Jantzen, Kyle, Church History
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Book Reviews and Notes
When I think about the region of Berlin-Brandenburg, I remember vividly my time there in the early 1990s. As a young graduate student engaged in dissertation research, I walked among the empty shells of churches in the city of Brandenburg, frozen in their ruined state almost fifty years after the end of World War II. Searching through eastern church archives, I found thick files labeled "Confessing Church" containing documents from 1934 until well into the 1960s. These were sobering reminders that the German "church struggle" which had begun under National Socialist rule had continued into the communist era for the many Protestants and Catholics whose parishes had fallen under Soviet rule. Sean Brennan has now joined the growing ranks of scholars grappling with this story--the history of the East German churches under communism. His book, The Politics of Religion in Soviet-Occupied Germany , analyses "the religious policies of the Soviet zone, but more importantly, who devised them, how they did so, and how they attempted to implement them" (xi). It also considers the manner in which eastern German church leaders responded to these policies, and the role they hoped to create for their churches in the Soviet-occupied region of the country. This is certainly a strength of the book. Focusing on the dynamic four years between the fall of the Third Reich and the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, Brennan draws on German and Russian state and church archives, along with newspaper records, to craft an account which encompasses the perspectives of the five main contributors to occupation-era religious politics: the Soviet military administration in Germany (SVAG), the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the Protestant and Catholic Churches (and particularly their leaders in the zone, Bishops Otto Dibelius and Konrad von Preysing), and the eastern version of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which did much to represent the interests of the churches in the political realm.
At first, Brennan finds Soviet occupation authorities moving cautiously, cognizant of the tension between rival powers in Berlin and influenced by "a desire . . . not to move too fast in creating Stalinism in the Soviet zone, lest they throw away a chance to influence the Western zones of Germany as well" (xx). Soon, however, issues like the churches' relationship with the CDU, the provision of religious education, the existence of church youth and women's organizations, and the charitable activities of the churches all generated friction between church and state. By 1947, a harsher anti-religious policy had emerged--one which would mark the ongoing relationship between the German Democratic Republic and the churches after 1949.
In chapters two and three, Brennan considers the relationship between the CDU and the churches. During the first phase of the occupation era, until late 1946, the CDU retained a fair degree of independence and participated with communists, socialists, and liberals in the anti-fascist transformation of eastern German politics. It was under the second leader of the CDU, Jakob Kaiser, that the party declared its commitment to the principle of "Christian Socialism" and with that a public role for eastern German churches (28). Both the churches and the party shared a number of important concerns: restoring Christian belief to the heart of German culture, continuing religious education in the school system, caring for German expellees from Poland and Czechoslovakia, limiting Soviet land reform, and resisting one-party rule. …