German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 2: Heinrich von Treitschke

In his posthumous work Politik, the famed German historian and political commentator Heinrich von Treitschke (1834–1896) wrote that those preaching the doctrine of eternal peace did not understand the essence of the Aryan life.[1] The true German spirit, argued von Treitschke, was represented not through turning the other cheek but through the image of the war hero who valiantly overcame all attempts to contain his spirit in the mediocrity of the age and instead strove for glory and majesty. Von Treitschke’s writings extol the moral virtue of war as an inevitable element in the struggle for national greatness, and in so doing offer a justification for military conflict as an ongoing necessity in the struggle for German colonization. Within this militarised environment the weak states would be swept away under the unstoppable force of German heroism and in their place would lie a transformed Germany marked by racial purity and nationalistic vigour. It is von Treitschke’s twin emphases on social Darwinism and anti-Semitism which make him a particularly important figure in relation to the study of the Third Reich period, upon which he was a notable influence.[2] As a distinguished professor, von Treitschke is also important in establishing the academic credibility of anti-Semitism within bourgeois society. 

The son of a Saxon general, von Treitschke studied history and politics at the Universities of Leipzig and Bonn under the mentorship of the esteemed German historian Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann. Von Treitschke eventually achieved the academic title of Privatdozent and went on to teach History at the Universities of Freiburg, Keil, Heidelberg, and Berlin.[3] Von Treitschke’s personality and breadth of historical knowledge ensured he was popular with students, who were often mesmerized by the passion and stridency of his political views and were known to burst spontaneously into approving applause at the end of a political monologue.[4] A vehement critic of German liberalism, von Treitschke was initially reserved in his anti-Semitism. Like many in the German intelligentsia, von Treitschke found the obscene rhetoric of contemporary anti-Semitic intellectuals undignified. He remained for a time disapproving of anti-Jewish discrimination, fearing that it would lead to their ostracization from wider German society. For von Treitschke, the isolation of certain ethnic and religious groups threatened the ongoing process of unification under the banner of a shared German identity and would prevent Jews from acquiring the “joyful feeling of national pride.”[5] Theoretically, von Treitschke appeared to accept that the Jews could be considered legitimate Germans, making him somewhat more nuanced than other anti-Semitic intellectuals of the time.[6]

Yet these indications of an early tolerance toward the Jews were to harden throughout the 1870s. Throughout this decade von Treitschke’s own feelings toward the Jews became infected with the paranoia of the day. Within von Treitschke’s increasingly radicalised thought, liberalism was identified as the ideological tool being used by the Jews to undermine national strength and unity. He became suspicious of the Jewish “clan” mentality which would have a “negative, dissolving” influence on the national struggle for a united Germany.[7] Furthermore, von Treitschke’s polemic against the Jews began to reflect distinctly racial themes. This is revealed in his concern that the physical proximity of the Jews to the healthy Germans was have a deleterious effect: “Whenever he finds his life sullied by the filth of Judaism,” von Treitschke remarked, “the German must turn from it, and learn to speak the truth boldly.”[8]

Von Treitschke promoted his opinions through his classroom lectures, his involvement in national politics,[9] and his writing. Of his published works, the most infamous is an anti-Semitic pamphlet published in the Preußische Jahrbücher (Prussian Yearbooks), of which he was an editor. The original article first appeared in January 1880 and was supplemented by two later articles, eventually being published together as Ein Wort über unser Judenthum (A Word about Our Jews). The pamphlet begins with von Treitschke’s response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism within German society, the character of which is described as a repulsive, violent uprising of “mob instinct.”[10] Despite the nature of this anti-Semitism being at significant variance with the more refined tastes of a University Professor, von Treitschke understood this new form of virulent anti-Semitism as ultimately grounded in truth. Von Treitschke’s immediate grievance lies in his response to the seemingly unstoppable immigration of Eastern European Jews into German territory. Dismissing the French and English for their lack of insight into the immigration problem facing Germany, von Treitschke poses a question to his readers which forms the crux of his anti-Semitic position: how were Germans to assimilate this “alien nation?” In one of his most infamous quotations, von Treitschke describes the immigration question as a national crisis and the negative reaction of ordinary Germans toward this “barbarian” invasion inevitable:

