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The Pluralization of Protestant Politics: Public Responsibility, Rearmament, and Division at the 1950s Kirchentage

  • Benjamin Pearson (a1)


In the aftermath of World War II, Christian leaders in Germany embraced the political ideology of Christian Democracy. Viewing Nazism as a form of materialism and atheism, which they blamed on the ongoing secularization and moral decay of German society, both Protestant and Catholic leaders argued that only the society-wide renewal of Christian faith and Christian values could provide a solid foundation for the future. Enjoying a privileged position in the eyes of the western Allies (particularly the Americans), the churches took on a leading role in the reconstruction of German society. And, working to overcome the postwar disillusionment of many of their members, church leaders urged their followers to take active, personal responsibility for political life in the new German states.



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1 On the intellectual origins of Christian Democracy in postwar interpretations of Nazism, see Pridham, Geoffrey, Christian Democracy in West Germany: The CDU/CSU in Government and Opposition, 1945–1976 (London: Croom Helm, 1977), 2234; Mitchell, Maria, “Stunde Null in German Politics? Confessional Culture, Realpolitik, and the Organization of Christian Democracy,” in Stunde Null: The End of the Beginning Fifty Years Ago, ed. Giles, Geoffey J., Occasional Papers of the German Historical Institute, vol. 20 (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1997), 2538; and Mitchell, Maria, “Materialism and Secularism: CDU Politicians and National Socialism, 1945–1949,” Journal of Modern History 67, no. 2 (June 1995): 278308; see also the sections on Adenauer and the CDU in Herf, Jeffrey, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

2 Mitchell, “Stunde Null in German Politics?,” 37.

3 Bösch, Frank, Die Adenauer-CDU. Gründung, Aufstieg und Krises einer Erfolgspartei 1945–1969 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2001), 751.

4 Ibid., 7–51, 118–127.

5 Maria Mitchell has commented on this shift, focusing on the move from the rhetoric of re-Christianization to the rhetoric and policies of anticommunism. See Mitchell, “Materialism and Secularism,” 305–306; on Adenauer's foreign and domestic political priorities, see Granieri, Ronald J., The Ambivalent Alliance: Konrad Adenauer, the CDU/CSU, and the West, 1949–1966 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003).

6 For example, relatively few of the Protestants involved in the early foundation of the CDU/CSU were still active in the parties' leadership circles by the early 1950s, while members of the new, more conservative leadership that emerged in the early 1950s had played only a small role in the initial foundation of the parties. See Bösch, Die Adenauer-CDU, 35–72. This trend is also evident in Protestant voting patterns. In the early 1950s, the majority of religiously active Protestants voted for the CDU/CSU or one of several smaller nationalist and conservative parties. By the end of the decade, the CDU/CSU had made tremendous headway against its smaller conservative rivals; however, Protestant support for the SPD had also begun to increase. In the 1960s, the SPD would gain parity with the CDU/CSU among these Protestant voters. See Schmitt, Karl, Konfession und Wahlverhalten in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1989), 134; see also Table A13a on 313.

7 According to one public opinion survey, seventy percent of Germans opposed rearmament, while no more than seventeen percent supported the government's plans. See Drummond, Gordon D., The German Social Democrats in Opposition, 1949–1960: The Case Against Rearmament (Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 54. Interestingly, the opposition of SPD leader Kurt Schumacher to rearmament was far more qualified and tactical than the opposition of leading CDU Protestants such as Gustav Heinemann, for whom the rearmament question was deeply intertwined with the issues of German guilt and German nationalism. For more on the rearmament debates, see Large, David Clay, Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Granieri, The Ambivalent Alliance.

8 See Vogel, Johanna, Kirche und Wiederbewaffnung. Die Haltung der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland in den Auseinandersetzungen um die Wiederbewaffnung der Bundesrepublik 1949–1956, Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte, Series B, vol. 4 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978); Rausch, Wolf Werner and Walther, Christian, eds., Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland und die Wiederaufrüstungsdiskussion in der Bundesrepublik 1950–1955 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Mohn, 1978); Sauer, Thomas, Westorientierung im deutschen Protestantismus? Vorstellung und Tätigkeit des Kronberger Kreises (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1999); and Walther, Christian, ed., Atomwaffen und Ethik. Der deutsche Protestantismus und die atomare Aufrüstung 1954–1961. Dokumente und Kommentare (Munich: Kaiser, 1981); although it is not yet published, the best treatment to date on Protestant responses to rearmament is Luetz Hoeth, “Die Evangelische Kirche und die Wiederbewaffnung Deutschlands in den Jahren 1945–1958” (Ph.D. diss., Technische Universität Berlin, 2008).

