June 2006 Newsletter

Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


June 2006— Vol. XII, no. 6


Dear Friends,

May I once again remind you that any comments on the contents of these Newsletters should be sent to me at my personal address = jconway@interchange.ubc.ca

At this season of Pentecost, can we all join in the following:

Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden,
und preiset ihm, alle Völker!
Denn seine Gnade und Wahrheit waltet
über uns in Ewigkeit.


1) Book reviews:

a) Pringle The Master Plan
b) Albert, Maria Laach und der Nationalsozialismus

2) Book notes:

a) Rohm and Thierfelder, Juden-Christen-Deutsche 1941-45
b) Evangelische Kirchenhistoriker im Dritten Reich
c) ed. Kaiser, Zwangsarbeit in Diakonie und Kirche 1939-45
d) ed. Benz, Selbstbehauptung und Opposition. Kirche als Ort des Widerstandes gegen staatliche Diktatur

3) Journal articles

a) Perry, Nazifying Christmas
b) Kaminsky Zwischen Rassenhygiene und Biotechnologie

1a) Heather Pringle, The Master Plan. Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.
London: Fourth Estate 2006. 463 Pp. ISBN 13-978-0-00-714812-7 GBP 20.00

After the review in our April issue of Karla Poewe’s illuminating survey of “New Religions and the Nazis”, I now send you another one on the related subject of the Nazi cult of the “Aryan” race by Heather Pringle, who lives in the Vancouver area. Heather Pringle has previously written a number of books on archaeology and historical anthropology. Along the way she learnt of the frenetic interest in archaeology displayed by Heinrich Himmler, one of Nazism’s chief leaders, seeking to prove the existence and virtues of a pre-historic Aryan race. Although not a German historian, she armed herself with a researcher and a translator, and spent several years investigating this extraordinary tale. Her findings about the Nazis‚ Master Plan, and the agency principally instrumental in devising its contours, are the first account to appear in English, after an academic study by Professor Michael Kater appeared in German some years ago.

All students of Nazism are familiar with the fixation on race, which Hitler and his followers saw as the key both to history and to the future of the German Volk. But historians are now paying more attention to the way in which these often vague and emotion-ridden theories were given practical and institutional form as part of the unprecedented operation in social engineering which the Nazis launched. One such enterprise, undertaken as part of Himmler’s ever-growing empire, was a relatively small agency called the Ahnenerbe or “the legacy of our ancestors”. A bevy of professors, some genuine and some charlatans, was recruited to investigate the roots of the Aryan race, seeking to show its superiority, both physically and morally over all other races, and to link it to modern Germany. Ms. Pringle’s book describes the activities of this outfit, its pseudo-religious character, and its eventual sinister role in the final cataclysm of the Holocaust.

Himmler’s aim was to send out expeditions to various parts of the world in order to trace the Aryan race and to gather up any artifacts, legends, inscriptions, folk-tales, or literature which might still remain to be uncovered. As Ms Pringle makes clear, there was no rational scientific validity to these investigations, since the conclusions had already been drawn. But the so-called scholars sent out by Himmler were themselves already convinced of the Nazis‚ political goals, and saw their mission as unearthing the evidence to provide justification for these far-fetched claims from pre-history.

Ms. Pringle’s main interest is to describe how these expeditions into the distant past fared in such countries as Sweden, Finland, the Balkans and most remarkably of all, Tibet. She not only has worked through the remaining papers of the Ahnenerbe itself, but has also managed to interview some survivors, or the widows of participants. These contacts gave her the opportunity to see the appeal of romantic discoveries and exotic places for the Ahnenerbe’s missionaries. But she remains thoroughly sceptical about the attempt to reconstruct a mythical past as well as about the political implications which these men drew.

