Review Article: Academic and Ecclesiastical Complicity in the Third Reich

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

Review Article: Academic and Ecclesiastical Complicity in the Third Reich

By Victoria J. Barnett, Director of Church Relations, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jens Gundlach, Heinz Brunotte 1896-1984: Anpassung des Evangeliums an die NS-Diktatur. Eine biographische Studie (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 2010).

The issue of complicity has become a major focus of Holocaust historiography in recent years, fueled by the research of historians like Christopher Browning, Robert Gellatelly, Peter Hayes and many others. While the very word “complicity” connotes a more secondary, passive role, the work of these scholars has documented the extent to which complicity was in fact an active and participatory process, particularly with regard to the persecution of the Jews. Germans from every walk of life participated in and benefited from these measures.

The role of academic and religious leadership deserves particular scrutiny. We hold these sectors to a higher standard, professionally and personally, not only because we expect that these people should have known better, but because of their role as authorities and models for millions of German students, academics, and churchgoers. One of the troubling questions, as Robert Ericksen notes in his new book, is whether the complicity of these leaders was a significant factor in giving legitimacy to the Nazi state – and therefore whether, as he puts it, the “ordinary Germans who became killers for the Nazi state felt that they had received permission from their churches or from their universities.”

In addition to being an excellent overview of the historical record of complicity in churches and universities, Ericksen’s book is a thoughtful and provocative study of the broader implications of this complicity, both during the Holocaust and in its aftermath. It is a revealing picture of the process by which these academic and church leaders, many of whom were internationally known, became complicit in a brutal, murderous dictatorship. While the reasons behind this were often complex, Ericksen states that the most straightforward conclusion is that they found the regime “acceptable.”

For many of these people, it appears that this acceptability was grounded in their ethnic nationalism and anti-Semitism, which obviously went hand-in-hand. Ericksen documents not only the widespread nature of both sentiments but their rapid growth in both churches and universities after World War I. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the extent to which these attitudes were shaping German academics and church leaders long before the Nazi regime came to power. Göttingen historian Karl Brandi, for example, who was also vice-president of the International Society of Historians, wrote in 1914 of his hopes that regions both to the west and east could be reclaimed for Germany. For people like Brandi, Nazism represented the continuity of such hopes and the Second World War their possible fulfillment.

Ericksen also shows the extent to which National Socialism’s early widespread appeal among younger Germans influenced the subsequent dynamics in universities. Nazi student organizations held the student leadership in many universities by 1931, which led to demonstrations, mobilization on behalf of Nazi causes (and attacks on critics of Nazi ideology) even before the Nazis came to power, notably in the 1931 case of pacifist theologian Günther Dehn. This also set the foundation for academic culture’s rapid conformity to Nazism after January 1933 – helped, to be sure, by the civil service laws passed in April of that year, which at Göttingen University alone led to the dismissal of 25 percent of the faculty.

Ericksen does a good job of showing how these developments unfolded on the national level, but he focuses in particular on Göttingen University, which was internationally renowned not only for its theological faculty, but for a number of departments, including its math, physics, and history departments. In 1933, prominent and distinguished Jewish faculty throughout the university lost their jobs while equally prominent and distinguished faculty either refused to protest or publicly acquiesced. One of the few who protested was James Franck, a Jewish professor of physics who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1924 and was spared the first round of dismissals only because he was a World War I veteran. After he publicly resigned in protest he became the target of a petition circulated by his colleagues who accused him of “behaving dishonorably against the new German state.”

Ericksen traces not only the historical record but the intellectual history of historiography itself, showing the path by which respected academics adapted and accommodated their scholarship to Nazi ideology. As Ericksen shows, the roots of the Historikerstreit during the 1980s can be traced back to the ways in which prominent German historians during the Nazi era like Karl Brandi, Werner Conze and Theodor Schieder allowed their ideological agendas to distort their scholarship. One sees a very similar dynamic among the theologians who “nazified” their theology.

