Religion and Politics in Germany since 1945: The Evangelical and Catholic Churches
Ramet, Sabrina P., Journal of Church and State
Examining the nature of political opposition on the part of Christian ecclessiastical bodies in the twentieth century demonstrates that while churches have adapted to a variety of political systems, no church can compromise with the state when its "mission" is at stake: those factors which are minimally essential for its survival. These would include the liberty of priests, nuns, and other clerics to carry out their sacerdotal tasks, the preserTation under church control of its facilities, control of the contents of its own theology, and other ability to enforce adherence to the core sexual-marital ethics of the religious body. While everything else may be open to negotiation-as the case or Lutheran Church policy under Bishop Zoltan Kaldy in socialist Hungary makes clear1-when a state infringes on these core interests, church resistance is sharp, as the Nazis discovered in 1937 when Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical, "Mit Brennender Sorge." The pontiff condemned the regime for the establishment of the German Christian Movement with its neo-pagan trappings and racist ideology, the wholesale arrest of Catholic priests, and the closure of Catholic schools, and declared:
Whoever raises race or nation or state or state form or the agents of state authority or other values of human communal life-which within the terrestrial order have an essential and honorable place-to the highest norm of all, taking it out of the merely temporal scale of values to turn it into a religious value, making it the object of idolatry, inverts and adulterates the God-created and divinely ordained scheme of things.2
However, "mission" interests must be distinguished from "programmatic" interests, which embrace social values which the church wants to see protected (for example, specific human rights, the proscription of abortion or gay/lesbian marriage, etc.). A case study of the two principal churches of Germany-the Roman Catholic and the EvangelicalLutheran-in the postwar period demonstrates that while the Evangelical Church has displayed more resilience under authoritarian systems, the Roman Catholic Church has tended to be much more politically active in democratic systems, openly voicing criticisms of the government and taking stands that oppose popular preferences. Differences in the theological mindset of Catholics and Evangelicals make for dif ferences in the understanding of programmatic interests. For the Roman Catholic Church, the distinction between "the flock" (baptized Catholics) and those "outside the flock" is fundamental. Accordingly, while Catholic prelates give high priority to the needs of "the flock," non-Catholics are treated as distinctly less important, indeed possibly of no interest to the Church at all. During the Second World War, for example, Catholic prelates in Germany and Croatia took few steps to protest the incarceration and liquidation of Jews and other nonCatholics,3 but protested vehemently once the position of the Catholic Church was threatened. Michael Cardinal Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich, took the Nazi regime to task on this issue, declaring on New Year's Eve 1941:
While Catholic soldiers serve at the front standing shoulder to shoulder with other German men, bearing the same burdens and trials, and bringing the same heroic sacrifice of blood; while the Catholics at home make the same sacrifices, contribute to the same collections whether required or voluntary-the Church is being treated with constant suspicion, spied upon and subjected to special regulations; Church and parochial facilities are commandeered as if they were nothing more than private residences.4
The leitmotiv of Catholic political behavior in authoritarian systems is not opposition, but compromise-though not without limits.
For Germany's Protestants, on the other hand, the understanding of "programmatic" interests was fundamentally shaped by the concept of the "two kingdoms"-a concept articulated by both Martin Luther and John Calvin. On this understanding, programmatic interests related to the Heavenly Kingdom are beyond compromise, while those of the Earthly Kingdom are primarily the concern of the civil authorities. In this sphere, the church should content itself with providing moral counsel.5 Demarcating the Heavenly Kingdom from the Earthly Kingdom may be simpler in theory than in practice, judging from the controversies which arose following the Nazis' rise to power. The main body of the German Evangelical Church (under Reichsbischof Ludwig Miller) came to terms with Nazi theological innovation and, in 1934, endorsed National Socialism as a "healthy and correct orientation" which "corresponds to our history."6 But a part of the Evangelical Church found this degree of accommodation unacceptable and, later that same year, declared the founding of the so-called Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), objecting to Nazi intrusions into Christian theology and ecclesiastical administration and rejecting the accommodative posture of the church leadership.7 Pastor Martin Niemoller played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Confessing Church, in which Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a prominent figure.
