Conference Report: Religion and Ethno-Nationalism in the Era of the Two World Wars

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 3 (September 2017)

Conference Report: Religion and Ethno-Nationalism in the Era of the Two World Wars, University of Toronto, May 21-23, 2017

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

This symposium assembled an extraordinary group of twenty scholars from twelve different countries to discuss the roles of religious individuals, institutions, and networks in the conflicts and upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century. Co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the University of Toronto’s Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, the three-day event was organized by Victoria Barnett (USHMM), Doris Bergen (University of Toronto), Kevin Spicer (Stonehill College), and Rebecca Carter-Chand (University of Toronto and Clark University). The wide range of cases and issues discussed made the symposium highly stimulating (although that same quality makes it difficult to summarize). Most fundamentally the symposium showed the value of taking a global perspective, not only to compare but to connect developments in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas; and it demonstrated the power of in-person interactions. Having time to talk, in lengthy sessions, over meals, and outdoors, proved very fruitful and will, we hope, lead to a publication and future initiatives.

The symposium built on a 2015 summer research workshop on “Religion, Fascism, Antisemitism, and Ethno-Nationalism in Europe, 1918-1945,” held in Washington, DC and initiated by Barnett and Spicer. Now the goal was to expand the conversation by bringing in more people and looking beyond Europe. A call for papers yielded three times more abstracts than we could accept—an indication of the topic’s significance—and a team of experts in History, Religion, Islamic Studies, and Jewish Studies helped choose among them. Four facilitators—Devi Mays (University of Michigan), Paul Hanebrink (Rutgers University), Milena Methodieva (University of Toronto), and Christhard Hoffmann (University of Bergen)—worked with us to organize the fifteen participants into panels and identify themes. All papers were pre-circulated.

After an opening party on Sunday, we had a full day of sessions on Monday, May 22. The first panel was organized around the theme of “Transnational Religion and Diaspora Communities.” Francesco Pongiluppi (University of Rome), Burçin Çakir (Glasgow Caledonian University), John Eicher (German Historical Institute, Washington DC), and Stefan Vogt (Goethe University) presented their research on, respectively, Fascist Italians’ cultural activities in interwar Turkey; debates about the Armenian genocide in Turkey one hundred years later; Mennonites in South America and their relationships to Nazism; and the tensions and connections between Jewish religion and German nationalist discourse in Martin Buber’s thought. Devi Mays identified several issues to think across these disparate topics. She noted the centrality of different locations in articulating nationalism, including transnational sites. Homeland, she observed, has to be articulated, too. Of the many questions that arose in this discussion, two stand out because they recurred throughout the symposium: What is the role of religion in narratives of the nation under attack? How do visions of religious ethics as a unifying force subvert or reinforce the exclusive claims of nation and land?

The second panel explored “Religious Leadership and the Role of Clergy.” Paul Hanebrink structured the session around four questions: 1) How are enemies and threats defined? 2) How do we understand theology? Religious language can be mobilized but it also has a weight of its own. 3) How do churches’ internal debates interact with outside forces? 4) What, if anything, is distinctive about European Christianity? Francesca Silano (University of Toronto), Jonathan Huener (University of Vermont), Eliot Nidam Orvieto (Yad Vashem), and Brandon Bloch (Harvard University) shared highlights of their research on, respectively, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon and his condemnation of pogroms in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution; Vatican responses to Nazi persecution of the Catholic Church in the Warthegau; The Religious of Our Lady of Sion, a Catholic order in France that reported assaults on Jews; and Protestant theologies of law and human rights in occupied Germany. In addition to big thematic issues, the discussion revealed some intriguing details, including Anna Shternshis’s observation that Soviet anti-religious propaganda depicted Tikhon as a Jew.

The third panel, facilitated by Milena Methodieva, was titled “Mobilization of Religion for National and Political Projects.” It featured the work of Roy Marom (University of Haifa), Peter Staudenmaier (Marquette University), Kateryna Budz (Kyiv, Ukraine), and Irina Ognyanova (Institute of Balkan Studies, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences). Their research took us from Palestine in the 1930s to the Rome-Berlin Axis, and explored Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Holocaust, and the Roman Catholic Church and Ustasha in Croatia. Methodieva raised issues about the role of religion in projects of national mobilization. She also noted how much can be learned from examining the so-called fringe or considering inconsistencies and tensions, for example, between an individual’s ideology and conduct.

