Article Note: Andrew H. Beattie, “‘Lobby for the Nazi Elite’? The Protestant Churches and Civilian Internment in the British Zone of Occupied Germany, 1945–1948”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 4 (December 2017)

Article Note: Andrew H. Beattie, “‘Lobby for the Nazi Elite’? The Protestant Churches and Civilian Internment in the British Zone of Occupied Germany, 1945–1948,” German History 35, no. 1 (2017): 43-70.

By Connor Sebestyen, University of Toronto

As with the best of case studies, Beattie’s examination of the work of Protestant clergy in civilian internment camps in the British zone of occupation forces historians to reconsider an established narrative. In “Lobby for the Nazi Elite?”, Beattie calls for “differentiation” and nuance in explaining whom the Church helped in the immediate postwar years and why. As the story went, the German Protestant and Catholic Churches both supported former Nazis and war criminals and opposed the Allied occupation governments; in doing so they largely ignored the wellbeing of the victims of the Nazi regime. Beattie does not downplay the German Protestant clergy’s fervent advocacy on behalf of war criminals but seeks to put these actions in a wider context of German Church help to the roughly 400,000 civilian internees that were held by the Allies during the occupation years. The German Protestant Church saw POWs, internees, expellees from the East, and convicted war criminals as part of the same group of “Germans in foreign captivity”. So in order to fully understand the intertwined motivations and circumstances that led to Church officials becoming so actively involved both in opposition to and cooperation with the occupation governments, we need to keep this context in mind.

Drawing on Protestant Church archives throughout the region of the former British zone of occupation, Beattie contends that it was not a small group of activist clergy who were conspiring to aid the ‘Nazi elite’, but rather that “Protestant internee work was a collective endeavour supported by an extensive bureaucracy” that was coordinated at a regional and national level. The article outlines how the Protestant Church organized its aid efforts and how this aid evolved from fulfilling immediate basic needs like “Seelsorge” (pastoral care) and communication with families to providing “Fürsorge” (material welfare) and eventually to focusing primarily on legal services. Beattie points out that a lot of these activities were coordinated with the British authorities, arguing that the occupation government shared many goals with the Church clergy and that they spent at least as much time working together as partners as they did as antagonists.

Beattie’s article has done a good job of showing that “…Protestant internee work in the British zone was even more extensive [and well organized] than previously recognized.” He also expands on existing explanations of the Church’s support for internees, primarily based on a refusal to confront the past and ideological reasons, to include “interconfessional rivalry, national solidarity and the lack of a German government”, and most importantly a genuine opposition to extrajudicial internment itself. Beattie also criticizes Robert P. Eriksen’s claim that there was “a willingness to give church support to almost any alleged war criminal”, and instead argues that responses from clergy were “… more diverse and ambiguous, than previously recognized.” In support of this claim, he alludes to a couple of examples of individual pastors who refused to help certain internees, in part because of their criminal pasts. We should be careful that these examples are not just outliers and do in fact constitute a significant trend that could overturn Eriksen’s description of sweeping and undiscerning Church support. American, British, and French archives are filled with thousands of letters that their occupation governments received from German clergy petitioning for clemency on behalf of war criminals, and many stated that they were doing so out of a sense of universal Christian forgiveness, regardless of the crimes these men had committed. Therefore, an avenue for further research could be to more definitively establish the balance between those pastors who uncritically supported war criminals and those pastors who were more discerning with their advocacy and turned them away.