Theology in an English park

by
30 January 2008

In a new autobiography, Jürgen Moltmann, one of the leading theologians of the 20th century, traces his vocation back to a POW camp in Nottinghamshire

Into combat: Moltmann (third from left), then 16, as an air-force auxiliary in Hamburg during the destructive air-raids. The boy beside him, Gerhard Schopper, was killed at his side one night: “He hadn’t got down quickly enough. I stood up as if anaesthetised, blinded and deaf, with only a few splinter wounds in my cheekbone. Everyone looked at me as if I were a miracle, someone risen from the dead

Into combat: Moltmann (third from left), then 16, as an air-force auxiliary in Hamburg during the destructive air-raids. The boy beside him, Gerhard S...

IN JULY 1944, I received my call-up and travelled to the barracks in Delmenhorst. I had been assigned to the heavy weapons company of an infantry battalion.

On 17 September 1944, things became serious. The British operation “Market Garden” began, with parachute landings in Eindhoven and Arnheim. We marched all night as far as Asten — a march of more than 35 kilometres — and met scattered soldiers who were falling back, some of them wounded. In the morning we were spread out along the bank of the Albert Canal, and had to dig ourselves in.

All night long, grenades howled over our heads and rained into the village, and there was the sound of fighting on the bridge. Since there was no longer anyone in command of us, we moved hither and thither individually, trying to find our unit. When we gathered together the next morning, only half the company was still alive. All the men who had lain closer to the bridge than us were dead.

From September 1944 until February 1945, we were in South Holland, in the Reichswald Forest and in Cleves, allegedly at the front. But since I had no overview, and never arrived at one, I never knew where we were.

At the beginning of February 1945, British and Canadian troops started the offensive that was to take them into the Ruhr by way of Cleves and the Reichswald Forest. We were alerted and set on the march to Cleves. We passed through the deserted town, arrived at a previously prepared trench, came under heavy fire there, turned back, and were led to a hill with an observation tower where parachutists were already in position. There we came under heavy artillery attack. When the rifle fire came closer, we shot back, but couldn’t see where we were shooting. In the evening, the first heavy British tanks then drove up the hill through our positions and occupied the tower. It became plain that we were shut in.

We gathered together and tried to break out. But we only got as far as the broad field in front of the hill, and a cemetery. There we were shot at from all sides. I ran into a nearby semi-ruined house, crawled up to the attic, found a sheet of iron, and hid under it.

Because I was hungry and thirsty, filthy, and covered with lice, it was clear to me that the next night I should either have to succeed in breaking out or have to surrender.

On a woodland path I met some British soldiers, threw myself into a hedge, and lost my glasses. Then I ceased to care. I stumbled on through the wood and through British communication lines, where they were all asleep in their tents. I drank snow water out of puddles, and finally reached a state of complete exhaustion. While I was looking for a hiding place in a more densely wooded part of the forest, an English soldier suddenly jumped up in front of me.

“I surrender,” I called, as clearly as I could. But he thought I was one of his mates who was playing the fool, and he called some of the others. They came, and we talked. They didn’t shoot me, and, more than that, the next morning their lieutenant gave me a mess tin of baked beans. It was the first food I had tasted for days, and I have loved baked beans ever since.

Moltmann was held in a prison camp in Belgium, where he experienced deep spiritual despair, and then, when hostilities ceased, was transferred to a camp in Kilmarnock.

IN THE SPRING of 1946, I realised that for me the captivity was going to last longer than I had thought. So I applied to be sent to an educational camp in which “baby prisoners” could repeat their messed-up Abitur, the final school-leaving examination, which was required for the university. This possibility really did exist in the British camp culture.

I passed an English-language test, and on 25 June 1946, guarded by a soldier with a rifle, I was put on the train and travelled in a special compartment through sunny and oh-so-peaceful central England to Camp 174 in Cuckney, near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire.

Romantically situated in the park belonging to the Duke of Portland, it was an educational camp, intended to train teachers and Protestant pastors for post-war Germany, and it was set up by the British YMCA and financed by the American businessman John Barwick. Norton Camp was England’s generous gift to German prisoners of war.

At the entrance I was greeted by some high-ranking German army chaplains, the like of whom I had never seen at the front and never knew existed. But I was soon assigned to the Abitur course, which was run by German teachers among the prisoners, and was recognised by the Hamburg school authorities.

FOR US, Norton Camp was a kind of enclosed monastic existence, “excluded from time and world”, as my friend Gerhard Noller wrote in his farewell letter. The day began at 6.30 a.m. with a bugle reveille, and ended at 10.30 p.m., when the lights were put out. All at once we had time, plenty of time, and stood, completely intellectually famished as we were, in front of a wonderful library put together by the YMCA.

