Journal Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History 27, issue 2 (2014)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 1 (March 2015)

Journal Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History 27, issue 2 (2014)

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

The latest issue of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History (Volume 27, Issue 2, 2014. See is devoted largely to the publication of papers presented at the conference “Myths – National Borders – Religions,” held at the Akademie Sankelmark, Flensburg, Germany, in September 2014. Several articles will be of interest to our readers.

In “Myths of Religious Reconciliation,” Andrea Strübind of the Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg explores the aftermath of the 1965 reconciliation ceremony in which Roman Catholic Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras mutually revoked the excommunications of their predecessors. Through this act of “brotherly love,” the Great Schism of 1054 was to have been set aside. Strübund asks the important question of whether this event had any actual historical influence on the church-political relations between the two churches. Simply put, did it lead to greater unity? In her analysis, she finds that there was little theological consciousness of the events of 1965 in either church, and she notes that tensions even increased after 1989, when the two churches found themselves in competition with one another in post-communist Eastern Europe. In fact, in its year 2000 declaration “Dominus Iesus,” the Roman Catholic Church reiterated its self-understanding as the “mother church,” while Greek metropolitans recently signed a profession of faith in which Roman Catholicism is described as the “womb of heresies and fallacies” (p. 253-254). In other words, the 1965 gesture was a singular event which Strübind interprets as a reconciliation myth, just as the 1999 joint declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation seems to be turning out to be (p. 255).

Anders Jarlert of Lund University has written an interesting article entitled “The Myth of Sweden as a peace-power state and its religious motivations.” In it he explores the history of Sweden’s self-identification as a peace-power state, an identity taken up forcefully by Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of Uppsala during his years of service from 1904 to 1931. Söderblom himself and Sweden more generally were to be mediators between churches and even states during and after the First World War. Söderblom understood “Sweden’s task and position as a God-given vocation” (p. 258). During the Second World War, however, Sweden was largely unable to use its neutrality for any purpose other than to stay out of the fighting, save that the country served as a site for international meetings and that Swedes took in the roughly 7000 Danish Jews rescued during the Holocaust (p. 259). Instead, a series of Swedish “modern martyrs for peace” (Count Folke Bernadotte, Dag Hammarskjöld, Raoul Wallenberg, Olaf Palme and Anna Lindh) served as heroes and “secular saviours,” becoming in the process the new basis for Sweden’s ongoing self-understanding as a country of peace and justice.

In his article “Norwegian National Myths and Nation Building,” Dag Thorkildsen of the University of Oslo explores the role of national religion in Norwegian identity. He describes the creation of the Norwegian national myth as a “secular salvation history” mimicking the story of ancient Israel, complete with migration story, founding myth, golden age, period of inner decay, and promise of regeneration (p. 269). Along the way he explains how both the cult of St. Olaf in Trondheim and the Cathedral of Nidaros have become components of Norwegian national identity.

Along similar lines, Inge Adriansen of the Museum Sønderjylland in Sønderborg, Denmark, analyzes the national-religious myth of Dannebrog (the Danish flag) in her article “The Danish national flag as a gift from God.” Formerly a symbol of the Danish monarchy, in the course of the nineteenth century Dannebrog was adopted by middle class Danes as a national symbol. According to tradition, the flag saved Danish King Valdemar II “the Victorious” during the 1219 crusade against heathen Estonians. As the Danish archbishop knelt in prayer for flagging Danish troops, Dannebrog floated down from heaven into his arms as a gift from God. Not surprisingly, the battle turned and the Danes were victorious (p. 277-278). As Adriansen points out, this Dannebrog myth is very like other ancient and medieval myths of flags and crosses in the sky leading to miraculous military victories (p. 279). She goes on to explain how Dannebrog became woven into Danish national identity, in school textbooks, as a royal and military symbol, as the people’s flag, in art and poetry, and on Valdemar’s Day—a civil-religious flag day. Two interesting aspects of Adriansen’s article are the special role of the flag in the Danish-German border region and as a tool for recruitment during the Second World War.