Interestingly enough, Hitler was also sceptical. He openly poured scorn on Himmler’s passionate engagement with northern European pre-history, and complained about his subordinate’s “digging up villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds”. But Himmler persevered. He ensured that his beloved hobby, and the agency he founded to advance the cause, was supplied with sufficient resources to bolster the Nazi claims for Aryan superiority. But he also recognized the need to deflect Hitler’s wrathful outbursts against dilettantish investigations of mud huts and myths. He therefore tried to give the Ahnenerbe a more academic tone and appointed as its chief scholar the Professor of Sanskrit at Munich University, Walther Wüst. At the same time, he saw that the ambitious young Nazis he recruited could give more immediate service to the cause by acting as political informants, especially on trips abroad. It was the beginning of the descent into the corrupt underworld of the Nazi regime.

Heather Pringle’s forte lies in her ability to depict the range of personalities employed by or related to the Ahnenerbe agency, and to evoke the atmosphere in the far-fetched places where they undertook their researches. (A fuller account of the 1938-39 expedition to Tibet can be found in Christopher Hale’s book Himmler’s Crusade, John Wiley 2003). Ms. Pringle places this episode in its wider political context.

The outbreak of war put an end to such ambitious trips abroad. The Ahnenerbe was obliged to concentrate on more urgent and war-related goals. For example, as soon as Poland was conquered, teams were dispatched to plunder its treasures and add them to the Ahnenerbe’s collections. In fifteen months, these thieving scholars managed to ransack 500 castles, estates, and private mansions, 102 libraries, 75 museums, 3 art galleries and 10 coin collections. And this was after both Goering and the Gestapo had already sent their own agents to make off with priceless artifacts. This set an ominous precedent for future pillaging expeditions in other Nazi-ravaged lands.

These grandiose schemes for looting Europe’s past heritage were, however, only part of the far-reaching proposals for reconstructing the whole continent according to Nazi racial doctrines. This was to be the Master Plan for the future. Germany’s military victories of 1939 to 1942 provided the incentive for Himmler to mobilize his by now considerable staffs to realize his long-held dreams. His principal goal consisted of building new agricultural settlements for the victorious troops, particularly the SS, where they would return to the pure Nordic ways of their ancestors. In Himmler’s eyes, the German East extending as far as the Urals was to be cultivated like a hothouse of German blood. It was to be the greatest piece of colonization the world had ever seen Ahnenerbe’s role was to provide the ideological justification for such a fateful enterprise.

At the same time, this master plan had a far more sinister side, namely the elimination of all racially unwanted elements, particularly the Jews. But German racial scholars had failed to find any clear definition of how the Jews were to be identified after so many centuries of intermarriage. Jewish blood was tainted. But how could it be biologically tracked down and eliminated? As the German conquerors swept over Poland and the Soviet Union, their Einsatzgruppen were set to work to murder en masse all readily identifiable Jews. But there were others. Ahnenerbe experts were recruited to use their scientific skills to ensure that doubtful cases were correctly categorized. At the same time, other experts were engaged in medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Most notorious was the case of Bruno Beger – he is still alive – who had been a member of the Tibet expedition, but who now took part in a large-scale project of skull measurements aimed at pinpointing the mental and racial characteristics of the Jewish race. To obtain enough specimens, an Ahnenerbe researcher – either Bruno Beger or anatomist August Hirt – suggested measuring the skulls of all Jewish Bolshevik Commissars captured in Russia, and turning their corpses over to the anatomy department of Strassburg University. This was later extended to victims at concentration camp closer to home base. Beger personally selected Jews in Auschwitz, who were then transferred to Natzweiler, close to Strassburg, and gassed there. Their bodies were then dissected for the specially-preserved Jewish skeletal collection. Only the end of the war precluded the vast expansion of these criminal experiments.

Himmler committed suicide while in British custody a few days after the end of hostilities. But enough of the Ahnenerbe’s records were captured for use in the Nuremberg Doctors‚ Trials to give a damning indictment of the perverted activities of these officials, acting under Himmler’s orders. In 1947, the Ahnenerbe’s managing director, Wolfram Sievers, was executed for his part in these heinous crimes. Most of the other so-called scholars, however, escaped with only light penalties. Some even got back their university positions. Beger spent more than a decade in freedom. In 1960 he was temporarily arrested, but released. Not until 1970 was he brought to trial for his part in the 86 Natzweiler murders. He was sentenced to a three-year prison term, later reduced.

