June 2009 Newsletter
Association of Contemporary Church Historians
(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)
John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia
June 2009 — Vol. XV, no. 6
In Memoriam: Professor Franklin Littell
1) Book reviews:
a) Davies and Conway, World Christianity in the 20th century
b) Fleming, The Vatican Pimpernel
2) Journal articles:
a) Ebel, The Great War, Religious Authority and the American Fighting Man
b) Hellwege, Missouri Synod’s attitudes towards Nazi Germany
Death of Franklin Littell
It is with great sadness that we learn of the death on May 23rd in Philadelphia of Franklin Littell at the age of 91. Franklin was essentially an inspiring preacher whose Methodist upbringing and training led him to be the champion of good causes in the service of his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He brought to this task both indefatigable energy and enormous organizational talent, and never tired of encouraging his supporters, both men and women, to follow in his footsteps on the path of peace and reconciliation.
As a leader of Young Methodists in the United States before the outbreak of the second world war, Franklin was a dedicated pacifist. But when he came to Union Theological Seminary, he was greatly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, and recognized the power of evil in world events, particularly as being demonstrated in Europe by National Socialism. After 1945 he was recruited to serve in the Religious Affairs branch of the American Military Government in Germany, and during the next ten years did much to assist in the reconstruction of the German Churches. His short book The German Phoenix describing these developments was published in 1960.
But Franklin will be principally remembered for the initiative he started in 1970 when he became convinced that the most urgent task for the Christian churches was to overcome the legacy of antipathy towards the Jewish people. This age-long hostility, he affirmed, had played a major role in the German churches’ capitulation and compromise with Nazism which had allowed the Holocaust to proceed without protest. He therefore in 1970 called together a group of Christian scholars to unite with Jewish partners to combat this evil and to prepare the way for a new approach for friendship, cooperation and dialogue between Christians and Jews. The resulting Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches became an important meeting place for historians, church scholars and educators. He also established the doctoral programme on Holocaust Studies at Temple University, and in his retirement taught Holocaust Studies at Richard Stockton College.
In this cause, Franklin wrote a large number of books and articles, the most notable being The Crucifixion of the Jews, which came out in 1975. He continued for several decades to give leadership at annual conferences, inspiring his younger colleagues to become actively involved in human rights causes, especially on behalf of the beleagured citizens of Israel, in part repayment of the Christian failures of earlier years. His dedication to this cause, and his services to such organizations as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, the Yad Vashem Governing Body in Jerusalem,or the German Evangelical Churches’ Kirchentag Council, set a notable example, while the hundreds of students who took his courses in Holocaust Studies will long remember his energetic and memorable determination to revitalize Christian witness by rediscovering the links to Judaism. We can be grateful for his many years of upholding his ideals in word and print, and will especially recall the resolute encouragement he gave to all who challenged the awful inheritance of Christian antisemitism. JSC
Noel Davies and Martin Conway,World Christianity in the 20th Century, 2 vols
SCM Core Text and SCM Reader, London: SCM Press 2008. 308 and 283 Pp.
ISBN 978 0 334 04043 9 and 978 0 334 04044 6.
These two volumes, the first a narrative and the second a collection of documents, belong together but can also be read separately. They are intended especially for students to give an overall world perspective, and to provide a comparative account of the main developments within Christianity in the twentieth century for the sake of readers who will face similar challenges in the twenty-first century. The authors, both British, have wide experience of the ecumenical movement both nationally and internationally. They write from inside the Christian faith community without being tied down by too local or denominational loyalties. But essentially they want to celebrate the exciting story of the development of Christian life and discipleship around the globe during the past hundred years, as well as noting the failures for which Christians are called to repent.
The twentieth century was one of constant, often unpredictable change, dominated by violent wars and political revolutions which frequently inflicted disasters on many populations. More recently the world has come to realize that there are other dangers no less threatening emerging from humanity`s misuse of the world`s natural resources, as of the newer inventions of technology and modern science. The message from the Christian heritage to be brought to the world today is therefore both complex and challenging.
