Religious Persecution in Today’s Germany: Old Habits Renewed

Derek H Davis. Journal of Church and State. Volume 40, Issue 4. Autumn 1998.

In September of 1941, a law was passed in Nazi Germany requiring all Jews to wear a large yellow star that, according to Daniel Goldhagen, officially marked the Jews as “socially dead beings.” Fiftyfive years later in 1996, as part of a campaign denying certain commercial rights to Scientologists, the German Ministry of Employment issued a directive, still in force, to its Labor offices to mark all files on companies owned by Scientologists with an “S”. While the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations investigating religious discrimination in Germany appropriately suggested that any comparisons of modern abuses to Nazi treatment of the Jews in the 1930s are “meaningless and puerile,” the comparison is somehow inescapable. Evidence is mounting that the German government is trampling on the liberties of its religious minorities in direct violation of several international human rights agreements into which it freely entered.

Interestingly, the German government has conducted some investigations of its own. A German Parliamentary “Enquete” (Inquiry) Commission recently concluded a two-year investigation into the nation’s “sects and psycho-cults” and reported that these groups pose no tangible threat to the state. It is unfortunate that the myopic scope of the Commission’s inquiry limited the results of this lengthy investigation to such a bland conclusion. The Commission’s efforts would have been far more productive had they included a report on the threat posed by the German government to religious minorities in that country. Such a report could have cited police raids against independent Pentecostal churches; the denial of employment, political participation, and state licensure to Scientologists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; the distribution of state-prepared pamphlets warning of contact with the Mormon “sect”; and the expulsion from schools of children whose parents belong to the Unification Church. Muslims and Jews likewise complain of ongoing forms of state-promulgated discrimination against them.

Claims of persecution against members of the Church of Scientology by officials in Germany have received the lion’s share of recent publicity due to the involvement of prominent Scientologists (notably actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise) in the United States.

However, celebrity involvement and sensationalized claims of persecution may have harmed the cause of exposing religious intolerance in Germany by attracting attention from the breadth and institutional penetration of renewed oppression. The German government has steadfastly denied charges of discriminatory policies toward religious minorities yet acts of discrimination against members of certain religious groups in Germany undoubtedly have taken place. The official entry bans on the Scientologist musician Chick Corea in 1993 and the Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon in 1995 received international attention and even public censure. The U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad issued a “stinging rebuke” to the German Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for endangering the liberties of religious minorities. In June of 1997, a statement was issued by the Human Rights Centre at England’s University of Essex warning of Germany’s official “vilification of and discrimination against” certain religious groups.

Beyond the accusations of human rights organizations and the denials of German politicians, however, is the vivid remembrance of past persecutions of religious minorities in Germany that led to suffering on a global scale. One must ask why a nation so thoroughly excoriated for past atrocities would risk association with even subtle forms of religious intolerance. Of all the world’s governments, the one in Bonn should be sensitive to such charges. How is it possible that the Conference of Ministers and Senators of the Interior of Lander issued a statement that there is “real evidence” of the desire of the Church of Scientology (which claims only 30,000 members in Germany) to dominate the “existing order by tyranny and despotism?” The official description of religious minorities as “rival” totalitarian societies has been a favored technique in German campaigns against religious groups throughout its history. The reemergence of such practices and German indifference to world opinion concerning these acts is profoundly ominous. A review of German history indicates similar beginnings to recurrent cycles of religious oppression that reflect a cultural proclivity to intolerance that may help to explain modern problems.

This essay will examine the current situation of minority religions in Germany, briefly assessing the German constitutional structure respecting religious liberty, but turning more emphatically to historical attitudes and events in light of the German tradition of church-state relations. There is no intent here to portray Germany as the sole perpetrator of religious oppression in the presence of an otherwise religiously libertarian Western culture. History demonstrates, however, that the uniqueness of the German experience is found in the persistence and cyclical nature of persecution spanning not only time but a varied array of political structures: territorial federation, monarchy, national socialism, democratic republic, fascist dictatorship, and modern democracy.

