Roger Newell, Theology and Nazi History

Roger NewellRoger J. Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University. Dr. Newell completed his doctoral studies under Professor James Torrance in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The relationship between theology and German history in the 20th century.

Edited transcript

JMF: You’re working on a very interesting project, and I’d like to ask you to talk about that today.

RN: It’s a fascinating study of what is the relevance of theology to church history, particularly to the tragic history of Germany from 1933 to 1989, but maybe even before that. What was going on in the heart of Protestant Germany with this great tradition of Lutheran theology, and the justification by grace alone of the sinner, and many other great themes of the Christian life? What happened that this became the soil upon which two world wars began and was so devastating for Europe and so devastating for the German people?

I’m trying to explore what was the relationship between church and state, the way that the pastors and the theologians of the church understood their relationship to this state, that allowed for this to take place, and then what were the remedies or what were the signs of hope and resistance and of, ultimately, reconciliation that led to, much to everyone’s surprise, in 1989, a peaceful reunification of Germany? Those are the questions I am trying to look into and make some sense of – trying to understand, from my own point of view, how did the theology of grace, the theology of Father, Son, and Spirit, become crucial in this transition period and redemption of a very dark period of modern history?

JMF: Let’s talk first about the beginning of the transition, in 1933, Hitler’s rise to power, and how the church was looking at that and responding to that at the beginning.

RN: Maybe we can back up a little bit to 1933 to give us our context, which was Germany was devastated by the first world war and the complexity of having seen itself as a Christian nation with a Christian leader, a Christian Kaiser, and so on, and the church totally supporting the war effort, and then being devastated by a complete failure in terms of the war, being financially overwhelmed by the cost of war (the cost in lives, the cost in resources) and then trying to rebuild itself in a way that, maybe in retrospect, the fundamental questions didn’t get addressed.

They were burdened with what they felt was a deeply unfair sense of responsibility and guilt for the entire enterprise. They felt like they had had a lot of help in plunging the world into war. I don’t know how much people are aware of. They had to sign a document at Versailles in which they took total responsibility for the war, the war guilt clause. They had to live with the idea that it was all their fault, and they chafed under this as well. This sense of resentment, the new government that had to sign onto this, the Weimar Republic, and their enemies were forcing them to sign this. The French, British, and Americans created an atmosphere in which the rise of someone like a fierce nationalist, a nationalism on steroids, like Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party, could begin to emerge.

The church, meanwhile, is torn, because on the one hand they want to be faithful to the state, and on the other hand the question is what is the relationship between the people who come to church faithfully Sunday by Sunday (it’s a state church, the Evangelische Kirche; taxes are raised and the state organizes that and supports the church through them) on the one hand, and also this sense of a prophetic ministry and holding kings and emperors accountable to Scripture.

This is the tension at the heart of any church/state relationship, whether it’s formal, as in Germany, or whether it’s more informal, as it is in the United States, where we have a separation of church and state formally, but informally we have a Billy Graham swearing in presidents every four years, a chaplain to the U.S. Senate who is usually a Protestant clergyman and so forth. These are the issues that were made acute in the devastation of two world wars (I’m jumping ahead in the story), after the first world war created a sense of confusion, and wanting some answers for what had gone wrong in the first world war.

JMF: How is the church coping with that in terms of preaching? When people went to church, what did they hear? What kind of solace or comfort or response was given?

RN: Too often when people went to church, there was a terrible temptation to basically blame the other guy and not to take responsibility. Instead of confessing their own sins, there was a tendency to confess the sins of the countries they had gone to war with. This sense of injured merit and having been mistreated was a lingering bitterness, which was then picked up on by the national socialists and by Hitler. It fueled into this sense of “we want justice” in the world, saying we want to be respected and we don’t want to be treated the way we felt like we were treated at the Versailles treaty after the war. The church was often complicit in saying yes, we weren’t well treated, we need to be, this wasn’t all our fault, and we haven’t been treated fairly.

JMF: What was the perspective of fault? How were they viewing the causes and the blame for the war?

RN: There was certainly a sense, as you can imagine, that there was a sense of the nations becoming hungry for, maybe dominance is the best word, in terms of power and influence in global trade and markets and political influence. It’s hard for us to look back on this and realize the extent to which the Germans felt like they had been (unfairly) blamed for the devastation of the First World War. But that’s how they felt, and the church, in terms of its pastoral care strategy, chose to put a sympathetic arm around the shoulder of German society and say, “Yeah, you weren’t treated well.”

Instead of saying, “Wait, how did we get into this, what caused us to become such a militaristic society that we chose to go to war to solve our problems rather than to use other means?”, there was tendency to be overly sympathetic with the nation and to identify, in a not very helpful way, with the nation’s sense of mistreatment.

JMF: So the German people were feeling that they were drawn into or forced into, by political and economic circumstances, toward war by the rest of the political situation in Europe, and therefore it was more of a shared blame?

