Resistance Within the Third Reich
One of world history's astonishing ironies is the rise and fall of the Third Reich. It was to last a thousand years, but it imposed its merciless totalitarian power for only twelve years. To be more exact: from January 30, 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of the Great German Reich, to May 8, 1945, Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allied forces.
Just consider the rocket-like progression of the NSDAP (National Socialist party) 1which until 1930 had been only a splinter party. In the fall of 1930, the NSDAP gets its first breakthrough at the polls by winning 117 seats in the Reichstag. But it is still a minority party.
Unemployment, poverty and widespread discontent are rampant during the next two years, and Hitler is a master at exploiting them for his political aspirations. He blames Germany's desperate state of affairs on the national government. At his party rallies, Hitler promises his spellbound listeners that everything will be better once he is given the opportunity to do something about it. He tells the masses what they like to hear: giving assurances of work and bread. More and more Germans believe him, and as a result — during the summer of 1932 — the National Socialists are able to increase their share of the votes by more than 37 per cent. This means, in practical terms, that the NSDAP has now become the strongest political party in the Reichstag.
Towards the end of 1932, two chancellors step down, defeated by their inability to govern effectively during the political unrest and the threatening chaos. After their ignominious retreat, Reichs-president von Hindenburg thinks he has no option but to appoint Adolf Hitler as chancellor, January 30, 1933. Next follows a battle at the polls the likes of which Germany has never experienced before. It becomes an election controlled by the terrorizing brownshirted bullies of the SA. 2
General D. Ludendorf, a previous close co-worker of von Hindenburg, writes him a letter in which he says:
By appointing Hitler as Reichs-chancellor you have delivered up our holy German fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all times. I solemnly prophesy to you that this wretched man will plunge our Reich into the abyss and will bring inconceivable misery to our nation. Because of your action, future generations will curse you in your grave. 3
Another headline-making event follows. During the night of February 27-28, the Reichstag building, symbol of the nation, burns down, allegedly the work of a demented Dutch Communist, van der Lubbe. We shall skip the question whether the Dutchman or certain party members had committed arson. At any rate, this incident suits Hitler's political strategy most advantageously. The next day (already) an emergency decree goes into effect, the "Order to protect the nation and the State." This emergency decree nullifies practically all constitutional rights and makes any attempt at subverting the government punishable by death.
From this moment on, terror is the order of the day, overtly or covertly. The totalitarian state has now become reality. For as long as the Nazis are in power, this ruthless decree will be in effect, until the final death throes of the party during the last days of the war, end of April 1945.
The anti-Christian German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had an answer for the enigma of this breathtaking political development of power. He called this mystical reservoir of power without beginning or end: "Der Wille zur Macht," that is "The will to power." This concept became an article of faith of the Nazi party.
Hitler is convinced that he is the right man at the right time. I have a historical task which I shall fulfill because Providence has destined me for that purpose... Don't ever get the idea that anyone in the world will be able to hinder me in my decisions.4
And so Hitler reaches the goal of absolute power. Making it clear just how he expects to make it invincible, he says: "Everybody must know for the whole future that by lifting his hand to strike at the State, a certain death will be his lot." 5
The reign of terror continues. The SA ruffians, whom Goring has empowered as auxiliary police, live up to their sinister reputation. In cellars, barns, out-of-the-way garages and warehouses they lock up their victims, to beat, extort and torture them. The conditions in these SA makeshift prisons defy description. Even members of the Gestapo,6while visiting these places of horror, are shocked. The SA, meanwhile, establish the first concentration camps.
At first their population consists mainly of communist party members, anti-Nazi authors and, of course, a great number of hapless Jews. This outrage of the brown police lasts until the end of the summer of 1933.
Meantime, the membership of the NSDAP continues to increase dramatically. Many join the party for opportunistic reasons. After the party has secured absolute power, it is now necessary to "pour the State into the mould that complies with our ideas," as Hitler put it. To reach this objective he will have to come to terms with the rowdy SA. This organization has lately become too ambitious for Hitler's taste. He decides, therefore, to crush any potential rivalry once and for all, and so prevent a second revolution.
