Die Arbeit liefert eine Begriffsgeschichte des wohl wichtigsten Identitätskonzepts für den deutschen Protestantismus im 20. Jahrhundert: die Volkskirche. Mit diesem Begriff nahmen die deutschen Protestanten Bestimmungen vor in ihrem Verhältnis zum jeweiligen Staat sowie zur sie umgebenden Gesellschaft. Zugleich bietet die Begriffsgeschichte tiefe Einblicke in die binnenkirchlichen Auseinandersetzungen über das »richtige« Verständnis vom Wesen der Kirche und ihrer Aufgaben. Der Untersuchungszeitraum nimmt seinen Anfang bei der deutschen Revolution von 1918/19 die in ihren Weichenstellungen von kaum zu überschätzender Bedeutung für den weiteren Verlauf der Untersuchung ist, die ihren Endpunkt in der anhebenden Kritik an den volkskirchlichen Strukturen um das Jahr 1960 hat. Nach der Gründung der beiden deutschen Staaten 1949 kann die Arbeit verdeutlichen, wie die unterschiedlichen historischen Rahmenbedingungen der Kirchen sich gerade auch an der Geschichte des Volkskirchenbegriffs ablesen lassen können. Die in der Arbeit untersuchten semantischen Entwicklungen führen zu einem vertieften Verständnis des historischen Orts des Protestantismus in der Geschichte Deutschlands im 20. Jahrhundert.

Benedikt Brunner’s doctoral dissertation must have been a behemoth, because the present volume is merely the first four chapters of that work, edited for publication as the present volume.  That dissertation carried treatment of the topic to the year 1991.  The present work, of course, ends at 1960.

The work is concerned with the development and expansion of the Volkskirche in Germany beginning in 1918.  Naturally there were non aligned (non-Lutheran) Churches in Germany well before 1918.  But the point of departure Brunner has chosen was that critically important year.  So, in chapter one, he describes his methodology and his sources as well as the state of research at the time of his work.  Then in chapter two the focus turns to the Volkskirche in the period of the Weimar Republic.

The third chapter was, for me, the most interesting of the volume, as it focused on a period of German history that has always been of interest to me (and many): to wit, the church in the era of National Socialism.  The harm done to the church in that period of history was immense.  Fortunately, however, the wound was not fatal.  Accordingly, the fourth chapter of this very engaging dissertation attends to the developments in the Church in the post-war era.

The volume concludes with a list of abbreviations, a list of sources, church newspapers, and of course a listing of secondary literature.  Finally, there is an index of persons.

One of the first things about this book that stands out is the breadth and depth of Brunner’s familiarity with both the issues and the materials.  Not since Klaus Scholder’s really magisterial and so far unsurpassed multi-volume ‘The Churches and the Third Reich’ has anyone come as near to Scholder’s mastery as Brunner now has.  The work is festooned with primary source quotations which bolster the line of Brunner’s argument and which serve as the foundation of that argument.

Brunner is, in fairness, it has to be said, an extraordinary historian.  And the volume he produced here is unimaginably engaging.  I wish the entire dissertation had been published.  Perhaps we can look forward to a time when the remainder of that volume too sees the light of day in a follow-up companion to the present work.

Concerning problems with the book, I would simply point out that though Barth features prominently, Theophil Wurm receives lesser attention.   It is important to note that Wurm, though not as ‘loud’ as Barth, was an extremely influential voice in the Confessing Church and that, surely, he is deserving of wider recognition.  His wisely exhibited personal opposition to the Nazi program in relation to the Church was one of the reasons that the Confessing Church was able to survive.

In sum, minor voices (in terms of the attention they receive and not in relation to the influence they had) should be, in scholarship, more and more heard.  We know enough about Barth.  Let’s hear about other influential people.

Still, in fairness to Brunner, his dissertation and its contents are thoroughly within his own control.  And the fact that he chose to emphasize what he did is perfectly within his rights as a scholar and a researcher.  My view is that the work could have been ‘deepened’ by a hearing of minor voices, not that it would be ‘improved upon’ by them.

I think this work deserves a wide hearing.  It’s my hope that you will be encouraged to read it for yourselves.  I guarantee, if you do, you will learn a great deal from it.