Protestantism, Luther, and the rise of Nazi Germany

I have been reading through William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. The earliest copyright is 1959 (published a year after Pius XII’s death and four years before Rolf Hochhuth’s “The Deputy” which started the black legend against Pius). I am struck by how much he blames Luther and subsequent Protestantism on the rise of Nazi Germany. He lists that Luther’s bitter antisemitism is rivaled only by the Nazi era. Also, Luther’s teachings on the relation of church to the state, according to Shirer, made Germany ripe for the kind of totalitarian government adopted by the Nazis.

Here is a quote that I have transcribed from an audio book I am listening to:

“It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants during the time of Nazi Germany without understanding two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. To avoid any misunderstanding, it might be well to point out here that the author is a Protestant. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate antisemit and a verocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany ride of the Jews, and when they were sent away, he advised that they be deprived of all their cash, jewels, silver and gold. That their synagogs be schools set on fire, that their houses be broken up and destroyed, that they be but out from under roof and stable like the Gypsee, in misery and captivity and they incessantly complain to God about us. Advice that was literally followed four centuries later by Goring and Hitler.”

In the only popular revolt of Germany, the Peasant Uprising of 1525, Luther advised the princes to adopt the most ruthless measures against the “mad dogs” as he described the German peasants. Here as in his utterances against the Jews, Luther employed a coarseness and brutality of language unequaled in German history until the Nazi time. The influence of this towering figure extended down the generations in Germany. Especially among the protestants…apart from Tzarist Russia, in no country had the clergy become so politically servile to the state as did the German Protestant clergy. The Protestant clergy opposed the Weimar Republic, mostly because it drew its support from the Catholics and the socialists… Most of the Protestant pastors welcomed the advent of Hitler to the Chancellorship in 1933."

It just amazes me that this train of thought seems absolutely non-existent after Shirer’s work, but at the same time Catholicism has been so bitterly attacked. Perhaps it is the very fragmented nature of Protestantism that makes it impossible for many of them to express any shame or remorse over what happened in Germany. “It wasn’t my church, etc…” It is only on account of the cohesive nature of Catholicism that we, in a corporate and collective way, can express shame that we did not do more to stop the Nazi rise to power, or do more for the Jews and those exterminated in the Nazi death camps or forced sterilization.

Are there any Protestant books that look on this period of history with the same level of conscience searching as can be found in Catholic book stores or as demonstrated by subsequent Popes? This is not an attack on Protestantism. I am truly interested to see if my impression is wrong.

God bless,
Ut

I’ve looked for books on this topic as I have had the same thoughts as Shirer. The birthplace of Protestantism as the location of the Nazi Reich certainly seems like more than mere coincidence. I haven’t found books similar to what you’re asking. However, there is a book titled Persecution of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich, written anonymously and meticulously chronicling the Nazis’ very bureaucratic persecutions of the Church, which is alarmingly reminiscent of what we’re seeing in the U.S. today- the marginalization of religion as being something that’s only allowed within the walls of the church building.

The problem is that Luther’s writings, while highly offensive today, was not uncommon in his era, within the Catholic Church. Johann Ecke also wrote a highly anti-Judaism book.
While Luther is responsible for what he wrote near the end of his life about the Jews (his earlier writings, and that of other Lutheran reformers were supportive of the Jews, to the point of being criticized as Judaizing), that Hitler chose to use Luther’s writings is Hitler’s responsibility.

Jon

True, but Johann Ecke did not start the protestant reformation. Luther did.

But like I said, this is not an attempt to discredit Protestantism. I’m just pointing out that there seems to be a difference between the historical consciousness of the Catholic Church and an acceptance and awareness of our collective responsibility and failures during the Nazi period as compared to our protestant brothers and sisters. I can point back in time and say, that was my church. But protestants cannot do the same or will not do the same, and so can absolve themselves of any collective responsibility. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Am I making sense?

God bless,
Ut

I don’t know, frankly, what the Lutheran churches in Germany have said or done in this manner, either the Union Church or the independent church (SELK). To the extent that Lutherans in Nazi Germany did not do enough, even with men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer as pastor/example, pan-Lutheranism has a level of responsibility. Maybe Lutherans were not vocal enough in their rejection of Luther’s anti-Judaic writings. We better be today, as even the death of the Nazis does not mean the death of potential despots and tyrants who would use the words of religious leaders of the past for their own goals today.

