Review of Helge-Fabien Hertz, Evangelische Kirchen im Nationalsozialismus. Kollektivbiografische Untersuchung der schleswig-holsteinischen Pastorenschaft

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 30, Number 2 (Summer 2024)

Review of Helge-Fabien Hertz, Evangelische Kirchen im Nationalsozialismus. Kollektivbiografische Untersuchung der schleswig-holsteinischen Pastorenschaft (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2022). ISBN: 9783110760835; 1,778 pp.

Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität Berlin

Edited by Marc Buggeln; Translated by Lauren Faulkner Rossi, Simon Fraser University, with the assistance of DEEPL

This review was first published in H-Soz-Kult, and is used by kind permission of the editors. The original German version can be found here.

Over the last two to three decades, several regional historical studies on Protestant milieus during the Third Reich have provided important insights into the penetration of Nazi ideology and associated behavior within the Protestant churches. The results of these studies were always the same or at least very similar: the nazification of this particular religious milieu proved to be extraordinarily high. In any case, nazification was much more far-reaching than the conventional literature on church history, under the heading of “church struggle” [Kirchenkampf], had previously suggested. This earlier literature put particular emphasis on the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche, or BK) as a staunch opponent of the regime.

Helge-Fabien Hertz’s weighty dissertation (2021) from Kiel University, supervised by Rainer Hering (Schleswig- Holstein State Archives), Peter Graeff and Manfred Hanisch (both from Kiel University), now joins this recent research tradition. The study consists of a group biography of the 729 pastors who worked in the Schleswig-Holstein state church shortly before and during the Nazi era (1930-1945). The study is based on a broad range of sources: the clergymen’s personal files were evaluated; in addition, the author has consulted sermons and confirmation lesson plans, denazification files, the relevant state church archive files on the Kirchenkampf, documents on NSDAP membership in the Berlin Federal Archives, and a wealth of contemporary lectures, articles, letters, diaries. Hertz uses a sophisticated set of social-science methods to operationalize the exorbitant amount of data from this large group of people (quantification of “attitudes” and “actions” with the aid of indicators) and to present it using a variety of statistics, diagrams, etc. One must admit at the outset, it is not always easy to keep track of the whole given the extreme complexity of the work’s organization into “parts”, “sections”, “chapters”, and so on.

Volume 1 (392 pages) presents results formulated in advance of theses as well as theoretical and methodological foundations and, as a representative cross-section of the entire study group, ten prototypical Nazi biographies that show the entire spectrum of pastor behaviour: from extreme cases of fanatical Nazi activists to politically-resistant Confessing Church pastors. Volume 2 presents manifestations of “Nazi conformity” in the group of pastors and, with its 900 pages, is not coincidentally the most comprehensive of the three volumes. Volume 3, which is smaller in comparison (around 450 pages), contains findings about “Nazi non-conformity” among the clergy. Such a performance was significantly rarer. If one wanted to differentiate between the contents of the three volumes according to the respective degrees of Nazi color tones depicted, we have the selection between brown (Volume 1), deep brown (Volume 2) and light brown with a few white spots (Volume 3).

For obvious reasons, it is not possible to read through this extensive, highly complex social science work in one go. It is not narrative historiography. Rather, the study can be considered as a handbook for an exemplary analysis of the professional status of pastors in the Third Reich. Thereby, introductory sections in Volume 1 can be read in anticipation of important results. The leading six theses (pp. 4-30) offer a “substantive quintessence” [inhaltliche Quintessenz] of the whole. Thesis Two reads: “The pastoral ministry of the Third Reich [in Schleswig-Holstein] was primarily characterized by collaboration with and affection for Nazism, by Nazi-compliant actions and attitudes.” (p. 5) This thesis is substantiated in the more than 900 pages of Volume 2 that follow, in which the individual subgroups are presented with precise and relative orders of magnitude, using the methods of social science. Although the widespread “Kirchenkampf narrative” of conventional church history is important, it is insufficient to fully grasp the diverse findings of proximity and distance in the relationship between Protestantism and National Socialism. Above all, this is illustrated by the example of the “pastor option” [Pfarreroption] for the Confessing Church: “The Confessing Church was not only not a resistance group. Its main characteristics consisted of Nazi collaboration and inclinations towards Nazism combined with ecclesiastical attempts at autonomy, in connection with Nazi-compliant behavior and attitudes and with self-assertion.” (Thesis 4, p. 15) Volume 1 also contains an analysis of the spectrum of group behavior based on ten possible “Nazi positioning forms” (POS 1-10). The biographies presented here provide an easy-to-read cross-section of all pastor options using the example of selected prototypes (pp. 225-311). Anyone reading this will already be somewhat familiar with the examples of Schleswig-Holstein pastors during the Hitler era, from fanatical Nazi pastors such as Ernst Szymanowski or Johann Peperkorn (both “Deutschkirche” ) to German Christian pastors (27.1 percent of the total group, which numbered 665), clergy who were new to church politics (26.5 percent), and Confessing-Church pastors, who (surprisingly) made up the largest church-political subgroup within the sample, at 45 percent. Among these Confessing pastors were a few exceptional pastors such as Friedrich Slotty, to whom the very rare attribute of resistance to Nazism can be ascribed.

