Remembering Helmut Gollwitzer on May Day, with Jürgen Moltmann

May Day, or International Workers’ Day, has rolled around once again. I commemorated this day back in 2013 with a post about Gollwitzer, and I thought that I would do so again this year. But this time I have Moltmann to help me.


Moltmann reflects on Gollwitzer in the context of his (Moltmann’s) editorial work with the periodical Evangelische Theologie, on whose editorial board Gollwitzer also served. These comments from Moltmann give a good sense of Gollwitzer as a particular human being as well as an influential (and sometimes controversial!) theologian and public intellectual. I hope that you will join me in remembering him today. As usual, bold is mine.

Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place (Fortress, 2009), 245–46.

In order to describe the inner relations of the editors of Evangelische Theologie, I must talk about a man who, after Ernst Wolf, became the secret spiritus rector of our periodical: Helmut Gollwitzer. His all-embracing human kindness and his youthful capacity for enthusiasm kept us together and at the same time drove us apart. The rebellious students of 1968 had divided the editorial committee of our periodical as they had the university faculties. Helmut Gollwitzer embraced their concerns as well and declared himself to be on their side. When their leader, Rudi Dutschke, was shot, dying later as a result, he took the funeral in the midst of the outcry of the protesting students; for Rudi was a sincere Christian. Gollwitzer accompanied the squatters into empty apartment houses. He expected a renewal of the universities with a democractic basis from everyone, from us too. He wrote splendid contributions for the periodical. But not everyone was able to go along with his generosity of heart. We lost some of the co-editors, who had misgivings.

Then at the beginning of the 1980s came the era of the peace movement. The discipleship of Jesus made of Helmut Gollwitzer an unremitting friend of peace and an opponent of rearmament. He had spent four years in Russian prison camps. In the periodical and in the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (the Society for Protestant Theology), we declared ourselves to be decisively against rearmament and unequivocally committed to the service of peace ‘without weapons’—not simultaneously ‘with weapons,’ too, as a Heidelberg declaration said, hoping to satisfy both sides through this complementary formulation. But who can make a decision in complementary terms? . . .

The person who was behind the criticism which Helmut Gollwitzer had to face in the periodical after 1968, and again after 1980, was an old Barthian friend of his, Helmut Traub . . . . Traub considered this politicization of the gospel to be a betrayal of Barth and of the periodical’s tradition. Through Ernst Wolf’s son, . . . he suggested that we ought to remove Ernst Wolf’s name from the imprint and abandon the periodical’s name. With this Traub caused considerable unrest among the editors, because no one really knew whom he had goaded on, and who had been taken in by him. However, we survived and kept faith with Helmut Gollwitzer until his death, as he did with us.

May 1 is also a significant day in Gollwitzer’s biography. It was on this day 79 years ago, in 1937, that he arrived in Dahlem to take up his post as assistant pastor under Martin Niemöller. Niemöller would be arrested by the Gestapo on July 1st, at which point Gollwitzer became the de facto pastor of the radical Confessing Church congregation until he was himself silenced by the Gestapo in 1940.

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