Printer Friendly

Franklin Hamlin Littell: forty years in the wilderness and beyond.

It is very difficult for me to speak to you after seeing Pierre Sauvage's magnificently well-done documentary on Franklin H. Littell. What are my words in comparison to the original voice? Hubert Locke was addressed in our last meeting yesterday by Marcie Littell as the "source of wisdom" to whom we should turn in matters of the conference, and so I did and approached him in that capacity with the question what I should say. His answer, soaked with undeniable wisdom, was short: "Say what you have to say," and so we are right back at Franklin's doorstep.

Franklin is today widely acknowledged as the father of Holocaust studies in the United States, and it is certainly true that he was the first to teach a course on the holocaust and to start a Ph.D. program in holocaust and genocide studies at Temple University. Few people might know that, in some letters that he exchanged with rabbis who served as chaplains in the U.S. Army in Germany, the word "holocaust" was used by them as early as 1950-51. Thus, the burden of the holocaust had been on his shoulders long before he catapulted that cataclysmic event into a field of scholarship of its own. Franklin was undoubtedly an extremely energetic person and the driving force behind countless committees, seminars, and conferences such as this. His first steps and the scholarship that he initiated would eventually uncover and bring to light the complicity of Christian churches and Christian theology in what happened to European Jewry during the twelve long years of Nazi rule in Germany and German-occupied Europe. It was anything but an easy task for him, for many churches and individual Christians failed to deal honestly with the painful realization of their guilt in the murder of European Jews. Franklin used the biblical metaphor of "forty years in the wilderness" to describe the long time it took before the Christian community began to discover its deep-rooted implications in what he called a watershed event in the history of humankind.

The metaphoric language of "forty years in the wilderness" is very telling, yet it has its limitations. Let me hint at just two. First of all, there was no Moses to lead the Christian community in the wilderness. This was especially true in the country from whence the murderous assault had been meticulously and bureaucratically organized. The country, morally and physically in ruins, very soon after the war was busily engaged in reconstruction and performed a dance before and around the golden calf of what was called the "German economic miracle." The metaphoric language also fails to notice that even during that dance some courageous men and women of various denominations began to understand that something basically had gone wrong and that a reappraisal and a rewriting of Christian history in light of centuries of Jewish experiences was a major and necessary task to perform. Only in hindsight, therefore, can one talk about forty years in the wilderness--and then this image turns out to be very true.

In my own denomination, the small Baptist community in Germany, this is evident. A doctoral student of mine, Gunter Kosling, wrote a dissertation in 1980 on the German Baptists in 1933-34 and described in details their failings and their accommodation to the new Nazi system. (1) The dissertation appeared in print, some leaders read it, and, when a European Baptist congress took place in 1984 in Hamburg to commemorate 150 years of Baptist life on the European continent, the German Union through its President Gunter Hitzemann confessed to its European co-believers its guilt because of its failure to resist and, therefore, its deep entanglement in Nazi ideology. Express reference was made to the plight of the Jewish people. The confession was graciously received by the European Baptists, both East and West, but it also was evident that people had waited forty years for this kind of statement.

After one generation the intellectual journey would initiate a healing process and open up new possibilities and freedom of political action that would have been unthinkable forty years ago. How else would it be possible that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of his cabinet members met with Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet for a joint session at the end of January, 2010, in Berlin and that on Auschwitz Memorial Day Israel's President Shimon Peres spoke in a special session to the German Parliament? Franklin would have been thrilled had he lived to witness these two events. Such encounters seem normal these days (2)--but it has taken a long time to arrive at this point. It does not mean that we can close the books and return to business as usual. We shall always have to remember and find ever new ways to do so. There must never be a "closure" (Schlussstrich) of the debate, and the Shoah must never be normalized.

