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Pöhlmann, Matthias


Kampf der Geister. Die Publizistik der "Apologetischen Centrale" (1921-1937).


Stuttgart-Berlin-Köln: Kohlhammer 1998. 319 S. gr.8 = Konfession und Gesellschaft, 16. Kart. DM 69,-. ISBN 3-17-015461-3.


John S. Conway

In 1918 the overthrow of the Hohenzollern Empire caused a major crisis for German Protestantism, both organisationally and intellectually. The church’s historically established position was challenged, and its credibility shattered after so many promises of divinely-assisted victory had been proved false. In the resulting confusion and uncertainty, Protestants needed guidance. The Centre for Apologetics was founded in 1921 to offer positive responses to these dilemmas, and at the same time to defend the church against its various detractors. P.s study is based on the Centre’s archives, which were thought to have been lost after its enforced closure by the Gestapo in 1937, but which nevertheless turned up in the former East Germany and in Moscow. Using the multitude of its publications, press cuttings and pamphlets, he shows how the Centre sought to tackle its task of defending the church’s doctrines in the new "melting pot" situation when all sorts of theological and ideological currents were rife, and how in time its firmly-expressed conclusions were of some service against the intolerant and repressive tactics of the Nazis.

The practical work of the Centre was first and foremost to inform its public about the whole spectrum of sects, ideological groupings and exotic cults which flourished in the post-war period - largely it has to be said as a result of the disillusionment with the established churches. The resulting attempts to provide "corrective literature" for church parishes, coupled with educational programmes of different sorts, necessitated a critical awareness of all the contemporary and changing trends, and were clearly intended as part of the church’s missionary outreach. Hitherto its work was little known, except for the controversy between its director Walter Kuenneth and Alfred Rosenberg in 1935. So P.s work is valuable in placing this incident in its larger context, and giving us a detailed and comprehensive picture of how the Centre waged its battles with its ideological opponents before and during the Nazi era.

The Centre’s task of combating error, heresy or politically- motivated attacks on the church was made more difficult, not only by the enormous variety of alternative beliefs, but also by the confusions within the ranks of the Protestant theologians. Despite the fact that Centre’s first director, Carl Schweitzer, recognised the need to make use of new methods of presenting the church’s case, the image to be projected remained highly traditional, in line with the conservative-nationalist views of the church leadership. Religious pluralism was to be vigorously opposed, and the church’s role as a unifying national institution stressed. At the same time there were numerous competing institutions within the church, each trying to catch the public’s attention, but each with a different focus for its apologetics. Nevertheless, the Centre was able to become a significant "think-tank" for German Protestantism. Its publicity reached wide audiences despite drastic cuts during the depression years.

At the end of its first decade the Centre’s staff could take pride in their efforts to project a positive image of the church and to combat the claims of its rivals. But there was always more to be done. Priorities had to be set. Emphasis was first placed on challenging the claims of deviant religious groups such as anthroposophists or occultists. Later concern focussed on opposing the more aggressive sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or groups propagating atheism. The Centre’s tone became more militant, and its outreach to the parishes more concerned to recruit supporters for its campaigns. Unfortunately P. nowhere tries to assess the impact of all this activity.

The Nazis’ rise to power in January 1933 changed the scene drastically. The successful portrayal of Hitler as the strong leader who could unite the country and stave off the threat of Bolshevism attracted a large proportion of Protestants to his cause. The dangers of his totalitarian ambitions were ignored. The Centre’s new director, Walter Kuenneth, though himself welcoming the prospect of national renewal, refused to be swept into the camp of those "German Christians" who unreservedly sought to align the whole church with Nazism. This gave rise to hefty conflicts with his colleagues, and eventually led Kuenneth to throw his support behind the Confessing Church, and its determination to prevent any weakening of the church’s autonomy or perversion of its doctrines. His dogmatic character, in any case, refused to accept compromises with his foes, both internal and external.

It is a pity that P. did not think it necessary to analyse in depth Kuenneth’s vigorous attack on Rosenberg’s misguided book "The Myth of the Twentieth Century" - on the grounds that this affair does not need recapitulation! But he makes it clear that Kuenneth regarded himself as loyal to the Nazi state, did not oppose its nationalist or even its racial policies, but only protested against the distortions of traditional Christian doctrine. His challenge, however, was enough to bring about the Centre’s closure in December 1937. P. suggests that the initiative came, not so much from Rosenberg, as from the SS’s determination to wipe out all the Confessing Church’s educational activities. In any case, the Nazis’ control over the press had effectively throttled any independent expression of opinion.

P. concludes by describing developments since 1945, and by evaluating the tasks of propagating apologetics today. In 1960 the Evangelical Church decided to reconstitute the Centre, under a different name, but with much the same purposes. In 1994 a much more militant venture, the Walter Kuenneth Institute, was also established by the most conservative branch of the church, dedicated to preserving intact its biblical and reformation heritage, and strongly opposing any concessions to syncretism, pluralism, socialism or even feminism. P. does not venture an opinion about the viability of this enterprise. Instead he points to the increasing challenges presented by the explosion of information technologies, and affirms the continuing need to produce informative and persuasive materials enabling individual citizens to find their orientation in the mass of conflicting opinions. But essentially, he suggests, this task of presenting Christian publicity and advocacy is too big to be left to a few professionals. It rightly belongs to the whole body of lay believers.