Conference Report: Otto Dibelius. New Research on a Protestant Figure of the Century

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 1/2 (Summer 2023)

Conference Report: Otto Dibelius. New Research on a Protestant Figure of the Century

By Michael Heymel, Independent Scholar and Central Archives of the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau (retired)

From October 5-7, 2022, an international conference devoted to new research on the German Protestant leader Otto Dibelius took place in Marburg. It was organized by LUKAS BORMANN (Philipps University of Marburg) and MANFRED GAILUS (TU Berlin). Sixteen scholars of Protestant theology, history, culture, and religion presented papers on Otto Dibelius (1880-1967), contributing to a new perspective on this outstanding personality of German Protestantism, more than 30 years after the publication of the first and so far only biography.

The conference program, which was divided into seven thematic blocks, began with an overview of  the scholarship on Dibelius. MARTIN STUPPERICH (Hannover), whose father Robert Stupperich wrote a Dibelius biography, spoke as a personal witness. In 1967, his father was commissioned by a group around Kurt Scharf to write a biography in which he tried to capture the merits of the honoured teacher. This the publisher rejected, and so Martin then took on the difficult task of revising the first version together with his father. By his account, he and his wife, the historian AMREI STUPPERICH, wrote a significant part of the text. The emphasis was now on Dibelius’ main theme, namely the new independence of the church after 1919, insisting also to include the persecution of the Jews, since the accusation of antisemitism had been neglected by Robert Stupperich. Even in 1989, per Martin, when the biography was published, Dibelius was not perceived as an antisemite.

The next two lectures were devoted to the mentalities of the Imperial era. ALBRECHT BEUTEL (Münster) traced Dibelius’ career up to the First World War and described him as an ambitious church reformer who based his parish program on that of Emil Sulze. Appealing to a popular preaching style while organizing the complexity of his parish, he adopted ideas not only from Calvin but also from the Church of Scotland and its small congregations, which he knew from a study visit. His aim was to encourage active participation in the parish community. Dibelius saw himself as a modern Lutheran and kept his distance from Pietism. For him, the epitome of Germanness was Preussentum (Prussianism, like Bismarck and Queen Luise) was the epitome of Germanness. He interpreted the outbreak of war in 1914 as a “revelation from God”. During the Imperial period, Dibelius showed no signs of antisemitism.

WOLF-FRIEDRICH SCHÄUFELE (Marburg) went into more detail about Dibelius’ work in the First World War and came to the conclusion that although his war sermons had expressed pastoral concerns, they were strongly influenced by nationalistic phraseology and were far removed from reality. As head pastor in Lauenburg, Dibelius looked after soldiers in 1914, and a year later organized patriotic rallies in Berlin-Heilsbronnen. His ideal was the Christian state, whose morality was to be guaranteed by the church and Christianity. He considered it vital for the Wilhelmine Empire to exist as a world power. Dibelius believed in a Christian-German mission, interpreting the Great War as a just and holy war in which God was at work as Lord of History. It seemed hardly conceivable to him that God could work in such a way that would break the political power of Germans. In 1918, Dibelius joined the German National People’s Party (DNVP). At war’s end, he promoted the stab-in-the-back legend and denounced the Versailles Treaty as a satanic construct.

In the next thematic section, which revolved around the church as guardian after 1919, BENEDIKT BRUNNER (Mainz) examined the public and journalistic activities of Dibelius during the Weimar Republic in an online presentation. Dibelius stood for the national church [Volkskirche] for more than fifty years. In 1919, he saw the time had come for a free, powerful people’s church [Volkskirche]. He was the most highly informed man in the Prussian Church, publishing in seven journals by 1933. He also campaigned for religious education in state schools and called on people to rally around the Protestant church to resist de-Christianization. In 1925, Dibelius became General Superintendent of the Kurmark, at the top of the Prussian Church. In a widely publicized debate with Karl Barth, he defended the empirical church as one that bears responsibility for the people, while Barth criticized Dibelius’ triumphalist language and attitude.