Ericksen’s bleak portrayal of the universities is matched by his chapters on the Confessing Church and the Protestant and Catholic churches as a whole. Ericksen examines the attitudes toward Nazism before 1933 and then summarizes the reactions from within both churches from 1933-45. I found his analysis of the pre-1933 period and the early months of the dictatorship of greater interest, particularly in the case of the Catholic Church, which for a number of reasons was more critical of Nazi ideology during the 1920s. While there was greater openness toward Nazism among Protestants – evident particularly in the rise of the German Christian Faith Movement and related groups – Catholic leaders were concerned about the syncretism they saw in the NDSDAP and the extreme views of spokesmen like Alfred Rosenberg. Yet after January 30, 1933, pragmatism and institutional self-interest carried the day. Once Hitler was in power, the Catholic Church found a way to make its arrangements with the regime; even the Center party voted for the Enabling Act in March 1933. As in the universities, the root of complicity in both churches was the “acceptability” of the core themes on the Nazi agenda, including remilitarization, restoration of national pride, and anti-Jewish measures. One doesn’t get the sense from Ericksen’s book that these theologians and academics “caved” under Nazi pressure but much rather that they welcomed the new regime and its possibilities, and successfully pursued their careers under it.

In many respects Heinz Brunotte is a textbook case of the issues that Ericksen raises – and yet in others his story is very complex. Brunotte was a pastor and church journalist who rose quickly through the ranks of the Hannover Landeskirche and became quite prominent after 1946, when he served terms as president of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany and the Evangelical Church of Germany.

Unlike most of the people Ericksen describes, Brunotte started out at the liberal end of the spectrum. A student of Karl Barth during the 1920s, he was a strong advocate of Weimar democracy who by the late 1920s joined the Deinsener Konferenz, a group of radical young pastors in Lower Saxony that had been founded by pacifist and Social Democrat Otto Piper. When the Nazi student organization at the university in Halle attacked Günther Dehn in 1931 and successfully thwarted his appointment as professor of theology (the Dehn affair is also discussed in Ericksen’s book), Brunotte published a passionate defense of Dehn in the local Protestantenblatt that took the church to task for its failure to take a clear stand on the matter. Throughout 1931 and 1932 he wrote critically about the völkisch theology of people like Emanuel Hirsch and warned of the dangers National Socialism posed for the church. In 1932 he was already critical of the nationalism of his bishop August Marahrens; in 1933 he joined the Pfarrernotbund and eventually the Confessing Church.

Yet over the course of 1933 Brunotte began to shift toward a more favorable stance toward the German Christians and National Socialism itself. The shift was gradual and uneven – he was a member of the Confessing Church Council of Brethren until the end of 1934, and he remained sharply critical of Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller. For Brunotte the slippery slope toward complicity seems to have been paved by anti-Semitism, a certain openness to the Nazi national agenda, and a striking readiness to either compromise or pass the buck when the situation called for taking a stand – all the more puzzling given his outspoken record before 1933. Although he initially opposed the Aryan paragraph in the church, Brunotte did support Nazi anti-Jewish legislation and eventually wrote the 1939 German Evangelical Church Erlass that established regulations (including segregated congregations) for Christians of Jewish descent (and which was used to force them out of five Landeskirchen). Much later Brunotte acknowledged that this was “a mistake,” but defended his actions, claiming that it was unrealistic to keep “non-Aryans” as members of the church at that time and that he thought differently later: “It was a mistake. This is what happens when one seeks to prevent something worse.”

Brunotte’s reaction to the cases of two “non-Aryan” pastors, Bruno Benfey and Paul Leo, is particularly telling. (Ericksen describes the Benfey case in his book as well.) Brunotte had known both pastors for years and considered Leo a close friend (like him, Leo had been a member of the Deinsener Konferenz). Benfey, a “non-Aryan” pastor in Göttingen, was the target of organized anti-Semitic attacks and propaganda both from outside the church and from within. After the church initiated disciplinary proceedings against him, Benfey lost his pastorate. After Kristallnacht he was sent to Buchenwald; he and his family were able to emigrate with the help of the Büro Grüber. Benfey had the support of some of his Göttingen parishioners, who sent a protest letter to Brunotte in the church leadership. Without comment, Brunotte simply forwarded the letter to the governing board of the Hannover church with a request for a report on the matter and what measures were being taken.

In 1946, Benfey returned to Germany and applied for reinstatement in his Göttingen parish, which was divided between parishioners who wanted his return and those who opposed it. Leading the opposition was one of Benfey’s co-pastors, Heinrich Runte, who had been a SA member and had been at the forefront of the move in 1937 to fire Benfey. Brunotte’s initial response (he was now a member of the Hannover governing church council) was to meet privately with Benfey and request that he withdraw his application. Benfey refused and pleaded with Brunotte to meet with his supporters, who included a high-ranking city official. Brunotte agreed to the meeting; in the meantime the issue had become public and Benfey’s supporters threatened to involve the British occupation authorities. Bowing to this pressure, the church superintendent created a third pastoral position in the parish for Benfey, who then had to begin a slow and uneasy process of reconciliation with Runte, who remained in the parish despite his SA background.