It is the potential for repetition of such cycles and the broadening of religious intolerance in Germany that causes alarm today rather than the intensity of acts directed at specific religious groups.

The Current Status of Religious Minorities in Germany

The particular legal and institutional structure of church-state relations in modern Germany is an obvious place to begin in assessing the condition of religious groups and identifying any predisposition to religious intolerance. Article 4 of the German Constitution states that “the freedom of belief and conscience and the freedom to possess religious and philosophical beliefs are inviolable” and that the “free practice of worship is guaranteed.” These terms point to an unmistakable desire for breadth in defining the kinds of belief that are to be protected by Article 4. Such unambiguous language can hardly be misconstrued; yet, the German government has determined it necessary to establish a network of constitutional protection agencies designed to “track, and sometimes infiltrate movements suspected of working against Germany’s thoroughly liberal constitution.” In the view of the German ruling party, it is the constitution that is under attack from the religious minorities and so-called “psycho-cults” that are gaining strength at the expense of the established Lutheran and Catholic state churches. This defensive posture toward perceived threats to the religious establishment is consistent with the German historical and philosophical tradition that maintains ideological solidarity is critical to political stability.

The principal means of “cult classification” available to the German government in light of constitutional restrictions is the denial to certain churches the status of “legal person in public law.” This legal status is a dubious one for churches committed to church-state separation, however, for it grants not only tax exemption but it extends the privilege of active cooperation with the state by delegating certain official duties. Article 140 of the Constitution provides that a cult is granted the status of legal person in public law “when, in the light of its statute and the size of its membership, it gives every indication of durability.” The report of the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights states that “advantages and exemptions are granted not because of the religious character of the cult, but because it serves the public interest.” Therefore, the religiosity of a particular group is determined not by self-professed beliefs and practices but rather by its perceived contribution to the governmental objective of advancing the public interest.

This definition establishes an obvious legal contradiction between the criteria for identification of religious groups in order to protect their rights to belief and practice and the criteria for determination of official status. In the former case, no requirements are placed on churches based on membership size or perceived “durability”; while, in the latter case, the determination of legal status is based entirely on demographics without respect to the self-identification of religious groups based on a system of beliefs. This paradox establishes an inequitable foundation for church-state relations that will inevitably lead to discriminatory practices. At the very least, it erects a state-sponsored, ecclesiastical hierarchy that positions “official” churches above their unofficial counterparts.

The question of “threat” investigated by the aforementioned Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry comes not from the existence of new religious or psychological movements but rather from the underlying philosophy of church-state relations that led to the establishment of the Commission. The inclusion of members from the two established churches of Germany, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Evangelical Church (or EKD-an umbrella organization consisting of both Lutheran and Reformed churches), provided no reassurance that the rights of religious minorities would be protected. In fact, the very composition of the Commission of Inquiry constituted a blatant conflict of interest. Hans Gasper, a Roman Catholic Commission member, insisted that care was taken such that “in this process groups would not be persecuted, stigmatized, or defamed.” However, the very existence of a governmental body commissioned to judge the beliefs and practices of religious groups and to ascertain whether or not their activities imperil the state may well be considered defamation by some of the groups under investigation.

What is the threat posed to constitutional government in Germany by the existence of religious groups such as the Church of Scientology and the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Ironically, the report of the Special Rapporteur recorded that a Federal Administrative Tribunal in Germany denied “legal person in public law” status to the Jehovah’s Witnesses because of its members’ refusal to engage in political participation. Because this official status requires active cooperation with the state, it directly conflicts with church doctrine denying the legitimacy of government institutions. In this same report, religious minorities other than the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Church of Scientology described a somewhat less intrusive religious climate in Germany, commenting on the general “climate of suspicion” mentioned previously. Even these more subtle descriptions, however, paint an ominous picture for the future of minority religious movements in Germany.

