Why the Time Is Ripe for a Reassessment of the Ecclesiastical Figure of the Century, Otto Dibelius

Manfred Gailus

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He was long regarded as the outstanding personality in the twentieth-century Protestant Church: Otto Dibelius (1880 – 1967). But what is missing is an overall picture of the leading theologian and “virtuoso power politician” and his work, especially during the National Socialist era, complains the Berlin history professor Manfred Gailus. An international Dibelius conference from October 5th to 7th (2022) in Marburg is intended to close this gap.

This article was originally published in Zeitzeichen, February 2022, p. 14-17. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher. You can view the original German article with images here.

It has grown quieter around Otto Dibelius. When the fiftieth anniversary of his death came in January 2017, few remembered him. No prominent memorial event, no scholarly conference, hardly any articles by well-known theologians or historians in newspapers or magazines. In Berlin, he was remembered in church services, but that was more of a small form – appreciation on the back burner. Perhaps the exuberant commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 also played a role: “Luther” was on everyone’s lips and drowned out the Protestant figure of the century, Dibelius. But by this time, “lower case” commemoration of the once highly revered Bishop of Berlin had long been in vogue. In 1980 things looked different. At that time, the renowned Tübingen church historian Klaus Scholder, in a highly regarded lecture in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, spoke on the centenary of Dibelius’ birth. On the 40th anniversary of his death in 2007, the Münster theologian Albrecht Beutel gave a lecture in the Berlin Cathedral about the powerful church leader and, referring to Scholder, characterized Dibelius as a singular “Prussian church prince”.

You rarely hear such superlatives these days. The old and sometimes strongly heroic image of Dibelius is fading. It clearly doesn’t fit anymore. It is time to draw a new picture of Dibelius that meets today’s scholarly standards and integrates his drawback in addition to his undeniable skills, achievements, and merits. He will certainly remain a major figure, but he will lose some of his shine. Until now, little has been written about his aggressive war sermons from 1914 to 1918 in the relevant Dibelius literature. His leading role in the Greater Berlin regional association of the warmongering “German Fatherland Party” from 1917 to 1918 should not be ignored. Despite the important study by Hartmut Fritz (1998), his permanent agitation against the Weimar Republic as a “godless republic” has not been adequately investigated. His performance in the “Third Reich” requires considerable corrections. His attitude towards Judaism, including a consistent veritable antisemitism, was never integrated into an overall picture of this colorful Protestant personality. In short: until now the only biography has been the highly apologetic biography by Robert Stupperich (1989). The time is now ripe for a new biographical study that situates the life and work of this controversial church leader in twentieth century political and social history, assessing his modes of action from this perspective. In what follows, Dibelius’ role in the late phase of Weimar and during the Third Reich will be discussed.

Dibelius did not like the Weimar Republic and tended to vilify it as a lifeless “godless republic” out of a proud ecclesiastical attitude. A few weeks before Hitler came to power, in a lecture on the “reawakening of faith in the present”, he lamented the devastating effects of secularization, materialism, individualism, and a general decline in values​​. But he also saw light at the end of the tunnel. He pinned his hopes on the “national movement” of the moment, including the National Socialists. With its appeal to a “community of blood ” [“Blutsgemeinschaft”] and “ethno-national community” [“Volksgemeinschaft”], it rebelled against the internationalism of class struggle ideas. Their goal: a new, strong ethnic group, had not been “conceived by the sharp calculating mind of a Jew.” Rather, it came from “emotion,” “instinct,” from “impulses of the blood.” The national movement was fighting for ideals that were not conceived by man, but felt “in his blood,” precisely in what was “creatively determined” for him. Although it was not yet possible to say how the struggle within National Socialism for the religious foundations would end, one thing was certain: it was possible for a “consciously Protestant life of faith” to develop within the National Socialist movement, too.

