A historic step?

Protestant state church of Wuerttemberg (South-West-Germany) declares 9th of November an official church remembrance day.

In the night of 9th of November 1938 synagogues were burned down, Jewish institutions and shops were ravaged and thousands of men deported to concentration camps all over Germany. This day marked the preliminary climax of the Nazis persecution of Jews. Public resistance was virtually non-existent. Five and a half years of Nazi-power had corrupted German society and driven the Jews out of it. Neither civil nor church institutions stood up and protested – the events were accompanied by a ghostly and shameful silence. Joseph Goebbels noted in his diary that now they had all options in the ”Jewish question” because the churches did not protest…!

There have been controversial discussions about the role of the church during the Nazi-Regime. Of course there were church people resisting the Nazis, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example, but it is also a well known fact that many priests embraced Nazi ideology, mixed it with theology and preached it to the people – consequently also against Jews.

To this day mainly single church groups or individuals have taken responsibility for what has happened by reflecting the role of the church at that time critically. However, there has not been an officially instituted remembrance day on behalf of the church. Most of what has been done was rather in general terms without an explicit reference to the horrible events during the ”Third Reich”. This is the distinctiveness of the Wuerttembergian approach and what makes it so interesting. It could open a new chapter in Christian-Jewish relations, thus it could be a historic event.

The key figures behind this initiative are two clergymen from the picturesque university town of Tuebingen, rev. Dr. Michael Volkmann and retired rev. Dankwart-Paul Zeller, who have both been very active in Christian-Jewish dialogue before. They issued a paper calling for a church referendum regarding an official remembrance day in 2005. Finally, in October 2007 the protestant synod accepted the initiative, calling for ”a day of remembrance and repentance”. Other state churches within Germany were invited to follow that example although it is as yet unclear whether they will follow this approach as well. But a first step has been taken.

The initiative is based on the insight that it was also due to the passivity of the churches that the national socialist persecution of Jews was facilitated and accelerated. Another point the initial paper hints at is the role of the church in spreading anti-Semitic prejudices amongst its believers. This call for a turning-back is an attempt to find a new basis for Christian-Jewish relations and to find areas of cooperation in order to create a peaceful future where mutual tolerance and respect prevail over prejudices and resentments.

The 70th anniversary of the ugly events of the ”Reichskristallnacht” (or ”Reichspogromnacht” as is the more common expression in Germany) was remembered in every parish in the South-West-German state of Wuerttemberg. Bigger events took place in the larger cities, with Jewish involvement wherever this was possible. In Stuttgart state-rabbi Nethanel Wurmser met state-bishop Otfried July during a commemoration ceremony. Also in Tuebingen, the birth-place of the initiative, the events were commemorated in a central ceremony. The key text of the service-like ceremony was Psalm 55, which is concerned with a feud amongst former friends. Furthermore a list was touched upon that asks questions that have traditionally strained Christian-Jewish relations: Is the church prepared to stop mission amongst Jews? Is the church ready to advise its priests not to use texts that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic? Can the church accept that Jews decide for themselves of how they view themselves? The questions were posed, not answered. Still there is a space where these and others can be discussed – also within the church itself.

Maybe it is a little bit premature to talk about a historic event. In the end it is only one state church within Germany’s many that has agreed to take such a step. It is still open whether other synods will follow and whether the spirit on which this approach is founded will gain momentum and really change Christian-Jewish relations. However, it is a novelty that a church officially relates a remembrance day towards the Holocaust, thus taking on responsibility. And the responsibility of remembrance is a difficult and sensitive one. At least it shows that there elements within the church who do not shy away from this difficult task, who are willing to admit and to learn from the mistakes of the past and who want to create a more positive and just future for all of us.

Daniel Felder is active in many intereligeous projects and participant of leadership courses. At the moment he is a volunteer at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.