German Protestant Resistance to Hitler

September 1994By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain will soon take up her new post as Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. Among her several books is Democracy on Trial, forthcoming from Basic Books.

For the Soul of the People: Prot­estant Protest Against Hitler.  By Victoria Barnett. Oxford University Press. 358 pages. $30.



The memorial extravaganza surrounding the 50th anniversary of D-Day reminds us of just how powerful images of World War II re­main. This was a war in which it made sense for young men to sacrifice their lives. The evil against which they fought was so clearly horrific, so stunningly abhorrent, that any and all means needed to defeat the enemy were justified. This, at least, is the dominant story the victors tell about a cataclysm that engulfed the entire world di­rectly or indirectly. We know much less about those we vanquished. It is easier, by far, to equate "Nazi" with "Germany" and have done with it. But this is too easy, of course: No enemy is purely evil any more than the "good guys" are all good.

With this fascinating and de­tailed examination of Protestant re­volt against Hitler's Germany, Victoria Barnett helps to compli­cate and amplify our understand­ing of what went on in those dark years. Most of us know a few names -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller -- but our appreciation of anti-Nazi resistance scarcely goes beyond that. As a result, we tend to think of a handful of heroes rather than of the wider movement they helped to energize and which, in turn, sustained them. As Barnett shows, the story inside Germany goes much beyond menacing Nazis versus a few brave individuals. Moreover, we learn that German opponents of Hitler were them­selves divided -- strategically, tacti­cally, even, in a sense, doctrinally. The heart and soul of Barnett's story flows from her interviews with over 60 surviving members of the Confessing Church who op­posed Nazi infiltration and co-optation of the German Protestant Church. The testimony of her wit­nesses is raw and astonishingly fresh -- clearly these remarkable people will be fighting the fight against Hitler, reworking their own memories and pondering whether they did too little or too much, un­til their own deaths.

Barnett acts primarily as a documentarist, a recorder and wit­ness. When she offers interpreta­tions there is some slippage in her argument. Let me offer one ex­ample at the outset: Barnett intro­duces her book by putting the ques­tion everyone puts -- why did the Church not resist more decisively? She then moves rather quickly to one of her abiding themes: Even resisters like Niemoeller "recalled their worldview at that time as be­ing ‘apolitical.'" (The time in ques­tion is the World War I era and be­yond -- Weimar, depression, up­heaval, the prelude to Nazism.) Barnett has a hard time wrapping her mind round why Niemoeller and others should see themselves in an apolitical light. On her read­ing, German Christians were all too political, but in a way she finds troubling and rather severely over­states, speaking as she does of "un­wavering support for state author­ity," and the like, and she traces this directly to Martin Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms.

As one who has herself made a similar case -- and now, I think, too simple one -- I wonder whether this isn't too Troeltschian a reading of the Lutheran tradition. Certainly it was as very devout Lutherans that adherents of the Confessing Church revolted -- from within the frame offered by Martin Luther, not in opposition to it. Barnett is on safe ground when she notes political quietude as part and parcel of the German tradition -- that and a commitment to a world in which the orders of cre­ation were intact. Without over­playing Luther as the precursor to Germany's downfall, one can make a persuasive case that a commit­ment to too overweening a notion of what constitutes good order, and the utterly unthinkable disaster of the post-World War I years, com­bined to guarantee that the average German was ill-equipped to handle the storm that was to come. Just one statistic, cited by Barnett, helps to put things into focus: "By the end of 1923, only 29.3 percent of the labor force was fully employed." This is a calamity on a scale Ameri­can society has never known. Who among us would be well-equipped for such an eventuality?

Barnett also claims -- and I have no quarrel with the general contention -- that Germans were inured to anti-Semitism, that, in fact, it was so "ingrained in many Christians that it went unquestioned." My objection to the way she formulates this matter is that she doesn't make enough of a dis­tinction between old-fashioned re­ligious anti-Semitism and the even more pernicious "new" variety based on race or biology. Nazi bio­politics construed race as the ex­haustive basis of human identity. Thus, the Jewish Christian was not Christian but Jew. That centuries of religious anti-Semitism helped to make smooth the path for the in­troduction of modern theories of racial identity is no doubt true. But even as it is important to show con­tinuities in the Nazi story, it is equally important to show how much was new.

By the same token, Nazism was not so much an extension of old notions of nationalism as a virulent alternative to such na­tionalism. Again, things are very complicated: No doubt nationalis­tic enthusiasm fueled Nazism. But for Hitler, and Nazi ideologists in general, the nation-state was a pal­try thing, much despised and des­tined to be absorbed by a trans-na­tional entity based on race. One was, then, an Aryan -- not a Ger­man citizen of a nation-state -- in the Nazi ideal.

What this means, and meant, is that many resisters could, and did, oppose Nazism in part because they saw themselves as German patriots, Bonhoeffer among them. The Nazis, then, fought on several fronts in the matter of nationalism and internationalism: They hoped to destroy any international body based on belief (e.g., Catholicism); they aimed to eradicate the "liberal" nation-state; they looked to a new trans-national empire based on ra­cial identity. Nazi evocations of the German Fatherland were laced with arsenic.

