On the Confessing Church’s June 1936 Memorandum to Hitler

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 2 (June 2016)

On the Confessing Church’s June 1936 Memorandum to Hitler

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the Confessing Church’s most courageous act of opposition to Hitler’s regime. On June 4, 1936, Pastor Wilhelm Jannasch of the Confessing Church delivered to the Reich Chancellery a memorandum addressed to Adolf Hitler that stands out in the history of the Church Struggle for its frank criticism of Nazi church policy and, more remarkably, the Nazi attempt to force racial anti-Semitism on the Christian population. It is both unfortunate and highly illuminating that this extraordinary act of resistance remains tarnished by the Confessing Church’s decision to distance itself from Friedrich Weißler, a Christian of Jewish descent, who the Nazis arrested for his role in the publication of the memorandum and eventually murdered in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Following the decisive break in the confessional front at the fourth confessional synod in Bad Oeynhausen in February 1936, the Niemöller wing of the Confessing Church represented by the Second Provisional Church Administration and the “Dahlemites” in the Council for the German Evangelical Church drafted the memorandum to Hitler. The memorandum went through several renditions and, as is often the case with statements written by committees, it lost some of its sharpness as the process went on for several weeks. In Martin Greschat’s book on the memorandum, Zwischen Widerspruch und Widerstand, he identifies the theologian Hans Asmussen as one of its principal authors; other signees included Fritz Müller, Martin Albertz, Hans Böhm, Bernhard Heinrich Forck, and Otto Fricke of the Provisional Administration and Karl Lücking, Friedrich Middendorf, Martin Niemöller, and Reinhold von Thadden of the Council for the German Evangelical Church.

The primary focus of the memorandum’s seven sections was to criticize Nazi church policy, especially the state’s interference in the affairs of the church. Instead of providing the churches with the freedom and protection Hitler promised in 1933, the authors claimed that the Nazi state and party were guilty of publically assailing the Christian faith, muzzling church leaders, and trying to de-Christianize the nation. Church leaders had complained about all of these incursions in the religious life of the population before but never with such transparency and brutal honesty, calling out Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg, Hanns Kerrl, and even Hitler for harsh criticism.

But by far the most impressive and distinctive section of the document is the one in which the Confessing Church turns its sight on Nazi racial thought and in two succinct sentences rejects the Nazi racial worldview and racial anti-Semitism:

When blood, ethnicity, race, and honor here receive the rank of eternal values, then the Evangelical Christian is forced by the First Commandment to reject this valuation. When the Aryan human being is glorified, God’s Word is witness to the sinfulness of all humans; when anti-Semitism, which binds him to hatred of Jews, is imposed upon the Christian framework of the National Socialist world view, then for him the Christian commandment to love one’s fellow human stands opposed to it.

These are extremely courageous words in the context of the mid-1930s when Hitler was cracking down on dissent with increasing brutality. Prior to the memorandum only a few lone voices from within the Confessing Church had the courage to condemn racial anti-Semitism toward unbaptized Jews.  We should be clear, however, that while the fifth section calls on Christians to counter Nazi hatred toward Jews by following the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the memorandum does not condemn the religious anti-Semitism prevalent within the churches that viewed unbaptized Jews as “erring brothers” who crucified Jesus and lived under God’s eternal damnation.

The authors of the memorandum had hoped to keep its contents confidential until after Hitler had an opportunity to read the document and to respond. Despite their efforts, the document was leaked and published in the foreign press in July, just as Berlin was gearing up for the summer Olympics. Nazi officials were irate, as was the leadership of the Confessing Church. Among those responsible for its publication was Ernst Tillich, a down-and-out 26-year-old former theology student with connections to the press. He had borrowed a copy of the memorandum from Friedrich Weißler, the bureau chief and a legal consultant for the Provisional Church Government, copied it verbatim, and shared it with journalists for a fee. When the Provisional Church Government learned that it was Weißler who provided Tillich with a copy of the memorandum, it suspended Weißler for breach of trust.

In October and November 1936 the Gestapo arrested Tillich, his friend Werner Koch, and Weißler on “suspicion of illegal activity,” i.e., colluding with the foreign press against the Nazi regime. All three were sent to the police prison at Alexanderplatz, where they were interrogated, and then to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in February 1937. Because Weißler was a Jew as defined by the Nazi state, he was immediately separated from Tillich and Koch and, after six days of torture at the hands of the SS camp guards, Weißler died. Koch and Tillich, on the other hand, were released in 1938 and 1939, respectively.

During the crucial weeks and months of Weißler’s internment—when intervention by leading churchmen might have been effective—leaders of the Confessing Church, including Martin Niemöller, deliberately distanced themselves from their colleague in order to protect the reputation of the Confessing Church from the political charge that Weißler had acted treasonably by publishing the memorandum. Let there be no misunderstanding: Hitler’s racial state was responsible for the murder of Friedrich Weißler—not the Confessing Church—but it is a shame that his brothers in Christ did not even attempt to intervene on his behalf, being well aware of his special status as baptized Jew.

The Niemöller wing of the Confessing Church should be applauded for the unequivocal stance it took in June 1936 against Nazi racial anti-Semitism. At no time before or after did the Confessing Church repeat this rebuke with such clarity. But in the aftermath of the memorandum’s premature publication, fearing a Nazi crackdown, they disassociated themselves from their most vulnerable of colleagues, leaving Weißler to his fate at the hands of the SS. The legacy of the “Hitler Memo” is in many ways the legacy of the Confessing Church, a legacy that includes courage and cowardice, opposition and accommodation, and resistance and complicity.