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Roggelin, Holger


Franz Hildebrandt. Ein lutherischer Dissenter im Kirchenkampf und Exil.


Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1999. 350 S. gr.8 = Arbeiten zur kirchlichen Zeitgschichte, Reihe B: Darstellungen, 31. Geb. DM 82,-. ISBN 3-525-55731-0.


Nicholas Hope

It is, perhaps, fitting to review in English this excellent biography of Franz Hildebrandt (1909-85), 'our friend named after the great Pope', thus Nathaniel Micklem in July 1938 (143), who spent his adult life after brief imprisonment in Berlin-Plötzensee in July-August 1937 in Cambridge and in Edinburgh, with the exception of a professorship at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey (1953-67). And it is most certainly an honour and a pleasure for a reviewer whose father, (Constantin Hopf 1911-71), knew Hildebrandt well as one amongst some thirty Lutheran pastors invited to this country by bishop Bell of Chichester, and who contributed to Hildebrandt's moving tribute to Bell, And Other Pastors of Thy Flock (1942). Before me lies a summer photo (1939) of the members of the Anglican theological college, Ridley Hall, Cambridge, with Hildebrandt seated in the front row third to the right of the Principal, Paul Gibson, and my father third to Gibson's left. Hildebrandt realized only much later that the title he gave to Bell's tribute was used already by Gibson to follow 'Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and Curates' in the 'Prayer for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here on earth' in the Anglican service of Holy Communion.

R. has done British and German church historians an inestimable service in concentrating on Hildebrandt's background, training, and early ministry in Berlin which happened to coincide with the outbreak and height of the "Kirchenkampf", and on Hildebrandt's ministry thereafter as a refugee pastor in Lutheran London and Cambridge congregations until 1945. It is a life which will complement well Günter Brakelmann's two-volume biography of Hans Ehrenberg and his German edition of Ehrenberg's English Autobiography (1943). Brakelmann's first fascinating volume (1883-1932) was published in 1997 (see my review, KZG, H. 1, 1999, 327-30). It should be said here, that both pastors, divided by a large age gap as were several of the German refugee pastors, shared several important features in common. Both came from similar liberal upper-middle class city backgrounds. Their parents upheld the humanist ethics bracketed with their world before 1914, and they showed little interest in any formal religion whether Christian or Jewish. Both mothers were assimilated Jews. In contrast, Ehrenberg and Hildebrandt took their Lutheran ordination and vows to preach the Gospel "rein und lauter" very seriously indeed. Bonhoeffer even charged Hildebrandt with being an antinomian for views like "Jedes Verständnis etwa der Bergpredigt als nova lex, jeder Gedanke einer imitatio Christi ist unlutherisch" (26). Ehrenberg and Hildebrandt had inevitably strained relations with Barth and the exponents of modern dialectical theology, and in Hildebrandt's case with modern existentialism too, whether Bultmann whom he encountered at Marburg in 1927, or Tillich in Berlin and in Madison. Both, needless to say, found the formal side of Anglican order alien, and therefore rejected the idea of a possible second Anglican ordination which Bell would have liked, though both loved the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Finally, both were deeply committed long before their British exile to care of the young and needy in large deprived postwar city parishes - Ehrenberg in Bochum, and Hildebrandt in eastern Berlin. They thus saw as committed members of the Confessing Church, the Nazi method of education, to use my father's broadcast words, as its 'most deadly weapon against Christianity' ("Under Nazi Rule: Into the Catacombs", The Listener, 4. April 1940, 666). Each of these pastors in their own way imparted a loving Christian upbringing following the child's development: Hildebrandt and Bonhoeffer in their Lutheran catechism Glaubst du, so hast du (1932) insisted, for instance, that the catechumen put the questions.

Of major interest to British and German readers will be R.s subtile analysis of the key issues on which Bonhoeffer and Hildebrandt agreed and disagreed; his account of their cooperation in the momentous years 1933 and 1934. Hildebrandt was the messenger between Bell whom he met for the first time in Chichester on 15 October 1934, Bonhoeffer, and Niemöller at Dahlem. However, distance created by exile and war gradually but inexorably separated the minds of Hildebrandt and Bonhoeffer, 'the nearest to a brother I could ever have had' (10). Later on even Bethge found it touchy to get Hildebrandt to comment on his Bonhoeffer biography and his edition of Bonhoeffer's works.

R. proves without a doubt that Hildebrandt is not to be seen merely as Bonhoeffer's friend. Hildebrandt was a theologian in his own right who saw Luther as the restorer of the original Christianity of the Gospel 'to Germany'. Luther was not the 'prophet of Germany'. A brief English summary of Hildebrandt views is contained in his essay 'Luther at the Present Time' in the Bell tribute mentioned above. Hildebrandt kept his distance to our modern "fallen" world: "Und das ganze 20. Jahrhundert... läßt mich im Grunde kühl", to Bethge, 20 January 1970 (267). And yet Hildebrandt remained a true son of liberal Berlin. He valued deeply Holl's and Harnack's scholarship, Erasmian humanism, the Bill of Rights, and Nonconformity, either as Methodism, or as Free Churchmanship created by the Scottish Disruption.

Hildebrandt's steadfast adherence to the Lutheran Gospel, the theme which bridges the German-British chapters in this book, was the reason why Hildebrandt saw himself as the lonely 'outsider' in these different church milieus. Moreover, the more Hildebrandt talked about what the Confessing Church stood for to English wartime audiences, the more he realized that 'experience cannot be passed on' (242). And yet he admitted later to an American interviewer, that if he had to be an outsider, he would 'rather be a "Continental" in England than an "Anglo-Saxon" in Germany; the atmosphere here is more tolerant, and among the heretics and modernists in this country my Biblicism is just sufficiently orthodox and probably more needed than at home' (254). Chapters 6-9 covering Hildebrandt in London and Cambridge will interest a German audience, though the sections dealing with Hildebrandt's work for the BBC and the Christian International Service contain much which is new to a British reader. If I were to quibble, and I hesitate here, it would be to say that the Anglican milieus of London, Chichester (particularly the parish of St. Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex where many German refugee pastors were housed), and Cambridge remain a little unfocussed, as does the incarnational theology of Charles Raven, which Hildebrandt criticised passionately in a pamphlet of 1944, and Anglican interwar theology in general. R. gives us a view of Anglican establishment which understates, perhaps, the warmth and friendship and sense of occasion and fun shown by several leading Anglican bishops including Temple as archbishop (after 1942) to these 'other pastors' in their dioceses. One could say, that the moral theology of a bishop like Kirk of Oxford encapsulated in his great study of Christian spirituality through the ages, The Vision of God (1931), was not after all so distant from Hildebrandt's own churchmanship. Episcopal goodwill led some of these German pastors to take Anglican orders.

As an example, may I cite an excerpt from a handwritten letter written by Bell to my father shortly before his ordination at Tilehurst in the Oxford diocese on Sunday, 29 August 1943: 'Your and your wife's and my hearts are full of thanksgiving; and full of hope and confidence that God has a great work for you to do, and your wife in association with you, in the Church in these islands, and for the Church Universal. How you will long that your own old friends and relatives might know and join their prayer to yours. May God bless and keep you now and always'.

To read this German biography of Hildebrandt has been to refresh my memory, my mind and myself.