Book review: In the long shadow of the Third Reich

[A review published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church]

Gerhard Ringshausen and Andrew Chandler (eds)
The George Bell-Gerhard Leibholz Correspondence: In the long shadow of the Third Reich, 1938-1958
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
978-1-4742-5766-4 (hardback)
xxvii + 475

The papers of George Bell, twentieth century bishop of Chichester, are among the most significant and most extensive collections for modern church history. This important volume, generously edited and well produced (and now, since 2021, available in paperback at a reasonable price) inaugurates a series of editions that promises to open up Bell’s papers to those unable to consult them in the library of Lambeth Palace. Bell was a prolific correspondent in general, but his exchange with the German legal scholar Gerhard Leibholz must be among the most extensive of all such correspondences to have survived, now distributed between Bell’s papers and those of Leibholz in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. Though a selection of the letters was published in German in 1974, it is hard to find in libraries outside Germany, and this complete edition – a joint production of British and German scholars – promises to open up the correspondence in new ways. The letters are marked throughout by both great personal warmth and great immediacy and urgency; absent is the sort of self-consciousness sometimes found in letters written with one eye on an unknown later reader.

Readers of this journal may be slightly surprised at how little there is in the letters about the church as such. This is no complaint, but it is instructive nonetheless. Bell and Leibholz were first in contact in early 1939, after Leibholz, a Volljude (in Nazi terms) but baptised a Lutheran, had arrived in the UK from Germany seeking refuge. Once Leibholz had been released from internment, in part due to Bell’s intercession, the correspondence is dominated by the progress of the war, the fate of the German churches, and then (in time) the likely shape of the post-war order. That the conflict was at root a religious one, between a godless Nazism and a true European civilisation that was fundamentally Christian, was a working assumption that lay beneath their remarkable interaction. That the post-war order – that would have to include a reconstructed Germany, the ‘other Germany’ once stripped of the alien accretion of Nazism – should have a Christian basis was something of which politicians had to be reminded, repeatedly and sometimes forcefully; it was not, yet, a matter that required justification, as would be the case before very long. What the reader finds, as the pair discuss the situation, exchange resources, and read and comment on each other’s writing, is a kind of applied political theology that does not yet need fully to justify its assumptions.

This reader, at least, is also struck by the slight improbability of such a meeting of unequals, which the editors suggest may be unique, and I suspect they are right. On the one hand was Bell, a senior bishop of the established Church, member of the House of Lords and the Athenaeum club; on the other Leibholz, a citizen of an enemy power, almost a generation younger, uprooted with a young family, first interned and then forced to scratch around for grants and for whatever might be earned by writing. In time the war ended, and there was the matter of re-establishing contact with friends and family in the chaotic conditions of a ruined Germany, and eventually a return home. The exchanges give a remarkable insight into the precariousness of the refugee experience, even for one as (relatively) well connected as Leibholz. We see Bell intervening to help in practical ways throughout, as he did for many others, both Jews and German Christians: there are countless letters of recommendation and reference; schemes of support are patiently constructed only to be upended by events. But Bell was also a learner. Although in regular contact with the German churches, he himself knew little German, and did not know the country well. Though, as the editors note (p.xv), Leibholz did much to confirm ideas that were already Bell’s, his influence was in giving Bell’s positions a new weight and substance, and in helping lift them out of the more confined milieu of English middle-class and ecclesiastical life. As such, the letters provide a rich and invaluable contextualisation of Bell’s very well-known political interventions, in Parliament and in print. Bell’s learning shows a kind of humility that was not always found on the episcopal bench.

There is also a further connection to a rather more well-known German Christian of the same generation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whose twin sister (Sabine) Leibholz was married. It was through Bonhoeffer, whom Bell knew very well, that Leibholz and Bell were put together. One of the editors, Andrew Chandler, has written on the later legacy of Bonhoeffer’s thought, and his martyrdom at Nazi hands in the last days of the war. If not quite the subject of a cult, Bonhoeffer has taken on a venerable status in later years, and it is an affecting experience to overhear Bell and Leibholz exchange news of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, with an increasing desperation, still clinging in April 1945 to seemingly hopeful but erroneous scraps of information, by which time (as the reader knows) Bonhoeffer was already dead. As the urgency waned in the early 1950s, Bonhoeffer provided a thread of shared memory between the Leibholzes and Bell, whom after his death was described as ‘the most faithful and best friend we have had in the English-speaking world.’ (453) Though neither Bell nor Leibholz bore the ultimate cost of discipleship as Bonhoeffer did, the whole volume intertwines the personal and the political in an unforgettable way. It should be required reading for scholars of the religious and political history of Europe, but deserves a much wider readership than that.

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