Work not alms: the Bethel Mission to East Africa and German protestant debates over Eugenics, 1880-1933

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Work not alms: the Bethel Mission to East Africa and German protestant debates over Eugenics, 1880-1933

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This dissertation examines the influence of Protestant missionaries in Africa on the development of Protestant poor relief policies in Germany during the period of 1850-1933. Specifically, it seeks to understand better how and why Protestants embraced eugenics during the early twentieth century. To this end it uses the famous Bethel institutions in Bielefeld as a case study. With both a foreign and domestic mission, Bethel provides the unique opportunity to study the interaction between the two in a single context. In Globalization and the Nation in Imperial Germany, Sebastian Conrad suggests that the Bethel missionaries were responsible for pushing the adoption of eugenic policies in Germany upon returning to Bielefeld after 1918. While Conrad's assertion that the foreign mission had an extensive influence on the development of Protestant social welfare policies, he misstates the role of the missionaries. Rather than advocating for the adoption of eugenic policies the Bethel missionaries formed the core pocket of opposition to eugenic ideas after 1918. Prior to WWI Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, a nationalist, conservative pastor and director of the famous Bethel institutions in Bielefeld developed a philosophy of poor relief that stressed a strong work ethic, notions of responsibility, the importance of familial structures, and a mixture of Protestantism and German nationalism. His philosophy drew heavily on the pioneering work of Johann Wichern, the founder of the Inner Mission and the methods used by Protestant missionaries to western Africa during the early nineteenth century. His efforts were a response to the fears of German Protestants in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848. They feared the potential impact of unemployed migrant workers on Germany's social and political stability. Living on the margins of society, Protestant reformers worried that they would become interested in radical ideologies like Communism and thus hostile to the church and the conservative monarchy. The foreign mission was central to the formation and development of Bodelschwingh's philosophy. Even before arriving at Bethel in 1872, he had made a practical attempt to articulate his ideas as a missionary in Paris among working class Germans. At Bethel Bodelschwingh took his ideas further by founding an actual worker colony. The colony, located outside the city and using a highly regimented lifestyle, stressed the same philosophy he had articulated in Paris. Only after the performance of physical labor would one receive assistance. These colonies, because of their perceived potential to transform marginalized, disaffected individuals into loyal and productive members of society, were wildly popular with Protestant reformers and the Monarchy and therefore received substantial support from the state and gradually spread across the country. Given Bodelschwingh's success with the Inner Mission, colonial authorities, hoping he could use the same philosophy in Africa to transform Africans into loyal and productive colonial subjects, offered him control over the fledgling Evangelische Mission nach Deutsch Ostafrika (EMDOA). Thus, the EMDOA operated according to the exact same philosophy as the community in Germany. As Bodelschwingh grew older, he gradually withdrew from the every day management of the community and focused his remaining efforts on building the mission in Africa. At Bethel, however, his philosophy came under assault. Modern, "scientific" ideas like eugenics made inroads at Bethel, and by the mid 1920s they heavily influenced the care the institution provided. As for the foreign mission, Conrad maintains that the missionaries using Bodelschwingh's philosophy made racial judgments about the ability of Africans to work. These attitudes, he suggests, caused the missionaries who returned to Bielefeld in 1918 to favor a more biological understanding of poverty, thus opening the door wide for the implementation of eugenic policies like sterilization. While Conrad is correct to assert that the returning missionaries were active participants in debates over social welfare in Germany after the war, his conclusion about their attitudes toward eugenics is incorrect. Rather, the missionaries returned from Africa in 1918 still devoted to Bodelschwingh's philosophy and were horrified to discover that Bethel's leadership was interested in adopting eugenic practices. Many of the missionaries transferred to Bethel's public relations center where they produced a steady stream of material that was highly critical of eugenic practices. Given their experience in Africa, which largely insulated them from the problems Bethel's leaders faced in Germany, the missionaries never experienced any challenges to their faith in Bodelschwingh's philosophy. Most notably, they never had to cope with the devastating food shortages that confronted those in Bielefeld during the war. Furthermore, these debates occur within the context of the professionalization of Bethel's medical staff, who increasingly supported eugenics. Thus the missionaries formed the one major pocket of resistance to eugenics at Bethel. Ultimately, at least in the case of the Bethel mission, the colonies were not always "laboratories of modernity," contrary to Hannah Arendt's argument in Origins of Totalitarianism. Instead, the returning missionaries served as a conservative, moderating voice in debates over the Protestant administration of social welfare. At the same time, the case of Bethel also shows the complexities of the colonial legacy in Germany, therefore requiring a more nuanced view of the relationship between Germany's colonial history and the racial policies of the Third Reich.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. December 2013. Major: History. Advisor: Eric D. Weitz. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 373 pages.

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Snyder, Edward N.. (2013). Work not alms: the Bethel Mission to East Africa and German protestant debates over Eugenics, 1880-1933. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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