Review: A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940 (Fortress Press, 2015)

[1] Mary Solberg, associate professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, has done historians, theologians, and ethicists a great favor by selecting, editing, and translating more than twenty documents relating to the “German Christian” movement in Nazi Germany. The documents cover the period from 1932 to 1940, but are primarily from the early to mid-1930s. Previously, English-speakers have had to depend on shorter excerpts and secondary accounts. Although also excerpted here in most cases, the translated texts are long enough to give the reader a good feel for the way in which these speeches, sermons, pamphlets, books, and other materials were presented to the Protestant churches and to the wider German public. Most of the documents are from the pens of the German Christians themselves, although a few are from their critics (a Gutachten from the theological faculty at Marburg; pointed critiques from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth).

[2] The “German Christians” were those Protestants (mostly Lutherans) who adjusted their theology to support the goals of National Socialism. Their racist, nationalistic, imperialist, and totalitarian views have been revealed to English readers in works such as Ernest Helmreich’s The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (1979), Klaus Scholder’s The Churches and the Third Reich (2 vols., 1988), and Doris L. Bergen’s excellent Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (1996). Lest we forget the complicity of certain theologians, Robert P. Ericksen has contributed Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch (1985). Solberg’s volume should stand next to such as these in any library devoting even a little space to the subject.

[3] In this volume, you can develop a deeper understanding of the thinking of several of the leading German Christians – movement theorists such as Joachim Hossenfelder, Arnold Dannenmann, Friedrich Wieneke, and Siegfried Leffler; academic theologians Paul Althaus, Emmanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel; radical Reinhold Krause (who proved an embarrassment to the movement); and Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller.

[4] After reading Solberg’s collection of documents, which are accompanied by succinct introductions and helpful scholarly apparatus, I offer a few observations: The first thing that struck me was the way in which these churchmen (yes, all were men) could develop and defend their extreme nationalism, their disdain for peacemaking, and especially their overt racism – directed primarily at the Jews but secondarily at all non-Aryans – while mostly using traditional biblical and theological language. To be sure, they had differences among themselves about some matters, particularly the continuing role of the Old Testament in Christian theology (as opposed to Christian history). Not all tried to expound the idea of an Aryan Jesus. Yet, they tried very hard and with evident success to make their case in terms that would be plausible to their intended Protestant audience.

[5] Also striking is the fact that they were determined to weave biblical Christianity and National Socialism into an almost seamless whole. The result was advocacy for a renewed vision of Christendom, however perverse its details. The glories of church-state cooperation and coordination that had been lost in the past two centuries would now be restored under the guidance of the benevolent Führer and the stalwart Reichsbischof.

[6] As is well known, they deftly used Luther to defend and promote their views. References to Luther’s doctrines of the Two Kingdoms, his typical deference to secular authority, his German nationalism, and his vitriolic outbursts against the Jews were commonplaces in German Christian writing and speaking. Further, the German Christians were intensely devoted to the classic Lutheran emphasis on “the orders of creation.” When criticizing wicked “internationalism” (mostly Communist, but sometimes Roman Catholic), they regularly cited Luther’s words about his beloved Germans. When talking about race the Volk became one of the chief orders of creation, a bulwark against “race mixing.” And so on. The sad fact is that although they sometimes misquoted Luther even accurate quotes served their purposes quite well.

[7] The German Christians actually claimed to be moderates who occupied a middle way between the extremes of internationalist, liberal, overly technical, “destructive” theology on the one hand and neopaganism (in the guise of the “German Faith Movement”) on the other. They knew that many in Hitler’s inner circle were neopagans who openly mocked the churches, Protestant and Catholic. So they presented themselves as defenders of the faith, taking a stand against both newer pagan impulses and the obscurantism of overly intellectual theologians like Barth and Bonhoeffer (who were also weak on “the Jewish Question”). Only “German Christianity” presented in a popular rather than a technical theological manner could save Germany from the Jews and for Christ. The German Christians thus unashamedly pandered to populist anti-intellectualism.

[8] Regarding biblical interpretation, the German Christians played loose both with the “higher critical” traditions tracing back to the eighteenth century and with traditional orthodox/pietist interpretations. They often struck out along new paths, favoring a kind of naïve literalism when it suited them, being highly selective in their choice of texts, and turning to fanciful interpretations on occasion. Additionally, there was much “that was then, this is now” argumentation when they felt that they had to contradict clear biblical statements with which they disagreed. They emphasized that the Bible needs to be read in harmony with the best of modern science, especially modern “racial science.” Their hermeneutic is thus at its core quite “liberal” rather than biblicistic, let alone Lutheran. The negative results of their freewheeling hermeneutics should remind us of the potential dangers as well as the creative possibilities whenever we introduce the “assured results” of secular thinking into our theological reasoning.

[9] What strikes me above all in reading these documents is the German Christian disdain for anything that could be perceived as weakness. Their theology promoted strength, patriotism, and ethnic pride. The shadow of World War I and its aftermath hung over their every word. There was little if any evidence of compassion for “the least of these,” and certainly no quarter was to be given to the Jews. One of the most chilling passages in this volume came from the pen of Gerhard Kittel in 1933:

The question of what must happen to the Jews has four possible responses:

  1. One can seek to exterminate the Jews (pogrom).
  2. One can re-establish the Jewish state in Palestine or somewhere else and attempt to gather the Jews of the world there (Zionism).
  3. One can allow the Jews to merge into other peoples (assimilation);
  4. One can definitively and conscientiously maintain the historically grounded givenness of their status as aliens among all peoples.

Extermination of the Jews?

The violent extermination of the Jews is not a serious option: if the systems of the Spanish Inquisition or the Russian pogroms did not succeed, it seems highly unlikely this will happen in the twentieth century. Nor does the idea make any moral sense. A historical reality like this one may be resolved through the extermination of this people at most in demagogic slogans, but never in actual historical circumstances. The point of a particular historical situation is always that it presents us with a task that we must master. Killing all Jews is not mastering the task.

[10] The calm, analytical way in which he continues to analyze these options at some length, rejecting out of hand the second and the third before he settles on the fourth, is what shocks and offends. To say the obvious, he rejects the option of extermination for pragmatic, not deeply ethical, reasons. Hitler is unrealistic, not wrong, to seek to purge Jews from German society. Such an outcome is only “highly unlikely” of success, not wrong. The notion that the idea does not “make any moral sense” is a long way from recognizing the God-given humanity of the Jews, let alone that they are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. According to Kittel, “moral sense” adheres only to the fourth option, where the Jews in effect get what they deserve – perpetual alienation from the body politic and ecclesiastic. “Mastering the task” means making sure that this happens.

[11] If you want examples of a theology of glory – rooted in profound heresy – run amuck, this volume is full of them. “A Church Undone,” indeed.