TODD H. WEIR (Groningen), whose lecture was co-written and translated into German by MAURICE BACKSCHAT (Münster), examined Dibelius’ work in the Apologetische Centrale founded in Berlin-Spandau in 1921, which grappled with secularism and the ‘godless’ movement and advanced a ‘Christian world view’. Karl Barth found the language of the apologists dangerous. Dibelius considered Barth a dogmatist who was disconnected from the reality of the world and who could barely see the mission of the church. After 1945, Dibelius continued his apologetics into the Cold War. He understood the people’s church [Volkskirche] as the antithesis to secular culture and the institution which could confront secularism. In nationalism he saw positive religious energy, even as he himself participated on the apologetic front against Nazism and the German Christians (DC). By 1933, he found it increasingly difficult to distinguish himself from the right-wing fringe in his apologetics.

The fourth thematic section, which dealt with Dibelius in public debate, was opened by LUKAS BORMANN (Marburg), who gave a lecture on Dibelius’ most influential publication, the book Das Jahrhundert der Kirche [The Century of the Church] (1926), which went through six editions. It was written for an educated middle-class readership. According to Dibelius’ argument, the Lutheran Reformation purged the church. In contrast, he saw a global wave of the church and developed a Protestant cultural program that used ethnic (völkisch) and nationalist terminology. By demons he meant freethinkers, Jews, and Catholics. While sects and free churches focused on specific groups, the Protestant church encompassed the whole people. Dibelius later distanced himself from his view that the Protestant church could live with any state system. More recent research (e.g. Wolfgang Huber, Hartmut Fritz, and Benedikt Brunner) judges his program critically. It didn’t reach the general public. Instead of understanding the church as a polyseme, he polarized it and got caught between the fronts of a many-sided Protestantism.

In his online lecture, BRANDON BLOCH (Wisconsin) focused on the West German reception of Dibelius’ writing Obrigkeit [Authority] (1959). As bishop and Council Chair in the Protestant Church in Germany [EKD], situated between the divided German states, Dibelius represented a traditionally anti-communist position, while the [Confessing Church] Councils of Brethren in the EKD pleaded for a new role for the church. In 1958, East German bishops declared their loyalty to East Germany. In this context, Dibelius wanted to say something about the nature of state authority in the modern age. The term “government” (Romans 13) no longer seemed to him to be a correct translation for this. His authority document unleashed a debate in which conservative Lutherans saw an analogy between the GDR and the Third Reich, while the circle around Karl Barth and the Councils of Brethren rejected the document. Through his reactionary conservatism, Dibelius may have strengthened counter-reactions that promoted the transformation of the Protestant church into a church open to democracy and society.

JOLANDA GRASSEL-FARNBAUER (Marburg) dealt with Dibelius’ attitude to the “women question.” In doing so, she referred to the text Wir rufen Deutschland zu Gott [We call Germany to God] (1937) published by Dibelius and Martin Niemöller and to critical reactions from contemporary readers. The writing reacted to Nazi church politics and settled accounts with the German Faith Movement. In the last chapter, the authors commented on the women’s movement. They felt that women had defied their destiny when they took up paid work and sought education and public work because they were wives and mothers first. Agnes von Zahn-Harnack and the theologian Meta Eyl contradicted this, while Gertrud Eitner noted that the writing ran close to Nazi ideology. Although many women were active in the Confessing Church (BK), there was an ambivalent attitude towards women. While Dibelius allowed theologically educated women to serve in the church, they were not allowed to preach in church services and he refused to the end to ordain women.

The fifth section focused on National Socialism and “Church Struggle.” According to MANFRED GAILUS (Berlin), on the day of Potsdam (March 21, 1933), Dibelius welcomed the National Socialist Jewish policy of the first weeks of Nazi rule. Using völkisch rhetoric, he had already expected “the influx of fresh blood” in April 1932 and had seen the reawakening of faith. For him, too, the solution to the Jewish question was not to allow any immigrants from the East. Dibelius’ antisemitic attitude is well documented. He only had problems with the German Christians [DC] when he was deprived of administrative power. As an adviser to the regional Confessing Church [BK] of Brandenburg, he remained a man of the middle and did not stand for a BK parish, as the BK pastors did. Dibelius desired a great, strong, and autocratically-governed Germany but opposed the DC church government. After 1945, in the context of the Cold War, a negative image of Dibelius emerged in Eastern Germany and a positive one in Western Germany.

