A Past that Will Not Pass Away: A Contribution to the 850th Anniversary of the Brandenburg Cathedral

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 3 (September 2015)

A Past that Will Not Pass Away: A Contribution to the 850th Anniversary of the Brandenburg Cathedral

By Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität Berlin

The following article was adapted from a public lecture concerning the 850th anniversary of the Brandenburg Cathedral and is used by permission of the author. Our thanks to John S. Conway, University of British Columbia, for his translation and abridgment of Manfred Gailus’ text.

Brandenburg’s 850 year old cathedral, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, is a noted historic site, picturesquely and sedately situated on the banks of the Havel River. But eighty years ago, it was the scene of a very different celebration. Shortly after the general election of 5 March 1933 there was a rambunctious parade in the Cathedral Square led by Nazi Party units, including veterans’ formations and the SA, as they paraded to celebrate Hitler’s victories and his coming to power in Germany. They were addressed by Dr. Ludwig Ziehen, the Principal of the Cathedral School (“Ritterakademie”), who gave a speech in which he celebrated the “liberation of Brandenburg by the forces of the nationalist movement” and thanked everyone who had helped to bring this about. At the same time, he expressed the hope that the “brave national flags” (including the swastika) would never disappear from Brandenburg’s flagpoles, and called for three Nazi cheers before the marchers dispersed back to the city centre.

Ludwig Ziehen was to play a crucial role in Brandenburg’s fortunes during this period. He had served as Principal of the Cathedral School since 1916 and was also chairman of the Cathedral Chapter (“Domkapitel”), which included laymen. As early as 1923 he had created a club of extreme right-wing sympathizers and after 1930 had emerged as a leading campaigner for the Nazi Party. Officially he joined the Party in November 1932, and in March 1933 was their leading candidate in municipal elections. In the following month he became chairman of the Brandenburg city council. One of the first actions it took under his leadership was to proclaim President Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler to be honorary citizens of Brandenburg. The session closed with the singing of the national anthem and the popular Nazi Horst Wessel song. Those socialist members of the council who had refused to stand for this song were escorted by SA marshals from the room and beaten up outside.

Ludwig Ziehen was thus a prominent political figure and at the same time manager of the Cathedral’s religious and business affairs. The Cathedral had over the centuries accumulated a great number of valuable pieces of property, including the renowned school, so that the legal position had become confused and complicated. In 1930 the responsible Ministry in the Prussian state government had issued a new constitution, which established a legally-recognized Foundation, which transferred authority from the clergy and placed it under the regional secular authority. The former Cathedral Chapter was then dissolved.

The Cathedral’s congregation was quite small, around 1000 members. In the July 1933 church elections, the overwhelming majority decided for the so-called “German Christians” who eagerly supported the Nazis’ ideology, and sought to combine this with their Lutheran inheritance. They then claimed 80 percent of the seats on the church council, and were vocal in support of their ideas. But this group was not given the authority to make appointments to the cathedral’s clerical staffing, which still rested with higher levels of the state and church administrations. The result was that, for several years, the question of new clergy appointments led to continuing problems, especially after one of the senior ministers, Superindendent Schott, decided to retire in 1934. Ziehen was one of those who complained that the seemingly endless controversies about who should be appointed in his place was unworthy of so distinguished and historic a parish as the Brandenburg Cathedral. In fact, in 1936, a provisional appointment was made of Reverend Bruno Adler. But he was one of the more extreme “German Christians”, who had already become notorious as a Nazi sympathizer in Westphalia and had even been made Bishop in Münster. But his rigid and domineering behavior there had made his position impossible.

In 1935-36 a new chapter opened, largely due to the actions of the new Reich Minister for Church Affairs, Hanns Kerrl. A new Cathedral Chapter was selected with retired naval officer, Adolf von Trotha, as chairman. He was known as a staunch opponent of the previous democratic governments, and in 1933 was chosen by the Nazi authorities to be a member of the distinguished Prussian State Council. In 1939 he wrote his own profession of faith, which included the statement: “I believe that Jesus Christ had fully cut his ties to the Jewish people. He told the Jews the truth, and they cast it back in his teeth and rejected him.” Amongst the other appointments to the Cathedral Chapter were Provost Konrad Jenetzky, a leading “German Christian” from Silesia, and the prominent “German Christian” pastor in Berlin and temporarily Bishop in Magdeburg, Friedrich Peter. The Church Ministry had tried to give Peter a leading position in the Berlin Cathedral, but the church council there had refused to accept him. So they obliged the Brandenburg Cathedral to give him a position, along with the local leader of the Nazi Party, Karl Scholze, who had already joined the Party in 1930 and was employed full-time in propagating the Party’s cause. In fact, because of the outbreak of war, only Ziehen was permanently present in Brandenburg, but was himself – as a member of the Cathedral Chapter – fully engaged in managing Cathedral affairs. In the Cathedral School, numerous festivities celebrated the Nazi Party’s achievements, including listening to the radio speeches of Nazi leaders such as the Propaganda Minister Goebbels and singing the praises of the Reich Youth leader Baldur von Schirach.

The war-time circumstances and the lack of clergy made for more difficulties. After Bishop Bruno Adler left in 1940, Ziehen was obliged to write to the regional church administration, because “for the last six months we have had no clergy available. Church attendance threatens to become depleted. This is a deplorable result of the previous squabbles.” Finally in April 1942 a young pastor, Dr. Rudolf Biedermann from Pomerania, was called to join the Cathedral. Ziehen assured his colleagues that he had found Biedermann to be filled with a true National Socialist spirit, and that he would rely not only on the Bible and his Protestant heritage, but also on his “loyalty to the Führer of the German people”.

An extensive correspondence between Ziehen and the various members of the Cathedral Chapter who were serving in the army gives a good impression of their attitudes during the period of hostilities. For instance, Bishop Peter was engaged for two years in the blockade of Leningrad, during which over a million civilians died of starvation and cold. His letters from the front showed him as still believing in eventual victory, with a loyal greeting to the Führer and “Heil Hitler”. But after the downturn in Germany’s military fortunes at the end of 1942, a change of tone occurs. Ziehen even expressed a sense of distance in his attitude towards the regime. He could no longer accept the over-optimistic forecasts put out by the Propaganda Ministry. But of course these doubts could not be expressed in public: that was – he conceded – much too dangerous a topic.

The end of the war was also a difficult and dangerous time for the Cathedral. The synthesis of Nazi Party ideology and Christian belief which had been so eagerly pursued since 1933 was now falling apart. In the end, Ziehen’s biography seems rather tragic as though he was involved in a Götterdämmerung leading to a fatal ending over which he had no control. But no one was prepared to admit that the whole experience of nazification since 1933 was a ghastly error. Now – 70 years after the end of the war and 25 years after Germany’s reunification – this would seem an appropriate time to reflect on these events.