Rethinking the German Church Struggle

by John S. Conway

Robert P. Ericksen. Theologians under Hitler. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985. 245 pages.

The story of the German Church Struggle against Nazism has been exhaustively researched in two areas: the churches' attempts to preserve their autonomy against Nazi control and persecution, and their defense of Christian doctrines against Nazi ideological attacks. After 1945, both Catholics and Protestants sought to depict their role in the Church Struggle as having been motivated by a steadfast desire to uphold the ideals of a "better" Germany against the inroads of Nazi totalitarian neopaganism. Evidence to the contrary was passed over in silence. Particularly in the Protestant churches, the stance of the numerous Nazi sympathizers, who quickly rose to take over positions of leadership, was dismissed as the result of an unprincipled opportunism, a heretical and shallow theology, or a mistaken blindness to the realities of Hitler's Third Reich. The general opinion held outside Germany that the struggle was one of Church versus State, good versus evil, devout Christians versus Nazi stormtroopers or racialists, was often allowed to go uncorrected. In the postwar period, both the desire to restore the churches to their former preeminence in German life and the need to direct and guide the future patterns of church life prompted the fashioning of this heroic picture of the German Church Struggle.

Only in recent years has there been any attempt to rectify the one-sidedness of this historiography. It has not been helped by the virtual silence of all the pro-Nazi participants in the churches' ranks. Not a single theologian or church historian has sought to defend in general the policies of the "German Christians," i.e., the group of Protestants who identified with Nazism politically and theologically, or to explain the fervent support they gave to the establishment of Hitler's regime in 1933, or their later agreement with the aggressive policies of the Nazi state. It is only now possible to undertake a less apologetic, more dispassionate, examination of this faction of the church, and in particular to assess the impact of its theological stance in assisting the Nazis in their manipulation and control of public opinion. For this reason, Robert Ericksen's account of three of the most prominent Protestant theologians during the Nazi era is a welcome addition to the literature of the Church Struggle.

Ericksen's work on Professors Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch is largely a study in intellectual history. He draws extensively from their writings to demonstrate how each came to terms with what he perceived was a crisis in theology, largely caused by the collapse of the liberal optimism of the pre-1914 period. This was particularly acute in Germany for the generation which lived through the World War I and its depressing aftermath, the Weimar Republic. The experience of rapid social change created anxiety, unease, and real dislocation. Particularly for the members of the university and church elites, the appeal of Nazism lay in its promise of the restoration of a unified authoritarian state and the reassertion of German dignity in the world. Ericksen seeks to show how these intelligent, well-meaning, and respectable individuals could support Adolf Hitler and find intellectually defensible reasons for their behavior. In contrast to such earlier works as Max Weinreich's Hitler's Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany's Crimes against the Jewish People, Ericksen seeks to avoid the search for scapegoats, but rather to stress the factors of background and environment that may explain the political stance of these men. For this reason he shows an unprecedented sympathy for them as individuals, while still disclaiming their views as political errors and theological aberrations. But because these three scholars represented an important segment of the German community, their appreciation of Hitler helps to explain the general acquiescence to Nazi government within the major institutions of the nation.

Gerhard Kittel was one of the star professors of Tubingen University. His editorship of the Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament had given him a worldwide reputation, while his warmth and humanity as an individual were widely acknowledged. But his enthusiastic support for the Nazi regime, and in particular his extensive writings on the Jewish question, led in 1945 to his arrest, imprisonment, and dismissal. He died in ignominy in 1948. Ericksen considers this to be a tragedy. He points out that Kittel was only the most vocal advocate of views shared by large numbers of Germans. His personal attitudes to Jews differed from the extreme racism of the Nazi radicals, and he certainly did not approve of mass extermination. Nevertheless, his researches were devoted to a rigorous and harsh anti-Jewish stance derived from his own interpretation of Christian theology to the virtual exclusion of compassion, love, and grace. It was, says Ericksen, a tragic error, but one to which Christianity has been vulnerable.

It is clear that Kittel's attacks on Jewish degeneracy were part of his conservative intellectual beliefs. He saw himself engaged in a struggle to combine a certain type of Christianity, antisemitism, and a political dislike for democracy into a single Weltanschauung, which would restore the social harmony of Germany by keeping at bay the unwanted tendencies of modem secularism. His support for Hitler and the "positive Christianity" of the Nazi party stemmed from his belief that these represented the hope for a religious revival that would reunite the German people with their Christian traditions. Kittel was not alone in believing that: Christianity was German culture; Christianity was middle-class morality; Christianity was respect for authority, law, and order; Christianity formed a barrier to the godless atheism of the Left. Because many German Christians at the time believed such things, Ericksen holds that making Kittel a scapegoat for his outspoken polemics is regrettable.

