Review of Hansjörg Buss, “Entjudete” Kirche: Die Lübecker Landeskirche zwischen christlichem Antijudaismus und völkischem Antisemitismus (1918-1950)

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2012

Review of Hansjörg Buss, “Entjudete” Kirche: Die Lübecker Landeskirche zwischen christlichem Antijudaismus und völkischem Antisemitismus (1918-1950). (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2011), 559 Pp. ISBN: 978-3-506-77014-1.

By Christopher J. Probst, Saint Louis University

Hansjörg Buss’s comprehensive, fascinating study of the machinations of the Protestant church in Lübeck during the Weimar, Nazi, and immediate post-war eras is a highly original work that takes seriously predominant social, cultural, and intellectual currents over a tumultuous three-decade period of German history. With a focus on the views of Lübeck’s Protestants toward Jews and Judaism, the author manages to weave together “sacred” and “secular” threads of history in seamless and effective fashion. In the process, numerous important issues are addressed, including: the question of continuities and ruptures, the interaction between local and national issues and points of view, and the nature of anti-Jewish hostilities and how their various manifestations should be understood.

While the political ruptures of the period under study are obvious—Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the dissolution of the Kaiserreich, the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the ascent to power of Hitler and the Nazis, the collapse of the Third Reich at the end of the Second World War, the Allied occupation of Germany in the wake of the war—Buss rightly and deftly emphasizes the nationalprotestantische Mentalitäten that were consistently present during these troubled times. The divinely-sanctioned “inextricable connection” of church, Volk, and nation espoused by many Lübeck pastors during the Kaiserreich (50), a complex of ideas embraced by scores of their theological descendants during the succeeding decades, is just one example of this phenomenon. The prevalence of anti-Judaism and antisemitism among German Protestants, beginning especially with the rise to prominence of the Berlin court preacher Adolf Stoecker, is another.

One of the most significant contributions of the book is its regional focus, which, to Buss’s credit, is set firmly within the broader national context. After a prologue in which he examines the church, civil (especially bourgeois) society and nationalism during modern German history prior to 1918, he devotes significant space to each of the three most relevant timeframes (Weimar, the Third Reich, and the early post-war period). For each era, we are made intimately familiar with important areas of Lübeck society, including demographics, economics, and politics. Those seeking only a narrowly focused examination of Protestant views of Jews and Judaism from 1918-1950 will be disappointed. But, those who are patient enough to follow Buss on this thoroughly contextualized journey will be rewarded handsomely.

The ways in which Lübeck Protestants dealt with Jews and Judaism is at the heart of the book. Fearing a deeper descent into secularization and immorality—not to mention their perceived drift into irrelevance—during the Weimar era, most Lübeck Protestants, like many of their co-religionists in other parts of Germany, espoused conservative, anti-democratic, and anti-Jewish views. The outcome of the Church Struggle in Lübeck, according to Buss, was a church government take-over by “radical” German Christians. The radicals who led this regional church ardently supported the Nazi State, the National Church Movement of German Christians (NDC), and the virulently antisemitic Institute for Research into and Elimination of Jewish Influence in German Church Life (commonly called the “Eisenach Institute”).

Yet, all of this masked the fact that the Confessing Church in Lübeck, together with other Protestants who, despite their initial enthusiasm for the Hitler regime, largely rejected National Socialist incursions on Protestant autonomy (but did not openly protest anti-Jewish measures promulgated by the regime), actually represented a majority of Lübeck Protestants. As a result, from April 1937 to the end of the war, there were in Lübeck essentially two independent churches, joined only administratively (485).

On the one hand, Buss argues that a striking feature of the history of the Lübeck Church during the Nazi period was a radical antisemitism, which led under Bishop Erwin Balzer to adopt the goal of creating a “Jew-free” church to correspond to the “Jew-free” state that the Nazi Party was striving for (490). Buss suggests that this radical antisemitism was most prevalent among the leaders of the Lübeck church government.

On the other hand, however, he asserts that antisemitism and the state persecution of Jews was a non-issue in parish life. For the most part, Lübeck Protestants explicitly recognized and welcomed the state regulatory authority to limit the influence of Jews in politics, society, and culture. “There also were no reactions to the increasing restrictions on the Jewish community, to the open exclusion of Jewish Lübeckers, to the November 1938 pogrom, and finally to the beginning of the deportations.” There is simply little evidence, Buss argues, to suggest that these exclusionary policies aroused special concern among knowledgeable Protestants, even in the Confessing Church (493).

This lack of expressed concern was based at least in part on the “totalitarian” nature of the Nazi government and the “theological-ideological orientation” of the Balzer church government, both of which would have inhibited significant Protestant protest. Yet, he stresses that a lack of consciousness for the plight of Jews and Protestant “anti-Jewish resentments” (as well as some other church-political dynamics) played the greatest role.  These conclusions are nuanced, but there may be some reluctance here to attribute antisemitic attitudes to Protestants who were not aligned with the German Christians and/or the Nazis. At the national level, certainly anti-Judaism and xenophobia seem to have been more prevalent in the Confessing Church and the Protestant “middle.” Yet, antisemitic ideas can be found in those camps as well.  It is a bit surprising that such attitudes were seemingly less prevalent in Lübeck.

In the post-war era, cautious rapprochement between Protestants and Jews predominated in Lübeck, as elsewhere in Germany. Despite all that had transpired, Lübeck Protestants were not ready to welcome their Jewish neighbors with open arms. The differentiated description of events at the local level over three decades presented here helps to nuance our prior understanding of Lübeck Protestantism as a purely German Christian stronghold.

Buss’s inclusion of the experience of Lübeck Jews is commendable. Rather than a one-sided conversation featuring the dim views of Jews and Judaism purveyed by most German Protestants, Buss deals with the lived experience of Lübeck’s tiny Jewish minority during all three eras. He also consciously sets the actions and attitudes of Lübeck Protestants in their context; that is, he is careful to demonstrate the marked contrast between their often narrowly constructed abstract theological arguments about Jews and Judaism with the horrific terrestrial events being perpetrated against Jews in Europe at the same time.

This excellent study significantly broadens our previous knowledge about the Lübeck Protestant church. Buss’s judgments are measured and his analysis acute. He is also cognizant of the sensitivities involved in the issues being discussed. “Entjudete” Kirche is important reading for anyone interested in twentieth-century German Protestantism, and would be similarly useful for those interested in the history of Christian antisemitism.