One advantage stressed by the authors is that the during the past century Christianity has truly become a world faith. It has emerged from being definitely identified with the colonizing powers of Europe and North America, and now can be considered as a genuinely worldwide community. This is not merely a geographical description, but rather a global identity when all branches of the Christian churches can and do share a similar vision of belonging and witnessing to Jesus Christ and his hope for salvation
The past century saw great strides made to overcome some of the more divisive features of the past, but today, as the authors affirm, the emphasis has to be not so much on the unifying of church institutions as a witness to serving the unity and integrity of humanity as a whole. From the early twentieth century, the institutional embodiment of these goals was seen to lie in the various forms of the ecumenical movement, first sponsored by Protestants and later given an established forum through the World Council of Churches. By the end of the century it had, however, become clear that the World Council of Churches would not be able to fulfill its pioneers’ hopes that it would become the unifying institution for all the churches. The refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to join its ranks remains a major stumbling block. Nevertheless its impetus is undeniable and is here featured in the series of documents selected to reflect the world-wide expansion of the Church.
The core text then gives four chapters describing the four major “families” of churches, the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the historic Protestants and the Pentecostals. In each there are references to major documents, contemporary statements, or significant writings, which are reproduced in the corresponding chapter of the Reader, so that the narrative and the explanatory commentary can easily be correlated. For example, the chapter on twentieth century developments in the Roman Catholic Church refers extensively to the reports of the Second Vatican Council, which the authors see as a highly significant turning point in that church’s life. So too those elements in the Protestant churches, as in Pentecostalism, which look forward to an increased ecumenical awareness and cooperation are stressed, while disappointment, rather than criticism, is expressed where contrary trends are still in evidence. They make the judgment that it has been Protestant theologians and teachers who have pursued and wrestled with the changes and developments in learning and society, and have begun demanding and sensitive theological explorations of the major issues of today’s world problems.
The core text, as well as the reader, then devotes seven chapters to different parts of the world examining the vast variety of experiences of the various Christian communities, some positive and expanding, others such as in Europe, clearly on the defensive. These surveys are excellent in their coverage and balanced in their approach. They are on the whole optimistic about the future, but certainly avoid any trace of triumphalism. On the contrary, the emphasis is all on the need for ecumenical dialogue between the churches as institutions, as well as between the world’s major religions. They pay tribute to the dynamism which is now to be found more urgently and energetically among Christians in the southern hemisphere, both in Africa as well as in the Pacific islands, than in the more comfortable and economically successful North and West. At the same time, they point out clearly the problems which challenge the advance of Christianity, as for example in India and other parts of South Asia where the Christian witness confronts the deeply-rooted majority belonging to other faiths, while also dealing with their own poverty and marginalization which have had devastating consequences for their followers. For Europe, the authors, both of them Europeans, concentrate on the factors which have seen a long decline in the rates of regular churchgoing, and where the degree of public interest in Christian ideas and convictions has been far from what Christian leaders have hoped for. Among these factors was certainly the impact of the disastrous self-inflicted wars which engulfed Europe, and destroyed much of the credibility of their inherited Christian faith.
The final chapters take up four major themes, namely war and peace, the response of faith to contemporary science, the perspectives of women and the future of relations between Christians and other faiths. The authors’ comments on these issues are both insightful and helpful. Because of this, they cannot be overoptimistic about the state of the world, seeing all too clearly the potential for disasters, both political, social and climatic. But they remain convinced that the Christian community can and must rise to the occasion to present a new vision to the world. They conclude with some uplifting words from the German theologian Hans Küng: “Christians may be sure that Christianity has a future even in the third millennium after Christ, that this spirit an faith has its own kind of infallibility. . . Despite all mistakes and errors, sins and vices, the community of believers will be maintained by the Spirit in the truth of Jesus Christ”.
1b) Brian Fleming, The Vatican Pimpernel. The wartime exploits of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Cork: The Collins Press. 2008 212 Pp. ISBN 13- 0781905172573.
Few people today have read the romantic novels of Baroness Orczy, written more than a hundred years ago, the most famous of which, The Scarlet Pimpernel, recorded the adventures of the British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Blakeney. During the height of the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror, he went over to France, and succeeded ,by means of tricks and disguises, in rescuing French aristocrats destined for the guillotine, and brought them safely back to England’s shores. The only sign of these dangerous exploits was to leave behind a small red flower, the scarlet pimpernel. This acronym has since become the symbol of daring acts of rescue on behalf of the victims opf political oppression.
