Critical Reappraisal

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Several decades passed before the Bavarian regional church’s portrayal of itself as an organization that had resisted National Socialism and of Regional Bishop Hans Meiser (1881–1956) as a dauntless resistance fighter began coming apart and finally disintegrated entirely.

Certainly, the regional church’s course under Meiser during the Nazi regime had been attacked after the end of the war. Meiser was accused of having stabbed the Confessing Church in the back and having split it with his special Lutheran confessional path. Such charges were merely a continuation of the Confessing Church’ internal disputes from the Nazi era and disregarded such crucial aspects as the church government’s relationship with the Nazi state and with its victims.

Academic research delivered important impetuses for a revision of the postwar era conception of history. The literature on the Protestant church’s role under National Socialism was largely written by those involved in the Kirchenkampf themselves until well beyond the 1960s and frequently served to justify their own conduct. Methods and perspectives started changing in church history scholarship in the 1970s. It abandoned the narrow perspectives of the Kirchenkampf and began following the scholarly standards of established history. “Modern church history” became established as a new ecclesio-historical discipline.

The Bavarian church government’s conduct under National Socialism has been undergoing a profound reappraisal based on new research findings since the 1980s. Newer scholarship maintains that its resistance was not aimed at the organizational and ideological Gleichschaltung of the regional church with the Nazi state rather than the Nazi regime as such. It even contributed to enhancing and stabilizing the Hitler regime through its de facto arrangement with National Socialism. Scholars therefore no longer classify its conduct as political resistance but described as “Resistenz” (akin to “recalcitrance”) instead. This term is intended to underscore the relative “immunity” of certain groups and organizations and thus the effective limitation of Nazi rule (C. Nicolaisen, Bischof, 58).

At the end of the 1990s, the pastor and historian Björn Mensing established that a considerable share of the Bavarian clergy had been entangled in National Socialism (B. Mensing, Pfarrer). At the same time, the church government’s neglect of the Nazi regime’s victims, especially Regional Bishop Meiser’ silence about the killing of Jews, was becoming clear.

The image of the Bavarian regional church as an organization that had resisted National Socialism was shattered once and for all in the 1990s. The conclusion reached in 1977 by Friedrich Wilhelm Kantzenbach, a church historian at Neuendettelsau, that only a few individuals in the Bavarian regional church had a clear eye for the crucial problems has become established since then (F. W. Kantzenbach, Der Einzelne, 107).

These individuals had hardly occupied any place in the regional church’ conception of history, however, and had fallen into obscurity– in part, because they themselves no longer spoke about their resistance after the end of the Nazi regime, in part, because the church government did not recognize their resistance in the first postwar decades.

Although Kantzenbach published his documentary biography of Wilhelm Freiherr von Pechmann (F. W. Kantzenbach, Widerstand) in 1971 and drew attention to Karl-Heinz Becker and others in a later study (F. W. Kantzenbach, Der Einzelne), the resistance of clergy such as Wolfgang Niederstrasser, Walter Hildmann and Gerhard Günther or laity such as Wunibald Löhe, Adam Bieber and Elisabeth Braun was only brought to light quite recently.

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  • © Photo: Nora Andrea Schulze, Munich

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