Review of Manfred Gailus, ed., Täter und Komplizen in Theologie und Kirchen 1933-1945

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Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 1 (March 2016)

Review of Manfred Gailus, ed., Täter und Komplizen in Theologie und Kirchen 1933-1945 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2015). Pp. 260. ISBN 9783835316492.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Manfred Gailus’ newest contribution to the history of the German churches in the Third Reich is a collection of case studies of theologians, church leaders, and clergy whose writings or activities place them into the categories of perpetrators in or accomplices of the National Socialist regime. The various contributions are the product of a series of public lectures at the Topography of Terror in Berlin in 2013 and 2014. As such, none of the chapters in Täter und Komplizen in Theologie und Kirchen 1933-1945 represent new research. Nonetheless, the volume is more than the sum of its parts, in the way that it demonstrates the depth and breadth of the Christian support for and participation in Nazi Germany. As Gailus notes at the end of his introduction, millions of tourists come to Berlin every year, eager to see the sites of Nazi power and commemorations of Jewish suffering. When they come to the Berlin Cathedral or other historic church buildings in central Berlin, they ask questions about the role of the churches in the Third Reich. Gailus argues it is vitally important that the churches work through the issue of Christian complicity in Hitler’s Germany, in order to provide honest answers to these questions and find a healthy way forward.

Gailus-TaeterFollowing Manfed Gailus’ introductory chapter, there are nine chapters (three by Gailus, six by a variety of other scholars) and a theological afterward by Christoph Markschies, church historian, theologian, and former president of Humboldt University. The various chapters link thematically with one another in fruitful ways. Gailus starts things off with an analysis of the Day of Potsdam (March 21, 1933), the day on which Adolf Hitler opened the German parliament in the Garrison Church which had served Prussian monarchs for two hundred years. Drawing on his work in the 2011 book Zerstrittene “Volksgemeinschaft”: Glaube, Konfession und Religion im Nationalsozialismus, Gailus describes the Day of Potsdam as a great, joyful “Yes” spoken by German Protestantism to Hitler and his National Socialism government. He describes in particular the key role played by Otto Dibelius, General Superintendent of the Kurmark and leading Protestant churchman in the region. It was Dibelius who was the main speaker at a special worship service in the Nikolaikirche in central Berlin, attended by a majority of Protestant members of parliament and Reich President Hindenburg before they made their way to Potsdam for the opening of the Reichstag. Dibelius chose Romans 8:31 as his text: “If God be for us, who can be against us.” Since this was the same text used by the imperial court preacher at the outset of the Great War in 1914, Dibelius was consciously connecting the patriotic spirit of the First World War to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. While there were quiet notes of criticism in Dibelius’ message, none other than Hermann Goering shook his hand afterwards and declared it to be the best sermon he had ever heard (35-37).

Gailus makes a strong case for the Day of Potsdam as an important component in the revival of institutional Protestantism during the opening months of Nazi rule. Here the German Christian Movement played the leading role. One of example of this is Gailus’ description of a special “patriotic thanksgiving service” held by the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Parish on March 22. Meant to be an “ecclesiastical Potsdam,” the event depicted the German Christians as a mass movement parallel to National Socialism and celebrated the salvation of Germany from the “hell” of the godless Weimar Republic (41-42). In the end, Gailus explains the victory of the German Christians in the July 1933 church elections as the result of the fact that the majority of clergy and church people wanted this völkisch transformation, while the forces of opposition within the church were weak (46). “On the ‘Day of Postdam,’ half of society celebrated and acclaimed their ‘national awakening,’ while the other half of society was on the verge of being excluded, shackled, muzzled, and displaced” (47).

Film historian Ralf Forster follows up Gailus’ examination of the Day of Potsdam with a chapter analyzing the occasion as a propaganda event. Forster assesses the media coverage, particularly on radio and in newsreel footage. He notes the importance of the live radio broadcast of the day’s events and the many “special editions” of newspapers, some of which were printed later that same day, and were thus almost as current as the radio broadcasts. He also provides a detailed description of the newsreel footage of the Day of Potsdam, which brought the spectacle of the events at the Garrison Church to German moviegoers (57-60).

Next, editor Manfred Gailus contributes a second chapter, which shifts attention from the Day of Potsdam to the history of the takeover of Protestant church governments by the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement, especially in Berlin. German Christians united the National Socialist world view with the Christian tradition of belief, seeking to make belief in Jesus and belief in Hitler fully compatible. Gailus explains how the German Christian Movement cultivated mass ritual as its centerpiece, focusing of the Germanization of Protestant liturgy and the introduction of an ecclesiastical cult of flags (74). While the German Christians were initially successful in seizing the reigns of Protestant church governments, by 1934 they faced serious opposition, and over time they fell out of favour among the Nazi elites. This, Gailus suggests, makes it easy to believe they were insignificant. Rather, he argues they were a mass movement which dominated North Germany, Middle Germany, and East Elbian Prussia during the 1930s (78).

