Letter from the Editors (December 2016)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Letter from the Editors (December 2016)

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Greetings friends,

Chichester Cathedral Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chichester_Cathedral,_south-west_aspect.jpg)

In this Advent season, we are pleased to offer you a new issue of Contemporary Church History Quarterly. Our December issue features two reviews of books relating to Bishop George Bell of Chichester, highlighting his efforts on behalf of the ecumenical movement and his role as intermediary between the German Resistance. In the latter work, his contact was, famously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though Bell had already received much of the information Bonhoeffer would provide from the German Pastor Hans Schönfeld of the International Christian Social Institute in Geneva, who had also met Bell in Sweden, a few days before the Bell-Bonhoeffer encounter.

We are also happy to report on some current research relating to the religious history of the Nazi period and, more broadly, the twentieth century. Members of the editorial team and guest contributors have provided information about papers given at five conferences or symposia held in Europe and North America over the course of the summer and fall.

We trust that you will find these enlightening, and wish you a merry Christmas and happy new year.

On behalf of the entire editorial team,

Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University


Review of Andrew Chandler, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Review of Andrew Chandler, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), Pp. xii + 212, ISBN: 9780802872272.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship, Andrew Chandler grapples with the ecumenical and political legacy of this influential bishop. Beginning with a description of the eclectic contents of one of Bell’s little blue notebooks, Chandler explains how it “captures a mind and a soul in perpetual motion in the world: attentive, enquiring, pursuing. It is a testament of Christian life in the middle twentieth century, wrought out of the turmoil of politics, war, persecution, calamity. It is a proof of one man’s decision to take his place in such a world, and to do so as a faithful Christian” (4).

George Bell was born in 1883 on the south coast of England, into a “secure, comfortable middle-class clerical home” (7). He attended Westminster School beginning in 1896, then Christ Church, Oxford, in 1901. Next he enrolled in theological college in Wells, in the West of England, where he was introduced to the student ecumenical movement and to Christian Socialism. Ordained as a deacon in Ripon Cathedral in 1907 and as a priest in Leeds in 1908, Bell returned to Oxford in 1910, where he combined a growing commitment to social justice with a vibrant personal faith. As he explained, “Christianity is a life before it is a system and to lay too much stress on the system destroys the life” (12).

After this overview of Bell’s formative years, Chandler breaks Bell’s ecclesiastical career into a series of chronological chapters which revolve around his positions and causes. Chandler begins with Bell’s time as domestic chaplain to Archbishop Randall Davidson of Canterbury (1914-1924), as dean of Canterbury (1924-1929), and as the newly appointed bishop of Chichester (1929-1932). From there the author examines Bell in his various roles as an interested observer and periodic participant in the German Church Struggle (1933-1937), as an ecumenical leader in a continent hurtling towards war (1937-1939), as a champion of peace in a time of war (1939-1942), as an active supporter of the German Resistance (1942-1945), as a leader in the postwar ecclesiastical reconstruction of Europe (1945-1948), as a key figure in the emergence World Council of Churches (1948-1954), and as an elderly bishop winding down his career (1954-1958).

Throughout these diverse phases of his career, the breadth and volume of Bell’s activities was formidable. Over a span of more than fifty years, he wrote, edited, and contributed to over two-dozen books, ranging from poetry and ecclesiastical biography to credal, incarnational, and pastoral theology, to Christian unity and the relationship between the church and modern politics. Along with his leadership in the Church of England, Bell was a force in numerous international ecumenical institutions, including the World Conference of Life and Work (particularly in Stockholm in 1925 and Oxford in 1937), other ecumenical meetings at Fanö in 1934 and Sigtuna in 1942, the postwar Treysa meeting with German church leaders, and the World Council of Churches, where Bell was elected moderator of the Central Committee at the first WCC assembly in Amsterdam, in 1948.

Bell’s activities were often centred on German affairs. Almost immediately after the rise of Hitler, Bell and his colleague A.S. Duncan-Jones, who was Dean of Chichester, monitored German politics and visited contacts in the German churches, in order to understand the nature of the German Church Struggle for themselves. Bell soon became a critic of the Nazi dictatorship, the pro-Nazi German Christian Faith Movement, and the policy of persecution against both non-Aryan Christians and Jews in general. Around this time, the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving in a German congregation in London, and he and Bell began to develop a warm friendship.

Over the following years, Bell regularly spoke out against the Hitler regime and its supporters within the German churches. When the German delegation failed to appear at the 1937 Oxford Life and Work conference, Bell won support for a letter noting the absence of the German delegation and expressing concern over “the afflictions of many pastors and laymen who have stood firm from the first in the Confessional Church for the sovereignty of Christ, and for the freedom of the Church of Christ to preach His Gospel” (64). After Martin Niemöller’s incarceration in a concentration camp, Bell maintained close contact with the Niemöller family and wrote a stirring foreword for an anonymous biography of the Berlin pastor, in which Bell praised the faith of those standing for the Gospel in Germany. And when the Jewish refugee crisis began to grow acute in 1938, Bell spoke on behalf of refugees in his inaugural speech in the House of Lords, and also lectured publicly about the crisis, describing it as a “crisis of humanity” (69).

