Review of Ralf Retter, Zwischen Protest und Propaganda: Die Zeitschrift “Junge Kirche“ im Dritten Reich

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2010

Review of Ralf Retter, Zwischen Protest und Propaganda: Die Zeitschrift “Junge Kirche“ im Dritten Reich (Munich: Allitera Verlag, 2009), 387 pp.  ISBN: 978-3-86906-066-8.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University College

Ralf Retter’s study of the Protestent journal Junge Kirche questions common historical assumptions about its role in the church politics of Nazi Germany. His detailed study of the periodical, which ran from 1933 to 1941, arises out of his doctoral dissertation at the Technische Universität Berlin. Drawing not only on his analysis of the publishing activity of Junge Kirche but also on the previously unpublished correspondence among those responsible for the journal, Retter tackles three discrete topics: the history of the German press in the Third Reich, the German Church Struggle, and the German Resistance. His main question is whether Junge Kirche was really just the mouthpiece of the Confessing Church and an organ of the church resistance to Nazism, as has been argued in the past. Like many other recent studies of the German churches under Hitler, his answers complicate our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Nazism.

Junge Kirche was the leading Confessing Church journal in the Nazi era. More than that, it was one of the few supra-regional Protestant periodicals to survive in Hitler’s Germany, and was the Protestant periodical most likely to be read within Germany and circulated abroad. But how, asks Retter, did it function in the highly regulated press environment of the Third Reich? Clearly, it was oriented towards questions of theology, faith, and the proclamation of the gospel, avoiding subjects that spilled over outside the church and touching on state policy. However, given the anti-clericalism of the Nazi state and Junge Kirche’s insistence on the independence of the church to preach and teach according to Scripture, the journal found itself positioned against National Socialism (11). The key leaders who tried to steer the journal through the church politics of the Third Reich were Hanns Lilje, Fritz Söhlmann, and Günther Ruprecht, of whom only the first is fairly well known.

One of the challenging aspects of publishing during the Nazi era was censorship. Retter wonders how frequently and to what extent Junge Kirche suffered at the hands at censors, but also what role self-censorship played in the editorial process and (more controversially) to what extent those responsible for the journal might have identified with aspects of National Socialist ideology and rule. This raises the deeper question of whether Junge Kirche was really engaged in resistance against Nazism at all and, if so, whether its activities should be considered opposition (Widerstand) or merely non-conformity (Resistenz). Was it, Retter wonders, a force for the stabilization or destabilization of the regime (17)? In answering these questions, he devotes a good deal of attention to the argument that the journal was engaged in Resistenz between 1933 and 1936 (127), as it opposed the German Christian takeover of the church governments and supported the Barmen Confession, opposed both the introduction of the Aryan Paragraph in the churches and the abandonment of the Old Testament (188), affirmed the traditional historical narratives defending the long-standing presence of Christianity in Germany, supported the emergent ecumenical movement, and even criticized Nazi interference in the realm of the church (208). Still, Retter is careful to point out that this Resistenz took place in a context of traditional German-national sentiment.

By 1936, however, as the Confessing Church split and the pro-Nazi Fritz Söhlmann assumed the sole editorship of Junge Kirche, the journal lost most of its character as a centre for Resistenz. In rejecting the Dahlemite branch of the Confessing Church, Junge Kirche found itself caught up in internecine struggles and little able to engage in any significant opposition to the German Christian Movement. Siding with traditional Lutherans who were unwilling to break completely from the German regional church governments and the Reich Church authorities, Junge Kirche ceased functioning as a mouthpiece for the Confessing Church, argues Retter. By 1939, the pro-Nazi tendencies in the journal which had been present even from the beginning were given more or less free reign (particularly after Lilje, who had taken a more critical line towards the regime, was ousted from his editorial post). The self-censorship of publisher Ruprecht and editor Söhlmann kept the names of leading Nazis from appearing in the journal’s pages. And when Junge Kirche combined the embrace of Hitler’s war aims with its mission to foster piety and provide spiritual encouragement for Germans caught up in the Second World War, it grew into a stabilizing presence in the Third Reich—quite the opposite of a force for resistance.

For Retter, the fate of Junge Kirche mirrored that of the Protestant churches as a whole. Like the churches, it was reduced to the role of preaching the Word. Like the churches, its defence of the Reformation Confessions was interpreted by the state as political disloyalty and opposition. And like the churches, it had to work to clarify its relationship with the state. By choosing to support the “intact” Lutheran regional churches of Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hanover, Junge Kirche chose for cooperation with the National Socialist regime—a stance that opened the door for it to function as a propaganda arm of the state. Thus it was that the early period of protest gave way (in the language of the book’s title) to propaganda—active support for the Nazi regime and its conduct of war—a transition which was more self-induced than censor-driven (365). Indeed, the propaganda effect of Junge Kirche was especially profound, argues Retter, since it was a confessional publication and not a Nazi Party periodical. Its readers might well have assumed that Nazism was quite acceptable to the Christian churches of Germany.

All of this raises interesting questions pertaining to the relationship between Christianity and Nazism, highlighting once more the conflicting messages and understandings of the religious situation among German Protestants (and perhaps among Nazis, too). Concerns over Nazi anticlericalism and warnings about the movement becoming a political religion are mixed with Confessing Church support for aspects of Nazi antisemitism and the foreign policy of Lebensraum as well as calls to preach and promote piety in a particularly German cultural manner consistent with the conservative nationalism that marked the Protestant churches. In highlighting the presence of these inconsistencies and hypocrisies within the publishing arm of the Confessing Church, Retter contributes to our understanding of Christianity and Nazism as both partners and rivals attempting to win the hearts and minds of Christians in the Third Reich.