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Haddon and Hilary Willmer
“Changed for good – a Theologian family’s sabbatical year in Tübingen, 1973-4”
Martin Brecht, then Ephorat at the Stift, later Professor in Münster, spent a term around 1971, in Leeds, under the Leeds-Tübingen exchange, introducing us to Luther’s Heidelberg Dissertation. He and Louise were extremely kind to us when Hilary and I spent a year in Tübingen 1973-4. We took two children, Justin, nearly 4 and Lucy, as she then was, 6 months. When we came back to England, Lucy, confused by hearing two languages in a formative year, was not speaking at all; within a week after our return, she was uttering whole sentences; twenty years later, she graduated in Modern Languages, including German. Justin had a rough time: he could not see why the children in the street failed to understand his plain English. So, he was shy at the Kindgergarten until well after Christmas, but by the summer he was one of the boys, retreating to the boundary fence out of sight to torment Ameisen, and picking up Schwäbisch of a kind that shocked the German mothers in our circle who knew what he was saying. When John Wilkie, then Professor of German in Leeds, took tea with us just before the end of our year, Justin fearlessly corrected his German pronunciation. The day after we returned to Leeds, Justin’s German evaporated.

But Hilary and I have more lasting memories. She had made friends with Ruth, in the 1950s, on a wet holiday in the Schwarzwald; by 1973 Ruth had married Luitbert, an artist, one of five brothers who had come from the East leaving their Schloss and Fabrik behind. English families, as I knew them, seemed understated by comparison with the interlocking families we were taken into through Ruth and Luitbert. We had plenty to talk about for we had all been children in the War; we had all matured in the peace of the Cold War West; we all had to come to terms with a more complicated view of the USA, after Vietnam, and in the year of Nixon’s downfall, while students in Tübingen were giving the Dean, Jürgen Moltmann, trouble by their protests against the CIA’s action against Allende. And we were all young enough to enjoy beer in the garden, till late into the evening – the autumn of 1973 was beautiful. In later years, we have all got more worried about our health, and some of us even water their wine. But friendships go on.

I wanted to equip myself as a theologian. In a seminar on The Church in the DDR, led by Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz (who also later came to Leeds), I was ashamed that German undergraduates could argue with me in my language, while I stumbled around incomprehensibly in theirs – I still can’t speak German adequately, but at least I got to read it fluently. I spent the first month working through Otto Dibelius’ Das Jahrhundert der Kirche, at first using a dictionary every line and puzzling over sentences, even though the German of Dibelius, a great preacher, was never complicated enough for him to count as a great theologian, like Barth, for example. At the end of the book I was at home. Starting with Dibelius was a happy accident in my general plan of reading some of the less studied contemporaries of Bonhoeffer, in order to understand him in his German context. I wanted to do that to counter the unscholarly, often sensationalist, Anglo-American readings of Bonhoeffer, which exploited rather than understood him. I read a lot of Alfred Dedo Müller and Paul Schutz – strange people, still unknown in English, but obliquely illuminating for Bonhoeffer. I am sorry so few British students of Theology have German as there is so much they will never be able to enjoy or understand; it is a pity the proposal for a joint BA in Theology and German, tailored to give British Theology students a high competence in German, was not realised in Leeds.

I worked loosely in the great Klaus Scholder’s circle, got to know Gerhard Besier, then his Assistent, now a leading scholar in recent church history. They took me to a conference marking the fortieth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, where I met Martin Niemöller and Eberhard Bethge. I went to Berlin, an eerie journey on the train, to meet Heinrich Vogel, a considerable theologian, contemporary of Bonhoeffer’s, hymn-writer, and thorn in the flesh to Dibelius; and to read what Dibelius had written in newspapers in the 1920s. In these twelve months, I put together a store which twenty-five years of teaching has not exhausted. Bits of what I learnt have come out in unorthodox articles over the years.



Living in a German village was fascinating. When the pastor annoyed a powerful villager, he had a load of dung dumped on his front doorstep. I found I had to pay to be excused from serving in the village fire-brigade – when I said I would be quite happy to do my duty, I was refused, partly as an outsider, and also, because the Fire Brigade wanted my money to maintain the beer fund – or so we were told. We often walked across the fields to the Wurmlinger Kapelle, which we could see from Pfäffingen, and cooked Wurst on an open fire in the hills dotted with apple trees and stepped with vines. At one end of the village, some Turks had opened a restaurant – and were getting blamed when things went wrong.

In the winter there was snow, and news from England about the three-day week. Germany took the oil crisis in a serious sober way, no motoring on Sundays. To see England’s troubles from a comfortable German distance, changed my view of England for good. I spent this year in Germany in a happy culture shock. This was the start of my European education, which has now extended to Romania and Croatia.


Leichter Wortwitz ist im Schwäbischen nicht häufig. Eine Ausnahme:

Der katholische Theologe und spätere Bischof Hefele war ein Streiter gegen das Dogma von der Unfehlbarkeit, der Infallibilität des Papstes. Als er einmal zusammen mit seinem evangelischen Kollegen Weizsäcker aus der Universität in Tübingen kam und auf dem Glatteis auszugleiten drohte, faßte ihn Weizsäcker am Arm, entschuldigte sich aber sofort: “’s isch bloß wege dr Hinfallibilität.”

from: Thaddäus Troll, Deutschland deine Schwaben (1967)