Review of Dean Stroud, ed., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2014)

Review of Dean Stroud, ed., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013), xii + 203p., ISBN 978-0-8028-6902-9.

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

Defining “resistance” to the Nazi regime is notoriously difficult because of the vast array of individual and specific factors underlying the acts that could be deemed resistance. Factors such as race, nationality, religion, occupation, gender, and age, as well as time and place, complicate arriving at a comprehensive definition. Broad definitions of resistance that include all acts of defiance no matter how small are appropriate for certain groups in specific times and places but not for others. In Nechama Tec’s most recent book, Resistance: Jews and Christians Who Defied the Nazi Terror (Oxford, 2013) she chooses a very broad definition that tries to account for the wide variety of Jewish acts of defiance in Nazi occupied Poland. She defines resistance as, “a set of activities motivated by the desire to thwart, limit, undermine, or end the exercise of oppression over the oppressed.” This definition is broad enough to include armed and unarmed resistance, small acts of defiance and assassination plots, and, most importantly for her, resistance by Jews, who were simply trying to survive in the forests, camps, and ghettos in Eastern Europe. But broad definitions of resistance like this are problematic for those of us interested primarily in German resistance because a good deal of resistance by Germans was directed at specific Nazi policies. Tec’s broad definition of resistance works well for her consideration of Jewish resistance in Poland, where a morale-building activity in the Warsaw Ghetto counted as resistance, but it lacks the nuance necessary for making distinctions between acts of resistance, opposition, single-issue dissent, and non-conformity in Germany.

stroud-preachingDean Stroud’s Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich uses a broad definition of resistance along the lines of Tec’s definition. This is problematic, because his focus is preaching in the German Confessing Church. In his 48-page introduction to the historical context, Stroud does not engage the vast literature on resistance in Germany or offer his opinion on the competing definitions of resistance by scholars such as Martin Broszat, Hans Mommsen, Peter Hoffmann, Detlev Peukert, and many others. But one can easily ascertain that he considers pastors in the Confessing Church to be a part of the Resistance, that he believes resistance among pastors was more wide spread than is acknowledged, and that he views Christianity as a radical alternative to Nazism. It is self-evident to Stroud that the thirteen sermons he includes in his book are “sermons of resistance.”

Of the thirteen sermons, twelve are by Protestants, and include such luminaries as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Martin Niemöller. Paul Schneider, who was murdered in Buchenwald, and Helmut Gollwitzer, who took over Niemöller’s parish after his arrest, each have two sermons. Julius von Jan’s famous sermon in the wake of Kristallnacht is included as is a 1944 sermon by the Confessing Church pastor, Wilhelm Busch. The final Protestant sermon is by Gerhard Ebeling, who studied under Bultmann and Brunner, and later Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde. The sole Catholic contribution comes from Bishop von Galen and is his famous August 3, 1941 sermon against euthanasia. Stroud also includes as an appendix a sermon written for pastors in the Prussian church on the loyalty oath to Hitler, the authorship of which is unclear.

The thirteen sermons vary widely in their topics and in their degree of condemnation of the Nazi regime. In my mind what they have in common is not that they are all “resistance sermons” but rather sermons that in diverse ways seek to provide Christian guidance at a time of confusion and crisis brought about by Nazi rule and the rise of the German Christians. Paul Schneider’s January 1934 sermon rages against the German Christian heresy, Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century, and “leading figures of the new Germany” who embraced racial thinking in the church. He reminds his parishioners of the error of placing “blood and race alongside the will of God revealed alone in the words of the Scripture.” But he also mentions aspects of the new regime that he finds appealing, i.e., “the will for political unity, for national honor, for a social community [Volksgemeinschaft].” Stroud comments in a footnote that Schneider “seems to be looking for areas of cooperation between church and state, as one would expect of a good Lutheran pastor nourished by the ‘two kingdoms’ teaching of Protestantism.” This type of observation, which is extremely rare in Stroud’s book, is of central importance to understanding the weaknesses of the Christian resistance to National Socialism. Stroud would have better served his readers had he chosen to use his considerable knowledge about Christianity, preaching, and the German language to analyze the sermons in greater detail with particular focus on how many of the leading figures of the Confessing Church forcefully opposed Nazi intrusions into the affairs of the church while at the same time found areas of agreement with National Socialism.

Despite Stroud’s background as a Presbyterian minister and German literature professor, he does not provide more than snippets of his own interpretation of the sermons. His 2-3 page introductions to each sermon are mostly concerned with providing historical and biographic background information. His rather long introduction to the book has over twenty subsections on well known topics such as Hitler’s notion of “positive Christianity,” the German Christian movement, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Barmen Declaration. He relies heavily on Klaus Scholder and John Conway to provide the historical context to the Church Struggle and Michael Burleigh for general background to the Nazi period. The most interesting and original sections of the introduction are when Stroud abandons the secondary sources and provides his own analysis or commentary. For example, his analysis of the essay, “Was ist positives Christentum?” by pastor Wilhelm Rott and his commentary on an essay that appeared in Barth’s series Theologische Existenz heute by theology student Max Lackmann introduce readers to two men who engaged in the Church Struggle, who have received very little attention thus far. Stroud also provides at the end of his introduction some useful tips on how to read the thirteen sermons with an eye to how Christian vocabulary could serve as subversive language.

If there is one underlying thesis to the book it is “Christianity’s total incompatibility with Nazi doctrine.” And herein lies the biggest problem. For Stroud Christianity and Nazism are fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed. He does not address the role that Christian anti-Semitism and nationalism played in Christian complicity, including by the Confessing Church, in Nazi rule and the Holocaust. He writes, “Although the Nazi program included a counterfeit ‘positive Christianity’ and although Hitler peppered speeches with references to God, neither he nor Nazism had a single thing in common with traditional Christianity.” The pastors and theologians in the Confessing Church are portrayed as the representatives of traditional Christianity in complete opposition to the Nazis and German Christians. Although Stroud does mention Niemöller’s early anti-Judaism, he concludes without equivocation that after 1934 Niemöller was an opponent of Nazism. Besides this brief mention of Niemöller’s anti-Semitism, Stroud does not give any serious consideration to the ways that Nazi rule might appeal to a faithful Christian.

The Confessing Church as a whole was never opposed to Nazism as a whole. The authors of the thirteen sermons were unique in their courage and the Nazis viewed them as such a threat that they banned, exiled, jailed, or murdered several of them. Publishing beautiful translations of their sermons honors them and provides a wonderful resource of scholars and students. But if there is one thing that the scholarship on the Confessing Church over the past two decades has uncovered it is that the Confessing Church and its leaders had a complicated relationship to National Socialism that involved different levels of consent and dissent at various times during the 12 years of Nazi rule.