Thursday, March 01, 2007

Coming to terms with the lives of German NT scholars

From The Association of Contemporary Church Historians (Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchliche Zeitgeschichtler) Newsletter - March 2007 - Vol. XIII, no 3

Review by John Conway (of the Krondorfer contribution to) Björn Krondorfer, Katharina von Kellenbach, Norbert Reck, Mit Blick auf die Täter. Fragen an die deutsche Theologie nach 1945. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2006 ISBN- 13: 978-3-579-052274 317pp.

Björn Krondorfer and Katharina von Kellenbach, who teach at St. Mary's College of Maryland, have done much to promote the cause of Christian-Jewish reconciliation in the German context. For Germans, far more than in other countries, the prerequisite for such a task is the willingness to engage in Vergangenheitsbewältigung - in this case with the long history of German intolerance, prejudice and persecution of the Jewish people, which culminated in the Holocaust. As is well known, such attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past after 1945 were only reluctantly and fitfully undertaken, and are indeed not yet complete. What role did the churches play? What theologies were preached and practised? In Krondorfer's view, the eminent scholars and preachers of the Evangelische Kirche failed in their duty to set an example of public repentance and contrition, or to lead their audiences towards a new theological understanding of Judaism and its relationship to Christianity. His questions about German post-1945 theology are, in fact, much more directed to the theologians themselves and their own personal failure to adopt any public stance out of which a new beginning could be undertaken.

Krondorfer backs up his challenging contentions by examining the autobiographies written by German theologians since 1945, approximately 35 in all, in order to see how they undertook their own coming to terms with the past. His findings are astonishing - and deeply disappointing. He shows that, with only a few exceptions, this entire group of theologians wrote their autobiographies with apologetic purposes. They demonstrate how decisively their minds and careers were fashioned by the dominant nationalist and racialist ideologies of early 20th century Germany. Equally disappointing was their failure, even after the crimes of the Holocaust were well known, to engage in any confession of Christian complicity, or of repentance or reparation towards any of the victims of German aggression, especially the Jews. Instead the key notes of these writers are self-justification and self-exculpation. To be sure, after 1945, Martin Niemoeller publicly, in numerous sermons and speeches, acknowledged his own and Germany's guilt. His call for repentance was, however, strongly opposed and bitterly resented. And even he, in later years, took a very generous attitude towards the earlier misdemeanours of many of his compromised clerical colleagues in the church of Hessen-Nassau. Not until we come to the youngest post-war generation do we find a different tone.

Krondorfer divides his theologian-authors into different cohorts, according to their ages. He persuasively argues that these men (almost all were men) gained in their youth a set of political ideas which influenced their subsequent lives. He begins with the oldest and distinguished bishop, Theophil Wurm, born in 1868, whose memoirs were written when he was over eighty, but which still reflected the values he had learnt under the Kaiser's rule. Wurm and his generation (and his sector of German Christianity) suffered the terrible shock of the German defeat of 1918. As conservatives, their world fell apart. They soon came to blame, not their misguided rulers, but the victorious Allies. The Treaty of Versailles very quickly became the symbol of how Germany was being oppressed, and they themselves victimized. The tone of self-pity, or preoccupation with their own fortunes, runs throughout. The rise of Hitler could then be explained as the result of Allied vindictiveness, and his struggle to regain Germany's place in the world, justified. Germany's defeat in the second war could also be seen as a recurrence of German victimization. Wurm was one of those who loudly protested Allied occupation policies after 1945, and could believe these moves were prompted by a deliberate attempt to starve the German race out of existence. He led the vocal chorus of self-pitying lamentation about the hardships suffered by Germans. Not a word about the far greater sufferings imposed by Germans on the many other peoples of Europe, let alone on the Jews.

For a slightly younger cohort, Krondorfer subjects the autobiographies of Walter Künneth and Helmut Thielicke, neither of whom could be accused of pro-Nazi attitudes, to an insightful but biting analysis. Here too he finds that the desire to escape from any acknowledgment of guilt leads to an evasiveness, when the actual fate of the Jews is hardly mentioned at all. Neither of these men showed a willingness to speak out about German guilt or to say words of sympathy for the Germans' victims. Instead their concern is all for the suffering Germans, for whom they show a commendable pastoral care, but whose crimes they seek to downplay or relativize. So too their emphasis is on the fate of the bombed-out or the expellees from the east, not on the concentration camp inmates so brutally mistreated or willfully murdered. In the end, Krondorfer affirms, it is the tone of self-exculpatory rectitude which is so irritating. He closes his essay with a expression of indignation and exasperation: "The language used in these theologians' autobiographies lacks experimental liveliness; the contents show only too clearly an unwillingness to reveal the whole personality. What is missing is any sign that these authors felt anguish or that they experienced moments of agitation, chaos, fragmentation, questioning, searching, exposure, nakedness, incompleteness, blundering, face-to-face honesty, intimacy, or vulnerability. When we of later generations read these polished and orderly self-justifications, we can only wish that, in our post-Auschwitz world, some theologian at some point would be ready to stutter or stammer a genuine apology and a meaningful confession of guilt."

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