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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2014
Number 80
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Nazism and Politics

A Review essay by Rochelle Millen

Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany by Robert P. Erickson. Cambridge University Press

Toward the end of this meticulously researched and excellent volume, Robert P. Ericksen relates an experience that occurred in 1987 during the 250th anniversary of Gottingen University. Part of the commemoration entailed the writing a major study of Gottingen under Nazi rule. Ericksen was asked to contribute a chapter about the theological faculty, to which he agreed. When approached to pen a chapter on the famous history seminar as well, he found out that several young faculty had earlier been invited to do so, but had been advised by their mentors not to accept, as “ stirring up the Nazi past” would inhibit career advancement. More than fifty years after the rise of Nazism in the tumultuous 1930s, bringing to the surface unpleasant, buried truths could be fraught with negative consequences.

This anecdote illustrates the variegated hues on the spectrum of complicity during the years of Nazi Socialism, a rainbow of involvement that Ericksen’ s book carefully delineates. Undergirding his analyses of church meetings, faculty politics and student upheavals is a question posed by the historian, Konrad Jarausch, and quoted by Ericksen: “How could competent, individually decent university graduates fall collectively for the Austrian corporal?”

Ericksen’s book describes the many pastors and professors who “fell for the Austrian corporal.” While drawing on the work of Victoria Barnett, Christopher Browning, Doris Bergen Susannah Heschel, Kevin Spicer as well as his own groundbreaking 1985 study, Theologians Under Hitler, Ericksen offers an important added dimension to their body of research by summarizing, integrating and evaluating aspects of the complicity spectrum. His thorough and well-written study clearly demonstrates the many ways “individually decent university graduates” and pastors already in positions of power “collectively” fell under the sway of Hitler, his ideology and his pseudo-religious nationalism.

The case of Gottfried Ewald is an excellent example of the complexity of complicity, the many shades of grey which can make it difficult, in some cases, to make unambiguous moral judgments. Professor of psychiatry at Gottingen and director of the state hospital, Ewald joined a right wing student organization, the Bund Oberland in 1924 and subsequently became an early supporter of the idea and practice of forced sterilization. Yet at a 1937 meeting of academics in Berlin, when asked to serve on a board which would assess psychiatric patients for possible euthanasia, Ewald simply walked out of the meeting. He refused to comply even when many other professors agreed. Upon returning to Gottingen, he composed a letter explaining his position and received a reply from a right wing friend from his student years. “I am quite convinced,” the friend writes, “that the views of the entire German Volk in these matters are in a state of flux, and I can easily imagine that things which at one moment are considered unacceptable, in the next moment can be declared the only right choice. We have experienced that numerous times in the course of history” (p. 162).

These words remind us, as Ericksen notes, of the shifting concept of “right.” Pastor and professors gradually came to refashion their moral values and views to fit within what were considered the norms of Nazi ideology. “Nazi Germany,” he writes, is nothing if not a laboratory for the study of groupthink and norms adjustment (162). Ewald did not change his views on euthanasia and never served on an assessment board. Yet in 1940-1941, he sent 238 of his patients to their deaths, listing them as “severely afflicted.”Did Ewald accept individual decisions (i.e., his own) that would send persons to their death, but feel wary of a collective board of assessment? He protested euthanasia, but supported Nazi ideology, participated in forced sterilizations, and knowingly sent patients to their deaths. “Where then,” asks Ericksen, “should we place Ewald on our moral spectrum?” (163). The line Ewald refused to cross remains blurred. Did he perhaps comply with some aspects of Nazi racial science in order to safely refrain from others he perceived as more heinous?

Other conflicts in the various universities led to nasty politics, loud demonstrations and clear violations of academic standards and policies. Interestingly, Ericksen points as well to the significant role played by historians in making possible the Nazi state. Historians wrote working papers justifying and advocating policies long advanced by right-wing nationalists, such as acquiring Eastern territories and moving and/or eliminating their populations. They incorporated concepts of conquest and annihilation as part of the world view passed on in university classrooms. So deep was the influence of historians that it was not until the 1998 German Historikertag that the powerful role of German historians in support of Nazi ideals came to be publically discussed. This was clearly due to the lasting impact of the teaching of several renowned historians on several generations trained in German universities. Some who were not supporters of Hitler in the early 1930s nonetheless saw the expansion of a renewed Germany as a “holy” task and many — though not all — of their students in 1998 defended their mentors. We may speak of “the power of the press,” but the voice in the classroom has its own influential resonances.

The example of Gunther Dehn, both a pastor and professor of theology, illustrates the tidal force of the increasingly nationalist forces in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It also demonstrates the potent — and insidious — control exerted by a large crowd. The Dehn tale — among many others from this period of brutality — reminds me of a verse in the Hebrew Bible: “Do not be a follower of the majority for evil, and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law]” (Exodus, 23:2).

As a theologian in the late 1920s, Dehn had argued that the fervor of war was not the only possible Christian response in World War I. In a speech in 1928, while acknowledging the morality of just war, he argued that pacifism is an equally legitimate Christian response; that perhaps churches should refrain from glorifying war through commemorative plaques listing the names of soldiers who died. These ideas, coming a mere ten years after Germany’s defeat and the war guilt clause in the Treaty of Versailles, began a cascade of rumor and anger, resulting in Dehn’s eventual loss of a university appointment.