Chandler’s description of George Bell’s wartime activities illustrates both the breadth of Bell’s concern and the regularity with which his principled participation in continental political and ecclesiastical affairs pushed him out of step with his peers in the Church of England and British House of Lords. First of all, Bell argued that the church’s role in war was distinct from that of the state. The church was to be a universal body, “charged with a gospel of God’s redeeming love” and tasked with “creating a community founded on love” which would outcast the changes brought about by war (75). Whether in war or in peace, the church, declared Bell, should stand for principles like “the dignity of all men, respect for human life, the acknowledgment of the solidarity for good and evil of all nations and races of the earth, fidelity to the plighted word, and the appreciation of the fact that any power of any kind, political or economic, must be coextensive with responsibility” (75).

Second, Bell worked for peace, championing the vision of a federal union of European states and arguing for negotiation with the German state, even in the midst of the war, in hopes that the Germans would remove Hitler from power. His position was shared by few. Karl Barth felt Bell was “too much a British gentleman and thus unable to understand the phenomenon of Hitler,” while Archbishop Cosmo Lang wrote Bell: “You are an optimist and I am a realist” (81, 82).

In the same way, Chandler shows how Bell’s views on the morality of war were at odds with his contemporaries. When Bell opposed the internment of German and Austrian refugees as enemy aliens in the House of Lords, a fellow member wondered whether the bishop realized England and Germany were at war. When Bell tried to distinguish between Germans and Nazis, he was vigorously opposed in parliament and harangued by a Chichester parishioner. When he protested in the Convocation of Canterbury against the area bombing of German cities, he was shouted down. Worse still, at home in his diocese, he had become so unpopular that Duncan-Jones suggested he not attend a military service at the Chichester Cathedral.

Chandler does an admirable job of explaining the role for which Bell is often best known in German history circles—his activity as secret intermediary between the German Resistance and the British government. In late May 1942, in the city of Stockholm, Bell met with German Pastor Hans Schönfeld of the International Christian Social Institute in Geneva, whom he had known for over a decade. Schönfeld explained that there was a growing opposition movement within Germany, determined to topple Hitler from power and restore the German government to a Christian basis. A few days later, he provided Bell with a list of the names of important conspirators. Just after that, Bell met with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Sigtuna, Sweden. Bonhoeffer also outlined the nature of the German Resistance, urging Bell to ask the British government for assurances that the Allies would negotiate with the German opposition, if it could seize power. This Bell did, meeting with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, but to no avail. Chandler explains not only the government’s skepticism about such “peace feelers,” but also the way in which Bell’s continued lobbying made him suspect and undermined his mission further (100).

After explaining Bell’s determined efforts towards postwar reconciliation and the establishment of the World Council of Churches, Chandler assesses Bell’s legacy in a concluding chapter. There he paints the image of Bell as a man of many interests, causes, and campaigns—indeed, as a man of paradoxes. A member of the Establishment who “did not quite belong to it,” Bell “so often refused to conform to categorical expectations” (166, 170). He was an Anglican with an ecumenical orientation, an Englishman who cared as much or more about international affairs as English matters, and a man of deep devotion who lived large parts of his life in the world of politics. Influenced by high-church incarnational theology, Bell worked to bring art and artists into the life of the church, even as he also exerted himself on behalf of social justice for the working classes and hospitality for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution (170-171). Most especially, perhaps, he stood for principled and often unpopular positions, such as ecumenical unity and international peace in a time of nationalism and war.

Sadly, no new biography of Bishop George Bell can avoid dealing with the October 2015 allegation that Bell “had committed sexual offenses against an individual who was at the time a young child” (170). Chandler laments the fact that almost everyone associated with this time has passed away, making it virtually impossible to consider the charges in a normal judicial process. He does not in any way deny that these offenses could have occurred, but does the only thing a historian can do, which is to attempt to place the allegations in their historical context. In an appendix devoted to the controversy, Chandler notes that Bell’s 368 volume archive contains his personal notebooks and pocket diaries from 1919 to 1957, in which he kept track of all his appointments and engagements. He notes Bell’s “conspicuously high view of the standards required by his office,” and adds that Bell was almost constantly observed, that he participated in many disciplinary processes for clergy, that he maintained what seemed like a happy marriage, and that he worked almost continually in the presence of his wife, secretary, domestic chaplain, or driver. Chandler interviewed the only member of Bell’s circle still alive, his domestic chaplain from the early 1950s. This man “is firm, indeed emphatic, that ‘no child or young teenager ever entered during my two years as Chaplain, except on the day in January chosen for the parish Christmas party which he and Mrs Bell laid on every year for the children of the clergy’” (198) Add to this that Bell tended to work with his door open and often held private conversations outdoors in the garden and it leads Chandler to describe the 2015 allegation as “anomalous” and seeming to exist “in its own world, evidently uncorroborated by any other independent source” (199).

Andrew Chandler has published widely on the life and ministry of Bishop George Bell, and is the current acknowledged expert on him. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester is a concise, accessible overview of Bell’s engagement in the world of ecumenism and international politics during the turbulent times in which he lived and worked. It deserves a wide readership, especially among those who only know Bell as Bonhoeffer’s friend and English contact on behalf of the German Resistance.


