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RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN GERMANY: MIRAGE OR REALITY?

by
Irving Hexham

Copyright 1998

 


Introduction

For several years the Church of Scientology has conducted a high profile campaign alleging persecution by the German Government. This claim, which has been made in numerous publications and Scientology's magazine Freedom, is supported by other small religious groups including some Charismatic Christians, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Unification Church

Scientology and the Germans

According to the Church of Scientology the German State has waged a relentless war against religious freedom based on its deep-rooted fascist ideology. This claim, which directly links numerous German politicians, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Labour Minister Norbert Blüm, with the Nazi like acts and attitudes,  is made in various magazines such as  Freedom: Special Report, Echoes of the Past (Los Angeles Church of Scientology,: n.d.). Scientologists have also placed similar information on various Web Sites such as FREEDOM   The German branch of the Church of Scientology has produced special editions of Freedom such as the one entitled Der Rasputin von Bonn (Los Angeles: Church of Scientology, n.d). Information in German produced by the Church of Scientology can be found at SCIENTOLOGY.

Hate and Propaganda: Sanctioned and Promoted by the German Media and Government   (Los Angeles: Church of Scientology, 1993) is a very powerful booklet produced by Scientology which reproduces anti-Jewish cartoons from the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, published during the 1930's and 1940's, alongside anti-Scientology cartoons from contemporary German newspapers. The similarity between these cartoons is stunning.  Other booklets  promoted by the Church of Scientology on the German situation include Tal Pechner's Escalation of Discrimination, Xenophobia Against Minority Religions in Today's Germany: A Historical Comparison to Religious Intolerance During the German National-Socialist Era, 1933-1945, (Los Angeles, Church of Scientology, 1977), and the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee to Investigate Discrimination Against Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Germany (London, The House of Lords, 1977) which included such well known people as the English philosopher Anthony Flew.

German reactions to the criticism of Scientology

Most ordinary Germans, the German media, and Government, indignantly reject the charges made by the Church of Scientology its spokespeople and supporters by pointing to the guarantees of religious freedom found in the German Constitution, cf. The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Bonn: Press and Information Office, 1994).  To many Germans, Scientology is a shady that has the potential to harm unwary individuals psychologically. Such people argue that Scientology only claims to be a religion to avoid paying taxes. On this issue they are wrong SCENTOLOGY IS A RELIGION

The German Federal Government, various State (Lande) and local governments have all produced booklets and other information to warn unwary citizens about the "dangers" of Scientology, e.g. Bundesministeriums für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jungend, Die Sceintology-Organization-Gefahren, Zeile und Prakitken- (Köln: Bundersverwaltungsampt, 1996);  Innenmiisterium Nordrhein-Westfalen, Scientology - eine gefahr fuer die Demokratie: Eine Aufgabe für den Verfassunsschutz? (Köln: Moeker Merkur Druck GmbH).  These booklets are written and produced by employees of various levels of government before being printed and distributed free of charge as widely as possible. Government officials justify the publication of these booklets in terms of Germany's tough consumer protection laws. There are also several extensive German Web Sites which strongly criticize SCIENTOLOGY and claim to produce evidence which that many of Scientology's charges about persecution are untrue.

Unfortunately,Scientology's critiques of German actions to fail to appreciate the complexity of the German Constitutional and legal process, not to mention German society as a whole, and the burden of German history. From the beginning of the 19th century, various religious trends in Germany led to the development of spiritual movements that rejected democracy. At first, these trends were limited to a few isolated intellectuals. By the 1880's, however, a number of social movements began to crystallize and attract an increasing number of followers.  Following German defeat in World War I the importance of spiritual movements as pre-cursors of the Nazi dictatorship increased. Not all of these movements supported the Nazis. Some indeed opposed them and were persecuted. But, all of them furthered Nazi aims by attacking the Weimar Republic and undermining democracy. The most important of these movements were the back to nature Wandervogel, (Wandering Birds) and Bünde (Bond or Confederation) the Ludendorff-Bewegung (Ludenforff Movement), the Bewegung der Freireligiösen (Free Believers), the Deutsche Christen (German Christians) and the Deutsche Glaubensbewegung (German Faith Movement).

