Quakers in Germany since 1918
When the war finished in 1918, and the Armistice came, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit were amongst the first to enter Germany. They found hunger, malnutrition and hopelessness. They did what little they could to help, but more importantly they were able to send reports on the situation to those who could help. Assistance came from the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) in London and from the newly formed American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia. Quaker Herbert Hoover, then head of the US Relief Administration, galvanised the American Government into action and they eventually supplied aid on a massive scale, channelled through AFSC. The British Friends Relief Service (FRS) and AFSC also sent some 1,700 volunteers, who with up to 40,000 German volunteers supervised the distribution of the food until 1924. About a million children were helped to survive the traumas of post-war Germany. At its peak the Quäkerspeisung scheme was feeding half a million children daily.
In this context German Quakers had come together again, and they reopened the Bad Pyrmont Meeting House in 1926, holding their first yearly meeting there.
Hitler came to power on 31 January 1933 and ordered a boycott of Jewish stores for 1st April, which some Quakers defied. Germany Yearly Meeting had its 1933 gathering at Bad Pyrmont and this was a vital topic. Most of its members were present to confront the new situation and, as might be imagined, their attitudes differed. In the end they agreed a minute that encouraged each of them to stand firm in their principles without endangering others. It ended by encouraging those who could not support this policy to leave. Out of 199 members 37 chose to do this but 63 new members had joined by the 1934 Yearly Meeting.
Throughout the Nazi period they would continue this steady growth, helped in no small measure by the steadying hand of their Clerk, Hans Albrecht. Some Quakers lost their livelihoods and others suffered harassment. Several spent time in Concentration Camps although none were actually executed. Some resisted in relatively small brave ways by for example by not saying “Heil Hitler”, an act reminiscent of early Quakers refusing to raise their hats to their “betters”. Some went further and befriended Jews and even helped them to leave the country.
The Quaker Berlin Office and Quakers from abroad, such as Corder Catchpool played an important role in this activity. Sadly there was only a small resistance from the other Churches. Hans Albrecht sent out a letter to many German religious leaders deploring Nazi behaviour to Jews. This was largely ignored, except for a favourable response from the Archbishop of Cologne and four hostile replies from Protestants. From November 1938 until September 1939, when War was declared and the British had to leave, both German and British Quakers were involved in the Kindertransport, which enabled 10,000 Jewish children to be evacuated. American Quakers continued to provide invaluable support till the USA also entered the War. On 5th April 1945 Bad Pyrmont was “liberated” by American troops.
The Friends Relief Service (the former FWVRC) , together with the AFSC and FAU were in the vanguard of helping the defeated “enemy”. Again, they provided a catalyst for a much bigger enterprise, one that prevented countless thousands from dying during the terrible winters of 1945/46 and 1946/47. Their efforts, and those of the previous generation, were recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to the AFSC and the FSC in 1947.
After Germany was divided into East and West Germany, there were Quakers on both sides. East Germany was cut off, with severe travel restrictions. Quakers and the Quaker international office in Berlin did much quiet informal diplomacy behind the scenes to ease these restrictions, with some success.
A Government Exhibit, “Stille Helfer” (Quiet Helpers), commemorating the work by Quakers in Germany after WW1, during the Nazi years, and after the Second World War, was opened in Berlin in 1996 and visited twenty other towns and cities. Many of the older German visitors remembered the Quaker contribution with gratitude and the younger people were impressed.
German Quakers have a service agency, called Quäker-Hilfe, which supports projects in many countries, including the Quaker-Bolivia Link, the Rural Service Programme in Kenya, Friends International Centre in Ramallah and the Action for Reconciliation project in Israel.
In the early 21st Century there are about 400 Quakers active in Germany Yearly Meeting, worshipping in 28 places (including Vienna, in Austria).