NEWS EXTRA – #WCC70: Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft: The Future of Peace

This is an edited translation of an address given on 20 July 2017, the 73rd anniversary of the bomb plot against Adolf Hitler, at the Adam von Trott Foundation in Imshausen, Germany. It recalls the contacts of Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches, with the German resistance during the Second World War, discusses the relevance of their vision of the post‐war future to contemporary politics, and highlights the significance of Visser ‘t Hooft for the ecumenical movement.

As far as I am concerned, the Dutch theologian Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft is the most significant unknown person in Germany. There is no other person for whom I have more respect. In 1961, I was sent by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) to the New Delhi assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) as one of their three youth delegates. As a result, my life changed completely. From being a naive and rather pious young man, I became a critical citizen and critical Christian. I discovered the world. I no longer felt boxed in. I found diversity instead of monotony. The ecumenical movement became the place where I felt at home.

I will never forget how surprised and happy I was to discover that there is a “Visser ‘t Hooft House” on the Imshausen estate. I do not know of any other building in Germany that has been named after him.

It was in New Delhi that I first became aware of Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft. The WCC’s first general secretary often preferred to keep his distance from people rather than getting too close. Yet in the 1930s, he became close friends with two young Germans: theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and lawyer Adam von Trott, both involved in the German resistance against Hitler. On their behalf, he sent documents drawn up by the German resistance from Switzerland to the United States and Britain – but to no avail, and Bonhoeffer and von Trott were executed by the National Socialists. Bonhoeffer was aged 39, and von Trott, 35.

Adam von Trott visited Visser ‘t Hooft several times in Geneva. He wanted to know more about the ecumenical movement; he wanted to preserve world peace; and he wanted to preserve an image of Germany – the Germany of himself and his friends, which had been tainted and shattered by the crimes of Hitler and his racist National Socialism.

The memorandum the German resistance prepared for the British government, co‐authored by von Trott and delivered by Visser ‘t Hooft to London in 1942, was read by Winston Churchill. However, despite Churchill’s note in the margins – “very encouraging” – the British government maintained the position that Germany would have to be defeated before there could be discussions about the country’s future. In his memoirs, Visser ‘t Hooft describes how Adam von Trott was so deeply disappointed that he was near despair when, on a warm summer’s night in his garden in Chêne‐Bougeries, Geneva, he gave von Trott the answer he had received from Britain.1 Adam asked why he was distrusted in this way, despite his close and influential friends there.

The attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 now dates back 73 years. Today we live in a country characterized by an open society. With its predominantly tolerant attitude, Germany offers a friendly face to the world. But we are in danger of losing it. Germany is now the third‐largest exporter of weapons and munitions in the world. Our chancellor supports this scandalous export of weapons to areas of political tension and claims that this is part of Germany’s peace policy. I lament the creeping militarization of our country, a militarization of our thinking, one that does not respect the obligation of maintaining peace that is required by our Basic Law. We are told that Germany should increasingly accept responsibility for military missions abroad. It is said that our culture of political self‐restraint should end. We are re‐arming, and our armaments budget is set to increase by 14 billion euro.

This reverses everything that we as Germans learned with such difficulty after the disaster of the Second World War. Our society is changing dramatically. It has bid farewell to the idea of a global “internal policy.” Our society is no longer based on consensus but on conflict. Economic and political decisions have a military component. It is said that foreign deployments are to be seen as a contribution to peace, but we are involved in a war in Afghanistan. Describing such deployments as something other than war means brushing aside reality. What on earth are a thousand German soldiers doing in Afghanistan? We know, or at least suspect, that it’s not about Afghanistan, but about consideration for the US and its interests, about loyalty after the vicious attempts of 9/11.