Ther is no evidence that the Irish Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty had ever heard of Baroness Orczy’s courageous hero. But the role he played during the second world war, as a member of the Vatican’s secretariat, had many similarities. O’Flaherty was a genial, outgoing, golf-playing Irishman, whose clerical career had led him to be appointed to the Vatican’s diplomatic staff during the 1930s. His capacity for making friends in high society, both on and off the golf course, was to stand him in good stead.
When the war spread to Italy, he was appointed to be a member of the special Vatican commission, charged with the welfare of refugees and prisoners of war. In this capacity he visited a number of Italian camps for British and Commonwealth prisoners of war, providing comforts, cigarettes and Red Cross parcels to these men, but also ascertaining their names, which were then transmitted over the Vatican radio to their relatives at home. It was all part of the Catholic Church’s works of mercy. But this was only the first step. O’Flaherty was soon enough to become involved in much more dangerous exploits on behalf of many of these soldiers and airmen from a variety of countries, by rescuing them from being recaptured, by providing them with hiding places of refuge along with the necessary contacts, and maintaining them for as long as necessary, sometimes for months at a time.
His story has now been written up by a retired Irish teacher, Brian Fleming, who has diligently researched the surviving records, interviewed several of those involved, and pursued the matter in both Irish and British archives. Unfortunately the Vatican’s own papers are still not available. Equally unfortunately O’Flaherty wrote no memoirs. And while Fleming is well aware that exact figures for the rescue attempts made by the Monsignor and his associates are impossible to establish with certainty, his estimates of the extent of these heroic activities carry conviction.
By 1942 numerous prisoners of war had escaped from captivity in Italy, made their way to Rome and sought the help of this friendly English-speaking priest. The first to arrive were three New Zealand soldiers seeking sanctuary in the Vatican. O’Flaherty immediately arranged for them to be helped. In the following weeks a large number of other soldiers and airmen followed, and also appealed for assistance. In fact there were so many that the existence of this escape route became known. This proved to be an embarrassment for the Vatican authorities since it posed serious moral and political dilemmas.
Officially the Vatican was a neutral state. On the outbreak of war Pope Pius XII had decreed a policy of strict impartiality. He hoped to use the Vatican’s diplomatic influence to persuade all the warring parties to cease hostilities and to agree to a negotiated peace settlement. So any overt action, such as assisting members of one side’s armed forces to escape from captivity, was bound to be seen as hostile by the other side, and hence would compromise the Vatican’s carefully guarded stance. Orders were issued to the Swiss Guard that anyone seeking refuge in the Vatican or on papal property was to be refused. This prohibition however only made O’Flaherty more determined to help where he could.
His situation was only made more onerous by the fact that his own government in Ireland had adopted the same policy of strict neutrality. The Irish had in fact two Ambassadors in Rome, one attached to the Vatican and one to the Italian state. The latter diplomat clearly disapproved of O’Flaherty. His activities on behalf of the escapees was seen by this Ambassador as irresponsible and crassly publicity-seeking, to be discouraged where possible. However, in the Vatican itself, the Irish Ambassador’s wife proved to be much more congenial and helpful. So too numerous Italian friends and contacts, presumably pro-British or anti-Fascist, offered assistance in hiding these escaped soldiers, often for long periods. The British Minister to the Vatican, D’Arcy Osborne, provided considerable sums of money drawn on the Foreign Office in London, to make this support possible. One Italian princess, herself hiding out in the Vatican, was particularly helpful ion forging new identity documents for the escapees.
The situation became even more dangerous as the German grip tightened on Rome, especially after the Italian government’s capitulation in September 1943. Immediately German troops flooded south, and actually surrounded the Vatican’s small 108 acres of territory. But they did not invade it, despite widespread rumours that they intended to kidnap the Pope. Gestapo agents were alleged to have infiltrated the Vatican’s premises. The tension there was palpable. Despite this O’Flaherty managed to carry on. According to Fleming, by November 1943 the Monsignor and his associates had placed in excess of a thousand ex-POWs in safety, concealing them in convents,crowded flats or outlying farms.
Maintaining these contacts and collecting donations for their support was a risky venture, even for those in clerical clothes. On one occasion, O’Flaherty was caught in a Gestapo-led raid, but managed to escape through the coal cellar, disguised as a coalman.
