The Great Silence: How the Churches Behaved When the Synagogues Burned in November 1938

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 4 (December 2018)

The Great Silence: How the Churches Behaved When the Synagogues Burned in November 1938

By Manfred Gailus, Technical University of Berlin; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

This article was originally published in zeitzeichen, November 2018, p.45-47. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher. You can view the original German article with images here.

In the course of the excesses of November 1938, 1400 synagogues were destroyed, hundreds of homes and apartments devastated, and their residents humiliated, injured and robbed. The terror operation and its consequences claimed ca. 1400 deaths. And the churches, Protestants and Catholics alike, were silent, explains the Berlin historian Manfred Gailus.


“When we were silent on April 1, ‘33,” the Berlin historian and pedagogue Elisabeth Schmitz reminded Pastor Helmut Gollwitzer in Berlin-Dahlem shortly after the events of November1938 pogrom, “when we were silent about the public display cases of Der Stürmer, about the satanic agitation of the press, about the poisoning of the soul of the people and of the youth, about the destruction of lives and marriages through so-called [Nuremberg]‘Laws,’ about the methods of Buchenwald—there and a thousand other times were we guilty on the 10th of November 1938. And now? It appears that once again the church, where even the stones are crying out, is leaving it up to the discretion and the courage of the individual pastor to decide if he wants to say anything and, if so, what.”

Elisabeth Schmitz thanked the pastor for his courageous penitential sermon of the 16th of November, which she had heard together with her “non-Aryan” friend Martha Kassel. Already, she reported to him, rumors were circulating that a mark was planned for the clothing of Jews: “There is nothing impossible in this country, we know that. (…) We have experienced the destruction of [Jewish] property, for which purpose the shops were called in the summer. If one goes over to labelling people—a conclusion suggests itself, which I do not want to specify. And no one will claim that these orders would not be as promptly, as unconscionably and as stubbornly, as evilly and as sadistically carried out as the present ones. I have heard of gruesome bloody excesses already this time.”

Disgusted by the excesses of violence, in protest the lecturer refused to continue teaching in a state school after November 9, 1938, for a government that allowed the synagogues to burned down. At the age of 45, she applied for her retirement on grounds of conscience.

Since 1933, she had agonized over the notorious “policy of silence” of her church, the Confessing Church (BK), and persistently opposed it through talks, letters, a memorandum on the situation of German “non-Aryan” (1935), and finally with her resignation from her profession as teacher and her commitment to rescue-resistance of persecuted Jews and “non-Aryan” Christians. But the “protesting Protestant” Schmitz was an exception.

Protesting Protestant

According to current research, about 1,400 synagogues were destroyed in the course of the November excesses of 1938. Hundreds of homes and a much larger number of apartments were wrecked and their inhabitants humiliated, injured, and robbed. Up to 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed and in some cases looted. More than 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps in the days after November 10. The violence and its immediate consequences claimed 1,400 deaths, as far we know up to now. Even 80 years after the November pogroms, the exact number is still unclear.

And the churches—both Protestant and Catholic—were silent. The two major confessions were the only remaining institutions in the Nazi state that were not immediately coordinated and therefore could have spoken. In the shadow of the violent events, bishops and provosts, general superintendents, professors of theology, synods, the vast majority of pastors, the parishes, and the people of the church were silent. Silence was the salient feature of church behavior in the face of violence.

This silence, however, could have various motivations: there was an embarrassed silence, a silence of shame, a dumb horror. Often there was a silence of fear, because those who opened their mouths in criticism risked a lot. There was, finally, a silence of secret agreement or approval of the excesses of violence.

The Elberfeld Confessing Church pastor, Hermann Klugkist Hesse, noted in his diary on November 11: “The synagogue is burning down completely. The chapel in the Jewish cemetery also burned last night. The gravestones were overturned. (…) They played football with the Hebrew Bibles in the Genügsamkeits Street.” And on November 12: “Yesterday, Tudi [his wife Gertrud] took a walk to the Weinberg. Many, many people standing there before the rubble, but all silent. Silent.”

A few days later, in a letter to his son Franz, it says: “On the one hand, I was quite happy that I did not have to preach on the Day of Repentance, especially since many calls from the congregation urged caution … On the other side, I’m sorry that, for example, in the sermon that Pastor Rabius gave this morning, not a word was spoken about that which worries everyone. I mean, I would have bowed with the congregation during the sermon in bitter sorrow for those things that were happening in our midst, in the midst of the Christian community, in the midst of a people that still wants to be Christian after all. Pain, suffering, sadness—that should have marked the Repentance Day sermon this time—not about the events as such, but that they happened among us. Should not we have been light and salt in a different way so that would not have happened?”