Kyle Jantzen of Ambrose University in Calgary, Canada, explores the relationship between German Protestantism, traditional religious nationalism, military patriotism, and National Socialism, in the construction of the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin-Mariendorf between 1933 and 1935. One of over 900 churches constructed or renovated during the Nazi era, the Martin Luther Memorial Church contained physical elements which fused Nazi, nationalist, and Christian ideology, including a crucifix portraying Jesus as an Aryan hero, a baptismal font ennobling the ideal Nazi family type, a pulpit depicting the Sermon on the Mount as an expression of the Nazi ideal of Volksgemeinschaft, and a triumphal arch comprised of ornamental tiles which included Christian, cultural, and National Socialist symbols. In analyzing the process by which this church was constructed, Jantzen finds that it was the product of a collaborative and largely local decision-making process that demonstrated the penetration of Nazi values into German Protestantism and the eagerness of German Protestants to work with the new Nazi state, from which they sensed little, if any, hostility.

In “Legendary Martyr: Maximilian Kolbe,” Christian Pletzing of the Akademie Sankelmark in Flensburg, Germany, has written a fascinating assessment of the problematic legacy of this Roman Catholic priest, editor, monastery director, and martyr. Kolbe is most famous for offering to take the place of a Polish family man sentenced to death in Auschwitz, in reprisal for an escape from the camp. In dying this way, Kolbe became “Poland’s martyr” (p. 365). He was subsequently beatified in 1971 as a “flower of Polish Catholic religiosity” and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982 (p. 366). It would be hard to overstate the symbolic importance Kolbe came to hold in Poland. He was “an essential link between Poland’s national and religious identities;” the nexus of Catholic pilgrimage to and understanding of Auschwitz; the inspiration for the naming of well over a hundred churches, chapels, altars or other memorial sites; the symbol of resistance to dictatorship adopted by the Solidarity labour movement; and a general spiritual emblem of the vindication of death by sacrifice and the conquering of hate through brotherly love (p. 366-368).

Lost in this appropriation of Kolbe’s heroic act of martyrdom was the fact that his career as writer and editor for two papers, the monthly Rycerz Niepokalanej (Knight of the Immaculate) and the Catholic tabloid Mały Dziennik (Small Newspaper), included numerous antisemitic articles. Under Kolbe’s editorial watch, these papers portrayed Jews as “Poland’s cancerous ulcers” and “a threat to the Polish state.” He himself wrote an article in which he “accused the Jews of striving for world domination.” Other articles warned of Jewish conspiracy, noted the economic rivalry between Jews and Catholics in Poland, described Jews as “vermin” and called for a boycott of Jewish shops (p. 370). This legacy is counterbalanced somewhat by the fact that Kolbe’s monastery took in 1500 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Still, “most of the biographies and collections on the lives of saints about Maximilian Kolbe published in Catholic publishing companies essentially conceal his anti-Semitic publishing activities,” even as they highlight positive contributions he made as a publisher (p. 370-371). Pletzing also explains how Kolbe grew to become a symbol of German-Polish understanding, particularly in the years after 1971.

Finally, Katarzyna Stokłosa’s article, “Nationalism and the Church in the German-Polish border region after World War II,” explains the nature of the compulsory integration of the northern and western regions of Poland regained in the settlement of the Second World War. She describes a strongly nationalistic policy of Polonisation amounting to the “comprehensive destruction of all evidence of foreign elements that were reminiscent of the German era” (p. 375). This affected all manner of objects, including “pictures, maps, ash trays, plates, packaging, graves, crosses on the roadside, chapels, churches, religious images, etc.” in every kind of public space, including schools.(p. 375). Stokłosa demonstrates how the Roman Catholic Church played an important role in integrating these new territories into the rest of Poland. Indeed, “the Polish Catholic Church belonged to the strictest anti-German forces as it aimed to extinguish all remnants of German-ness in the new western and northern areas” (p. 381). The German language was forbidden for masses, in religious education, and at the cemeteries. Poles replaced Germans as parish priests, and the position of even Polish Protestants was so tenuous that many converted. In ways like these, the Polish Catholic Church played an important role in the Polonisation process of the post-war era.