In other visits to his charges and contacts in Rome he adopted various tricky stratagems. But his resolve to assist those in need remained unchanged. His determination was only strengthened when the German occupiers began their vindictive pursuit of the Roman Jews and other opponents. O’Flaherty was only marginally involved in attempts to rescue civilian Jews, but naturally was shocked by the treatment they received at the hands.of the German assailants. The October 1943 roundup and deportation of 1000 Jews to Auschwitz sent shock waves throughout Rome. According to Fleming, 477 Roman Jews were sheltered in the Vatican itself, while 4238 found refuge in monasteries and convents in the city. While no precise orders from the Pope himself to provide such assistance have yet been found, there can be no doubt that Vatican officials were aware of these steps being taken and did not countermand them. Only political considerations prevented any open or enthusiastic endorsement of these humanitarian gestures.
With the rising number of Allied escapees, it was vital to take a more organized approach. O’Flaherty’s spontaneous but risk-filled endeavours needed a steadier hand. This was found in the person of Major Sam Derry, who had escaped to the Vatican earlier, and was then recruited by the British Minister to be O’Flherty’s chief of staff. He took over the work of finding places for men to live and ensuring that they received supplies. In addition he maintained accurate records of the escapees assisted, as well as of their Italian hosts, so that eventually these persons could be recompensed by the British and American governments. Derry’s account of his services, written in 1960, was one of Fleming’s principal sources, and filled in the official documents of the British organization in Rome for assisting Allied escaped prisoners of war, now held in the British Public Record Office.
By the end of 1943 the situation was deteriorating. The German Gestapo had stepped up its recaptures, and it was clear that O’Flaherty’s organization was known and was being watched. Indeed he actually had a meeting with the German Ambassador to the Vatican, von Weizsäcker, who warned him not to leave the Vatican territory. A similar advice would seem to have been given by his Vatican superior, Msgr Montini, later Pope Paul VI. But the quasi-military but still amateur underground continued its efforts. Assistance came from a variety of anti-German and anti-Fascist groups, priests, diplomats, communists, noblemen and humble folk, all collaborating in a remarkably valiant manner. Some of them were themselves obliged to go underground to evade the authorities, but all acknowledged O’Flaherty as their inspirer and encourager. Fleming gives an excellent account of this cat-and-mouse game during these months.
In January 1944 the Allies landed at Anzio, only 30 miles south of Rome. Unfortunately they did not take advantage of the clear road, and were contained there by the Germans for another five months, much to the disappointment of the Roman citizens and of course their proteges, the Allied ex-POWs.
By the end of March 1944, O’Flaherty’s organization, administered now by Major Derry,had expanded vastly. The total number of escapees and evaders they were looking after had increased to 3,423 and the number of accommodations in Rome itself was approximately 200. The cost was estimated at nearly 3 million Lire a month. There were also casualties. Between mid-March and early May, at least 46 men whom they had been caring for were either recaptured or shot, some as the result of denunciations. The food situation in Rome was critical, and necessarily was worse for those without official ration cards. Fascist groups were seeking a last chance to make a name for themselves by rounding up POWs or political opponents. Running battles escalated between the authorities and the resistance. Nevertheless, even in these desperate circumstances, Derry and his team were subsidizing 164 escaped prisoners in Rome, and in excess of 3500 in the countryside around, in 32 different locations.
Rome was at last liberated on June 5th 1944, and O’Flaherty and his helpers no longer had to fear for their lives. Instead they assisted in repatriating the ex-POWs, and in compensating those who had helped them. The British Government alone provided £1 million. For his services O’Flaherty was awarded the C.B.E., and later the American government gave him the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, a rare honour for a non-American. But O’Flaherty’s sympathy for those in need did not change. He now energetically sought help for those Italian prisoners of war held by the Allies in both Britain and Africa,.and even pleaded on behalf of known Fascist collaborators. Fleming does not discuss the still controversial subject of the assistance given to Nazi criminals trying to escape to Latin America. But he does admit that O’Flaherty was reported to be working for Germans and Italians in trouble with the Allied authorities and for refugees still in hiding around Rome. Supposedly the food and provisions he brought to these people were paid for by the Pope. Interestingly his pastoral sympathies even extended to the notorious and convicted Nazi war criminal, Kappler, whom he regularly visited in prison, and later received into the Roman Catholic faith.