The dark-brown-colored Volume 2 collects all forms of Nazi conformity among the pastors: memberships in the NSDAP or with the very Nazi-affiliated followers of the German Christians [Deutsche Christen, or DC] and the ethnic Christian German Church, as well as positive references to National Socialism and its ideology and forms of practical Nazi action inside and outside the church. For example, forty-five pages of evidence present “verbal extolment of Hitler and the swearing of allegiance to the Nazi state.” Exactly 237 pastors substantiated this type of action. BK pastors did this in sermons and catecheses almost as often as their DC colleagues. Provost Peter Schütt (DC), for example, praised Hitler in his sermon on July 24, 1940, after the occupation of France: “The way he spoke [in the Reichstag session on July 19, 1940], only a victor could speak with the noblest spirit. […] He put into practice the commandment given by our Savior in the Sermon on the Mount.” (p. 604) And the (later) BK pastor Gustav Emersleben was knowledgeable about “right discipleship” (John I, 43-51) in his examination sermon of September 2, 1933: people always would have had the need to be led. They expected help in moments of need and misery. Where a leader emerges from need and misery, there is an opportunity to find true discipleship. “In recent years, no nation has experienced how all this plays out in detail better than we Germans. We were and are […] a downtrodden people; there certainly have been few who have not longed for a real leader. We may well say that he was given to us in our chancellor.” (p. 611)

The wealth of evidence on individual types of action, which are not only listed but also evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively, is truly overwhelming. The categories include: condemnation of the Weimar Republic; the people’s community and the Führer’s will; theological anti-Judaism; and Christian antisemitism. The frequency with which Nazi symbols were adopted in the church, the practice of issuing “Aryan certificates” from the church registers, the use of the Hitler salute, and the denazification measures within the church since 1945 – which in Schleswig-Holstein, as elsewhere, were lenient by all accounts – are also documented. All in all, this heavy, brown-colored Volume 2 is hard reading and offers overwhelming evidence of the frightening extent to which nationalist and National Socialist ideas and various forms of Nazi practice were able to penetrate the inner circles of a medium-sized regional church. The special feature of this study is that this high degree of Nazi penetration can be measured more precisely than ever before by means of empirical social research. In 1933, around 92 percent of the 1.6 million inhabitants of the province between the North and the Baltic Seas, which had been part of Prussia since 1867, were Evangelical-Lutheran Christians, living in 466 parishes. The young researcher deserves great credit for the fact that he presents his often-shocking empirical findings in an emphatically sober, objective and socially-disciplined manner.

Finally, forms of political Nazi non-conformity within the church are addressed (Volume 3). Here, primarily Kirchenkampf conflicts in the narrower sense are depicted, above all in disputes between the DC and the BK. The author sums up this “church struggle” more specifically: while DC pastors conformed to the Nazis almost without exception, BK theologians displayed a broad spectrum of positions. “However, collaboration with and inclinations towards Nazism dominated there as well, often in combination with a desire for autonomy within the church – not a contradiction in terms: the ‘church struggle’ of the BK pastors against the DC and its efforts to transform Christianity under the Nazis often went hand-in-hand with an affirmation of the Nazi (state) and stalwart involvement with Nazism. Although the very few resistant clergy were all BK members, they also remained an unwelcome exception within the BK. Radical forms of Nazi activism remained rare among BK members – as did political dissent. A brown vest with shading and white spots represented the BK as a whole, rather than a white vest with brown spots.” (p. 1697)

In conclusion: this work is undoubtedly an important contribution to the topic of Protestantism and National Socialism, and also to research on Nazism as a whole. It would be hard to find a similarly differentiated group-biographical analysis of the Third Reich. At the same time, the author’s holistic, empirical approach to research destroys long-lasting Kirchenkampf legends, especially with regards to the academic evaluation of the performance of the Confessing Church. In the post-war reappraisal of the church (mostly via memoirs by theologians in the BK tradition and by church historians at Protestant faculties), there was almost always an interest-driven whitewashing. Not by chance did Hertz encounter fierce resistance to his investigation in conservative church circles of today’s “Northern Church.” As far as the church-political moderate BK is concerned, highly adapted to the regime as it was, there can be almost no talk of resistance to the Nazi regime. Rather, forms of collaboration and consent played a major role.

However, the work is not a fully integrated study of the history of a Protestant regional culture. We learn little about the sensitivities and forms of participation of the ordinary church people in the 466 parishes, which are an essential part of assessing a confessional regional culture. However, it seems plausible that the thinking and behavior of the Schleswig-Holstein pastors is a massive indication of the mental characteristics of the church region as a whole: a church region that was strongly adapted to the Nazi regime and, in many respects, even Nazified during the Hitler era. The Protestant churches in the north, the author concludes, were primarily a pillar of society in the Third Reich that consolidated and supported the Nazi regime.

The reviewer’s final wish: the author should write a highly condensed, reader-friendly “people’s edition” of 300 pages (at an affordable price) on the empirical basis presented here. In other words: more narrative and fewer figures, so that the most important results of his research can also be taken note of beyond specialist academic circles.