Review Article: Confessing Church Biographies

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 1/2 (June 2017)

Review Article: Confessing Church Biographies

Review of Michael Heymel, Martin Niemöller: Vom Marineoffizier zum Friedenskämpfer (Darmstadt: Lambert Schneider, 2017), 321 pages, ISBN: 9783650401960.

Christiane Tietz, Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. Victoria Barnett (Minneapolis: Augsburg fortress, 2016), 141 pages, ISBN: 9781506408446

By Matthew Hockenos, Skidmore College

These two biographies by Christiane Tietz and Michael Heymel offer introductions to the life and thought of the two most celebrated leaders of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) and Martin Niemöller (1892-1984). Trained as theologians, Tietz and Heymel add to our knowlege of Bonhoeffer and Niemöller’s intellectual development and theological orientation, although neither significantly alters our current understanding of their place in the history of the church struggle or (in the case of Niemöller) postwar German history. Tietz does a better job of avoiding hagiography but both authors give short shrift to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in their subject’s life and thought.

Whereas a new biography of Martin Niemöller is long overdue, one might ask: do we need another on Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer biographies, some of dubious quality, have been flying off the presses over the past few years. The best of these is Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance recently reviewed in these pages by Kyle Jantzen. Eberhard Bethge’s more than 900-page biography is the classic that still remains the go-to biography. Tietz’s 120-page biography might appear at first glance a lightweight contribution to the field of Bonhoeffer studies, but Bonhoeffer scholars and armchair enthusiasts alike will be pleased with Tietz’s accomplishment. She has succeeded in writing in accessible prose a theologically astute analysis of Bonhoeffer’s thought within the framework of a barebones narrative of his life.

There is no definitive biography of Martin Niemöller, and the biographies of Niemöller that we do have are dated and lacking in archival research. In addition to the purely hagiographic monographs, there are the serviceable biographies by Dietmar Schmidt (1959) and James Bentley (1984). In 1997 Matthias Schreiber contributed a brief but critical portrait of Niemöller that is the best of the lot. Jürgen Schmidt’s Martin Niemöller im Kirchenkampf (1971) is the most detailed study we have of Niemöller but covers only the years of Niemöller’s leadership of the Confessing Church from 1933 to his arrest in 1937. So Heymel’s biography of Niemöller is certainly a welcome addition to the field, although his contribution is somewhat marred by an overemphasis on Niemöller’s theology and the postwar years.

Heymel moves very quickly through Niemöller’s early life without examining in much detail his right-wing sympathies and ties to right-wing organizations, such as the Freikorps. We learn very little about the nature and extent of Niemöller’s pre-1945 anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. The passing attention to these subjects is in stark contrast to the significant space he devotes to Niemöller’s postwar presidency of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau (EKHN) and his peace work. The biographies by Schmidt, Bentley, and Schreiber contribute very little to our knowledge of Niemöller’s postwar activities so Heymel’s attention to these years helps to correct this deficiency. But it also leaves the reader with a distorted view of Niemöller as a man of prayer and peace with a slightly blemished past. Heymel by no means whitewashes Niemöller’s past but the emphasis is on Niemöller as the conservative patriot rather than the ultra-nationalist supporter of the far right.

The contrast between Niemöller and Bonhoeffer in the late 1920s and early 1930s couldn’t have been starker. Bonhoeffer’s year in Barcelona (1928) and in New York (1930-31), as well as his cosmopolitan upbringing, opened his eyes early to the promise of the ecumenical movement and engendered his suspicion toward Niemöller’s type of national Protestantism. When Bonhoeffer was attending a meeting of the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches in England, Niemöller was reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf and musing about the coming of a Führer. Barth’s influence on Bonhoeffer also led him to reject Niemöller’s brand of Lutheranism, in particular the theological concept of orders of creation.

One area of theological agreement was their common rejection of abstract principles or norms; both men wanted to formulate concrete ethical commandments based on the application of Scripture to specific contemporary situations. Niemöller’s Dahlem sermons, collected and edited by Heymel in Dahlemer Predigten: Kritsche Ausgabe (2011), provide numerous examples of Niemöller using his exegesis of Scripture to reflect on contemporary events. In his 1932 World Alliance address, Bonhoeffer couldn’t have been clearer: “The church . . . can proclaim not principles that are always true but rather commandments that are true today.”