In later years, O’Flaherty continued in the Vatican’s service until his returement in 1960. He died in 1963 Fleming deplores the fact that he has not received the kind of recognition he deserves from either the Irish government or the Catholic Church. One reason may be due to the official Irish disapproval of those who were involved in helping their old enemy, the British. But the Church’s failure is more puzzling, especially for one who in Fleming’s view “fulfilled his mission with extraordinary conviction, ingenuity, courage and compassion for his fellow men. Indeed this was a great and good man”.
2a) Journal articles: a) Jonathan Ebel, The Great War, Religious Authority and the American Fighting Man in Church History, Vol. 78, no.1, March 2009, pp. 99-133.
The American involvement in the first or Great War was unprecedented by taking place wholly in Europe. This distance from the homeland, as well as the tangled web of causes, led to a high degree of ambiguity about the morality of the nation’s participation. To be sure, the American clergy, as in all other nations,eagerly sought to find divine approval,for the war effort. Frequently and vociferously, they denigrated or demonized the German enemy and, following Woodrow Wilson, proclaimed America’s purity of intentions. America, they held, fought for honour not for gain.. But the ordinary fighting soldier had more down-to-earth priorities. His principal concern was to use the opportunity to prove his manhood. A muscular Christianity was more to his taste. And many of the chaplains recruited from the local parishes saw the war as an opportunity to revitalize their witness among young men by getting to know the “regular guy” in the trenches. The war was therefore seen as a chance to make the clergy’s reputations as “regular men”, and thus to attract these young men back to the church. The interaction of the army’s and the clergy’s expectations is the subject of Jonathan Ebel’s investigation.
Like most of the U.S. military forces in 1917, the U.S.military chaplaincy was unprepared for a major overseas war. When they got to France, the chaplains found themselves on wholly unfamiliar ground. The exigencies of war trumped existing personal relationships and displaced any denominational ties. Religious authority counted for little among such a varied group of man. Instead, all were to share in the shock of battle and its tragedies. Chaplains were obliged to find a new vocabulary in order to apply religious images in dealing with the sufferings and deaths they encountered. On the other hand, for some the war was a revitalizing experience, was central to the construction of western manhood, and even led to valuable social and religious impulses.
The average American chaplain expected that the genuineness of his Christian motives and his self-sacrifice in coming to France would be appreciated by the soldiers at the front. He was therefore quickly disillusioned when he found no such acceptance of his moral and spiritual superiority. On the contrary, many of the “average” soldiers judged their pastors differently. Only those who displayed virility, dedication and bravery in the front line earned respect. Too many chaplains seemed to be concerned only with matters of superficial morality. Too often they were relegated to rear areas, and not given the opportunity to display the desirable behaviour their men expected. Pastoral care and witness, for example in hospitals, seemed only to reinforce the notion of the effeminacy of the clergy.
One effect was to encourage the spread of muscular Christianity among the chaplains and their associates. The programmes of the YMCA, church-sponsored Boy Scout troops, and numerous church youth activities stressed the virtues of Christian manliness. When the clergy failed to live up to such standards, or lacked the energy to fight a good fight for Jesus, so their message did not get through to the “regular guy” in the battalion front lines or afterwards in his home community. In particular the frequent war-time “crusades against vice” provoked many soldiers to rail against narrow-minded or effeminate Christian preachers who promoted such causes in bursts of what was considered a misguided morality. To the soldiers’ spokesmen, such as the editors of Stars and Stripes, this moralistic campaign with its emphasis on the sins of alcohol consumption, venereal diseases, foul language and other forms of ill conduct, was both corrosive and corrupt. The soldiers’ manliness and heroism in battle had demonstrated their Christian virtues. What did a few swear words matter? Home front moral standards were irrelevant in the context of war.. The first priority was to win the war, not to worry about “clean” living.
The moral circumstances of war in France, combined with the uncertainty regarding the future, led men to seek what pleasure was left in life. Remonstrances by clergymen were only counterproductive and did little to enhance the churches’ reputation. Such criticisms about the soldiers’ behaviour could lead to criticism of their participation in the war effort, or even to questioning the war itself. All such critiques were to be rejected. And those who voiced such opinions should be sent to feel the heat of battle and see the viciousness of the enemy. War would make true Christians of them.
