Conference Report: “The Confessing Church’s Memorandum of May 28, 1936 and the Murder of Friedrich Weißler (1891-1937) in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp,” Topography of Terror

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: “The Confessing Church’s Memorandum of May 28, 1936 and the Murder of Friedrich Weißler (1891-1937) in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp,” Topography of Terror, Berlin, May 28, 2016

By Hansjörg Buss, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen; translated by John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

On May 28, 1936, the Second Provisional Directorate of the German Evangelical Church sent a now famous memorandum directed to Hitler personally. This protest, signed by ten members of the various wings of the Confessing Church, drew Hitler’s attention to the fact that in the fourth year of Nazi rule, the church was being repressed by the state “to a very large extent” in what seemed to be an attempt to “de-Christianize” Germany. Secondly, it refuted the Nazi interpretation of “positive Christianity” as theologically unsound. The Memorandum further attacked the Nazi ideology with its divination of “Blood “, ”Race” and “National Identity”. Above all, the authors criticized the arbitrary police measures which had undermined the rule of law, as well as leading to the erection of the system of concentration camps. The memorandum further declared that:

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.

This Memorandum was not without its consequences. Originally it was sent to Hitler privately without publicity, in the expectation that such a private remonstrance would lead Hitler to abandon the policies to which its authors took exception. But less than six weeks later the whole memorandum appeared in a Swiss newspaper, the Basler Nachrichten, and shortly afterwards was printed in the New York Herald Tribune. At the beginning of October the Gestapo arrested the Confessing Church’s collaborator Dr. Friedrich Weißler, who came under suspicion for having authorized the publication in Switzerland. On February 19, 1937, shortly after he had been transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he was found dead as a result of a severe bodily assault. Since then he has become regarded as the Confessing Church’s first ‘martyr’. At the same time, there can be no doubt that his murder was sparked by anti-semitism, since, although a strong supporter of the Confessing Church, Weißler came from a Jewish family. By the Nazi definition, he was counted as “fully Jewish”, and as such had already been dismissed from his post of Provincial Court judge in Magdeburg in July 1933.

To mark this Memorandum’s 80th anniversary, a lecture series was organized at the Topography of Terror Foundation by the Berlin-Brandenburg Evangelical Church in co-operation with Dr. Manfred Gailus. The title of this series was “’With Deep Concern’ over De-Christianization, Anti-Semitism and Arbitrary Breaches of Law”, and was designed to draw attention to the Confessing Church’s Memorandum and to Weißler’s fate. The high point was a public forum in which some 130 guests took part. Martin Greschat, now an emeritus professor of church history at Giessen University and author of the standard history of this Memorandum, described the origins and composition of the Memorandum in its various stages.[1] Afterwards Hansjörg Buss outlined Weißler’s biography and his role in the Memorandum’s composition and publication. In Michael Germann’s view, this was the high and catastrophic turning point in Weißler’s life. Manfred Gailus then took up the story by claiming that no evidence exists that Weißler’s murder was ‘organized’ by higher elements in the Nazi bureaucracy. One could conclude therefore that the motive for this brutal mishandling was the anti-semitic attitudes of Jew-hatred among lower echelons of the SS guards. It is possible, so Greschat suggested, that this murder stalled the launching of a full-scale trial of the Confessing Church leadership, which numerous signs suggest was being planned.

The final contribution was made by Peter Steinbach, long-time director of the German Resistance Memorial Center and emeritus professor of history at Mannheim University. His title was “Treason – Breach of Confidence – Resistance: Reflections on the Memorandum and on Friedrich Weißler”. He believes that Weißler suffered from deeply-felt feelings of isolation, like many other people who were deprived of their positions and rights during the Nazi period. This led to a total disorientation. The destruction of his bourgeois life-style, and the social exclusion which he experienced even within his church connections took an enormous toll. As a consequence he was to pay with his life for this hurtful rejection.

In conclusion, Friedrich Weißler’s grandson, Wolfgang Weißler, reflected spontaneously on how the family reacted to his fate. His grandmother had never spoken about the circumstances of his death. Only in the 1980s when this case was ‘discovered’ both in the church and society more generally was his fate also discussed in his own family circle.

Many details about the Memorandum and Weißler’s arrest still remain open. Above all, there is the question as to how this Memorandum was smuggled out to the foreign press in the summer of 1936, which was the immediate cause of Weißler’s detention. Did he give his consent to its publication? Was there any consultation with or backing from the Confessing Church leadership? (This would seem unlikely, given the speed with which these leaders dissociated themselves from his actions.) If no further sources turn up, then such questions may remain unsolved. But any such new information will not be decisive. In fact, Weißler’s murder meant that the staunchly opposing wing of the Confessing Church, known as the “Dahlemites”, could no longer have any illusions about the character of the Nazi state.

In recent years this incident has become better known both generally and in church circles. Weißler is no longer a completely unknown figure. And the keen participation in the symposium described above means that there is a continuing interest in what Gailus depicts as a modern twentieth century Passion Story. In Steinbach’s view, the whole tragedy and catastrophe of the early twentieth century in Germany is summed up in Weißler’s fate. Manfred Gailus has now completed a full biography which will appear in February 2017, and on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of his death on February 19, 2017, a memorial service will be held on the grounds of the Sachsenhausen Camp.


[1] Manfred Gailus, Friedrich Weißler: Ein Jurist und bekennender Christ im Widerstand gegen Hitler (forthcoming, Goettingen 2017). See also Martin Greschat, Widerspruch und Widerstand: Texte zur Denkschrift der Bekennenden Kirche an Hitler (Munich: Kaiser, 1987); Greschat, “Friedrich Weißler. Ein Jurist der Bekennenden Kirche im Widerstand gegen Hitler,” in Ursula Buettner and Martin Greschat, Die verlassenen Kinder der Kirche: Der Umgang der Kirche mit den Christen jüdischer Herkunft (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), 86-122; John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968), 162-64.