During the night (a favorite time for raids) of June 30, 1933, the key figures of the SA, some of them Hitler's former comrades-in-arms, are dispatched by the SS, an elite body guard. On July 13, Hitler defends this action in a session of the Reichstag. In a ranting speech, repeatedly interrupted by deafening applause, he sums up his reasons. No doubt, he has already inculcated that the cleansing action would eventually open for him the office of Reichs-president.
He leaves nothing to chance. As early as August 1, 1933, a law goes into effect which will combine the offices of both Reichs-president and chancellor. A day later the grand old man Reichs-president von Hindenburg dies. Hitler has now become the supreme embodiment of power: Germany's Führer. Now he is able to concentrate on the unification of the Nazi concepts "race," "struggle for existence," and "space for living" (Lebensraum) and forge these idea into one closed ideology, the blueprint of which he had outlined in his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle).
Hitler demands blind obedience. At a dinner speech for his inner circle, he says: "Terror is the most effective political expedient... Cruelty is intimidating, cruelty and raw power... People need some healthy fear; they ought to be fearful of something." 7
But as we shall see, not all Germans are willing to embrace the ideology of National Socialism. Nonconformists may be found in all walks of life: laborers, artists, scientists, educators, theologians, and church members. Not for them the Nazi slogan: "You are nothing, your nation is everything!"
The purpose of sketching the above political developments in the Third Reich is to provide a framework for the conflicts which the faithful German Christians had to come to terms with.
To get some insight into the creed of Nazi neo-paganism, consider the following glorification of the Führer: "Why does a German love Hitler?" asks, for example, the "Reichs-chief" of the labour front, Robert Ley. The answer: "Because he finds his security in him. The Führer takes away his worries and gives him strength, He has been given to me by God." Thus Hitler has become a pseudo-messiah. The glorification of Hitler turns into a worship, a deification, and a substitute religion. "You owe everything to your Führer, your pay envelope, the blue sky above you; in short, life itself." 8Hymns and prayers are dedicated to him. It is in this political climate that the churches try to survive.
On the surface things do not look too bleak at first. Article 24 of the party program of the NSDAP purports to advocate a "positive Christianity." But this term is nebulous in that it does not explain how it should be interpreted. As time progresses, however, this will become quite clear. The churches will be tolerated only in so far as they are willing to support Hitler and his movement.
One faction in the churches holds on to the view that Christian faith is in complete accord with the National Socialist worldview. It should be understood in this context that, before Hitler came into power, a considerable number of theologians in the Weimar Republic were fearful of the real threat of communism taking over. As a consequence they sided with the powers of the extreme right: fascism. They united in the "Community of faith of German Christians" under the leadership of "Reichs-bishop" Muller. In the confession of these so-called "German Christians" we find:
As for every nation, so also for our own nation the eternal God has created its specific law. It became embodied in the Führer Adolf Hitler and in the National Socialist State founded by him. This law speaks to us through the history of our people, a history that grew out of blood and soil. Loyalty to this law demands from us to fight for honour and freedom. 9
Indeed, the Führer is seen as the embodiment of God's law in Germany. Only a minority of evangelicals (most of them Lutherans) agree with this view. A far larger group joins the "Confessional Church, which rejects the National Socialist absolute claim to power. In 1937, this Bekennende Kirche is officially prohibited but unofficially it survives. From this conservative remnant of the faithful in the "Confessional Church" several important men of the resistance will come forward to protest National Socialism and its malicious policies.
A number of pastors and believers try to remain neutral, however, by hiding behind an expedient interpretation of Romans 13:1 (RSV), "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."
The National Socialist leaders try to play off the conservative believers against the Nazi sympathizers who are found in the churches and continue to progressively hollow out their inherent rights.
Although in Germany the Roman Catholics at this time are fewer in number than the Protestants, they are far better organized, and have their pope in Rome. They have a sense of being more or less invulnerable because of their worldwide Roman Catholic community. The Roman Catholic church in Germany assumes that her rights vis-à-vis the National Socialist state are guaranteed by the Reichskonkordat (July 7, 1933). This Concordat is a compact between the national government and the Vatican. This treaty is said to protect all essential ecclesiastical issues, such as autonomy of the Roman Catholic confession, religious instruction, as well as independence of Roman Catholic organizations and alliances. Thus, many Roman Catholic societies and dignitaries feel justified in welcoming Hitler as Führer of their country.