History may provide the explanation for the persistence of religious intolerance in German society. As will be seen, common sociological events that have lead to past abuses demonstrate a definite cycle to religious persecution in German history. Although often asymmetrical in both duration and intensity, the consistency of the various stages that constitute this cycle is quite remarkable. To generalize, the stages of religious persecution in German history are: 1) identification/classification of “unacceptable” religions often through the granting of exclusive license to the “official” religion or religions; 2) establishment of a unified position among the ruling elite (political leaders, clergy, and intellectuals) against minority groups; 3) initiation of a propaganda campaign by members of the elite delegitimizing targeted minoritiesas noted, religious groups are often portrayed as rival societies rather than religions; 4) implementation of formal governmental inquiries and enactment of legal restrictions on minority groups generally limiting movement, commerce, or the right to bear arms; and 5) issuance of decrees authorizing the forced removal of the targeted minority from defined territories. Completion of all stages in the cycle ensures that religious minorities are legally disenfranchised and at the mercy of public opinion. All that remains is the objectification of an internal or external threat that serves as the stimulus to specific acts of persecution.

What is alarming is that particular stages in this cycle may go dormant for long periods and that not all events appear as part of a systematic effort that inevitably ends in religious persecution. Laws passed under the pretense of “protecting” a particular religious group from the larger society often have contributed to the intensity of subsequent persecutions. In the middle ages, for example, Jews were placed sporadically under imperial protection to block widespread persecution. Generally, these protective acts had the effect of exacerbating public opinion against Jews because of their protected status and resulted in intensified persecutions once protected status came to an end.

It can be demonstrated that this pattern of persecution has persisted for centuries across all forms of social governance. This would imply that persecution is a learned cultural behavior that is reinforced by certain cultural attributes. The argument here is that reinforcement for this behavior is provided by a society’s (in this case Germany’s) unique historical experience and philosophical tradition.

The Historical Experience of Religious Persecution in Germany

Recurrent cycles of religious persecution in German history point to the inseparability of political and ecclesiastical authority in the German psyche extending back to the very beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire. Ironically, the German people were the “victim” of a religious-political hegemony long before the arrival of the modern German state. Charlemagne’s brutal conquest and conversion of Saxony in the eighth century established an ideological model for future campaigns and served to convince those conquered that no political or military victory was complete without achieving solidarity of conscience. Richard E. Sullivan, in his book, Aix-La-Chapelle: In the Age of Charlemagne, describes the crude conversion policy of Charlemagne toward his Saxon captives who were “required to accept Christianity as a part of their political submission to the Franks. Whenever a group of Saxons surrendered, they were immediately baptized, often in the presence of the conquering army and almost never with any thought of instruction in the new faith.” Mass conversions under the threat of death in the eighth and ninth centuries were seen as a necessary, if painful, step in the purification of Christendom as it entered the era of the crusades. The conquest of eastern infidels necessitated strict internal obedience to a common religion and worldview. By the time of the first crusade, Germany emerged as the most zealous defender of the faith to which she had been forcibly converted only three centuries before.

Coinciding with the advent of the First Crusade in 1096, Emperor Henry IV issued a decree denying Jews the right to carry weapons in a society in which such liberty was supposedly a defining attribute of freedom. In May of that same year, the “first holocaust” of the Jewish people took place as a crusading army from southern Germany led by Emich of Leiningen slaughtered thousands of Jews in the cities of Worms, Speyer, and Mainz. Massacres of the defenseless Jewish population would continue until 1103 when Henry IV conceded his error and placed Jews under the protection of the empire by the Peace of Mainz. Unfortunately, in subsequent cycles of persecution, isolation of the Jews through legal decree not only disarmed the target population but also conditioned social attitudes in favor of violent acts. Henry IV’s initial act of disarming the Jews signaled the disenfranchisement of the Jewish minority to the larger society that was already inflamed with religious zeal for the crusades. The resulting atrocities were inevitable.