THE ALLIED OCCUPATION AND THE LEGACY OF THE NAZI ERA, 1945-1949
In the wake of Naziism, the social role of religion was a matter of some interest to Allied occupation authorities, as reflected in the establishment of a coordinated Allied Religious Affairs Committee in August 1945. The Americans and British agreed that a restoration of "traditional" relationships between church and political authorities was desirable, by which they understood, inter alia, that the churches abstain from the promotion of "subversive political activities."8
Perhaps surprisingly, a certain animosity quickly developed between theologian Martin Niemoller, a leading figure in the erstwhile Confessing Church, and the American authorities. Niemoller, who had freely criticized the Nazis and thus been imprisoned, could scarcely have been expected to temper himself under American occupation. He not only criticized the American authorities to their faces, in autumn 1945, for their headlong internment of large numbers of suspected Nazis, but even told them that their methods made it difficult to see any difference between democracy and Naziism.9 Along similar lines, Bishop Theophil Wurm of Wurttemberg expressed his opposition to de-Nazification on the grounds that it was up to God alone to pass judgment on the consequences of obedience to human authority.10 On 1 February 1948, the church leadership of Hessen and Nassau, under the leadership of Niemoller, issued an unusually sharp remonstration against de-Nazification, claiming that it had instituted measures reminiscent of "the terrifying years just ended."11
Although French occupation authorities respected the general principles of religious freedom and noninterference in religious affairs, their religious policy was nuanced by their hope of wooing the Saarland into an open embrace of French annexation (a policy previously attempted after World War I) through the creation of an autonomous Evangelical Church of the Saarland, and briefly considered removing Otto Wehr of the Rhineland Church, insofar as he appeared to be "the decisive obstacle to our mutual understanding."12
The Soviet occupation authorities largely followed the Allied line on religion. Some churchmen had feared that Stalin would introduce tough antireligious measures, but Stalin hoped to avoid a showdown so soon after hostilities had ended-at least while American troops were still in Europe. He also hoped to trade German unification for a pledge of guaranteed German neutrality, accompanied by German disarmament. As a result, the Soviet authorities moved cautiously, and did nothing, for example, to hinder the restoration of the Evangelical Church.
understandably, the entire question of responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Third Reich posed an enormous dilemma for Germans. While no one argued that every single German had personally killed Jews or participated in other atrocities, many persons, especially non-Germans, felt that, in some general sense, all Germans shared in a collective guilt for what had been perpetrated in the years 1933-1945. Catholic and Protestant leaders both had welcomed Hitler's rise to power, hoping that he would "bring clarity out of confusion, restore morality in place of decadence, and national self respect instead of guilt and humiliation."13 The Christian churches, for whom questions of sin, guilt, penitence, and atonement are central, were constrained to take a position on the issue. For the Catholic Church, this question had both historical and theological aspects. In historical terms, Catholic churchmen were aware that their church had been pusillanimous in its support of the Weimar Republic and had, in that way, played into the hands of the National Socialists.14 The Holy See had, moreover, by signing a Concordat with Hitler, shown a readiness to come to terms with Naziism. The historical record was undeniable, and thus embarrassing. In theological terms, however, the Catholic Church felt much surer of itself. Basing itself on the intertwined notions of individual responsibility, individual sin, and individual redemption (or damnation), the Catholic Church felt, as Bishop Clemens von Galen put it, "If anyone today contends that the entire German population and each of us made himself guilty through atrocities committed by members of our population during the war, that is unjust."15 Pope Pius XII set the theological tone in an address in June 1945. It was not Germans, or German Catholics, who were to blame for the Holocaust; it was Nazis. Hence, for the church, each German was expected to shoulder responsibility only for what she or he had personally done or omitted to do. At stake, implicitly if not explicitly, was the legitimacy of the Catholic Church's strategy of compromising on programmatic issues, in order to protect the core mission interests. Rather than defending the strategy on its own terms, Catholic apologists tried instead to play down the accommodationist aspects of church behavior in the Nazi era and instead played up instances of criticism, such as Pope Pius XII's first encyclical, "Summi Pontificatus" (20 October 1939), which "warned against theories which denied the unity of the human race and against the deification of the state."16
The Evangelical Church adopted a less self righteous posture, and, in October 1945, leading figures of the Evangelical Church met in Stuttgart and drew up what came to be called the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt. In this Confession, Protestant leaders admitted a certain degree of culpability with the words, "We accuse ourselves of not having been more courageous, of not having prayed more sincerely, of not having believed more joyously, and of not having loved more burningly."17 By today's standards, this admission sounds tepid and half hearted, but few Germans were prepared to go further. Indeed, the admission provoked demands in the press that "the Church should not express itself on political matters."18 There were, of course, a few clergymen who were prepared to go much further. One of these was the irrepressible Niemoller, who told a meeting of some 1,200 students in Erlangen, in February 1946, "I am responsible for what happens among the German people. We Christians must accept and recognize our guilt.... For we Christians in Germany have been guilty...." Niemoller went further yet:
Now six million Jews, an entire people, were murdered in our midst and in our name. When are we going to come to terms with this reality? If I were to ask one of you (concerning some particular atrocity), he would at once answer, `For that you must ask the Ortsgruppenleiter. What could I do?' And the Ortsgruppenleiter will refer me to the Gauleiter, and so forth until we are referred all the way to the Court Hall at #22. And what will they say? Well, we hear it every day: they pass the buck to those three people, those three who are happily out of the way: Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels.19
These were, of course, fighting words, and there were many who were not prepared to stand for such talk. In the days after Niemoller's talk, militaristic and nationalistic pamphlets flooded the University of Erlangen in response.