But before long, and true to form, the National Socialists interpret the Concordat any which way they fancy. The result is that the Roman Catholic labour movement and youth societies are prohibited, and Roman Catholic newspapers and magazines are curbed. Though the newsletters of a bishop may still be printed, they may not be distributed. Disappointment, disillusion and depression are on the increase both in Roman Catholic and evangelical congregations. It will become clear that these circumstances are going to produce the fertile soil for active resistance found in the churches within the Third Reich.
At this stage it has become evident that National Socialism as viewed in its total demand on man, has now turned into a real obstacle for faithful church members. But the churches are still powerful institutions which cannot be simply harassed or outlawed as just some common interest group. Therefore, the Nazis have to devise a long-term strategy. Their next ploy is to hitch the Roman Catholic church to the Nazi cart: "A catholic votes for a catholic Hitler" says an election poster in 1933. (We know that although Hitler was baptized in the Roman Catholic church, he has not seen the inside of a church since his youth.)
Even so, there are clergymen that publicly approve of Hitler. This is not only a calculated move on their part, but is often based on (spurious) conviction. What plays a significant role in their assessment of the situation is that Hitler has promised to get rid of the godless communists, whose reputation as enemies of the church is well-known. At first Hitler and his party pretend to be rather church-friendly:
The Nationalist government perceives in both Christian confessions the most important factors to ensure the continuity of our nationality. It will respect the treaties that have been agreed upon between you and the respective countries.10
Yet, despite these (hollow) assurances of the party, the mandatory Sunday exercises of the Hitler Youth make it impossible for those boys who have received a traditional "church" upbringing to attend church services. The Völkischer-Beobachter, the party newspaper, is published in two distinct editions: one in Berlin and one in Munich. Articles in the Berlin edition that are offensive or hostile to the "papists" in Bavaria do not appear in the Munich edition, in deference to the predominant Roman Catholic population there.
In 1937 the confessional schools are dissolved despite the guarantee of the Concordat of 1933. From now on there will be only the community's public schools. Any religious instruction during regular school time is now "verboten."
On March 3, 1937, the pope proclaims his Encyclical, which begins with the words:
With intense sorrow and growing perplexity we have now for a prolonged period observed the Church's road of suffering, the increasing oppression which is inflicted upon all faithful confessing members, in the very midst of the nation and its people, not only by design but also in action...11
He continues his official letter by saying that the church had endeavored sowing the seeds of true peace, but that others (read: Nazis) had sown the weeds of suspicion, hate, lack of forbearance, both secretly and openly, and which are nourished by a thousand sources that employ every means to work its fundamental enmity against Christ and His Church.
Yet, furtively, to a greater or lesser extent, the Nazi leadership continues its diabolical schemes. Evangelical pastors and Roman Catholic priests who are under suspicion are being carefully watched. Their sermons are taken down in shorthand by Gestapo informers. Many spiritual leaders end up in prison, or worse, in a concentration camp. Dachau, for instance, has set aside a special barrack to "accommodate" trouble-making pastors and priests, many of whom will never leave the camp alive.
Even so, the regime does not dare to close the churches outright. Until the ultimate, collapse of the German Reich (Spring 1945) staunch believers are able to attend their church, receive sacraments, and consult their spiritual advisors. But a true National Socialist does not belong to any church. As a matter of principle, an SS man cannot be a member of a church.
In his official political speeches Hitler regularly mentions God, but then as Vorsehung, that is "Providence." But within his inner circle he shows his real face regarding Christian faith.
Christianity is a Jewish hoax. You are either German or Christian. We don't need people that are squinting heavenward. What we need is men that are free, men that know and feel God in themselves. The papists are digging their own graves; they will betray their dear God to us...12
Nazis are also fond of the word Schicksal, that is, "Fate," the fickle power that is responsible for whatever befalls us. Grade three pupils get the history of their country dished up like this:
As Jesus saved man from sin and hell, so saved Hitler the German people from perdition. Jesus and Hitler were both persecuted. Christ ended up crucified, but Hitler became chancellor. Though the disciples betrayed their master and left him in the lurch, sixteen comrades died for their Führer. The apostles finished the work of the Lord. We trust that Hitler will be able to finish his. While Jesus built for heaven, Hitler builds for the German world.13
Many Nazis dream about Hitler becoming the founder of a new religion, the religion of the "holy German nation," whose saviour is Hitler himself.
