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

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 3/4 (Fall 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)

Translated from the German by Martin R. Menke

Editor’s note: the translation has hewed closely to the original German of the conference report. In a few instances some linguistic liberties were taken to ensure readability in English, but we have tried to minimize these. On occasion the original German terms are retained in square brackets to clarify a translation.

From October 5 to 7, 2022, an international conference on [Otto] Dibelius took place in Marburg. LUKAS BORMANN of the Phillips University Marburg and MANFRED GAILUS of the Technical University Berlin organized the event. The organizers selected talks by sixteen scholars active in Protestant theology and historical, cultural, and religious scholarship on Otto Dibelius (1886-1967). The conference’s purpose was to develop a new understanding of this extraordinary personality in German Protestantism for the first time since the publication of his first and, so far, only biography thirty years ago.

The conference program consisted of seven thematic sessions. The first session featured contributions to the historiography concerning Dibelius. MARTIN STUPPERICH (Hannover) reported as a witness to the creation of the Dibelius biography written by his father, Robert Stupperich. In 1967, a group around Kurt Scharf had tasked the elder Stupperich with writing a biography to honor their esteemed teacher. The publisher, however, rejected the first draft. Subsequently, the son, Martin, took on the difficult task of revising the first draft with his father. Working with his wife, the doctorally qualified historian Amrei Stupperich, Martin Stupperich claimed to have composed a significant part of the [published] manuscript. He centered the biography on the theme of the church’s independence after 1919, one of Dibelius’s most important concerns. Martin Stupperich sought to mention the persecution of the Jews because originally Robert Stupperich had not focused on accusations of antisemitism against Dibelius. When the biography appeared in 1989, Dibelius was not perceived as an antisemite.

The two following presentations were dedicated to the intellectual formation of Dibelius in late Imperial Germany. ALBRECHT BEUTEL (Münster) traced Dibelius’ development before the First World War and described him as an ambitious church reformer who oriented his thinking about parishes and parish activities on the work of Emil Sulze. Pleading for a form of preaching easily understood by the people, which Dibelius connected to a differentiated parish organizational program, he engaged the ideas of Calvin and his experience gained while studying abroad in the Church of Scotland and its small parishes. Dibelius sought to encourage parishes actively to participate in the life of the church. In his work, Dibelius considered himself a modern Lutheran and kept his distance from pietism. Dibelius embraced much of the Prussian tradition from Queen Louise to Bismarck, which to him embodied Germany. While he interpreted the outbreak of war in 1914 as a divine epiphany, his writing from the period reveals no trace of antisemitism.

WOLF-DIETRICH SCHÄUFFELE (Marburg) analyzed Dibelius’ activities during the First World War. Schäuffele concluded that his wartime sermons concerned pastoral concerns but were influenced by nationalist phraseology and far removed from the reality of the front. As a superior pastor in Lauenburg, he served soldiers’ needs. A year later, he conducted patriotic rallies in the Protestant Berlin parish of Heilsbronnen. The Christian state was his ideal, whose morality should be guaranteed by the church and Christianity. He also considered Germany’s status as a world power to be essential. Dibelius believed in a Christian German mission, and he understood the war as a just and holy war in which God, as the Lord of history, was continuing his work of creation. It seemed incredible to him that God should permit the political might of Germans to break. In 1918, Dibelius joined the DNVP.[1] At war’s end, he advocated the stab-in-the-back legend and decried the Treaty of Versailles as a satanic construct.

In the next session, which concerned itself with the church as guardian after 1919, BENEDIKT BRUNNER (Mainz) presented a talk online in which he analyzed the public and publishing activity of Dibelius in the Weimar Republic. For more than fifty years, Dibelius called for a people’s church (Volkskirche). In 1919, he considered it time for a free, strong people’s church. Dibelius claimed he was the best-informed man of the Prussian Church, who published until 1933 in seven journals. Furthermore, he supported religious instruction in public schools and called upon the people to gather around the Protestant church to resist secularization. In 1925, Dibelius became General Superintendent of the Kurmark and assumed the leadership of the Prussian church. In a much discussed and observed debate with Karl Barth, Dibelius used triumphalist language to defend the imperial church and its responsibility for the people.