9 On the Kirchentag, see Palm, Dirk, “Wir sind doch Brüder!” Der evangelische Kirchentag und die deutsche Frage 1949–1961, Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte, Series B, vol. 36 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002); Schroeter, Harald, Kirchentag als vor-läufige Kirche. Der Kirchentag als eine besondere Gestalt des Christseins zwischen Kirche und Welt, Praktische Theologie heute 13 (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1993); and Jähnichen, Traugott, “Kirchentage und Akademien. Der Protestantismus auf dem Weg zur Institutionalisierung der Dauerreflexion,” in Gesellschaftpolitische Neuorientierung des Protestantismus in der Nachkriegszeit, ed. Friedrich, Norbert and Jähnichen, Traugott, Bochumer Forum zur Geschichte des sozialen Protestantismus 3 (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2002); see also Benjamin Carl Pearson, “Faith and Democracy: Political Transformations at the German Protestant Kirchentag, 1949–1969” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 2007).

10 For a concise and critical overview of the historiography on the Protestant churches in West Germany, see Sauer, Thomas, “Die Geschichte der evangelischen Kirchen in der Bundesrepublik. Schwerpunkte und Perspektiven der Forschung,” in Evangelische Kirche im geteilten Deutschland (1945–1989/90), ed. Lepp, Claudia and Nowak, Kurt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001), 295309; an outstanding source for the early postwar years is Greschat, Martin, Die evangelische Christenheit und die deutsche Geschichte nach 1945. Weichenstellungen in der Nachkriegszeit (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2002). See also Hockenos, Matthew D., A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004). Since the early 1990s, the Konfession und Gesellschaft series from Kohlhammer has also made several valuable contributions to postwar West German church history as has the Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte series from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Several short but useful chapters have also appeared in edited volumes. See Kleßmann, Christoph, “Kontinuitäten und Veränderungen im protestantischen Milieu,” in Modernisierung und Wiederaufbau. Die Westdeutsche Gesellschaft der 50er Jahren, ed. Schildt, Axel and Sywottek, Arnold (Bonn: Dietz, 1998); and Greschat, Martin, “Protestantismus und Evangelische Kirche in den 60er Jahren,” in Dynamische Zeiten. Die 60er Jahren in den beiden deutschen Gesellschaften, ed. Schildt, Axel, Siegert, Detlef, and Lammers, Karl Christian, Hamburger Beiträge zur Sozial- und Zeitgeschichte, vol. 37 (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 2000).

11 See, for example, the later chapters of Barnett, Victoria, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Ericksen, Robert P., Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); Ericksen, Robert P. and Heschel, Susannah, Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999); and Vollnhalls, Clemens, Evangelische Kirche und Entnazifizierung 1945–1949. Die Last der nationalsozialistischen Vergangenheit, Studien zur Zeitgeschichte, vol. 36 (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1989). A similar, though broader focus can be seen in Frei, Norbert, Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration, trans. Golb, Joel (New York: Columbia, 2002).

12 For an overview of this national narrative before and after 1945, see Jarausch, Konrad H. and Geyer, Michael, eds., Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 3760.

13 See Greschat, Martin, “Kirche und Öffentlichkeit in der deutschen Nachkriegszeit (1945–1949),” in Kirchen in der Nachkriegszeit. Vier zeitgeschichtliche Beiträge, ed. Boyens, Armin, Greschat, Martin, Thadden, Rudolf von, and Pombeni, Paulo, Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte, , Series B, vol. 9 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979).

14 See Schildt, Axel, Zwischen Abendland und Amerika. Studien zur Westdeutschen Ideenlandschaft der 50er Jahren (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1999); and Brockmann, Stephen, “Germany as Occident at the Zero Hour,” German Studies Review 25, no. 3 (2002): 477496.