At this point, time has arrived to introduce some Christian nonconformists whose resistance became a force to be reckoned with. In the early days of National Socialism, Martin Niemöller establishes the Pfarrernotbund, an alliance of distressed pastors, in an attempt to counteract the threatening interference of the Nazi party. Until the end of 1933, one-third of all Protestant pastors have joined this group. From this alliance will eventually emerge the "Confessional Church," whose members are determined to ward off any interference of the State and the NSDAP.
Prominent theologians of the "Confessional Church" will soon become the most active opponents of Hitler and his government. One of them, for instance, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who after a lengthy imprisonment is executed in July 1944.
Because of their intrepid public appearance, the Roman Catholic bishops Theophil Wurm of Würtemberg and Hans Meiser of Bavaria repeatedly land up in prison. During the last years of the war, Bishop Wurm in particular is one of the few who try to bring about an end to the persecution of the Jews.
But back to Protestant resistance. To get some idea what the "Confessional Church" stood for, take a close look at its admission form, which contains the following information: Name, address, present congregation. Next follows:
The above is a member of the "Confessional Church under the Word," on the basis of the following declaration:
I know myself as a member of the Evangelical church to be bound only by the Holy Scriptures and their proper interpretation according to the confessions of the Reformation.
I know myself duty-bound to openly refute any adulteration of the Gospel and any use of force and constraint of conscience that is applied in the church.
I shall be engaged in prayer, petition and service for a renewal in our church through the Word and Spirit of God.
I shall be faithfully engaged in my congregation in the worship services, administer the Lord's Supper, promote a moral home life, and wish to be a serving member of the Confessional congregation.
This declaration implies due loyalty and devotion to the nation and our native land. 14
In the history of the resistance of evangelical Christians against Nazi rule, an unassuming pastor of a small Confessional congregation stands out as a noble example.
The Pastor of Dickenschied
When Hitler becomes Führer in 1933, the 36-year-old Paul Schneider of the Confessional congregation at Hochelheim is highly respected and deeply loved by his church members, both young and old. But, because of his critical remarks about "German would-be Christians" and the national government, he is shunted to the small congregation of Dickenschied. Soon thereafter, the leader of the local Hitler Youth dies in a neighboring village and pastor Schneider has to conduct the funeral. He feels most uncomfortable being surrounded by the many brown uniforms of the SA with their swastika armbands, the League of German Girls, as well as members of the labour corps.
The Nazi prefect of the district delivers the eulogy. He says that the dead comrade will now certainly have joined "the heavenly storm troop of Horst Wessel" (a venerated and legendary Nazi "martyr"). Pastor Schneider is stunned. This profanity cannot go unchallenged. In his final words of the funeral service the pastor says: "I don't know whether there will be a Horst Wessel storm troop in eternity, but may our Lord bless your progression out of time and an entrance into eternity." This is too much for the prefect. Once more he steps forward to the open grave and says:
Kamerat ... you have truly joined the Horst Wessel storm troop. The pastor counters with: I protest. This is after all a church solemnization and as pastor I am responsible for the pure doctrine of the Holy Scripture. 15
Three days later the pastor is arrested without specific charges. Practically the entire congregation rallies behind him. Most of them sign a petition to the authorities, and even some local National Socialists threaten to leave the party should the pastor not be returned to them. After a week's imprisonment, Schneider is released. Still, he does not keep silent. From the pulpit he protests the arrest of a large number of pastors in the Confessional church. Young Nazis inform on him and allege that he had secretly collected money for the support of Jews and had called Hitler an "ambassador of the devil." But since this allegation is not proved, he goes off scot-free for the time being.
