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5 German Christian Pastors and Bishops

Christopher J. Probst Indiana University Press ePub

On 10 November 1938, Luther’s birthday, the synagogues in Germany are burning.

—Martin Sasse, Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them! (1938)

In his work on Berlin’s Protestant social milieu in the Third Reich, Manfred Gailus has shown that in Berlin at least, Confessing Church pastors “more often than their DC [Deutsche Christen; German Christian] colleagues” came from “academically educated upper-middle-class families” and were more likely to have come from families with a theological tradition. The correlation was even stronger for those where such a tradition was long running and where a parent was a member of the “theological and ecclesiastical élite.”1 The reflection of this relative lack of theological tradition and academic education in the German Christian movement, borne out statistically by Gailus, we will observe here textually and the-matically. German Christian pastors, “in comparison to their BK [Bekennende Kirche; Confessing Church] opponents,” he shows, “came relatively often from lower social classes” and “more frequently came from Prussia’s eastern provinces.” This latter fact leads him to conclude that “a family history on Germany’s ethnic boundary in the east apparently made them more receptive to völkisch ideology. . . .” The Protestant social milieu in Berlin was split “almost down the middle into two sharply opposed camps, the German Christians or völkisch Protestantism versus the Confessing Church as the more traditional, national conservative faction.” While some correlation may exist between living in the east and being receptive to völkisch ideology, the effect of völkisch penetration of the Protestant intellectual–theological milieu even outside the German Christian movement should not be underestimated.2

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2 “Luther and the Jews”

Christopher J. Probst Indiana University Press ePub

The most prominent figure of the German Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was a truly remarkable man. Whether we speak of his posting of the ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, his refusal to recant his teachings before Charles V at Worms, his marriage to Katharina von Bora in an age of clerical celibacy, or his translation of the New Testament into German, Luther was a genuine trailblazer. Yet, unknown to many—in some cases explained away—is Luther’s complex but deeply antagonistic relationship with the Jewish people.

Others have tended to exaggerate Luther’s influence through an uncritical reading of history. Erroneously claiming that Luther “called for the destruction of world Jewry,” Alan Dershowitz opined, “It is shocking that Luther’s ignoble name is still honored rather than forever cursed by mainstream Protestant churches.”1 This sad state of affairs led Reformation historian Heiko Oberman to lament that many would have us choose between “two Luthers”—one, the “bold Reformer, the liberating theologian, the powerfully eloquent German”; the other, an “anti-Semite” who “wrote mainly about Jews,” and “preached hatred.”2 Such a choice is, of course, unnecessary.

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6 Pastors and Theologians from the Unaffiliated Protestant “Middle”

Christopher J. Probst Indiana University Press ePub

Bolshevism is the menace of the stateless. It is therefore no wonder that it gets its main leaders from stateless Judaism.

—Heinrich Bornkamm, What Do We Expect from the German Protestant Church of the Future? (1939)

Over the course of the twelve-year Nazi rule, roughly 35–40 percent of Protestant clergymen were not affiliated with either the Confessing Church or the German Christians.1 In 1936, the largest church-political group among professors of Protestant theology consisted of those aligned with neither of these two polarized wings of the German Protestant Church, comprising just over half of the total number.2 Thus, the number of Protestant pastors and theologians who did not choose sides formally in the Church Struggle was very substantial. In this chapter, I examine the writings of two academic theologians and one pastor who addressed Luther’s outlook on Jews and Judaism either directly or indirectly. Despite the fact that some exhibited sympathies with either the Confessing Church or the German Christians, all three were officially associated only with the German Protestant Church for the overwhelming majority of the Nazi period. Yet, they approached the Jewish Question in fairly unique ways.

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3 Confessing Church and German Christian Academic Theologians

Christopher J. Probst Indiana University Press ePub

In 1937, Jena University theologian Wolf Meyer-Erlach, a member of the pro-Nazi German Christian wing of the Protestant church, published a book titled Juden, Mönche und Luther (Jews, Monks, and Luther) in which he refers to Jews as “an incessant army of demons.” Jewish antagonism toward Christianity, Meyer-Erlach urges, represents a “deadly danger by which the Jews threatened the Reich.” After centuries, he intones, National Socialism is now the “fulfillment” of Luther’s designs against Jewry.

Meyer-Erlach used his influence to bring committed Nazis to the theological faculty at Jena University, promoting through his many publications a “de-Judaized” form of Christianity. He dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of the goals of both National Socialism and the German Christians through his responsibilities at both Jena University and the Institute for Research into and Elimination of Jewish Influence in German Church Life, commonly called the “Eisenach Institute.”1 His personnel file at the Jena University archive, along with his written works, are littered with glowing references to National Socialism, to “the Führer,” and to the goal of a “de-Judaized,” “Nordic” Christianity. Meyer-Erlach was one Protestant academic theologian who summoned in often colorful fashion his limited academic skills in the service of the Nazi regime.

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4 Confessing Church Pastors

Christopher J. Probst Indiana University Press ePub

Luther’s way is a way of internal tension between love and anger toward the Jews. It is “Christian antisemitism,” which loves the enemy, whom it must fight.

—Walter Gabriel,

Dr. Martin Luther on the Jews: Luther’s Christian Antisemitism according to His Writings (1936)

The baptism of Jewish subjects was not solely a religious act during the Third Reich; it carried serious political undertones as it signified the inclusion of Jews in a state-supported social institution. When the subject was an adult, the act of baptism was connected especially closely to conversion. As such, it went to the heart of an integral feature of Protestant Christianity. Since conversion was part of Luther’s answer to the “Jewish Question” of the sixteenth century, the act of publicly sealing that conversion through baptism garnered his attention as well. It is thus very important here to examine German Protestant responses to Luther’s view on the matter. In one instance, a Confessing Church minister baptized a purportedly morally suspect Jewish man, an act that mushroomed into an explosive case that garnered a great deal of press coverage, putting local Confessing Church officials on the defensive.

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