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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and Politics: A public history, as seen through the New York Times 1937-1961

Paul Tillich’s involvement in the American political scene can be roughly broken up into three distinct phases. The first and shortest phase represents his involvement with the pre-World War II German refugee community in both politics and the arts. During the latter half of the 1930s Tillich became involved with the various cultural, artistic, academic, and political groups being formed by his fellow German refugees. These early years saw Tillich primarily concerned with politically condemning the actions of his homeland[1], while promoting German culture and the arts in America.[2]

The second phase of his American political life came during the tumultuous years of the Second World War. His political involvement necessarily became more intense during this period, due to the pressure felt by German refugees and political “left-wingers” (two categories that often overlapped) to condemn the fascist threat in Europe and fight it by any means necessary. In 1941, Tillich, along with fellow theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others, helped draw up the Union for Democratic Action as a means to call “liberals and Democrats, socialists and other radicals” to the fight against fascism at home and abroad.[3] Such a move was seen as breaking with the traditionally pacifist stance taken by similar liberal organizations. The union called for immediate action to be taken against the threat of a colonialist Third Reich and its Japanese ally, both on behalf of the democratic countries they sought to colonize and America, which they believed would be driven into a “permanent war economy, with grave consequences to democracy.” Members of the Union for Democratic Action were concerned with implementing a number of socialist reforms in an attempt to preserve the liberties of citizens during wartime and afterwards.

By 1944, Tillich was the most prominent refugee figure to be active in the wartime political scene. With the sponsorship of Niebuhr and other Americans, Tillich helped form the Council for a Democratic Germany, a German refugee organization which sought to “help promote establishment of a democratic order in Germany and facilitate constructive relations between a renovated German Reich and the world.”[4] Tillich served as the provisional (and sole) chairman of this council, which was comprised of a wide range of German political and cultural activists. The council’s overall goal was to clear the German people of Nazi influence, ensure the political unity of Germany during the post-war period, and to avoid the kind of economic and political pressure that was imposed on Germany after the First World War, which was seen by many to have planted the seeds for radical fascism and WWII. The council was short lived, however, due to internal conflict among members with differing political stances and the eventual direction taken by the Allies with regard to Germany (e.g. splitting Germany along Capitalist and Communist lines, requiring unconditional surrender, etc.).

The third phase of Tillich’s involvement in politics is marked by his status as a public intellectual and his general popularity in America during the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1950s, for instance, Tillich can be seen as a theo-political thinker, subtly backing his socialist political stance with a public theology of equality and social salvation.[5] His unwavering stance against nuclear weapons found criticism among those who believed them to be the only deterrent to Soviet conquest, yet he remained steadfast in his conviction against their use. He even went so far as to criticize President John F. Kennedy’s use of the threat of nuclear weapons.[6] [7]



[1]  “University in Exile Marks Anniversary,” New York Times, 14 April 1937, p. 20.

[2]  “Exiles from Reich Plan Fair Exhibit,” New York Times, 1 May 1938, p. 41.

[3]  “Ex-Pacifists Favor War if Necessary,” New York Times, 29 April 1941, p. 9.

[4]  “Council for Democratic Germany formed by Refugee Leaders Here,” New York Times, 3 May 1944, p. 10.

[5]  “Inequality Found Fact of Existence,” New York Times, 17 March 1958, p. 18.

[6]  “Kennedy in the Middle on German Debate,” New York Times, 25 October 1961, p. 36.

[7]  One last interesting fact, though it barely relates to this conversation: Tillich’s niece was the wife of the Mayor of West Berlin, Klaus Schütz (from a 1968 NYT article on the newly elected official).

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