The Stuttgart Confession signalled the beginning of an era of "political Protestantism," as Dennis Bark and David Gress note. The operative assumption of Protestant Church leaders henceforth was "that the old separation of Church and state must now be overcome by ecclesiastical and theological involvement in political and social issues."20
Ironically, the churches' first big battle in post-war Germany involved the issue of de-Nazification, which the occupation authorities, and especially the Americans, wanted implemented in the most ambitious terms possible. The churches led what was, in essence, a popular revolt against de-Nazification-a revolt on behalf of their "flocks." By March 1948, the de-Nazification program had been revised twice and only 32,000 persons were ultimately affected; six months later, the program was essentially terminated.
THE CHURCHES IN WEST GERMANY, 1949-90
In the Federal Republic, an attempt was made to return to the pattern of Weimar Germany, but with two important differences: first, there would be specific assurances of the autonomy of the churches; and second, the churches would play a vital role as the conscience of the nation. In a letter of November 1948, addressed to Konrad Adenauer, chair of the Parliamentary Council, Bishop Wurm had set out the Evangelical Church's views concerning the importance of ecclesiastical autonomy, special protections for the family, and a recognition of the right of parents to educate their children in confessional schools. The Catholic Church, for its part, argued strongly for the notion "that parents possess a God-given right to have their children educated in state-financed schools where they could be taught by Catholic teachers and given instruction in history, literature, and so on, in a `Catholic spirit.'"21 In so saying, the Catholic Church was taking advantage of the democratic setting to press for concessions to its programmatic interests.
For the Catholic Church, the 1950s were an age of triumphalism in which no sense of guilt was allowed to intrude into the general sense of self=satisfaction.22 Both churches benefited from the constitutionally guaranteed church tax, which is collected by the district tax officers from citizens listed as members of the two large church organizations and turned over to those churches. Consisting of a supplement of 8-10 percent of the basic tax, the church tax has provided a generous source of revenue for the Federal Republic's Christian Churches. Between 1961 and 1968, the tax income of the Roman Catholic Church rose from DM 700 million to DM 1.3 billion, while that of the Protestant Churches rose fivefold in the years 1953-1968.(23) In 1986, for example, the Evangelical Church and the Roman Catholic Church received each about DM 5.8 billion from the church tax.24
The church tax notwithstanding, the churches have jealously guarded their independence-an independence reflected, inter alia, in the fragmented voting patterns of believers.25 But should this be the independence of relative aloofness or the independence of critical engagement? On this point, German ecclesiastical figures were divided. Arguing for a posture of aloofness from politics, Ernst Wolf, a Protestant theologian at Gottingen University, put it this way:
"The (Evangelical Church) has no political program at all because it has no interests at all of its own to pursue.
"The Church cannot be associated with a political program even to the extent of moral obligation without losing something of itself.
"I know of no contemporary program of `Christian policy' whose Christianity can be clearly and convincingly formulated without contradictions, at least from the Protestant side."26
This was not a counsel of apathy, but a rejection of the notion of a monolithic Christian course of action, rooted ultimately in the distinction between the Heavenly Kingdom and the Earthly Kingdom. Conscience, not church authority, ought to inform Christian action and, according to this school of thought, moral diversity was inevitable.