Völkisch Theology

In the Protestant churches of the Hitler era—in contrast to the Catholic Church—German Christian “faith movements,” which propagated a völkisch theology and crass antisemitism, had gained considerable influence. Many of their followers, including many pastors, had welcomed the Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 and not a few German Christians (DC) left November 1938 with quiet approval.

Pastor Friedrich Peter, for example—a leading member of the German Christians, bishop in Magdeburg from 1933 to 1935, then transferred to the Berlin Cathedral by Reich Church Minister Hanns Kerrl—gave the funeral address in Dusseldorf for the state funeral of the Parisian Legation Secretary Ernst vom Rath a week after the pogroms: “And today, at this open grave, we ask the peoples of the earth, we ask the Christians around the world: What do you wish to do against the spirit of that people of whom Christ said, ‘Your God has been a murderer from the beginning and did not exist in the truth.’ We Germans have learned that one should ask for great thoughts and a pure heart from God. But what about Judah, whose god is a murderer from the beginning?”

The Stuttgart DC theologian Immanuel Schairer wrote a sympathetic commentary on the pogroms on November 20. He relied on Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies” and cited the recommended seven measures of a “sharp mercy,” including the burning of their synagogues and the destruction of their homes. The Thuringian Regional Bishop Martin Sasse sent out his writing Martin Luther and the Jews: Away with Them! as a set of talking points for Thuringian pastors immediately after the pogroms. In the November 24 “Church Gazette for Mecklenburg,” there appeared a “reminder on the Jewish question”: no Christian German could “lament” the measures against the Jews in the Reich.

Our Christian compassion, it was said, was not to apply to the Jews, but to the peoples of Europe deceived and exploited by Judaism. The fight against Judaism was a vital issue for the German soul. In a late November 1938 communication to his friend, the journalist Wilhelm Stapel, the Göttingen theologian Emanuel Hirsch, a master’s student of the church historian Karl Holl (who died in 1926), responded to the violent events: He was “keen” to force the Jews into emigration by any brutality required for that purpose. If it wasn’t enough, there would be more to come. He did not believe that the “events” were folly, but rather clear and expedient political will.

Even in purely Catholic regions of southern and western Germany, the violence took place unhindered in front of everyone. No public statement on the pogrom came from Pope Pius XII in Rome or from the German Catholic bishops. Here too official silence was the predominant reaction from the institutions. What was missing from Catholics, however, was that explicit and sometimes public approval, as can be demonstrated from many Protestants. Within the Catholic Church, there was—a serious difference—no mass Christian movement comparable to the German Christians (DC). Catholic clergy kept noticeably farther away from the Hitler party (NSDAP party membership under one percent) than Protestant pastors, who had joined the NSDAP in the order of 15 to 20 percent, depending on the regional church.

Against this background, Catholic behavior was comparatively more reserved in November 1938, and the papal motto of an ecclesiastical silence was maintained almost completely. Courageous individuals such as the Catholic provost Bernhard Lichtenberg in Berlin were the exception here.

Papal Motto

Open your mouth for the mute. Examples show that this could be risky in the shadow of the Kristallnacht events and dangerous for individuals who protested. The Württemberg pastor Julius von Jan denounced the crimes that had just taken place in his Repentance Day sermon in Oberlenningen (November 16) and was attacked by a pack of motorized SA-men, physically mishandled and later imprisoned. The Stuttgart Special Court sentenced him to one year and four months in prison, citing the “Law Against Treacherous Criticism of the Government” (“Heimtücke-Gesetz”) and the “Pulpit Law” (“Kanzelparagraphen”).

In early December 1938, the “Pastor Grüber Bureau” in Berlin took up its work. This institution of the Confessing Church helped racially-persecuted people in the then often life-saving emigration process. This was an ecclesial response to the pogroms, sustained by the decidedly “Dahlemite” wing of the church opposition, a minority in the Protestant churches. But this was not the only response from the church: at the beginning of May 1939, a meeting was held at the Wartburg near Eisenach to found the “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life.” German Christian (DC) pastor Walter Grundmann, a pupil of the renowned Tübingen New Testament scholar Gerhard Kittel and professor of “völkisch Theology” in Jena, spoke about “The dejudaization of religious life as a task of German theology and church.”

In both major confessions, great ecclesiastical silence predominated as the synagogues burned. Alongside that, there were unspeakable acclamations of the antisemitic excesses of violence from circles of Protestant German Christian (DC) theologians. Open opposition to the November pogroms remained the rare exception of courageous individuals such as pastor Julius von Jan in Württemberg or Dean Bernhard Lichtenberg in Berlin.