In 1936 he openly refuses to go to the polls and cast his vote. The next day when it is announced that (supposedly) 99 per cent have voted "Yes" for Hitler, the town's Nazis hoist the swastika flag in the church tower while the bells in the steeple are ringing. Yet the pastor is not going to compromise. He declares that for him National Socialism and Christianity are incompatible. When Hitler's troops march into the Rhineland (March 7, 1936) to occupy it, in violation of treaties, Schneider states publicly that Germany's destiny is not decided by its Wehrmacht on the Rhine, but by the attitude of the German people towards the Word of God.
In May 1937, barely recovered from a severe accident, the pastor resumes preaching in Dickenschied. Once again he criticizes National Socialism. The next day the Gestapo whisks him away to a prison in Koblenz. A few weeks later he is transferred to Wiesbaden, where he is released on the condition that he shall not return to his home congregation. He finds refuge in a tiny village in the Black Forest. But after several months of exile there, he hears that, ever since his banishment, his congregation has been suffering from spiritual deprivation. On several Sundays the village has no worship service at all, and those that are ill or ailing lack spiritual support and comfort. The pastor returns without permission, and on the evening after his first sermon in Dickenschied he is rearrested. Saying farewell to his wife he says: "Tell the congregation that I am and will remain their pastor."
Heroism and Martyrdom in Buchenwald
From his prison cell, Pastor Schneider is able to smuggle out a letter with the message that the destiny of Germany's Christendom will depend on individual action. Further, he writes that the readiness of the church to come to an agreement with National Socialism will be unable to accomplish anything positive. In November 1937, Schneider arrives in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Already at his first morning roll-call he shows his undaunted courage. When the swastika flag is being hoisted he refuses to take off his prisoner's cap. This act of defiance costs him dearly. Several SS-men grab him and tie him up on "the bock," a wooden contraption for punishment. He is given twenty lashes on his bare seat, but does not flinch.
One day, with his arms tied behind his back, he is suspended from the iron bars of his cell. It is an excruciatingly painful torture, but pastor Schneider suffers in silence. Then he is put in a cell which looks out over the inspection square, where the molestations continue and increase. The purpose of these cruelties is to intimidate the prisoners and keep them subdued. But the guards do not wholly succeed.
Pastor Schneider's conduct has been reported as follows: "They had not reckoned with the astonishing courage of the man who had been tortured to the verge of death. He prayed at the top of his voice, which reached to the human scarecrows lined up in formation on the inspection square. When it was momentarily quiet after the head count a clear voice intoned: 'Thus says the Lord, "I am the resurrection and the Life.'" 16
It is not unusual that a prisoner is killed at the whim of a camp officer. After another such execution, Schneider calls out during the head count: "In the name of Jesus Christ, I herewith testify to the murder of a prisoner..." On another occasion he is heard to fling these words in the teeth of the camp commander: "You are a mass murderer! I accuse you before God's judgment seat" and then he proceeds to mention the names of recently killed prisoners.
Even when he is reduced to a mere skin-covered skeleton with swollen limbs and joints, he refuses to give in. In July 1939, Pastor Schneider is finally killed. A fellow prisoner who witnessed his sufferings, comments that it was almost incomprehensible that a human being could endure that kind of torture for such a long time. Schneider's widow is permitted to claim the corpse (this is only 1939!) but is strictly forbidden to open the coffin. Another fellow prisoner who had been a witness to the pastor's final moments, writes that in all of Germany he knew of only one person who had not become an accomplice by remaining a silent onlooker. This person was "Pastor Schneider, who even in a concentration camp protested in word and deed against the injustices and, as a result, had to die as a martyr." 17
Three Sermons in Münster
Many Roman Catholics and their clergy are quite satisfied with Hitler. They still believe that because of the political treaty with the Vatican, the Concordat, the future of the Roman Catholic church is safeguarded. But once National Socialism begins to drop its mask, many priests and bishops can no longer keep silent. In their sermons they shake up their congregations so that they will recognize the injustices that are perpetrated and may bring up the courage to oppose them.
In the summer of 1941, two years into the war, the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Count von Galen, holds his three renowned sermons. After this event he is popularly known as "the lion of Münster." For quite a while Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, has regarded him as a dangerous man, because wherever von Galen preaches the church is spilling over to the outside. In one of his sermons von Galen addresses his faithful:
At this moment we do not represent the hammer but the anvil. Others, mostly strangers and apostates, are hammering us down and want to bend us and our youths from the straight principles with reference to God. Just ask a master blacksmith and he will tell you that what is being forged on the anvil receives its final shape not only from the hammer blows but also from the anvil. An anvil is unable to hit back, nor does it have to. Its whole function is to be unyielding and hard. If the anvil is sufficiently unyielding, solid, and hard, the anvil will generally outlast the hammer.