Review of Gerhard Besier, ed., “Intimately Associated for Many Years”: George K. A. Bell’s and Willem A. Visser’t Hooft’s Common Life-Work in the Service of the Church Universal – Mirrored in Their Correspondence

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Review of Gerhard Besier, ed., “Intimately Associated for Many Years”: George K. A. Bell’s and Willem A. Visser’t Hooft’s Common Life-Work in the Service of the Church Universal – Mirrored in Their Correspondence, Parts 1 and 2 (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015), ISBN: 978-1-4438-8006-0 and 978-1-4438-8011-4.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Bishop George Bell was the stalwart champion in the Church of England promoting ecumenical relations with the other churches of Europe and North America throughout the nearly thirty years of his episcopate from 1929-1958. He held leading positions in innumerable committees, councils and conferences, and in 1937, during the world meeting in Oxford of the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work, was a strong advocate for joining with Faith and Order, in order to found a World Council of Churches, which took place in 1938. At the same time it was agreed that this new Council (still in process of formation) should be established in Geneva, and that a young Dutch theologian W.A.Visser ‘t Hooft (Vim), who had served for several years in the Geneva scene as General Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation, should be appointed as General Secretary. Visser ‘t Hooft was far more of a General than a Secretary—I knew him personally—and brought unrivalled resourcefulness and a resolute determination to see his ideas realized, for the best part of thirty years. This was the beginning of a partnership between Bell and Visser ‘t Hooft, who early on struck up a strong and harmonious relationship. They are rightly described in the book’s title as being “intimately associated for many years”.

The exchanges by post or telegrams recorded in these volumes are largely drawn from the Geneva archives of the World Council of Churches or from the voluminous Bell papers, now deposited in the Lambeth Palace library in London. The first volume covers the period up to 1949, and the second the final years of Bell’s life up to 1958. The editing by Gerhard Besier is very helpful, since his footnotes give the biographical details of all persons mentioned, as well as bibliographical references to the many scholarly books relating to their endeavors. (There are, however, aggravating lapses in the proof-reading and printing of the English text.) Besier’s introduction is reproduced from the chapter he contributed to The Church and Humanity: The Life and Work of George Bell, 1883-1958 (p. 169-194), edited in 2012 by Andrew Chandler.

Many of these exchanges have to do with the plans for the various meetings of World Council bodies, and discussions about the membership, the place and date, as well as the content. These documents are however not too informative about the results. Obviously when the two men met at such meetings, they had intense verbal discussions and made significant decisions about the World Council’s operations. But these were not recorded in their correspondence at the time, and so are missing from these volumes. This is particularly noticeable with regard to such highly significant meetings as the First Constituent Assembly held in Amsterdam in 1948, when Bell became Chairman of the WCC’s Central Committee. While these documents discuss at length the preparations for this Assembly in August 1948 (p. 365-428), they provide no indication of the important deliberations and decisions taken on that occasion. The same is true for the Second Assembly, held in 1954 in Evanston, Illinois. Equally regrettable is the absence of documents relating to the important meeting in Stuttgart in October 1945, at which both Bell and Visser ‘t Hooft were present, and at which the famous Declaration of Guilt was issued (p. 287-94). Obviously both Bell and Vim played an active part and had extensive discussions with the German leaders, including Martin Niemöller, for whom they had been praying ever since his first incarceration in 1937. But they left no further record of their deliberations or their conclusions about this conference or its historic significance in their correspondence. An equally striking omission is the exchange between Bell and Vim about Bell’s journey to Sweden in May 1942, his meeting there with Bonhoeffer, and the information he gained about the German resistance, which the Bishop then passed on to the British Foreign Secretary, asking for some public gesture of support be given to the anti-Nazi forces in Germany. Eden’s refusal was conveyed to Visser ‘t Hooft in the notable telegram sent by Bell on July 23, 1942: “Interest undoubted, but deeply regret no reply possible”. (Bell’s message is discussed on p. 158 of W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, Memoirs (London: SCM Press, 1973).) But this calamitous blow to Bell’s hopes for some gesture of support for the German resistance is not mentioned in Besier’s work. In fact, this first volume is silent for the whole period of November 1941 to August 1942.

It would have been helpful if the editor could have inserted short passages to fill such gaps. He could also have directed the reader to look at both of the biographies of Bell by Canon Jasper (George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (London: Oxford University Press,1967)) and Andrew Chandler (George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), also Visser ‘t Hooft’s Memoirs (1973), as well as such comprehensive histories as A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948 (London: SPCK, 1954), edited by Ruth Rouse and Stephen Neil, and its sequel The Ecumenical Advance: A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1948-1968 (Geneva: WCC, 1986), edited by Harold Fey. Unless these more complete sources are available to be consulted, the usefulness of these two volumes alone will be limited. Libraries may well consider whether the expense is justified.

However, the value of these exchanges is that they fill in the details of the frequent consultations between these church leaders. In particular, they provide information about how the two men dealt with the three principal obstacles they faced in these years. The first was the fear expressed by many churchmen that this new World Council would evolve into a vast ecumenical enterprise which would swallow up the individual entities in some sort of super-church. The second fear, expressed by many more Orthodox leaders, was that this new World Council would produce a new doctrine of Christianity which would override the traditions and individual heritages of these Protestant or Orthodox churches. The third obstacle was the refusal of the largest Christian body, the Roman Catholic Church, to be associated in any way with this new venture. This refusal meant that the vision of a united Christendom, strongly urged by Bell, was thwarted, and still remains incomplete. Not until the Second Vatican Council, i.e. several years after Bell’s death, did the Roman Catholic authorities show a more tolerant and cooperative attitude. But the World Council has yet to overcome the barrier of Rome’s reluctance to belong to this wider ecumenical fraternity.