Franklin had a passion for statistical data, especially as they relate to the ecumenical movement and to the global Christian community and its missionary activities. But, there were three countries to which his attention was directed in a very special way and where he developed a vast network of friendships: (1) his home country, as he was a "real" American; (2) Israel, the country he deeply loved and for which he felt responsible; and (3) Germany, for some reason or other. He devoted almost ten years of his life to my home country, first with the Religious Affairs Branch of the U.S. Military Government; later, in the same capacity, with the U.S. High Commission for Germany; and, when this tour of duty came to a close, he served for a foundation that had a highly significant, even prophetic, name: Foundation for a United Germany within a United Europe. The foundation and Franklin as its representative in Bonn (3) recognized early on during the Cold War that a country like Germany in the heart of Europe could not endure a permanent division or else this would be a constant cause for political unrest with international ramifications. Yet, it would have been too simplistic to demand a unification of Germany. The experiences of two world wars demanded another solution. A united Germany was feasible only within a United Europe. In the late 1950's, when this idea was born, it was very far from realization, but, when the time came--and, one might add, unexpectedly and as a miracle of history--then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher seized the opportunity. Despite opposition from the "Iron Lady" and some reservation on part of the French President, but with the backing of President George H. Bush, they managed to follow Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's offer and accomplished the unifying process. It needs to be emphasized that this was never done to dominate Europe but to serve the best interest of Europe, and so it is today that Germany is united within the European Union and has taken a lead to integrate former Soviet satellite countries into the E.U. The remarkably new Franco-German relationship, which may be seen as a model for reconciliation between former arch enemies, is to be extended to Poland for an equally new Polish-German friendship. Franklin's dream of the late 1950's became a reality in the 1990's, and, at the conference "Remembering for the Future II" in 1994 in Berlin, he could see with his own eyes the fruits of his labors.

What was the driving force behind Franklin's untiring, passionate effort of pursuing the study of the Holocaust and teaching its lessons? To use another biblical metaphor, Franklin wanted to be a thorn in the flesh of the Christian community. He wanted all denominations and churches to realize that the inherited anti-Judaism and the age-old teaching of contempt of the Jews were incompatible with the biblical witness and, therefore, a denial of the Christian faith. There should never be a time again when the churches would be silent bystanders. The best way to ensure this goal would lie in the organized pursuit of rigorous scholarship, which for him would need to be interfaith, interdisciplinary, and international in scope. Franklin could become very emotional with people who were reluctant to follow his line of argument. In this connection he would emphatically exclaim: "You either get it, or you don't." What is the "it" that one must "get"? He wrote an entire book to answer this question, probably his best- known work, with the provocative title The Crucifixion of the Jews. (4) Sauvage's film begins and ends with the great spiritual, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" and so the ongoing and ever-new question is "where you there when they crucified the Jews, or where were you?" Franklin's response to the Holocaust poses another question as far as the ecumenical movement is concerned. In my opinion, it should be the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement, which Franklin deeply appreciated, (5) to find out how the relationship of Christians and Jews can be organized so that both religious communities realize their unity in diversity under the one liberating God of the biblical tradition. So far, the Christian ecumenical movement has endeavored to reach a greater and visible unity of the various Christian traditions through countless dialogues and convergence as well as consensus papers, but it seems to me that the Christian heretic of the second century, Marcion (+ 160), who abandoned the Hebrew Scriptures and purged the Second Testament of all Jewish references, has been to this day a silent partner in all these interchurch deliberations. Franklin and Marcie Littell celebrated that unity in diversity at every meal and during the Christmas/Hanukkah and Passover/Easter seasons in their home. I was an eyewitness, and this for me is a model for both communities. As husband and wife are very different and yet form a union in diversity, so it would be for the two religious communities. (6)

