“Good Germans” and the Holocaust
Robert P. Ericksen, Kurt Mayer Professor of Holocaust Studies
Pacific Lutheran University
Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa Fall Luncheon, November 12, 2008
Thank you for the invitation to speak to this gathering of the Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa. I will discuss with you my work on “good Germans” and their relationship to the Holocaust. When I arrived in London years ago to begin my PhD program, I held what I now consider to have been a naïve concept. I proposed to study “good Germans” and their response to Adolf Hitler, expecting to find examples of moral condemnation and political opposition, even if many or most would have been restrained by fear of punishment. I selected two major institutions, churches and universities, with the idea that each involved qualities that we consider admirable. University professors are usually respected in our culture. They are expected to be intelligent and well educated. I anticipated that they would be critical of Hitler, with his lack of education, and critical of the Nazi ideology, with its many criminal brutalities and irrational flaws. Church leaders—pastors, bishops, professors of theology—also would seem to fit into my category of “good Germans.” I expected them to recognize the brutality and immorality within the Nazi worldview. I was aware of heroes within the Protestant church, individuals such as Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, people who really did oppose the regime and really did suffer for their opposition. I discovered, however, that Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer were anything but representative. It proved difficult to find resistance to Adolf Hitler within churches or universities. Rather, I found widespread, eager, and enthusiastic support.
We have just commemorated the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. That event represents an important entry point to our consideration of good Germans. The destruction of synagogues occurred throughout Germany, rising flames and thick smoke in full view. Jewish shop windows were smashed, littering streets with the shards of glass which gave Kristallnacht its name. Jewish homes were broken into; Jewish possessions were thrown into the street; individual Jews were humiliated or beaten, especially orthodox Jews, elders, and rabbis, sometimes having their sidelocks or beards shaved or plucked out, sometimes being forced to wash the sidewalk with a toothbrush. As many as fifty thousand Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Police came to watch but did not intervene to stop the crimes which occurred. Fire departments stood by, only to make sure that burning synagogues did not endanger adjacent buildings. None of this was secret. The entire spectacle played out in open view of the German people.
Alan Steinweis, who spoke recently at my university, has just completed a book on Kristallnacht to be published by Harvard University Press. He agrees with others that this pogrom against the Jewish community did indeed receive official support from the Nazi regime. However, he argues that it was preceded by spontaneous anti-Jewish riots which began almost immediately after the precipitating incident—the murder of a German official in Paris by Herschel Grynzspan, a Jewish teenager whose parents had been brutally treated by the German government. The regime merely caught up with and coordinated the violence, in Steinweis’s view. Grassroots hatred toward Jews suggests widespread congruence with the antisemitic ideology of the regime.
Virtually no Germans could claim they did not know about the violence and brutality exhibited during Kristallnacht, yet there was almost no protest. The same could be said of earlier actions against Jews. On April 1, 1933, just weeks after coming to power, Hitler’s regime organized a Jewish Boycott. Germans were encouraged not to buy from Jewish shops and these shops were covered in antisemitic graffiti, a clear signal that Jews were not welcome in Hitler’s Germany. On April 7th, a law for cleansing and renewal in the German civil service defined “cleansing” primarily as the removal of Jews. The “Aryan Paragraph” in this document required that all Jews working for the government be fired, though veterans of World War I could be excepted. Since all universities in Germany were public, not private, that meant that most Jewish professors, Jewish librarians, or other university employees would be fired. School teachers were also civil servants and subject to removal. Tens of thousands of Jews lost their employment, their economic wellbeing, and their careers through this new law, with little or no protest from “good Germans.”
James Franck--a Nobel-Prize-winning, Jewish physicist at Göttingen University--would not have been removed under the new civil service law. He had not only participated in World War I, but, ironically, helped Germany develop its poison gas! However, Franck chose to make a statement, offering his resignation in a public letter which angrily criticized the policy. He hoped that his stance would awaken the conscience of colleagues in academia and create a groundswell of support. Instead, within the space of one weekend, forty-two of his colleagues signed a letter of protest against his action, describing it as disloyal sabotage against the new regime. They represented twenty percent of the professors at Göttingen, but their stance is also representative of the professoriate as a whole. It is very rare to find protest among academics in Germany against Nazi policies.