Heather Pringle’s final chapter describes – with remarkable restraint – her interview with Beger in 2002. At the age of ninety-one, he expressed no regret or compassion for those he had helped to murder. Instead he saw himself as much wronged and falsely imprisoned by the politics of the post-war state. “This hideous self-pity was terrible to witness”, she comments. But Beger was not alone. Ms Pringle has no definite answer as to why such intelligent men crossed over the moral chasm to descend into barbarism. The closest she can suggest is that some combination of fatal ambition,. moral weakness and unthinking prejudice, motivated their conduct. But her story of the Nazi Ahnenerbe shows how forcefully scientific expertise can be manipulated for atrocious purposes. The careers she has so ably described stand as a warning we cannot afford to forget.


1b) Marcel Albert, Die Benediktinerabtei Maria Laach und der Nationalsozialismus
(Paderborn: Schoningh Verlag, 2004), 261 pp, ISBN: 3-506-70135-5

The Benedictine abbey, Maria Laach, poses a number of interpretative
challenges for historians writing on Roman Catholicism during the Third
Reich. This influential monastery in the Eifel became known as a center for
right-wing Catholicism already during the Weimar Republic. Its leaders
enthusiastically greeted the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. It was the only
Benedictine monastery in the Rhineland not to be confiscated by the Nazi
regime, even if part of the facility was converted into a hospital for
wounded soldiers. Yet at the same time, it provided a sanctuary for Konrad
Adenauer in 1934, who had been unceremoniously removed from his position as
mayor of Cologne. In addition, its leaders became the target of numerous
Gestapo interrogations, even as rumors spread that the monastery was to be
appropriated by the state. Maria Laach, in other words, resists simple
categories of resistance, collaboration, victimhood or capitulation.
Marcel Albert’s book deftly navigates this difficult terrain. Refreshingly
concise, it relies heavily on the unpublished memoirs of Ildefons Hedwegen,
a conservative monarchist who served as abbot of Maria Laach until his death
in 1946. At times self-serving, these memoirs provide the narrative thread
for this book. Albert quotes extensively from these, all the while
commenting on the accuracy and reliability of Hedwegen’s account. He also
makes extensive use of the archival holdings of the monastery itself,
supplementing these with official state and police reports. Throughout, he
retains a morally dispassionate tone, letting the events and Hedwegen’s
words speak for themselves.

Albert underscores that Maria Laach became a focal point in the Weimar
Republic for those right-wing Catholics disillusioned by the collapse of the
Hohenzollern monarchy and outraged at the Center Party’s coalitions with the
SPD. The monks, politicians, businessmen, theologians and students who
gathered there were strongly influenced by the idea of a coming “Reich,”
hoping to build a third Holy Roman Empire. Men such as Carl Schmitt, Emil
Ritter, Carl Eduward Herzog von Sachsen-Coburg all participated in events
sponsored by the monastery. Why did Maria Laach assume this function? Albert
convincingly explains that the Benedictines here attracted members of the
Catholic aristocracy, those who were more receptive to the right-wing
nationalist movements of the time.

Not surprisingly, both Hedwegen and many others at Maria Laach embraced
Hitler’s regime and even chided other Catholics for failing to work with the
new state. “Blood, soil and fate are the appropriate expressions for the
funamental powers of the time,” Hedwegen avowed. The rise of the Third
Reich, was part of the workings and designs of God. Hitler’s promise to
build Germany on a Christian foundation on March 21, 1933 led several monks
to hang a picture of Hitler in the abbey and to unfurl the black white red
flag of the bygone Kaiserreich. As late as 1939, one of the members of the
abbey, an artist who had converted to Catholicism, P. Theodor Bogler,
published a “Briefen an einen jungen Soldaten,” in which he let loose a
virulently anti-Jewish polemic. This openness to National Socialism by many
at Maria Laach did not go unnoticed by the Nazi press. The “Westdeutsche
Beobachter” reported that “one knows that the spirititual-religious
educational work of the Benedictines of Maria-Laach for years has
increasingly viewed itself responsible for all of the duties to renew the
national conscience.”