Horst Junginger, a professor of religious studies at Leipzig University, draws on his research on religion and antisemitism during the Nazi era to recount the career of theologian Gerhard Kittel, who joined both the German Christian Movement and the Nazi Party in 1933. Kittel’s publication The Jewish Question committed him to the antisemitic struggle against emancipation and equality for Jews in Germany and in turn elevated racial research to a central place in the University of Tübingen, making it into a “bulwark against Judaism,” as Kittel himself declared (87). As the “Jewish Question” became a subject of scientific and scholarly research, Kittel followed this agenda throughout the Third Reich, publishing articles and giving lectures as late as 1943 and 1944 for the Ministry of Propaganda and German universities. In doing so, he brought Christian anti-Judaism into the service of racial antisemitism (103-105).

Thomas Forstner, who recently published Priester in Zeiten des Umbruchs. Identität und Lebenswelt des katholischen Pfarrklerus in Oberbayern 1918 bis 1945, contributes a chapter on the phenomenon of the so-called Brown Priests. These pro-Nazi clergy were few in number compared to their Protestant counterparts—Forstner discusses fewer than 150 of them (123-124). He notes that the Roman Catholic hierarchy distanced itself from these priests, who were drawn to Nazism out of national sentiment or opportunism (not least to shed their celibacy) (129). Forstner discusses Joseph Roth and Albert Hartl as two examples of Catholic priests who engaged deeply with National Socialism.

Hansjörg Buss, author of “Entjudete” Kirche: Die Lübecker Landeskirche zwischen christlichem Antijudaismus und völkischem Antisemitismus (1918-1950), carries the Protestant story forward with an assessment of the role of Hanns Kerrl, Hitler’s Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, and his assistant, Hermann Muhs. He portrays Kerrl as a loyal servant, trying to accomplish the impossible task of unifying German Protestantism under church committees into order to fashion a centralized Reich Church adapted to National Socialism (148-149). This effort collapsed by 1937, and Christians like Kerrl lost favour year by year in the face of opposition from anti-Christian ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg and Martin Bormann. Kerrl’s assistant Muhs, a member of the radical Thuringian wing of the German Christian Movement, suggested “an administrative dictatorship” to “annihilate the Confessing Church” (162). This he attempted to do in part through the use of the church finance office to put serious pressure on Confessing Church pastors and parishes.

Susannah Heschel, whose book The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany has received extensive attention in this journal (here, here, and here), provides a useful overview of her important work on Walter Grundmann and his Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life. Through the Institute, Grundmann and others worked to develop an aryanized Christian confession for the Third Reich. Despite his leadership in such an obviously antisemitic venture, Grundmann retained his position within the Protestant church after 1945, even serving as an informer for the East German regime.

Manfred Gailus follows Susannah Heschel with a chapter on Karl Themel, Berlin pastor and race researcher. Themel was a member of the German Christian Movement, the SA, and the Nazi Party, eagerly taking up the position of “Expert for Race Research” with the Reich Interior Ministry. Working closely with the Reich Office for Geneological Research, Themel created an Office of Church Registers, Old Berlin. There they transferred the genealogical information of thousands of Berliners from these church records onto new identification cards, which were in turn used to check the Aryan ancestry of those who needed to prove their racial purity in order to take up various government positions. By 1941, Themel’s office had processed over 160,000 requests involving over 330,000 individuals, and had discovered over 2600 cases of Jewish ancestry—almost two cases per day, as Themel boasted late that year (209). Despite this direct participation in the implementation of Nazi antisemitic policy, Themel was rehabilitated by 1949, eventually taking up a pastorate in rural Brandenburg, then migrating back into archival work for the Berlin-Brandenburg church province! Upon his death, his work collecting and copying church registries in Berlin during the Third Reich was lauded as a service to the archival branch of the church (213). Not until 2002 was Themel’s work publicly denounced by church leaders (215).

Thomas Kaufmann’s chapter on influential church historian Erich Seeberg’s connections to the Nazi Party and the German Christian Movement offers another window into the ways individual theologians and church leaders navigated the Nazi era. In Seeberg’s case, his career revolved around research into transconfessional “German piety” which could be adapted easily to Nazi ideology (228). Seeberg studied Meister Eckhart and German mysticism, then applied his völkisch approach to the study of Martin Luther. Seeberg wanted to turn the Luther Renaissance into a “Luther Revolution.” This meant preaching a Luther who was “dangerous” and not “bourgeois” (229). Importantly, Seeberg also sought to recast theological education in a Nazi mold. His plans included revising theological curricula by abandoning historical-critical methodology and the study of the Hebrew language, replacing them with a “history of German piety” (241).

Finally, to complete the volume, Christoph Markschies writes on behalf of the Humboldt University Faculty of Theology, arguing that his institution still needs to engage in a thorough assessment of its activities during the Third Reich. This is a call very much in line with Gailus’ purpose for this volume, which is to demonstrate the extent to which German Protestants and (to a lesser extent) Catholics voluntarily adapted themselves to Hitler’s regime and participated in the National Socialist quest to eliminate German Jewry and thereby “purify” the German racial community. Gailus is driven by the conviction that the German churches still have much work to do in coming to terms with this history. This volume contributes substantially to his project, by compiling some of the best of current research into the German churches in the Nazi era. It also demonstrates that there is still much to do before those Berlin tourists receive proper answers to their questions about the German churches in the time of Hitler.

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