These themes anticipated Tuesday’s session on “Religion and Violence.” Ranjana Mukhopadhyaya (University of Delhi), Ionut Biliuta (Gheorghe Sincai Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities, Romanian Academy), and Jason Tingler (Clark University) all addressed the period of the Second World War, but with a focus on Buddhism and ethno-nationalism of Japan, the Romanian Orthodox Exarchate from southern Ukraine, and genocidal violence in Chelm. Christhard Hoffmann offered six tips for making comparisons: 1) In each case we are dealing not with religion per se but religion in a social context; 2) Look at the history of ethno-religious conflict in a region; 3) Pay attention to expectations for the future; 4) Consider different forms of violence; 5) What were the roles of religious people and leaders? 6) How did ethno-religious groups react when they became targets of violence?

The value of taking a global perspective was especially evident from the intense interest in Mukhopadhyaya’s paper, the symposium’s only examination of religion in a non-western context. Yet her work had many points of contact with the other papers. The importance of prophecies was one and proselytization, also central to Biliuta’s analysis, was another. Certainly Mukhopadhyaya’s insight that any religion can become implicated in violence resonated across all the sessions.

The roundtable of facilitators provided another opportunity to make connections. Kevin Spicer led off by noting that a central question in the 2015 workshop—Christian antisemitism or Christian anti-Judaism?—had not featured in any of the presentations here. Mays raised the issue of absence: what does it mean when religion is not discussed? that it is not there or is so pervasive it goes unarticulated? She highlighted two areas that got short shrift in our deliberations: gender and lay people. Hanebrink drew attention to the question as to exactly how religious concepts are harnessed and what determines whether that project succeeds or not. He wondered about the divide between private and public religious discourses and commented that the symposium as a whole did not have much to say about Jews. For her part, Methodieva emphasized the multiple forms of each religion examined and the role of individuals, including particular personalities, in driving developments. Hoffmann returned to the thorny question of the boundaries of religion: what is religion and what is non religion? He also pointed to the importance of narratives of victimization and decline in situations of violence.

The group discussion that followed raised more big questions. Spicer asked about comparative approaches: When are comparisons helpful and when are they counterproductive and even irresponsible? Marom pointed out that we had failed to question the assumptions built into the symposium title. Hanebrink observed that the term “ethno-nationalism” is a product of the 1990s, and Mukhopadhyaya explained that ethno-nationalism can complicate a bigger nationalist project, as in India where it works against civic nationalism. Bloch urged us to think about religious language as shaping how people understand the world. Silano remarked on the importance of material support: where do the funds come from and who controls the finances? Vogt warned against essentializing religion, and Budz emphasized how religious identity substitutes for ethnic identity when there is no national state. Susannah Heschel pointed to the importance of the imperialist context and referred to John Kucich’s book, Imperial Masochism (2009), to draw attention to imperialists’ insistence on their own abjection: “Look how we suffer.” Tingler encouraged expanding the scope not only geographically but chronologically, for instance, to explore religious roots of nationalism in the Middle Ages. Carter-Chand highlighted the significance of conversion and the diversity of what being “Christian” meant, even within Central and Eastern Europe, and Biliuta added the dimension of competition between religions and religious groups.

The final component was a public program featuring Susannah Heschel and Victoria Barnett and moderated by Doris Bergen. Titled “Religion, Ethno-Nationalism, and Violence: Probing the Intersections,” it was an opportunity to hear from two people who have shaped the field. Barnett and Heschel responded to three questions: 1) How do you understand the relationship between religion, ethno-nationalism, and violence? 2) How do you respond to the Holocaust and the violence of our own times without despairing? 3) How has your thinking changed in the decades since you began your work?

Their reflections were personal, profound, and often funny. Barnett described her childhood in West Virginia and her formative experience with liberation theology at Union Theological Seminary and the Puebla Conference in the late 1970s. She also invoked Jonathan Fox’s study of the “salience of religious issues in ethnic conflicts” to underscore that religion is not always or solely a factor, but it becomes powerful when “things fall apart.” Heschel challenged us to be more concrete and precise, and she set an example by defining “religion”: a communal system of propositional attitudes related to the superhuman. She poked fun at what she called the “ghostbusters” approach to comparative genocide studies—“Find the ten factors and you win!”—and asked what happens to religion in a democracy. Does it lose its enthusiastic quality? Both she and Barnett observed that pluralism is not enough. Do we come together as liberals of different faiths or within each faith? Both speakers, and the two of them together, made a powerful impression. David Clark, a PhD student at Wycliffe College who is writing his dissertation on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called the event his “bibliography on stage.”

The full program of the symposium may be found at