Forcible conversion of Jews and other infidels by the offer of “conversion or extermination” was the desire of the first crusaders though such practices were expressly prohibited by canon law. German bishops often attempted to intercede and stop these acts in their respective regions, though some clerics actually incited violence. The crusaders, both nobility and peasant alike, were inflamed with the passion of conquering and exterminating all people who had committed barbarous acts against Christianity. It made little sense to travel thousands of miles to fight against Arabs who had wrested control of the Holy Land when the very murderers of Jesus Christ lived freely in the homeland.

The Protestant Reformation continued the German tradition of consolidating political and ecclesiastical authority though it resulted in the preeminence of territorial rather than imperial or national sovereignty. The region split into a patchwork of Lutheran and Catholic principalities as the Holy Roman Empire, for the first time in its history, gradually accepted the idea of a competing faith. Though wars were fought over the initial break of Martin Luther and his magisterial reformers, persecution was reserved principally for the peasant class and their radical Anabaptist collaborators. It was the radical preachers who traversed the German countryside, serving as the conduit of seditious forces and transmitting the news of uprisings and persecutions to the peasants. Thomas Muntzer’s exceptional use of inflammatory rhetoric and imagery in his “calls-to-arms” was a primary reason for Luther’s hatred not only of Muntzer but all the radical preachers. Luther publicly chastised the princes for their insensitivity to the rising poverty of the peasant class. Ultimately, however, he was more harsh in his treatment of the peasants, fearing that civil disobedience threatened the measure of toleration already achieved. Luther invoked the familiar theme of “suffering” temporal authority no matter how unjust. Open revolt forced Luther’s hand and the Anabaptist-peasant coalition paid the price for the religious liberty won by Luther and his followers. In his Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Luther damned the peasants, saying “they have abundantly merited death in body and soul.” The reformer became persecutor in an effort to preserve hard-fought gains in the battle for freedom of conscience.

The German Peasants War of 1525 would mark the limits to political and religious toleration in the sixteenth century. In the end, the distinction between peasant and Anabaptist, social class and religious belief, was lost in the communal lifestyle they shared. Both groups threatened stability in a region that was still experiencing the pain of religious disunion. There could be no more than two religions in the land. The princes and nobles believed that they discovered the inspiration for class revolt in the doctrine of “personal predestination” taught by Muntzer and the other radical reformers. Absolute liberty of religious conscience in a world governed by saints rather than magistrates was the recipe for anarchy and perpetual revolution. The majority of Anabaptists were killed or driven into neighboring states and order was restored in the quintessential document of religious and political compromise.

The Peace of Augsburg (1555) led to the partitioning of Germany into Catholic and Lutheran principalities and served as a proclamation that political stability could not exist without religious solidarity. Presented as a document of “tolerance,” it placed the responsibility for religious determination of the German territories in the hands of the respective princes. Cuius regio, eius religio (whose region, his religion) would become the defining clause of the document which denied freedom of conscience to all persons excepting princes and reserved legal rights only for those who subscribed to the Augsburg Confession. An external threat would once again provide the stimulus to coercion and heighten the need for political expediency in the partitioning of the German land and conscience. This time it was the Turks, who had advanced through the Balkans and now encroached on German territories in the south and east, who would serve as the catalyst for theological solidarity Geoffrey Barraclaugh noted that the Peace of Augsburg “was not merely a means of securing religious uniformity, but also an instrument for creating a regime of absolutism.” While lessening the wars of religion and immediate persecutions, the Peace of Augsburg would have the effect of intensifying religious identification and isolation. Everyone must be labeled confessionally to fit his or her respective territory. Through this act the princes received official sanction to drive all nonconformists from their lands, though the extent to which they did this is debatable.