Jon

I agree that Luther’s writings on the Jews and revolting peasants were absolutely horrific, however it must be taken into account that this was near the end of his life, when he was afflicted by many illnesses and maladies, and, as I have heard it said, possibly even schizophrenia. I tend to view Luther’s overall character as a stubborn, yet well intentioned man, one who tried to seek salvation as best he could, and subsequently was alienated by things he saw as foreign to his “Biblical” theology. This, as I see it, spurred his quest for a meaning to his life, which eventually led him away from the Church and into heresy.

Shirer’s book is incomplete. The “we” part does not not apply to most average citizens. Did Hitler pay for the war out of his own pocket? The British and Americans knew plenty but did little. Wealthy industrialists in Germany and bankers on Wall Street financed Hitler. Without that, whatever he said at speeches requires a balanced look at the whole picture. Eugenics was brought over from America. The Russians, or Bolsheviks, needed to be defeated. Where did the money come from to get German factories going and give people jobs during the First Great Depression?

Peace,
Ed

Little more complicated than the writings of Luther.
At the beginning of the 20th century the idea of a ‘super-race’ was very common and many intellectuals at the time bought into the notion of a supieror race.
Interestingly, white and European.
Many good people were caught up in this fantasy, which culminated in Hitler’s Germany.
Europeans were more influenced by the works of Darwin, which also fed into this theory, than a guy that lived 400+ years before.

I guess you’re right in the sense that most Protestant denominations have no sense of responsibility. I can tell you that among Protestant intellectuals the connections are very well known and very deeply felt–among Reformation scholars, it’s a commonly discussed topic. There’s somewhat of a tendency to get Luther off the hook, but the issue is certainly not ignored. The most famous book on the subject among Reformation scholars is Heiko Oberman’s The Roots of Anti-Semitism. On the one hand, Oberman refutes the common argument that the “young” Luther was friendly to Jews and that Luther’s anti-Judaism was a late development. On the other hand, he puts Luther’s attitudes in context and shows that he was far from unique. Furthermore, Luther’s anti-Judaism was religious, not racial. That was generally the case in the sixteenth century, but not exclusively. Oberman argues that Erasmus, who often “gets a pass” as a voice of tolerance, was actually one of the more anti-Semitic figures of the sixteenth century in the sense that he regarded even Biblical Judaism with distaste. I think Oberman overdoes that one a bit, but it’s an interesting point.

It’s certainly not true that among scholars the Catholic Church is regarded as somehow more to blame than Protestants. At worst, they are blamed equally. One difference is that even in Germany Protestants were divided, with the larger body cooperating totally with the Nazis and the “Confessing Church” resisting them. Catholics did not split, so that those bishops who did collaborate can be used to tar all Catholics (whereas with Protestants, the Confessing Church clearly separated itself from the “German Christians”). That’s unfair, though, since the reverse is also true–Catholicism as a whole did not succumb wholesale to Nazism, which the major institutional expressions of German Protestantism certainly did.

One misconception that Catholics do engage in, I think, is that Germany was mostly Protestant. Large parts of Germany were and are Catholic, and Nazism actually originated in Bavaria, which was Catholic. I saw a book a couple of years ago that argued that Catholicism contributed to the early rise of Nazism, but that this Catholicism was a distinctive “German Catholicism” which defied the Vatican on a lot of points (somewhat analogous to what folks on this forum today call “AmChurch”–not in formal schism but resistant to the Vatican in many ways). So it’s complicated.

Edwin

I think it generally not appropriate to blame Protestants for the rise of Hitler. The Catholics were more resistant to Nazism but that does not mean that active Protestants backed the Nazis. The fact is that Hitler was openly anti-Christian and that the modernist decline of Christianity left him an opening. If Germans, both Protestant and Catholic, had stayed active in their faith, Hiltler would not have been able to seize power.

Perhaps it is the very fragmented nature of Protestantism that makes it impossible for many of them to express any shame or remorse over what happened in Germany. “It wasn’t my church, etc…” It is only on account of the cohesive nature of Catholicism that we, in a corporate and collective way, can express shame that we did not do more to stop the Nazi rise to power, or do more for the Jews and those exterminated in the Nazi death camps or forced sterilization.

Maybe. But demanding that Lutherans today apologize or express shame for what SOME Lutherans did 80 years ago is silly.

It’s also silly that some demand the same of Catholics.

