Reconciled at His Touch, Part 1
How a small band of God-listeners changed an embittered Europe forever.
During the 1949 summer conference, Hans Böckler, head of the German Trade Unions Federation met with Georges Villiers, president of the French Employers Federation. Böckler noted that they should be enemies on two counts — he being a union leader and a German, the other an employer and French. Villiers replied that there was more: he had been condemned to death in a Nazi concentration camp. Then the Frenchman, extending his hand, added, “But all that is in the past. We must forget it and I simply want to offer you my hand.”
The non-European world today is almost completely unaware of a peculiar miracle that took place between 1945-1950. The reconciliation of the French and German peoples is one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of foreign affairs. It had nothing to do with the “affability” or “genteelness” of Caucasian people, nor any natural predisposition of the two societies. Nor was it about the necessity of partnership against Soviet ascendancy and a looming Cold War, a prospect which did not reach public consciousness until the Czech coup of 1948, and especially the 1950 outbreak of hostilities in Korea.
By 1945, conditions were ripe for a singularly bitter hostility between France and Germany. That the two nations had just fought a war was the least of it —this was the latest conflagration in a larger conflict that had already spanned three generations. Millions of the best and brightest from both sides littered “Gehenna” fields between Paris and Berlin.
Douglas Johnstone (Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Cynthia Sampson (CSIS Director of the Research, Religion and Conflict Project), write:
In 1945, Germany was not merely defeated — its very identity as a nation-state was invalidated, just as much of its industry and larger cities were all but totally obliterated. Facing immediate hardship and sometimes hunger, unable to imagine a better future, the Germans were far from ready to atone for the unprecedented cruelties then revealed to the world. As for the French, the deep wounds of their swift defeat in 1940 were aggravated by the prolonged humiliation of the German occupation and by the sheer terror evoked by even routine encounters with German security patrols on country roads or in Paris subway stations… Mounting oppression from 1941–42 and mass compulsory labor deportations from 1943 were followed by episodes of outright massacre in 1944. Then, in 1945 came the stunning revelation that all known German cruelties had been only the lesser manifestations of an altogether greater evil; suddenly exposed when the slave-labor, concentration and extermination camps were finally overrun… Under the circumstances, any attempt to effect a reconciliation between the two peoples was seemingly premature to the point of absurdity. (Johnstone and Sampson 37)
Although completely overlooked or ignored in the academic world, the roots of this dramatic turnaround in international relations came from a very small group of Jesus followers whose modus operandi was primarily, perhaps foolishly, a daily “listening time” to the Holy Spirit — something they called the “guided life.”
Johnstone and Sampson maintain that this group’s dubious reputation in intellectual circles has obscured its contribution to one of the greatest achievements in the entire record of modern statecraft — the astonishingly rapid Franco-German reconciliation after 1945. In fact, a remarkable series of annual meetings at the Caux Palace Hotel perched above Lake Geneva, attended by a total of 1,983 French and 3,113 Germans — representing government, trade unions, industry, the church, media and academia — was both the precondition to, and true origin of the European integration movement that transformed European politics and eventually became the European Community we know today.
Previously unpublished documents and indirect evidence prove beyond all doubt that a band of believers played an incalculably vital role at the start of the Franco-German reconciliation. This was at a time when any relationship — formal or informal — seemed hardly possible, even insensitive. With the institutional Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant, still reeling from the shame of either culpable silence in the face of Hitler’s rise or outright endorsement of his Reich, this loosely organized and strikingly amorphous group was able to take their intensely personal devotion to God, far-reaching moral philosophy and timely supernatural wisdom and translate them “into terms of international relations between countries.” This despite “exceedingly modest resources.”
When a large German delegation of 150 persons arrived at Caux in the summer of 1947, they were given a warm welcome — notably by a French chorus singing a German song. (Johnstone and Sampson 57)
Archived transcripts include speeches by French participants that show their surprise at finding themselves engaging with Germans at all, their new recognition of the feasibility of a dialogue, and their intention to lessen the animosity between the two peoples. This was no mean feat.
From the German side, there are more dramatic testimonies. At first, German participants gave vent to expressions of self-pity, recounting their own sufferings and those of their families as if they were unique, and without realizing that others had suffered far greater at German hands. Later, having absorbed the “spirit of Caux,” the tone and content of the German delegations changed remarkably. This included expressions of intense gratitude for being received as equals and even as friends by the other participants, avowals of guilt and repentance, repudiations of past belief in Hitler and his ideology, and promises that Germans would never again be guilty of aggression.
The rapid development of these resolutions were, at least in part, the result of the spiritual moderators insistence that “the emphasis at Caux must be on Germany’s future rather than her past, her potential rather than her guilt.” (Johnstone and Sampson 57)
The Invisible Hand
In the aftermath of the war, the Group’s role was recognized as highly consequential by the two undisputed leaders of the intergovernmental reconciliation, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer. The latter, writing to a leader of the group in 1951:
It is my conviction that men and nations cannot outwardly enjoy stable relationships until they have been inwardly preparing for them. In this respect [you] have rendered great and lasting services… Very soon after the war [you] reached out a hand to the German people and helped them make contact again with other nations… In recent months, too, we have seen the conclusion, after some difficult negotiations of important international agreements. Here, also, I believe, [you] played an invisible but effective part in bridging differences of opinion between negotiating parties, and kept before them the objective of peaceful agreement in the search for the common good which is the true purpose of human life. (Johnstone and Sampson 39)
Invisible is right. This tiny band operated in such a way that their own contribution to any success has gone relatively unnoticed to history. As Johnstone and Sampson note, “religious actors have at times been all but invisible to a press that tends to limit its focus to the official activities of government officials and diplomats.” (Johnstone and Sampson 259)
This does not mean that they made an effort to hide their role; simply that they desired to be genuine servants to the interests of others, first. They understood that their ability to achieve results was not going to come through traditional or natural means, but through a demonstration of the traditions and nature of the Chief Servant, Jesus of Nazareth.
But what was this spirit of Caux, exactly? And did it fare as well in other, seemingly irreconcilable parts of the world?
Johnstone, Douglas; Sampson, Cynthia. Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft. Oxford UP, 1994.
The main collection on Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group is located at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in Washington, D.C. It comprises 228,400 items, including up 565 record storage cases plus 27 oversize containers — altogether 244 linear feet.
N E X T → Reconciled At His Touch, Part 2
He Went In To Stay ← P R E V I O U S
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