The peace achieved at Augsburg was an unsteady one. Fragmentation within Lutheranism for political as well as theological reasons would continue into the seventeenth century and the expansion of German Calvinism would further complicate matters. Wars between German territorial principalities, though not overtly religious, would continue until the enactment of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that added Calvinism to the list of official religions. Religious intolerance continued in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a product of the intense rivalries among the individual states and among the three official German religions. Religious violence was often popularly inspired though clerics were known to instigate malevolent acts against their rivals. Religious rationalism also came under official attack late in the eighteenth century as the King of Prussia initiated a campaign by issuing the Prussian Edict Concerning Toleration (1788). Sections seven through ten of the edict dealt with Protestant orthodoxy and demanded that all Protestant ministers maintain strict doctrinal adherence to “their respective Lutheran or Reformed creeds, on pain of immediate dismissal from their parishes.”

The confluence of rationalism and nationalism in German culture in the eighteenth century resulted in what George L. Mosse has described as “the worship of the nation” and in his recognition of the emergence of a new political style in Germany “which became in reality, a secularized religion.” Rationalism conceded God as supreme and man’s soul as immortal but essentially gutted the remainder of Christian theology, thereby opening the door to nation-worship. This cultural shift heightened an already exaggerated association of religious orthodoxy with national unity. The German people easily accepted the identification of unpopular religious groups as “hostile nations within.” This lessened the need for external threats to precipitate cycles of persecution. Internal enemies became more abundant as radical nationalism narrowed the archetype of the “true German.” Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik in the late nineteenth century “divided all peoples into superior and inferior categories, on the assumption that only specific peoples had the right to exclusive pursuit of national policies and the absolute maintenance of national integrity.”

This rise of nationalism coincided with the enactment of the May Laws in the period from 1872 to 1875 that restricted the Catholic press and allowed the confiscation of some Catholic properties. In addition, Bismarck expelled the Jesuit Order from all German territories in 1872. Jews and Catholics alike were targeted in Bismarck’s campaign of repression. The German intellectual elite, led by Goethe, Herder, Kant, and Fichte, were enlisted in a demagogic attack on the Jewish influence in German culture. The government-promoted conceptualization of the Jewish people as a nation rather than a religious group initiated the elevation of religious persecution to the status of war. The Christian-Socialist pastor Adolf Stoecker joined the campaign, promoting his impassioned belief in the German “national soul” and bitterly denouncing Jews for polluting the soul of Germany and jeopardizing its salvation. The worship of the nation ensured that heresy and subversion were equated in the mind of the people, and the rise of militant clergymen like Stoecker legitimized radical nationalism and quieted any prophetic role the church might play in curbing the growth of religious intolerance.

Protestant clergymen had the dubious responsibility, reported A.J. Hoover, to “harmonize kaiser and Christ” in support of German militarism during World War I. Germany’s alliance with the Muslim Turks and its declaration of war on several Christian European states pointed to fundamental changes in the German worldview. Pietist enthusiasm had given way to unbridled religious nationalism and this became evident in German conquests. The distinction between sacred and profane was now essentially that between German and non-German. The ruthlessness of the war in Belgium was especially unnerving for Western European nations. German shelling of churches and cathedrals, as well as hospitals, Red Cross wagons, and other revered symbols led to a growing recognition by the rest of the world that German militarism was beyond control. The once zealous defender of the faith now turned its guns on many of the most magnificent structures of Christianity for the simple reason that they were not German. The devastation of the famed Cathedral of Rheims in France made a huge impression on the French and British. Henry Wace, Dean of Canterbury, said “we are fighting not merely a political foe, but a moral outlaw from Christian civilization.”