Year after year over our Eastern frontier, from the inexhaustible Polish cradle there comes, forcing their way in, a host of pushful, trouser-selling youths whose children and children’s children are one day to dominate Germany’s stock-exchanges and newspapers; the invasion increases visibly, and ever more serious becomes the problem as to how we can ever manage their alien Volkstum with ours … the Jews are our misfortune.[11]

As von Treitschke understood it, the solution to the seemingly irreconcilable clash of cultures was for the Jews themselves to become more tolerant of German culture. Echoing de Lagarde’s mantra that the task was to “become a German and nothing but a German,”[12] von Treitschke understood fidelity to national identity as overriding all other cultural or ethnic distinctions.[13] Unlike de Lagarde, however, von Treitschke did not consider himself anti-Semitic in a strictly racial sense, although he was certainly capable of using rhetoric congruent with biologically informed anti-Semitism. Rather, he saw his own views as having been shaped by the immediate context of mass immigration and potential cultural collapse.[14] Allowing for a degree of inherent anti-Jewishness which had been a feature within Europe for centuries,[15] von Treitschke’s polemic appears less about race and more about cultural integration.[16]

Critical reception to Ein Wort über unser Judenthum was divided. Von Treitschke enjoyed popular support from within various student groups (e.g., Burschenschafften) and ideological sympathizers, but his rhetoric alienated those who found his anti-Semitic pronouncements unnecessarily inflammatory. A Berlin University colleague named Theodor Mommsen became a vocal opponent of von Treitschke’s provocative approach to the Jewish question and was a reminder that the academy itself was by no means uniform in its position on the Jews. Widely respected for his five-volume The History of Rome, Mommsen accused von Treitschke of pandering to the supporters of more extreme forms of anti-Semitism. He argued instead for a more considered and temperate view based on historical precedent.[17] While Mommsen’s own anti-Semitism is evident,[18] he nevertheless conceded that there were ethnic Germans who also displayed the anti-social and undesirable traits of which he presumed the Jews were most guilty. Further, Mommsen argued that von Treitschke’s depiction of a mass flood of Eastern European Jews into Germany was simply not true, and that the alleged immigration issue was invented as a propaganda tool. In response to Mommsen’s umbrage von Treitschke maintained his original position with even greater steadfastness, suggesting that the Jews were attempting to create a parallel nation within Germany and that the only responsible course of action for ordinary Germans was to respond to this subversion with passionate activism:

Whoever wants to be considered a man will never cease to toil for the unity of Germany. A heart glowing with passion, a mind cold and clear, a sober assessment of the prevailing power factors—this is the only fitting attitude for the patriot of a nation which is struggling for its very existence … An arduous task of political education still lies before us.[19]  

Where did the Christian Church fit into von Treitschke’s understanding of the “Jewish question” and the need for national reform? Unlike de Lagarde, von Treitschke assumed an inalienable link between the German reformation and nationalistic ideology, seeing Luther as the ideal Germanic-German who was legitimized by God to lead the nation.[20]For von Treitschke, the spirit of the Reformation and the nationalistic impulse were sacred and represented two different manifestations of the same holy ideals. The close bond between reformed Christianity and the German Volk made it nearly impossible to consider the possibility of a Jewish–German identity. Such an idea was an affront to the glorious history of German civilization, which struggled throughout numerous wars and battles to establish its autonomy.[21] To become fully German meant that one should shed the old wineskin of Judaism and embrace the Christianity of the Volk. This reiterates von Treitschke’s view that, where possible, the conversion of Jews to German Christianity should be actively encouraged to foster national unity. The issue of the Jewish origins of Christianity was resolved through von Treitschke refusal to acknowledge the ongoing legitimacy of Judaism as an integral component of Christian theology:

Every young spiritual power that defeated the older one is itself the offspring of its enemy. The greatness of the Christian doctrine now lies in the fact that, although it emerged from Judaism, it overcame Semitism became a global church.[22]

These exercises in uncritical theologizing would serve as a template for many scholars within the Third Reich era who took it upon themselves to proclaim that Jesus Christ was Aryan and that the advent of Gentile Christianity represented the spiritual negation of Judaism.   