Yet the Nazis did not always reciprocate the embrace of the monks. Instead,
the Gestapo began to interrogate the monks, arresting one monk on charges of
homosexuality. The printing of Rosenberg’s “Myth of the 20th Century” and
the demotion of Franz von Papen politically forced Hedwegen to temper his
hopes already in 1934 of exerting a Christian influence on the new state.
Although the monastery was not closed down, as were all other Benedictine
abbeys in the area, its members had become a regular target of state
attacks. Albert makes it clear, however, that it was only the Nazi
persecution of the churches and not the attacks on the Jews or Nazi military
aggression that forced Hedwegen to see the regime in a new light. Similarly,
Hedwegen housed Adenauer for almost a year in his abbey not necessarily
because he agreed with the Center Party politician’s Weltanschauung, but
because Adenauer was a childhood friend from his days at school.
The book falls short only in its closing chapters. Albert shows that the
abbey cultivated a positive relationship to Adenauer and the CDU after 1945,
but retained its monarchist beliefs. One would have liked a more extensive
description of the role that the monastery played in the construction of the
West German state and culture. One might have also welcomed a discussion of
how the abbey dealt with criticism of its support for National Socialism
launched by Heinrich Boll, who famously pilloried it in his work, “Billard
um halb Zehn.” This criticism notwithstanding, this remains an excellent,
brief account of Maria Laach, one that thanks to its morally neutral tone
will leave readers eagerly awaiting a sequel.

Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

2) Book notes:

a) E. Röhm and Jörg Thiefelder, Juden-Christen-Deutsche Band 4/1 1941-1945
Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag 2004, 704 Pp. ISBN 3-7668-3887-3

This is the latest volume in this excellently researched series, and covers the last years of the Second World War, when the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews was at its height. The volume concentrates on the efforts made by the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, to rescue or assist these Jewish victims, not only in Germany, but also in western Europe. This scholarship is compendious and up-to-date, and includes replicas of surviving documents. Notable figures who helped Jews, like the Catholics Margarete Sommer and Gertrud Luckner are given their due, as are also the heroic people of Le Chambon in southern France, whose Huguenot pastor Andre Trocme mobilized his community to offer sanctuary to hundreds of Jews. On a smaller scale, tribute is paid to the whole series of Lutheran pastors and their wives who sheltered Jews on the run in Württemberg. And the efforts of Protestants in the World Council of Churches and in Scandinavia, Holland and England are described. Much of this information has been known for some time, but it is all assembled here in meticulous and very readable detail.

The authors do not venture on to the controversial topic of the Vatican’s attempts to rescue Jews, and nothing is said about eastern Europe. But the story of those Germans who were involved in this dangerous and fateful enterprise, and what they managed to achieve, is here put in its proper context. Presumably there will be another Part to this Volume 4, and it will be much welcomed.

b) eds. Thomas Kaufmann and Harry Oelke, Evangelische Kirchenhistoriker im “Dritten Reich”. Gütersloh: Chr.Kaiser Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2002

The German Evangelical Church has long prided itself on the eminence of its church historians. Their positions at most German universities made them a prominent part of the Establishment. Adolf von Harnack, for instance, enjoyed a world-wide reputation as the most distinguished historian of his generation. They were frequently called on to express their views as authoritative spokesmen for church and society. But in the turbulent political circumstances of the early twentieth century, these men increasingly became involved in trying to make sense of their political and cultural dilemmas, and turned to extremist movements such as the Nazi Party as the answer to Germany’s problems. Such leading scholars as Emanuel Hirsch and Erich Seeberg frequently used their academic status to advance their political preferences in support of the new regime. Their opponents championed the orthodox Confessing Church with equal vigour. Two younger scholars, Thomas Kaufmann and Harry Oelke, have now edited an earlier conference proceedings which brings out clearly the stances adopted by these much disputed figures. They show how readily theology can be misused for political purposes, but also how the wider questions of nationalism, the effects of the first world war, church goverance and the writing of church history were formative factors in the mid-set of these academics.

