- Communing with the Enemy: Covert Operations, Christianity and Cold War Politics in Britain and the GDR
Although the death of Pope John Paul prompted media claims that he helped to precipitate the collapse of the USSR and the demise of Communism, the role of religion in the Cold War was for a long time one of the most neglected aspects of Cold War historiography. For example,Melvyn Leffler's A Preponderance of Power: National Security Policy, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), a critically acclaimed study of the Cold War, does not address religion, nor do Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov in their book Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). Even the much praised cultural study by Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War (New York: Macmillan, 1997), does not attribute any particular significance to religion. My own attempt to draw attention to the importance of religion was an edited collection, Religion and the Cold War (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003), and more recent contributions include Angela M. Lahr's Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Michael Phayer's Pius XII, The Holocaust, and the Cold War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008). Merrilyn Thomas's Communing with the Enemy: Covert Operations, Christianity and Cold War Politics in Britain and the GDR is a welcome and valuable contribution to this emerging ªeld.
Thomas presents an in-depth case study of the 1965 Coventry-Dresden project of reconciliation. A group of idealistic Coventry volunteers raised funds and provided their services to help rebuild a church hospital in Dresden. Thomas subjects every aspect of the enterprise and its diverse range of players to systematic scrutiny, drawing on British and German archival sources, including those of the former East German State Security Ministry (Stasi). Her research included interviews with participants, from priests and politicians to secret agents, in the covert operations into which she delves. The result is meticulous scholarship spiced with mysterious characters from [End Page 151] the murky depths of secret operations and espionage. Most important, the study provides detailed analyses and insights into the complex, multidimensional role accorded religion by all sides in the Cold War.
Thomas explores how the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Great Britain each sought to seduce the other side with promises of mutual interest and cooperation in terms of promoting Christian-Marxist dialogue. Each intended the proffered cooperation to be but another means of subversion, in addition to securing more immediate goals. The British Foreign Office wanted peace and stability in Europe that would insure against a confrontation over Germany that might lead to military conflict between East and West. Walter Ulbricht's regime in the GDR wanted better church-state relations, mainly for domestic reasons.
Religion was integral to Western attempts to promote disaffection and instability behind the Iron Curtain without recourse to direct military action. Thomas is undeterred by the fact that the funding and use of religion for political purposes are partly concealed in the murky world of intelligence activities. Her dogged research confirms that the churches were subject to the same sort of infiltration and manipulation as that accorded to other influential bodies such as students, intellectuals, artists, scientists, and trade unions. Early covert action relied on private organizations, whose activities are notoriously difficult to document, especially in the case of Christianity with a plethora of poor churches and worthy causes, making Thomas's detailed documentation extremely useful.
Governments through the ages have appreciated how a combination of state and spiritual power can be critical for the success of social, economic, and political measures. The new postwar Communist regimes proved no exception. The support given by Communist governments to Christian churches, and vice versa, derived from a variety of domestic and foreign policy considerations, not least self-preservation. The precarious situation of Christian churches in the Soviet bloc was...