Paul Leo was forced into retirement and, like Benfey, taken to Buchenwald, where he was badly beaten. After his release the SS newspaper Schwarzen Korps published an article that attacked both Leo and the church for its support of “the Jew Leo” (the church was paying him a pension at that point). Brunotte wrote a lengthy internal memo about the case that defended Leo and his right to a pension – but noted that the ultimate decision in the matter had to be made by the church finance office in Hannover, which was directed by a German Christian. Brunotte also praised Leo’s gifts as a pastor “whose manner is not Jewish at all, even though he is 70% Jewish” and advised against any public comment by the church on the matter. Gundlach found no evidence that Brunotte became active on either man’s behalf in trying to get them released from Buchenwald. In both cases, Brunotte declared that his office was “not responsible” for the matter.

So it went. After September 1, 1939, Brunotte served as an officer in the invasion of Poland and wrote in his final report that “in general I was glad to be a soldier” (the Reich Church Ministry obtained an exemption for him in December and he returned to his church duties). During the war years Brunotte’s standard response to church conflicts with the Nazi state – over issues like euthanasia and the plight of “non-Aryan Christians” – was to opt for what he described in one instance as “the lesser evil.” In fact, the “lesser evil” consistently meant compromising with the state and, as Gundlach notes, Brunotte’s language and arguments invariably tended to affirm the state’s positions, particularly where it concerned those affected by Nazi racial laws. He wrote a memo titled “The fight against wayward gypsies,” opposing their baptism, and wherever “non-Aryan Christians” were concerned his arguments were based entirely on Nazi legislation and the extent to which such individuals could be considered “Jewish” according to the Nuremberg laws.

At the time of Germany’s defeat in 1945, Brunotte was the senior official at the Evangelical Church Chancellery (Church President Friedrich Werner was a prisoner of war). His behavior in the early postwar period was a combination of opportunism with regard to the future and self-justification with respect to the past. As a member of the Kommission für die Geschichte des Kirchenkampfes in der nationalsozialistischen Zeit, Brunotte helped shape a hagiographic picture of the Protestant Church’s record under Nazism.

The storm broke in 1970 when Wolfgang Gerlach wrote his critical dissertation about the Confessing Church (ultimately published in 1987 as Und die Zeugen schwiegen and in English translation as And the Witnesses were Silent). Gerlach documented Brunotte’s complicity, including his authorship of the 1939 Erlaß. Brunotte worked actively to prevent the book’s German publication, accusing Gerlach of a retroactive morality that didn’t take into account what people knew and thought at the time. His criticism of Gerlach gives some insight into the larger dynamics of complicity (and the postwar rationalizations of such behavior): “One must know,” he wrote in refutation of Gerlach’s account, “that it was sometimes unavoidable first to emphasize that one was in agreement with the major goals of the state in order to gain any kind of hearing for what one was really aiming for.”

Reading Gundlach’s study in conjunction with Ericksen’s book is a fascinating and troubling exercise. One of the aspects of this history that has most haunted me personally over the years is how Germans could so completely abandon or turn against people they knew – colleagues, friends and neighbors – in some cases from one day to the next. How did they sleep at night? By what intellectual and moral sleights of hand did they rationalize such betrayals? In 1979 Brunotte even wrote the historian Hartmut Ludwig that Paul Leo had been “among my closest friends in the years before 1933.” Clearly Brunotte’s prejudices and his readiness to compromise with the state shaped his behavior, but in general his modus operandi was to avoid confrontation, to pass the buck, and then to rationalize his behavior. His record after 1933 is all the more troubling because of his early support of Günther Dehn, his opposition to National Socialism, his criticism of the narrowness of the church leadership in Hannover, and his membership in the Confessing Church.

Ericksen’s book is a large canvas, the superb product of his decades of study of German universities and churches and the processes of denazification and Vergangenheitsbewältiung. Gundlach has given us a biographical study close-up view of how these issues played out in the life of one individual. Both books expand our understanding not only of the period from 1933 to 1945, but also of the larger implications for our understanding of the Holocaust, documenting, as Ericksen puts it, the “ease with which a commitment to one’s nation, plus some natural bending in the prevailing wind, can blind one to the moral implications of one’s stance.”