I just happened to read an article today in the International Herald Tribune entitled “Germany drops attempt to ban Scientology” (Nov. 21, 2008, no longer online, but see this 2011 International New York Times article: Book Excerpt: Inside Scientology). Having also just seen TV ads promoting the upcoming Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie, the whole Scientology-and-Cruise thing came flashing back. (Cruise had problems getting permission to film his Hitler assassination plot movie at certain historic locations in Berlin in 2007.)
For the uninitiated (i.e., most Americans) that may seem to be a rather odd headline, but the enmity between the German government and the so-called Church of Scientology has a long and bitter history that dates back to the 1950s when the American hack science-fiction writer Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) founded his “Dianetics”-based church. While most Americans know little about Scientology beyond the fact that Tom Cruise and John Travolta are two of its most famous members, Hubbard and Scientology have had a long list of run-ins with several European and other countries — even the U.S. government. In 1965 a London court ruled that Scientology is “dangerous, immoral, sinister and corrupt” and “has its real objective money and power for Mr. Hubbard.” In 1969, the Greek government labeled Hubbard and 200 of his disciples aboard a ship anchored off of the island of Corfu “undesirables.”
The list goes on, but few countries have attacked Scientology as vigorously as Germany. Scientology has had offices and members in Germany since 1970. There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 members today, but Scientology is not considered a religion or a church by the German government. So, when the German government admits defeat in its battle to get rid of the Church of Scientology, it’s a big deal.
I first wrote about Germany and Scientology for the German Way site in 1997. Among other things in Religion – Tom Cruise and Scientology in Germany, I wrote:
At first glance it may seem that this Scientology furor is new, but in fact the organization’s problems in Germany and the United States go back to the church’s founding in 1954. The US government has only reluctantly granted Hubbard’s Dianetics movement tax-exempt status — a benefit it does not enjoy in Germany. There Scientology has long been labeled a cult and accused of pressure tactics and brainwashing. The movement has not been without detractors in the US either. Scientology recently lost a lawsuit over a 1991 Time magazine cover story that termed the group a “cult of greed.” But Scientology’s troubles in the US are nothing compared to those in Germany.
On November 21, 2008 a government panel that included German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, announced that there was insufficient evidence of illegal unconstitutional activity. But officials also stated that German intelligence services would continue to monitor the group.
When I was living in Berlin I bought a copy of Schwarzbuch Scientology by Ursula Caberta (who heads the anti-Scientology working committee of Hamburg’s youth authority) because I was curious to know how she could fill up 200 pages with nothing but bad news about the cult. Honestly, I never got past page 41 of her book (I did skim other parts), but hers is only one of many recent anti-Scientology books in German. It’s almost like a genre in Germany: romance novels, biography, anti-Scientology tomes, etc.
Now you need to understand that I have virtually no sympathy for organized religion in general. And I’m very ecumenical: I dislike all the major and minor faiths, from Catholicism to Islam and beyond. I detest the very idea of missionaries having the arrogance to tell people in faraway lands that the religion they are peddling is the best and only true one. I was more or less raised a Unitarian, which is about as close as you can get to no religion without declaring yourself an outright atheist. But I think the German obsession with Scientology approaches being a religion of its own. For a nation of people who are generally so non-religious and full of so many non-church-going folks, this obsessing over a “cult” or a “sect” is a bit over the top.
Then I re-read another part of the earlier article I wrote:
Americans used to First Amendment religious and speech freedoms, even for unpopular views, forget that Germany is a democratic country with a past that has led it to set narrower limits on its citizens’ rights. When it comes to nationalistic excesses (read “extreme right, neo-Nazi”) and dictatorial threats to democratic government (read “Scientology”), Germany does not share American-style tolerance. It is illegal in Germany, for instance, to even simply display Nazi symbols. Additionally, the concept of separation of church and state is a foreign one in a country where the tax agency collects a “church tax“ (Kirchensteuer) for religious organizations. A recent court decision in predominantly Catholic Bavaria banning crucifixes in state-run classrooms was so unpopular, many Bavarians were ready to secede from Germany!
Germany is different. It has a different history and certainly a different attitude about the state and its relation to the people. It’s a democracy, but it’s the German version of democracy — with all its angst-ridden historical baggage. And I suppose being anti-Scientology isn’t really all that bad. I don’t think I could ever get into a “church” based on voodoo science-fiction philosophies and founded by a wife-beating cult leader.
Being against Scientology is not just a German thing:
• Operation Clambake – An anti-Scientology site by Andreas Heldal-Lund in Norway
• Religion in Germany – A German Way article on religion and related topics