Nationalist Christian Internationalists: German Military Chaplains from World War to Cold War, 1943–57

Friday, January 6, 2017: 2:10 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto
My paper explores the web of national loyalties and international bonds that encompassed Germany’s military chaplains from the defeats of Stalingrad and North Africa to establishment of a West German chaplaincy amidst the Cold War. Central to my analysis is the role of Christianity as not only a system of ritual and belief but also a set of institutional arrangements. The military chaplaincy was one such arrangement, a highly visible one with national and international implications.

Approximately 1000 Christian clergy, Protestant and Catholic, served the Wehrmacht as chaplains during World War II. They functioned primarily to legitimate the regime and its genocidal war in the eyes of its soldiers and citizens. Their national service was not without tensions. Some Nazis questioned the need for old-fashioned pastoral care, and chaplains responded by trying to prove their loyalty. As Germany began to lose the war, chaplains won concessions. After Stalingrad, the SS runes on many graves were replaced with crosses. In 1943, Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox chaplains were introduced into the 14th SS Galicia Division, although German chaplains were not consulted, nor were those Ukrainians, or their Bosnian imam counterparts, integrated into the Wehrmacht chaplaincy.

As Hitler’s rule collapsed, German chaplains found ways to turn their office to advantage. Some established ties to international counterparts – most of them Christians but some Jews – in the French, British, US, and Canadian forces and through those contacts pressed for leniency. Chaplains promoted the Wehrmacht as a military like any other, whose men had only done their duty. Popular culture echoed that image.

Yet remilitarization of the Germanys in the 1950s eschewed the old, national model. No chaplains were permitted in East Germany, and the new chaplaincy in the West, in the spirit of NATO, was to be the conscience of the military.

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