German humiliation in the aftermath of the Great War led to political disintegration. Rival parties and ideologies competed in the social and economic chaos that was the legacy of World War I. Nationalism subsided temporarily as the nation fought merely to subsist. The period between the wars perhaps marked the low-point in the history of the modern German state. The Weimar Republic (1919-1933), a shortlived and highly unpopular German experiment in democracy, saw radical antisemitism pervade all institutions of German culture, becoming especially militant on college campuses. The potential for social unrest grew rapidly. A report from the city of Munich in 1919 stated that the city’s cultural institutions were so thoroughly impregnated by antisemitism that the climate was right for pogroms. Ironically, the Weimar government itself would experience the effects of nationalist hatred. A widespread perception that the Weimar government was dominated by the Jewish elite and that Jews prospered under the government while other Germans suffered led to its swift demise. The charge of Jewish domination was unfounded, however. The combination of economic distress and antisemitism doomed any possibility of legitimizing the Weimar government with the mainstream society. Though its political life was brief, the Weimar era would see an amplification of the Bismarckian nationalism that it inherited in direct response to its own failures. Perceptions of Jewish domination of the Weimar government and escalating social and economic crisis paved the way for the ascendancy of Nazism and the atrocities that would follow.

Radical antisemitism, apparent sporadically throughout German history and inflamed during the Weimar era, gave way to “eliminationist” antisemitism with Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. In this new model of hatred, the possibility of reconciliation with or even toleration of Jews by the “true” German population was officially eradicated. Jews must be completely isolated and, if possible, removed from German society in concert with Stoecker’s idea of the purification of the national soul. The realization of this philosophy was the Holocaust in which an estimated six million Jews were killed in the death camps that pockmarked Germany and its satellite states to the east and south. All acts of persecution in German history prior to the 1930s may be seen as building to the climax that was the Holocaust–an elongated cycle of persecution that encompassed many smaller cycles. This was not simply the maniacal act of a rogue government; the idea of Jewish elimination was arguably embraced throughout German culture.

Daniel Goldhagen noted the existence of a “Manichean idiom” in Nazi Germany in which it was “virtually impossible not to take sides” on the Jewish problem. Previous regimes had supplied the identification of Jews with the majority of social ills. The Nazi government was left with the task of breaking down legal protections and exaggerating the Jewish threat to German unity. Hitler’s maniacal feat was to amplify the chronic antisemitism in German society into a climactic social rage.

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made the swastika the national symbol of Germany and took away citizenship rights from the Jewish people who were officially identified as a race rather than a religion. This identification of the Jews as a nation pressed the rivalry between “ethnic” Germans and those who had a distinct and alien heritage. A succession of government acts reinforced the isolation of the Jews within the larger society. The 1941 law requiring all Jews to wear a large yellow star had the effect of escalating the physical violence against them.

Jews were not the only undesirables who became the targets of Nazi persecution. Adolph Hitler’s military campaign nicknamed Operation Barbarossa during the Second World War demanded that all military officers recognize the “ideological nature of the struggle by liquidating the `Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia.”‘ Senior military officers, noted Jurgen Forster, “cast his [Hitler’s] ideological intentions into legally valid form.” Here again we see the repetition of a timeproven methodology: identification of targets for persecution followed by the demand of ideological solidarity among top officials who, in turn, were responsible for the administration and mobilization of forces to accomplish its purpose. Official classification of persecution targets (Jews and Bolsheviks) was achieved by adding these groups to the registry of the infamous agreement between the Wehr nacht and SS detailing the function of the Einsatzgruppen (an organized effort to exterminate Russian Jews) during the Russian campaign. Under the Nazis, ideals of German nationalism and its eliminationist methodology had grown conceptually broad enough to justify the persecution of any group, religious, political, or otherwise. Jews, Bolsheviks, Gypsies, Armenians, and homosexuals all challenged the ideological sovereignty of the nation. Anti-cult literature was distributed en masse targeting groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who would join the ranks of the oppressed. “Eliminationist” sentiment spread and became axiomatic in the social philosophy of Nazi Germany and its practical application was introduced into every aspect of society.