Nevertheless, it would be true to say that, during the period from 1938 to 1958, i.e. during the fruitful years of cooperation between Bell and Visser ‘t Hooft, the World Council moved from a tentative and provisional beginning to becoming the acknowledged chief instrument and channel of the ecumenical movement. The correspondence contained in the second volume spells out the contexts of these years from 1950 to 1958, including the preparations for the second Assembly meeting in the United States in 1954, at which point Bell resigned his position as Chairman of the Central Committee, and was promoted to Honorary President of the Council. But, as this correspondence shows, he continued to be very actively engaged in the affairs of the Council, even after his retirement in 1958 from the Chichester diocese. In fact he took part in a meeting of the Central Committee in Denmark, and preached a self-critical sermon there only two months before his untimely death in October 1958. The volume concludes with two moving tributes to Bell’s achievements written by Visser ‘t Hooft shortly after Bell’s funeral.


Review of Gerald Hacke, Die Zeugen Jehovahs im Dritten Reich und in der DDR: Feindbild und Verfolgungspraxis

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Review of Gerald Hacke, Die Zeugen Jehovahs im Dritten Reich und in der DDR: Feindbild und Verfolgungspraxis. Schriften des Hannah-Arendt-Instituts fur Totalitarismusforschung, 41 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 457 Pp., ISBN 9783525369173.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of a Protestant millenarian sect, who look forward in anticipation to the last days, which they expect will take place very shortly in a catastrophic conflict between good and evil. Founded in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, a small number had already come to Germany before the First World War. But the turbulent, revolutionary political upheavals which took place in Germany after 1918 seemed to confirm their expectations. The Witnesses grew in number, and were reckoned by 1933 to count some 20,000 adherents, who were active as door-to-door preachers in many parts of the country.

Much of the scholarly literature about the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been conditioned by the harassment and persecution which this sect endured during the period of Nazi rule after 1933. Most of the authors have displayed sympathy with the Witnesses’ sufferings and pay tribute to their enduring loyalty to their faith. Gerald Hacke, however, is principally interested in the actions of the state authorities, and the organization of the various methods of repression which took such a toll. Furthermore he has noted that the same kind of repression was carried out in the post-1945 years in what became known at the German Democratic Republic (GDR) under the aegis of the Communist rulers of that part of Germany for the next 40 years. His large-scale account is therefore mainly a comparison of the similarities as well as the differences in the treatment of this minority religious group by the two ideologically opposed dictatorships. In so doing he has delved in to the vast amount of state documentation left behind by both regimes, particularly in their police and judicial records and the files of the various government ministries who attempted to bring the Jehovah’s Witnesses to heel.

Hacke divides his account chronologically, with 200 pages dealing with the Nazi period and the same for the decades of repression in the GDR. These surveys are accompanied by an extensive list of the files consulted and a forty page bibliography. He completes his study with a close examination of the parallels and differences in the forms of repression put in place by the two regimes. In both cases he notes the stubborn refusal of the Witnesses to conform to the states’ requirement of political loyalty. But the subsequent banning of their organizations and activities stirred up a sense of victimization which in fact only strengthened the community. The increasing number of legal challenges, as well as pressure from the U.S. State Department on behalf of the Witnesses, for example in 1934, showed that such repressive policies had disadvantages, even though the wider public, including the mainline churches, showed little or no sympathy. The reintroduction of conscription in 1935 led to the arrest and imprisonment of numerous younger male members of this sect. The same feature was to follow the identical measure taken in the early 1950s in the GDR. But in neither case did the Witnesses abandon their faithful and stubborn commitment to refuse any form of military activity. The Nazi and Communist officials were therefore both forced to recognize the ineffectiveness of such punitive actions, but were adamant in regarding the Witnesses as a political and ideological danger which required drastic treatment.

Hacke avoids drawing any direct link between the repressive forces mobilized by Himmler, allegedly in order to follow Hitler’s call for ”the eradication of this venomous brood”, and those followed twenty years later in the GDR by the Ministry of Security, commonly known as the Stasi. The similarity of tactics is however clear. Both dictatorships sought to imprison the sect’s leading figures, imposing employment bans, and even removing children from their families. During the Nazi period some 10,000 Witnesses were imprisoned, including 2000 sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by wearing purple triangles on their clothes. Moreover, 240 were executed, while up to 1200 lost their lives while incarcerated. No other group of religious prisoners was exposed to the sadism of the Nazis in such a brutal fashion.

To be sure, the Gestapo offered to release these prisoners if they would sign a paper declaring their renunciation of their former views and promise not to associate with their fellow Witnesses. Hacke does not make it clear whether this project was designed to sow dissension in the Witnesses’ ranks, or to relieve the prison and concentration camp system of these unwanted and uncooperative inmates. In any case the tactic failed.