Another aspect of his passion to research and teach the Holocaust was his perception that the Holocaust presents an acute crisis of credibility that has infected all sectors of society and has led to a breakdown of professional ethics in all fields, including journalism, medicine, jurisprudence, education, and theology. The universities became the seedbeds of producing what he called "technologically competent barbarians," who would do anything for the highest bidder. To combat the university's radical departure from its humanistic mission, Franklin became a real fighter of words both written and oral. A prolific writer as well as an outstanding orator, he became a public figure so that President Jimmy Carter appointed him a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1979, he was the first Christian appointed to the International Governing Board of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. As he was thoroughly a "committee man," these assignments were much to his liking. His weekly column, "Lest We Forget," which appeared for several years in various newspapers, was always a moral wake-up call to his readership. (7) The credibility crisis is not over yet. It appears in different forms such as the outrageous greed to rake in unearned bonuses in the banking industry; the refusal on the part of too many politicians to work for the common good when, instead, they have only their own ego, special interest group, or purse in mind; or intentional professional misconduct, as the Department of Justice noted recently, when lawyers prepare legal memos on so- called "advanced interrogation techniques" and allow torture under the guise of waterboarding as though this was a new Olympic event. The list could go on in all directions.

This simply goes to show that Franklin politically stood for democracy, that is, for informed, noncoerced, open, and public debate within civil society. This meant, for him, to fight all authoritarian movements and anti-democratic tendencies, including those of the George W. Bush administration, even though he was a registered Republican. For him the Republican Party was that of Abraham Lincoln, not that of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, or others who claim to have "courage" (8) or who make assertions on television that torture "worked" or that the U.S. does not torture. The credibility crisis today has to do with a double standard: Former leaders of the only remaining superpower are obviously exempt from any prosecution for committing war crimes and for causing the greatest refugee problem after World War II, under entirely false pretenses. One must agree with Franklin that no one should be above the law. In his fight for the democratic ideal, Franklin was straightforward, and in this connection the low-church Littell, the ordained Methodist minister, did not fail to criticize churches if they appeared to him to be too hierarchical. Yet, this did not prevent him from highly praising individual personalities such as the late Theodore Hesburgh for appointing the late Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder to a professorship at Notre Dame. His democratic ideal caused him to direct his attention to the laypeople whom he wanted the churches to educate for service much better than in the past.

To protect the free and open society and individual privacy from "wild tongues," he developed a grid as an early warning system to identify potentially genocidal political movements early on before they can do damage to civil society--a highly important aspect of his work that needs to be pursued much further. He was relentless in criticizing the John Birch Society, and today it is frightening how the "Birchers" easily find their way into the political arena in the U.S. The early warning system would need to be applied today to include the impact that radio talk shows and television programs have on public opinion. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others come to mind as broadcasters who display countless prejudices on their programs. Under Reinhold Niebuhr's leadership, Franklin recognized the power of evil in world events and in power politics, which is why an early warning system would be a protective measure. As every medical school has a department of pathology, so should a department of liberal arts be concerned with "social pathology" and draw the right conclusions. (9)

In this context Franklin was deeply impressed by the German Kirchentag and the evangelical academies. Both movements emerged after the war as a response to what had happened. He wholeheartedly agreed with the first organizer of the Kirchentag, Reinold von Thadden-Trieglaff (1891-1976), that an educated Christian laity was the best antidote to extreme right-wing or left-wing ideologies. Franklin was instrumental in setting up a Jewish-Christian dialogue group as part of the overall program of the Kirchentag that continues to this day, and he also helped to set up an international committee of the Kirchentag as part of its outreach program. In the newly established academies, somewhat like continuing-education facilities in the U.S., which he sincerely and initially also supported financially, he saw a chance for free, informed, and open dialogue among participants of the meetings, oftentimes professionals of various fields of interest who would discuss their own ethical problems, societal developments, and other related topics and confront their views with the traditions of the church. Thus, the Christian church would be engaged with widely secularized segments of society. These two developments he saw as signs of great hope and emphatically described them in his book The German Phoenix. (10)

For Franklin, the key to determine if a society is really "free" is whether or not it abides by religious liberty, not mere toleration. His ground-breaking study on The Anabaptist View of the Church (11) made him see how a society that is bound by a coercive church tradition and a close alignment of church and state necessarily violates human freedom and suppresses the human conscience. Thus, his first wife Harriet (who died of cancer in 1978) would jokingly, but earnestly, say that Franklin's best friends had all died of an unnatural death in the sixteenth century. Throughout his life, Franklin has delineated the significance of the "Left Wing" of the Reformation or the "free church tradition" for modern church life. Had there been religious liberty, the plight of the Jewish community might have been avoided. The intersection where his early work on the Anabaptists and his passion for Holocaust research and education meet is exactly at this point of religious liberty and its uncompromising defense. This, to me, is the key to understanding Franklin Littell: His studies of Anabaptism and the "free churches" (12) equipped him with the sensitivity for the issues that the Shoah presents to people of conscience.