What is striking about religious persecution in the German historical experience is its remarkable consistency in the repetition of a recognizable cycle of contributing events. Though these events may span political regimes or go dormant for extended periods, there has been a definite order to the activities that have contributed to past persecutions. First, there is the identification and classification of potential targets for oppression generally by recognition of the “official” religion or religions to the exclusion of all others. The Peace of Augsburg accomplished this purpose in late medieval times, just as the recognition of legal status under German law does today. Historically, the identification of religious minorities in the mainstream population has been supported by census taking, governmental investigation, geographical partitioning, or similar means. Next, the establishment of a unified position among the political, clerical, and intellectual elite is promoted, often leading to a popular campaign targeting minority groups. Then, the application of legal restrictions to members of these groups helps to solidify public opinion and create a united German “defensive” front. Generally, these restrictions have been in the form of laws limiting the freedom of movement or commerce, revoking or denying citizenship, or disarming the religious minority. Finally, once popular momentum has gained sufficient strength, the authorities issue decrees authorizing the forcible removal of the targeted religious group from specific regions. The generation of public fear in the face of an internal or external threat then becomes the stimulus for extreme measures of religious persecution.

One must ask why the cycle of religious oppression in Germany demonstrates such dogged persistence. In his outstanding book, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Roland Bainton suggested that there were three prerequisites at work in sixteenth-century religious persecution. First, the persecutor had to believe that he was right; second, he had to consider the point in question to be important; and third, he had to believe that persecution would be effective. All of Bainton’s prerequisites, but especially the third, seem to be at work in the modern German context: it is believed that persecution can be effective. Through its historical experience, German society has come to value religious oppression as effective in contributing to social order. However, German history records no “serious” attempt at religious toleration. Therefore, it is impossible for the German people to assess the social stability advanced by toleration against the order established through state-sponsored coercion. Religious coercion is tacitly accepted by the larger society because of the absence of a philosophical alternative in the German historical experience.

The Reinforcement of Tradition

As already noted, philosophical tradition plays a crucial role in the development of the church-state relationship of every society, and it would be remiss to omit reference to the German philosophical tradition as an influence in the recurrence of religious persecution. A significant part of the German tradition, that of “radical historicism” articulated most passionately by Hegel and Ranke, projects the state as the product of “historical forces” that exists not merely in concert with natural laws but as emanations of, says Georg Iggers, “higher moral energies.” History must be viewed not as consequential but as a determining factor of outcomes in the divine destiny of the German nation. The extreme objectivism found in this tradition in which, according to Iggers, “no individual, no institution, no historical deed can be judged by standards external to the situation,” rejects the application of absolute moral standards to human events. The German conception of the uniqueness of political governance to each society has limited the acceptability of ideas like church-state separation. And its nationalism that is seemingly devoid of an idea which transcends the nation relative to the traditions of its western neighbors, has contributed to past German withdrawal into its own historical and philosophical paradigm.

This extreme historical orientation may be seen as reinforcing past abuses and later justifying their consequences. History is revelatory in the German tradition, freeing man from the absolutes of natural law tradition and making him subject to its own outcomes. Historicism is not presented here as dominant in the German tradition or as guiding individual behavior in modern Germany but as a subtle influence at work much like the sporadic reemergence of seventeenth-century Puritan values in American history. It is posited here that in both countries, these respective value-systems intensify during times of social and economic crisis. Consistent with the German philosophical tradition it must be conceded that, to some extent, all nations are products of their respective histories.

Another cultural subtlety that may have contributed to recurrent patterns of religious persecution is observed in the historical difficulty of maintaining German unity. The cultural problems resulting from Germany’s origin as a collection of territorial principalities and its isolation from Western Europe are to some degree due to the fact that Germany is not by nature a monarchic state. The German federation of territories may be seen as having formed as an imitation of the federal structure of the Holy Roman Empire. Germany’s early adoption of the empire’s political-ecclesiastical governance philosophy was a logical extension of that authoritarian structure. The persistent deunifying pressure resulting from the nature of Germany’s political development undoubtedly has contributed to its zealous pursuit of ideological solidarity. History and tradition exert pressures toward deunification even today.

