Obituary: Helmut Gollwitzer

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The Independent Online
Helmut Gollwitzer, pastor, theologian and peace and human-rights campaigner: born Pappenheim, Bavaria 29 December 1908; pastor 1938-93; Professor of Systematic Theology, Bonn University 1950-57; Director, Institute of Theology, Free University of Berlin 1957-75; books include Unwilling Journey 1951, The Dying and Living Lord 1960, The Demands of Freedom 1965, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion 1970, The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus 1970; married 1951 Brigitte Freudenberg (died 1986); died Berlin 17 October 1993.

THEOLOGIANS who write bestsellers are rare. The impact of Unwilling Journey on German readers in 1951 - it was published in English in 1953 - can best be compared to that of Trevor Huddleston's Naught for your Comfort (1956). While Huddleston exposed South African apartheid, Helmut Gollwitzer told the story of his years of imprisonment in Stalin's Soviet Union. The similarity between these two political pastors did not end there. From their conservative theology they drew radical conclusions and acted on those conclusions. Disturbing priests and prophets, they took the turbulent rabbi Jesus of Nazareth as their model.

Born into a Lutheran parsonage in Bavaria, Gollwitzer had just graduated in theology when, in 1933, Hitler came to power. Of all unlikely professional beginnings, Gollwitzer had been hired as private preacher and tutor to a minor Austrian aristocratic household. But not for long. His travels to his employer's German estates brought him into contact with the dissident Christians of the Confessing Church, including its leader, Martin Niemoller. Within two years his career as a theological teacher had begun.

Working as a dissident lecturer in Thuringia, a hot-bed of the pro-Nazi German Christian movement, Gollwitzer found time to complete a doctoral thesis for Karl Barth, who had been forced to leave Bonn for his native Basle. Barth was to remain an influential mentor and friend. During this period he also encountered the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Expelled from Thuringia by the Gestapo in 1937, Gollwitzer went to Berlin. When Niemoller was arrested on 1 July, not to emerge from concentration camp until 1945, Gollwitzer, not yet 30 years old, succeeded him in the pulpit of the influential parish of Dahlem. The essence of his theology emerged in courageous sermons on the Lucan passion narrative, published in English in The Dying and Living Lord (1960). Persecuted Jews were among his chief concerns.

Expelled from Berlin in 1940 and forbidden to preach, he escaped Niemoller's fate by volunteering as a medical orderly in the army. In the last month of the war, May 1945, he was taken prisoner by the Red Army. He returned home on the last day of 1949 and wrote the book which was to make him a household word in Germany and beyond.

Within six months he had become Professor of Systematic Theology in the University of Bonn and a year later married Brigitte Freudenberg, whose mother was Jewish and who, until her death in 1986, was to remain his closest companion and, in his words, 'my consistently radical conscience'.

I was captivated by Unwilling Journey just as I graduated in political science in New Zealand. This book by a Christian socialist, wrestling with the aberrations of Stalinism, was the beginning of my own journey from politics to priesthood. I became one of Gollwitzer's research students in the Bonn of the mid-Fifties. To share in his life was an exhilarating experience. He was as unlike a typical German professor as is conceivable. With his strong Bavarian accent, his appearance was more that of a peasant, rooted in the soil than a parson of academic distinction. The sparkle in his eyes betrayed a disarming, self-deprecating sense of humour. He might equally - like Desmond Tutu - have become a great clown or a classic 'little man', on the tragi-comic stage. In the student residence of which he was warden he loved acting the part of a circus ring-master, conjuring up, with his whip, a whole non-existent menagerie of wild beasts. And he could communicate from heart to heart as easily as from mind to mind. Indeed, when entirely thrown back on the intellect, he was as capable of falling prey to academic obscurity as any professional theologian. He seldom allowed that to happen.

At heart he was a pastor, as concerned with a student's broken love affair as with the betrayal of Christian values in Bonn's get-rich- quickly society. Radical social critic that he was, he was also a friend and adviser of West Germany's first President, Theodor Heuss.

In 1957 Gollwitzer accepted a call to establish the theological institute of the Free University of Berlin. He was back in his old parish of Dahlem and already on the way to becoming the most prolific of German theologians with ultimately more than a thousand publications to his name, from important philosophical works to polemical pamphlets. But God, increasingly the God of the Hebrew people, was always at the centre. He was a frequent visitor to Israel, though increasingly impatient with official Israeli policy.

In The Demands of Freedom (1965) Gollwitzer set out the main lines of his theology of politics and followed that with The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (1970), the most authoritative refutation of Marxist materialism. Yet, living in the West, his central concern was the refutation of capitalist materialism which he expounded in The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus (1970).

'Golli' to all his students, he became a father-figure to the student revolution of the Sixties. When Rudi Dutschke, the radical, yet moderate, student leader, was shot and severely wounded by a right- wing fanatic, the Gollwitzers took his family in and then arranged their move to Cambridge with the help of Bishop John Robinson. (MI5, shamefully, later expelled them to Denmark.)

I can still see Golli humping a huge mattress through the streets to an empty villa which 'his' students had occupied in protest at Berlin's housing policy. He was no armchair radical. All the while Gustav Heinemann, Germany's third President, remained his closest friend. The Gollwitzers and the Heinemanns nearly always spent their holidays together.

In 1961 the University of Basle had elected Gollwitzer to succeed Karl Barth as Professor of Systematic Theology. It would have meant leaving Berlin with a heavy heart. Happily, the Basle City Council vetoed the appointment. They feared this turbulent priest. Berlin needed him more. He stayed and retired there, his passion for human dignity undiminished.

Puckishly smiling, pipe in mouth or hand, Gollwitzer became, in his last years, one of a triumvirate of Berlin's grand old men: Kurt Scharf, the radical bishop, expelled from the Communist East, Heinrich Albertz, a pastor and the Lord Mayor who had succeeded Willy Brandt, and Golli, the last of them to carry on the battle for the kingdom on earth which had begun with the struggle against Hitler. Many will come to Helmut Gollwitzer's old parish church in Dahlem on 29 October to lay him to rest beside Brigitte and near the grave of Rudi Dutschke, who died in Denmark far too young.

(Photograph omitted)