End of the “Godless Republic”

Dibelius had high hopes for the spirit of the anti-republican opposition to Weimar, especially a strong upsurge in faith and the liquidation of an epoch of unbelief. That was his expectation. From this perspective, January 30, 1933, appeared to be a fulfillment. Joy and deep satisfaction at the end of the “Godless Republic” determined the thoughts of the acting General Superintendent of the Kurmark during the first months of Hitler’s “Cabinet of National Concentration.” Now we rule, too – something like this could be used to capture his immediate sense of that moment. The smashing of the “godless movement” took place to the applause of Protestant church leaders. The rapid increase in church membership withdrawals suddenly stopped. Religious instruction was reintroduced in the modern, secular progressive schools [Reformschulen]. “Non-Aryan” lawyers in courts were forcibly expelled by SA troops. The Easter message of the Prussian church leadership spoke of “joy at the awakening of the deepest forces of our nation.” Dibelius preached as a political theologian on the “Day of Potsdam” in a euphoric mood of optimism on the big stage. He witnessed the act of state in the Garrison Church up close and was deeply moved by the ceremonial handshake between Hindenburg and Hitler.

Dibelius also justified the April 1, 1933, boycott of Jews to other countries. In his “Wochenschau” [“Week in Review”] in the Evangelisches Sonntagsblatt [Protestant Sunday Paper] of April 9, he reaffirmed his positive attitude towards Nazi Jewish policy: the “Jewish element” (he wrote) had played a leading role in all the dark events of the last 15 years. “German national life” was endangered by the Jewish immigration from the East. Nobody could seriously object to the suppression of Jewish influence. Two things had to happen in order to solve the “Jewish question”: blocking off Jewish immigration from the East and strengthening the German way of life so that it did not succumb to a “foreign race.” In May, Dibelius expressed great joy at the National Socialist redesignation of May 1st as “National Labour Day” and praised “People’s Chancellor Hitler” and Goebbels’ “brilliant organizational talent.”

At the Kurmark Church Congress at the end of May, in the Potsdam Garrison Church, Dibelius praised the changes since January 30: the dirt had disappeared from the streets, the poisonous class hatred had been removed from the soul; children were receiving religious instruction again and adults were again returning to church. At the subsequent rally in front of Potsdam’s city palace, Dibelius allowed a prominent member of the Reich leadership of German Christians (Deutsche Christen, or DC), Pastor Friedrich Peter, to make political appeals to the Protestant youth.

The measures taken by the National Socialist state commissar August Jäger at the end of June 1933 marked a turning point: all Prussian church general superintendents were temporarily suspended, including Dibelius. After the end of Jäger’s state intervention, Dibelius was able to resume his official duties, but in fact he no longer had any administrative powers. The church elections of July 23, ordered at short notice by the state, brought a massive two-thirds-to-three-quarters majority for the DC. They now dominated the Prussian church government. In this precarious situation, Dibelius sent a pointed letter aimed at understanding to the new church leadership, which was dominated by radical German Christians. It was untenable, he complained, for a general superintendent to be considered politically unreliable in a church that had joyfully committed itself to the new state. He now wanted to clarify his “actual position.” Even as a student around 1900, he had been fighting against Judaism and social democracy. He had remained true to this attitude to this day. He referred to his sermon on the “Day of Potsdam.” In it he acknowledged a spirit that stood up for the greatness of the Fatherland with determination. After the sermon, the Prussian Prime Minister Goering had shaken his hand with warm words of thanks. Likewise, at the request of Reichsminister Goebbels, he spoke to America over the radio to defend the new state against atrocity propaganda from abroad. Although he was critical of the DC, he had always tried to establish good contacts with them. Thus he had invited Ludwig Müller – the DC’s designated candidate for Reich Bishop– to deliver the major address to the church congress in the Kurmark church province. According to Dibelius in mid-July 1933, the rhythm and goals of their work contained much that corresponded to his own style and goals. He had repeatedly asked himself whether his type of work was not so closely related to the intentions of the DC that a mutual quarrel was intolerable from a church point of view. Because of the state commissar’s intervention, he had finally had to take a stand for the church. Finally, Dibelius wanted an understanding as to how things should continue with him personally. It should not be, he said, that the agitation of a small circle could easily remove a general superintendent from office.