Irrespective of such proclamations, von Treitschke was generally more concerned with the realm of realpolitik than he was in articulating a theological justification for anti-Semitism.[23] Nevertheless, a knowledge of von Treitschke’s immediate and long-term impact is vital for our understanding of the nature of the Church and anti-Semitism within the Third Reich period. There are three important reasons for this. First, von Treitschke is responsible for popularising the idea that the Jews represented a threat to German culture. This was achieved in his long-enduring maxim that the Jews were Germany’s “misfortune.”[24] This particular phrase resounded in popular culture throughout the following decades and was eventually co-opted by Nazi publisher Julius Streicher as the slogan of his notorious, hate-filled newspaper Der Stürmer.[25] Second, von Treitschke’s belief in the honour and necessity of war as a means of achieving national goals was a philosophical concept which was to receive increasing acceptance throughout the following century. The increasing militarization of German society throughout the Nazi-era[26] is a testament to the strength of the legacy left by von Treitschke, who once nihilistically proclaimed that “God will see to it that war always recurs as a drastic medicine for the human race.”[27] Such bleak and violent worldviews would become an actuality in the devastating racial and expansionist policies of the Third Reich. Third, von Treitschke played an instrumental role in lending credibility to the pursuit of academically informed anti-Semitism, even if this may not have been his primary goal. It was the anti-Semitic work of von Treitschke which inspired the formation of the Verein deustcher Studenten (Union of German Students) in 1881, whose purpose was to explore further the Jewish question in relation to Germanic identity and culture. The development of such groups is a testament to the resurgence of conservative nationalist ideology in the 1880s, and von Treitschke’s esteem as a credible, well-respected scholar helped legitimize the Jewish question as one of vital academic concern.[28] This approach was a further step in the project of establishing the Jewish question as one of necessity for all Germans, not just those with an interest in politics. 

Notes


[1] Heinrich Von Treitschke, Politics, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 1:65–68, 2:597–99. 

[2] Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 23, 181; Götz Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust, trans. Jefferson Chase (New York: Metropolitan, 2014), 128; Richard Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb! The German Evangelical Church and the Jews 1879–1950 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976), 20; S.K. Padover, “Treitschke: Forerunner of Hitlerism,” Pacific Historical Review 4 (1935): 161–70.

[3] For a biographical summary of von Treitschke’s early life, see H.W.C. Davis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (London: Constable and Company, 1914), 1–9.   

[4] Andreas Dorpalen, Heinrich von Treitschke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 46, 277. 

[5] Heinrich von Treitschke, Deutsche Kämpfe. Neue Folge: Schriften zur Tagespolitik, ed. Erich Liesegang (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1896), 21–28, 62–63, 136–38. 

[6] Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 12. Walter Boelich, ed. Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit (Frankfurt: Insel, 1965), 10. The complexities of von Treitschke’s anti-Semitism can be contrasted with the more extreme views of teacher and activist Bernhard Förster, who described the Jews as a parasite on the German body. See Hannu Salmi, “Die Sucht Nach Dem Germanischen Ideal,” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, 6 (1994): 485–96. 

[7] Walter Gurian, “Antisemitism in Modern Germany,” in Essays on Antisemitism, ed. Koppel S. Pinson (New York: Horney, 1946), 230. 

[8] See P.G.J. Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (New York: Wiley, 1964), 250. 

[9] Von Treitschke was a member of the German Reichstag from 1871 to 1884, although his influence was limited due to his almost total deafness. 

[10] Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 9.

[11] Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 9, 13. 

[12] Universitätsarchiv Göttingen, Lagarde 150:1160. 

[13] For an extended discussion on von Treitschke’s views on Jewish ethnic and religious conversion, see George Y. Kohler, “German Spirit and Holy Ghost-Treitschke’s Call for Conversion of German Jewry,” Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience 30 (2010): 172–95. 

