What is “Ethnopathos” ?

The term “ethnopathos” from the title of the conference is rarely used and therefore some brief explanations might be appropriate at this point.

In 19th century Europe, terms such as “Volk”/”Volkstum” and race were common categories in the sciences dealing with people outside Europe. However, these distinctions were anything but clearly defined, and were valued differently depending on context and positions. One field in which this ordering thinking is particularly prominent is the conservative German demand for a distinction between “Volk” and “Nation”. The German national conservative politician, sociologist and publicist Max Hildebert Boehm (1891-1968) coined this term. For him, an “ethnopathetic” attitude opposes the relativisation of the concepts of Volk and Volkstum insofar as it arises from the ground of individualism. Boehm based his “theorisation on a multitude of sometimes rather poorly defined composites of the term ‘Volk’, derived primarily from the political ideas of German Romanticism and the anti-Napoleonic wars of liberation”.[1]

Interestingly, Protestant authors in the context of missiology took up both Boehm’s conceptual considerations and the creation of the term “ethnopathos” when dealing with the relationship between “church and people”, for example, the dissertation by the Dutch missiologist Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijks (1912-1975) from 1948, published in 1967.[2]

In this context, the ideological confrontation, which occupied both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany in the years 1935-37, with free-religious, völkisch-neopagan groups has to be mentioned.

The appearance of these socially rather marginal groups became explosive with the propagation of the religious accentuation of Germanness and various ideas of a form of religion suited to the German way by top National Socialist representatives, above all Alfred Rosenberg with his neo-pagan work Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the 20th Century), which appeared in constant new editions since 1930. In addition to the orientation towards a supposed Germanism, this also included the rejection of the “Near Eastern Semitic world of faith” or a conception of God defined as Jewish. Its orientation towards neopagan concepts of “blood” and “soil” was an implicit or explicit criticism of the churches and their teachings.[3]

Church representatives mostly reacted with rejection to the idea of a neo-pagan religion. In relation to the racial and nationalist statements that were not religiously absolutised, however, there was a wide range of differentiation-emphasising to integration-interested positioning. In the context of German missionary activity, a racially based concept of Volkstum had already emerged before the 1930s, both with regard to the indigenous peoples of Africa and to their own, German people. This differentiation included, among other things, an appreciation of indigenous languages and customs, but also the need to preach the mission in the respective mother tongue, again a very emotionally charged concept. Finally, this also led to the idea that Christianity should take on the task of “ennobling” the respective diversity of races and peoples, which was intended by God.

These elements corresponded to a conception of “people’s missionary work” which, with a certain ethnopathos, aimed at the completion of the ethnic structure. This concept of mission was opposed to the Western approach to mission as specifically German and in the sense of a Lutheranism perceived as national. In doing so, they invoked the relational scheme of nature and grace and the maxim of the church scholar Thomas Aquinas “Gratia non tollit, sed perficit naturam” [God’s grace does not eliminate nature, but rather perfects it].

The intention was to avoid equating Christianising and Europeanising, which meant a critique of colonialism and the unhindered spread of European civilisation, but especially a demarcation from the “Anglo-Saxon missionary method”, which was accused of equating Anglicising and Christianising. In the Nazi era, these distinctions and demarcations were still in place, but with the particular restriction that missionary work was precisely not intended to create equality among different people, but to avoid the influence of Europeanisation in missionary work, which was understood as harmful and levelling. The alleged racial differences were thus rather seen as willed by God, dated back to the “Tower of Babel” (Gen 11) and possibly even predicted to the eschatological “final kingdom of perfection”, i.e., ultimately, a continuation of discrimination in the hereafter, which is difficult to justify theologically.[4]

In this context, the ethnopathos can thus be understood as a view of one’s own and other people’ s belonging in the context of globalisation that was particularly effective in Germany and is based on the tradition of Romanticism. Fortunately, it must be noted that this attitude has been made obsolete by the course of history. At the 1938 World Missionary Conference in Tambaram, in South India, this exclusivist position met the religious diversity of the South Indian context. Here it became apparent that the power to define Christianity and mission was no longer unreservedly in the hands of European or North American theologians. Among many other exponents, e.g. from the Americas and from Africa, also some Indian theologians did not want to accept the brusque dismissal of European-influenced Christianity against other religions and pointed to Indian forms of Christian theology that were in dialogue with Indian religiosity. They called themselves the Madras Rethinking Group and pursued original new theological paths.[5]


Hoekendijk, Johannes Christiaan (1967): Kirche und Volk in der deutschen Missionswissenschaft. München: Kaiser (Theologische Bücherei : Neudrucke und Berichte aus dem 20. Jahrhundert, 35).

Prehn, Ulrich (2005): Die wechselnden Gesichter eines ‚Europa der Völker‘ im 20. Jahrhundert. Ethnopolitische Vorstellungen bei Max Hildebert Boehm, Eugen Lemberg und Guy Héraud. In: Heiko Kauffmann, Helmut Kellershohn und Jobst Paul (Hg.): Völkische Bande. Dekadenz und Wiedergeburt – Analysen rechter Ideologie. Münster: Unrast (Duisburger Institut für Sprach- und Sozialforschung: Edition DISS, 8), S. 123–157.

Prehn, Ulrich (2013): Max Hildebert Boehm. Radikales Ordnungsdenken vom Ersten Weltkrieg bis in die Bundesrepublik. 1. Aufl. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag (Hamburger Beiträge zur Sozial- und Zeitgeschichte, Band 51). Online verfügbar unter http://gbv.eblib.com/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=1420347.

Schendel, Gunther (2008): Die Missionsanstalt Herrmannsburg und der Nationalsozialismus. Der Weg einer lutherischen Milieuinstitution zwischen Weimarer Republik und Nachkriegszeit. Berlin: LIT (Quellen und Beiträge zur Geschichte der Herrmannsburger Mission und des ev.-luth. Missionswerkes in Niedersachsen, XVI).

Thambusamy, Samuel (2012): Rethinking Christianity Group. In: Roger E. Hedlund, Jesudas M. Athyal, Joshua Kalapati, Jessica Richard und Robert Eric Frykenberg (Hg.): The Oxford encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Online: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198073857.001.0001/acref-9780198073857-e-0835 .

[1] Prehn 2005: 130.

[2] Hoekendijk 1967. Verweise wie auch weitere Autoren bei Prehn 2013: 244, Anm. 469.

[3] Schendel 2008: 298-306.

[4] Schendel 2008: 330-337.

[5] Thambusamy 2012.