Clemens Taeslar (June 25, 1887 – February 23, 1969), a German, was a poet, Goethe scholar, popular lecturer, and minister who embraced a liberal theology. Influenced by British and America Unitarians, he adopted the term ‘unitarian’ in the 1920s to describe his unique conception of the relationship between God and the world. In the 1930s, he crossed paths with the Nazi party, an entanglement he would later regret. Taesler endured World War Two, losing friends, relatives, and finally the building that housed his church in Frankfurt am Main. The congregation survived and rebuilt, however, and continues to promote “freedom in religion” to this day.
Taesler was born to a Catholic family in Breslau, Schlesien, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland). After completing secondary school with a focus on the humanities, he studied philosophy, religion, literature, and cultural history at German universities in Breslau, Muenchen, and Leipzig. After long and agonizing reflection, Taesler left the Catholic Church and joined the ranks of the non-dogmatic free religious.
Taesler married Alma Heidemann in 1911. He was called as pastor at the free religious community of Freiburg in Schlesien on August 20, 1911. A month later, the ‘Silesian Provincial Association’ (schlesischer Provinzialverband) asked him to extend his ministry to the congregations in Schweidnitz, Waldenburg, Striegau, Loewenberg and Leibnitz. From the fall of 1912 until 1916, Taesler also worked with the free religious community in Goerlitz, all the while attending to newly formed groups in Haynau, Gross Rosen and Kottbus.
As early as 1915, Clemens Taesler had experimented with the religious label ‘unitarian.’ He first encountered the term through his interactions with Rudolf Walbaum, pastor of the Rheinhessen religious community of Free Protestants in Alzey, who had come into contact with American Unitarians at the 1910 International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) conference.
For Walbaum and Taesler, the term ‘unitarian’ signaled more than a mere anti-trinitarianism. Rather, it connoted an anti-dualistic relationality between the world and the divine that, in contrast with monism, preserved difference in unitas, distinction in All-Unity ( All-Einheit). Emphasizing the polarity embedded within his metaphysical conception of Oneness, Dr. Herbert Todt once called Taesler’s theology ‘polarism.’ Religious scholars would probably employ the term panentheism. In panentheism the universe is embedded in the divine while pantheists hold the two to be coterminus. Either way, this theological re-casting of ‘unitarian’ was viewed by Taesler as a ‘re-poeticization’ of a since ‘totally loosened’ American designation.
In October 1918, Taesler joined Rev. Bremer Wilhelm Klauke, a ‘free theist’ and naturalistic monist with great admiration for the teachings of Jesus in the pulpit of the recently renamed Freireligioese Gemeinde in Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt congregation had first gathered on June 1, 1845, under the guidance of local businessman and prolific author Heribert Rau. It owed its formation to the German-catholic (Deutschkatholische) activism of Johannes Ronge.
Throughout the 1920s, Taesler fostered relationships with Unitarians in America and England, partnering, for example, with the Kensington congregation in London, England. In a 1926 letter to the retired American Unitarian minister Charles W. Wendte, Taesler hints at the well intentioned, yet financially-motivated nature of such affiliations: amidst staggering unemployment rates, he inquires as to whether it would be possible for the “500 Unitarian churches in America to each purchase a subscription to [his] journal (Freie Religioese Kultur) and thereby partially support [his] efforts” in Frankfurt.
Following the church’s 1922 departure from the ‘Coalition of Free Religious Congregations in Germany’ (Bund freireligioeser Gemeinden in Deutschland) out of fear that ‘freedom in religion’ was tending towards ‘freedom from religion,’ Taesler unofficially and parenthetically affixed the term ‘Unitarian’ to the title of the Frankfurt congregation. Further, he renamed the religious education program ‘free religious Unitarian instruction’ (freireligioes-unitarischer Unterricht), which drew heavily from German Romanticism. In 1923, Taesler authored an authoritative account of the character and aspirations of the Frankfurt congregation, which he published as 10 Foundational Ideas of Unitarian Religion (10 Grundgedanken Unitarischer Religion) in the late 1940s.
In 1925, Taesler incorporated his Unitarian vision into the bylaws of the church’s constitution and he renamed the congregational newsletter Free Religious Culture—a Unitarian Monthly for Religious Freedom, Tolerance and Human Dignity (Freie Religioese Kultur—unitarische Monatsschrift fuer religioese Freiheit, Duldsamkeit und Menschenwuerde). Two years later, he and Walbaum formed the ‘German Unitarian Association’ (Deutsche Unitarier-Bund—DUB), locating its headquarters in Frankfurt. Years later in 1948, Taesler formally renamed the church ‘Unitarian Free Religious Community Frankfurt am Main, founded 1845’ (Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde Framkfurt/M., gegruendet 1845), a move that was probably long overdue.