Kittel was certainly too orthodox a scholar to fall for the fantasies of some pro-Nazi Protestants who sought to abolish the Old Testament and make Jesus out to be an Aryan hero. Equally he deplored the Nazi extremists' attacks on the churches and the universities. But he also welcomed the exclusion of Jews from public offices, since they had been numerically overrepresented. Personal hardships would have to be accepted for the nation's good.

It is not a question of whether individual Jews are respectable or disrespectable: also not whether individual Jews are unjustly ruined, or whether that occurs justly to individuals. The Jewish question is absolutely not a question of individual Jews but a question of Jewry, the Jewish Volk. (p. 55)

In an important lecture of June 1933 Kittel outlined his solutions for the Jewish question, essentially closing the door on assimilation, which he believed had been the root of Germany's troubles ever since emancipation, and instead proposing a separation of the races, and the relegation of the Jews to a "guest" status as determined by political authority. Such a parting of the ways would safeguard the German Volk and prevent the watering down of its Christian heritage. The Jews should return to the God of their fathers and accept the verdict of 2,000 years: alien status among the peoples of the world. Hitler and National Socialism were to be affirmed as the saving force that stemmed the tide of Jewish infiltration.

Ericksen produces convincing evidence that Kittel's views were not the product of an opportunistic attempt to jump on the Nazi bandwagon in 1933. His later utterances were equally harsh and uncompromising. At the same time he affirmed his belief that a strong and virile Christianity was the best defense against the Jewish threat, an opinion which he later claimed made him unpopular with those Nazis bent on ridding Germany of both Jews and Christians. The fact remains that he never opposed the Nazis' anti-Jewish policies as such, even though he may have regretted some of their methods. And there can be little doubt that his influence lent respectability to this hateful creed, and provided a justification in Christian terms for a repristination of persistent anti-Jewish prejudices.

Paul Althaus was a moderate: Eircksen calls him a mediator, which is a more generous term. He had a significant influence from his base in Erlangen University in Bavaria, then, as now, a center of conservative ideas. He too was deeply influenced by the nationalistic climate of World War I and sought to propound a new vd1kisch theology that would repair the damage done to Christianity's credibility. He saw German Protestantism as the only hope for providing a focal point for Germany's freedom and future, in contrast to the foreign influences of Moscow or Rome. Althaus became a leading exponent of neoLutheranism, which not surprisingly led him to the conclusion that obedience to the state and its rulers was a prime Christian duty. But in place of the now vanished Throne and Altar, Althaus saw the German Volk as the source of revelation of God's purposes.

My Volk is my outer and my inner destiny.... The special style of a Volk is God's creation, and as such it is for us holy. (p. 103)

The absolute obligations of the individual to the Volk were developed in Althaus's teachings in theological terms, but their similarity to Nazi political usages were unmistakable. To Althaus, Hitler represented Germany's best defense against the chaos of modernity or the vengeful attacks of a hostile world. "Our Protestant churches," he wrote in October 1933, "have greeted the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God" (p. 85).

To be sure, Althaus, like Kittel, opposed the fanaticism of the extreme "German Christians" in his church. At the same time he gave no support to the Confessing Church's struggle against Nazi persecution. He remained a moderate within his own milieu, which generally approved of Hitler's leadership, at least in the early years of the regime. His silence on political matters after 1937 may have been because he realized his early expectations were not being fulfilled, but Ericksen can find no evidence that Althaus ever admitted any personal mistake in later years. Like most conservatives who opposed progressive and revolutionary ideologies, Althaus sought to erect barriers against an unstable secular world. He therefore lent his prestige to the Nazi movement, perhaps all the more effectively because of his known opposition to extremism. But this same moderation prevented him from taking a stance once the direction of Nazi policy became clear, and he retreated to a more personal piety. But at least this saved him from Kittel's fate, and he preserved his professorship to again give leadership in an anticommunist stance in the post-1945 years.