The DC no longer responded to this request. The powerful wave of the DC movement within Protestantism had pushed Dibelius aside. In September he received his letter of dismissal for early retirement from the future Nazi Reich Bishop Müller. Dibelius had played no part in the first steps of opposition to DC ecclesiastical dominance in 1933. Rather, that came from the opposition election list “Gospel and Church” in July and the founding phase of the Pastors’ Emergency League in September. After weeks of waiting, a solution emerged in the fall. At the request of relatives, Hermann Goering had exerted his influence over the appointment of the retired general superintendent. On December 1, 1933, Dibelius took up the post of curate in San Remo on the Italian Riviera. Ostensibly, he was looking for this opportunity to take a break from church politics and time for personal reflection.

Overall, Dibelius’ behavior in the decisive year of 1933 had proven to be hesitant, shaky, and ambivalent. When he returned to Berlin on June 3, 1934, critical decisions in the Church Struggle had been made – without him. He had not been present at the constitution of free confessional synods from the beginning of 1934, at the Ulm Day of Confession in April, or at the first Reich Confessing Synod at the end of May 1934 in Barmen. He was absent when the house of the church was ablaze, and when he returned the fronts in the Church Struggle had formed.

Man of the Middle

At the request of Kurt Scharf, Dibelius helped establish a Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche, or BK) in the Mark Brandenburg. During the Church Struggle, he was and remained a “man of the middle,” of church-political moderation, of balance. He did not belong to the decisive wing of the Confessing Church around Martin Niemöller, Martin Albertz, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth. His church-political attitude corresponded more to the accommodating course of the moderate wing represented by the three Lutheran bishops of Hanover, Bavaria, and Württemberg. He was not involved as a synodal member to the BK synods of Dahlem, Augsburg and Bad Oeynhausen. He did not sign the confidential memorandum of the second Provisional Church Leadership of the BK to Hitler at the end of May 1936, and he was rather distant towards its peace liturgy against the threat of war at the end of September 1938. Lastly, he was not one of the accused in the “examination process” (December 1941), through which the regional elite of the BK Berlin-Brandenburg were sentenced to sometimes considerable prison terms for illegal teaching and examination activities at the illegal church seminary.

Dibelius’ real problem in the “Third Reich” were the German Christians with their ethno-nationalist Christian theology and their aggressive claim on the church government. This dissent gave rise to various conflicts and personal clashes. But that was not general resistance to the Nazi regime, rather only opposition to a parallel movement to the Hitler party within Protestantism. Additionally, he criticized aspects of the Nazi worldview and Nazi religious policy, where these proclaimed anti-Christian goals. In 1937, this brought him into a legal dispute with Reich Church Minister Hanns Kerrl.

However, during the war years, Dibelius developed a certain inner distance from the regime. Kurt Gerstein’s eyewitness reports about the murder of the Jews in the East (August 1942) may have played a role in this. Dibelius maintained contacts with the church unification work of Württemberg Bishop Theophil Wurm and with the conservative Freiburg resistance group around Walter Eucken and Gerhard Ritter. But resistance against the state was not permissible for a devout Christian and avowed Lutheran, according to Romans 13 and because of the [nineteenth-century] “New Lutheran” [neulutherische] two-kingdoms doctrine. So Dibelius remained what he had always been during the “Third Reich”: a Christian-conservative churchman, a Prussian-German national Protestant, whose religious mentality had been formed by the currents prevailing in the late German Empire (Heinrich von Treitschke, Adolf Stoecker, Union of Associations of German Students). It was indelibly marked by ethno-national [völkisch] sympathies and notoriously anti-Jewish and at times antisemitic tendencies.

A thorough, up-to-date, new Dibelius biography seems urgent today—as well as a thoroughly renovated Dibelius picture as part of a contemporary ecclesiastical culture of remembrance.

This article was first published in: Contemporary Church History Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2022), translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Online seit: 8. Oktober 2022

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