This edited volume examines how the Christian churches dealt both practically and theologically with the problem of hunger over six centuries in Germany. Compiled and introduced by the eminent Tübingen theologian and church historian, Andreas Holzem, and with contributions from ten church and profane historians, this volume originated out of one of the many research groups ubiquitous in today’s landscape of German higher education. The fruits of the group ‘Hunger Catastrophes as a Threat to Religious and Social Orders: the Communication of Threat and Actions to Overcome it in Christian Societies, 1570–1980’, this volume provides a rare and powerful hybrid of environmental history and theological reflection. Reflecting changes in scientific understandings of science, hunger and disease, this volume breaks with convention by being divided into three eras, each bearing three or four chapters: the late-medieval and early modern era from 1400–1800, 1800–1933 and finally 1960–1980. The reasons for the periodization of the first two eras are readily apparent: the authors seek to examine the changes in the understanding of natural disasters and hunger between the early modern and modern eras. In the former, understandings of famine were dictated by belief in magic, in divine punishment for sins and the structures of creation. The so-called ‘little ice age’ of the seventeenth century, which precipitated widespread outbreaks of famine, disease and warfare, reinforced these understandings regardless of confession. By the time of the industrial revolution, which was also characterized by devastating outbreaks of famine and disease, these catastrophes were more likely to be understood not as the result of ‘pacts with the devil’ but of faulty human attempts to usurp the God-given order through efforts at modernization. Pauperism, massive poverty and hunger, for instance, were seen as the sign of order turned upside down. Even so, fighting poverty and hunger mobilized Catholics like ‘no other object’, as Catholics made social reform a top priority (p. 211). Discussions of famine also became tied up in discussions of democratization—at what point did the experience with famine redound to the favour of authoritarian movements and at the expense of democratic autonomy? This volume jumps to the 1960s and 1970s, an era in which privation and hardship were no longer the scourge of everyday life in West Germany. West German society had become so prosperous that its citizens could afford the luxury of reflecting on and seeking to ameliorate hunger in what had become known as the ‘Third World’. At the same time, fears of global overpopulation, the exhaustion of raw materials given credence by the oil crisis of 1973 and ecological collapse forced theologians and church leaders to rethink fundamentals. Leading many churchmen and women to embrace the methodologies of the natural and social sciences, the ensuing ecological movement within the churches pitted old against young but also promoted interconfessional cooperation in a remarkable shift away from the confessional tensions predominating in the 1950s and early 1960s. Though space does not permit a summary of this volume’s ten individual chapters, this volume is characterized by a remarkably high level of insight and reflection, its disproportionate focus on Catholicism notwithstanding. The majority of the tightly-organized chapters are based on pioneering archival research that the authors fuse with apt theological insights. Regrettable are only several omissions. Holzem’s conceptual framework leaves little place for the man-made disasters of the first half of the twentieth century. Absent is the experience of the famine culminating in the so-called ‘turnip winter’ during the First World War, the result of the British blockade and shortages of German agricultural labour. This volume also ignores the manmade hardship of the Second World War and immediate post-war era, the barren results of cold winters, policies of deliberate starvation and total war. As the research of historians like Corinna Treitel has made clear, the Nazi party promoted its own ecological utopian visions and fantasies bearing their own concepts of nutrition, health and food. At the same time, many conservative churchmen continued to fall back on tropes from the early modern era that described the hardships wrought by the Second World War and dictatorship as punishment for sin and for having fallen away from God. The conclusion seems unavoidable that the experience of hunger in the twentieth century was bound to that of warfare. Even those supporting the delivery of food to Biafra, the subject of this volume’s concluding chapter, recognized that the deaths of at least two million Igbo were the result of civil war and genocide. Some churchmen likened shocking photographs of victims of famine and starvations to those of concentration camp inmates from little more than two decades earlier. Tellingly, Heinrich Tenhumberg, the leader of the Catholic Office in Bonn, insisted that this was not the time to explore questions of guilt but simply to provide relief to millions of suffering men, women and children. One is left wondering about the extent to which Christian humanitarianism had been informed by the bitter harvest left behind by the question of German guilt for the two world wars. This question had inflamed passions in the immediate post-war era as a result of Allied war crimes trials and denazification and again in the 1960s through renewed war crimes trials and scandals involving high-ranking German politicians. Was Christian humanitarianism in Germany the result of attempts to assuage a guilty national conscience? Or should it rather be seen primarily as part of growing humanitarian fervour found not just in Germany but in Scandinavia, Switzerland and North America that went hand in hand with the ecumenical outreach and religious globalization so masterfully depicted in this volume? For as Florian Bock shows in his chapter on Catholic developmental aid after 1968, these initiatives were facilitated by a theological shift to the left; an increasingly politicized theology altered its focus from the afterlife to the here and now. In sum, Holzem’s pioneering collection will make a welcome addition to the libraries of those seeking to understand how religious leaders made sense of hunger and starvation, and how their understandings evolved over many centuries. It will whet appetite for further investigations into the complex religious understandings of ecology and catastrophe. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 7, 2018
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