Given the role of these movements in undermining democracy during the 1920's and early 1930's it is no wonder postwar German Governments have been very wary of new religions. The Nazi era is all too real to most Germans who have to come to terms with horrific crimes. Following the end of the Second World War, many of the old proto-Nazi religions disappeared, only to slowly reemerge in the 1950's. Today a number of individual authors and spiritual groups promote Nazi type new religions in Germany. Most of these are associated with fascism and holocaust revisionism.  The movements themselves, many of their leaders, and particular individuals who lead them, have direct links to the Nazi, and pre-Nazi era. Therefore, associating these particular groups with the Nazis is not propaganda. It is simply stating the facts. Further, upon examination the ideologies promoted by them are essentially the same as those they promoted prior to World War II.   Karla Poewe has written an article on proto-Nazi religions then and now which is due to be published in April 1999, therefore I will not say more about them here.

The importance of the proto-Nazi religions in terms of this paper is that many Germans implicitly or explicitly interpret all new religions in terms of a verfassungsfeindliche-Ideologie (ideology of Constitutional danger). This ideology evaluates all new religions in terms of their relationship to the Basic Law or Constitution and is buttressed by social structures that are capable of mobilizing the German Government, courts, church, and media. Today, Germans use the religious-political concepts of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and a neglect of civic duties to recognize potentially dangerous movements. Consequently, many groups like Charismatic Christians, who sometimes advocate spanking children, Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to vote, and Scientology, because of statements made in the writings of Ron L. Hubbard, are all under suspicion.

The process of recognizing "potentially dangerous groups" is premised on the Communist and National Socialistic dictatorships of the German Democratic Republic and the Third Reich and implies a implicit attack on democracy. In the case of  Scientology, many Germans, including Government Security Organizations, argue that the writings of the movement can be judged verfassungsfeindlich. This case is made by the Federal Ministry of the Interior in publications such as  Texte zur Inneren Sicherheit,   i.e. Texts on Internal Security (cf. Bundesministerium des Innern, Texte zur Inneren Sicherheit, Bonn: Druck-Verlag Kettler, 1997).

Being verfassungsfeindlich offends against all four sections of Article 20 of the Basic Law which states that the Federal Republic of Germany has a duty to promote a democratic and social federal state. Section 4 of article 20 of the Basic Law is the key to understanding the problems faced by Scientology and other new religions. It grants all Germans the "right to resist anybody attempting to do away with this constitutional order." Thus the Article enables members of the German anti-cult movement to provide information about any organization, including religions, to Government agencies, the Courts and the media to legitimately create a public climate of popular resistance.   Therefore, for Scientology to gain acceptance by the German State its leaders must prove to the authorities that it is not a verfassungsfeindlich organization. Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe have written an article on the concept of "Verfassungsfeindlich" which is due to be published in 1999. This article will explain the issue in more detail.

Other New Religions and the German State

It should be noted, however, that Scientology is not the only group to receive attention from State organizations in Germany. The Federal Government has published a booklet on the Unification Church while other States have produced their own warnings about the dangers of cults or minority religions, e.g. Die Ministerpräsidentin des Landes Schleswig-Holstein, Psychokulte, Sekten, "Jugendreligionen, Extremgruppen, Kiel, Carius Druck, 1997; Monika Schipmann, ed., Informationen über neue religiöse und weltanschauliche Bewegungen und sogenannte Psychogruppen, Berlin, Senatsverwaltung für Jungend und Familie, 1994.

Further, the Federal Government has initiated a Commission of Inquiry into "Sekten," which embraces what English speaking people know as cults, sects and new religions. The latter category appears to embrace Charismatic Christian and various Fundamentalist groups. Although not directly mentioned there is also some suggestion that perhaps Evangelical Christian groups could also be included at a later date, cf. The German Evangelical Alliance's Idea Spectrum Nr. 24/97/5; 29/97/7; 47/97/3; 48/97/2-3; 49/97/5; 53/97/3 & 5; and 77/97/4. Information about the Inquiry, known as Die Enquete-Kommission "Sogenannte Sekten und Psychogruppen" is available at ENQUETE KOMMISSION  Over fifty different documents can be found through the Bundestag SEARCH engine. Go to this site and type in "Sekten."

