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Workshop: Politics, Science and Religion. French and Germans in the Levant (19th and 20th Centuries)

Organized by the German Historical Institute of Paris, Monday, December 3, 2001
Dominique Trimbur
p. 107-111

Texte intégral

1With current events marked by the clash of civilizations, it is worth taking a closer look at the history of the supposedly unavoidable conflict between West and East.

2The Levant, the eastern part of the Mediterranean, has long been under the direct or indirect influence of the great powers. Although today the country most cited for its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs is the USA, Europe has never ceased to manifest its own interests in the region. The current joint European effort, at times fraught with difficulties, is grounded on a poorly understood heritage: an extensive and varied presence, mainly in Palestine, which began in the 1840s and remained particularly strong until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Although the number of organizations representing this presence (religious institutions of all types, representing various denominations) has remained stable to this day, on the whole their political or scientific clout that contributed directly to rivalries among the powers is now a thing of the past.

3Clearly it is worth shedding light on certain traditions to better acknowledge the slow, delicate but very real encounter between East and West, in its multiple facets. To do so, albeit partially, the workshop Politics, Science and Religion: French and Germans in the Levant (19th and 20th Centuries) was divided into two parts.

4The morning was devoted to a historical overview and the presentation of illustrative cases. To provide a general picture of the region for this era, Dominique Trimbur, (then French fellow of the German Historical Institute, Paris) presented a historical overview of the Levant from 1840 to1948. This long century was marked by the arrival of the great powers of the time: consulates were opened (in particular in Palestine starting in the early 1840s) and religious institutions (namely charitable ones, of all denominations, even a Anglo-Prussian bishopric in Jerusalem). The rivalry between these powers, each of which had a fairly definite idea of the future of the region, ended, by the end of the 19th century, with a distribution of zones of influence. The partitioning of the ‘sick man of Europe’ resulted in spheres of economic interest, but also in protectorates of local groups. France assumed the protection of Catholics and Christians recognizing Rome, Great Britain associated itself with Protestants and Jews, and Russia involved itself with the Orthodox although this arrangement was challenged by the rival powers. Italy was interested in garnering some dominion of its own as regards the Catholics; Austria-Hungary had eyes on the Catholics and the Jews, and Germany’s main interest was Protestants and Jews. This arrangement – initially a virtual one since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was not yet in the making – resulted in concrete steps in World War I. Whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary, who were allies of Turkey, could envisage a greater presence during the conflict, they were expelled from the region after the Ottoman defeat. France and Great Britain reached an agreement during the war to divide up the region – which was accomplished gradually, and arduously, between 1917 (capture of Jerusalem) and 1922 (final drawing-up of the League of Nations mandate.)

5The next period was the outcome of deeply-rooted movements that had emerged over the course of the 19th century and were brought to the fore during WWI. The local populations, the clients of the great powers, developed their national identities, and the League of Nations mandates system promised (as did the Entente countries) that the aims of these movements would be achieved. This was not always compatible with the proto-colonialist ideas of the great powers involved or to the liking of the local, competing, populations. The period between 1922 and 1948 was one of increased demands from the different sides, with increased violence, numerous incidents, repression on the part of the tutelary powers, but also the obligation to fulfill certain commitments. Although France, which was interested in remaining in the Middle East, was able to reach agreements with the Syrians and the Lebanese and grant them, nolens volens, their independence, Great Britain had to adjust the promises it had made pell-mell. Whereas the Second World War was generally synonymous with a calming of tensions, the end of the war let claims surface once again. 1946 was the year of the dearly acquired independence in Syria-Lebanon and was also a year of growing aggressiveness towards the British mandate authorities in Palestine. This prompted Paris to leave the region and London to do likewise, abandoning the fate of the region to the United Nations, and, in fine, to the local populations. The Jews proclaimed the independence of Israel in May 1948 and the Arab nations immediately attacked the young state, and a new spiral of violence began.

6This is the framework in which the activities and the rivalries between the powers must be set, as illustrated primarily by religious institutions mostly founded in the mid- 19th century.