Taesler’s activity between 1933 and 1945 remains shrouded in dubious post-war alibis and unverifiable personal testimony. Documentation is scant. According to a 1993 seminar arranged by Manuel Toegel, pastor emeritus of the Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde in Frankfurt, Taesler made difficult ‘compromises’ during the Nazi period to maintain his church’s ongoing operation. Most notably, on March 30, 1939, Taesler stripped non-Aryan members of their voting rights, but reportedly permitted them to continue to attend church services. In an interview on October 19, 1993, a Mr. H. testified that his mother, a Jew (Volljude in Nazi terminology), considered herself a ‘full member’ of the church despite Taesler’s legal action. It should be noted that Taesler’s involvement with the social democrats in Westerwald, Germany and with the Freemasons in Frankfurt and Breslau would have aroused suspicion by Nazi authorities. In post-war hindsight, Taesler writes: propagandist Dr. Schneider “was informed about everything . . . [and] I was hunted from office to office.”
Nevertheless, Taesler joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) on May 1, 1933, a day remembered for a groundswell in popular enthusiasm and mass enlistment. According to his post-war testimony, Taesler did so “out of concern for my entirely dependent congregation, whose disintegration one had to fear.” Taesler was given a temporary NSDAP membership card, which was not unusual for Lutheran or free religious pastors at that time. It’s believed that Nazi officials withdrew Taesler’s preliminary admission to the party in the summer of 1936. Throughout the Nazi period, Taesler claims to have offered pastoral care and emigration assistance to his Jewish and social-democratic parishioners utilizing relationships he had forged with Unitarian scholar James Luther Adams in Chicago, Illinois and with British Unitarians. Of course, prior to the German government’s 1941 shift towards forced deportation, such behavior was in line with Nazi policy and common among German pastors. In sermons delivered in the early 1940s, Taesler intermittently employed heightened nationalistic and anti-Jewish rhetoric. For example, in a 1940 confirmation speech entitled ‘Our German Free Religion as Disposition and Action’ (Unsere deutsche freie Religion als Gesinnung und Tat), Taesler exhorted the young members to strive for the God-human idea (Gottmenschen-Idee) of self-perfection, which was entirely foreign to Judaism and verifiably of Aryan origin.
James Luther Adams, who visited and worshipped with Taesler in 1938 and later in 1952, describes him as “an ambiguous German,” who was “deeply affected and consequently changed by Nazism.” In a post-war letter to Reverend Edward A. Cahill dated December 10, 1948, Adams recalled how “Mr. Taesler wore the largest Swastika button in his lapel which I ever saw in Germany.” According to Adams, other liberal pastors in the established churches expressed embarrassment about Taesler ‘s ‘collaboration.’ One explanation for his early ‘enthusiastic’ support for Hitler was the Nazi regime’s offer of a long-desired position as a religious educator in the public school system, theretofore restricted to clergy associated with the state churches. Further, in his memoir Not Without Dust and Heat (1995), Adams notes Taesler’s depiction of Hermann Goering, Joseph Paul Goebbels, and Alfred Rosenberg as “saints of the new German Christianity.” Interestingly, in a letter to James Luther Adams dated August 4, 1946, Taesler atones for “the immense guilt [that] has come over our German nation, induced by a swindler with his complices [sic] who ruined a whole nation.” Concluding the correspondence, Taesler pleads: “might the beautiful confidence which united men of the same religious breed beyond the borders of nationality return!”
Taesler’s family was deeply affected by the Second World War. Whereas his second son, who served as a soldier for six years, managed to survive the conflict and return home, Taesler’s oldest son went missing. Sigurd, the second son, went on to pastor the Frankfurt church after his father’s retirement. Further, Taesler’s oldest daughter was widowed, when Russian forces shot down her husband. His middle two daughters also left during this period, leaving his fourth and youngest daughter at home. Following the death of his first wife, Alma Heidemann, he married one of her close friends, Ida Henni Fresia in 1939.
On March 24, 1944, the parish hall in the Grosser Kornmarkt, which dated back to 1892, burned to the ground during an air raid on Frankfurt. Consequently, the congregation gathered in Taesler’s apartment until August 31, 1947, when it relocated to the Hoch Conservatory on Eschersheimer Landstraße. Thirteen years later, on July 3, 1960, Taesler hallowed the new sanctuary located at Fischerfeldstraße 16 in Frankfurt am Main.
