Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Conference, Lund, Sweden, September 25-26, 2019

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 4 (December 2019)

Conference Report: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Conference, Lund, Sweden, September 25-26, 2019

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University (retired)

Professor Anders Jarlert of Lund University in Sweden hosted an international conference on September 25-26, 2019, under the title, “Life-Line or Collaboration? Active contacts with churches in totalitarian societies.” This conference also served as the annual meeting of the journal, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, and papers will be printed in a subsequent volume of that journal. Finally, this conference occurred as Jarlert began his final year before retirement as a professor in the Lund Theological Faculty, thus marking possibly the last opportunity for Professor Jarlert, one of the longest-serving and most active members of the Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte Editorial Board, to host an annual conference of this group. The dozen presentations and subsequent conversations presented a wealth of information spread across much of the twentieth century and a broad group of nations, all on this important topic, the role and behavior of Christian churches in relationship to totalitarian societies.

All papers dealt in some fashion with an overarching question: Did various organizations and national churches outside Germany during the Nazi era and outside the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War extend important assistance, a “life-line,” to churches within those systems, or did they act as collaborators in the subversion of Christian ideals and Christian behaviors under totalitarian rule? In several instances, papers assessed the same question in terms of churches within those systems. As readers might suspect, the papers and discussion produced no clear, simple and conclusive answer to this question about assistance vs. collaboration. However, the papers at the conference shed light on a multitude of lesser known circumstances and participating nations in the mid-twentieth century, as will their future appearance in Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte.

Gerhard Besier, founding editor of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, opened the conference with a consideration of ongoing difficulties among Germans trying to come to a comfortable stance on Christian behavior under the Nazi state. Under the theme of “holding the line,” he noted that “people tell each other stories conducive to their purposes.” That has relevance for institutions, of course, and not just people. Besier then added that this can be difficult, especially in our modern world with its unfiltered social media adding to the mix. I will cite two examples from his presentation, the first involving the 75th anniversary of von Stauffenberg’s heroic attempt on Hitler’s life and his subsequent execution. Critics noted that von Stauffenberg had approved of National Socialism, showed no concern until his actual participation in the assassination plot, and expressed no moral reasons for his actions. Defenders of the heroic side of the story quickly responded with a claim like this, that “Klaus Schenk von Stauffenberg remains a hero and a role model,” etc. Martin Niemöller is a second example. Noting the recent biographies by Matthew Hockenos and by Benjamin Ziemann, there is a wealth of evidence both before and after 1945 that Niemöller did not always “get it right.” This includes a strongly patriotic (and militaristic) stance from his childhood, through his navy career, and in his politics up to 1933. It also includes various complicated political stances taken after 1945. Besier explored many additional complexities, including the role of Protestant pastors in the GDR. His conclusion? We are often given a narrow corridor in our lives. There is also a strong tendency to maintain the narrowness of that corridor, partially as we research and write about the past, and also as institutions try to protect the story they want told. Besier appeals for a broader opening of that conversation and a recognition of complex realities.

Many subsequent papers then illustrated the complexity to which he had alluded. For example, Valentin Jeutner of Lund described a German Protestant Church in Malmö, Sweden, serving the German population in Malmö while being administered by the German Protestant Church. Herbert Kühn, the pastor from Germany assigned in 1930, joined the NSDAP in 1935. He became an Ortsgruppenleiter among Nazis in Malmö. In 1942 he tried to volunteer for German military duty but was told his work in Malmö (on Germany’s behalf) was more important. After the war, the British produced a “list of obnoxious Germans” and urged Sweden to send them back to Germany. Kühn was sent to Lübeck. During his denazification proceedings in Germany, he lied about and hid his pro-Nazi activities, and both Martin Niemöller and Bishop Bell came to his defense. Many of the “obnoxious Germans” repatriated to Germany under British pressure simply went to Austria and then slipped back into Sweden. Kühn, however, possibly for family reasons, stayed in Germany.