The argument for political engagement was made by people such as Niemoller, Helmut Gollwitzer, and EKD synod president Gustav Heinemann. The dictates of Christian faith were clear, and the authority of the Heavenly Kingdom in the moral issues of the Earthly Kingdom indisputable. It was from this premise that Niemoller, Goll1witzer, and Heinemann played active roles in efforts to halt the West German rearmament program in the 1950s.(27) Historians have not been kind to the advocates of this approach. Dennis Bark and David Gress complain that "the biennual Protestant assemblies (DEKT) became mass rallies of the converted who encouraged each other in their simplistic views of politics and security."28 Be that as it may, some churchmen adhering to the "engagement" line argued in 1958 for a Christian responsibility to oppose the purveyance of nuclear arms to the Bundeswehr, urged in 1968 that there was a Christian obligation to support the Viet Cong, and charged the Kohl government, in 1983, with collaborating with the U.S. and NATO to prepare for a new war. In summer 1995, in a more recent manifestation of this spirit, Ernst Benda, president of the Evangelical Church Congress, spoke in favor of German troops participating in the U.N. Protective Force in Bosnia.29
Although the Protestant Church leadership was, in the 1950s, to the political left of many clergy and lay people, it was not as radical as Niemoller and Heinemann felt it should be. The resultant intra-ecclesiastical tension was partly resolved in 1955 when Heinemann failed to be reelected president of the synod (though he eventually went on to become ceremonial president of Germany) and when Niemoller was ejected from council membership. Many Protestants compared their divided church unfavorably with the evidently tranquil and harmonious German Catholic Church. But this comparison was premature, as became evident in the 1960s, when the German Catholic Church experienced a crisis of confidence.30
The experience of the Third Reich transmitted different lessons to Protestants and Catholics. Where Protestants concluded that they had been guilty of insufficient political responsibility and vigilance, inspiring some leading figures (specifically those inclined to a broad interpretation of "the Heavenly Kingdom") to seek to draw their church into political issues which lay far afield from either religion or German of fairs, the Catholic hierarchy came to the conclusion that it had implicated itself, in various ways, in the Nazi seizure of power. The Catholic hierarchy became determined to distance itself, up to a point, from direct engagement in politics, though not at the expense of a vigorous defense of its programmatic priorities.31 Significantly, one of the immediate consequences of the Catholic hierarchy's rethinking of the situation was its decision to scuttle the old (clerical) Center Party in favor of a more interconfessional organization, i,e., the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
To distance oneself from politics, however, is not the same thing as choosing to be apolitical. On the contrary, the church remained consistent to its long-standing philosophy which "rejects the notion that church and state are separate spheres and claims an important place for the church in political and social life."32 This philosophy was espoused by none other than Pope John XXIII in his 1961 encyclical, "Mater et Magistra." In that encyclical, the Holy Father stated, "The Church has the right and obligation not merely to guard ethical and religious principles but also to intervene authoritatively in the temporal sphere where it is a matter of judging the application of these principles to concrete cases."33
The Catholic Church, therefore, decided to scuttle the Center Party and to throw its backing behind the interconfessional CDU. The enemies were still liberalism and socialism; thus, to split Christian votes between a revved Center Party and an emergent CDU would have been a tragedy. Since the Center Party refused to dissolve itself quietly, the result was that the Catholic Church now waged open warfare against its would-be champion-using all the power of the pulpit to drive home the message. The Center Party held on for a while, participating, for example, in the 1951 elections in Lower Saxony, trying to make the case that it remained a better defender of Catholic interests. When the Center Party rejected appeals that it "merge" with the CDU, bishops, lower clergy, and Catholic lay groups intensified the struggle, fearing above all that a divided Catholic vote would play into the hands of the dreaded Social Democratic Party (SPD). By 1958, it had ceased to play any role in politics.
The Catholic Church had won its battle-but had it been the right battle? By the mid-1960s, the CDU had shed most of its Christian ideology and was headed by a liberal Protestant, while the SPD was working to effect a rapprochement with the churches. Bishop Johannes Pohlschneider of Aachen sounded positively mournful in 1965, declaring,
We sacrificed to the CDU the chance of a purely Catholic party. We sacrificed to it the possibility of a Catholic daily press; and we sacrificed to it many of our desires in the educational field-for example, the establishment of a Catholic university. And what have we gotten out of this mixed marriage? A liberal party in power and now even a liberal Chancellor.34
Still bearing the psychological scars of having been a minority church in Ge