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Accusation and condemnation

20 May 2016

Andrew Chandler on the cases of George Bell and one of the men he championed

ON 1 July 1937, the Pastor of Dahlem, a comfortable suburb of Berlin, was arrested and taken into custody. It was not unusual for a pastor to be detained in such a way in Germany that summer. But this case was, at once, conspicuous. The pastor was not released.

What could he have done? Every society and age has a sense of what its greatest crime may be, so that the power of allegation itself may be enough to cast a man or woman out from respectable company and make a good name suddenly an embarrassment to all decent people and places.

While the Pastor of Dahlem paced up and down his cell for seven months, party functionaries searched for evidence against him, and presented what they found to the scrutiny of experts of various kinds. A case for prosecution on new charges was diligently prepared.

The pastor was fortunate. Though steadily corrupted by party appointments, and the deepening encroachments of an ideological “People’s Justice”, many of the outward forms of the judicial system of Germany remained substantially as they had been before Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. This was not a show trial.

The pastor was defended, and vigorously, by a professional lawyer who was prepared not only to stand his ground but even to break up the proceedings if the counsel for the prosecution misbehaved. The pastor was found guilty only of the first charge made against him: that he had abused his rights in a church pulpit. The other charges were thrown out. He was fined 2000 marks, and, as he had already spent longer in custody than the penalty for the crime, he was released at once.

It was heard that the pastor had inspired the personal hatred of Hitler, and Hitler was determined to settle the score. On leaving court, the pastor was promptly abducted by the secret police. He was later traced to a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.

THIS ruthless intervention provoked an immense international outcry. The pastor was Martin Niemöller, known and admired outside Germany. His treatment showed that power mattered more than law in Germany in 1938. Across the Western world, Niemöller’s cause was taken up by indignant journalists, senior politicians, lawyers, and scholars who wrote of him in their newspapers, journals, and books.

An English bishop, George Bell, at once used his position to rally support for a man whom he regarded as one of the great Christians of the age. Bell knew that he was not alone in his campaign. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, saw issues of natural justice with a very sharp eye, and hated to see it denied. Around these two committed men and their allies, a great strategy of protest began to emerge.

Bell preferred to work away behind the scenes. In April 1938, he visited Germany and made a point of finding Niemöller’s wife, Else. This meeting clearly left a deep and disturbing impression on him. By now, her husband was a prisoner in solitary confinement, denied visitors, denied conversation, receiving only two letters a month. When she had visited him — only once, granted a “special favour” — she had found him “dazed”.

Bell, who had already given sanctuary to many pastors and their families in Britain, offered the family a holiday there. She seemed hardly able to understand the idea of it. While in Berlin, Bell also visited the British ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson. “Henderson”, Bell noted sceptically, “deprecated demonstrations! Don’t press the Church — wait till the storm rolls by — things will right themselves.” Bell was unimpressed.

In July 1938, Bell marked the first anniversary of Niemöller’s detention at a service of intercession in St Martin-in-the-Fields, in central London. By August, he was working on the creation of a new Guild of Prayer for all those who were in prison and all who suffered in Germany and Austria. Subscription would cost 3d. a week, but there was also a yearly rate: clearly Bell did not think that Niemöller would be freed soon. (Life fellowship could be had for £10.)

But here Bell encountered an objection. The Vicar’s secretary at St Martin’s wrote: “the Vicar feels, in common with us all, that this ‘special guild’ approaches too nearly to the likeness of a political effort. We may well have the German Ambassador refusing to come.”

Another example of the Church’s ambivalence broke out in the correspondence columns of The Times. The Bishop of Durham, Herbert Hensley Henson, got into a fight with the Bishop of Gloucester, Arthur Headlam, who thought that the German state would not have moved against Niemöller unless he had given them reason. He told Henson that it was more important to understand the German authorities than it was to criticise them.

Henson exploded at this. As far as Headlam was concerned, Henson did not know his place. As far as Henson was concerned, a bishop should know an offence against justice for what it was. In 1938, episcopal collegiality had its limits.

THROUGH the long war, which broke out in September 1939, the Bishop of Chichester remained constant to the imprisoned Pastor of Dahlem. Every year, a special service of intercession took place for him. Little news of any kind from inside Germany reached him, and what news emerged was bleak and bitter. When so many perished, how could it be hoped that one such as Niemöller could survive?

In fact, Niemöller did survive. When peace came, he was reunited with his wife, and restored to his friends. And, in October 1945, George Bell met his friend again, in Stuttgart.

It was not the pastor but the bishop who would die first. In 1958, Niemöller paid tribute to his friend, ally, and advocate in a BBC programme. “George Bell”, he said, “was a Christian who was led and riven by the love of Christ Jesus himself. He couldn’t see somebody suffering without suffering himself. He couldn’t see people left alone without becoming their brother.”

IF HE were alive now, what would Niemöller say to the Church of England? For it is not the Pastor of Dahlem but the now long-dead English bishop who stands accused, and of the greatest crime known to contemporary society.

Much on this has already been published in the columns of this paper. Those who are responsible have repeatedly emphasised that care is due to the person who has accused Bell of assaulting her as a child. But they should also ask themselves that, if innocence, not guilt, must be proved, how may any innocent man or woman feel safe, particularly when an accusation may be made years, even decades later, with no necessity to prove things in court, no need for conventional proof, little consistency, and no corroboration?

Various assumptions can be made: that there is no smoke without fire; that the responsible authorities always act thoroughly and credibly, even when they work in secret; that experts are trustworthy, even if the basis and character of their expertise is unknown; even that good people often do wicked things.

Would any of that have reassured a bishop such as Henson? Perhaps such things will always happen to somebody else, and leave us undisturbed. What did Niemöller once famously observe about that?

Archbishop Söderblom, who admired Bell profoundly, once said that this was a Bell that never rang without reason. Now the reason is a new one: it is for those men and women — often in public service, schoolteachers, practitioners of medicine and pastoral care — who find that it is not innocence but guilt that is first assumed; who struggle as best they can to clear their names; who face suspension from work, contempt, isolation, and even violence in the communities that they serve; even exclusion from their own churches.

These things are not going on in some despotic foreign state. Even if we have forgotten all the other reasons that George Bell matters to us in 2016, this is one reason we might acknowledge. Rather than suppress his name — even challenging its place in the C of E’s calendar — we should cling to it for all our worth.


Dr Andrew Chandler is Reader in Modern History at the University of Chichester, and is the author of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (Eerdmans, 2016).

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