I will end on a personal note. I first met Franklin Littell when he was guest professor at Marburg University (13) in 1966-67. His book on the Anabaptists had just been translated by a friend of mine, Reinhard Grossmann, and I used it extensively in the first course I taught the year Franklin came. I shall never forget the day when he first paid a visit to his friend Ernst Benz, the professor ordinarius, and then, surprisingly for us teaching assistants, he would also say "hello" to us at the lower end of the University hierarchy. His egalitarian attitude and collegiality erected no artificial wall between the intellectual beginners and the "big wheels," and so my wife and I felt free to invite him and his wife to private parties. One is especially memorable: We had invited the Littells and a colleague from Japan. When midnight came, and after we all had a few glasses of wine, the Japanese guest began to loosen up, and he wanted us all to sing Wesleyan hymns. Good Methodists and Baptists remembered at this moment that we are to praise God, as a scripture verse says, "in season and out of season"--and, in an apartment house with five other families, our hymn-singing experience after midnight was certainly out of season, but we did sing gloriously. This, too, was our good colleague and my fatherly friend, Franklin H. Littell.

(1) Gunther Kosling, Die deutschen Baptisten, 1933/1934: Ihr Denken und Handeln zu Beginn des Dritten Reiches (Siegen, 1980). Subsequently, my friend Andrea Strubind covered the entire period and focused especially, but not exclusively, on the Baptist leader Paul Schmidt; the title of her book characterizes her assessment well: Die unfreie Freikirche: Der Bund der Baptistengemeinden im "Dritten Reich," Historisch-Theologische Studien zum 19. und 20. Jahrhundert 1 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991). The "free church" became "unfree," i.e., it was bound to an ideology that should have been alien to its own historic values.

(2) This is so much more impressive, as Netanyahu and his foreign minister do not enjoy good press coverage as they are too "conservative" for most journalists.

(3) Bonn was the capital for West Germany until unification, when the government and most of its activities were transferred to Berlin. A few departments still maintain offices in Bonn.

(4) (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

(5) He was the co-editor with Hans Hermann Walz of Weltkirchenlexikon: Handbuch der Okumene (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1960).

(6) This approach is very idealistic, as each community is in turn divided into many traditions, so that, in fact, there are no "two" communities. This should not hinder Christians and Jews from coming to terms with our common obligation to look at each other as people under the covenant of the one God.

(7) A selection of these columns ought to be edited.

(8) Cf. Karl Rove's recent book, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). That he has the "courage" to call himself a conservative is an insult to all those who would like to "conserve."

(9) See Franklin Hamlin Littell, Wild Tongues: A Handbook of Social Pathology (New York: Macmillan Co., 1969).

(10) (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960). He no doubt thought about "transplanting" the ideas to America but realized early that the context on either side of the Atlantic was different.

(11) The subtitle is: An Introduction to Sectarian Protestantism (Chicago and Philadelphia: American Society of Church History, 1952). A second, enlarged edition was published by Starr King Press, Boston, in 1958. The German edition is Das Selbstverstandnis der Taufer (Kassel: J. G. Oncken Verlag, 1966).

(12) The Free Church (Boston, MA: Stair King Press, 1957); and his A Tribute to Menno Simons (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1961) are examples of his further interests in this field.

(13) The university is actually called Philipps University after its founder, the Landgrave Philipp of Hessen, to whom Franklin devoted his book Landgraf Philipp und die Toleranz (Bad Nauheim: Christian Verlag, 1957).
COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Geldbach, Erich
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
Previous Article:Franklin H. Littell: after 40 years in the wilderness--the unfinished agenda.
Next Article:In praise of Franklin Littell.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters