Conference Report: “Germany and the Confessional Divide, 1871-1989,” Seminar at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association

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Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: “Germany and the Confessional Divide, 1871-1989,” Seminar at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association, 2016, San Diego, California

By Mark Edward Ruff, St. Louis University

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, twenty-five historians and theologians gathered at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association from September 30 through October 2 in San Diego to examine a confessional divide between Catholicism and Protestantism characterizing the social, political and religious landscape of Germany from the Kaiserreich through German reunification in 1990.

Convened by Thomas Großbölting of the Wilhelm-Westfälische-Universität in Münster and Mark Edward Ruff of Saint Louis University, the seminar grappled with how confessional identity is created and upheld. How and why did theologians, church leaders and politicians define themselves negatively against confessional enemies? To what extent was this process of definition influenced by geography, and in particular, the degree to which their regions were confessionally homogenous or heterogeneous? How did population shifts alter processes of confessionalization? How was this process of self-definition affected by encounters with non-Christian religions, including Jews and Muslims? And finally, which voices sought to counter such confessionalization processes and what impact did they have on received identities?

The seminar began the first day by focusing on the deepening of confessional tensions in the nineteenth century. The sociologist, M. Rainer Lepsius, spoke of the concept of “socio-moral miliuex,” borrowing the concept of a “Catholic milieu” from the Catholic publicist, Carl Amery. Some of Lepsius’ disciples, in turn, referred to a “conservative Protestant milieu.” The historian, Olaf Blaschke, calls much of the nineteenth century a “second confessional era,” one marked by the intensity of passions found in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the wake of the Reformation.  A participant in the seminar, Blaschke described the origins of his approach in his study with the renowned Bielefeld social historian, Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Seminar participants, examining Blaschke’s thesis as well as objections from his critics, nonetheless remained divided over whether parallels with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries hold up for the nineteenth. All nonetheless agreed that the era represented an era of significant and troubling confessional tensions, even if some pointed out that the forces driving these tensions varied significantly between the early modern and modern eras.

On the second day, participants examined attempts to overcome these confessional tensions in the 1920s and 1930s. The Nazis had striven to create a “positive Christianity,” a recognition of how deeply these confessional fault lines cut through German society. The discussion centered on Richard Steigmann-Gall’s classic and contested monograph, The Holy Reich. Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).  Participants focused less on Steigmann-Gall’s claims that the Nazis, contrary to later mythologizing, understood themselves as good Christians and acted on the basis of their Christian faith. They focused instead on Steigmann-Galls’s analysis of how the Nazis exploited the goals of “positive Christianity” in hopes of standing above the confessions and bridging the confessional divide.

Even so, and spite of attempts to put aside these confessional differences through the creation of interconfessional movements of Christian Democracy, confessional fault lines persisted through the Adenauer Era in the Federal Republic—and in some regions, even longer. Only in the German Democratic Republic did these differences recede, the region being home to only a tiny minority of Catholics and under the control of an officially atheistic regime. The third session accordingly analyzed forces that ultimately closed these confessional rifts in the second half of the twentieth century. They began with a discussion of Maria Mitchell’s seminal article in the Journal of Modern History, “Materialism and Secularism. CDU Politicians and National Socialism, 1945-1949,” (67, no. 2 (June 1995): 278-308) which showed how Catholics and Protestants found common ground in the CDU through their shared hostility to materialism. Mitchell was also present and provided an overview of her article’s genesis while she was at graduate school at Boston University. Participants also examined the second chapter of Mark Edward Ruff’s forthcoming monograph, The Battle for the Catholic Past: Germany, 1945 -1980. This chapter examined the fights over the validity of the Reichskonkordat in the postwar era that culminated in a landmark case before the Constitutional Court in June, 1956. The seminar concluded with a discussion of Thomas Mittmann’s article in Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, “Säkularisierungsvorstellungen und religiöse Identitätsstiftung im Migrationsdiskurs. Die kirchliche Wahrnehmung ‘des Islams’ in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland seit den 1960er Jahren“ (51 (2011): 267-289).

The fruitful conversations will lead to an edited volume, likely under the title, Germany and the Confessional Divide, 1871-1989. The 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation provides the ideal opportunity to take stock of the Reformation legacy, not just in Germany but throughout the world.