Review of Manfred Gailus, Mir aber zerriss es das Herz. Der stille Widerstand der Elisabeth Schmitz

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2011

Review of Manfred Gailus, Mir aber zerriss es das Herz. Der stille Widerstand der Elisabeth Schmitz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010), ISBN: 978-3525550083.

By Victoria Barnett, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The individuals in Nazi Germany who acted with moral clarity, simple decency, and straightforward courage are in such short supply that they are worthy not only of honor but of serious study. As we know all too well, between 1933 and 1945 the vast majority of German citizens lived their lives in the grey zones of compromise, silence, and complicity. Those who resisted were outsiders in virtually every respect, and they remained so after 1945, when most Germans were quite uncomfortable with those in their midst who had opposed and resisted Nazism or been its victims. And by the time people became eager to uncover these stories, many of the traces had become buried.

Elisabeth Schmitz is a poignant and powerful example of one such individual. In 1999 a short study by one of her students, Dietgard Meyer, appeared as an appendix in Katharina Staritz, 1903-1953. Mit einem Exkurs Elisabeth Schmitz (Neukirchener, 1999). The 1999 essay included the startling discovery that Schmitz (not the Berlin social worker Marga Meusel) was the author of the 23-page memorandum, “Zur Lage der deutschen Nichtarier,” submitted to the September 1935 Prussian Confessing Church synod in Berlin-Steglitz. Meyer’s portrait of Schmitz proved that she had been one of the rare Germans who had consistently and at great personal cost chosen to stand by their Jewish neighbors.

As Gailus notes in this new biography, several historians were already looking more closely at the history of the memorandum; the historian Hartmut Ludwig had already confirmed that Schmitz was indeed the author. It was Gailus, however, who began to compile and document a much more comprehensive picture of Schmitz’s activities during the Third Reich and the subsequent historiography that had omitted her. The author of several fine studies on the Kirchenkampf, Gailus organized a 2007 conference in Berlin on Schmitz’s life and work; papers from this conference were published as Elisabeth Schmitz und ihre Denkschrift gegen die Judenverfolgung. Konturen einer vergessenen Biografie (1893-1977). Gailus also served as the key consultant for the film Elisabeth of Berlin produced by U. S. filmmaker Steve Martin, who produced the documentary several years ago on Robert Ericksen’s work Theologians under Hitler; both films are available from Vital Visions (

Gailus has now written a biography of Schmitz that does justice both to her courage and to the troubling questions that her story raises about how historical narratives are created. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of this biography is its dual narrative, which combines the story of a remarkably courageous and self-effacing woman with what Gailus calls the “Erinnerungskultur”—the culture in which the narratives of memory in postwar Germany distorted the truth and obscured those individuals who had actually spoken it during the Nazi era.

As Gailus shows us, Schmitz was an Aussenseiterin in a number of ways, both before and after 1945. She was a trained historian (she did her doctoral work under Friedrich Meinecke), Confessing Church member, and teacher at a girls’ Lyceum. Her 1935 memorandum, written shortly before the passage of the Nuremberg laws, was a painfully detailed account of what everyday life for German Jews had become and a devastating indictment of what had happened to German society. But it was directed particularly at Confessing Church leaders. “The Germans have a new god,” she wrote, “which is race.” Schmitz wrote of her hope that the Confessing Church at the Steglitz synod would speak out, “late, much too late, but nonetheless better too late than not at all … Because for the church this does not concern a tragedy that is unfolding but a sin of our people, and because we are members of this people and responsible before God for this our people, it is our sin.” She subsequently added a postscript to the memorandum after the passage of the Nuremberg laws. In addition to sending it to the synod, Schmitz personally made about 200 copies of the memorandum and circulated them among friends and people whom she hoped would have influence.

For years the author of this memorandum was believed to be Marga Meusel, a Berlin church social worker who had written another memorandum about the Confessing Church’s responsibility for its “non-Aryan” members that was submitted to the Augsburg Confessing synod in October 1934. It was, I think, an honest mistake for many of us. Copies of both documents were in the same file folder in the Günther Harder collection of Kirchenkampf documents in the Berlin Evangelische Zentralarchiv, and because Meusel’s name was written on the one memorandum (and there was no name on the other) most historians concluded that Meusel was also the author of “Zur Lage der deutschen Nichtarier” – even though a February 1947 affidavit signed by Probst Wilhelm Wibbeling had actually confirmed Schmitz as the author (a copy of the affidavit was published in Meyer’s 1999 essay). But that affidavit wasn’t in an archive, but in Schmitz’s private papers—and Schmitz, as Manfred Gailus shows, was not a self-promoter. In 1948 Wilhelm Niemoeller attributed the Steglitz memorandum to Meusel, and in the years to follow the error was repeated wherever the memo was discussed (I repeated the error in my discussion of the memorandum in For the Soul of the People).