ANDREAS PANGRITZ (Osnabrück), who described Dibelius as an antisemite with a clear conscience, examined Dibelius’ relationship to Judaism, which is still little researched. After 1945, Dibelius glossed over his attitude. In an article from 1948, looking back on the Kristallnacht Pogrom, he did not say why the church was silent at the time, but only that it had become a duty of honor in the BK to help persecuted Jews. He also claimed that, after the euthanasia program, he had no longer been able to recognize the Nazi state as an authority, adding that he had employed two non-Aryans. A half-Jewish woman had been working for him as a secretary since 1934. As early as 1928, Dibelius admitted that he had always been an antisemite. Regarding the boycott of Jewish businesses, he wrote on April 9, 1933, in the Evangelisches Sonntagsblatt Berlin that international business capital and the press were in Jewish hands and that Jewry abroad was stirring up anti-Germany sentiment, that Jews were a foreign race, and that Eastern Jews were of dubious moral quality.

TETYANA PAVLUSH (Cardiff) was scheduled to contribute on Dibelius’ stance on denazification. She was unable to attend.

Instead, MICHAEL HEYMEL (Limburg) followed with a lecture on the relationship between Dibelius and Martin Niemöller. In a sketch of their personalities, he pointed out that a conflict of authority between the two only emerged when they met in church leadership positions. Both were Prussians, convinced monarchists and homeless national Protestants who welcomed Hitler’s rise to power, but then found themselves in the church opposition to the DC. In the Church Struggle they had acted as temporary allies, since Dibelius was only involved in the beginnings of the BK as an observer and his involvement only began in June 1934. The contrary position that Niemöller took after the end of the war was rooted in the BK’s internal divisions. This can be seen in the different assessments of the Treysa church conference. Niemöller saw Dibelius as the administrator of a church apparatus, while his opposite number saw him as a representative of an outdated church minority position.

The three lectures in the following thematic section were dedicated to the post-war period. CLAUDIA LEPP (Munich) analyzed the work of Dibelius as Bishop of Berlin (1945-1966) from four angles. In 1945, Dibelius acted as a mover and shaker in the Prussian Council of Brethren by taking up his old office again, consolidating the old structures and preventing a new order in the spirit of the Dahlemite Council of Brethren. He also took on DC and NS pastors. Secondly, in his sermons and pastoral letters, he took on the role of an interpreter of times who wanted to shape the life of the people. He compared the Federal Republic with Weimar and the GDR with the Nazi state. Thirdly, he acted as an anti-communist church fighter who valued legal security and freedom of expression in the GDR. At that time, 90 percent of the GDR population belonged to a Christian church. Dibelius fought in vain against the [Communist] Youth Consecration (Jugendweihe) because the majority of the church people were not prepared to resist. Fourthly, as a national Protestant unity fighter, he campaigned for German reunification. After 1957 he was no longer allowed to enter the GDR, but remained formally Bishop for both East and West Berlin until 1966.

HANSJÖRG BUSS (Siegen) dealt with the political and ecclesiastical opponents of the Berlin Bishop Dibelius in East Germany. He was the only East German church representative on the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany) Council and the face of the Protestant church in the 1950s. During this time, the Protestant Church in the GDR lost support. In memory of the infamous Potsdam sermon in 1933, an actor portrayed him as a cold warrior in a GDR television film. This corresponded to the tendency of the regime, which saw him as an ideological opponent, and of the press media, which caricatured him as a “NATO bishop” and the person who brought the H-bomb. With its somewhat antisemitic undertones, the GDR polemic actually strengthened Dibelius’ support in the West. In 1958, opposition to him increased among pastors in the working group in Berlin-Brandenburg. Günter Jacob, General Superintendent of Neumark since 1946, became his opponent. He did not adhere to a unified EKD and after 1960 turned against the basic order of Berlin-Brandenburg, which was tailored to Dibelius and the episcopal office.