After 1945 and the collapse of the Nazi regime, the surviving Witnesses began to regroup and to resume their activities, though mainly in hiding from the successor authorities. Soon enough they were to meet vehement opposition from the newly-established Communist authorities in the eastern sector of the country, which in 1949 became the German Democratic Republic. This campaign made much of the fact that the Witnesses were founded in the United States, and were therefore seen as agents of American anti-Communist imperialism. The Stasi was characterized by the same fanatical zeal as the Gestapo, and in fact extended their intrusive surveillance to even wider sections of the population. But right up to 1989, the Communist regime justified its repression of the Witnesses with very similar accusations of disloyalty and failure to support the national goals of the Communist party.

Hacke rightly points out that both regimes, despite their different propagandistic justifications, were deliberately seeking to suppress any supposedly deviant groups by very similar methods. The Witnesses, however, were able to mount an effective resistance in part because they had arrived in Germany with the expectation that their dissident beliefs would create conditions in which they would be persecuted. Their long experience of victimization gave them an intense sense of group solidarity, and the faithful adherence to their beliefs was thus built in and maintained throughout the more than fifty years of repression.

After 1989, with the overthrow of the Stasi and its political masters, the Witnesses were no longer subjected to government-sponsored suspicion and surveillance. But as Hacke points out, the decades of defamation and discrimination had left an almost indelible pejorative reputation in the minds of the general public. The Witnesses then campaigned successfully to gain recognition as a public corporation in German law, but the wider issue of prejudice still remains, as can be seen in the active hostility by some of the more established church groups against the proselytizing undertaken by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The search for a new identity in a new Germany still continues.


Article Note: Martina Cucchiara, “The Bonds That Shame: Reconsidering the Foreign Exchange Trials Against the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany, 1935/36”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Article Note: Martina Cucchiara, “The Bonds That Shame: Reconsidering the Foreign Exchange Trials Against the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany, 1935/36,” European History Quarterly 45, no 4 (2015): 689-712.

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

This fascinating and meticulously researched article demonstrates the importance of including the often-forgotten middle years of National Socialism in studies of the churches under Hitler. Martina Cucchiara examines a series of trials in 1935-36 against Catholic orders accused of contravening Germany’s regulations about foreign currency. The details turn out to be intriguing in themselves—we catch a glimpse of Der Stürmer’s blend of misogynist, antisemitic, anti-Catholicism and get a helpful lesson in the functioning of the bond market and the entangled economies of Germany and the United States in the 1920s—but most significant is Cucchiara’s central finding. The foreign exchange trials and the Nazi propaganda campaign that went with them, she argues, were first and foremost an effort by the regime to push the Catholic church “out of the public sphere.” Although she leaves open the question as to whether or not the regime succeeded in this attempt, Cucchiara strongly suggests the answer was “yes.”

Cucchiara’s nuanced analysis indicates that indeed the regime benefited in several ways. The trials were just one of a series of initiatives that stirred up crises and fomented division in Catholic circles. Lack of resolution around the concordat and the issue of lay associations, the episcopate’s pusillanimous responses to the trials, and the resulting alienation of the laity all served to increase what Cucchiara calls the regime’s “leverage” over the church. In addition, she shows, regional and local officials, like sharks who smell blood, “piled on” to pursue their own political agendas at the expense of weakened Catholic institutions. It is outside the purview of Cucchiara’s discussion, but one wonders whether Protestants, looking on, took pleasure in the disciplining of their old confessional rivals or felt a chill of dread as they pondered their own standing in the Nazi German order.


Conference Report: “The Confessing Church’s Memorandum of May 28, 1936 and the Murder of Friedrich Weißler (1891-1937) in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp,” Topography of Terror

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: “The Confessing Church’s Memorandum of May 28, 1936 and the Murder of Friedrich Weißler (1891-1937) in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp,” Topography of Terror, Berlin, May 28, 2016

By Hansjörg Buss, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen; translated by John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

On May 28, 1936, the Second Provisional Directorate of the German Evangelical Church sent a now famous memorandum directed to Hitler personally. This protest, signed by ten members of the various wings of the Confessing Church, drew Hitler’s attention to the fact that in the fourth year of Nazi rule, the church was being repressed by the state “to a very large extent” in what seemed to be an attempt to “de-Christianize” Germany. Secondly, it refuted the Nazi interpretation of “positive Christianity” as theologically unsound. The Memorandum further attacked the Nazi ideology with its divination of “Blood “, ”Race” and “National Identity”. Above all, the authors criticized the arbitrary police measures which had undermined the rule of law, as well as leading to the erection of the system of concentration camps. The memorandum further declared that:

When the Aryan human being is glorified, God’s Word is witness to the sinfulness of all humans; when anti-Semitism, which binds him to hatred of Jews, is imposed upon the Christian framework of the National Socialist world view, then for him the Christian commandment to love one’s fellow human stands opposed to it.

