This source consists of four machine typed letters of one or two pages dating from the period between April and August 1964. A fifth and last letter that contained selected press articles was sent in September 1964. Copies are kept in two locations: the Helmut Schmidt archive at the Archiv der sozialen Demokratie, Bonn and in the files of Bishop Hans-Otto Wölber at the Landeskirchliches Archiv der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche in Norddeutschland (Nordkirche) at Kiel (signature 11.02 Bischof für Hamburg).
In the spring of 1964, Helmut Schmidt, Social Democrat and Senator for Interior Affairs in the city state of Hamburg, who also served as a board member to the Society of Christian-Jewish Cooperation Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit in Hamburg, learned that the local Protestant church was engaged in missionary work among Jews. This was cause for concern for both Schmidt and the Jewish community. He contacted the Protestant-Lutheran Bishop of Hamburg, Dr. Hans-Otto Wölber, personally in order to gather information on the matter and expressed his criticism of missionary work of any kind among Jews.
Protestant reformers had attempted to convince Jews to convert to Protestantism as early as the 16th century. However, the Protestant mission to the Jews officially began in the 18th century with the work of Johann Christoph Wagenseil; 1728 saw the founding of the Institutum Judaicum in Halle, whose mission was to study Judaism and convert Jews to the Gospel. The Revivalist Movement of the 19th century further boosted missionary work among Jews, especially in England.
After the end of Second World War and following the Holocaust, the mission to the Jews underwent a realignment. Among Protestants the basic legitimacy of proselytizing Jews had been increasingly challenged since the 1960s. However, it was only in 1980 that the synod Assembly of Christian clergy where decisions are reached about questions of faith. of the Protestant Church of the Rhineland became the first regional church in Germany to reject missionary work among Jews on principle. Within the Roman-Catholic Church there had been a discussion on missionary work among Jews since the Second Vatican Council Catholic Church assembly in the Vatican from October 1962 to December 1965, at which it was resolved that the Roman-Catholic Church should open up to the outside world and undergo renewal. issued the declaration Nostra aetate “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions“ adopted at the Second Vatican Council, in which other religions were recognized. (1965). In 2009, the Central Committee of German Catholics Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken rejected any form of missionary work among Jews, emphasizing instead the dialog between Christians and Jews.
The correspondence between Senator Schmidt and Bishop Wölber illustrates the two differing basic positions in this nationwide debate. It is remarkable that a politician showed such a strong interest in this issue and expressed unequivocal opposition to any kind of missionary work among Jews at this early date. At the time his position was a minority view among Protestants, however, it was to become the majority view some decades later.
In his letter Helmut Schmidt takes an adverse stance against Hans-Otto Wölber, a representative of the church whom he otherwise greatly respected, for his continued support of the mission to the Jews, which represented the majority view among Protestants at the time. Schmidt devoted a lot of time to this debate and – despite his fundamental distance from theological scholarship – he educated himself thoroughly on the issue by reading general theological journals. Not only did he demand tolerance in religious and ideological matters, but he also showed a particular sensitivity towards Israel and Judaism which was informed by his experience of the “Third Reich”.
The debate was prompted by a board meeting of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit founded in 1952, during which this topic had been discussed. Schmidt had been surprised to hear that the regional church was engaged in missionary work among Jews and made an inquiry regarding the matter to the bishop on April 30, 1964: “There are no more than 2000 or 3000 Jews living in Hamburg at this time; I would consider proselytizing among them – regardless of any possible theological justification – misguided church policy. I have already heard a very bitter remark made by a Jewish person about this kind of work.” While Schmidt did not outright dismiss the possibility that the church might have a theological argument for their mission to the Jews, given the historical experience of the Holocaust, he considered it far less important than good relations between Christians and Jews.
Yet the Bishop of Hamburg in his letter of May 13, 1964 insisted on proselytizing Jews explicitly for theological reasons without considering the Jewish perspective at all. According to Wölber missionary work meant “establishing contact between groups which God directed towards each other by his acts throughout history. [...] This has nothing to do with overbearance on the part of Christianity, with racial prejudice, with a lack of repentance among Christians in Germany or whatever else one might assume.” Schmidt was not entirely convinced by this clerical reasoning, however, as he wrote on July 13, 1964: “While I can agree with the term “service to Israel”, I still consider the term “mission to the Jews” inappropriate, just as I consider any kind of missionary work among German Jews inappropriate.”
