Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Karla Poewe Interview

Karla Poewe is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Calgary. She has interests in not only anthropology, but also global-local cultures, ethnography, religious movements, and new religions as they relate to National Socialism. She is the author of a number of articles that have appeared in refereed journals, and is the author or co-author of a number of books. Some of her books include Reflections of a Woman Anthropologist: No Hiding Place (Academic Press, 1982), written under the pseudonym Manda Cesara; two volumes on new religions that she co-authored with her husband, Irving Hexham, including New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred (Westview Press, 1997); Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture (University of South Carolina Press, 1994) which she edited; and her most recent book, New Religions and the Nazis (Routledge Press, 2006).

Morehead's Musings: Karla, thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview, even if your husband, Irving Hexham, volunteered you! Can you share some of your background with us? Where did you grow up and what is your educational background?

Karla Poewe: I was born in Königsberg, East Prussia--a town that is now Russian and called Kaliningrad. Since we fled the bombing of 1944, I grew up in Saxony from which my clever mother fled with us to the British Zone in 1948. So I grew up in a town called Buxtehude near Hamburg until the beginning of 1955 when we immigrated to Canada. I have a B.A. (Honours) from the University of Toronto and my Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.

MM: How has your perspective as an anthropologist shaped your understanding of religions?

Poewe: Back in the 19th century, missionaries, especially Berlin missionaries and some outstanding British ones, who were superb anthropologists and made an effort to learn the local languages wrote fascinating narratives about the religions of diverse peoples. Anthropologists developed this tradition further; they try to understand a religion empathetically and from the inside, as far as that is possible, before they conceptualize and criticize it.

MM: Is anthropology a helpful, perhaps even necessary perspective to consider in our understanding of religions as a compliment to theological and religious studies perspectives?

Poewe: Anthropology's strengths are its methods. These are empirical, based on fieldwork, participant observation, and archival research, as well as interpretation. Religious Studies is weak in methods and sometimes too enamored and trusting of what is told researchers by religious believers. One needs to observe and one also needs to have access to archival material in order to move beyond a naive belief that what is said is necessarily true or is their truth.

MM: Some of your research has looked at charismatic Christianity as a global culture. Can you summarize some of your thinking here?

Poewe: Charismatic Christianity arises in situations that are undergoing change where people find themselves in insecure political, social, and economic situations. These are situations that require new thought and behavior. Charismatic Christianity sanctions the use of the receptive imagination where rethinking, inspiration, and insights occur even for people who otherwise are hard-nosed scientists. Charismatics interpret these and other happenings as the workings of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual.

MM: Do you see charismatic Christianity as a significant facet of global Christianity in the twenty-first century?

Poewe: It is still important in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. As well, immigrants bring forms of Pentecostalism back to the West.

MM: Let's talk abour your new book, New Religions and the Nazis. What motivated you to write on this topic?

Poewe: Before one can explain the Holocaust (1941-1944) which occurred especially within the sphere of influence of National Socialism in East-Central Europe, that is, within the sphere of influence of Nazi Germany where National Socialism became the state's official worldview, indeed, religion, one has to understand how Germans came to accept or help form National Socialism in the first place. Being German born, although a Canadian citizen, I wanted to look at archived unpublished documents like letters, notes, brochures, written by Germans after WWI in their own language because these letters bring one close to how people experienced their lives and circumstances then and spoke about them. Most books offer interpretations of published books which themselves are interpretations. Usually these books are based on ideological and political preferences and causes. They have their place, but they do not let me get into the heads of the people who envisioned the secular new religion of fascism with its emphasis on the new man, sacred violence, conquest and total national regeneration.

MM: Can you share the thesis of the book with us?

Poewe: My book is deliberately not based on a thesis. It tells the story of the development of National Socialism with its roots in youth groups that were simultaneously religious and political in nature. It starts with the defeat of WWI and the bad peace of the Treaty of Versailles which created a sense of hopelessness and despair especially among the young and returned soldiers who then made it their goal to radically change society.

MM: What were some of the new religions that provided important ideas in the development of National Socialism, and why were these ideas significant?

Poewe: Generally these were religions that hearkened back to a pre-Christian Germanic past and emphasized German idealistic philosophy, Icelandic sagas, and generally Nordic mythologies and mythological thinking. They also saw themselves part of the Indo-Germanic tradition and thus included aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism. Some called themselves: The German Faith Movement, League of the German Knowledge of God, Working Group of Biocentric Research, The Coming Community, League of the Free Religious, German Faith Community of the German Christians, and so on. Together these groups and hundreds of reading circles, militias, Young German Leagues, diverse political parties of the Nationalistic Right, and popular nationalist writers turned the public mind from the Weimar democracy to a totalitarian regime based on National Socialism.

MM: In your book you mention certain forms of Neo-Paganism played a part in the National Socialism of Germany. Of course, National Socialism and racist ideologies are still to be found in Europe and the West today, and there also seems to be an increase of interest in certain expressions of Neo-Paganism with emphases on racial and ethnic emphases. How are some forms of Paganism connected to the New Right today?

Poewe: In Germany there was a direct connection between Hauer's German Faith Movement to Sigrid Hunke's German Unitarians to the German and French New Right.

MM: Why is consideration of the rise of Nazism in Germany so long ago of great importance for our cultural and religious reflection today?

Poewe: National Socialism like other forms of Fascism grew out of a post-WWI Europe, a situation of extreme crisis which encouraged visions of palingenesis or rebirth based on new biological strength and national regeneration. To these people, a rebirth meant liberating Europe from the Old Testament with its Jewish morality to enable the natural growth of an "organic morality" from within a more or less homogeneous people.

MM: Do you have any projects you are working on that we can look forward to?

Poewe: Wars tend to unleash ethnic hatred and cleansing. They do not end when they are supposed to end. Streams of refugees flee war torn areas. I was one of these refugees after 1944. Starting with research based on the destruction of my own family, I want to do broader research into the conditions of other refugees after the Second World War but possibly also in the present.

MM: Karla, thank you for your time and thoughts. We look forward to more interesting articles, lectures, and books from you in the future.


Jason said...

John, I have responded to this post on my own blog.

I'm quite disappointed that someone so committed to better relations between Christians and Pagans would promote Poewe's book uncritically, and would have no problem talking about the "occult" and "Neo-pagan" origins of National Socialism without even mentioning the large cultural and structural role Christianity played. Specifically the long and troubled history of European Christian antisemitism.

John W. Morehead said...

Jason, thank you for sharing your concerns. As I formulated this question for Karla I wondered whether it might be misunderstood and misconstrued by readers, particularly Pagans, as putting forward the notion that forms of Neo-Paganism at the time of the rise of National Socialism were responsible for its origins. I do not think this is the case, and on my reading of Poewe, it is not her take either. Surely there were a number of social, cultural, political, and religious forces at work, and perhaps we could agree that this included problematic forms of Christianity as well as Neo-Paganism at the time that were drawn upon and twisted in the ideology of National Socialism. Poewe provides the cultural and social structure discussion in her book, and I apologize for this lack of context in the interview.

I will send this comment along to Poewe for her response and posting on the blog to clarify and correct the matter. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I offer my apologies for this matter.