Piety and Poverty: Working-Class Religion in Berlin, London, and New York, 1870-1914

By Hugh McLeod | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 8
Religion in a
Half-Secular Society

BERLIN IN THE 1920s was regarded by contemporaries as a very secular place. And within the city most people would probably have picked out such working-class boroughs as Wedding, Neukölln and Friedrichshain as the most secularized areas. Indeed, Wedding and Neukölln were the main strongholds of a new institution that symbolized Berlin's reputation for irreligion—the secular school, attended by those children who were not required to receive religious instruction, because their parents had left the church. 1 Instead of religious instruction, these schools had lessons in Lebenskunde (learning about life). Nor were the schools merely religiously neutral: most of the children received a form of secular confirmation, the Jugendweihe, which was explicitly provided as an alternative to the religious confirmation received by most adolescents at church. The Jugendweihe was originally devised by the humanist Free Parishes; but by the 1920s, there were also Social Democratic and Communist schemes of instruction.

The clergy took the challenge of secularism very seriously, though their analysis of its causes and possible remedies varied according to their own political and theological orientation. Conservative clergy were inclined to blame 'agitators', the secularizing policies of Social Democratic politicians, and criticism of the church by Liberal and Jewish journalists. Ideas of this sort were a major factor in the support that many Protestant pastors in Berlin gave, at least initially, to the German Christian movement and the Nazi Party. 2 On the other hand, Socialist pastors, like Paul Piechowski and Günther Dehn, tended to criticize the church for failing to respond to working-class needs, and Piechowski wrote a book in which he argued that the workers were converts to a new faith, with which Christians had got to come to terms. 3

However, it may be that the religious situation in Weimar Berlin was more complex than it appeared on the surface. This, at any rate, is argued in a thesis by Jörg Kniffka in which he analyses the role of Protestantism in the east Berlin

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