Conference Report: “International Protestants and Nazi Germany as Viewed Through Three Lenses”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 1 (March 2018)

Conference Report: “International Protestants and Nazi Germany as Viewed Through Three Lenses,” German Studies Association, Atalnta, GA, October 2017.

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

Five scholars of German church history convened a panel on October 8, 2017, at the German Studies Association in Atlanta, Georgia, to reflect on international Protestants and Nazi Germany. The panel consisted of presenters Robert Ericksen, Victoria Barnett, and Matthew Hockenos, while Rebecca Carter-Chand offered insightful comments and Christopher Probst did the introductions. All five panelists engaged the audience in a lively exchange after the presentations.

Robert Ericksen led with his paper “On Luther, Jews, and Lutherans in Nazi Germany.” He lamented that while the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “break” with the Catholic Church was receiving widespread attention across Europe and the United States, Luther’s antisemitism—most famously on display in On the Jews and Their Lies—rarely became a major focal point of these commemorations. Despite this lapse (or intentional manipulation) of historical memory, there are indisputable signs that most Lutherans no longer try to explain away Luther’s derogatory and hateful Judenschriften, but rather condemn his anti-Jewish diatribes and antisemitism unequivocally. Ericksen believes that the contemporary renunciation of Luther’s antisemitism is a direct result of Holocaust scholarship over the past three or four decades. The advent of “Holocaust Studies,” Holocaust museums, and scholarly and media attention on the Holocaust have all contributed to the waning of the antisemitism’s social acceptability in the United States and parts of Europe. This attention on the Shoah—its sheer inhumanity and ugliness—had the effect of “inoculating” the public against contempt for Jews. While not excusing their antisemitism, Ericksen pointed out that German Protestant theologians and pastors who backed Hitler, like Gerhard Kittel and Martin Niemöller, did not have the benefit of this inoculation. Ericksen concluded with the observation that the current support for right-wing populism in Europe and the U.S. raises the concern that the post-Holocaust inoculation against antisemitism might be losing its influence.

Vicki Barnett’s paper, “A Two-Way Street: The Complex Relationships between German and U.S. Protestant leaders, 1933-1939,” examined some of the many transatlantic interactions that took place between U.S. and German Protestants during the Nazi era. These contacts included active partnerships, participation in conferences, lecture tours, and visitations by church leaders. In addition to the more well-known exchanges between the leaders of the U.S. Federal Council of Churches (FCC) and the leaders of the German Protestant Church (DEK), Barnett also explored contacts between German and American Baptists, Methodists, and Adventists. Barnett’s research demonstrates that there was no monolithic relationship between American and German Protestants, though there were tendencies. While most German Protestants were bent on convincing their American counterparts of the validity of the Nazi regime and downplayed Nazi anti-Semitism, American Protestants diverged in their opinions on the Nazi regime and the response by the German churches. For example, the German Adventist, Hulda Jost, and the German Methodist, Bishop Otto Melle, both went on extensive speaking tours in the U.S. to defend Nazism. And the German Christian (Deutsche Christen) Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller used meetings in Germany with FCC leaders to try to convince them that Nazi critics in the U.S. were misrepresenting the situation in Germany. Sharp divisions, however, developed among American Baptists between those who deplored German nationalism and antisemitism and those who wanted to give the Nazis the benefit of the doubt. The leadership of the FCC was more united in its criticism of Nazism. In an extraordinarily critical letter, Henry Smith Leiper of the FCC dressed down Ludwig Müller for thinking that his pro-Nazi propaganda campaign would gain any adherents in the FCC. The time, money, and effort expended by Americans and Germans in their interaction with each other attests to the importance they attributed to these relations. Transatlantic contacts between Protestants diminished markedly after Kristallnacht and the outbreak of the war, only to be revived after the war.

Matthew Hockenos’ paper, “Guilt, Repentance, and International Public Relations in the German Protestant Church, 1945-1948,” examined how German Protestants from the Nazi-era Confessing Church and the American Protestants in the FCC sought to reestablish close ties after the war. German church leaders were understandably horrified and dismayed by Germany’s total devastation and isolation in 1945 and wanted to ameliorate the suffering of their people. But the church’s reputation as ultra-conservative and nationalist led the Allies to take a cautious approach toward allotting the churches a leading role in German reconstruction. Church leaders believed that the only way to get the occupying powers to soften their policies and embrace the church as a partner would be to convince them that there was a German opposition to the Nazis—led by the churches—and that Germans were willing to take responsibility for the war and all the devastation that it wrought. Beginning with the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in October 1945 and throughout the late 1940s, church leaders went on a public relations blitz—issuing statements of guilt, meeting the occupation powers, and travelling abroad—in an effort to rehabilitate their reputation and influence occupation policies. Hockenos’ paper focused on Martin Niemöller’s five-month lecture tour in the United States from December 1946 to May 1947, during which he hoped to convince Americans that he was representative of the many good Christians in Germany who fought and prayed for an end to the Hitler menace and who were now barely eking out an existence in bombed cities. Hockenos maintained that Niemöller often stretched the truth during his addresses, embellishing his and the Confessing Church’s resistance credentials. But Niemöller’s efforts to win over American Protestants were only partially successful—Americans remained divided over the legacy of German Protestantism during the Nazi era.

Rebecca Carter-Chand observed in her comments that these three papers made the case that we only get the full picture when we examine German Protestants during this era from an international perspective. With the exception of those scholars who have focused on the ecumenical movement, a transnational approach to studying twentieth-century German church history has not been common. Perhaps its time has come.