This Memorandum was not without its consequences. Originally it was sent to Hitler privately without publicity, in the expectation that such a private remonstrance would lead Hitler to abandon the policies to which its authors took exception. But less than six weeks later the whole memorandum appeared in a Swiss newspaper, the Basler Nachrichten, and shortly afterwards was printed in the New York Herald Tribune. At the beginning of October the Gestapo arrested the Confessing Church’s collaborator Dr. Friedrich Weißler, who came under suspicion for having authorized the publication in Switzerland. On February 19, 1937, shortly after he had been transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he was found dead as a result of a severe bodily assault. Since then he has become regarded as the Confessing Church’s first ‘martyr’. At the same time, there can be no doubt that his murder was sparked by anti-semitism, since, although a strong supporter of the Confessing Church, Weißler came from a Jewish family. By the Nazi definition, he was counted as “fully Jewish”, and as such had already been dismissed from his post of Provincial Court judge in Magdeburg in July 1933.

To mark this Memorandum’s 80th anniversary, a lecture series was organized at the Topography of Terror Foundation by the Berlin-Brandenburg Evangelical Church in co-operation with Dr. Manfred Gailus. The title of this series was “’With Deep Concern’ over De-Christianization, Anti-Semitism and Arbitrary Breaches of Law”, and was designed to draw attention to the Confessing Church’s Memorandum and to Weißler’s fate. The high point was a public forum in which some 130 guests took part. Martin Greschat, now an emeritus professor of church history at Giessen University and author of the standard history of this Memorandum, described the origins and composition of the Memorandum in its various stages.[1] Afterwards Hansjörg Buss outlined Weißler’s biography and his role in the Memorandum’s composition and publication. In Michael Germann’s view, this was the high and catastrophic turning point in Weißler’s life. Manfred Gailus then took up the story by claiming that no evidence exists that Weißler’s murder was ‘organized’ by higher elements in the Nazi bureaucracy. One could conclude therefore that the motive for this brutal mishandling was the anti-semitic attitudes of Jew-hatred among lower echelons of the SS guards. It is possible, so Greschat suggested, that this murder stalled the launching of a full-scale trial of the Confessing Church leadership, which numerous signs suggest was being planned.

The final contribution was made by Peter Steinbach, long-time director of the German Resistance Memorial Center and emeritus professor of history at Mannheim University. His title was “Treason – Breach of Confidence – Resistance: Reflections on the Memorandum and on Friedrich Weißler”. He believes that Weißler suffered from deeply-felt feelings of isolation, like many other people who were deprived of their positions and rights during the Nazi period. This led to a total disorientation. The destruction of his bourgeois life-style, and the social exclusion which he experienced even within his church connections took an enormous toll. As a consequence he was to pay with his life for this hurtful rejection.

In conclusion, Friedrich Weißler’s grandson, Wolfgang Weißler, reflected spontaneously on how the family reacted to his fate. His grandmother had never spoken about the circumstances of his death. Only in the 1980s when this case was ‘discovered’ both in the church and society more generally was his fate also discussed in his own family circle.

Many details about the Memorandum and Weißler’s arrest still remain open. Above all, there is the question as to how this Memorandum was smuggled out to the foreign press in the summer of 1936, which was the immediate cause of Weißler’s detention. Did he give his consent to its publication? Was there any consultation with or backing from the Confessing Church leadership? (This would seem unlikely, given the speed with which these leaders dissociated themselves from his actions.) If no further sources turn up, then such questions may remain unsolved. But any such new information will not be decisive. In fact, Weißler’s murder meant that the staunchly opposing wing of the Confessing Church, known as the “Dahlemites”, could no longer have any illusions about the character of the Nazi state.

In recent years this incident has become better known both generally and in church circles. Weißler is no longer a completely unknown figure. And the keen participation in the symposium described above means that there is a continuing interest in what Gailus depicts as a modern twentieth century Passion Story. In Steinbach’s view, the whole tragedy and catastrophe of the early twentieth century in Germany is summed up in Weißler’s fate. Manfred Gailus has now completed a full biography which will appear in February 2017, and on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of his death on February 19, 2017, a memorial service will be held on the grounds of the Sachsenhausen Camp.


[1] Manfred Gailus, Friedrich Weißler: Ein Jurist und bekennender Christ im Widerstand gegen Hitler (forthcoming, Goettingen 2017). See also Martin Greschat, Widerspruch und Widerstand: Texte zur Denkschrift der Bekennenden Kirche an Hitler (Munich: Kaiser, 1987); Greschat, “Friedrich Weißler. Ein Jurist der Bekennenden Kirche im Widerstand gegen Hitler,” in Ursula Buettner and Martin Greschat, Die verlassenen Kinder der Kirche: Der Umgang der Kirche mit den Christen jüdischer Herkunft (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), 86-122; John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968), 162-64.



Conference Report: “Ecumenical Cooperation and World Politics”. The 2016 Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History Conference

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: “Ecumenical Cooperation and World Politics”. The 2016 Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History Conference, Helsinki, October 26-28, 2016

By Robert P. Ericksen

On Oct. 26-28, 2016, Professors Aila Lauha and Mikko Ketola of the Theological Faculty at the University of Helsinki hosted an international conference on the topic, “Ecumenical Cooperation and World Politics.” This conference also served as the annual meeting of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, with the papers to be published in that journal in 2017.

Sessions at this conference focused primarily on the twentieth century, a time when conflicts ranged from World War I and World War II to the Cold War and its occasional outbreaks of considerable violence. This also was the period in which Christian churches struggled to overcome centuries of bickering among themselves with a push toward international ecumenism. Could Christians working together reduce the scourge of war? Could ecumenical Christians help resolve the problems of racism, colonialism, or the social and cultural changes embodied in Western modernity?