RN: That’s probably the case. And as a result, they wanted more evenhanded treatment after the war. Unfortunately, they didn’t get that. They had to sign a document saying they were at sole fault of the war. They had tremendous war debt repayments that they had to pay the Allies, and they had to give up some of their territory both toward the French on one side and parts of Germany in the east that were taken over by other eastern European countries, like Poland and what we now call the Czech Republic. They felt like they had been scapegoated.

This was part of their resentment. They resented the country, the power, the political system that took over after the Kaiser had to go. They started the republic, and they tended to resent their own government for signing this document. There was a simmering discontent. It was this kind of negative, you might say negative political energy, that Hitler took hold of and fanned these flames. He tried to say that Germany had been treated unjustly and needed to find its proper place in the world again and to contribute. Part of its gifts that it was going to contribute to the world was its leadership, the Führer principle.

JMF: Were there voices in the church that were contrary to this general theme of commiserating with the political viewpoint?

RN: There are some interesting studies of individuals who made some very significant transitions from on the one hand supporting Hitler as yes, he’ll give us back our sense of standing in the world, he’s going to stand tall for Germany.

For instance, the famous Pastor Martin Niemöller had been a U-Boat commander in World War I, had become pastor of a very affluent suburban congregation in Berlin, and he voted for Hitler, and he thought this was the right step forward. But in the course of time from 1933 to 1937, Niemöller had become increasingly disillusioned with what he was seeing with Hitler. He saw him not just wanting to restore Germany to a place of leadership in the world, but rather to take the church and the other institutions of the people and subsume them under the dominance of the government, the ideology of National Socialism.

At this point, from being a patriotic German, he began to challenge the state, and to say you’re trying to accommodate everything through Fascism or the national socialist message, and you’re subverting the church’s message of a gospel of salvation in grace, and you’re saying that there are other forces, other powers, other voices in nature and in history, namely the voice of the Führer, who’s coming alongside, and it is being unequally yoked on an equal basis with the revelation of God in Christ, and this is idolatry.

This didn’t go down very well with Hitler and the national socialists. And so from being a very well-regarded parish pastor in 1933 who had voted for Hitler, in 1937, we find Martin Niemöller in a concentration camp.

JMF: You mentioned a famous quote by Niemöller in regard to this transition he was making.

RN: He says in 1933 they started to imprison the communists just because they were a political alternative, and they were articulating that, and they had newspapers and had voices in the political sphere. One of the first things that happened when Hitler took power was he put a lot of their leadership in jail or in concentration camps. Then he started to arrest and put in jail the trade union members, which he had implied he would all along, but then he finally started doing the same to Jews and putting them in jail and concentration camps and so on.

Niemöller’s famous quote was: “They came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I didn’t stand up for them, I didn’t say anything. They came for the trade unionists, but I was not that, so I did not do anything. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew. Then finally they came for me, but there was nobody to stand up for me.”

He ties this back, in many of his sermons, to Matthew chapter 25, when Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me. If you visited the sick, visited those in prison, fed the hungry, you did it to me.”

Niemöller is saying in retrospect that, I saw people being mistreated, but I wasn’t a Communist, I wasn’t a trade union member, I wasn’t a Jew, so I just walked by on the other side. He says this is the sense in which I failed, and we as a church failed to stand up for the most vulnerable members of our society. Even though from 1937 to 1945 Niemoller was in a concentration camp, what was he doing from 1933 to 1937 when he had freedom to speak out, freedom to say this is wrong, these people are not being treated well.

Because of his own prejudices and his own opinions politically, he just let them rot in jail. He also had an implicit anti-Semitic streak in him, and he was happy to let these people get their just desserts, as long as he was free to preach the gospel. But in retrospect, he realized that that was a guilt that he had to own up to. Even though he was a concentration camp survivor, he stood in solidarity with the many Germans who implicitly or complicitly allowed Hitler to take over power and to be so devastating in his behavior toward the world.

JMF: As Hitler took power, there was a certain color of Christianity that he projected so the church would lend its support. How did that progress? How was he able to move from at least the color of Christianity to what amounted to a worship of the Führer eventually?

RN: That’s right. Hitler was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He said very openly, when he was elected, in a famous radio address, that the foundation of our society is always and will always be Christianity, and we stand for a heroic faith, a positive Christianity in the Protestant tradition of Luther, and this will be the foundation upon which we build our new Germany. That made patriotic Lutherans feel very good, and we had a leader who was going to be somebody we could trust and so on. Many Protestant pastors and theologians were, I don’t know what other word to use but seduced by this kind of language. After all, it says in the book of Romans chapter 13 that we are to submit to the government and to obey it.

