In German public discourse, Scientology is not considered a religion, but is generally characterized as a Sekte (cult or sect), or as an exploitative profit-making venture preying on vulnerable minds. Public concerns about the potential dangers posed by cults date back to the early 1970s, when there was widespread debate about "youth religions" such as the Unification Church, ISKCON, Children of God, and the Divine Light Mission. The most prominent critics of these new religious movements were the "sect commissioners" (Sektenbeauftragte) of Germany's Protestant Churches, who were also active in promoting the establishment of private "initiatives of parents and concerned persons". Aktion Bildungsinformation ("Educational Information Campaign"), an organization dedicated to opposing Scientology, was established in the 1970s. Taking an activist stance, it warned people not to get involved with Scientology, filed successful lawsuits against the Church of Scientology over its proselytizing in public places, and published an influential book, The Sect of Scientology and its Front Organizations. In 1981, the organization's founder, Ingo Heinemann, became the director of Aktion für geistige und psychische Freiheit ("Campaign for Intellectual and Psychic Freedom"), Germany's most prominent anti-cult organization. Warnings from sect experts about the influence of new religious movements gained media attention which put political pressure on the government to deal with the situation; as the movements were not doing anything illegal, the government resorted to issuing a range of leaflets and public statements giving general warnings about religious sects, the earliest of these publications appearing in 1979.
Fueled by events such as the Waco Siege in 1993, the murders and suicides associated with the Order of the Solar Temple, and the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo incidents in Japan, German fears and concerns about new religious movements gained in intensity in the 1990s, with Scientology attracting particular attention. Perceptions that Scientology had a totalitarian character were reinforced when Robert Vaughn Young, an American ex-Scientologist and former PR official in the Church of Scientology, visited German officials in late 1995 and wrote an article in Der Spiegel, a widely-read weekly magazine, describing Scientology as a totalitarian system operating a gulag – the Rehabilitation Project Force – for members of Scientology's Sea Org who had been found guilty of transgressions. From the mid-1990s onward, press articles, reports and essays on Scientology appeared on an almost daily basis, accompanied by books and TV programmes that reached a mass audience.
As noted by the religious scholar Hubert Seiwert, Scientology came to be seen as a "serious political danger that not only threatened to turn individuals into will-less zombies, but was also conspiring to overthrow the democratic constitution of the state". This view of Scientology as a public enemy, Seiwert adds, "became a matter of political correctness": senior political figures were involved in launching campaigns against Scientology, and being suspected of any association with it resulted in social ostracism. Stephen A. Kent, writing in 1998, noted that officials at all levels of German government shared the insistence that Scientology should be suppressed. Scientology was viewed as "a totalitarian, business-driven organization guilty of significant human rights abuses." Officials examining primary and secondary sources, legal documents, and the testimony of former members, concluded that the organization was "antithetical to a democratic state". Federal ministries and state governments were asked to use all legal means at their disposal to check the activities of Scientology.
Government publications on the dangers of sects increased between 1996 and 1998, and a significant number of them dealt with the Church of Scientology. The German courts had approved such publications in 1989, seeing them as part of the government's responsibility to keep the public informed, and finding that they did not interfere with religious freedom. In 1996, the German parliament launched an Enquete (Enquiry) Commission to investigate sects and similar groups, in large part because of public concerns about Scientology. Its final report, published in June 1998, concluded that Scientology, alone among new religious movements, required monitoring by Germany's domestic intelligence services.
An area of widespread concern in the German media has been the alleged "infiltration" of businesses by Scientologists, in line with Scientology's declared aim to penetrate society, politics and business in preparation for world domination. Attempts to infiltrate businesses have reportedly been most successful among small and medium-size companies, such as estate agents, management consultants and management training companies. Management consultancy firms led by Scientologists often conceal their association with Scientology; once they have recruited members of their clients' upper management, these managers may send employees to Scientology trainers, as part of company education and training programmes, without informing them as to the origin of the training methods used. An expensive commercial version of Scientology's Oxford Capacity Analysis, usually offered free as part of Scientology proselytizing in public places, temporarily entered some major German companies who were unaware of its provenance via such a management consultancy firm.
In the mid-2000s, German sect experts were concerned that Scientologists were becoming active in the German after-school tutoring market. These concerns arose because customers of around 20 after-school tutoring centres operated by Scientologists in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart and elsewhere might be unaware that their children were being taught by Scientologists, using Scientology methods. Brochures advertising the tutoring services would at most mention the name of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, but not Scientology itself.
In early 2008, Thomas Gandow, Sect Commissioner of the German Lutheran Church in Berlin and Brandenburg, and the historian Guido Knopp both likened the Scientologist Hollywood actor Tom Cruise to Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Gandow and Knopp cited a leaked Scientology video in which Cruise was seen asking the audience whether Scientologists should "clean up" the world, the audience responding with enthusiastic cheers – cheers which Gandow and Knopp felt were reminiscent of the audience's response to Goebbels' famous question, "Do you want total war?" Gandow's and Knopp's comments found few critics in Germany. Most Germans consider Scientology a subversive organization. In 1997, Time reported that 70% of Germans favoured banning Scientology; a poll conducted in September 2008 by Der Spiegel found 67% support for a ban.
German scholars such as Brigitte Schön and Gerald Willms have commented that public discourse around Scientology in Germany is dominated by rhetoric: in their view, efforts to "frame" information in such a way as to shape opinion have long been more important than the underlying realities. In Schön's words, this includes both the "efforts of German politicians to enhance their popularity with strong-worded statements" and "Scientology's efforts to present itself as the victim of unjust persecution"; commenting on foreign reporting on Scientology in Germany, she adds that "the American press may prefer sensationalist news to boring investigation and may frame the issue according to American stereotypes." Both Willms and Schön assert that the situation is compounded by the general paucity of scientific studies of Scientology. Schön as well as Irving Hexham, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary in Canada, have remarked in particular on the lack of academic studies by German scholars. Hexham attributes this situation to the strong influence of the Christian churches in Germany, which has made German academics wary of approaching the subject, because they fear repercussions for their research funding and their prospects of future employment if they were to involve themselves in the debate.
The film Until Nothing Remains, a dramatized account of the effect Scientology had on one German family, was shown in 2010 by German public broadcaster ARD. Said to be based on a true story, the film attracted widespread media attention, and a viewership of 8.69 million.
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