Schmidt remained interested in the subject: from an article in the journal Lutherische Monatshefte written by Paul Reinhardt he learned that a theological argument could be made against the mission to the Jews as well. Schmidt writes that he strongly agreed with the view of Günther Harder outlined in the article – Harder was a professor of New Testament Studies at Berlin’s Kirchliche Hochschule and an active member of the German Protestant Church Committee on Jewish-Christian dialog Arbeitsgemeinschaft Juden-Christen beim Deutschen Evangelischen Kirchentag, who disapproved of campaigning for Christianity in conversation with Jews. Thus Schmidt continued his correspondence with Wölber regarding this matter on August 26, 1964. To claim that the goal of the mission to the Jews was “saving Israel” was “infinitely overbearing”, as Schmidt very aptly phrased it. As citizens we were called upon to “show tolerance towards other faiths” – “tolerance born from respect for the religious beliefs of our neighbors”. His letter illustrates that Schmidt considers Jews German citizens of a different faith – thus putting Judaism on a par with Christianity. Consequently, citizenship – and implicitly the state – is neutral, granting equal rights to all faiths.
Schmidt states his particular interest in the issue of proselytizing Jews resulted “from remembering the particular role some Lutheran Christians of earlier generations unfortunately played in the treatment of Jews”. This might be an actual reference to Martin Luther and his problematic late writings on the Jews; more likely, though, Schmidt was mainly thinking of the Lutheran German Christians Deutsche Christen of the Nazi period since his personal experience during this time strongly shaped his actions as a politician. This view and this kind of sensitive consideration of the National Socialist past were quite rare in church circles in the 1960s.
Wölber stuck to his view, however, and on September 22, 1964 he sent Schmidt some recent articles on the mission to the Jews taken from the journal Lutherische Rundschau. The bishop then ended their debate with a vague phrase, avoiding any further discussion of their differences on this issue: “When we inquire about redemption within the whole breadth of religious thought, the Christians still believe they have to counter the views of their Jewish brothers. But you are right in saying these are all questions which are answered in very different ways among the ranks of us Christians as well.”
Schmidt and Wölber argued on different levels. While the bishop focused on theological arguments, Schmidt was primarily concerned with the political ramifications of the mission to the Jews considering Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust. In his mind, these outweighed any theological justifications since he sought peaceful coexistence of both religions.
Three decades later, in 1995, the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit published a “Rejection of the Mission to the Jews”, which triggered a fierce debate, particularly in church circles. The publication was prompted by increased immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union who were targeted for conversion by Evangelicals.
Helmut Schmidt continued to oppose the mission, rejecting proselytizing of any kind in a lecture delivered in December 1997 at the Bavarian Churches’ Augustana College in Neuendettelsau: “It is not at all conducive to peace between faiths, between religious communities, and churches if one of them tries to woo away members from another one – no matter how good their intentions may be.” In his book “Außer Dienst,” a self-described “stocktaking” published in 2008, Schmidt states he had always respected the faithful, “regardless of which faith they adhere to.” Religious tolerance was essential: “Every human being must allow every other human being their faith and their religion. He must also allow them their skepticism. Humanity needs religious tolerance, and therefore each individual needs religious tolerance. [...] For this reason I have always considered Christian proselytizing an offense against humanity.” Helmut Schmidt, Außer Dienst. Eine Bilanz, Munich 2008, pp. 288f.
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Rainer Hering, Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. theol., is director of the State Archives Schleswig-Holstein and professor for German history at the University of Hamburg as well as honorary professor at the University of Kiel. His focus of research lies within modern and contemporary German history with a regional focus on Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein.
Rainer Hering, The Controversial Mission to the Jews. A 1964 Correspondence between Helmut Schmidt, Hamburg’s Senator for Interior Affairs, and Bishop Hans-Otto Wölber (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-21.en.v1> [September 30, 2023].