No matter how hard the blows of the hammer come down, the anvil stands there unperturbed, immobile, and will for a long time to come continue to serve in giving shape to whatever presently must be forged. Here are the unjustly imprisoned, those that are expelled and banished, though being innocent. God shall support them so that they will not lose their profile and disposition and firmness as a Christian when the hammer of persecution mauls them mercilessly and wounds them unjustly.
You are to remain immovable, steadfast like the anvil under the hammer blows. It could well happen that the obedience towards God, being true to one's conscience, will cost you or me our lives, our freedom and our homeland. But it is better to die than to sin! May the grace of God, without which we are unable to accomplish anything, grant you and me this immovable firmness and keep us there. 18
Two weeks later von Galen castigates in moving but sharp terms the euthanasia of mental patients in institutions. He says:
Once the principle has been established and used that will permit the 'unproductive' human being to be killed, then 'woe' to the handicapped who in the production process have spent their energies and have sacrificed and lost their sound limbs in their work. When an unproductive person can be done away with by force, then 'woe' to our brave soldiers who severely maimed and crippled return to their homeland! Once the provision has been made that people have the right to kill their unproductive fellow men — be it in particular the mentally ill at this stage — then in principle the murder of all unproductive people is condoned, also the incurably ill, the handicapped victims of labor and war. Then authorization is given to murder us all when we have become old and feeble and thus have become unproductive.
At the end of this sermon many broke down and wept. In his closing words we find the prayer: "O, God let us all on this very day, before it is too late, acknowledge what Will give us the only true peace." 19
By means of bulletins, these sermons are quickly (and secretly) distributed throughout Germany and even end up abroad. In particular the third sermon is an essential factor in discontinuing the routine euthanasia of the mentally ill. Goebbels would like to silence the voice of this dangerous preacher. But the authorities do not venture to proceed against von Galen. Too many of the Münster parishes stand firmly behind their bishop, whose arrest might well spark off an unpleasant uprising. And so von Galen survives the Second World War. He dies peacefully in 1946.
The Martyr of St. Hedvig's Cathedral
On the other hand, Father Bernhard Lichtenberg will join the ranks of martyrs for being too outspoken. Since 1938 he has been prior of the St. Hedvig's cathedral, an important landmark in Berlin. At first he provokes the anger of the Nazis by declaring that he recognizes only one Führer, the Lord Jesus Christ. On several occasions he is admonished and threatened because of his anti-war speeches. Then he undertakes something which, unfortunately, too few dare to follow as an example. In 1941 he regularly includes the Jews in his regular liturgical prayers. Soon thereafter a particularly obnoxious anti-Jewish inflammatory pamphlet is spread about in Berlin.
Lichtenberg's reaction is to write a message that is to be read by all the pastors during the church services. It reads in part:
An anonymous hate pamphlet against the Jews has been widely distributed in the homes of Berlin. It asserts that every German who because of false sentimentality is giving aid or comfort to Jews (if only by just being friendly) is committing treason against the nation. Desist from being misled by this unchristian point of view, but act in accordance with the strict commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.20
Not surprisingly, Lichtenberg is arrested. The reason given is that he had aided and abetted enemies of the State. It is pointed out to him that already since the (infamous) Kristallnacht of November 1938, he had in fact included the Jews in his prayers.
Lichtenberg requests to be sent to the Jewish ghetto of Lodz (Poland) so that there he may share the sufferings of its wretched inhabitants. Instead, he is sentenced to prison for two years, generally a "safer" place than a concentration camp. The Nazis don't have the nerve to give him a stiffer sentence because the pastor is too well known and respected in Berlin. In October 1943, after having been released from the Berlin-Tegel prison, the Gestapo re-arrests him and he is sent off to Dachau. But during his transport, he dies in the north Bavarian town of Hof. His sufferings are over.