One exception to this lack of protest involves the “White Rose” movement at the University of Munich. Sophie Scholl joined with her brother and a small circle of friends in 1942 to protest the atrocities and murders being committed by German troops on the Eastern front. They secretly printed and distributed flyers condemning the Nazi state, until they were captured, tried, and executed. James Franck and the students of the White Rose, however, represent a tiny fringe of the German academic world. The majority of faculty adapted to Nazi ideology and consciously worked to create a “political university.” This included curricular changes, such as the inclusion of “racial science” as a new discipline.
Eugen Fischer, a very prominent biologist and Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, can provide us an example of the scientific merit within the field of racial science. On one occasion he studied eighty Egyptian mummy portraits dating from the second and third centuries CE. Based on these portraits alone, he felt himself able to identify those which were Jews. He also identified specific characteristics, such as the typically “insolent” expression of the Jewish intellectual. Fischer admitted that the indicators which formed the basis for his conclusions were not easy to describe in precise language or subject to measurement. However, he claimed that those familiar with the characteristics of the Jewish race could easily verify his observations by looking at these faces. It is hard today to see this as anything but charlatanism, pronouncing judgments which fit the Nazi ideology. However, Eugen Fischer enjoyed an international reputation as a scientist.
Another example can be seen in the appointment of a professor of “Germanness” at Göttingen University. This new, interdisciplinary field was meant to study the German Volk in all its manifestations—literary, historical, political, and racial. New chairs were created at universities throughout Germany, one of them to be filled by Eugen Mattiat. His path to this academic appointment was unusual, especially by German standards. We must remember that during the nineteenth century German universities were probably the best in the world. Max Weber virtually invented the field of sociology; Leopold von Ranke invented the study of history as we know it, including the use of footnotes for citation of sources. Based upon their prestigious universities, Germans developed a great deal of respect for academic degrees and positions, so that the holder of a doctorate will be addressed as Herr Doktor and a professor will be addressed as Herr Professor Doktor. To make sure that no academic merit passes unnoticed, a professor with dual doctorate degrees will be called Herr Professor Doktor Doktor.
Eugen Mattiat entered this academic world through the back door. He earned a B.A. in theology and assumed the pastorate in a small parish outside Göttingen. In 1932 he joined the Deutsche Christen movement, an enthusiastically pro-Nazi group within the Protestant church. Their effort to combine Nazi politics with Christian religion required some strange gymnastics, not only removing the Old Testament from the Bible, due to its Jewish roots, but even declaring an “Aryan Jesus.” However, the pro-Nazi politics of this movement benefited Eugen Mattiat so that he rose quickly in his career, first assuming a position in the office of the Bishop of Hanover, then in the Science and Education Ministry in Berlin. In that job Mattiat worked on the appointment of professors at universities throughout Prussia. Soon his turn came. He became Professor of German Volkstum at Göttingen.
Mattiat’s appointment violated all previous standards within the German university. He held no Ph.D. He also had not completed the second dissertation, the Habilitation, which was normally required before one earned the right to teach at a university. His preparation to begin an academic career was so weak that he was immediately granted a leave of nearly one year just to study his subject so that he could begin to teach it. Despite his manifest lack of preparation, Mattiat became one of the most influential members of the Göttingen faculty. As leader of the Nazi Professors’ League on campus, his voice carried more weight at faculty meetings than the voices of others, so that he could interfere with or influence appointments of new faculty across the entire university.
Faculty members at Göttingen accepted this politicization of academics with little protest. Rather, they worked to include regime-friendly material within their own curriculum. This included attention to racial science. It also involved emphasis on Nazi-friendly ideas of nationalistic militarism in the study of history and aggressive, authoritarian political leadership in the study of political science. The Nazi goal for German society was labeled Gleichschaltung, a coordination of all institutions under the Nazi ideology. German universities are now widely acknowledged to have committed “Selbst-Gleichschaltung,” having modified their role themselves in order to fit within and offer their support to the Nazi state.