Although Bonhoeffer was more than a decade Niemöller’s junior, they both received their first pastorates in Berlin in 1931—Bonhoeffer as student chaplain at the Technical College and Niemöller in the posh suburb of Dahlem. Niemöller’s nine years of naval service (1910-1919) and seven years running the Westphalian Inner Mission (1924-1931) explain his delayed appointment. For these two decades Niemöller mixed with the most reactionary segments of German society, drawn to their anti-communism, ultra-nationalism, and manliness. This was not some sort of youthful flirtation or rebellion—he was thirty-years-old in 1922. Rather, these were Niemöller’s core beliefs and deserve to be treated as such. After the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918, Niemöller’s sympathies shifted rapidly from conservative monarchism to right-wing nationalism, embracing first the anti-republican and anti-Semitic Freikorps movement and then in 1924 Hitler’s National Socialism. He was elated when Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor and remained pleased with the vast majority of Hitler’s policies. As far as I know, Niemöller protested against the Nazi’s anti-Semitism only once, in the June 1936 memorandum to Hitler, before his arrest in July 1937.

Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the Nazis was total from the start. What eventually brought the two pastors together was their mutual aversion to the Nazi-backed German Christian movement within the Protestant Church and its perversion of the Gospel. Although both men assailed the German Christian ambition to ban pastors of Jewish descent from the church, Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the German Christians centered on their anti-Semitism and their goal to force all baptized Jews from the church. In his intrepid essay on “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he called on the church to come to the aid of Jews persecuted by the state and to oppose any attempts by the state to exclude baptized Jews from the church or to ban the mission to the Jews.

In Tietz’s discussion of this essay (38-39) she makes no mention of the much-discussed passage in which Bonhoeffer described Jews as the people who “hung the Redeemer of the world on the cross” and as a consequence “must endure the curse of its action in long-drawn-out suffering” until they recognize Christ as Lord. Although one could argue that this long paragraph, rife with many of the tropes of Christian anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism, isn’t central to his argument, such language did not advance Bonhoeffer’s case that the church had a responsibility to aid persecuted Jews. Since Bonhoeffer’s relationship to Jews and Jewish-Christians is an important facet of his life and is often hailed by his admirers, the paragraph merits analysis.

Heymel’s biography suffers from a similar lapses. In several places (58, 64, 67, 87) he skirts over the issue of Niemöller’s anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, explaining it away with various arguments. In his chapter on Niemöller’s postwar EKHN presidency (1947-1961) Heymel goes into more detail, describing Niemöller’s relationship with German Jewry pre- and post-1945 as a learning process and briefly mentions the anti-Judaism prevalent in some of his Dahlem sermons. He distinguishes Niemöller’s Christian anti-Semitism from Hitler’s racial anti-Semitism and says that for Niemöller the solution to the “Jewish question” was conversion. Niemöller, I would agree, did not embrace Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism, but there is plenty of evidence that his anti-Semitism extended beyond theological anti-Judaism and that he did not welcome conversion but merely tolerated it because he had to as a Christian. Niemöller makes this very clear in his three-page essay, “Sätze zur Arierfrage in der Kirche,” in Junge Kirche (November 2, 1933), and in his correspondence. I also think that Heymel is right that Niemöller’s attitude toward Jews changes after 1945, but his anti-Semitism does not disappear. Even after the Holocaust, Niemöller continued to express anti-Semitic stereotypes and refused to accept Adolf Freudenberg’s claim that anti-Semitism still prevailed among Germans, including Christians.

In a similar vein, Heymel has a tendency to play-up Niemöller’s opposition to Hitler. The incident most frequently evoked by Niemöller defenders to demonstrate his courageous stand against Hitler and National Socialism is the famous meeting between Hitler and Protestant church leaders on January 25, 1934. This meeting has taken on legendary status. There are many versions of what took place so how a biographer or historian chooses to portray the famous meeting is a good indicator of their interpretation of Niemöller’s status as an opponent of Hitler. Heymel’s depiction is that of a dramatic confrontation between Hitler and Niemöller in which Niemöller admonishes Hitler during their handshake at the end of the meeting (73-76). He describes the hour-long meeting between more than a dozen churchmen and Hitler as “eine längere Auseinandersetzung zwischen Hitler und Niemöller.” He then quotes Niemöller’s account of the incident from his 1963 interview with Günter Gaus. In that interview and elsewhere Niemöller claims that at the end of the meeting when he was shaking Hitler’s hand he reproached the Führer for saying that churchmen should concern themselves only with the church and leave the care of the German people and the Third Reich to Hitler and the state. Niemöller claims to have retorted that no man can take away the church’s God-given duty to care for the German people. The implication is that in the famous showdown between Hitler and Niemöller, the pious pastor bested the Nazi leader.

At the very least Niemöller’s 1963 rendering of the incident is a sensationalized account that needs to be scrutinized. Historians are taught to interrogate evidence, especially when there are reasons to believe it’s specious. Heymel simply quotes Niemöller’s account as fact. Niemöller’s circular letter to fellow clergy dated February 16, 1934 about the meeting includes an account of the famous handshake that is far less dramatic than his 1963 version, suggesting that the tale grew over the years. Many of the accounts by people present at the meeting do not mention a final exchange between pastor and Führer. For most of the meeting, it appears Hitler rambled on about the irksome nature of the church struggle and near the end the bishops from the intact churches offered some timid comments. Church historian Klaus Scholder, who has researched this event in detail, makes no mention of a final encounter between Niemöller and Hitler.

