History


The limits of one’s own horizons and experience always become exposed when seen through the eyes of an outsider. Since being in Jena for the last two weeks, I have not only read a shed load of books, but also seen a couple of films and listened to some interesting (challenging?) perspectives on life, the world and British political culture.

Before this week I had never heard of Curt Goetz or his wife Valerie von Martens. Goetz was a playwright, novelist and actor who, along with his wife, made some comedy films in the 1940s and ‘50s. Exploring German humour in film and literature is a never-ending task – based in a profound mystery – but, commenting on this to the friend with whom I am staying (a university professor of practical theology), led to two evenings watching Goetz and von Martens. And they are funny.

Das Haus in Montevideo, in black and white and cleverly scripted, actually presents the moral dilemmas involved in finding your strict morals challenged by pecuniary potential. Napoleon ist an allem Schuld sounds like farce, but mocks historical pretentiousness at the same time as depicting human generosity of spirit. You have to see them to get the stories, but they offer a German slant on morality from someone who left Germany in 1939 to avoid working for Hitler, but returned after the war to recover at least some elements of German theatrical culture from the ashes of destruction.

The other gift of these two weeks has been an introduction to theologians with whom I was unfamiliar. My friend has many books of German sermons. I dipped into Wolfhart Pannenberg, Eberhard Jüngel, Martin Niemöller and the poetry of Goethe, Schiller, Ingeborg Bachmann and, in a bookshop, Bertolt Brecht. All of these I knew. But, I had not heard of Manfred Josuttis until I dipped into his Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht, followed by several books of sermons. Now dead, he was a theologian who clearly knew how to preach in a way that gripped the attention and tackled both the biblical text and contemporary issues with rhetorical clarity.

There are connective threads between a number of the books I have been reading. In Germany history presses in from every side. Jena was the site of a Napoleonic victory in 1806 – we visited the battlefields at Cospeda. Only a few miles from Weimar, where the first German democratic constitution was framed and signed – it lasted only fifteen years before the Nazis tore it up – Jena was bombed during the war and then found itself in the German Democratic Republic until 1989/90. People here have Russian as their second language and English as only the third. The Stadtkirche (in which I preached several years ago) was where the great Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad also preached when he was a professor in the Theologische Fakultät in the 1930s and ‘40s. Three of the sermons he preached – in a collection of sermons from the whole of his ministry – have to be read in the light of the context in which he spoke: two to congregations of the Confessing Church in 1943 when the future was still unclear – and one on Easter Day 1943 to a general congregation including, presumably, Nazis and members of the Movement of German Christians.

Manfred Josuttis, in a sermon on Psalm 25:1-10 in Wirklichkeiten der Kirche, says: “Kein kollektivesGedächtnis kann uns davor bewahren, daß sich die Barbarei wiederholt. Schreckliche Bilder lösen nicht nur Entsetzen aus, sondern regen auch zur Nachahmung an.“ (p.80) [“No collective memory can preserve us from the repetition of barbarity. Shocking pictures don’t just horrify us, they also excite imitation.”]

Compare this with Marilynne Robinson in her book of essays What Are We Doing Here?: “It is not always easy to tell a slumbering conscience from one that is weighing consequences,” (p.4) or: “A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest. How many times has history taught us this?” (p.20)

We don’t always learn from history.

These questions were not merely academic to preachers and theologians such as Josuttis and von Rad and they shouldn’t be to us now as we cast an eye over developments across the world. We never foresee the future, even when we see the clouds gathering. But, the experience of those who found themselves exposed to existential challenge in relation to truth, integrity and politico-theological consistency is worth revisiting at a time when global norms are under pressure and change is in the air.

This evening I am going to listen to a lecture at the Theologische Fakultät of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena where I am staying for two weeks. The lecture will address the response to National Socialism by the university during the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently, it isn’t a happy story; but, I will await the detail.

History is easy with hindsight, isn’t it? It all looks obvious – or destined. Well, yesterday I had lunch with a wonderful PhD student from the university who is starting her research into ‘collective guilt in the Old Testament’. In our conversation we roamed over 20thcentury German history and the rise and demise of the British Empire, asking at what point does responsibility – collective or personal – cease to apply. Intergenerational guilt has to be held in tension with the consequences of the choices and actions of our ancestors. History is not so easily reckoned with, after all.

So, this morning I sat in a bookshop and read a lecture by Amos Oz, given in Berlin a couple of years ago, but published in 2018 and seemingly only available in German. Judas und Jesus, with reference to his novel Judas, tries to understand the character and motivation of Judas and make sense of a story in the gospels that he says is unnecessary to the gospel narrative. It is a quick, but arresting read, recounting the thinking behind the novel. The text of the lecture is followed by a description of Jewish-Christian relations by a Jewish academic and rabbi.

The immediate pertinence of these three events – the lecture later this evening, the conversation with the student, and the Amos Oz book – is that all are run through by charges of treachery, traitors and betrayal. But, without the benefit of hindsight: who/what did the theologians of Jena think they were betraying if they supported (or didn’t support) Nazism; or who did the Empire-builders think were the traitors to the cause while they were busy exporting Anglicanism to the world and looting the colonies of their riches; or did Judas feel that it was Jesus who had betrayed him by failing to bring in the kingdom of God in the way he had expected or been led to believe?

I ask the question because, although delivered from the burden of emails for a while, I am following the news from a German perspective – not least Brexit. It isn’t a happy exercise. The language and discourse of Brexit is shocking, but also surprising to the Germans who are eager to speak about it (some are, frankly, too embarrassed). When Donald Tusk wondered yesterday which special place in hell has been reserved for those who led Brexit without any plan for how to do it, the emphasis was on the lack of a plan – the sheer recklessness of demagoguery without strategy or vision that knew what it wanted to be free from but no idea of what it wanted to be free for (‘free’ being the word they use for the final destination of Brexitannia). Contra the (utterly predictable) snowflakey screaming in the media, he did not condemn Brexiteers or those who voted for Brexit. He rightly put the responsibility on those who led and promised and then abdicated responsibility for the consequences.

It seems everyone is a traitor. Brexiteers have betrayed the best economic interests of the United Kingdom; Remainers have betrayed democracy and the ‘people’ (das Volk, as they say here); Parliament has betrayed its function; the media (particularly the BBC) have betrayed everyone unless they can be interpreted as saying what any particular group wants to hear them say.

It is an easy accusation to make of anyone whose opinion or judgement differs from mine. It usually bears little scrutiny. I guess history will tell who betrayed whom … and whether or not they knew what they were doing … and whether or not the language of betrayal was even remotely appropriate at the time. In the meantime, the dialogue of the deaf will no doubt continue, and we will perfect the art of self-exculpating blame-throwing. As Donald Trump might say: “SAD!”

(Now for Dostoyevsky for whom the theme and experience of betrayal were no stranger.)