The Commission has published an interim report Zwishenbericht der Enquete-Kommission ,,Sogenannte Sekten und Psychogruppe", Deutscher Bundestag, 13 Wahlperiode, Drucksache 13/8170, followed by a  FINAL REPORT. Please note, this final version has been posted by an independent Web Site and is not necessarily an accurate version. This report is currently only available in printed form Endbericht: der Enquete-Kommission "Sogenannte Sekten und Psychogruppen," Bonn: des Deutschen Bundestages, 13 Wahlperiode, May 1998.  It is due to appear on the Bundestag Web Site in September. So far no translation is available.

In May 1998 a group of German academics issued a press release in which they question the German Government's policy towards new and minority religions. ENGLISH and GERMAN versions are posted on the Web. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has also issued a short STATEMENT The original statement, in full color, can be found on the EKD WEB SITE, where you have to follow the link "Aktuell".

In addition to government sponsored criticism of minority religions there are also several organizations supported by the mainline Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and Roman Catholic Church both of which, although not State churches, have a special relationship with the State and received funds from the Government levied Church tax plus other monies "regulated by" historic "concordats and agreements."   Cf. Arno Kappler and Adriane Grevel, eds., Facts About Germany, Frankfurt -am-Main, Societäts-Verlag, 1995, pp. 382.

The main anti- or countercult watchdog groups in Germany supported by Protestant Churches are the Archiv für Religions- und Weltanschauungsfragen which co-operates with the Danish Dialog Center International to publish Berliner Dialog. The Rev. Thomas Gandow is the editor of this journal BERLINER DIALOG and the Evngelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen led by Dr. Michael Nüchtern WELTANSCHAUUNGSFRAGEN

There are also several smaller Roman Catholic centers such as Father Klaus Funke's Kath. Arbeitskreis based in Berlin. He does not appear to have a Web Site. Nevertheless, a list of Roman Catholic minority religion experts can be found at RC EXPERTS  One can also find a list of Protestant minority religion experts, at PROTESTANT EXPERTS

Finally, since 1991 there has been an explosion of literature exposing minority religions or sekten in Germany. Most of this originated with church organizations but has recently been supplemented by the "confessions" of various individual who claim that they were exploited by particular religious groups. These publications include:

Friedrich-Wilhelm Haack, ed., Thomas Gandow, Sekten, München, Münchener Reihe, 1994.

Friedrich-Wilhelm Haack, Europas neue Religion: Sekten-Gurus-Satanskult, Freiburg, Herder, 1993, first published 1991.

Tom Voltz, Scientology: Ein Insider packt aus Hintergründe- Fakten- Dokumente-, Freiburg, Herder, 1997.

Kurt-Helmuth Eimuth, Die Sekten-Kinder, Freiburg, Herder, 1996.

Lothar Engel, Erhard Kamphausen, and Johanna Linz, Fundamentalismus in Afrika und America, Evangelisches Missionswerk in Deutschland, Hamburg, 1993.

This latter work adds to the general picture by providing more details on what is seen as a global problem.

Some Comments

There is no doubt that the tasteless attacks on respectable German politicians by members of Scientology and their supporters are counter productive in Germany and to a certain extent elsewhere. Neither former Chancellor Kohl, Minister Norbet Blüm, nor the majority of political parties like the CDU or SPD are Nazis. Germans rightly feel that such accusations are a low blow against people who have proved their democratic credentials. Further, Germans generally are rightly very sensitive to the slur "Nazi" which they strongly reject. After fifty years of democracy, they argue, it is time for the world to recognize German achievements. Even German members of other minority religions react with horror and alarm to charges by the Church of Scientology that people of Dr. Kohl's stature are Nazis. As a result many potential allies are alienated and believe that the tactics used by the Church of Scientology actually marginalizes them and similar groups within German society.