These would have been very large questions to resolve in a two-day conference. Within those constraints, however, sessions probed a few specific examples within the ecumenical experience. Also, given the setting in Helsinki, there emerged a slight Nordic tilt to the proceedings, with four of the fourteen presenters describing Nordic actors within the broader ecumenical movement. One further distinction within the program bears mention. The two main days of the conference were divided between a first day focused on “Ecumenical responsibilities—dreams, utopias and realities,” and a second day on the more sobering subtheme, “Ecumenism facing the challenges of nationalism, chauvinism and extremism.”

Andrea Strübind delivered the first paper of this conference, “The International Fellowship of Reconciliation as an ecumenical and interfaith forerunner for human rights.” Two founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), the German pacifist Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze and the English pacifist Henry Hodgkin, met on 3 August 1914, the day before Great Britain entered World War I. These two men committed themselves to the principle that Christian nations should not turn to war against each other. Although they had little or no chance of stopping the carnage to come, they created an organization that still exists and now can be seen as a precursor of and participant in the broader ecumenical movement. Strübind focused her paper on a little-researched aspect of the FoR—its influence on the American Civil Rights Movement. As early as the1930s, the FoR began bringing Gandhi’s tactic of non-violent civil disobedience to questions of civil rights and economic rights in the United States. Bayard Ruskin, for example, a later ally of Martin Luther King, Jr, began working fulltime for the FoR in 1942 and pursued this theme. In the mid-1950s, Glenn Smiley, a Methodist pastor and a representative of the FoR, moved to Montgomery, Alabama. He and the FoR helped develop and train activists in the non-violent tactics that proved successful in the Montgomery bus boycott and then spread across the South.

Gerhard Besier followed with a paper on “80 Years WCC—Theological, Political and Societal Ambiguities.” The “ambiguities” involve the ways in which ecumenism gets caught up in issues that seem unavoidably political and/or cultural, rather than simply religious. For example, when the interwar ecumenical movement tried to deal with German Protestantism after 1933, it first tried to work with the official church leadership. Gradually, however, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others convinced ecumenists to accept the point of view of the Confessing Church, with its rejection of radically Nazi elements within the official Protestant Church. That led to the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in 1945, followed by early postwar efforts to rebuild and strengthen ecumenism. Quickly, however, the Cold War impinged and once again ecumenical Christians faced political questions. John Foster Dulles, an active lay person and son of a Presbyterian minister, imagined the Federal Council of Churches (FCC, later the NCC) working within the WCC toward “a just and durable peace” in the American mold. The Czech theologian, Josef Hromadka, argued that socialism should be understood as the truly Christian stance. Some theologians in Eastern Europe both collaborated with their own regimes and critiqued the WCC as a voice for NATO. Participation by the Russian Orthodox Church established in the 1960s added further questions about the mix of politics and religion. On the one hand, one might hope that ecumenical Christendom could find a prophetic voice based upon Christian values. In the worst case, however, some might see Christian ecumenism as a theology of convenience, bent to the need for getting along.

Gerhard Ringshausen’s presentation gave a partial answer to Besier’s question. On the topic, “George Bell’s political engagement in ecumenical context,” he describes the Bishop of Chichester’s response to the “German question” before and during World War II as both theological and political. Totalitarian restraint on freedom to preach must be opposed, he said. An “ethic of peace” should include equal dignity for all. Bombing policy should make a distinction between military and civilian targets. While consistent with Christian values, these choices can also be built upon natural law. Bell gave the November Pogrom of 1938 a theological response, however, with the suggestion that non-Aryan pastors and their wives should be welcomed in England as members of the Christian community in need.

The next session grew out of a research program for PhD students directed by Aila Lauha at the University of Helsinki, “The Ecumenical Movement and Cold War Politics.” The title of this session expressed the essence of an underlying theme for ecumenism: “Can the World Council of Churches Change the World?” The conditional answer presented by products of Lauha’s program seems to be, at least in limited ways, yes. Juha Meriläinen presented on “The Reconstruction of European Churches as a WCC Programme.” War had left Europe with massive destruction. Early American attitudes exacerbated this, with, for example, a sign at a U.S. military canteen in 1945 in Berlin: “Do not feed the civilians. Put what you do not eat into the garbage can.” The Americans soon changed their minds, however, as President Truman worried about saving Europe from the USSR. One result was the Marshall Plan, which poured American aid into postwar Europe. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft and the WCC also saw human need in postwar Europe. The WCC did its part, with a program that invested $6.2 million, a sort of counterpart to the Marshall Plan. Matti Peiponen spoke on “The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs,” judging it a success, especially in the early postwar years. It had a voice in the WCC and also in the UN. In the latter case, this commission made sure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included the right to freedom of thought, expression, and confession, rather than merely the “freedom to worship,” as preferred by the USSR. Antti Laine spoke on “The Programme to Combat Racism.” Here he brought the story forward by two decades, reflecting on the WCC Assembly at Uppsala in 1968, a meeting where Martin Luther King’s place on the list of speakers fell to his assassination that spring. The turbulence implicit in King’s assassination spoke to a new world, with widespread activism among young people and with questions about racism in the United States as well as other parts of the world. The WCC focus on race advocated action, not just discussion, and the action included controversial grants made to sometimes radical organizations opposed to racial injustice. These sessions on WCC programs provoked a lively discussion in the Q and A, especially involving the question of theology, which was de-emphasized (if not actually banned) at Uppsala in 1968. According to Laine, however, leaders of the WCC considered their program against racism a success, proving the Christian ecumenical movement to be a credible player amidst the widely accepted idea that racism represented an evil to be opposed.

