- In Memoriam: John Seymour Conway (1929–2017)
British-born church historian John S. Conway died at his home in Vancouver on June 24, 2017 at the age of 87. Conway was best known for his 1968 magisterial study The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933–1945, a detailed account of the history of the Catholic, Protestant, and free churches under National Socialism. In it Conway analyzed the development of Nazi state policies toward the churches and the various factors that shaped the churches’ reactions. It was one of the earliest works to confront the failures of the German churches under National Socialism, challenging the hagiography that dominated the literature at that time.
Even earlier, Conway’s 1965 essay on the record of Pope Pius XII brought him into the international controversy about the Pope’s failure to speak out about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.1 Coming in the wake of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, the essay exemplified the characteristics of Conway’s scholarship: stubborn realism and a nuanced (if sometimes acerbic) approach to the complexities of history. Conway rejected easy rationalizations of the churches’ complicity, but he also criticized what he viewed as unrealistic assumptions that its leaders might have stopped National Socialism had they behaved differently. He wrote at a time when many scholars emphasized the totalitarian nature of the Nazi regime, and this shaped his analysis of the realistic options for resistance. He believed that the First World War and its aftermath were crucial for understanding what happened in Germany after 1933. He was also deeply influenced by his Anglican faith, and always approached the history of the churches with an understanding of the theological complexities as well as the political and historical ones.
Conway held master’s and doctoral degrees from St. John’s College, Cambridge. In 1955 he moved to Canada to teach at the University of Manitoba, before going to Vancouver, where he taught international studies and modern European history at the University of British Columbia until his retirement in 1994. He was named the Smallman Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in 1998. Conway was a founding member (1970) and active participant in the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches. He lectured around the world and published numerous articles on Protestant and Catholic church history, the role of Pius XII and the Vatican in the Nazi period, and broader themes of European history. He served on the editorial boards of several publications, including Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte.
In retirement Conway started a quarterly newsletter of new publications in the fields of church history and National Socialism. The review, initially distributed as an email listserv, eventually reached over 400 international subscribers. In 2010 it became an online publication, Contemporary Church Historians Quarterly (https://contemporarychurchhistory.org/). He continued to review books for the publication until shortly before his death.
Conway was an attentive and engaged mentor not only to his students, but for many North American and European scholars. He was actively involved in his Anglican church and in social causes, particularly work with Tibetan refugees in Canada. He was for a time Vice Chair of the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society of Canada during the 1970s, and made a number of trips to India to oversee various Canadian-supported projects; he also met with the Dalai Lama. [End Page 170]
As historian Doris Bergen wrote in Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, Conway’s scholarship and activism were shaped by his academic rigor, a “clearheaded, skeptical, painful reason with no illusions,” and a solidarity grounded in his commitment “to alleviate suffering.”2
Opinions herein are those of the author and not necessarily of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
1. John S. Conway, “The Silence of Pope Pius XII,” The Review of Politics 27, no. 1 (1965): 105–31.
2. Doris Bergen, “John S. Conway: Engaged Skeptic and Skeptical Activist,” Contemporary Church Historians Quarterly 23, no. 3: https://contemporarychurchhistory.org/2017/09/john-s-conway-engaged-skeptic-and-skepticalactivist/ (accessed February 9, 2018). [End Page 171]