But the story is more complicated, because as Mir aber zerriss es das Herz shows, Schmitz did far more than write the one memorandum. From the beginning to the end, she tried to help Jewish friends and colleagues and convince her church to speak out in protest. In the summer of 1933 she wrote and then met with Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, hoping to move him to speak out about the persecution of the Jews. (Her summary of his reply in an Aktennotiz in the Bethel archives begins: “For the time being, only work in silence possible.”) In the years that followed she sought out and wrote many of the leading figures in the Confessing Church—all with the hope that she could convince the Confessing Church to take a clear stand. After the November 1938 pogroms, she wrote an impassioned letter to Helmut Gollwitzer, Martin Niemoeller’s successor at the Annenkirche in Dahlem, urging him to preach openly about what had happened and to include the German Jews in the prayers of the congregation. As Wolfgang Gerlach noted in And the Witnesses were Silent, Gollwitzer’s sermon was one of the few in the aftermath of November 9, 1938, that can be considered a protest.

Then, in a remarkable act of integrity and courage, Schmitz drew the consequence that so few within the Confessing Church (or anywhere) were willing to take: she resigned her position as Studienrätin on December 31, 1938, requesting an immediate leave of absence and early retirement. “I decided to give up school service and no longer be a civil servant of a government that permitted the synagogues to be set afire,” she later wrote. In her letter to the director of the Berlin schools she told him exactly why she was doing it: “It has become increasingly doubtful to me whether I can offer instruction … in the way that the National Socialist state expects and requires of me …. I have finally come to the conviction that this is not the case.” She then quietly did volunteer work for the Confessing Church until the 1943 bombing of Berlin compelled her to return to Hanau, where she had grown up. In 1946 she returned to teaching, at a Gymnasium in Hanau.

Gailus includes several documents that give the closest glimpse of Schmitz. In addition to the text of her 1935 memorandum and the 1938 letter to Gollwitzer he has included a speech that Schmitz delivered in Hanau on September 7, 1950, at a ceremony commemorating “the victims of fascism and the war.” By 1950 German speeches on such occasions could easily slide into rationalization and alibis. Not surprisingly, Schmitz’s words summoned her audience to the responsibility of remembering and remembering accurately, not just for political reasons, but because, in her words, “otherwise we would be defrauding ourselves of our human dignity.” She concluded her remarks with references to Jochen Klepper, Hildegard Schaeder, Klaus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and yet said not a word about her own acts of courage and integrity.

Outside of a very small circle of acquaintances—including several Jewish colleagues whom Schmitz had helped and who wrote affidavits for her after 1945—Schmitz remained unknown and unrecognized. One reason that emerges very clearly in this biography was her modesty. The memorandum was unsigned and, with Niemoeller’s early attribution of it to Meusel, the historical record seemed to have been established. But Schmitz lived long enough that she could have corrected it (Meusel was in ill health after the war and died in 1953). And as Meyer’s 1999 essay showed, Schmitz did assemble documentation after 1945—affidavits from people she had helped as well as the affidavit from Wibbeling. She had clarified the record, at least for herself—but in the decades that followed she didn’t tell her story. Even Dietgard Meyer later told Gailus that she had never learned about the memorandum directly from Schmitz.

And no one asked her. For a very long time the women of the church struggle and resistance circles were forgotten and on the margins of the historiography. Extensive documentation emerged from the work during the 1980s of Göttingen systematic theology professor Hannelore Erhart and a group of former Confessing Church Theologinnen and doctoral students, leading to several volumes, including the 1999 one with the essay on Schmitz. My own work (For the Soul of the People, 1992) included a study of the role of women in the Confessing Church based upon of my oral histories with about 25 of the Theologinnen and women who had been in the resistance. More recently, biographies of women like Schmitz and Gertrud Staewen (Marlies Flesch-Thebesius, Zu den Aussenseitern gestellt: Die Geschichte der Gertrud Staewen, 1894-1987, 2004) have appeared.

Yet another question arises, and Gailus addresses it bluntly in this volume: why didn’t any of those who had known her and worked with her during the Nazi era come forward in the postwar era to acknowledge her courage and the role she had played? Why is it that the leading figures in the Kirchenkampf who had known her during the 1930s (Gollwitzer, Niesel, and Barth, among others)—and who eventually wrote and spoke so extensively about the events of the church struggle—failed to tell the story of Elisabeth Schmitz? The portrait of her in this biography shows a woman driven by outrage at the Nazi persecution of the Jews, someone who was active in the most prominent Confessing Church circles Berlin: in the Gossen Mission, in Dahlem, in Charlottenburg, at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. As yet, as Gailus notes, when Schmitz died in 1977 only seven people attended her funeral.

In any case, we now have this fine biography of Schmitz. It is among the recent German books that I wish could be published in English; it would be a strong addition to any course on the Third Reich. Her story is so compelling that I think it would find wider interest, and the chapters on Erinnerungskultur and the emergence of the historiography of the Kirchenkampf—and the emergence of her own story and the correction of the historical record—could stand alone as studies in the creation of historical narrative.