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  • Otto Scheel (1876–1954). Eine biographische Studie zu Lutherforschung, Landeshistoriographie und deutsch-dänischen Beziehungen by Carsten Mish
  • Robert Kolb
Otto Scheel (1876–1954). Eine biographische Studie zu Lutherforschung, Landeshistoriographie und deutsch-dänischen Beziehungen. Arbeiten zur kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte 61. By Carsten Mish. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. 386pp.

Theologians are people, too. They are not only enmeshed in their engagement with Scripture and/or the church’s tradition but also in their contemporary context. They share the concerns and desires of their fellow citizens and react as they do to both past and present. This biography demonstrates this embeddedness in culture through the life and writings of Otto Scheel, a prominent Luther scholar and church historian of the first half of the twentieth century.

Scheel’s parents bequeathed him the peculiar perspective of people living in borderlands, she a Danish Schleswiger, he a German from the same northern German, southern Danish province. The war between Prussia and Denmark in 1864 brought a sizable Danish-speaking population into Prussian and then German governance, but not without resistance from one side and the intense desire to Germanify the region on the other. Out of this context Scheel became a fervent advocate of German national ambitions and a loyal servant of the Wilhelminen Reich during World War I, when he contributed mightily to the German effort to win the war and expand the empire’s landholdings. [End Page 442]

By that time Scheel had acquired a professorship on the theological faculty at the University of Tübingen and become a rising exponent of the classical Liberal theology of Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack, and their school of thought. German Liberalism embraced the bourgeois “Cultural Christianity” that gladly and effortlessly supported the expansion of German rule and German thinking. Mish’s extensive archival research enables him to use Scheel to depict precisely how German cultural Liberalism embraced both limited broader participation in the political process and the bourgeois recasting of the Christian tradition in the image of industrializing Germany. During World War I the young Tübingen professor enthusiastically endorsed the war effort, induced, he believed, by Germany’s English and French foes, and contributed actively to support of the imperial German dreams of a greater Germany.

Mish does not extensively analyze the course of Scheel’s contributions to Luther studies, including his two-volume biography that appeared during World War I, but he does place his scholarship and more popular writing into their context. Scheel praised Luther as a pioneer of modernity and defended him against Roman Catholic critique but also rejected his understanding of Scripture as “contradictory” and his teaching on the Lord’s Supper as “sub-evangelical.” After 1918 his presentation of Luther accentuated even more his place as a national hero. Alongside his own literary activity, he presided over the Verein für Reformationsgeschichte (Society for Reformation History) from 1931 to 1945.

Deeply disappointed by the 1918 defeat of his Fatherland, during the Weimar Republic, Scheel continued to dream of reclaiming his native northern Schleswig from Denmark while encouraging respect for the Danish minority within northern Germany. Scheel took a call to the University of Kiel in Schleswig-Holstein in 1924 as professor of territorial history. Although he later claimed to have been a victim of a National Socialist putsch when he lost the rectorship of the university in 1933 after only a few months in office, he in fact enthusiastically supported his Nazi-sympathizing successor. With Hitler’s accession to power, he quickly accommodated himself to the new national program although he never became rabidly [End Page 443] anti-Semitic as did some of his fellow sympathizers and supporters of National Socialism within the church.

James Stayer observed in his study of German Luther research after World War I that in contrast to many who had become “German Christians” on the basis of their Liberal views, (including Scheel and Emanuel Hirsch), Paul Althaus and Werner Elert abandoned their support of Hitler rather quickly after initially enthusiastically supporting the National Socialist promise of a return to traditional German values in reaction to the chaos of the Weimar Republic. Stayer suggests that this happened because Althaus and Elert...


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