7In his lecture, “French Lazarists in Damascus and in Germany from the visit of Wilhelm II (1898) to 1914”, Jerome Bocquet (Ph.D. student, Paris IV-Sorbonne) presented the case of a congregation established in both Palestine and Syria. His study reveals a number of interesting features. The school set up in Damascus by the congregation was the perfect rendering of a Catholic mission and a French one: it was run by monks, and was also an elitist institution teaching in French and disseminating the civilizing values of France (versus German-British Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy). This gave the local residents the ability to gradually become autonomous, fighting both against and for the national Syrian awakening. Unbeknownst to it, the institution was training the future local elite. In this sense it made them more dependent on the French spirit when countering the Ottoman presence; but it also made them more independent and inevitably turned them against any foreign power, leading directly to the post Syrian statehood situation (when in the name of national revival, the institution was nationalized in 1967.) Furthermore, the Lazarists in the Middle East differed considerably. They were extremely French in Syria, were limited there to action in support of France, and the monks cut themselves off from local realities. In Palestine the Lazarists had a German tonality, and their knowledge of Arabic enabled more contacts locally. These divergences led inevitably to internal strife within the congregation when the Germans were suspected of pan-Germanism at the time of the visit of Wilhelm II to the Orient. But this divisiveness also emerged among the French themselves when a difficult choice needed to be made between Gaullists and Petainists in 1940-41.

8Catholic and French features also played an important role in the talk by Bertrand Lamure (Ph.D. student, Centre André Latreille, Lyon 2), who spoke on “French Pilgrimages in Palestine in the 19th century, Catholic and Patriotic Crusade”. Along with the rediscovery of the Holy Land, these caravans were the modern and pacific version of the ancient crusades. Starting in 1853, they brought lay people to Palestine but above all many clergymen (some of whom decided to remain in Palestine). Led by the Assumptionists, starting in 1882, pilgrimages developed considerably with the building of a hostel and the number of French pilgrims rose considerably, bringing the French banner to the Holy Land. Their prayers, however, extended beyond the borders of the Holy Land. In fact, their goal was not only to make the dream a new Frankish realm come true, and to dominate other countries and denominations. At a time when French anti-clericalism was on the rise (1880- expulsion of clergy; 1901-1904, anti-religious legislation; 1904: cessation of ties between France and the Holy See; 1905 –separation of church and state) their thoughts were also turned to the restoration of a Catholic order in France as well. For France as well as for the other countries involved in pilgrimages, 1914 put an end to what can be termed the ‘golden age’ of pilgrimages.

9The discussion on the German and Protestant features was led by Markus Kirchhoff (Ph.D. student, Simon-Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture, Leipzig University) through his leture on “Protestant Palestinology in the 19th and the Early 20th century – the Role of the Deutscher Palestina-Verein.” In contrast to the German Lazarist presence in Palestine, the German Protestants appeared to plunge more into local life than some French monks, for example. However, their plunge was a scientific one. The Deutscher-Palestina-Verein was the logical outcome of a historical and scientific movement: the rediscovery of the Holy Land, but also the Protestant scientific rigor which did not accept the Catholic contributions, considered by the Protestant scientists to be based on legends and pseudo-scientific. This was the orientation of this private organization that was linked directly to the highest German political spheres. The initial motivation of the Verein was parallel and consecutive to the independence of Greece. Because philo-Hellenism of the time was based for the most part on Homer, love of Palestine, it was reasoned, should be based on the Bible. However the use of the Bible should be scientific, and piety should go hand-in-hand with actual topography. Similar to the work of the British Palestine Exploration Fund, Palestine was thus given a scientific thrust, in particular through the making of highly accurate maps. One of the most interesting later outcomes of the Deutscher Palestina-Verein is the modern day use of this information. Associated with a Christian approach to the Bible and to Palestine, with no real political involvement, these data were not only accepted by observant Jews but also by the Zionists. Eloquent proof is provided by the use –stricto senso- of maps drawn by the Deutscher Palestina-Verein, simply with a translation into modern Hebrew of place-names.