15 See, for example, Heinecke, Herbert, Konfession und Politik in der DDR. Das Wechselverhältnis von Kirche und Staat im Vergleich zwischen evangelischer und katholischer Kirche (Leipzig: Evangelischer Verlagsanstalt, 2002), 331ff.

16 For the origins of this perspective, see Diem, Hermann, Restauration oder Neuanfang in der evangelischen Kirche? (Stuttgart: F. Mittelbach, 1946); and Barth's, Karl numerous postwar writings, including “How my Mind has Changed,” in“Der Götze wackelt.” Zeitkritische Aufsätze, Reden und Briefe von 1930 bis 1960, ed. Kupisch, Karl (Berlin: K. Vogt, 1961); and “How Can the Germans Be Cured?,” trans. Neufeld, Marta K., in The Only Way: How Can the Germans Be Cured? (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947). Examples of this tendency in the recent literature include Herbert, Karl, Kirche zwischen Aufbruch und Tradition. Entscheidungsjahre nach 1945 (Stuttgart: Radius Verlag, 1989); and Huber, Wolfgang, “Protestantismus und Demokratie,” in Protestanten in der Demokratie. Positionen und Profile im Nachkriegsdeutschland, ed. Huber, Wolfgang (Munich: Kaiser, 1990).

17 As, for example, in most of the chapters in Lepp, Claudia and Nowak, Kurt, eds., Evangelische Kirche im Geteilten Deutschland (1945–1989/90) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001); and Hermle, Siegfried, Lepp, Claudia, and Oelke, Harry, Umbrüche. Der deutsche Protestantismus und die sozialen Bewegungen in den 1960er und 70er Jahren, Arbeiten zur Kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte, Series B, vol. 47 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).

18 See Greschat, Martin, “Weder Neuanfang noch Restauration,” in Protestanten in der Zeit, ed. Kaiser, Jochen-Christoph (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1994); Sauer, “Die Geschichte der evangelischen Kirchen”; and Sauer, Westorientierung im deutschen Protestantismus?

19 Brakelmann, Günter, Greschat, Martin, and Werner, Joachim, Protestantismus und Politik. Werk und Wirkung Adolf Stoeckers, Hamburger Beiträge zur Sozial- und Zeitgeschichte, vol. 17 (Hamburg: Christians, 1982).

20 For more on these tendencies, see Nipperdey, Thomas, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck, 1800–1866, trans. Nolan, Daniel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Nippdey, Thomas, Deutsche Geschichte, 1866–1918 (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1990); and Nippdey, Thomas, Religion im Umbruch. Deutschland 1870–1918 (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1988). See also Smith, Helmut Walser, ed., Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in Germany, 1800–1914 (New York: Berg, 2001).

21 See Ward, W. R., Theology, Sociology, and Politics: The German Protestant Social Conscience 1890–1933 (Las Vegas, NV: Peter Lang, 1979); Heuss, Theodor, Friedrich Naumann. Der Mann, Das Werk, Die Zeit (Stuttgart and Berlin: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1937); and Joachim Brenning, “Christentum und Sozialdemokratie. Paul Göhre: Fabrikarbeiter—Pfarrer—Sozialdemokrat” (Ph.D. diss., Philipps-Universität, Marburg, 1980).

22 Quoted in Scholder, Klaus, The Churches and the Third Reich, vol. 1, Preliminary History and the Time of Illusions 1918–1934, trans. Bowden, John (London: SCM Press, 1987), 236.

23 See Bergen, Doris L., Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, vols. 1–2; and Conway, John S., The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933–45 (New York: Basic Books, 1968).

24 Bentley, James, Martin Niemöller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 146147. I am grateful to Matthew Hockenos for drawing this to my attention.

25 Seid fröhlich in Hoffnung. Der sechste Deutsche Evangelische Kirchentag vom 7. bis 11. Juli 1954 in Leipzig [DEKT 1954] (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1954), 306.

26 Greschat, “Kirche und Öffentlichkeit”; and Martin Greschat, “Wort an die Pfarrer,” in Die Protokolle des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, ed. Carsten Nicolaisen and Nora Andrea Schulze, vol. 1, 1945/46 (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1995), 5–11.

27 Söhlmann, Fritz, ed., Treysa 1945. Die Konferenz der evangelischen Kirchenführer 27.-31. August 1945 (Lüneburg: Im Heiland-Verlag, 1946), 102. This document was written by the historian Gerhard Ritter; the future CDU politician Theodor Steltzer; and the future bishop of Hanover, Hanns Lilje.

28 Wählt das Leben. Der Vierte Deutsche Evangelische Kirchentag von 27. bis 31. August 1952 in Stuttgart [DEKT 1952] (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1952), 50.

29 Barnett, For the Soul of the People, 228–229.

30 Söhlmann, ed., Treysa, 103–104.

31 See, for example, Wilson, John E., Introduction to Modern Theology: Trajectories in the German Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 172187.

32 Barnett, For the Soul of the People, 224; Hockenos, A Church Divided, 126–130.

33 Wir sind doch Brüder. Der dritte Deutsche Evangelische Kirchentag vom 11.-15. Juli 1951 in Berlin [DEKT 1951] (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1951), 238–249.

34 Meeting Minutes, April 12, 1949, Evangelisches Zentralarchiv in Berlin [EZA] 71/86/7, 2.

35 Ibid., 4.

36 For more on the development of the Kirchentag, including attendance numbers, see Runge, Rüdiger and Käßmann, Margot, eds., Kirche in Bewegung. 50 Jahre Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag (Gütersoh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 1999).

37 Kirche in Bewegung. Deutsche Evangelische Woche. Hannover 1949 [DEKT 1949] (Hanover: Lutherhaus Verlag, 1949), 147–59.

38 Ibid., 160–222.

39 Ibid., 40.

40 Ibid., 29–41, 40.

41 Ibid., 47–52.

42 For some of the most intemperate critics, such as Niemöller, this rejection was also rooted in a deep distrust of Adenauer's political Catholicism and the belief that the West German state was itself an anti-Protestant conspiracy “conceived in the Vatican and born in Washington.” Cited in Hoeth, “Die Evangelische Kirche,” 47, fn 143; and Rausch and Walther, eds., Evangelische Kirche, 47.

43 Hoeth, “Die Evangelische Kirche,” 49–50.

44 Kreuz auf den Trümmern. Zweiter Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag. Essen 1950 [DEKT 1950] (Hamburg: Furche Verlag, 1950), 52–53. While these arguments were typical of SPD rearmament rhetoric, they actually represent a more “idealistic” position than that of the SPD leader Kurt Schumacher, whose opposition to rearmament was rooted in his distrust of the western Allies and his fear that Adenauer was compromising too readily with the Americans rather than working to achieve greater concessions. See Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 31–32, 46–47.

45 Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 60–64.

46 Gerstenmaier's speech was not included in the published Kirchentag proceedings. See Palm, “Wir sind doch Brüder!, 72–73.

47 Cited in Bösch, Die Adenauer-CDU, 123; original in Eugen Gerstenmaier, “Adenauer und die Macht,” in Konrad Adenauer und seine Zeit. Politik und Persönlichkeit des ersten Bundeskanzlers, ed. Blumenwitz, Dieter, vol. 1, Beiträge von Weg- und Zeitgenossen (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1976), 43.

48 For more on Heinemann's reasoning, see Heinemann, Gustav W., Verfehlte Deutschlandpolitik. Irreführung und Selbsttäuschung (Frankfurt am Main: Stimme Verlag, 1966); and Koch, Diether, Heinemann und die Deutschlandfrage (Munich: Kaiser, 1972).

49 Granieri, The Ambivalent Alliance, 43.

50 Hoeth, “Die Evangelische Kirche,” 87.

51 Bösch, Die Adenauer-CDU, 124.

52 Ibid., 123–126; Sauer, Westorientierung im deutschen Protestantismus?, 71–83; Hoeth, “Die Evangelische Kirche,” 141–143.

53 Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 54–58. As late as December 1951, SPD leaders such as Erich Ollenauer rejected Heinemann's appeals for help in gathering signatures for a petition campaign against rearmament, suggesting that only new elections could achieve any real change in policy. The SPD position only became more favorable to grassroots mobilization as their electoral hopes began to fade. See Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 70.