The bottom line is that we don’t know if Niemöller challenged Hitler at the end of the meeting. The evidence that he did comes from Niemöller himself. The evidence that he didn’t comes from others at the meeting. Given church leaders’ postwar tendency to exaggerate their resistance to Hitler, I’m dubious of Niemöller’s 1963 account. I think Scholder probably got it right. And this is no small issue. The Niemöller legend is built on this encounter with Hitler more than any other and is often used as the primary explanation for Hitler’s hatred of Niemöller and his eventual arrest and imprisonment in July 1937.

In contrast, Bonhoeffer carried on his struggle with the German Christians and the Nazi state from a German pastorate in London from October 1933 to April 1935. I’ve always found Bonhoeffer’s decision to move to England just as the church struggle was heating up a curious one. Tietz quotes a lengthy passage from Bonhoeffer’s letter to Barth in which he attempts to explain his decision, but I think this misses an opportunity to tease out the personality and character traits that led to this odd decision. Bonhoeffer considered leaving Germany again in 1939—this time moving to New York. Does this suggest a tendency to flee when the going gets tough? Were his nerves understandably frayed? Or was the young pastor simply acting strategically? His return to Germany from London in 1935, the rapid abandonment of his New York plans, and his decision to join the political conspiracy need to be factored into this analysis.

Tietz’s chapters on Bonhoeffer’s years serving as director the Finkenwalde preachers’ seminary (1935-1938) are the richest of the book, especially her analysis of Discipleship. These were years when Bonhoeffer developed his theology of resistance and wrote some of his most moving essays on the meaning of community. Bonhoeffer saw his duty at Finkenwalde to train seminarians for service in the Confessing Church and the church struggle. His position continued to be more radical than that of his colleagues, many of whom were willing to compromise with the regime on, for example, the loyalty oath to Hitler. His decision to join the political conspiracy in the Military Intelligence office in 1939 best portrays his radical rejection of Nazism. Tietz concludes that Bonhoeffer’s life and thought are still relevant for us today, especially his conviction that faith and theology must correspond to the everyday circumstances of our lives.

Heymel’s chapters on Niemöller’s life and thought after he’s freed from Nazi captivity in May 1945 are of a different nature than the pre-’45 chapters. Not only are they far more detailed but they also take more advantage of the considerable research he’s conducted in the EKHN archive in Darmstadt. Niemöller spent the immediate postwar years preaching the message of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt to his unrepentant countrymen and trying to figure out whether his future lay back in Dahlem or in his adopted church in Hesse and Nassau. The divisions within the Confessing Church during the Nazi period carried over into the postwar era with Niemöller always at the center of the storm. He was frequently out of step with his colleagues like Otto Dibelius and Hans Meiser, who sided with Chancellor Adenauer, the division of Germany, and the remilitarization of West Germany. Niemöller’s trip to Moscow in the early 1950’s—not to mention his later meeting with Ho Chi Minh—confirmed for many cold warriors in Germany and the U.S. that he thoroughly underestimated the threat of communism to democracy and religious life.

Heymel’s profession as a pastor in the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau for some thirty years is clearly on display in the chapter on Niemöller’s presidency of the EKHN, where Heymel examines Niemöller’s complicated relationships with various authorities within the EKHN. During his years as church president Niemöller was on the road much of the time travelling throughout Germany and the world, often to the dismay of clergy in his home church who thought he should pay more attention to his job as church president.

One of Heymel’s central theses for these postwar years is that Niemöller’s evolution from militarist to pacifist and from nationalist to leader of the ecumenical movement was driven by his straightforward theology grounded in the Scriptures, Reformation Confessions, and the Barmen theses. Heymel repeatedly makes the point that Niemöller’s political and church-political decisions as pastor, church president, and WCC president stem from his basic faith in Jesus Christ and from posing the question: what would Jesus say? If anything, these chapters go on too long. He concludes that Niemöller was influenced throughout his life by his patriotism and his faith, the latter being primary for the last decades of his life, when he abandoned his national Protestantism and became a fighter for global peace and disarmament.

Heymel’s contribution to our understanding of Niemöller’s life and thought is primarily to flesh out in greater detail his post-1945 activities, mostly absent in the existing biographies. We are still awaiting a definitive biography of Niemöller that doesn’t shy away from tackling head on the less savory aspects of his life and thought. Tietz’s contribution to Bonhoeffer studies is to provide a succinct introduction to Bonhoeffer’s theology firmly rooted in its historical context. Her promise in the preface to not avoid the critical questions about his life and work is mostly achieved except for the absence of a discussion of the anti-Judaism in his celebrated 1933 essay on “The Church and the Jewish Question.”