The importance of “manly” personality and style as foundation stones of religious authority and legitimacy emerges in numerous accounts written by soldiers and chaplains alike. Hypocrisy was the chaplain’s worst fault. Front-line experience led the soldiers to value a genuine “regular guy” as pastor, especially if his battle demeanour matched that of his men. Only such chaplains were able to do “a world of good” and in return received the approbation of the soldiery.
The results of this kind of pressure on the chaplains could not fail to be ambiguous. In post-war America, the virtues of the American Fighting Man in the front-line trenches were hardly appropriate. Ebel might have gone on to examine the crisis of credibility which all Christians, but particularly the clergy, faced, as they began to face up to the incompatibility of their over-enthusiastic endorsing of the war with the Gospel of Jesus and peace as found in the New Testament. But that is another story.
2b) John Hellwege. What was going on over there? The Missouri Synod’s struggle to understand Pre-war Nazi Germany as seen in two popular publications, in Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, 2007.
For some older members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in the United States the rise of Adolf Hitler presented some problems. Some of them had at one time been residents of Germany; others had parents or grandparents who had emigrated from Germany. Quite naturally they had their own ethnic loyalties that were typical of immigrant groups. Early in Hitler’s rule some of these were pleased with the emerging prosperity in Germany under the Nazi government, and were satisfied by the resolution of some of what they considered to be the injustices of the Versailles Treaty. However, as the decade progressed, as they received reports of Nazi cruelty and criminal activity, they were at first puzzled and later alienated from Nazi Germany.
John Hellwege traces the progression of this change in attitudes within the Synod as reflected in their two most popular newspapers, The Lutheran Witness and Der Lutheraner. With hindsight, we now realize that a serious storm was brewing, one that unleashed the Holocaust as well as World War II. However, this was not clear during the 1930s. Many Christians in the U..S. struggled to come to grips with what Hitler’s rule meant. Part of their problem arose over what sources of news about Germany could be trusted. Many Missouri Lutherans distrusted the mainstream press, whose reports were frequently discounted as biased against Germany and therefore unreliable. These readers still recalled the anti-German propaganda spread so widely during World War I. In light of this, the benefit of any doubt was usually given to Germany, not to the American press. Given this variety of opinions and the complexity of the German scene in 1933, the Lutheran press concentrated principally on the religious situation in Germany. But this too was highly convoluted, as the larger German Protestant churches attempted to adapt to their new political circumstances.
Undeniably most Lutherans in Germany, particularly those of the middle classes, welcomed Hitler’s advent to power. His promises to support the churches, his readiness to combat the danger of communism, and even his antipathy to Jewish materialism, were all aspects which Lutherans could agree with. More problematic was the kind of rhetoric employed by the more extreme of the Nazi supporters in the Protestant ranks. These men and women, calling themselves the “German Christians”, sought to integrate the churches into the new life promised by the Nazi revolution. This meant not only abandoning the hierarchic and conservative church bureaucracies at the local levels, but rather enthusiastically showing their support for the new regime and its political goals. It was at this point that opposition began to be seen within the Protestant ranks in Germany, and also abroad in such circles as the Missouri Synod.
Specifically the Missouri Synod distrusted all moves to unite the Protestant churches in Germany, which they rightly felt would lead toa dilution of their traditional Lutheran witness. Their own existence had been based on a staunch witness against other denominations, such as Calvinism, as well as a determination to resist control by the state or monarchies. They now feared that both these principles were being sacrificed by their German colleagues. The kind of church called for by the Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, newly appointed by Adolf Hitler, seemed to be based on an amalgamation of Lutheran, Calvinist and Unionist principles, which in their view would be impossible because heretical, or at least deviant from the true Lutheran heritage. The danger of state control was also very much in the minds of these conservative Lutherans. The witness and ministry of the church could easily be compromised if political considerations were to become upperrmost in the governance of the church. As such there would surely follow an erosion of doctrine and rejection of God’s word as the source and norm of all behaviour and belief. So too the danger was realized that German national interests could be given priority over the Word and Sacraments. In fact, the Missouri Synod’s editors preferred to advise their German counterparts to separate from all political engagements.
