Article Note: Heath A. Spencer, “From Liberal Theology to Völkisch Christianity?: Heinrich Weinel, the Volkskirchenbund, and the Church Struggle in Thuringia”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 1 (March 2018)

Article Note: Heath A. Spencer, “From Liberal Theology to Völkisch Christianity?: Heinrich Weinel, the Volkskirchenbund, and the Church Struggle in Thuringia,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 30, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 328-350.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In this interesting article, Heath A. Spencer explains how Heinrich Weinel, professor of New Testament and systematic theology at Jena University from 1904 until his death in 1936, could combine “theological liberalism, progressive politics, and humanitarian ideals” (328) with support for the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement in Thuringia. As Spencer notes, in many respects, Weinel was something of a conundrum. He defended “Protestant freedom” against conservative theology, but supported the idea of a Protestant Volkskirche (people’s church). He strove for peace and disapproved of the “national religion” of the First World War era, yet volunteered for military service and promoted “total mobilization” towards the end of the war. During the Weimar period, he was one of the minority of Protestant clergy who supported the new republic, but as the völkisch movement grew stronger through the later 1920s, he called on his fellow religious liberals to work with those on the right (328-329).

Spencer argues that Weinel’s story helps us understand how not only ideology but also “situational factors” drew German Protestants towards völkisch Christianity. Further, it reveals the motives, decision-making processes, and hopes of Protestants (especially in 1933), while illustrating the importance of local and regional factors in the history of the German churches under Hitler (330).

Weinel believed in German exceptionalism and Germany’s cultural mission in the world, and in the importance of Christianity to both. Indeed, it was his fear of losing the völkisch movement to organized religion—just as the educated elites and the industrial working classes had been lost—that drove him to want “to combine Christianity and the völkisch movement together in the right way” (335).

As Spencer explains Weinel’s journey through the war, the Weimar era, and the early years of the Third Reich, what emerges so clearly is Weinel’s tolerance for and desire to understand and even work with those of differing religious and political inclinations. Though he criticized aspects of Nazism, he approved of Hitler’s “national renewal.” Similarly, though he disapproved of the German Christians’ antisemitism and elevation of German-ness over the Gospel, he chose to set aside his long participation in the Thuringian Volkskirchenbund and to support the German Christians in the 1933 Protestant church election. His rationale was that the German Christians were a dynamic force that was winning the hearts of the masses and that they were the party that could establish a centralized Protestant Reich Church, a cause Weinel championed but knew that religious liberals could not accomplish (339).

In the final section of the article, Spencer explains how Weinel’s support for the German Christians entangled him in the antisemitic politics of Nazi Germany. Though Weinel had positive things to say about historic Judaism and though he criticized the antisemitism of the völkisch movement, he also favoured ethnic segregation, celebrated the nation as a creation of God, and failed to speak in defense of Jews and Jewish Christians who were suffering under Nazi political rule and German Christian ecclesiastical rule. Ultimately, though Spencer argues that Weinel’s support for the German Christian Movement was largely a tactical decision born of “frustration and desperation,” he also concludes that “Weinel’s story is a depressing reminder that intelligent, devout, compassionate people can make disastrous political and moral choices” (344).