54 Hoeth, “Die Evangelische Kirche,” 91.

55 Reinold von Thadden-Trieglaff to Klaus von Bismarck, October 23, 1950, EZA 71/86/14.

56 Palm, “Wir sind doch Brüder!, 104–110.

57 DEKT 1951, 21–22.

58 Ibid., 83.

59 Ibid., 293.

60 Ibid., 193–203.

61 DEKT 1952, 67–68.

62 Ibid., 270–71.

63 Ibid., 267–276.

64 Ibid., 315–24.

65 Granieri, The Ambivalent Alliance, 70; Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 104–110.

66 “Sitzung der Arbeitsgruppenleitung-West II-VII am 28./29.1.1953 im ‘Haus der Begegnung,’ Mülheim-Ruhr,” and the comments of Pastor Witte, “Protokoll über die Themensitzung für den 5. Deutschen Evangelischen Kirchentag—am 7. Nov. 1952,” November 8, 1952, EZA 71/86/106; see also the letter from Volkmar Herntrich to Heinrich Giesen, February 5, 1953, EZA 71/86/106.

67 Werft euer Vertrauen nicht Weg. Der Fünfte Deutsche Evangelische Kirchentag vom 12. bis 16. August 1953 in Hamburg [DEKT 1953] (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1953), 224.

68 Large, Germans to the Front, 171; Claus A. Fischer, ed., Wahlhandbuch für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, vol. 1, Studien zur Politik, vol. 14 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1990), 7.

69 See Nicholls, A. J., The Bonn Republic: West German Democracy 1945–1990 (New York: Longman, 1997), 114; and Granieri, The Ambivalent Alliance, 70–71.

70 Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 93–279.

71 Heinemann disbanded the GVP in 1957, joining the SPD. He quickly became an important leader on the party's left wing, serving a stint as federal president in the late 1960s. The popular theologian Helmut Gollwitzer was one of the major organizers of the grassroots Paulskirche movement against nuclear arms, which brought many left-leaning Protestants into close cooperation with the Left of the SPD.

72 DEKT 1953, 9–10.

73 Ibid., 17–19.

74 Ibid., 19–20.

75 Ibid., 195.

76 Ibid., 195–99.

77 Ibid., 200.

78 Ibid., 201–203.

79 Ibid., 203.

80 Ibid., 204.

81 The 1954 Kirchentag was held in Leipzig—the only Kirchentag meeting ever to be held entirely within the GDR. It was planned by an almost entirely different set of organizers from the West German Kirchentag meetings, and its focus was almost exclusively on East German church-political issues.

82 Hans Hermann Walz, “Bericht über die Sitzung der Arbeitsgruppenleitungsvorsitzenden anlässlich des Themenausschusses in Arnoldshain vom 24.-26.1.1955,” March 15, 1955, EZA 71/86/134, 4. The selection of the term “coexistence,” which was drawn from Khrushchev's rhetoric on east-west relations, itself demonstrates the continued efforts of West German Protestants to remain in dialogue with East Germany and the rest of the communist world.

83 For more on cooperation with the local SPD, see Hans Hermann Walz, Circular Letter, December 6, 1954. Working through intermediaries, Kirchentag leaders also began to open communication with the national SPD vice chair Wilhelm Mellies; see Gottfried Kutzner to Heinrich Giesen, June 22, 1956, and Giesen to Kutzner, July 6, 1956, EZA71/86/135.

84 Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag. Frankfurt 1956 [DEKT 1956] (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1956), 73–74.

85 Ibid., 74–75.

86 Ibid., 286–93.

87 Ibid., 260–74.

88 Walz, Hans Hermann, ed., Wirklichkeit Heute. Referate und Arbeitsberichte vom Kirchentagskongreß Hamburg (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1958),4248, 133.

89 Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag. München 1959 [DEKT 1959] (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1959), 388–94.

90 Ibid., 397.

91 Ibid., 395–403.

92 Ibid., 410–17.

93 Ibid., 417–28.

94 Schmitt, Konfession und Wahlverhalten, 134; see also Table A13a on 313.

95 Drummond, The German Social Democrats, 242–279.

96 See, for example, the questions and comments that followed presentations of the political work group; DEKT 1952, 295–340.

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The Pluralization of Protestant Politics: Public Responsibility, Rearmament, and Division at the 1950s Kirchentage

  • Benjamin Pearson (a1)


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