There was a tradition of that in Germany that goes back to Luther, and his siding with the princes against the peasants in the peasants’ rebellion, and all this seemed in order. As long as the church was free to preach the gospel in the church, then it was the responsibility of the church to pray for the state, to pray for the prime minister or the chancellor, to pray for them, and that was a happy harmony between church and state. Hitler took advantage of this to begin to, in a totalitarian way, take over the various aspects of German culture, science, education, and so on, and also the church. It was under his orbit, and Christian language was used to basically to make it subservient to the purposes of German culture or an ideology of the German folk, the German people, as the natural leaders or rulers of the world.

JMF: You’ve done a lot of work with the writings of C.S. Lewis and how they speak to the church and to the gospel, so I can’t help but think of the Narnia Chronicles and the last book, The Last Battle, and a very similar thing happening with the ape…

RN: …who would not believe. The donkey and the ape have a clever idea of taking this old lion skin and putting it on the donkey and pretending that Aslan has come back, and the people naively believe the ape.

JMF: So he’s able to do what he does in taking power over everybody and subjugating everyone all in the name of Aslan, even though this was not Aslan at all. It was similar in the way Hitler’s regime was co-opting Christianity to achieve its own ends.

RN: It took a lot of courage for Christians to begin to be not only suspicious that something seemed to be going wrong, but after being so hopeful that this was going to be whole new day, it took the courage of people like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller and others to begin to say no, wait a second, this language and the way they are behaving, their use of force, their practice of arresting people at night, there’s some lies going on here. The truth is being missed.

The racism that began to become very open and naked in the society, they could not in good conscience say this is Christian heroic piety in the tradition of Martin Luther. This is something that has become very twisted, and we have to call a spade to spade and speak out here. This was the glory of the confessing church, the branch of the church that resisted Hitler.

It was a challenge that was not successful, in that Hitler was clever enough to divide his opposition into a camp that was wanting to be more conciliatory and deferential to the power of his authority and one that was going to be more of a challenge, such as Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was able to divide and hence to conquer. The confessing church found itself in increasingly compromising situations, such as every pastor signing a personal oath of loyalty to the Führer, and things like this which compromised its stand against Hitler.

Someone like Karl Barth refused to sign – based on his beliefs about what was going on here, he couldn’t do that. So he was kicked out of his position as a professor of theology at the university and he was deported to Switzerland. But what do you do if you’re not a Swiss citizen – you’re a German citizen – what do you do? If you don’t sign this personal oath of loyalty, you lose your job. The pastors had to sign this oath of loyalty or they couldn’t stay being pastors. When the confessing church decided… they backed down, as it were, to show they are good patriotic Germans, these are examples in which the church, sadly even the confessing church, began to compromise itself to a point where its resistance to Hitler capitulated.

JMF: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, being a German citizen, had no recourse as far as being deported, so what happened there?

RN: It’s complicated, but Bonhoeffer for a while was a pastor in London at a German-speaking congregation. He went and studied in New York at Union Seminary, he was a pastor in Spain for a while for German congregations there, and so on. But in the end of the day, he felt duty-bound to come back and be with his people. He could see the war was coming, and he felt like he needed to be there to support the German people during this terrible destiny they were going to have to go through and take the whole world through with them.

It was at that point that he got involved in the opposition of a political nature to Hitler, through his family connections, even involved in a plot to kill Hitler, for which he was a conspirator. He was put in a concentration camp when all this didn’t succeed, and he ended up being killed in a concentration camp just a week or two before the Allies liberated that part of Germany in 1945.

JMF: How does Trinitarian theology come to bear on this whole thing?

RN: It’s a wonderful thing to look into, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring, just trying to make sense out of all this. What I can tell you now is: it seems that one of the fundamental healing things that took place, despite all the tragedy here, is that the church and people like Barth and Bonhoeffer and others began to understand that Jesus isn’t just the Lord of the church. He’s the Lord of all the nations, that he’s the Sovereign of all nations, and you can’t neatly divide God up as the Father, the Lord of the state, and Jesus the Son, the Savior, as Lord of the church, and the two can just happily coexist.

But what they began to see is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord of heaven and of earth, of all the tribes and tongues. This understanding enabled them to break through this traditional split between church and state and to hold kings and chancellors accountable to the one Sovereign of heaven and earth.

This, ultimately, bears fruit as the country is split between the eastern and western by the Allies after the war, and the constant ongoing work of the church, even during the time of communist East Germany, was to bear witness to and hold the state accountable to the Lordship of Christ. They did this, in retrospect, in an astonishing way with the peaceful nonviolent movements of prayer meetings and candlelit rallies around East Germany, which ended in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the nonviolent reunification of Germany. The role of the church in this and the thread from Barth down to the movement in Leipzig is part of what I’m trying to highlight and draw attention to.

JMF: When can we expect to see it?

RN: There’s so much information out there, and I’m trying to put it together in a way that’s more understandable and accessible to English-speaking folk. But it’s a wonderful story.

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Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 8:35 PM