At that time, I read everything I could lay hands on — Rilke’s poems and the novels of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, mathematics and philosophy, and any amount of theology — and that literally from morning to night. For me everything was fabulously new, the theology especially.

At the end of 1946, I passed the supplementary Abitur examination, and now counted as a student. I listened to lectures on the educational side as well as in the camp’s theological school, and in 1947 I decided not to become a teacher like my forefathers, but a pastor. I became the first “black sheep” in my “Enlightened” Hamburg family.

Not least among my memories are the moving sermons of the camp chaplains Rudolf Halver and Wilhelm Burckert. They were the first sermons of my life, and I could still repeat some of them today. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the long procession of prisoners on the way to Cuckney’s village church, or to the Methodist church, where the minister was Frank Baker, whom I later met again at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

At night, we sometimes crawled through a hole in the fence in order to fetch wood from the Duke of Portland’s park for the iron stove that stood in the middle of the hut. How much time we had for night-time talks in the glow of the stove, long after the lights had been put out! I have never again lived so intensive an intellectual life as I did in Norton Camp. We received what we had not deserved, and lived from a spiritual abundance we had not expected.

In the camp, I often walked along the fence in the evening and looked up to the chapel on the hill. I felt I could echo Rilke’s Stundenbuch: “I circle round God, the age-old tower . . .” I was still searching, but I sensed that God was drawing me, and that I should not be seeking him unless he had already found me.

On 15 August 1946, I wrote to my family: “I end most days in a curious way. In our camp there is a hill covered with huge old trees. It is really the centre of camp life, for there is a little chapel on it where we meet for evening prayers, so as to end the day with a hymn and collect our thoughts for new life. . . Perhaps we ought to see this whole imprisonment as a great church-going. . .”

A special event that completely turned my life upside down was the first international SCM conference after the war, which was held in Swanwick, Derbyshire, in the summer of 1947. A group of POWs were invited to attend, I being one of them.

We came still wearing our wartime uniforms, and we came in fear and trembling. What were we to say about the wartime horrors and the mass murders in the concentration camps? But we were welcomed as brothers in Christ, and could eat and drink, pray and sing together with young Christians who had come from all over the world, even from Australia and New Zealand. To be accepted like that was for us a wonderful experience.

We came still wearing our wartime uniforms, and we came in fear and trembling. What were we to say about the wartime horrors and the mass murders in the concentration camps? But we were welcomed as brothers in Christ, and could eat and drink, pray and sing together with young Christians who had come from all over the world, even from Australia and New Zealand. To be accepted like that was for us a wonderful experience.

Students had come from Berlin, too. Dorothee Schleicher, a niece of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, told us about the resistance against Hitler and talked about the ruined city. The one-armed Lord Henderson gave lectures, and all at once I perceived that the Christian faith is a great reconciling force, which sets standards even in the world of politics. “In Christ there is no East or West. . .” We enjoyed singing the English and American hymns, because they gave us fresh courage.

Then a group of Dutch students came and said that they wished to speak to us officially. I was frightened at the prospect of meeting them, because, after all, I had been at the front in Holland, during the fighting for the bridge in Arnheim.

The Dutch students told us that Christ was the bridge on which they were coming to meet us, and that without Christ they would not have been able to speak a word to us.

They told us about the Gestapo terror in their country, about the killing of their Jewish friends, and about the destruction of their homes. But we, too, could step on this bridge that Christ had built from them to us, even if only hesitantly at first, could confess the guilt of our people and ask for reconciliation.

At the end, we all embraced. For me that was an hour of liberation. I could breathe freely again and felt like a human being once more, and I returned to the camp with new courage. The question of how long the captivity was going to last no longer bothered me.

In April 1948, I came home with the last but one transport from Norton Camp, travelling via Harwich, Hook of Holland, and Munsterlager; I was discharged on 19 April. I had spent more than five years in barracks, camps, dugouts, and bunkers, but I had experienced something that was to determine my whole life. For that reason, this time is for me so important that I would not have missed a day of it.

I HAVE often rediscovered my own little life history during those years in the great story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel of God at the Brook Jabbok, the story told in Genesis 32.2. What looked at the beginning like a grim fate became an undeserved blessing. It began in the darkness of war, and when I came to Norton Camp, for me the sun rose. We all came there with severely wounded souls, and when we went away, “my soul was healed.”

I suffered under “the hidden face of God”, which the Jews call hester panim, for that is also “the dark night of the soul” that the mystics talk about. And I sensed “the light of God’s countenance” when it became light in my life. I felt the warmth of his great love as my senses awoke and I could love life again. I experienced this turn from the hidden face of God to his shining countenance in the nearness of Jesus, the brother in need and the leader of resurrection into true life.

This is an edited extract from A Broad Place by Jürgen Moltmann (SCM Press, £29.99 (Church Times Bookshop £27); 978-0-33404-127-6).

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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