Having said this it must be acknowledged that the available evidence supports some of the charges that some minority religions are being harassed to the point of persecution in Germany today. Where critiques by Scientologists and similar groups tend to fail is in their inability to appreciate the complexity of the German Constitutional and legal process, not to mention German society as a whole. As a result many of these groups tend to see a conspiracy and draw the conclusion that leading politicians must be directing the attacks they experience when in fact they are the result of complex social processes.

Actually, while some politicians such as Berlin SPD deputy and Enquete-Komission member Renate Rennebach seem to be making a career of attacking minority religions, the majority of politicians appear to be reacting to popular pressure created by the media and numerous publications exposing the dangers of minority religions. Thus it seems that the understandable conclusion draw by members of new religions about a government wide crusade against minority religions is wrong and counterproductive. Nevertheless, it is true that the mistreatment of minority religions is deeply rooted in German society.

There is no doubt that the Protestant EKD and Roman Catholic Church play an important role in shaping German perceptions of minority religions both directly and through their influence on various levels of government. Apart from the major watchdog organizations mentioned above there are approximately 190 so-called Sektenbeauftrager, or cult experts, employed throughout Germany by churches, local and State governments.  Some observers might call the cult experts employed by the churches inquisitors. This is because they are professional clergy with theological training who investigate the activities of potential rivals in the marketplace of religion and spirituality.

The main complaint about the work of these cult experts is that they tend to present essentially theological arguments as though they represent the findings of social-scientific research. An examination of some key works published by such people shows major weaknesses in the way they gather data. There are ethical concerns about their activities because it can be said with confidence that most of their "research" would not pass an Ethics Review at a Canadian university.  Instead of using proven research techniques involving random sampling, participant observation, life history interviews, etc., German cult experts usually uncritically accept the testimony of ex-members. Thus they form judgments on the basis of highly questionable data.   Further, although all levels of government employ people who work in the area of minority religions these officials appear to take their cue from the clergy. They also seem to show little interest in serious scientifically formulated empirical research.

A quick examination of most Government and private publications dealing with minority religions reveals that many contain long lists of both Government and church cult experts eager to help concerned citizens. Thus, a large Government funded bureaucracy exists employing people whose only justification is the existence of a problems they are employed to solve.  It must also be remembered that the Government through State levied Church taxes and other funds indirectly support church cult experts.

Finally, some German politicians appear to have jumped on the "dangers" of cults and minority religion bandwagon in an uncritical manner. Thus, for example, when Spirita: Zeitschrift für Gerligionswissenschaft published articles on Scientology which, while very critical, granted that Scientology was a genuine religion, various politicians attempted to have the journal closed down (private communication with publishers).   Cf. Spirita, Marburg, Diagonal Verlag, November 1993, 1/93, pp.5-48; and November 1994, 1-2/94, pp. 52-55).

German Academics and New Religions

Given the intense interest in minority religions, usually called "Sekten", cults, sects or new religions, in the English speaking world, one would expect a deluge of empirical studies by academics to investigate what is clearly a growing social and political problem. German academics are, however, very reluctant to undertake empirical research in this area.  People I have spoken to, including established professors and graduate students, all openly admit that they are afraid to enter this area for fear of either loosing research funding or not being able to obtain employment in the future. In all cases the influence of the churches was cited as the main reason for not studying minority religions.

Another disturbing trend among German academics is their willingness to uncritically accept the work of church based minority religion experts at face value. Thus theological judgements are substituted for empirical research simply because there is an unwritten agreement that ministers of religion must be trustworthy and know what they are talking about in matters of religion. The fact that most, if not all, of these so-called "experts" are totally untrained, or even interested, in the social sciences of no concern.

It is this lack of empirical research and hasty theological judgement based on limited texts that leads many Germans to deny that Scientology, Christian Charismatic Churches, and other new religions are "real" religions at all. There is also a tendency to identify all new religions with rightwing extremism. Here one needs to be careful. There is no doubt that some new religions in Germany actively promote right-wing and fascist agendas. But, these groups need to be clearly distinguished from other groups which are not anti-democratic.