Johan Sundeen of Lund then described a somewhat reverse image to Kühn, in this case, a Swedish pastor serving Swedes in Berlin, Birger Forell, As a legation pastor he had diplomatic protection, which he used in two important ways. One was to create hiding places and provide assistance to Jews in Berlin. Another was to write anonymous quarterly reports to a Swedish journal, thus telling Swedes and the outside world about horrors unfolding for Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime.

Anders Jarlert described another Swedish figure of the time, Erling Eidem, Bishop of Uppsala. He is less known than Bishop Bell of England. He is also less known than his predecessor as Bishop of Uppsala, Nathan Soderblöm, a vital figure in creating the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century and recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Jarlert, however, described subtle efforts by Eidem to speak to the politics of the Nazi regime and to the plight of Jews, especially with his use of a sermon text, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16, KJV). This was the text of a sermon he gave in Berlin in 1942 at the Gustavus Adolphus celebration that year. Jarlert pointed out that in German this text becomes plural, “Jews” and “Greeks,” and argued that Eidem was well aware of how powerful it would sound in Germany in 1942. Jarlert also cited other speeches and sermons with subtle political content, an emphasis in Oslo in 1940 of the close bond between Norwegians and Swedes. In both 1940 and 1943, he spoke about “our beloved Danes” while wishing God’s blessing upon them. Eidem also spoke on various occasions in Germany. Jarlert’s discussion of Eidem illustrates some of the complications implicit in this conference, suggesting that Bishop Eidem employed just enough collaboration to allow him also to give a “life-line” to his audience, whether in Norway, Denmark, or Germany itself.

Rebecca Carter-Chand, a member of our CCHQ Editorial Board, spoke at this Lund meeting, describing her work on the International Salvation Army in connection to the German Heilsarmee in the Nazi era. During World War I, the Heilsarmee had broken its connection to the international Salvation Army based in Britain. This connection was then reestablished after the war, and the Heilsarmee played a useful role during the years of need in the Weimar era. The rise of Hitler in 1933 created some talk of another break of the British connection. However, that moment passed. By October 1934, General Evangeline Booth wrote to Hitler of her “deepest appreciation” of the social improvements in Germany under his leadership. The 50th Anniversary of the Salvation Army then coincided with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Kriegsruf of the Heilsarmee in September 1936 reported the good news that slums no longer existed in Germany and referenced a “Prayer for the Führer, Volk, and Vaterland, and for world peace,” while including pictures of the Nazi flag and of men in uniform. In the summer of 1939 General Evangeline Booth spoke of “bonds between us that could not be broken,” as reported in an issue of Kriegsruf that appeared in September 1939 (!). Carter-Chand noted that Heilsarmee literature at the time made no reference to the November Pogrom of 1938 or the disappearance of Jews from 1941. Furthermore, these important issues received little or no reference in early memoirs, and they remain without critical reflection today.

I encourage CCHQ readers to pay attention to the future KZG issue which will print the presentations I have mentioned, plus the balance of other conference papers as well. This will include presentations by Andrea Strübind on the relationship of Baptists to various World Federations in the Nazi era; Mikael Hermansson on “the Soviet Union in British and Swedish religious propaganda” during World War II; Erik Andersson on Axel Svensson’s “meeting with Lutheran groups in Ethiopia and Eritrea under Italian occupation;” Gerhard Ringshausen on “George Bell’s Relation to the Confessing Church and the Problem of Information;” Anna-Maija Viljanen-Pihkala on “The Finnish-Hungarian Lutheran Relationship” during the fraught years of 1956-1958; Ville Jalovaara on a “Test of religious freedom—Richard Wurmbrand’s visits to Finland in the 1970s;” and Erik Sidenvall on a 1975-1989 connection between the Växjö diocese in Sweden and the Pomeranian Church in the GDR, a well-meaning effort at peace and détente on the Swedish side that gradually lost momentum in the mid-1980s and then suffered after November 1989 with word of the Stasi connections of the Bishop of Pomerania.

As readers will note, my already rather long report will be replaced by a much more extensive version of considerable interest when the papers appear in print in 2020.