Emanuel Hirsch, the third of Ericksen's protagonists, was undoubtedly the least likeable personally. Abrasive, arrogant and ambitious, he used his position in Gottingen to assist the Nazi Gleichschaltung of his university and his church. He was, however, a notable scholar in systematic theology, and perhaps the most forceful exponent of a nationalist Christianity in this century. Like Althaus, he fervently believed in the Lutheran doctrines of the orders of creation, and vehemently attacked the weaknesses of any cosmopolitan, liberal or pacifist creed which he saw sapping at the roots of "true" Christianity. His destructive criticisms of such vague theologizing undermined the support of those Germans who had welcomed the Weimar Republic or the League of Nations. By contrast Hirsch endorsed the doctrines of militancy and struggle for survival, which alone would make the Volk strong and able to prove itself worthy in God's sight. It was this strength in a common blood, culture, and nationality that would enable the German people to survive the crisis of identity. It was hardly surprising that Hirsch saw Adolf Hitler as the heaven-sent leader who would restore Germany's greatness.

Hirsch stressed the binding force of a common German identity, immersed in the historical traditions and continuing meaningfulness of Christianity. Only thus could social unity be maintained against the challenge of intellectual relativism and socio-cultural pluralism. It was, says Ericksen, a leap of existential faith for Hirsch to hold that Christian belief led to the conclusion that Hitler's regime was ordained of God. He suggests that other theologians, who reached different conclusions, were no less making their own leaps of existential faith, to the left instead of the right.

But Hirsch's devotion to the Nazi cause was also apparent in his term of office as Dean of the Gottingen Faculty of Theology. Ericksen cites some very damaging evidence of his mean actions against theological opponents, his resolute attempts to appoint only sympathizers to vacant positions, and his suppression of divergent views in the student body by disciplinary action. All this Hirsch justified as the necessary steps to defend the church from errant theologies. But Ericksen claims that Hirsch was motivated by his realization of the crisis of modernity, and that the solution he proposed was a coherent and reasonable response to a very real problem.

Ericksen is concerned to point out that Kittel, Althaus, and Hirsch were not isolated or eccentric individuals. They saw themselves and were seen by others as genuine Christians acting on genuine Christian impulses. Ericksen's sympathy for their questioning of the Zeitgeist does not extend to their particular response in becoming conscious apologists for Nazism. But he is at pains to prevent their being made scapegoats or cranks. His analysis of their writings is fair and carefully balanced to show their views in the perspective of their careers. As such, this is the most favorable treatment these theologians have received so far.

Ericksen's book is largely a study of these men's writings, an exercise in Geistesgeschichte. We could wish for a fuller picture of their impact as leaders in their communities of church and university, or for some closer assessment of how much influence their ideas had on the broad spectrum of the laity. Ericksen believes that they represented a position common to many professors, theologians, and pastors in Germany, who eagerly looked for a resolution of their spiritual and organizational malaise by turning to Adolf Hitler as a father figure. But by lending their reputations to the doctrines of a vd1kisch nationalism, and conducting a relentless campaign against their theological opponents, these men were also responsible for discrediting any alternative policies. The cause of the Confessing Church, and its leaders such as Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has been much lauded in postwar years, not least by this reviewer. But at the time, its weakness was due to the abstention of the majority of churchmen and their refusal to recognize the dangers of the totalitarian and anti-Christian policies of the Nazi regime. As the advocates of a pro-Nazi political enthusiasm and the justifiers of a narrow German nationalism, Althaus, Kittel, and Hirsch must certainly bear some blame for this fateful division in the Protestant Church's ranks.

In his magisterial two-volume study Die Kirchen und das Dritte Reich, which unfortunately extends only to the end of 1934, the late Klaus Scholder has given us a comprehensive survey of the diverse spectrum of German theological opinions and church politics during the early years of Nazism. Scholder complements and fills in much of the historical detail that places Ericksen's protagonists in their setting. Both scholars agree that the German churches were passing through a period of identity crisis. Both offer an alternative to the opinion that the Confessing Church was the "saving remnant" that alone pre- vented the wholesale apostasy of Christianity under Hitler. For in fact, both the Confessing Church and its theological opponents saw themselves as the protectors of traditional conservative German values. But as the history of the Church Struggle showed, neither the wishful thinking of the moderate pro-Nazi majority, nor the resolute anti-Nazi opposition of the Confessing Church minority, was able to prevent Hitler's willful determination to revolutionize society in pursuit of his nefarious goals. In the end, neither the churches nor the universities were able to erect barriers against the perverted ideologies of radical antisernitism or aggressive nationalism. To the extent that such intellectual leaders as Kittel, Althaus, and Hirsch made fallacious assessments of the relationship between state and church in modem society, they must be held in part responsible for the ineffectual resistance against Nazism offered by the churches. Perhaps this is where the true "trahison des clercs" is to be found.

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