The problem is that fear of the destruction the Nazis wrought is leading many responsible Germans to see all minority religions as anti-democratic. Yet this judgement is often made on the basis of false and misleading information which is why good empirical research is urgently needed.  A few good academic monographs do exist which are based on empirical research and which do not support the prevailing orthodoxy. These include:

Wolfgang Kuner, Soziogenese der Mitgliedschaft in drie Neuen Religiösen Bewegungen, Frankfurt-am-Main, Peter Lang, 1983.

Christoph Bochinger, New Age und moderne Religion, Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser/Güttersloher Verlagshaus, 1994.

Frank Usarski, Die Stigmatisierung Neuer Spiritueller Bewegungen in der Bundesrepublic Deutchland, Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 1988.

Franz Wiesberger, Bausteine zu einer soziologischen Theorie der Konversion, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1990.

There are also some semi-popular works which try to correct common misunderstandings such as:

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Sind Evangelikale Fundamentalisten?, Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus, 1995.

Some conclusions

All the available evidence supports the claim that Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and various Charismatic and Evangelical Christian Churches, experience various degrees of harassment, discrimination, including occasional acts of outright persecution in Germany. Sometimes the problems created are mild. At other times they are severe, cf. Steve Selthoffer, "German Charismatic Churches Face Persecution, Threats of Violence," Charisma, St. Mary, Florida, Nov. 1995, pp. 18-19.

Most Germans, including many politicians, are wrong when they reject this claim and cite the the guarantees of religious freedom made in the Constitution. Since 1988, there have been significant changes to the way the Courts interpret the German Constitution. Thus statements in the Basic Law about religion have been systematically reinterpreted to restrict religious freedom through the application of consumer protection legislation to religious issues. Yet most Germans are unaware that these changes in interpretation have taken place. Further, the German press is particularly hostile towards new religions as can be seen from the following articles in Focus "Die Sekten-Falle," No. 17, 25 April 1994; Die Spiegel "V-Leute gegen den Psycho-Konzern," No. 6, 3 February 1997; Die Zeit "Credo der Freiheit: Amerika duldet die bizarrsten Sekten," No. 7, 7 February 1997, p.9; Frankfurter Rudschau, 14 July 1997, p. 9; Stern 4/5/1995, pp. 3 & 32-42. and Axel Freiherr von Campenhausen, "Sekten, Scientology und der Rechtsstaat," Rheinischer Merkur, 18 July 1997, p. 8. But, of course the same case could be made against The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Time, therefore one must be careful in weighing the evidence and realize that Germany is now unique.

Germans often complain about the way outsiders criticize German reactions to cults and new religions. They need to realize is that the German situation is of serious concern to everyone interested in religion and democracy because various German cult experts are making a concerted effort to encourage other governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, to impose limits on religious freedom. If what happened in Germany only affected Germans few outside scholars would speak out on German issues. But, when German cult experts try to influence the parliaments of other nations, and they have made submissions to the British Parliament, the Russian Duma, and the European Parliament, in support of legislation against cults and new religions, that sets limits on religious freedom, then German actions cease to be a German concern.

Finally, a plea for understanding is necessary. Germany, unlike the English speaking world has to deal with a horrific past. The Nazi era is all too real to most Germans. Yet there are groups bent on reviving fascism and promoting holocaust revisionism.  Some of these extremist groups are rooted in new religious movements just as many members of the Nazi party itself had occult roots. Therefore, before condemning the German Government it needs to be remembered that they have to face problems which are unknown or unimportant in the English speaking world.  Cf. Jens Mecklenburg, ed., Handbuch Deutscher Rechtsextremismus, Berlin, Elefanten Press, 1996.

The German reaction to minority religions is heavy handed. True the Germans need to revise their thinking and prevent the persecution of minority religions. But, let us recognize that if the Germans did nothing, if they allowed the growth of neo-Nazi groups, then the world would have cause for alarm. The problem is that in their desire to maintain democracy Germans sometimes treat some innocent minority religious groups very badly. What is needed therefore is dialogue which encourages Germans to re-think their understanding of minority religions in the light of empirical evidence, not theological dogma.