b) ed. Jochen-Christoph Kaiser, Zwangsarbeit in Diakonie und Kirche 1939-45,
(Konfession und Gesellschaft, Band 32). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag, 2005 464 Pp.
ISBN 3-17-018347-8

Sixty years after the end of the second world war, Germans are still wrapt up in Verhangenheitsbewältigung or coming to terms with the past. Of late, one group has been re-activating their sense of self-pity with numerous studies of German sufferings at the hands of the inhumane British Air Force and its murderous and indiscriminate bombing. Another group, more remorsefully, is now breast-beating about the mistreatment meted out to the several million foreign workers in Germany during the war, many of whom were deported there as forced labour in particularly punitive circumstances. The need to compensate those still alive for their horrendous experiences has at last been recognized and accepted. Many large industries are already instituting payments. But the situation in smaller institutions, such as the churches, is more problematic. Hence the value of this collection of essays dealing with the experiences in various branches of the German Evangelical Churches, such as church-run hospitals, old age homes, forestry camps or local parishes. The book resulted from a nation-wide investigation of the churches‚ deployment of such forced labour – both male and female -during these turbulent years.

Edited by Jochen-Christoph Kaiser, a senior Professor of Church History at Marburg University, and published in the prestigious series Konfession und Gesellschaft, this volume provides a particularly sharp picture of local conditions, and gives details of the criminally inhumane sadism of many Germans, especially in the police and Gestapo.

Necessarily the evidence is largely drawn from official reports and statistics. Only occasionally are the voices of the victims themselves heard, and then only in retrospect.

In recent years the churches have attempted to make some recompense to the survivors in a spirit of confession of guilt and reconciliation. These gestures include invitations to those who could be traced to return as guests to the communities in Germany where they had been forced to work. Also the German Protestant Churches are eager to disburse some 10 million D Mark to those now in need. It is hardly surprising that the response to such initiatives after so many years is ambivalent. Many of the former slave labourers are reluctant to dwell on the more painful aspects of their Germnan experiences. The prospect of receiving some financial recompense may also affect their answers to the well-meaning enquiries by the authors of these reports. Readers of these accounts should bear this consideration in mind.

c) ed Wolfgang Benz, Selbstbehauptung und Opposition. Kirche als Ort des Widerstandes gegen staatliche Diktatur. Berlin: Metropol Verlag 2003 212 Pp. ISBN 3-936411-32-8

Over the past two decades, the self-understanding of the German Protestant churches, as reflected in their historiography, has undergone a radical alteration, largely due to the repercussions of, and reflections upon, the turbulent political events of the past century. During the first half of the twentieth century, these churches saw themselves as loyal upholders of the political and social establishment. But the persecution of the churches by the two dictatorships, first of the Nazis, and, more latterly by the Communists in the former German Democratic Republic, caused a much more critical stance to emerge. Church members have now begun to realize that the role of the churches is no longer to act as the obedient spokemen for the ruling power. Rather it is to stand by the poor and oppressed, to speak out as the voice of the voiceless, and to see themselves as advocates for peace and justice, if necessary against the power of the nation-state.

This collection of essays pays tribute to some of those who valiantly championed this new theologically-based insight, and gives specific details of the struggles they faced.

Some leading figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer are already well known. But others are not so familiar, such as Adolf Freudenberg, who was exiled because of his Jewish wife, and became the refugee co-ordinator for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, particulaly seeking to assist persecuted Jews to escape from the Nazi clutches. So too the courageous group of notable but lonely women members of the Confessing Church in Berlin, Elisabeth Schmitz, Marga Meusel and Gertrud Staewen, deserve to be better known. As core members of Niemöller’s parish in Dahlem, they were early alerted to the need to mobilize opposition to Nazi injustices. The memoranda they prepared for their Synods as early as 1935 and 1936 on the mistreatment of the Jews were significant contributions. Unfortunately, in a male-dominated church, their witness was more or less ignored.

