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  • A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past
  • Peter Matheson
A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. By Matthew D. Hockenos. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2004. Pp. xix, 286. $29.95.)

As a Tübingen student in the 1960's I was impressed by the gruelling re-examination of Germany's National Socialist past that I encountered there which compared so favorably with the ensnarement of my own British culture in imperialist clichés. This well-researched and accessibly written book documents the part which debates within German Protestantism played in fostering this painful rethinking. Such debates have to be seen, of course, in the context of much wider discussions among German intellectuals, politicians, and the Catholic Church.

The churches were in a favorable position to launch this postwar debate, enjoying a degree of trust both from the Allies and their own demoralized people, [End Page 289] though Hockenos is well aware that for most Germans sheer survival was the first priority. These were the hunger years; personal humiliations and family tragedy generally blocked out any willingness to engage in the big questions about guilt and responsibility. However, within the Confessing Church, which had resisted the religious policies of the Nazi Party, such debates had already been adumbrated by fierce internal controversy during the Third Reich.

Hockenos portrays well the tension between the theologically conservative Lutherans of Bavaria, Swabia, and Hannover and the more radical Niemoeller/Barth groupings, which in the postwar situation evolved into bitter disagreement about the nature and role of the Church and of Christian freedom. Was the Christian imperative of repentance to be understood as a spiritual and inner-churchly affair, or did it have concrete, political implications? Did the Church itself have to repent, and if so, to whom, and should it be radically reconstituted in less hierarchical and Erastian forms?

The limitations to the remarkable Stuttgart Confession of Guilt in 1945 are recognized as well as its achievements in gathering these two conflicting groups together in a public acknowledgment to the ecumenical community. The much clearer language of the Darmstadt Confession of 1948 about the Jewish Question, however, proved quite unacceptable to the traditional Lutherans.

The book raises difficult methodological questions as well as providing the English-speaking world with detailed and fascinating evidence of these attempts to come to terms with the past. Today we view the unbelievably complex politics and pressures of these years from a considerable distance. The closer one comes to the sources the more cautious one is about swinging moral judgments. Yet Hockenos writes about the "mistakes" of these leaders in a curiously normative manner. There is little or no ironic detachment. Delusions about exceptionalism, after all, are not a monopoly of Germans. The author's distress at the failure of the Church to react in any effective way to the Final Solution is very evident. But it leads to a serious misreading of the emergence of the Confessing Church which in fact had everything to do with opposition to the Nazi Aryan claims, as incompatible with the Gospel.

The merits of this sobering book are considerable. Its provocative analysis is, I believe, sound. But significant theological nuances are missed, and the role of abrasive personalities in confusing issues could be explored. Bonhoeffer's role in the postwar Church is ignored. It would have been helpful, too, if crucial concepts such as anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism had been unpacked. It leaves us with the question how the historian can "do justice" to such vast moral, ecclesiological, and theological issues while recognizing that the participants in the struggle walked within their own very human limitations, and lacked our advantage of hind-sight.

Peter Matheson
University of Otago


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pp. 289-290
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