Modern parallels to past events indicate that Germany may be further into the current “cycle” than is commonly acknowledged. The establishment of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate threats to the state by “sects and psycho-cults” is an obvious effort to identify and classify religious minorities and may be seen as an effort to mobilize public opinion against the very existence of such groups. Denial of employment in state government institutions and prohibitions on entry into Germany by members of certain groups impose inequitable legal restrictions against targeted religions. Far more ominous than discriminatory acts and legal restrictions is evidence of the growth in what has been described by several official bodies as a “climate of intolerance” toward religious minorities. Perhaps what is missing today is the threat to political stability that has characterized and stimulated past persecutions, though some might argue that current religious oppression has accelerated in the destabilizing presence of German reunification. The specific trauma that may precipitate the next wave of religious persecution in Germany is anyone’s guess. It may be war or economic collapse, or perhaps a more subtle stimulus such as the destabilizing effects of social and technological change. Regardless, one must recognize that, however latent, the cycle is always present and that the German historical and philosophical traditions heighten the probability that religious persecution will reemerge in the future. The forces of rationalism, nationalism, and historicism have all contributed to the climate of religious intolerance that has existed in Germany for the major part of the last two centuries. These influences continue to exert pressure on German institutions and values, making movement toward religious toleration more difficult.


Pierre van Paassen wrote of his conviction that Hitler could never have perpetrated the Holocaust “if we had not actively prepared the way for him by our own unfriendly attitude toward the Jews, by our selfishness and by the anti-Semitic teaching in our churches and schools.” The understated beginnings of religious persecution are repeated throughout German history. Religious minorities are swept up in the quest for ideological solidarity. It is in this broad grouping of ideology, political philosophy with religious belief, that nontraditional religions are associated with destabilizing political movements in the German psyche. The case against religious liberty need not be made to rationalize persecution. Justification is found in the delegitimization of unorthodox religions by the state that makes German persecution so insidious; and, it is the malleability of its specific manifestations that has contributed directly to its amazing endurance. Past persecutions demonstrate that religious identification and political party affiliation serve as ideological badges in identifying the perceived enemies of the state and, hence, the victims of oppressive acts. The identification of Jews and Bolsheviks together as the principal targets of the Einsatzgruppen in World War II demonstrated this axiom just as the characterization of new religious movements as rival totalitarian societies does today. Until the exercise of religious conscience is perceived, not as a threat to the state, but as the proper expression of liberty in a free society, the abuses identified will continue.

This essay has painted a rather somber picture of the status of church-state relations in Germany and has implied an inevitability to the repetition of history given modern problems and attitudes. However, there have been signs of progress in achieving greater institutional separation between church and state in Germany. In a case involving a state school in Bavaria, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in May of 1995 that placement of crosses or crucifixes in state school classrooms violated Article 4 of the Constitution. The unfortunate response of the Bavarian State Government, however, was to attempt to circumvent this ruling by enacting its own law that allows the display of a cross if it contributes to “the objectives of the Constitution with regard to the realization of Christian and Western values.” Still, the very challenge to the constitutionality of state law or practice based on violation of religious liberty is an encouraging sign. However, state laws and court rulings will remain inevitably one-sided so long as the formal establishment of Lutheran and Catholic churches in Germany exists as a tired and unworkable remnant of the Peace of Augsburg.

The German tradition of consolidating religious and political power has persisted throughout history regardless of the particular political system of any given era. This reflects a cultural value that must be accounted for in the nation’s constitutional development. A state with such a history must be aware of its own cultural predisposition to religious intolerance and should work to erect a more principled framework for church-state relations in which all religious groups are made equal before the law, with none receiving special government privileges or funding. As difficult as it may be for German policymakers to break with history and implement such a radical change in the German church-state landscape, they might take note that not only have other Western nations successfully adopted such a framework, but Germany’s own obligations under international human rights treaties to which it is a party virtually require it. The persistence of religious intolerance in Germany combined with a flawed constitutional structure is an ominous foreboding for the future of minority religious movements in that country. Unless the German people become sensitized to the subtle and cyclical nature of intolerance that establishes the foundation for religious persecution, history may well be destined to repeat itself.