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,
while promoting German culture and the arts in America.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
“University in Exile Marks
Anniversary,” New York Times, 14 April
1937, p. 20.
“Exiles from Reich Plan
Fair Exhibit,” New York Times, 1 May
1938, p. 41.
“Ex-Pacifists Favor War if
Necessary,” New York Times, 29 April
1941, p. 9.
“Council for Democratic
Germany formed by Refugee Leaders Here,” New
York Times, 3 May 1944, p. 10.
“Inequality Found Fact of
Existence,” New York Times, 17 March
1958, p. 18.
“Kennedy in the Middle on
German Debate,” New York Times, 25
October 1961, p. 36.
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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