Military involvement in Afghanistan has so far cost Germany and its taxpayers almost 10 billion euro, and each day another 800,000 euro is added to this. And no one can see an end to the war; 40 percent of the country is controlled by Taliban forces. About 140,000 refugees have arrived so far in Germany, most of them in 2015. Their home countries are far from safe, but despite this, aircraft are primed to deport rejected asylum seekers – only the continuing horror stories prevent immediate deportation. These horrors include the use by the United States of the world’s biggest non‐nuclear bomb in eastern Afghanistan in April 2017. This bomb, heavier than 10,000 kilograms, was aimed at destroying a tunnel system. For the first time, the “Mother of All Bombs” was actually used. It was said that this was in retaliation for the killing of a member of the US Green Beret Special Forces. If this is correct, then the death of one soldier was answered with the use of the “Mother of all Bombs” against many others. I confess that I find it difficult to hide my outrage at the official name of the bomb; I haven’t read any critical remarks by our defence minister or the Bundeswehr.

Visser ‘t Hooft once said that Adam von Trott’s fear was that his vision of a free and democratic Europe would be limited because the interests of the US and Russia could not be ignored.

More than a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, international security is again threatened. It should be a situation for the UN, but the UN has failed and plays little role anymore in Europe. The Security Council is blocked by the power of veto of the old superpowers. What can be done? Is there even anything to be done?

I belong to an ecumenical group of friends – we would once have called it an East/West group – that two years ago proposed to draw up a new East/West memorandum in Germany. The first was published in 1965 by the EKD. It dealt with the situation of people displaced from the former eastern German territories that came under Polish and Soviet rule after the Second World War, and with our relationship to our eastern neighbours, especially Poland. This memorandum was one of the key impulses for the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt, and led to the recognition of the post‐war Oder‐Neisse border with Poland and an agreement between Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany.

The crisis of today cannot be compared to the situation of 52 years ago. But when the memorandum of 1965 stated that “a tenable future order of peace can only be achieved … with the sign of a new beginning,”2 this is also the case for our new memorandum.

We need a new beginning, because we need to stop equating Europe with the European Union. We have to learn to think about Europe in a new way.

The mounting crises between East and West, between NATO and Russia, and between the expansion of the EU and the annexation of Crimea are growing more and more acute. This requires new ways of securing peace. We are mistaken if we think we can set up a front of the good against a front of evil, and that we are those who good. To think about Europe in a new way means not to think about Europe without Russia. Dealing with political differences through confrontation threatens security and peace in Europe. In Europe we have to live with political differences. Our aim must be common security, not security against each other. A common peace order can never be developed against Europe nor in seeking to cut Russia off from us. We need to acknowledge the need for security of all European countries, the needs of Russia as much as its immediate neighbours. A Pan‐European peace order recognizes differences between societies and does not deny them. It is based on rational cooperation that does not need the schemata of friend and enemy. This would be one way of dealing with the estrangement and separation that has grown up. A concept of common security acknowledges the autonomy of the other party and looks to achieve peace through cooperation and balance of interests.

In the last ten sentences I have summarized the substance of the memorandum that was developed by our initiative. Is it anything like the vision that Adam von Trott had for Europe? It is still surprising to this day that, in the middle of the catastrophe that was engulfing him, von Trott was able to look and think beyond it. Together with Visser ‘t Hooft, he drew up a memorandum about his vision of a post‐war Europe. After the war, Visser ‘t Hooft would write: “The life and death question for Europe is, then, whether the continent can rediscover its own specific historical mission.”3 He gave his text the heading “We Call upon Europe.”

Much that we think of as being new is not actually new. To take one example: In February 1946, US diplomat George Kennan sent a telegram from Moscow to Washington in which he described Russian foreign policy as being forever characterized by fear of the outside world, a mixture of uncertainty and paranoia, leading Russia to try and undermine the West. According to Kennan, this was in the very nature of the Kremlin. But is this analysis really exclusive to 1946? It seems so very similar to our present situation. In this legendary telegram, George Kennan urgently advises his own government in Washington not to overlay its own policies determined by its own interests with moral categories. In the fight for power and influence, one cannot trust one’s own morality. And when reading sentences like this, I think of the US lies about the Iraq war, of drone attacks, of the surveillance of the National Security Administration – which cannot be reconciled with a political strategy that is said to be about fighting for democracy, civilization, and human rights.

