Britain and the German Churches, 1945-1950

The only institution of any size that remained in German hands after May 1945 was the Church. As a result of promising ‘religious freedom’, the ‘churches’ escaped direct control. As the only places were large numbers could gather, and also hear uncensored sermons, the work of religious organisations should not be ignored totally in any review of the history of the period. Within the convoluted structure of the Allied Control Commission Germany there was even a four-power ‘Religious Affairs Committee.’ It met happily until the breakdown of relations between Russia and the Western allies. Minutes of the meetings still exist in the British and American National Archives at Kew and College Park. They might also still exist in Moscow, but, unlike the others, they were not investigated.

Most works on German church history tend to look at a single denomination or confession. The Religious Affairs Branch, created by the British as their link to the German churches, was divided into three sections: Catholic, Evangelical and Minor Denominations. The latter included relations with both the Jewish and Islamic communities as they attempted to rebuild in the aftermath of May 1945. With the British-administered Zone, the most religiously diverse of the four, the questions posed to the civil servants covered a wide range. With church leaders from abroad amongst the first to visit Germany, and German church leaders amongst the first to be allowed to travel officially abroad, the work of the branch in that area was of paramount importance.

The Religious Affairs Branch closed, in May 1950, with a ‘bonfire of files’. Fortunately, some were retained. The interest of British churches in re-establishing relationships with their German colleagues has meant that archives such as Lambeth Palace Library, soon to reopen in its splendid new building, contain much material. George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, was as active in relations with Germany in the years after 1945 as he had been in the years before. His visit in the autumn of 1945 is described in some detail.

It was that visit that had originally sparked my interest in the subject covered by the book. As a theological student in Cambridge in the 1970s, the Principal of my college was the Rev Prof Gordon Rupp. He had accompanied Bell on the visit and still proudly possessed his copy of the famous ‘Stuttgart Declaration’. Rupp delivered the 1974 MacIntosh Lecture, later published as, ‘I Seek my Brethren’. I was able to attend the lecture and to hear him talk of his experiences during that visit.

The memory of that lecture came in useful at a number of points when writing the book. So, too, did the eleven years that I spent in Germany whilst serving as a chaplain in the British army. Whilst the book was being written, in June 2019, I was able to attend the closing ceremonies at Church house, Lübbecke. Originally built as a training centre for the Hitler Youth, it had been commandeered by the British in May 1945 as part of Montgomery’s Headquarters. Much of the town was then given over to housing the work of the Control Commission Germany’s British Element. There was not enough space in this small town and Religious Affairs was one of the departments rusticated over the hills to the nearby town of Bünde. Many of those who appear in the pages of the books must have known the building that had played an important part in my life for some thirty years.

The British approach to the churches differed from that adopted in any of the other three zones. Many questions, though, remained the same for them all. Some, such as the status of the Reichskonkordat, signed by the Vatican and the German Government in July 1933, were debated at length. Was it to be declared null and void because it was signed after the Nazis had come to power? It was easy to abolish all ‘racial’ laws but what should the status be of, for instance, laws about the humane killing of animals? More controversially, for the British, were Jews to be regarded as a race or a nation? The Religious Affairs Branch kept a watching brief as it did on questions related to the place of the millions of ‘Displaced Persons’ who flooded into the British Zone. What to do with some who remained in camps was amongst the last subjects discussed in the branch before it closed.

The importance of the churches to the development of post-war Germany cannot be over-estimated. Yet their relations with the allied authorities in the period immediately after May 1945 have been largely overlooked. I have attempted to reduce at least part of the balance as far at the British were concerned.


This guest post was written by Peter Howson, author of Padre, Prisoner and Pen-Pusher. The World War One Experiences of the Reverend Benjamin O’Rorke and Muddling Through. The Organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One. For Boydell’s Church of England Record Society Series, he edited The First World War Diaries of the Rt. Rev. Llewellyn Gwynne (2019). As a member of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department Howson served in Germany during the period 1977 to 1997.

Britain and the German Churches, 1945-1950
By Peter Howson
9781783275830, Hardback, £48.75 or $74.75