response that conflicts somewhat with Denmark’s positive reputation for its rescue of Jews in the fall of 1943. The complication began upon the German invasion, when the occupiers provided both the Danish government and the Danish Church a good deal of autonomy. This resulted, naturally, in a careful avoidance of harsh criticism toward German policies, for fear that the benefits of considerable normality in Danish life would be undercut by a clear critique of Nazi attitudes and policies. Beneath this official layer of Danish society, however, local pastors and laypeople grew increasingly critical of the Nazi occupation, based upon their pride in Danish attitudes and values and leading, among other things, to their defense of Danish Jews. In this case, a Danish population homogeneous in ethnicity and religion, still divided to a considerable extent on the question of cooperation with or resistance against Nazi Germans. Svante Lundgren of Lund described the case of Finland, allied with Germany for much of the war. The Lutheran Church in Finland worked to protect its flock and its prerogatives within this setting, including some resistance against the Nazi ideology. However, Lundgren described a small group of 150 Jewish refugees in Finland who failed to receive support or assistance from that church. Anders Jarlert of Lund also dealt with a nation never under direct German occupation. Swedish neutrality, however, did involve many connections with Germany that could prove complicated. Jarlert described how the Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 could create problems in cases of intermarriage between Swedes and Germans. The response of the Swedish Lutheran Church was marked more by bureaucratic muddling and uncertainty than by a moral defense of Swedish citizens of Jewish descent.

Roslyng-Jensen’s paper on Denmark had already identified the Norwegian example as a model to Danes of a more heroic way to respond to Nazi occupation. Torleiv Austad of Oslo then presented that story, a story much less marked by the ecclesiastical vacillation found in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The Norwegian government, taken over by Vidkun Quisling with German backing, was of course a willing puppet of the Nazi occupation. The Norwegian Lutheran Church, however, resisted the Nazi hope that this official institution would become a counterpart to the sycophantic Quisling government. Bishop Berggrav and clergy throughout Norway risked their comfortable and safe positions by taking up resistance. This included a pastoral letter read in churches in early 1941 in support of justice and human rights. Then, in February 1942, seven bishops resigned, with 93 percent of the clergy following that example and resigning their positions on Easter that spring. Bishop Berggrav prepared the ground for these responses by taking on Romans 13 and the standard Lutheran belief in obedience to state authority. In a paper of 1941, “When the Driver is Out of His Mind: Luther on the Duty of Disobedience,” Berggrav established a theological basis for resistance. The Norwegian Lutheran Church then produced a document for Easter 1942, “The Foundation of the Church: A Confession and a Declaration,” clarifying a doctrine of the two kingdoms that could allow for resistance to state authority. This statement included these words: “As long as the above mentioned conditions exist … the church and its servants must live and act in accord with their pledge to God’s Word and their Confession and accept all the consequences that may follow from that.” That statement marked the day when Norwegian bishops and clergy resigned their positions rather than collaborate with the German occupation.

This conference concluded with a visit to the lovely Sigtuna Foundation buildings and grounds outside Stockholm, allowing those present to appreciate the setting where Dietrich Bonhoeffer met Bishop George Bell in his effort to secure British support for the German resistance as it attempted to overthrow Hitler.