Review of Daniel Heinz, ed., Freikirchen und Juden im “Dritten Reich”: Instrumentalisierte Heilsgeschichte, antisemitische Vorurteile und verdrängte Schuld

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Review of Daniel Heinz, ed., Freikirchen und Juden im “Dritten Reich”: Instrumentalisierte Heilsgeschichte, antisemitische Vorurteile und verdrängte Schuld (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &Ruprecht, 2011), 344pp. ISBN: 978-3-89971-690-0.

By Rebecca Carter-Chand, University of Toronto

This volume represents the first collective attempt by the German Free Churches to come to terms with the Nazi past and specifically address their relationships with Jews and Judaism. The connecting themes, presented in the subtitle, are familiar to those who study the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in this era: manipulated theology, long-standing traditions of antisemitism, and unwillingness to admit wrongdoing in the postwar period.

As a collection of essays written by different authors, each chapter addresses an individual denomination. After an opening essay by Wolfgang Heinrichs on the Free Churches’ views on Jews in the nineteenth century, there are contributions by Claus Bernet (Quakers), Diether Götz Lichdi (Mennonites), Andreas Liese (Plymouth Brethren or Brüderbewegung), Michel Weyer (Methodists), Gottfried Sommer (Pentecostals), Andrea Stübind (Baptists), Hartmut Weyel (the Free Evangelical Association), Volker Stolle (Independent Evangelical Lutherans), Dietrich Meyer (Moravian Brethren or Brüdergemeine), and Daniel Heinz (Seventh-Day Adventists). In an appendix, Franz Graf-Stuhlhofer offers geographical breadth with a discussion of two Free Church pastors in Austria (Baptist and Methodist).

Although the scope and richness of sources varies among the essays, the exercise of placing these largely independent narratives alongside each other proves fruitful. In some cases a pattern emerges across the groups: the formation of an image of “the Jew” in the heyday of late-nineteenth-century racial antisemitism, from which essential elements were adapted by the Free Churches. In other cases it is a group’s unique characteristics that are highlighted. Regarding aid and rescue, the proverbial exception that proves the rule is most certainly the Quakers. No other group engaged in organized assistance, solidarity and protest as did the German Quakers, although Claus Bernet argues that they could not have done it without the support networks of the international Quaker community.

It is nearly impossible to draw broad conclusions about the Free Churches as a category since they come together by shared status not shared histories. Still, Daniel Heinz offers a few important observations in his forward. Because of their minority status, the Free Churches lived in the shadow of the complicated relationships between the larger churches and the Nazi state. Many of them experienced relative freedom and acceptance in the form of corporation status in the early years of dictatorship, 1933-38 (10). This is not to say that their experience under Nazism was easy, as they had their share of repression and harassment, but the temptation of legitimacy in the eyes of the state turned out to be too big to resist. For the most part, the Free Churches were not only uncritical of the political developments in their country but appreciated them (10).

Not surprisingly, the available sources are uneven. Much is written in church publications about what the clergy and academics thought about the Jews before 1933 but not so much on how they interacted with them and even less about what the laity thought and did. This situation often leads to a reliance on the earlier material. In some cases the chronology gets lost in the analysis. Most of the authors in this present volume choose to engage three topics, which could broadly be described as: what members of a particular group thought about the Jews, how they reacted to Nazi anti-Jewish policy, and what they did (or did not do) about it.

The Judenfrage was a scholarly topic with immediacy among all the Free Churches in the early twentieth century, as it was in the mainline Protestant church. Of particular value in this volume are the discussions of those groups with a strong pre-millennial eschatology that assigned a special place to the Jews in the end-times (the Pentecostals, the Adventists, and the Brethren). Not one of these groups fostered any sense of kinship with modern Jews. Instead, they rejected the theological concept of Israel’s eternal election and appropriated many of the arguments of contemporary racial antisemitism.

Although it is difficult to demonstrate that there are concrete connections between theology and behaviour, more than one author makes this case. In the context of the Free Lutherans, Volker Stolle argues their discriminative categorizations of Jews had a direct impact on their evaluation of Nazi Jewish policy, especially the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 (226). In the case of the Pentecostals, their strong pietistic tradition led them to interpret political happenings as the hand of God, with which they should not interfere (133).

The second way in which many of the authors engage the topic is to discuss how the Free Churches acted and reacted to anti-Jewish measures after 1933, such as the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht. Andrea Stübind does an exceptionally good job at placing the Baptists in the wider framework of persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. She also grapples with the particularly thorny issue of the persecution of Baptists of Jewish origin.

A common explanation among the Free Churches for their public support of the Nazi regime—either passive or active—was the fear of being shut down. Virtually every group’s leadership lived under this fear but it seems as though this argument cannot be made for the laity. Daniel Heinz points out that while most Seventh-Day Adventists “did not find the courage to swim against the storm” of anti-Jewish policy, there are several cases of Adventists who opposed the state for religious reasons: refusing to work on Sunday, refusing to give the Hitler salute, and in a few cases, refusing military duty (287). These acts of insubordination did not carry over to opposing anti-Jewish legislation. Sometimes they led to personal penalties such as fines and jail sentences but they did not cause the organization to be shut down. In a similar manner, the Quakers were openly assisting Jews and concentration camp inmates well into the 1940s, and as Claus Bernet shows, it was all done in public (64). These examples show that there was some room for protest in Germany, even in the war years.

Nearly every group has a few anecdotal accounts of people within their ranks who helped Jews in one way or another. The most important point that emerges from these ten separate groups is that outside of the Quakers, aid and rescue happened only on an individual level, not an institutional level. People helped both strangers and neighbours, devout and secular Jews, within Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but they did so on their own initiative and with their own funds. When questioned later about their motivation, they often spoke of a common humanity rather than any theological connections to Judaism, a sentiment reminiscent of the famous Protestants of Le Chambon (63).

Especially pertinent to current trends in Holocaust research is Diether Götz Lichdi’s discussion of the Mennonite connection to the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig. Many Mennonites lived in the immediate area and benefited from prisoner labour on their farms and in their factories (72). Until 1942 there were only a few Jews among the prisoners but that changed as the ghettoes in the cities were emptied and many more prisoners were brought to Stutthof. There are numerous reports of Mennonites sneaking food and clothing to Jewish prisoners. These complicated dynamics are revealed to us today only because of the fact that the Mennonites had become a de facto ethnic group in Central Europe—in many cases it is “Mennonite-sounding names” that Lichdi uses for evidence. This characteristic puts the Mennonites in a unique position among the Free Churches, making it easier to analyze their grassroots participation in and resistance to the Holocaust.

Brief mention should be made of which Free Churches were included in this volume. Many of those that today consider themselves to be Freikirchen are included. The chapter on the Pentecostals was especially useful, as there is very little written on them elsewhere. A notable absence was the Salvation Army (Heilsarmee), which was similar to many of these other groups in size, status, and origin.

Overall, this book is indicative of the maturation of the field of German church history of the Nazi period. Its contributors bring the Free Churches into current scholarly discussions on Christian antisemitism, aid and rescue during the Holocaust, grassroots participation and postwar processes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.