Dehn’s comments had violated the rising nationalist mood. The negative press engendered was eventually taken up by the Brandenburg Church Council. After reading Dehn&rsquo:s text, the council was only partially mollified. It concluded that Dehn “had damaged the general interests of the church” by using words carelessly and speaking with irritation (77). The church had the opportunity to defend this scholar by acknowledging the legitimacy of his claims as one possible reaction to the glorification of war. It could have noted that Dehn’s views were based on valid interpretations of biblical texts. But the church slid away from controversy, choosing to protect rumor and further foment a nationalism increasingly run amok.

When then offered a faculty position at Heidelberg, six of seven Heidelberg theologians failed to support him, fearing, it seems, student and faculty unrest. And their fears were all too correct. For finally, when hired by Halle, right-wing students — all this in 1931 — distributed an inflammatory flier attacking Dehn. The faculty senate, in an effort to contain the increasing distrust and restlessness, banned the Nazi Student Organization for a year. The Rektor and faculty senate continued to support Dehn. But students, having constructed a verbal caricature of Dehn, repeated and repeated it until they believed it was true. Refusing to consider an alternate perspective, they saw their task, their opposition to university authority, as “break [ing] the yoke of slavery and bring [ing] the German Volk to a better tomorrow” (79) . Empowered by the political impetus of an ever stronger nationalism, they threatened not only to bar Dehn’s appointment, but also to compel the Rektor to resign. In the end, despite Dehn’s determination and the assistance of the administration, the right-wing students succeeded in forcing a confrontation. The outcome? The faculty senate declared that the students, despite their excessive behavior, “were motivated by pure and honorable feelings for the fatherland and for our university.”

This capitulation, thirteen months before Hitler’s ascendancy became official, conveys the increasing transformation of Nazi ideology — its nationalism, claim to obedience and complete devotion, its intimidating tactics, the worship of the Volk and eventually of Hitler — into a religion. Not conquering Moors on horses nor Crusaders and Inquisitors, but twentieth-century Germans espoused an absolutism, exclusivism, and narcissism that would eventually self-destruct, murdering millions in its wake.

All of which brings us to the German churches and how they were complicit. During the post-war years of denazification, the claim was repeatedly made that church membership meant opposition to Nazism. As Ericksen points out, this view became especially prominent in Germany after 1948 when the British gave up their role in the denazification process. Not only did church members, for the most part, not oppose Nazi ideology, but church leaders also promoted it. It was as if church leaders gave its members permission to disregard its moral teachings and replace them with a nationalism that created boycotts, the Enabling Act, coerced sterilization, the racial hierarchy of the Nuremburg Laws, the increasing violence leading to Kristallnacht, the murder of children with cerebral palsy and other disorders. In 1931, bishops in Bavaria warmed against Nazi ideology should it become “incompatible with Catholic teachings, thus conveying a criticism of Nazi ideology later compromised.”

Ericksen clearly demonstrates how both Catholic and Lutheran church leaders gradually warmed to Nazi ideas. A statement read in all Protestant churches in April 1933, proclaimed: “A state which begins once again to govern according to God’s command may expect not just the applause but the joyous cooperation of the church.” One need only recall Nazi actions between January and April 1933 to fully understand the meaning of governing “according to God’s command.” Such Catholic and Protestant proclamations conveyed to their laity an endorsement and approval of Nazi behavior. Were an individual to be wavering as to what to think and/or do, church statements could — and did — powerfully persuade. Even the enactments of the Confessing Church were not declarations of resistance against the denigration of and violence toward the Other — especially Jews and later Roma and others — but rather resistance only in an ecclesiastical sense. The Confessing Church was not an heroic organization. Its many statements did not oppose the rising anti-Semitism, neither its legal restraints nor its violence. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer would write about “the Jewish problem” in Germany, although he did sympathize with Jewish suffering. Nonetheless, when in 1952 friends of Bonhoeffer arranged to have a memorial plaque placed at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where Bonhoeffer had been executed, the Bishop of Munich refused to participate, calling Bonhoeffer not “a martyr to the church but a traitor to his nation.” Bonhoeffer had travelled outside Germany, contrary to nationalistic expectations. He had studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York, learning from the experiences of black Christians. But returning to Germany, he had only a small base of support and acted outside the parameters of his own Protestant church.

After 1945, the church rallied behind Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller as if they were representative of church policy rather than radical figures who had been persecuted by the Nazi state. Most church leaders welcomed, praised and accepted Hitler and Nazi ideology.

Ironically, pastors — and professors — in the post-war period claimed not to have been real Nazis, but only to have worked within the system to protect religious and academic values. Those were the very values, however, that succumbed to Nazism. The slow sinking of religious morality and academic standards led to the complicity of these institutions in ways large and small. By not protesting the early, smaller violations, churches and universities came to accept — indeed to foster — actions that were substantial, stronger and even more devastatingly significant. The churches and universities came to rationalize brutality and blatant injustice, much of it emanating from their own centers.

This volume is a lucid exposition of the ways the official religious and academic communities in German life became an integral part of the Nazi system as it made its tragic trajectory across Europe. By further complicating the concept of complicity with pointed examples and astute reflections, Ericksen contributes to the ongoing examination of the central historical explosion of the twentieth century. The detail, perspective, and clarity of this book add an important dimension to the story we still seek to understand.


Rochelle L. Millen is a professor of religion at Wittenberg University and a contributing editor.

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