TODD H. WEIR (Groningen), whose presentation had been prepared in part and translated by MAURICE BACKSCHAT (Münster), addressed the work of Dibelius at the Apologetical Center, founded in Berlin Spandau in 1921. From a Protestant perspective, the center engaged with secularization and the German atheist [Gottlosen] movement. It advocated a Christian worldview. Karl Barth considered the language of apologetics dangerous. Dibelius saw in Barth a dogmatic, disconnected from the world’s reality, who hardly understood the church’s mission. After 1945, Dibelius continued his apologetic work during the Cold War. Dibelius conceived the people’s church [Volkskirche] as a counterpoint to secular culture, which the church should engage. Dibelius recognized positive religious energies in nationalism but envisioned himself on the apologetic front against National Socialism and the German Christian movement. Until 1933, he found it increasingly difficult to delimit the boundary between his apologetics and the right-wing margins.

The fourth session analyzed Dibelius’ engagement in public debate. LUKAS BORMANN (Marburg) opened the session with a presentation about Dibelius’ most influential work, The Century of the Church, which was first published in 1926 and appeared in six further editions. Dibelius addressed his work to the educated reading middle class. Dibelius’ thesis held that the Lutheran Reformation had eliminated the church. He saw a wave of churches on a global scale and developed a Protestant cultural program that employed racial and national socialist terminology.[2] He identified freethinkers, Jews, and Catholics as demons. He argued that, while sects and the German free churches formed distinct groups, the church aimed to include everyone. At the time, Dibelius claimed that the Protestant church could co-exist with any form of government; later faced with the GDR, he relativized that position. More recent research (for example, from Wolfgang Huber, Hartmut Fritz, and Benedikt Brunner) is more critical of Dibelius’ program. He did not reach the broader masses. Instead of recognizing the church as polysemous, he polarized it and thus found himself between the fronts of a diverse Protestantism.

BRANDON BLOCK (Wisconsin) gave a virtual presentation in which he concentrated on the West German reception of Dibelius’ work Authority [Obrigkeit], published in 1959. As bishop and chairman of the Council of the Protestant Churches (EKD) in Germany, Dibelius took a traditional anti-communist position. At the same time, the Councils of Brethren sought a new role for the church. In 1958, the East German bishops professed their loyalty to the GDR. Given the situation, Dibelius wanted to make a statement about the nature of state authority. The term “authority” [Obrigkeit] (Romans 13) no longer seemed to be an adequate interpretation. Dibelius’ new work sparked a debate in which conservative Lutherans recognized an analogy between the GDR and the Third Reich. The circle around Karl Barth and the Councils of Brethren rejected Dibelius’ text. They claimed that, with his reactionary conservatism, Dibelius may have strengthened counter-reactions, which encouraged the transformation of the Protestant church into a church open to democracy and society.

JOLANDA GRÄSSEL-FARNBAUER (Marburg) addressed Dibelius’ position on women’s issues. She analyzed the work We Call Germany to God [Wir rufen Deutschland zu Gott] (1937), published by Dibelius and Martin Niemöller. She also studied critical reactions by contemporary female readers. We Call Germany responded to National Socialist church politics and criticized the German Christian movement. In the last chapter, the authors explained their view of the women’s movement. They thought women had contravened their destiny when they went to work for pay and sought education and public works. First and foremost, they were to be wives and mothers. Agnes von Zahn-Harnack contradicted this view, and  theologians Meta Eyl and Gertrud Eitner identified an affinity of the text with National Socialist ideology. Although many women were active in the Confessing Church, it remained ambivalent on the question of women’s roles. Dibelius conceded to theologically educated women a role of service in the church but not the proclamation [of the gospel] in religious worship. Until the end, he refused to ordain women.

The fifth session focused on National Socialism and the church struggle [Kirchenkampf]. According to MANFRED GAILUS (Berlin), at the opening of Parliament in Potsdam (March 21, 1933), Dibelius welcomed the National Socialist regime’s initial antisemitic policies. Using racist rhetoric, he [claimed] he had expected the “inflow of fresh blood” [“das Einströmen frischen Blutes”] as early as April 1932 and believed in a resurgence of faith. For him, the solution to the Jewish question was to prevent immigration from Eastern Europe. Dibelius’ antisemitic attitude, Gailus claimed, was amply documented. He did not encounter problems with the German Christian movement until he lost his administrative power. As an advisor to the regional Confessing Church of Brandenburg, he remained a man in the middle. He was never a Confessing Church pastor in a Confessing Church parish. Dibelius desired a large, strong, autocratically governed Germany but rejected the hierarchy of the German Christians. After 1945, a negative understanding of Dibelius developed in East Germany; in West Germany, he was seen more positively.

