Book Note: Against the Mainstream of the Hitler Era: The Wuppertal Reformed Theologian Helmut Hesse (1916-1943)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 1 (March 2019)

Book Note: Against the Mainstream of the Hitler Era: The Wuppertal Reformed Theologian Helmut Hesse (1916-1943)

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

The following is an excerpt from Manfred Gailus’ book Gegen den Mainstream der Hitlerzeit: Der Wuppertaler Theologe Helmut Hesse (1916–1943) (Bremen/Wuppertal: de Noantri, 2018), published on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the death of the Reformed Theologian Helmut Hesse, November 24, 2018.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, or Sophie Scholl enjoy today an at least moderately interested following. But who knows the young Elberfeld theologian Helmut Hesse, who was arrested 75 years ago for his courageous preaching for persecuted Jews and imprisoned Confessing Christians and who died on November 24, 1943, at the age of 27, in the Dachau concentration camp? In 1980, in a vivid appreciation of Hesse’s fate, Günther van Norden bemoaned the fact that Hesse’s name had been forgotten and his courageous struggle was almost unknown in his community.

Hesse was born in Bremen in 1916 and grew up in Elberfeld (today Wuppertal) as the youngest son of the renowned Reformed theologian Hermann Albert Hesse. Like his three brothers, he studied theology from 1935 on and actively participated in the conflicts of the church struggle during his student years. He was significantly influenced by Karl Barth, with whom he studied two semesters (1937-38) in Basel. In March 1938, he undertook a visiting mission to Austria and Hungary on behalf of the Confessing Church (BK), along with his close friend Ruth Wendland, a Berlin pastor’s daughter and theology student. The two travelers were eyewitnesses to the “Anschluss” of Austria to Hitler’s German Reich. Hesse vividly described the experiences in a travel journal. The overall impression of the two young theologians must have been depressing—partly, as Hesse states, the Austrian Protestant congregations knew little of the German church struggle, and partly, the opportunistic backing of the German Christian church governments and the Nazi regime dominated.

In February 1940, Hesse completed his first theological examination before the board of examiners of the Rhenish Council of Brethren (BK). Subsequently, Hesse vehemently rejected the “legalization agreement” concluded by the Council of the Rhenish Confessing Church with the consistory in Dusseldorf in June 1941, which provided for future examinations of BK parish candidates by the consistory. He saw in it a deviation from the spirit of the confessional synods of Barmen and Dahlem (1934). Tragically, the gap between Hesse and the Rhenish BK leadership widened during these years (1941-43) to the breaking point. In the spring of 1943, there was a singular event in the Elberfeld Reformed parish: a council not authorized by the leadership of the BK examined the young pastoral candidate and, in the church service that followed, Helmut Hesse was ordained by his father Hermann Albert Hesse as a “servant of the Word in the Reformed Church, according to God’s Word.”

Helmut Hesse served for a short time as a preacher in the Reformed parish of Elberfeld. On May 23 and June 6, 1943, together with his father, he led the services for that circle in the parish which remained faithful to the two Hesses, in spite of all the quarrels. In the invocation on May 23, the persecuted Jews were remembered. In his sermon on the resurrection of Lazarus (John 10:39-11:57), the young Hesse spoke critically about church politics, including the compromising behavior of the BK. During the intercessory prayer, the names of imprisoned Christians such as Martin Niemöller, Heinrich Grüber and Katharina Staritz were read out. One week later, large parts of Wuppertal-Barmen were reduced to rubble and ruin during night bombing raids. The service on June 6 was dedicated to this catastrophe. Father Hermann Albert Hesse saw the ruined Wuppertal “under the mighty judgment of God.” As in previous sermons, Helmut Hesse addressed the “Jewish question” and talked about it in a way that probably happened nowhere else during a worship service in the “Third Reich”: “As Christians, we can no longer bear that the Church in Germany is silent about the persecution of the Jews. What drives us is the simple commandment to love one’s neighbour. The Jewish question is a gospel question and not a political question. The church has to resist every antisemitism in the community. In contrast to the state, the church must testify to the salvific significance of Israel and put up resistance against any attempt to annihilate Judaism. In Germany today, every non-Aryan, whether Jew or Christian, is one fallen among the murderers.” In his unusually courageous words, Hesse leaned on formulations from the so-called “Letter from Munich Laity,” written by pastor Hermann Diem of Stuttgart. The report of the Gestapo, which recorded this sermon, concluded that the approximately 150 visitors on this evening were visibly impressed by the preacher’s remarks.

Two days later, the Gestapo arrested father and son Hesse. As the basis for detention, they named “anti-state attitudes” and repeated public prayer for the Jews. After extensive interrogations, the Gestapo summed up the charges against Helmut Hesse as follows: in intercessory prayers, he had read out the names of the imprisoned pastors, which was forbidden; he spoke in prayer against the authorities, that is, the current government; he also prayed for the Jews; finally, on June 6, he made public statements on the Jewish problem in a manner derogatory to the state. His comments on the “Jewish question” are offenses against §2 of the Treachery Act (Heimtückegesetz).

After months of imprisonment in Wuppertal, father and son Hesse were transferred in November 1943 to the Dachau concentration camp. By this point, Helmut Hesse was severely weakened from long-term detention and the withdrawal of essential medicine. He died on November 24, 1943, in a hospital barrack in the Dachau concentration camp.

There were not many Protestants who, as contemporaries in the “Third Reich”, on the recognizable road to disaster, protested and joined the Christian resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of them; the “non-Aryan” lawyer Friedrich Weißler, who was murdered in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in February 1937, is one of them; the Breslau city vicar Katharina Staritz, with her commitment to the Christians of Jewish origin, and the Berlin historian Elisabeth Schmitz, with her early memorandum of 1935/36 against the persecution of the Jews, are included; and finally, the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl in Munich. This list also includes the Elberfeld protesting Protestant Helmut Hesse. Anyone who surveys Protestants in Germany today and asks about Helmut Hesse will generally hear the answer: we do not know! The time is ripe for today’s Protestants to include the life and work of Helmut Hesse in their memory and in their commemorative culture. In Wuppertal, where, in memory of the Barmen Theological Declaration, a monument was erected in a prominent place in the city in honour of the First Confessing Church Synod, one day a monument remembering the young Reformed preacher Helmut Hesse, who died in the Dachau concentration camp at the age of 27, will have to stand next to it.