Why is it that the Anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany and that of Spain ( When she expelled the Jews in 1492) is always cited but no one refers to the expulsion of the Jews by the English in 1210? No Jews were allowed into England for about 300 years after that.
Interestingly, it was the Moslem Caliphate in Turkey that took in the expelled Jews from both England and Spain.
And why is it that almost no one remarks on the fact that the Moslem Imams in the Near and Mid East, notably in Palestine and in Iraq/Iran sided with Hitler? The argument that their pro-Nazi stance was a form of anti-colonialism just doesn’t wash.

Actually they did. Quite a lot of them, and quite openly and unapologetically. Some of the major theologians and scholars of the time are tainted by this–and some of them were Catholics (Karl Adam and Joseph Lortz, for instance, though according to this article Lortz retracted his support for Nazism in the mid-1930s and Adam criticized its pagan elements). However, Protestant support for Nazism was much more widespread and unqualified, I believe.

Edwin

Agreed. I am happy to hear that you have a concept of pan-Lutheranism. Frankly, we need to expand it to a pan-Christianism that includes both Catholicism and Protestantism. Could we have done more had we acted with one voice? Who knows. But I think instead of seeking who is to blame, maybe the focus should be, what more could we have done.

I don’t know how we can achieve this with a myopic historical vision that constantly looks for good guys and bad guys in each other. As you mentioned, there were plenty of racist Catholics at the time of Luther. There is a current of evil there that spans denominational boundaries.

God bless,
Ut

Interesting. I don’t have much of a background in the history of the reformation. It would be nice if we could discount such sparks of evil as products of mental illness. I’m thinking of Hitler’s rise to power. Before 1933 he had threatened on record to blow his brains out three times, or to kill anyone who got in his way. If that wasn’t a sign of mental illness, I don’t know what is. It is hard though, to draw a line between evil and insanity.

God bless,
Ut

Here, the issue must be brought up again. Hitler did not seize anything. The Nazi Party was hanging by a thread when others decided Hitler would make a good front man for the people and be their spokesmen while they profited from the war. In the beginning, no one knew what to make of Hitler or what his future plans were. The outlines were there but certain actions had not yet been taken. The Reichstag fire was blamed on the Communists. And Hitler followed the writing of Henry Ford in America who published a book titled, The International Jew - The World’s Foremost Problem. Hitler then delivered to Mr. Ford, Germany’s highest civilian award and wished he could send his Brown Shirts to help him.

amazon.com/Lutherans-Against-Hitler-Untold-Story/dp/0758608772/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382145206&sr=1-4&keywords=hitler+protestants

amazon.com/Fabricated-Luther-Refuting-Connections-Modern/dp/0758608551/ref=sr_1_59?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382145482&sr=1-59&keywords=hitler+protestants

Peace,
Ed

I suppose one can look at institutional expressions of churches and see how things went wrong at that level. Perhaps Hitler played on the denominational malleability of Protestantism. I think, though, that any committed Christian must have found it increasingly difficult to live in Hitler’s German Christian church. But after a certain point, it became nearly impossible to resist him. Any spark of dissension was meet with brutal reprisal.

It is good for me to remember that there are Protestant intellectuals. I was educated in an Anglican university with a strong high Anglican presence on campus. One of my best teachers was an expert in Dante, Robert Crouse. There was certainly a strong sense of history there.

One misconception that Catholics do engage in, I think, is that Germany was mostly Protestant. Large parts of Germany were and are Catholic, and Nazism actually originated in Bavaria, which was Catholic. I saw a book a couple of years ago that argued that Catholicism contributed to the early rise of Nazism, but that this Catholicism was a distinctive “German Catholicism” which defied the Vatican on a lot of points (somewhat analogous to what folks on this forum today call “AmChurch”–not in formal schism but resistant to the Vatican in many ways). So it’s complicated.

Edwin

Agreed. Pope Benedict is an example of one forced to enter into the Hitler youth, but I am sure there were others who embraced the HItler hype. Cardinal Galen is a good example of one who resisted.

God bless,
Ut

Where did you read that? You know about the Reichskonkordat? Here is the text.

clclibrary-org.tripod.com/VonPap.html

Peace,
Ed

I’m not sure what you are saying. Can you clarify?

God bless,
Ut

Ut,
do you agree with the analysis offered in the book? he was roundly criticized at the time but he did have a front and center seat in being a journalist in germany during that time.
I think I will get the book on my kindle and read it.

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