ANDREAS PANGRITZ (Osnabrück) studied the poorly-explored relationship of Dibelius to Jews. Pangritz considered him an antisemite with a clear conscience. After 1945, Dibelius sought to relativize his views. In an article published in 1948, in a retrospective on the Reichspogrom,[3] he did not explain why the church had remained silent. Still, he did emphasize that it was a duty of honor for the Confessing Church to help persecuted Jews. He also claimed that, after euthanasia,[4] he could no longer acknowledge the National Socialist state as an authority. He declared that he had employed two non-Aryans. Since 1934, he had employed a “half-Jew” as a secretary. Already in 1928, Dibelius confessed that he had always been an antisemite. Regarding the boycott of Jewish stores in 1933, Dibelius wrote on April 9 in the Protestant Sunday newspaper of Berlin [Evangelischen Sonntagsblatt Berlin] that the international economy and the international press were in Jewish hands. He continued that Jews abroad were rallying against Germany. He concluded that Jews were a foreign race and Eastern Jews were of questionable moral character.

TETYANA PAVLUSH (Cardiff) had been scheduled to speak on Dibelius’s attitude towards denazification. Because she canceled her talk, MICHAEL HEYMEL (Limburg) presented a talk on the relationship between Dibelius and Martin Niemöller. In a sketch of their personalities, he pointed out that there had been no conflict of authority until both occupied high leadership posts in the church. Both were Prussians, convinced monarchists, and homeless [heimatlose] national Protestants. They welcomed Hitler’s seizure of power but found themselves in ecclesiastical opposition to the German Christians. During the Kirchenkampf, they acted as allies for a time. Dibelius was initially only an observer of the Confessing Church and began his full cooperation only in June 1934. The opposition position that Niemöller assumed after the war’s end originated in the Confessing Churches’ internal fissures. This is evident in the differing evaluations of the church conference at Treysa. Niemöller considered Dibelius the bureaucratic leader of an ecclesiastical administration, while Dibelius considered Niemöller the representative of a superseded ecclesiastical minority.

The three papers of the following session were devoted to the post-war era. CLAUDIA LEPP (München) analyzed the work of Dibelius as a bishop of Berlin (1945-1966) under four aspects. First, in 1945, when he resumed his office in the Prussian Council of Brethren, Dibelius acted as a strongman, solidified old structures, and prevented a reorganization as the Council of Elders around Niemöller intended. In his work, he included both German Christian and National Socialist pastors. Second, in his sermons and pastoral letters, he assumed the position of someone who could analyze and interpret contemporary affairs, in order to frame and structure the life of the people. He also compared the Federal Republic with the Weimar Republic and the GDR with the National Socialist state. Thirdly, he acted as an anti-communist engaged in a church struggle, insisting on the rule of law and freedom of opinion in the GDR. At the time, ninety percent of the GDR’s population belonged to a Christian church. Dibelius struggled in vain against the Socialist Youth Ceremony of Jugendweihe, since most Protestants were unwilling to resist the government’s ritual. Fourth, he acted as a national Protestant activist for the reunification of Germany. By 1957, he was banned from entering the GDR but formally remained a bishop of East and West Berlin until 1966.

HANSJÖRG BUSS (Siegen) focused on the East German political and ecclesiastical opponents of Dibelius as bishop of Berlin. He was the only East German representative on the Council of the Lutheran Church of Germany and, during the 1950s, he was the face of the Protestant church. During this time, the Protestant church in the GDR lost public support. In a film produced by East German television, Dibelius was portrayed as a cold warrior based on his notorious sermon at Potsdam in 1933. This reflected the East German regime’s tendency to see him as an ideological opponent. In East German media, he was portrayed in caricatures as a NATO bishop and purveyor of the hydrogen bomb. While the East German polemic against Dibelius included antisemitic overtones, it increased his support in the West. In 1958, opposition among the pastors of Berlin-Brandenburg increased. Günter Jacob, Superintendent of the Neumark since 1946, became his primary opponent. Jacob did not insist on a unified Protestant church in Germany and, after 1960, turned against the structure of the Church of Berlin-Brandenburg, which was tailored to Dibelius and the office of the bishop.