Katharina Kunter stayed in the decade of the Uppsala Assembly for her final presentations on this first day, “Revolutionary Hopes and Global Transformations: The World Council of Churches in the 1960s.” She actually called her timeframe the “long decade” of the 1960s, beginning as early as the mid-1950s and continuing well into the 1970s. Uppsala in 1968 represented a turning point. A Theology of Liberation developed in the 1970s. White men in the WCC were replaced by increasing numbers of women and people of color. Collective human rights replaced the Western emphasis on individual human rights. The geographical locus began shifting from west to east and from north to south. Some conservatives in Europe and the United States viewed this as the end of Christianity in Christian ecumenism. Some churches withdrew their membership. Under the theme for this first day of the conference, “dreams, utopias and realities,” this stage reached by the WCC in the 1970s seemed to contain a little bit of each.

Morning sessions on the second day included papers on ecumenism in Finland presented by Aila Lauha and Mikko Ketola. Professor Lauha described the early years of the Reformation when Finland was a Swedish possession, with the Lutheran faith declared the one true faith and Catholics known primarily as opponents during times of war. Even during the nineteenth century, when Finland was a province of Russia, the legal role of the Russian Tsar did not impinge on the dominant place of Lutheranism within Finland. By the 1920s, 95 percent of Finns remained within the dominant Lutheran faith and an ecumenical group formed in 1917 primarily involved Lutherans talking with each other. With a very strong nationalism in 1920s Finland, newly granted autonomy in 1917, ecumenism was seen largely as a threat of foreign influence, and the very few Catholics in Finland were widely suspected of disloyalty. After World War II, Lutherans in Finland gradually moved toward an acceptance of ecumenism. This was based upon the development of cross-denominational theological conversations. Also, suspicions against Catholics diminished with the dramatic changes developed at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. A Joint Declaration on Justification in 1999 helped solidify the Finnish respect for Catholics, so that by the turn of the century a modern, multicultural acceptance of ecumenism became the norm in Finland. Mikko Ketola picked up on this story of rapprochement between Finnish Lutherans and the Catholic Church in his paper, “Finland—Ecumenical Wonderland?” He noted that a small conversation began in 1967, when representatives of the Roman Catholic and the Finnish Orthodox Churches were invited to the Finnish celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation. More importantly, three Finnish Lutheran bishops made a first visit to Rome in 1985, during the papacy of John Paul II, and Finnish bishops have returned to Rome annually since. These past three decades have marked a period in which Finnish acceptance of and enthusiasm for ecumenism has increased dramatically.

Anders Jarlert began the afternoon session with “Nathan Söderblom and Nationalism—Riga, Uppsala, and Ruhr.” Many scholars view Söderblom as an internationalist, rather than a nationalist. Jarlert acknowledged that Söderblom worked for international cooperation and peace, especially in Europe, and that he was an important figure in the international ecumenical movement. However, Söderblom also had a very strong sense of his Swedish roots and a concern for the wellbeing of Sweden. Using numerous examples, Jarlert showed how these two realities can coexist in one person. Historians make a mistake when they try to find the right box into which to place a complex figure, he argued. Historical actors rarely fit so precisely into those boxes where we are tempted to place them.

The final session in this conference included three somewhat disparate topics. Aappo Laitinen spoke on “Religion and politics in Malta during the interwar years: between ‘Protestant’ Britain and the Holy See.” This story involves a complicated Catholic-Protestant clash, with a largely Catholic population on Malta, but British political control since the Napoleonic wars. Hanna-Maija Ketola spoke on “Strengthening the Alliance through Church Connections: The Church of England and the Russian Orthodox Church during WWII.” This involves a side story to the British-Soviet alliance during World War II, an unexpected alliance occasioned by Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR. A Church of England delegation visited their Russian Orthodox counterparts in 1943, hoping to use an ecumenical conversation as part of the connection that would solidify the political and military alliance of the two nations. This visit produced press reports that exaggerated the extent of religious freedom in the USSR, the sort of misunderstanding perhaps useful during the war itself, but part of the rapid separation between Russia and the West after Allied victory in 1945. Finally, Villa Jalovaara spoke on “Nordic bishops’ meetings during the Cold War.” Beginning in the 1920s, bishops from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden began meeting every third year. World War II interrupted this practice, as Danish and Norwegian bishops necessarily saw Germany as their enemy, but Finland most feared the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, these nations divided up between Norway, Denmark, and Iceland as members of NATO, with Sweden and Finland non-aligned, and with Finland maintaining a “friendly” relationship with the USSR. Although these differences of alignment made it difficult to produce joint statements, at least these bishops continued to meet regularly throughout the Cold War.

I would encourage readers interested in these topics to look for the fall edition of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte in 2017, when refined versions of these papers will be available in print.