10Roland Löffler (Ph.D. student at the University of Marburg) reported on “A German Protestant Institution on Jerusalem: The Syrian Orphanage of the Schneller Family”  A comparison with a Catholic and French institution like the Lazarist seminary in Damascus is obviously important and interesting. The founding of the orphanage corresponded to growing Western interest in the Levant in the Protestant and German version. After the Anglo-Prussian bishopric, the goal was to develop a network of institutions reaching out directly to the local populations. Johann Ludwig Schneller was the typical example of the Protestant missionary of the mid 19th century: a troubled adolescence, hesitations in choice of vocation, achievements confronted with local problems. It was a local event, the massacre of Lebanese Christians in 1860, which gave meaning to Schneller’s mission: from that point on, his activities were focused on the care and education of Syrian orphans. Famous in particular for its career training, the orphanage also prepared the most gifted for the --Protestant --American University in Beirut. Privileged as the minority element, in contrast to the Lazarists or the Assumptionists mentioned earlier, the members of the Syrian orphanage did not appear to perceive their environment as a source of danger. They adapted well to the presence of other institutions of this type and were able without too many problems to overcome the aftermath of WWI. However, like the Catholic missions, the Schneller establishment was also a reproduction on a smaller scale of its home country and its political developments: deeply attached to imperial Germany, the Schnellers had great difficulty accepting the coming of the Weimar Republic. They strongly rejected socialism, rooted in particular in the teachers their success forced them to hire, and partly present in National-Socalism. However, out of realism or ideological stance, they aligned themselves with the greater part of the Germans in Palestine by joining the local branch of the NSDAP-AO. Their loyalty to a traditional Germany did not however undermine their faithfulness to a tolerant Protestanism as incarnated by the German Confessional Church (opposed to National-Socialism). However their attachment to Germany was the reason for their expulsion and the decision of the Schnellers not to return to Palestine after 1945. Today the institution no longer exists, but the conscientious spirit of the Schneller house still remains among its former occupants.

11In the afternoon, the workshop expanded on issues presented in the morning. The main topic was “Europe in the Levant – Encounters, Reception, Legacies – New Contributions to Political, Religious and Scientific History”. The sessions were designed to explore additional facets and to delve deeper into the studies mentioned above.

12Broadening the discussion led to the mention of cases that had only been briefly cited or overlooked in the presentation session. Barabara Haider (Ph.D. student Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna) presented the Austrian case. Very similar to the French case in spirit (Catholic, highly organized pilgrimages with both a domestic and foreign impact) it differed because of Viennese competition with the French presence in the Holy Land. Philippe Boukara (Paris) provided greater detail on the French Jewish aspects of the French contribution to the rediscovery of the Holy Land (in particular through the Alliance Israelite Universelle). The Alliance’s charitable activities associated with the civilizing French mission which had its counterpart in Germany in the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden under the Reich and the Weimar Republic (as Professor Francois-Georges Dreyfus of Paris pointed out). The Russian case, which needs a neutral presentation to evaluate Western perceptions, (namely suspicions of a considerable desire to weigh on the future of the region) has not been investigated further for the moment. It was also interesting to hear about the French religious presence in another region: Bulgaria. Alain Fleury (University of Orleans) showed the close involvement in the political and religious affairs of this country on the part of the French Assumptionists, in issues that differed considerably from their counterparts in Palestine.

13Beyond the parallels and possible comparisons on the basis of specific points, the foundations for theorization were laid down. On the basis of comments by Walter Laqueur published shortly before the workshop concerning the failure of American Orientalism because of its over-reliance on Edward Said’s inflammatory works, it was indeed valuable to return to the sources: what was the contribution of the European presences in the Levant as regards exchanges between East and West? What can be learned from studying them? What was the validity of the observations made in the Levant by these missionaries? Do they really advance our knowledge of the East – their primary goal? Or rather do they contribute to a better understanding of the missions themselves, a religious knowledge tightly linked to proto-colonial politics and science?

14All in all, the workshop indeed fulfilled several objectives: a transnational bibliographical review; an overview of the current state of the art in research and its new directions, the possibility for young researchers from different backgrounds and fields of interest to meet – all of whom are working on the same region on similar subjects and using approaches which are grosso modo comparable. This helped shed light on the similarity of the results obtained but also on the difference which still at times exists between perception and reception, whether involving the divergent contributions of actors/observers of the time, but also the differences between schools of thought and different countries. This meeting prompted greater exchanges of knowledge and methods on the Franco-German level, but also on a European scale. As a first step in this direction, it should in the long run enable contributions to the history of the European presence in the Middle East, through a study of its methods, its reception, and the legacy of this presence, from the political, scientific and religious points of view. It should thus help better clarify the outcomes of the different enterprises described, in their tight interplay with a-priori distinct events where politics, science and religion intertwine in the encounter and confrontation between worlds.

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Dominique Trimbur, « Workshop: Politics, Science and Religion. French and Germans in the Levant (19th and 20th Centuries) », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 11 | 2002, 107-111.

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Dominique Trimbur, « Workshop: Politics, Science and Religion. French and Germans in the Levant (19th and 20th Centuries) », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [En ligne], 11 | 2002, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2007, Consulté le 27 janvier 2022. URL :

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