SIEGFRIED HERMLE (München) used the annual reports written by Dibelius to analyze his tenure in office as chair of the Council of the Lutheran Church in Germany [Rat der evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland] (1949-1961). The council consisted of eleven members and was intended to lead and administer. Eleven individuals ran for the chair’s position in the 1949 elections. A clear majority voted for Dibelius and Lilje as his deputy. Niemöller was no longer capable of gaining a majority. For Dibelius, the churches in the German states represented the central points of German Protestantism. The individual churches did not want a strong central leadership. The Council of the Lutheran Church in Germany should only occasionally speak publicly in the name of the individual churches. In the eight annual reports filed by Dibelius, relations between church and state took up much space. He believed Bonn protected the church while, in the GDR, the church was increasingly exposed to propaganda. He argued that the Church should not let itself be abused in the competition of political forces. He acknowledged differences of opinion in military matters but disagreed with the Councils of Brethren. This was a contrast that influences debates concerning peace to this day. The conservative majority of the Councils of Brethren agreed with him.

The last session concerned Dibelius on the international stage. THEA SULMAVICO (Halle) characterized Dibelius’ position in the rearmament debate as ambivalent. The GDR press responded with polemics when he signed the agreement on pastoral care in the military (1957). Dibelius, in The Boundaries of the State [Die Grenzen des Staates] of 1949, criticized modern war. His criticism of the secular state was aimed only at the GDR, not against the Federal Republic. For Dibelius, the Fatherland had a higher priority than the state. It was a matter of national honor to provide for the defense of one’s own country. He warned against the great danger from the East. After atomic and hydrogen bomb tests, he believed the Soviet Union to possess superiority over the West. He accused Niemöller and Heinemann[5] of political propaganda. He claimed Lutherans were better than the followers of Barth in keeping separate political questions and questions of faith. Neither side ever entirely accepted Dibelius’ claim that he was unpolitical.

BERND KREBS (Berlin) discussed Dibelius’ relationship with Poland. In the 1920s, the primary focus was on Germans under Polish rule. Two-thirds of these Germans left Poland. General Superintendent Juliusz Barsche advocated the integration of all Protestants in the Polish state. Dibelius was convinced of a German mission in the East. Using strongly nationalist tones, he represented the interests of German Protestants in Poland. Before 1914, the region included a million Protestant Christians; after the war, only 350,000 remained. German pastors [in Poland] followed the DNVP party line and were considered leaders in ethnic German circles. In the mid-1920s, tensions worsened. National Socialist policies exerted massive pressure on the Protestant church in Posen. German Protestants in Poland were disappointed by National Socialism. Poland remained a realm of different cultures, in which the desired Germanification failed. After 1945, Dibelius concerned himself with the Lutherans in Poland.

A promised presentation on Dibelius’ active participation in the Ecumenical Movement had to be canceled because KATHARINA KUNTER (Helsinki) could not attend. HARTMUT LEHMANN (Kiel) summarized the conference and asked if anyone actually knew who Dibelius was. Did the presentations together constitute a new understanding of Dibelius? Three facets, Lehmann argued, were recognizable: 1. Dibelius was a prince of the church who always claimed leadership roles. 2. He was a man of the political right who consistently combated the left. Like the average German Protestant of his age, he supported antisemitism and initially also National Socialism. He integrated individuals from different backgrounds into the Council of the Protestant Churches of Germany. 3. After 1945, Dibelius missed the opportunity for a new orientation of the Protestant Church. One could at least imagine an alternative behavior marked by repentance and reversal. The question of what might have happened if Dibelius, as leader of the church, had acted differently before and after National Socialism would go beyond historical scholarship. LEPP and HERMLE remarked that, in such an instance, Dibelius would not have been himself and would not have risen to the church leadership positions he held.

The conference took place with relatively good participation by female scholars within a mixture of several generations of scholars and a constructive atmosphere. Nonetheless, in evaluating the work of Robert Stupperich’s discussion of antisemitism, tensions became evident. Relating to ecumenicism and denazification, gaps in the scholarship were regrettably noticed. New were the investigations of Dibelius during the Kaiserzeit[6] and his relationship to the Weimar era. On the question of antisemitism and Dibelius’ “tragic” post-war role between polemics and his slow distancing from them, the final word has not been spoken. The contributions to the conference are to be published in an edited volume.

[1] Editor’s note: German National People’s Party, a right-wing conservative nationalist party.

[2] Translator’s note: the preceding two sentences are contradictory in the original German.

[3] Editor’s note: the pogrom of November 9, 1938.

[4] Editor’s note: the Nazis’ T-4 “euthanasia” program.

[5] Editor’s note: Gustav Heinemann, at the time President of the Synod of German Churches and Minister of the Interior under Konrad Adenauer.

[6] Editor’s note: refers to the period 1871-1918.