A similar picture can be found within the churches. Both Catholic and Protestant professors of theology, bishops, and clergy found much to like in Adolf Hitler and his rise to power. A leading Lutheran figure, Paul Althaus, wrote in 1933, “We Christians greet the rise of Adolf Hitler as a gift and miracle from God.” He was a professor of theology at Erlangen University and served as president of the international Luther Society for thirty years. What he claimed for Christians in Germany can probably be accepted as true: most did greet the rise of Hitler. It is also worth noting that Althaus was not bestowing light praise. He called Hitler’s rise a “gift” from God and a “miracle.”
This picture does not match my earlier expectation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller represented Christian views in Nazi Germany. They were part of a “Confessing Church” which was viewed in the early postwar period as a center of political opposition to Nazis. Viewed more carefully, the Confessing Church is now seen as a group involved in an ecclesiastical struggle. They opposed the Deutsche Christen, a movement within the Protestant church which combined their enthusiasm for Christianity with their enthusiasm for Nazi ideology. Beginning in 1932, the year before Hitler’s rise to power, they seized upon Martin Luther’s antisemitism to separate Christianity from its Jewish roots and they began to identify Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement as a new revelation from God. In 1933, when they called for application of the “Aryan Paragraph” within the church—the removal of a tiny number of Christians of Jewish descent who worked as pastors, organists, or otherwise in the church—and even for the removal of the Old Testament from the Christian Bible, a quarrel developed between these Deutsche Christen and the group which became known as the Confessing Church.
Martin Niemöller led the first protest against these heresies, focusing upon his belief that baptism and ordination trumped Jewish descent. The church could not impose the “Aryan Paragraph” on clergy without denying their own sacraments and the equality of Christians under God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth both became supporters of Niemöller’s “Pastors’ Emergency League.” In May 1934 Barth wrote the Barmen Declaration, a series of six statements condemning specific teachings of the Deutsche Christen. This document became the foundation of the Confessing Church, the set of beliefs which they confessed. One searches the Barmen Declaration in vain for any statement of political opposition to Adolf Hitler or the Nazi state. Jews are not even mentioned, nor is there any allusion to German persecution of Jews, though much persecution had occurred already by May 1934. We know from the records of the meeting at Barmen that this statement intentionally and successfully reached out for the support of committed Nazis within the clergy. Barmen was a theological statement against the Deutsche Christen, not a political statement against the Nazi state.
The quarrel between members of the Confessing Church and the Deutsche Christen continued throughout the Nazi period. The latter group controlled the national church administration through the election of Ludwig Müller as Reich Bishop in 1933. They increased their efforts to “de-judaize” Christianity, even creating an institute for that purpose in 1939. This “Institute for Research on and Removal of Jewish Influence in German Church Life” produced a very small, de-judaized Bible, cutting large swaths from the New Testament as well as removing the entire Old Testament. Walter Grundmann, director of the institute, spearheaded the effort to establish an “Aryan Jesus,” trying to prove Jesus’ non-Jewish bloodlines. Susannah Heschel has just produced a book with Princeton University Press, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, which describes this strange foray into antisemitically-motivated theology.
Despite the intense efforts of Deutsche Christen to take over the Protestant church in Germany, their extreme theological views alienated many and kept them from ever counting more than a third of the church within their camp. The Confessing Church held the loyalty of 20% of Protestants, which means it could hardly be considered the voice of Christianity in the Nazi state. Furthermore, as Wolfgang Gerlach has shown, the Confessing Church showed very little sympathy for Jews or opposition to Jewish persecution. Otto Dibelius, one of their leaders, announced to pastors in his region as early as 1928, “I have always considered myself an antisemite.” Though he achieved great fame after 1945, including a stint as President of the World Council of Churches, he supported and defended Hitler and the Nazi state. When British and American Christians in 1933 protested the first Nazi mistreatment of Jews, Dibelius pleaded with them to cease their protest, arguing that they could not understand the threat represented to Germany by the “Jewish problem.” Martin Niemöller also supported Hitler, along with his brother Wilhelm, who had been a Nazi Party member since 1923. It took political interference into church affairs before the Niemöller’s rethought their stance. By contrast, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer disliked Hitler from the beginning; but they represented a very small minority within the Confessing Church.
