Reception of Christian Resistance

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What was thought and said about Christian resistance in the churches after 1945? Remembrance of the past always also throws light on those remembering because it is dependent on their political, religious and cultural position, on generational identities over the course of decades and on the authoritative experts’ standards of interpretation.

The history of the church’s remembrance of resistance can be divided into three phases:

A “martyrization” of the resistance can be spoken of in the first phase from the war’s end until roughly the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961-62. At first, Christian resistance was remembered in lamentation of the church’s own dead. The violent death of fellow clergy and colleagues was interpreted as Christian martyrdom and forms of worship and rituals predisposed to the liturgy were preferably employed in order to pay tribute to the dead from one’s own ranks.

In the 1950s, the first memorial centers in keeping with this spirit also arose in the domain of the church. They took up the concept of martyrdom. This longstanding Christian category of interpretation also furnished an opportunity acceptable to all of society to remember those who had died in the resistance. After all, paying tribute to the German resistance was not a given in the Federal Republic of Germany from the very beginning; it first had to assert itself against the response of denial and repression in the majority of the populace.

The GDR on the other hand had defined itself as an anti-Fascist state per se; a decidedly Christian interpretation of resistance would have detracted from the Communist leadership’s monopoly on interpretation there and was therefore avoided. The churches in der GDR therefore likewise maneuvered within the confines of the traditional concept of martyrdom (as in Brandenburg an der Havel). This proved to be extremely practicable in the East and the West at first.

A second phase of the church’s remembrance of resistance can be subsumed under the catchword “politicization”. It lasted until the end of the 1980s, thus approximately spanning the construction of the Berlin Wall to its fall, and was governed by the churches’ growing interest in political, social and cultural participation. This entailed a turn toward ethical issues, which led to a lively culture of discussion and activism, especially in West German Protestantism, in the wake of the social movements of 1960s and 1970s.

The integration of decidedly Christian resistance against National Socialism became increasingly possible in the GDR during the 1970s under the dominant category of anti-Fascism, even when the individuals concerned had their origins in bourgeois or military milieus. All in all, this phase of the church’s culture of remembrance displayed an intensified interest in “political” resistance and in a highly “politically” visible interpretation of resistance.

In the 1980s, West German Protestantism’s propensity for debate shifted significantly once more to the peace and environmental movements, a development that once again had lively correlations in East Germany, too, and led to church protest movements there: A new interpretation of resistance, in the domain of the Church as well, was instrumental in the success of the “Peaceful Revolution” of 1989.

In the West, the culture of remembrance in the “Kohl era” was accompanied by significant disillusionment and new controversies about interpretation. This is evident for instance in the debate about the “German Resistance Memorial Center”, the integrative conception unleashed a controversy about the politics of memory in Germany, which was dominated by political conservatives.

Another change in the church’s remembrance of resistance is discernible roughly from the epochal year of 1989-90 onward. A “canonization” of the resistance can be spoken of in this most recent phase. Individual figures of Christian resistance have been singled out as prominent authorities on the church’s understanding of itself, while others however have been removed for ethical reasons from the seemingly established canon of accepted prominent figures of the resistance.

An ecumenical expansion of the revitalized conception of martyrs is also evident. All of the major Christian churches are now familiar with interdenominational veneration of 20th century martyrs. The inherent drawback to approaching resistance as a model of conduct is the potential for it to become overshadowed by the veneration of pious martyrs again.

Nonetheless, a shift in interest from church officials to “silent heroes” has also been discernible in recent years. Thus, the focus now fully spans the wide variety of Christian resistance.