Memorial Speech: Friedrich Weissler (1891-1937) and the Confessing Church. Remembrance and Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Death of Friedrich Weissler. Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, February 19, 2012

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2012

Memorial Speech: Friedrich Weissler (1891-1937) and the Confessing Church. Remembrance and Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Death of Friedrich Weissler. Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, February 19, 2012.

By Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität, Berlin

Seventy-five years ago, in February 1937, Freidrich Weissler died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp as a result of mistreatment by the prison guards. He is widely regarded as the first Confessing Church member to be murdered as a victim of the Nazi persecution of the churches. Recently, at a commemorative ceremony held in the camp, Professor Manfred Gailus of Berlin’s Technical University honoured him with a fine tribute, which is here translated in abbreviated form by John S. Conway.

Friedrich Weissler came of a Jewish family, but, as a child, was baptized into the Protestant Church. He completed his studies in law just before the outbreak of war in 1914, when he served his country loyally and with true German patriotism. In the 1920s he resumed his legal career and by 1932 had been appointed a judge in Magdeburg. However, the rise of the National Socialists to power rapidly brought his career to an end. Already in April 1933 he was one of the 600 so-called “non-aryan” judges suspended from office, and in July he was dismissed. Despite his war service and distinguished record, the Nazis regarded him as “politically unreliable”. Thereafter there was little or no likelihood of his being employed in any branch of the public service.

Later he moved to Berlin and began to look for work in the private sphere. Due to his connections with the Protestant Church, he obtained a post as legal advisor to the incipient Confessing Church, first under Bishop Marahrens of Hannover, but subsequently with the more uncompromising wing led by Martin Niemöller and Martin Albertz. These men gave a strong lead to the Confessing Church’s rebuttal of the so-called “German Christians” efforts to infiltrate Nazi ideologies and practices into church life But there were also divisions in the Confessing Church’s ranks. The more moderate members were prepared to compromise on some issues, while the more radical wing, led by Niemöller, refused any such accommodations. They courageously adhered to the views outlined in the 1934 Barmen Declaration and resisted all attempts to limit or weaken the Church’s autonomy. Weissler joined this latter was a dangerous step, all the more because he had been branded since 1933 as a “non-aryan”. But he maintained his beliefs and served as a legal advisor for this wing of the Confessing Church.

In 1936, the increasing harassment of individual Confessing Church pastors and laity led this group’s leaders to draw up a petition calling for an end to such stressful persecution by the Gestapo or local Nazi agencies. Politely but unflinchingly the memorandum opposed the regime’s on-going attempts to “de-Christianize” Germany. The Nazi interpretation of “positive Christianity” was criticized. The document also called for an end to the measures limiting the church’s outreach in the schools, the press or public media. Finally the church leaders roundly declared their opposition to the Nazi antisemitic campaign, since such an ideology was against the Christian commandment to love one’s neighbour. Weissler was closely associated in drawing up this document to ensure that it was fully in compliance with the existing law. This forceful protest was to be presented in June 1936 to Hitler personally and in private, in the hope that he would then issue restraining orders to his underlings. But it was a sign of the Confessing Church’s political naivety that they entirely miscalculated the Nazis’ response. The scandal was made worse by the fact that somehow or other a copy was made available to the foreign press, where it was hailed as a significant challenge to Hitler’s regime. (Later researches have never been able to discover exactly how this happened.) The Gestapo immediately launched investigations into this act of national treason, and suspicion fell on Weissler – as a “Jew” – as well on two young curates, Werner Koch and Ernst Tillich. The Confessing Church leaders hastily sought to dissociate themselves from any accusation of political treachery and left Weissler to his fate. In October 1936 he was arrested and in February 1937 taken off to Sachsenhausen. Within a few days he was brutally done to death. The fact that Weissler was left in the lurch by his former employers and by the anti-Nazi champions in the Confessing Church was long suppressed. Only recently have attempts been made for some form of appropriate recognition. In Magdeburg a street has been named after him, and since 2008 one of the law courts bears his name. In 2005 the then chairman of the Evangelical Church’s Governing Council, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, said this: “We in the Evangelical Church have to acknowledge our guilt in not standing up for our co-worker Friedrich Weissler. Our history is not always one of heroic resistance to tyranny.” It is to be hoped that in the near future a suitable church building in Berlin will carry his name, as a token of remembrance of this intrepid Confessing Church member during those dark times.