The Nazis' takeover of Ger­many was, then, a foretaste of what they hoped to implement throughout an ethnically cleansed trans-national Europe. They immediately instituted the so-called Gleichschaltung, or systematic co­ordination and suborning of all as­pects of German society. Independent public life and private life alike were to be evacuated and replaced by Nazified norms, professions, or­ganizations, practices, relations. Barnett cites a historian who claims that, for Hitler, "everything was political…. Hitler absolutized politics and saw in the churches only a political power, he denied the reality of religion and faith." For party stalwarts, Barnett reminds us, the Führer was their religion. Given the totalistic aims of Nazism, inde­pendent Church authority had to go -- along with independent scholarly authority, artistic author­ity, parental authority, and all the rest. Here, then, the issue got joined as between the German Christians who succumbed or even, God help us, went along with what seems like enthusiasm with Gleichschaltung; those who re­sisted "passively"; and those who moved to active opposition.

The Nazis aimed not only to suborn Christianity as an indepen­dent force but to purge Christianity of "Jewish influence" by excising the Old Testament from the Bible. Reading about this gave me the creeps, I must say, as I thought about many current efforts to purge the Bible of offending bits and pieces, including the "patriarchal God" of the Old Testament. Per­haps there is a general warning here about all efforts to mangle the Bible for ideological purposes.

One issue that divided resist­ers was whether or not the aim of resistance was primarily to preserve intact the integrity and separate identity of the Church or whether active moves to eradicate Nazism, including perhaps conspiracy and violence, were demanded. Barnett is clearly on the side of those who took the more dramatic course, and she laments the fact that the arrests of pastors and Church members "who acted on their religious con­victions were not viewed in a politi­cal framework by which Christians could have connected these arrests to the growing oppression of Jews and others under Nazism." I wish Barnett had been clearer about what sort of political framework she has in mind -- it isn't as if there were one such ready-to-hand to cover this dreadful situation.

Bonhoeffer, of course, stands out in all of this as an early and steadfast opponent of Nazi anti-Semitism, and as a reluctant con­vert to the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. However, Barnett does a sig­nificant disservice to Bonhoeffer ­and to Karl Barth -- by repeating the criticism of them as "latent" anti-Semites because they "sup­ported the mission to convert Jews to Christianity." But, surely, a Church faithful to the apostolic ex­ample by definition aims to convert any and all comers. Isn't the fact that the Nazis banned Christian missionary work to the Jewish people a sign that such work did precisely what Nazis claimed could not be done -- cut across the boundary of "race"?

The category of "latent" anti-Semitism isn't very helpful -- it too easily becomes an all-purpose label for condemning people -- nor is Barnett's resort to the claim that anti-Semitism, "like all prejudice, often operates on the unconscious level." This comes perilously close to the "collective guilt" hypothesis that makes it so hard to sort out the more from the less responsible in Nazi Germany or any other fraught situation. "By their fruits ye shall know them," surely. Let's look at what people actually do, or did, rather than speculate on "uncon­scious" this or that. Looking at what people do, or didn't do, gives us sufficient ground for anger, grief, and dismay. One of Barnett's re­spondents reminds us that the commandment to "love your neighbor" was construed too nar­rowly by many Christians, inter­preted to mean just Christian brothers and sisters, the baptized. This is the shame of so many Chris­tian Germans, for one's non-Chris­tian neighbor -- hauled off in the dead of night to extermination --was also one of God's creatures to whom one is enjoined to reach out in friendship and solidarity.

The story of the Confessing Church is so rich and complex and intricate that I cannot summarize it here, so to capture its full flavor and force one should read the book, without necessarily accept­ing all the interpretations. But I do want to make two final points in conclusion.

First, Barnett's discussion of Nazi euthanasia, the killing of in­stitutionalized mentally and physically handicapped patients, is one of the most chilling stories in a sobering book. Horribly, many of the patients knew the fate that lay in store for them and wrote des­perate letters to relatives asking to be rescued before the next van came to gather up the "quota" of patients to be hauled away and murdered. Inflamed by eugenics theory, Nazi race policy dictated doing away with all those whose lives no longer "had any value for the sovereign."

Second, Barnett's discussion of the postwar years, especially the situation in the former East Germany, is strangely muted. Having been quite decisive in her judg­ments against German Christians who stepped back from resisting Nazism, she comes close to excul­pating postwar Christians who collaborated (or at least came to a modus Vivendi) with the Stasi be­cause they "had no choice but to meet with them." The 1978 agree­ment whereby the Protestant Church recognized the legitimacy of the East German government and which, in turn, led to regime recognition of the Church "as a le­gitimate institution" is a shameful episode, surely! But here we get no lamentation from Barnett about the baneful effects of Luther's two kingdoms doctrine; no lecture on the destructive capitulation to state authority, so long as the Church itself remains intact. Why not? Something of a double stan­dard seems to be at work here. I do not mean to equate East Germany with the Third Reich, but it is im­portant to recall that this was a re­gime that shot workers in the street, operated a systematic, mas­sive network of spies and inform­ers, and colluded in the environ­mental and political destruction of its people -- not to mention its in­volvement in an empire that spe­cialized in gulags. It should not surprise us that the current out­bursts of anti-foreign, "pro-Aryan" sentiment by mobs of young street thugs are taking place primarily in old East Germany, not in the re­gion of democratic West Germany. Surely a half century of authoritar­ian state socialism has something to do with the violent xenophobia now on display in parts of the former East Germany.



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