Thursday 30 April 2015

Barth - the Enigma (der vierte Teil)

Protestant altar in Cologne during the 1930s
There is a good deal of nonsense made of the faithfulness of the Confessing Church during the Third Reich. The story goes that the German Protestant church was subverted by the "German Christian" movement which eagerly promoted Nazism. Of that there's no doubt, the record is quite unambiguous.

But, we're told, the Confessing Church stood firm against Hitler, led by spiritual titans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. But the truth is less clear cut. Yes, Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi regime and paid for it with his life. The record of the Confessing Church, and of Karl Barth, is as a whole more ambiguous.

Few have dug as deeply into the disturbing world of the churches under Hitler as Susannah Heschel. Her book The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press, 2008) should be required reading for anyone seeking to comment on events in that period. Here's what she has to say about the Confessing Church and its attitude toward Jews and Judaism.
[W]hile the Confessing Church supported Jews who had become baptized Christians, most of them agreed with the German Christians that Germany needed to be rid of its Jews and that Judaism was a degenerate moral and spiritual influence on Christians. (p.5)
Even within the so-called "church struggle" between German Christians and the Confessing Church for control of the Protestant church, antisemitism became the glue that united the otherwise warring factions. (p.7)
[B]oth asserted that Jewishness represented a real threat to Christians but differed in their definitions of Jewishness. (p.161)
[A]ntisemitism linked the competing German Christian movement and Confessing Church during the Third Reich, and facilitated an easy transition of power from one group to the other at the end of the war. (p.286)
More recently Mary Solberg (A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement 1932-1940, Fortress Press, 2015) has written:
The organizational independence of the church, rather than the question of what was happening to the Jews, was perhaps the issue most bitterly contested between the German Christians and the Confessing Church. Even the question of whether the church would adopt a version of the Aryan paragraph was principally an issue of the church's independence from state interference, rather than... its implications for the Jews. (p.29)
The Confessing Church agenda was not fuelled by concern for the fate of Jews, Roma or the disabled. Martin Niemöller, a leading pastor of the Confessing Church, illustrates this sad reality.
Niemöller only gradually abandoned his national conservative views and even made pejorative remarks about Jews of faith while protecting—in his own church—baptised Christians, persecuted as Jews by the Nazis, due to their or their forefathers' Jewish descent. In one sermon in 1935, he remarked: "What is the reason for [their] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!" (Wikipedia entry)
Later - too late - Niemöller was to express his regret with the famous mea culpa, "and I did not speak out..." In this Niemöller was not atypical.

This is not to say there were not many good and courageous men and women who sheltered under the wing of the Confessing Church, but as with all things in life, the situation was complicated. The simplistic rewriting of history serves nobody well.

So what about Karl Barth himself?

To be continued.


  1. I was talking a few years back to a Swiss in Vail, Colorado about Heinrich Harrer. Harrer, a famous mountain climber, was accused by many of being a Nazi. I mentioned this and the Swiss replied, "You don't understand. They were all Nazis. You had to be or be shot." Ex-WCG members should be, above all people, highly sympathetic to people who have had to live under life-threatening dictatorships. We lived in a absolutist church society where excommunication, and the spiritual death it was thought to precipitate, could be doled out at the will of a corrupt and politicized ministry.

    Condemning Nazis is easy. Trying to see the extraordinary pressure that people were under in Nazi Germany is not. I think we should be careful in our judgement.

    I am also reminded of Herman Hoeh stating that treatment of non-Whites in the WCG was just the WCG conveniently following the lead of the larger society in which it was embedded.

    -- Neo

  2. Given Martin Luther's stance on the Jews, none of this is surprising.

    This is a bit off topic, but was Karl Barth a premillenialist? I can't tell from the research I've done what his opinion was about the return of Christ.

    Maybe you can cover this in the future installments.

  3. I've come to believe that every human comes equipped with an agenda, and that we all tend to draw upon whatever surrounds us to extract what we can to support and further that agenda. This was expressed very eloquently through the imagery in the old Buffalo Springfield song "For What it's Worth".

    For all too many people, the pain caused to others becomes less important than the advancement of the agenda as they make their cost-benefit analyses.