Commentary Magazine

Religion Behind the Iron Curtain, by George N. Shuster

Communism’s Attack on Religion
Religion Behind the Iron Curtain.
by George N. Shuster.
Macmillan. 281 pp. $4.00.


To give us the story of religion behind the Iron Curtain, Dr. Shuster has gone to the documentary evidence, talked with eyewitnesses, read books and magazine articles, and consulted his own experience in international affairs, which includes work with the State Department and the Enemy Alien board, and service as Chairman of the Historical Commission to Germany for the War Department, and Land Commissioner of Bavaria under Military Government. Hence this book exhibits a wealth of cases, dates, statistics, and biographical and historical data such as one would hardly have thought possible under the circumstances.



Those who do not share the former editor of Commonweal’s deep convictions as a Roman Catholic might be disposed to look for signs of religious favoritism. They might point out that he shows a tendency to idealize the pre-Communist culture of some of the countries under consideration. They might say that he has not told the whole story about Archbishop Stepinac in Yugoslavia or Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary. They might object to his characterization of the Communist fury as a “Cromwellian fanaticism,” to his swift glossing over of the grosser aspects of the Crusades, to his uncritically interpreted assumption that the Vatican is regarded as its great foe by the Kremlin. Nevertheless, it is improbable that a Protestant, Jew, or agnostic would have achieved more impartiality than Dr. Shuster. One cannot help being impressed by the resolute fairness of his mind, by his willingness to cite the faults of his own church, and by the deep compassion which moves him as be contemplates the several millions of mortals “silent in a chain gang from which no one can possibly rescue them, a chain gang in which one figure is just like the rest, and all are countless, voiceless, hopeless.”



This book tells of the precise procedures by which the Communist faith, when in power, sets out to annihilate or exploit competing faiths. First there is a “new constitution,” which apparently guarantees freedom to all religious denominations. Then follows a succession of acts that soon make it clear that this new freedom of worship is to be a strictly private affair, looked up within the conscience of the believer, with no right of any kind to overt expression. The state takes over the control of the salaries and appointments of the clergy. A “land-reform act” under the Minister of Agriculture appropriates the properties of church and synagogue. The Minister of the Interior directs his police powers against the more recalcitrant leaders of religious opposition. The Minister of Culture, with his Bureau of Ecclesiastical Affairs, takes over the schools, youth groups, welfare agencies, and religious press. In one instance, Bulgaria, the concerns of church and synagogue were assigned, with an almost comical honesty, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs!

The Communists also understand the old rule of divide and conquer. The resentments of minority religious groups against the established church are exploited to neutralize the minorities, or even to secure their help, in the attack on the more powerful group. But the end is the same for all. Then there is the effort to separate the “democratic and patriotic” from the “reactionary and imperialist” clergy. The latter are charged with treason and with participation in “fascist plots,” and are subjected to the usual routine of imprisonment, trial, and public “confession.” There may also be resort to the simpler devices of “concentration monasteries,” or deportation, or extermination. The sentiment of loyalty to the state is greatly extolled, and all groups are encouraged to organize “national churches,” which finally turn out to be the instruments of a new international religion that has its world center in Moscow.



Of course, there are important variations from one country to another. Poland and East Germany may be taken as examples of the strength, respectively, of Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. As I read the text, Hungary, in spite of unsung heroes and celebrated martyrs, instances the relative degradation and impotence of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. In Poland the powerful, traditional fusion of piety and patriotism has been too much for the Communists to dissolve. And in East Germany the previous ordeal of Nazism seems to have tempered people spiritually for resistance against the new totalitarianism. Soviet political strategy enters into the picture too, since it is hoped that both Poland and East Germany—in spite of their mutual enmity—may be converted into powerful allies of the Communist cause. In Hungary, on the other hand, Roman Catholicism has been perhaps richer in real estate than in faith, and too intimately allied with a decaying feudal order. And Calvinism in the same country, with help from Karl Barth, has forsaken its historic political realism and turned toward a sort of spiritual neutralism which allegedly lifts it above the battle but actually leaves it with one foot in the enemy’s camp.

The experience of the Jew under Soviet power has its unique features. We may as well begin with the fact that, long before the advent of Communism, most of these Christian nations were guilty, from time to time, of violent anti-Semitism. The Soviet variety of anti-Semitism is simply a more shrewdly calculated affair. Dr. Shuster is acquainted with the studies by Solomon Schwarz, Peter Meyer, and others in this field. Russia may boast to the outside world of having established a Soviet Israel in Birobidjan, but her real concern is to destroy all that is distinctive in Jewish culture and religion. She may exploit the Rosenberg case as an instance of American anti-Semitism, but she is willing, nonetheless, to play the anti-Semitic game in order to woo the Arabs or appease former Nazis. The basic fact is that under imperial Moscow, as long ago under imperial Rome, the Jew proves stubbornly recalcitrant to assimilation to a “brotherhood of mankind’ in which differences of individuals and cultures, instead of being cherished and used, are abolished in a bank uniformity of pattern.

For one who is a student of the relations between religion and social ethics, this book raises all sorts of interesting questions. To what extent is the struggle between the Vatican and Moscow a struggle between true religion and godless materialism, and to what extent is it one between two great political powers—ecclesiastical totalitarianism against political totalitarianism? In what degree does the Lutheran divorce of religion from political responsibility make the Lutheran church the ready victim of a predatory state, and in what degree does this same divorce give it the strength to hold tenaciously to the essentials of its faith in the face of persecution? Does the easy Soviet conquest of the Orthodox churches prove that nationalism is really our most potent modern religion, or does it simply illustrate how a liturgically centered church must be impotent before all the grave issues of life on this earth? What are we to make of the Communists’ success in placating the Moslem majority in Albania, whereas in other countries Islam seems to be a main bulwark against Communist ideology?



The question of what there was in the spiritual condition of man that helped make possible all this Communist terror is one to which Dr. Shuster turns from time to time. He is disposed to put the blame on a prevailing mood of secularism, naturalism, agnosticism, and anti-clericalism. He suggests that if it had not been for Hitler, the Christian reformation of Eastern Europe might well have made significant progress. He asserts that the mere faith in human intelligence is not enough to protect mankind from the corruption of power; obedience to a higher than earthly power is necessary. With much of this I agree. But I should like to ask, much more sharply than has Dr. Shuster, to what extent were the churches themselves responsible for this condition of spiritual impotence?

There is one critical difference between the tale of martyrs under Stalin and the tale of martyrs under Nero. The early martyrs suffered for a church which had never known secular power. Our contemporary martyrs suffered for a church which has had authority in its world for fifteen hundred years or more. A hard-bitten anti-clerical might argue that the blame for the spiritual debacle of modern man lay in a Roman Catholicism too wedded to outmoded feudal forms, in a Lutheranism too oblivious of its social responsibilities, in a Calvinism which had retreated into a sort of esoteric cult of self-righteousness, in an Orthodoxy which gave to this life the poetry and the pageantry but not the principle. In some fatal manner the Christian churches had failed to create in their people the vital Christian spirit which would express itself in Christian institutions even as it kept alive the inner flame of faith.

The failure of the church, and of the synagogue, cannot take away from the glory of those men and women who suffered and died because they would serve Jehovah rather than Moloch. The glory of these men and women does not yet atone for the sins of a church which did not sufficiently proclaim the reality of its God and King. As for us in this country, who have not known the ordeal by fire, the story of these others is an invitation, not to pride and wrath, but to gratitude and contrition, and renewed struggle.



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