During his forty-four year tenure at the Frankfurt church, Taesler took part in numerous religious, philosophical and literary discussions on local and national syndicated radio broadcasts for the Frankfurter Rundfunk and Bredow-Rundfunkhochschule networks. His reputation spread rapidly throughout Germany as a result of the over 900 Goethe lectures he offered. This led to his participation in the municipal 1932 Goethe-year task force. Further, Taesler spoke over 2500 times at secondary schools, Masonic lodges and local organizations. Throughout his career in Frankfurt, he also catered to the communities in Ober-Ingelheim and Oberstein-Idar. From 1925 to 1944, Taesler worked with the Nordhausen congregation. Occasionally, the churches in Krofdorf and Neu-Isenburg, as well as in Offenbach (between 1934 and 1935), called on his guidance and support. As this extensive list of ministerial commitments indicates, Taesler preached at almost every free religious community in Germany. After the Second World War, Taesler conducted worship services, religious ceremonies and lectures throughout the greater Frankfurt area. As a result, the Frankfurt church established branches (Zweiggemeinde) nearby in Bad Homburg, Buedingen, Darmstadt, Giessen, Kronberg and Oberursel.
Theologically, Taesler struck a compromise between dogmatic religious expression on the one hand, and the strict materialism of other free religious communities on the other. He yearned for an unattainable unity with God, recognizing a divine spark within every human being. This spiritual journey was to be guided by freedom of belief, spirit and conscience (Glaubens-, Geistes- und Gewissensfreiheit).
This led Taesler to posit an ‘indestructible ground of being in us,’ which he denoted as a belief in immortality (Unsterblishkeitsglauben). In one of his more widely published poems entitled ‘Between the Gates of Eternity’ (Zwischen den Toren der Ewigkeit), Taesler calls humanity towards untiring ascension by developing the freedom of one’s soul, since humanity lives “Only a brief span of time/ Between the gates of eternity.” Fearing religion’s degeneration into egotism and arrogance (Grossmannssucht und Kraftduenkel), he tempered reason with an insistence on reverence—”in us, beside, under and above us,” —reverence for God and for human dignity. Further, Taesler sought tolerance and solidarity, insisting that individual well-being was bound to the well-being of the collective. As such, the human ideal did not demand self-sacrifice for the community, but rather a “swelling in(to) humanity” (ein Aufgehen in der Menschheit). Taesler advocated a ‘heart-religiosity’ that necessarily informed ethical praxis. In an article published in Free Religious Culture (1927), Taesler notes: “free religion sets one affirmation above all others: the affirmation of religion, that is, of the belief in one all-pervasive, eternal, spiritual power and thus in the meaning of life. But this avowal must lead to action.”
In attendance at the Thirteenth World Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) in Amsterdam in June, 1949, Taesler witnessed the formal affiliation of the ‘German Unitarian Association’ (DUB) with the IARF. Albert Schweitzer, the German theologian who spent the war years in Africa as a medical missionary was afforded honorary membership to both the IARF and the DUB. It was the American Unitarian Charles Rhind Joy who had first visited Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon in 1947 and later translated eight of his books for publication by the American Unitarian Association’s Beacon Press.
Ida Henni Fresia, Taesler’s second wife passed away in 1956. In 1961 he celebrated his ‘golden pastor-anniversary.’ The following year at age seventy-five, he presided over his last worship service and retired.
The main repository of Taesler’s letters, papers, and manuscripts is the Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde in Frankfurt am Main, Germany—the church’s ‘Wednesday Circle’ (Mittwochkreis) assembled four volumes of Taesler’s documents in 1987. Other material is held in library collections throughout Germany, in particular: die wissenschaftliche Stadtbibliothek in Mainz, Germany and die bayerische Stadtbibliothek and die deutsche Nationalbibliothek in Frankfurt, Germany. Taesler published his poetry in collections entitled Freireligiöse Lieder und Sprüche (1912), Zwischen den Toren der Ewigkeit (1919), Freier Geist und Glaube (1923), and Unter dem Lichte der Sonne (1958). Harvard Divinity School holds a copy of his 10 Grundgedanken Unitarischer Religion (1949), as well as correspondence between Taesler and Charles William Wendte. Syracuse University holds the letters between Taesler and James Luther Adams. Additionally, Taesler’s reflections can be found in numerous religious publications: Der Freireligioese (1913-1916), Freie Religioese Kultur (1925-1927), and Deutsche Glaubensfreiheit and the Unitarisches Mitteilungsblatt (since 1948). Manuel Toegel’s 1993 seminar Das Wirken Clemens Taesler in schwerer Zeit includes a partial post-war memoir of Taesler’s actions between 1933 and 1945.
Article by Erik Martinez Resly
Posted May 15, 2013