Institutionally, only the Jehovah’s Witnesses adopted a courageous attitude of non-collaboration with the Nazi state. But their special theological premises are not here explored. Instead, we are given a perceptive chapter on the ambivalent responses of such free churches as the Baptists and the Brethren. Basically all of these smaller communities concentrated on the personal salvation of their members, and so lacked any theological capability of organizing a political stance contrary to Romans 13:1 Inevitably they became fellow travelers with the Nazi regime.

After 1945, the spectre of totalitarian rule was carried forward in the Soviet-occupied zone in what became the German Democratic Republic. Persecution of the churches under Communism was equally repressive, at least for the first decade. Open opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. But in the later years, the church leaders were again prepared to compromise in favour of a “Church in Socialism”, largely because of the dramatic decline in church membership. It was left to youth groups to maintain the tradition of vocal resistance, despite the ever-watchful surveillance of the Stasi. The short chapter on the youth groups‚ struggles in Jena which concludes the book makes clear the difficulties and dilemmas they faced. But, even with their success in 1989, these youth groups were not able to develop a coherent policy for the whole church. That still remains to be worked out. Unfortunately, because of a lack of co-ordination between the authors, and the absence of any connecting theme, this book does little to advance our understanding of this task.

3a) Joe Perry, “Nazifying Christmas: Political Culture and Popular celebration in the Third Reich” in Central European History, Vol. 38, no. 4, 2005, Pp. 275ff.

Joe Perry argues that celebrations of public holidays in the Third Reich were not a simple matter of top-down control or a propaganda exercise which evoked passive submission or private resistance. Instead, the Nazis built up active and enthusiastic support for their racially-based regime through ceremoinies which combined both tradition and novelty. Christmas had, of course, its own long-standing traditions, but the Nazis succeeded in redefining this feast in terms of national belonging with neo-pagan overtones. Nazi ideologues made much of the Nordic origins of the Aryan race. So the winter solstice, the yule log and mistletoe were recruited for their purposes. But these items were of 19th century origin. The Nazi innovation was more to stress the uniqueness of the racial connections, which could be mobilized in large-scale gatherings around the “Nordic” Christmas tree. Naturally Jews were excluded. Father Christmas, as champion of the Winter relief collection, replaced the saintly Nicholas. Radio broadcasts, reaching millions, emphasized the Nazi Party’s holiday charity in addresses which carefully avoided any reference to God or Christ. Shoppers for Christmas presents were encouraged to buy German handicrafts and to avoid Jewish-owned department stores. The Winter releif campaigns were also highly politicized, both in the appeals and in the distributions. Both sought to get rid of Christian sympathy and instead to promote German national unity. To be sure, the Nazi de-christianization of Christmas met with strong and largely successful resistance from the churches. During the war, despite all sorts of difficulties imposed on the military chaplains, the troops still wanted a traditoional Christmas, including familiar carols. So the Nazi attempts to turn the Christmas myth into a celebration of an exclusionary racial utopia were only partially effective, and of course did not survive the regime’s fall. But by pushing and nationalizing its racial ideology, the Party did manage to engage large numbers of people, and hence “secularized” German society still further.

b) Uwe Kaminsky, “Zwischen Rassenhygiene und Biotechnologie. Die Fortsetzung der eugenischen Debatte in Diakonie und Kirche 1945 bis 1969” in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, Vol 116, no 2, 2005
In this article the author discusses how the debates over eugenics, including sterilization, abortion and euthanasia, which had been widely launched in the 1920s in Germany, were then taken over by the Nazis and implemented for their own racial purposes. After the war, the same issues still remained, but the shadow of the Nazi past prevented any large-scale facing of the issues. Remarkably, however, many of the so-called scientists who has participated in the Nazi experiments, continued to uphold their previous views, and often in the same jobs as before. In the churches, the loss of influence felt in the 1960s and 1970s meant that the topic of eugenics no longer aroused concern. The church eugenics commission was dissolved. But the ethical issues associated with biotechnology still remain.

With best wishes
John S.Conway