Book Review: Danys, Miroslav 2016. Diakonie im Herzen Europas: Ursprünge, Entwicklungen und aktuelle Herausforderungen in West & Ost, neu betrachtet aus Anlass des Reformationsjubiläums

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Miroslav Danys (pastor; East European representative of the Lippische Landeskirche) is described as a missiological bridge builder between East and West (quote on the cover). He is a connoisseur of communism and an observer of developments after the political changes of the 1990s. Danys sees the future of diaconia (church lead social work) in a well-connected Europe. Only with the help of the church can such a social institution, which respects all people, be maintained.

His homeland is the Teschener Land with the city of the same name (Cieszyn), which he locates in Central Europe. This geographical area is placed in today’s Poland on the border with the Czech Republic. The main focus of his research is the church-community diaconia, both before, during and after the political change. He focuses primarily on the former GDR (former East-Germany), the part of Poland he knows, and the Czech Republic. The political will and the spirit of the times are closely related to the possibilities of development of church-community diaconia.

Danys begins with a retrospective. He looks at the person of Lorenzo Vallas (15th century), who, according to Danys, founded during the Reformation the social work in the late Middle Ages. His work was prepared by the Ultramontanes, who included disciples of Peter Valdes, the founder of the Waldensians. From the 11th-12th centuries, the medieval era of “early industrialization” led to the lower class of wage laborers. The specialized work attitude brought for a higher productivity in the context of the emerging early capitalism, but also forced this stratum of the population often into poverty and thus into social dependence. This was countered by the church-parish diaconia. Initiated by private individuals or church institutions, the model of Jesus’ martyrdom forms the practical and theological basis of social service to others (p. 8).

Dany’s gaze now turns to the territory of present-day Poland. From the 17th century it became a settlement area of German migrants from the West and Jewish pogrom refugees from the East (Russia). The German migrants brought with them Protestant thinking, the Bible and its liturgical aids. Using the example of Edmund Holtz, he describes the establishment of the Lutheran Deaconess Motherhouse movement, which developed from a home for persons with epilepsy and was established by Holtz in Lódź (p. 14). The Lutheran church was also able to develop similar diaconal structures in the Estonian-Latvian Baltic.

As an example, he presents the next historical strand of diaconal work in Poland at the Lutheran Epidemic House, now a hospital, in Warsaw. Founded in 1736 in a cemetery for dissidents, it became a care facility for Protestant sick or injured. After World War I, it opened its doors to all seeking help and became widely known (pp. 17-19). During World War II, it adjoined the Warsaw Ghetto and served as a place of refuge for a few Jewish ghetto refugees. It was completely destroyed in 1944 (p. 21).

Under communism, any public diaconia was nipped in the bud, since the state saw itself as the entity that provided for everyone. Church-community diakonia shifted to inner-church service to the needy. However, the scope for action was different in the various state entities, as the examples of the GDR (former East Germany), the Czechoslovak Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States teach us.

In the Czech Republic, the small eight-person deaconess ministry rose to fame in the early 19th century, as its fully trained nurses were one of the few institutions able to help many wounded war victims during World War I (pp. 63-64).

According to Danys, the communist party in the ČSR fell on particularly open ears, which crippled the church diaconia. Private property was almost completely banned, and the diaconia and churches were nationalized and thus run and paid for by the ideological enemy (p. 66). A 1956 study by Vlastimil Jaša describes the accompanying unsolved state problems in child and youth care, prostitution, the fight against alcoholism, the problem of divorces, abortions, childlessness and one-child marriages, and suicide. These were issues that had been concealed from the communist public. Taking up these grievances, after the fall of communism the deaconry was completely handed over into the hands of the Evangelical Church of the Bohemian Brethren (EKBB) (p. 74). The deaconesses had dissolved. The work is now focused on old people’s homes, the service to people with physical or mental limitations and therapeutic aids (p. 75). The church-community diaconia was now understood as a business enterprise in the social sector. In order to re-emphasize the ethical aspects of care, service and sacrifice, the diaconia was placed under a demanding charter in 1999.

In the Teschen Land (Poland), on the other hand, pietism led to an allegiance to the state and to simultaneous dissidents performing dissidentism (p. 85). Kulisz founded there in 1907 an institution called “Bethesda” (p. 89). The church-community diaconia became the expression of spiritual life in the whole region.

In the GDR, Poland and Hungary, diaconia was closely linked to church structures, which in turn could look to Western contacts and payments. Obviously, these relationships were the basis for better medical and nursing care than in other countries. The GDR in particular profited from these structures by using foreign capital to provide care.

After the fall of communism, the financial plight of the socialist countries became critical, especially for people with physical or mental limitations. The church and community structures in the countries discussed were able to address this need, even with Western personnel and financial assistance, and to develop their own diaconal structures.

Danys gives an excellent review and overview of the development of diaconia in Central Europe. Especially with regard to the missiological side of congregational building, disability studies and the church-congregational dealing with the “others” (otherness) in times of upheaval, his explanations offer helpful insights.


Diaconia ; disability studies ; disability ; disabled people ; church social services ; Poland ; Czechoslovakia