SIEGFRIED HERMLE (Munich) examined Dibelius’ time as EKD Council Chair (1949-1961) based on his reports to the EKD Synod. The eleven-member council was intended to provide leadership and administration. Eleven people ran for the position of chair in 1949, with the clear majority of votes going to Dibelius, with Lilje as deputy. Niemöller was no longer someone about whom people could agree. For Dibelius, the focus of church life was on the regional churches. They did not want central management; only occasionally did the council need to speak publicly on their behalf. In Dibelius’ eight reports, the church-state relationship took up a lot of space. He saw that the church in Bonn was protected, but in the GDR it was increasingly exposed to propaganda. It should not allow itself to be exploited in the play of political forces. On military issues, he recognized different opinions but positioned himself against the Brotherhoods (Bruderschaften), a contrast that continues to have an impact in debates on peace issues to this day. The conservative majority of council members followed his lead.

The last thematic section dealt with Dibelius in international relations. THEA SULMAVICO (Halle) characterized Dibelius’ stance in the rearmament debate as ambivalent. The GDR press reacted to the military pastoral care contract he signed (1957) with polemics. In his 1949 work The Limits of the State, Dibelius criticized modern war. However, his criticism of the secular state was only directed against the GDR, not against the Federal Republic. For him, the Fatherland ranked higher than the state. For Dibelius, it was a question of national honor to ensure the defense of his own country. He invoked the great danger from the East and, after atomic and hydrogen bomb tests, judged the Soviets militarily superior over the West. He accused Niemöller and Heinemann of political propaganda and said that Lutherans were better at distinguishing between political questions and questions of faith than the Barthians. However, Dibelius’ unpolitical nature was not always accepted by both sides.

BERND KREBS (Berlin) spoke about Dibelius and Poland. In the 1920s, the theme was Germans under Polish rule. Two thirds of them left Poland. General Superintendent Juliusz Bursche advocated the integration of all Protestants into the Polish state. Convinced of the German mission in the East, Dibelius presented himself as strongly nationalistic in support of the interests of German Protestants in Poland. Before 1914 there were a million Protestant Christians there; after the war 350,000. German pastors were oriented to the DNVP and were considered political leaders of German identity (Deutschtum). Tensions increased in the mid-1920s. At that time, Nazi politics put the Protestant church in Posen under massive pressure. German Protestants were therefore disappointed with National Socialism. Poland remained an area of diverse cultures, and the desired Germanization failed. After 1945, Dibelius turned to the Lutherans in Poland.

An announced lecture on Dibelius’ commitment to the ecumenical movement had to be canceled due to the absence of KATHARINA KUNTER (Helsinki/Finland).

HARTMUT LEHMANN (Kiel) concluded by asking whether we now really knew who Dibelius was and whether what we had heard was coming together to form a new picture. Three facets can be recognized: 1. The pragmatic church prince Dibelius, who always claimed leadership positions. 2. The man of the political right who consistently fought the left. Like the average German Protestant of his time, he supported antisemitism and, at the beginning, also National Socialism. He integrated various positions in the EKD council. 3. Dibelius missed the opportunity to reorient the Protestant Church after 1945. An alternative approach in the sense of repentance and conversion was at least conceivable. The question of what would have happened if Dibelius had behaved differently as a church leader before and after National Socialism obviously went beyond historical research. LEPP and HERMLE noted that in this case Dibelius would not have been himself and would not have risen to the church leadership positions he held.

The conference took place with a mixture of several generations of research and a constructive atmosphere, although tensions were noticeable in the evaluation of Robert Stupperich’s work and the topic of antisemitism. One complaint would be “gaps” with regard to ecumenism and denazification. The statements about the imperial Dibelius, his relationship to Weimar, the still open question of antisemitism and Dibelius’ “tragic” post-war role between Eastern polemics and his slow retreat from it were noteworthy. The conference contributions are to be published in an anthology.