Many people know the sentence credited to Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”4 There is a statement by Visser ‘t Hooft that expresses something similar but which sounds much more complicated: a sentence rejecting the separation of an individual’s faith from their responsibility for the world. When I heard this sentence for the first time – in 1968 during the WCC assembly in Uppsala – I became quite agitated, as did others who were there, such as Helmut Simon, once a judge at the German Federal Constitutional Court. Had we really understood what Visser ‘t Hooft had just said? What he said was “It must become clear that church members who deny in fact their responsibility for the needy in any part of the world are just as guilty of heresy as those who deny this or that article of faith.”5 To deny responsibility for the needy anywhere in the world is, according to Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, heresy.

I do not know of any other sentence that so challenges one’s own identity as a Christian as this one. It is much easier to forget it, push it aside, than to listen to it and to try to follow what it says. When I asked Visser ‘t Hooft much later whether he saw a connection between Bonhoeffer’s sentence and his own sentence, he answered briefly but clearly: “Yes, definitely.”

This was on 1 July 1985. It was a hot and humid summer day. We had made an appointment for a discussion at his house in the Chemin des Voirons in the Chêne‐Bougeries district of Geneva. The letterbox attached to the garden gate was spilling over; the telegram I had sent to announce my arrival was lying on the street. The house looked abandoned, but after I rang the doorbell, I looked through the window and saw a hand signalling that I should come in through the garden. Surrounded by books and magazines, Visser ‘t Hooft was lying, covered with a blanket, in an armchair. He found it difficult to breathe – his lung infection was made worse by heat and humidity. His skin looked like parchment; his body drained. But his eyes were lively and awake, full of interest, as always. I cleared away a tray with the remains of his breakfast. He told me he had prepared a text for our conversation to respond to a question that he was sure I would ask: “Why is the ecumenical movement not moving?”

Three days later, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft died, on a day that was even more hot and humid.

He answered the question he had posed himself in the following words:

This is a question that is often being asked at the moment, and answered almost always in a negative way. Some say the ecumenical movement has lost its real dynamic, and are disappointed about this. But there is also the other side, a time of difficult challenges, where the main question is no longer whether the churches are actually prepared to unite, but are they in a position to be able to unite with each other? … People say, we began too soon, we need to deal with the difficult problems in our own churches, and only then can we do something for the unity of the churches, thereby forgetting that these two aspects belong together. The biggest question is whether one says can we only have an ecumenical existence when our own internal problems have been resolved 100 percent, or whether we say, as I think we should, that we must deal with these difficult internal problems, but without losing sight of the greater objective of unity. A small remark from a different angle. In the ecumenical movement, giving is easier than receiving. Churches tell each other: “I have so much that I can give you,” instead of saying: “Please, I am really poor, I need your help.” The danger facing us at the moment is that we remain stuck in an ecumenism of words and everything is much too polite and friendly, but we no longer undertake any major concrete actions together. Even great papal journeys have sadly led to too little concrete action. But I’m not a thoroughgoing pessimist – things can change very quickly. Look at the theological area. It is extraordinary how theologians from the various churches are able to talk to each other, learn from one another, and make progress together. And in many local situations a lot has happened and people don’t realise this. Should we simply forget the ecumenical movement or should we not advance further?6


• 1 W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, Memoirs, 2nd ed. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1987), 157–58.
• 2 Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, Die Lage der Vertriebenen und das Verhältnis des deutschen Volkes zu seinen östlichen Nachbarn. Eine evangelische Denkschrift. Mit einem Vorwort von Präses D. Kurt Scharf, 5th ed. (Hanover: Verlag des Amtsblattes der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, 1965), 42, https://www.ekd.de/ekd_de/ds_doc/ostdenkschrift_1965.pdf.
• 3 “Wir rufen Europa,” in Die ganze Kirche für die ganze Welt, Hauptschriften vol. 1, ed. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft (Stuttgart/Berlin: Kreuz‐Verlag, 1967), 66.