Review of Manfred Gailus, Gegen den Mainstream der Hitlerzeit – Der Wuppertaler Theologe Helmut Hesse (1916-1943)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 28, Number 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2022)

Review of Manfred Gailus, Gegen den Mainstream der Hitlerzeit – Der Wuppertaler Theologe Helmut Hesse (1916-1943) (Bremen, Wuppertal: De Noantri, 2019). 80 pp. ISBN: 978-3-943643-11-4.

By Christopher Probst, Washington University in St. Louis, University College

The history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is bleak, a seemingly unrelenting litany of miseries. The Nazi regime and its collaborators murdered roughly six million Jews as well as hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma on the basis of their race. Gays and lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Germans, and those the regime deemed physically and/or mentally handicapped were also subjected to unspeakable cruelties. As the horrors unfolded, very few Germans raised their voices to protest the brutality. For some, this was due at least in part to fear of the dire recriminations that could result from speaking out. Others simply lacked real sympathy for Jews and others who already lived on the margins of German society. Because opposition and outright resistance to the regime were so rare, we have come to know many of the opponents and resisters by name: Sophie Scholl, Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg.

Yet, over the past few decades, scholars like Eberhard Röhm and Jörg Thierfelder, Manfred Gailus, and Gerhard Lindemann – whose body of work together generally affirms the consensus view that the German Protestant Church as a whole did very little to resist Nazism or to speak out publicly on behalf of the victims of the Shoah – have published works highlighting the exploits of individual Protestants who, to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase “[fell] into the spokes of the wheel.” These courageous Protestants include not only Niemöller and Bonhoeffer, but also Elisabeth Schmitz and Katharina Staritz. In Gegen the Mainstream der Hitlerzeit, Manfred Gailus offers a concise but nuanced biography of another such lesser-known Protestant “martyr,” the Wuppertal theologian Helmut Hesse. Because we have already published excerpts of Gegen den Mainstream der Hitlerzeit here, this review will focus on some of the book’s important contributions rather than a detailed summary of its subject’s life. Even so, a sketch of his biography is in order.

Helmut Hesse was born in Elberfeld (now Wuppertal) in 1916, the youngest son of the well-known Reformed theologian Hermann Albert Hesse. Helmut had three brothers and a sister (10, 15). Beginning in 1935, he undertook theological studies, which included several stints at an illegal Confessing Church seminary in Elberfeld, the University of Halle on the Saale, a winter term at an illegal Confessing Church seminary in Berlin, and, for two semesters, under Karl Barth at Basel (17-18).

In Sunday worship services on May 23, 1943 and again on June 6, Helmut prayed for persecuted Jews, read the names of detained Christians (including Niemöller and Heinrich Grüber, leader of the “Büro Grüber,”), criticized Protestant church politics and attitudes within the Confessing Church, and called for the church to resist antisemitism (49-50). On June 8, Helmut and his father Hermann Albert, were arrested by the Wuppertal Gestapo and imprisoned in Barmen, where they languished for over five months (57). On November 14, father and son were transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. Just ten days later, Helmut, having been denied essential medications for a previously diagnosed chronic renal insufficiency, died of post angina septicemia. He was just 27 years old (62-63). Gailus’s fascinating biography paints the picture of a rather cantankerous if principled and courageous young theologian who, for his public advocacy for Jews and persecuted Christians, paid with his life.

In his June 6 sermon in Elberfeld, Hesse, who had addressed ill-treatment of Jews by “Christian peoples” in a February sermon, addressed the matter of Jews and Judaism directly. He quotes liberally a petition about the church’s position on the persecution of Jews (54). The letter had been written to Bavarian bishop Hans Meiser by Ebersbach pastor Hermann Diem and some members of the Lempp Circle, a small group of men and women committed to the theology of the Confessing Church and opposed to the policies of the “intact” Bavarian Protestant church.[1] Bishop Meiser did not make it public, but passed it on to the Württemberg Bishop Theophil Wurm, who similarly refused to publish it (54).

As recorded by the Wuppertal Gestapo, Hesse proclaimed:

As Christians, we can no longer bear the fact that the Church in Germany is silent about the persecution of the Jews. What drives us to do so is the simple commandment of Nächstenliebe (love of neighbor). The Jewish question is a Protestant question and not a political one. The Church must resist any antisemitism in the community. To the state, the Church must testify to the importance of Israel in the history of salvation and resist any attempt to destroy Judaism. Every non-Aryan, whether Jew or Christian, has fallen under the murderers in Germany today. (55).

Hesse’s stark pronouncement closely mirrors some of the language in the Munich petition.[2] Perhaps for these words more than any others, Hesse’s fate was sealed.

One is left to wonder why Hesse’s remarkable story has not been publicized more widely. Perhaps one reason lies in a scandalous affair that Gailus’s research uncovers. During a house search, the Gestapo found some private letters of Hesse’s that suggested that he had had a romantic relationship with a married woman with a school-aged child whose husband was fighting in the war (58-59). The fact that the affair with the unnamed woman took place is not in question (the Gestapo bemoaned the fact that Hesse proclaimed that “God has already forgiven him for this adultery. There is no trace of a sense of guilt ….” (59); also, Hermann Klugkist Hesse (no relation to Hermann Albert and Helmut), an Elberfeld pastor and friend of the family, tried to deal with the fallout of the Gestapo’s discovery with Elberfeld parishioners and church leadership, as well as with Helmut himself (59-60); finally, according to Klugkist Hesse, gossip about the matter had spread through the Elberfeld Reformed community and beyond (60-62)).

Yet, as seriously as the matter of adultery was regarded in such a pious Reformed community, the lack of support that Helmut apparently received from his church community while in prison and the concentration camp might be regarded as more scandalous than Helmut’s sins. So great was “the matter with Helmut,” as the affair was called, that Klugkist Hesse bitterly relays that local church leaders did not once visit Helmut during his nearly six-month ordeal, despite having visitation rights (60, 64 – 65).

In the end, due to Helmut’s physical and psychological frailty, as well as his rigid Reformed upbringing, Gailus regards Helmut Hesse as a “difficult martyr” – but a martyr nonetheless (69-70). Gailus argues that, despite his idiosyncrasies and failings, because of his incredibly courageous advocacy for Jews especially but also for his fellow travelers in the Confessing Church who had dared to speak out against the regime, Hesse merits a special place in the pantheon of Protestant “heroes and martyrs.” In fact, his name belongs with those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Friedrich Weißler, Elisabeth Schmitz, and Hans and Sophie Scholl (among others) (71-73). Given the case he has presented in this excellent study, it is hard to argue with this conclusion.



[1] Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, trans. Victoria J. Barnett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 215-216; Hermann Diem, Ja oder Nein – 50 Jahre Theologie in Kirche und Staat (Berlin: Kreuz Verlag, 1974), 130; Walter Höchstädter, “Der Lemppsche Kreis,” Evangelische Theologie 48, no. 5 (1988): 468-473.

[2] Hermann Diem, “Wider das Schweigen der Kirche zur Judenverfolgung. Offener Brief an Landesbischof D. Meiser, 1943,” (Against the Silence of the Church on the Persecution of Jews: Open Letter to Regional Bishop Dr. Meiser, 1943) in Hermann Diem and Uvo Andreas Wolf, Sine vi- sed verbo: Aufsätze, Vorträge, Voten (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1965), 108-111, here 108.


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.