Review of Tanja Hetzer, “Deutsche Stunde”: Volksgemeinschaft und Antisemitismus in der politischen Theologie bei Paul Althaus

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 3, September 2010

Review of Tanja Hetzer, “Deutsche Stunde”: Volksgemeinschaft und Antisemitismus in der politischen Theologie bei Paul Althaus (Munich: Allitera Verlag, 2009), 296pp.  ISBN: 978-3-86520-328-1.

By Christopher Probst, Howard Community College

Tanja Hetzer’s in-depth study of the widely published, genteel Erlangen theologian Paul Althaus originally appeared as the author’s Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Sussex.  It is a work of intellectual history in the finest sense of that term.  In addition to shedding new light on his personal development and career, Hetzer mines a broad range of Althaus’s works, providing rich analysis of his thinking about Jews and Judaism over the course of a career that spanned many decades.  The fullness of the biographical information is woven together with Althaus’s developing thought, giving the reader a full-orbed picture of this crucial but bleak aspect of his life and work.

During the Nazi era, Althaus self-consciously occupied a place in the Protestant “middle.”  That is, he did not align himself formally with either the generally Nazi-wary Confessing Church or the largely pro-Nazi German Christians.  Even so, argues Hetzer, the Protestant middle propagated many of the same völkisch and antisemitic tropes and cultural codes as did their counterparts in the German Christian movement.  This realization is heightened by the fact that Althaus sought consciously to build bridges between the middle and the more “moderate” members of the German Christian movement (17, 241).  In impressive fashion, Hetzer situates Althaus’s urbane and theologically sophisticated antisemitism in the intellectual environs of neo-conservative Lutheran theology but also in the broader cultural currents of anti-egalitarianism, anti-liberalism and the “Wilhelmine mentality of authority, power and severity” (40).  The author thus forwards the picture of a theologian who traded in antisemitic stereotypes, but whose worldview was nonetheless fairly complex.  This was no rabble-rouser on the margins of Protestant Christianity.  Althaus was a gifted and revered theologian with a public face.

Althaus maintained that the Protestant churches “greeted the German turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God,” ascribing theological significance to the ascent of the Nazi regime, and marveling that the German people had been saved from both “the abyss” and “hopelessness” (23).  He also co-authored the Erlangen Opinion on the Aryan Paragraph (1933), in which he and his colleague Werner Elert called for the implementation of the Aryan Paragraph in the church, demanding that Jewish Christians refrain from taking “official positions” in the Protestant church.  In the early postwar era he at first chaired the denazification committee at Erlangen, then was suspended from his university post (largely due to his anti-democratic, pro-Nazi pronouncements in Die deutsche Stunde der Kirche (The German Hour of the Church, 1933) and Obrigkeit und Führertum (Authority and Leadership, 1936)), and finally was re-instated to his chair approximately one year later (20).  Such important biographical details are coupled with detailed analysis of his theological writings and represent the book’s greatest strength.

Another strength of the book is the author’s convincing portrayal of Althaus’s long-term ideological development.  Crucial to this is her discussion of Althaus’s Weimar-era writings.  Hetzer demonstrates convincingly that “his worldview solidified far before the seizure of power of the National Socialists” (11).  A key component of this worldview is Althaus’s theologically sophisticated concept of the “orders of creation” (Schöpfungsordnungen).  In his 1934 work Theologie der Ordnungen (Theology of the Orders) Althaus described these orders, which include family, Volk and nationality, as divinely sanctioned forms which represent “essential conditions of the historical life of mankind.”  Hetzer demonstrates both that Althaus’s orders of creation theology was well-established by the time the Nazis came to power and that the Erlangen theologian connected the orders to his refined system of theological ethics (17, 143).

In the mid-1920s, German Protestantism’s relationship to the “völkisch question” was “still in many respects unsettled” (149).  Due in large part to Althaus, the issue moved from the margins of the Protestant discussion to the center.  His experiences with the German völkisch movement while he served as a military chaplain in occupied Poland during the First World War had helped to shape his views about the Volk.  Then, in 1927 the 39-year-old Althaus delivered a lecture titled “Kirche und Volkstum” (“Church and Nationality”) to a church congress at Königsberg.  The lecture, argues Hetzer, signified a “caesura” with respect to Protestant attitudes toward the Volk and indeed toward the so-called “Jewish Question” (151ff.).  Here, Althaus offered a carefully constructed new political theology in which he complained of an “invasion by foreigners” (Überfremdung) in the areas of the arts, fashion and finance which he believed had led to a disintegration of the national community (Volksgemeinschaft).  The present distress of the German Volk, he railed, was due to the “Jewish threat.”  Even while generally avoiding open and direct antisemitism, Althaus “theologically legitimized and stylized” hatred of Jews (154).

The author includes an insightful discussion of the heated controversies engendered by Althaus’s antisemitic “entanglements” during the Third Reich (15-18).  It appears that this dark facet of Althaus’s past did not really begin to come to light until at least the late 1970s.  Also included is a very helpful and thorough bibliography of Althaus’s works, arranged chronologically (266-278).

This excellent study substantially augments our previous knowledge about the Erlangen theologian – and by extension the Protestant “middle” – during Weimar and the Third Reich.  There are no radical interpretive departures from previous literature on Althaus (e.g., Robert Ericksen’s Theologians Under Hitler).  Yet, the beauty of Hetzer’s book lies in its richness, depth and breadth – all of which enhance considerably our understanding of the anti-Judaism and antisemitism present within the Protestant church during Weimar and the Third Reich.  An English translation would enable students and others without facility in the German language access to this work, which is essential reading for anyone interested in German Protestantism during the first half of the twentieth century.