“In the 1930s it was the Jews. Today it is the Scientologists.” So read a full-page open letter, published in the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 9, 1997, to then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Signed by 34 prominent figures in the entertainment industry—none of them Scientologists and many of them Jews—the letter went on to accuse the German government of “repeating the deplorable tactics” of Nazi Germany against the self-proclaimed religion started in 1952 by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard.
This initiative, endorsed by the likes of Goldie Hawn, Larry King, Dustin Hoffman, and Oliver Stone, was orchestrated not by the Church of Scientology but by Bertram Fields, lawyer to the sect’s most famous member, Tom Cruise. Yet it conformed to the Church’s campaign, started several years earlier, to brand modern Germany as akin to the Third Reich. A Scientology-sponsored ad that ran on Sept. 29, 1994, in the Washington Post, for instance, declared that 50 years after the Holocaust “neo-Nazi extremism is on the march in a reunited Germany.” In 1996, a Scientology advertisement in the New York Times stated, “You may wonder why German officials discriminate against Scientologists. There is no legitimate reason but then there was none that justified the persecution of the Jewish people either.”
By likening the German government’s treatment of Scientologists to Nazi barbarism, the Church of Scientology didn’t just draw a vulgar comparison: It turned the country’s official anti-Scientology posture on its head. Since the Church established itself here in 1970, the German government has waged a long-running legal and political battle against it. The government makes its logic plain: Because of its history of Nazism, Germany believes it has an obligation to root out extremists, and not just those of a political flavor. In the eyes of most Germans, Scientology is nothing more than a cult with authoritarian designs on the country’s hard-won pluralistic democracy.
While several governments around the world have set up commissions to study Scientology in order to determine whether it qualifies as a religion, Germany broke new ground when, in 1992, the city of Hamburg set up a “Scientology Task Force” to monitor the group, assist members who have left the Church and are thus cut off from their families, and discourage citizens from joining it in the first place. (That office, which maintained a vast and extensive archive of official Scientology documents, many of them classified by the Church, was closed due to government budget cuts in 2010.)
The former head of the Task Force, Ursula Caberta, has labeled Cruise “an enemy of [the German] constitution” and has not so subtly likened the Church to the Third Reich, calling it a “totalitarian organization that seeks to control everybody else, a dictatorship.” Hers is a view that an overwhelming number of Germans seem to share: A 2007 poll found that 74 percent favor banning Scientology. The German equivalent of the FBI, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the Bundesamt für Verfassungshutz, or BfV), has been monitoring Scientology since 1997. On the BfV’s homepage, Scientology is listed alongside “Right-wing extremism,” “Islamism,” and “Espionage” as one of its focus areas. (The Hamburg government has even printed pamphlets warning about the dangers of Scientology in Turkish for the country’s sizable Turkish minority.)
Contrast this response to the attitude toward Scientology in the United States, where the Church, though largely seen as a celebrity curiosity, is a tax-exempt, legally recognized religious faith. When Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise two weeks ago, dozens of photographers were dispatched to stake out her exclusive Chelsea apartment building; lawyers took to the airwaves predicting the details of their settlement; and tabloids asked what would happen to Suri, the couple’s 6-year-old daughter. Hovering only in the background has been the Church of Scientology, whose role in the breakup remains as opaque as the SUV-driving stalkers shadowing Holmes in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, in Germany, it is Scientology that has dominated the headlines. “Life in the Tom-Cruise-Cult: A Berlin mother and her son report how they fell into the clutches of the dangerous organization,” shouted a recent front page of B.Z., a popular tabloid in the country’s capital. The German press has portrayed the Church, uniformly, as an evil sect that threatens not only individual Germans but the very basis of the country’s cherished postwar democracy. “The ideology of the organization is completely directly against our liberal-democratic constitutional order,” Caberta, the former head of Hamburg’s Scientology Task Force, told the newspaper. “Members are oppressed, exploited, and psychologically broken.”
On the surface, the German reaction might seem overwrought and apocalyptic. The same BfV report that labels Scientology anti-democratic, for instance, estimated that the group has only about 4,000 to 5,000 members in Germany—far fewer than the 30,000 the Church claims. And a handful of sober German critics allege that their country’s attitude to Scientology resembles a societal panic akin to the McCarthyism of the 1950s. (German commentator Joseph Joffe wrote at the height of the Scientology controversy in 1997 that no Scientologist “has ever been seen training in Germany’s dark forests with an AK-47 in hand.”)
True enough. Yet while Scientology may not represent a clear and present danger to the Federal Republic, its ideology is an authoritarian one, as the writings of its founder and its behavior toward critics and members attest. What might at first appear to be an overreaction—a symptom, perhaps, of the Germans’ tendency to take things too seriously, or of their longing for social ordnung—is an approach the United States should seek to emulate.