In 1934 the organization of the Confessing Church, as opponents of the “German Christians” and as staunch defenders of traditional orthodoxy in Protestant doctrine, was naturally greeted with acclaim by the Missouri Synod. But, at the same time, the fact that the principal statement of this group, issued at Barmen in May 1934, was largely composed by Professor Karl Barth, a well-known Calvinist, meant that this Declaration received no attention in the Missouri press. On the other hand the Confessing Church was praised for its refusal to become an arm of the Nazi state, as the “German Christians” demanded. But in so far as the Confessing Church was also a coalition of Lutherans and non-Lutherans, so the verdict from Missouri was that the Confessing Church was doing the right thing but for the wrong reasons.
The Missouri Synod publications rightly condemned the attempts of the “German Christians” to water down the faith, or to politicize its message, as for example by introducing the so-called “Aryan paragraph” which forbade persons of Jewish origins from holding pastoral offices in the church. These attempts were denounced as “tyranny”. as were the efforts to “liberate” the German church from the Old Testament, as being too “Jewish”. Such views were regarded as yet another sign of the pernicious influence of liberal theology, and was rightly deplored by all good Missouri Synod members.
Subsequently, close attention was paid to the activities of such groups as Professor Hauer’s German Faith Movement, a pantheistic gathering, which however was loudly supported by Nazi propagandists because of its opposition to the conservative “reactionaries” in the mainstream Churches. Its efforts to promote neo-pagan ideas about Germany’s destiny, which often formed part of the Nazi propaganda, or to advocate such non-Christian festivals as the Yule Days or the winter solstice in place of Christmas, also served to alienate Missouri Synod followers across the Atlantic.
Even more crucial was Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews. The Missouri Synod leaders clearly maintained a traditional view of the Jews as a people who had sinned by putting Christ to death, but who nonetheless deserved to be invited to become Christians. Indeed the Jews, like all other people, needed Jesus as their Saviour. And considerable efforts to missionize the Jews were being made. Consequently the Nazi campaigns of vilification, discrimination, and expulsion were seen to be wholly misguided, and indeed a stain upon Germany’s record for tolerance and fair play. Such an impression was only confirmed when the news of the November 1938 pogrom against the Jews became a world-wide scandal.
Nevertheless many Missouri Synod supporters were at first fascinated, as were their German counterparts, by the personality of Adolf Hitler. His forceful leadership was praised, as was his readiness to tackle the danger of a “Bolshevik revolution” head-on. Beyond this there was much praise for how Hitler cleaned up Germany in general. This included unifying the German people, creating a clean and orderly society, addressing Germany’s low birth rate, and improving national morals. Even the Nazis’ book burning was seen as a good thing since this meant that Marxist, atheist, ungodly and immoral books were destroyed. Such puritanical measures were applauded, and only confirmed the belief held by many Missouri supporters that Hitler was a God-fearing Christian, or even that he kept a bible by his bedside. As the 1930s progressed, however, the Missouri publications expressed more and more concern about events in Germany, but were able to believe that such errors were largely due to the over-enthusiasms of Hitler’s associates of lower rank Even the excesses against the Jews, or the vicious antisemitic publication, Der Stürmer, was regarded as the work of underlings. “If only the Führer knew, he would put it right”. But by the end of the 1930s such evasions became less effective. In fact the Missouri publications reported less and less about conditions in Germany. As the danger of war,grew, they retreated into silence, lest the sad harassment of twenty years earlier against all things German should be repeated. The Missouri Synod editors became more defensive about their German identity It was easier to concentrate on a purely spiritual witness in these newspapers, in order to avoid the risk of being isolated or even seen as anti-American Their consciousness of being a minority community was only enhanced by this sense of increasingly conflicting loyalties. They could not fail to realize that they might become the victims of anti-German prejudice. Which indeed after 1941 actually happened.
John Hellwege, St Louis.
Editor’s note: It was not until 1945 that the Missouri Synod publications could once again take up the theme of the victimization of Germans and Germany. In the immediate post-war years, prodigious efforts were made to collect relief supplies for their Lutheran counterparts in war-devastated Germany, especially in the ravaged areas occupied by the Soviet armies. But it was to be a great deal longer before these pious Missouri Christians were ready to come to terms with the horrendous crimes committed,by their German Lutheran counterparts in the service of the Nazis, or to face up to the untold sufferings imposed on others by these same Lutherans in the name of Germany. JSC
With every best wish to you all,