Gerhard Kittel is a figure who, unfortunately, tells us something about the middle ground between Confessing Church and Deutsche Christen. He was heavily drawn to the Deutsche Christen and shared their enthusiasm for the Nazi state. However, he could not accept their radical theological ideas, such as removing the Old Testament from the Bible. He would not give up his rather traditional approach to theology. He also must have been influenced by his eminent father, Rudolf Kittel, who had provided the modern translation of the Old Testament. This version, commonly called the “Kittel Bible,” was used by Jews as well as Christians. Gerhard Kittel did not follow exactly in his father’s footsteps, for he became a New Testament theologian; but he too made his name by using his knowledge of Judaism and the Hebrew language. He wrote important books in the 1920s on the importance of Jewish religious beliefs in understanding Jesus’ teachings. This scholarship gained him a chair in the prestigious theological faculty at Tübingen University and he became the founding editor of a major reference work widely used to this day, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
Gerhard Kittel joined the Nazi Party in the spring of 1933. He soon gave a public lecture on “The Jewish Question,” which went to three editions in its published version. Kittel then became a charter member in a Nazi think tank, Walter Frank’s “Institute for the History of the New Germany,” and he proved to be the most prolific author in its “Research Section on the Jewish Question.” From 1933 to 1945 Gerhard Kittel justified the Nazi persecution of Jews with speeches, articles, and books. In all of this work he tried to show how and why Jews represented a danger to Germany and to the Western world.
Kittel claimed that Jews in the Old Testament had been a healthy people, but that they had degenerated over time. With the diaspora, which developed between the fifth century BCE and the fifth century CE, Jews had become a dangerous minority wherever they lived. Consistent with Nazi ideology, Kittel described Jews as a “mongrel race” carelessly intermarrying with non-Jews. When they lost their “healthy tie” to their own nation and their own soil, they become morally decadent, he claimed. Kittel even accepted the antisemitic stereotype perpetuated by the famous forgery, The Protocol of the Elders of Zion, arguing that sinister Jews were plotting to take over the world. As early as his Tübingen speech in 1933, Kittel warned Christians not to be deterred by sympathy or pity. God did not ask them to be “sentimental” or “soft,” but to face up to the task as harshly as necessary. Even if “the whole world screams at us of barbarism,” Kittel wrote, Germans should hold firm, for it was not anyone else’s business how Germany regulated is “cultural affairs.”
As late as 1944, Kittel praised Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies, even though he knew at least by 1943 that large numbers of Jews were being murdered on the Eastern Front. In a lecture at the University of Vienna, Kittel bragged that Christians had long recognized the danger of Jews and kept them safely restrained by ghetto walls. With the Enlightenment, however, the democratic ideal of religious tolerance released Jews from all legal restraint. Now Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had risen up as a bulwark alongside the Christian church to protect Western Christendom against the Jewish menace.
Not all “good Germans” were as flagrantly hostile to Jews as Gerhard Kittel. However, most of them seem to have welcomed the rise of Adolf Hitler and accepted his harsh policies, including his persecution of Jews. I do not have time in this lecture to try to explain why this occurred. It certainly included a sense of national humiliation and anger after Germany’s defeat in World War I and it included a fear that financial crises during the Weimar Republic could not be resolved by a democratic government. Most good Germans were happy to accept the nationalistic militarism proposed by Hitler and they were willing to rationalize and justify policies that we today condemn as entirely unacceptable.
The Germany which accepted Adolf Hitler was a Christian nation, home to the Protestant Reformation and to the most famous Christian theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was also a cultural giant, home to Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Schiller. By the nineteenth century, Germany had arguably the best universities in the world. Despite all of these things we admire, Germans accepted Hitler and perpetrated the Holocaust. It is a story to ponder.
Further reading on this topic can be found in the following books, among others:
Bergen, Doris. Twisted Cross:The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
Ericksen, Robert P. Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
________, Complicity in the Killing? German Churches, German Universities, and the Holocaust (forthcoming in 2009).
________ and Susannah Heschel, eds. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1999).
Gerlach, Wolfgang. And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of Jews (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).
Heschel, Susannah. The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).