[14] In reflecting on the raucous agitation of contemporary antisemitic protests, von Treitschke wrote that it was a “natural reaction of the Germanic national feeling against an alien element which has usurped too much space in our life.” See Marcel Stoetzler, The State, the Nation and the Jews: Liberalism and the Antisemitism Dispute in Bismarck’s Germany (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 37–38. 

[15] For a thorough treatment of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, see especially William I. Brustein, Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[16] Gutteridge maintains that von Treitschke did not, in fact, consider himself anti-Semitic. See Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 15. 

[17] See Hans Liebeschütz, “Treitschke and Mommsen on Jewry and Judaism,” LBI Year Book VII (1962): 153–82. 

[18] In The History of Rome, Mommsen describes the ancient Jews as an element of “national decomposition,” a claim he repeated about the contemporary Jewish question (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, 5 vols. [London: Macmillan, 1905], 5:419). See also: Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 15.   

[19] Heinrich von Treitschke, Historische und Politische Aufsätze (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1865), 513.  

[20] In the arrival of Luther, von Treitschke saw the German people as becoming a “new Israel.” Luther represented the salvation of the German people and their liberation from the tyranny of the Roman Church. See Heinrich von Treitschke, History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, 7 vols. (New York: McBride, Nast & Company, 1915), 1:4. See also Clemens Vollnhals, “Nationalprotestantische Traditionen und das euphorische Aufbruchserlebnis der Kirchen im Jahr 1933,” in Christlicher Antisemitismus im 20. Jahrhundert: Der Tübinger Theologe und “Judenforscher” Gerhard Kittel, ed. Manfred Gailus and Clemens Vollnhals (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2020), 47.    

[21] Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 79–92. 

[22] As quoted in Boehlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismusstreit, 89–9. On von Treitschke’s disavowal of the Old Testament, Kohler argues that von Treitschke believed that true Christianity had overcome Judaism, and that its holy literature had been purged of all Semitic influence (“German Spirit and Holy Ghost,” 177). 

[23] On von Treitschke’s understanding of Realpolitik, see Karl H. Metz, “The Politics of Conflict: Heinrich von Treitschke and the Idea of ‘Realpolitik,’” History of Political Thought 3 (1982): 269–84.

[24] Von Treitschke, Der Berliner Antisemitismussreit, 9, 13.

[25] Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 17. 

[26] For a perceptive review of Nazi militarisation of German public life, see Albert Salomon, “The Spirit of the Soldier and Nazi Militarism,” Social Research 9 (1942): 82–103.  

[27] Heinrich von Treitschke, Politik (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1899–1900), 76.

[28] The scholarly legitimization of anti-Semitism was a process rather than an instantaneous event. Gutteridge writes that in the initial stages it was “a shock to the intelligent public that anti-Semitism had won a foothold in Berlin University, and that anti-Jewish propaganda was now being disseminated from so distinguished a professorial chair as well as from the pulpit and the political platform” (Open Thy Mouth, 15).   

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German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 1: Paul de Lagarde

Welcome to the first in my new series, which aims to introduce readers to some key figures responsible for the development of anti-Semitic philosophy and ideology in late-19th century Germany.

Each of these authors, intellectuals, and activists played a role in shaping the anti-Semitic climate of the late 19th century and beyond. In many cases, their influence extended into the National Socialist era in a direct way, as in case of Theodor Fristch and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. In others, this influence was indirect, and felt primarily through the appropriation of their written works by Nazi ideologues. In this first instalment I profile the life and work of the cantankerous scholar Paul de Lagarde, whose vision for a new Germanic religion was fueled by an anti-Semitism with distinctly racial overtones.

Paul de Lagarde’s Germanic Volk Religion

The respected 19th century German orientalist Paul de Lagarde once claimed to sum up the national mood when he wrote that the German people “do not want the Jews to be allowed to live together with them.” Giving expression to an emotional and psychological anxiety that was all too eager to indulge in scapegoating, de Lagarde blamed the Jews for all manner of national ills. Chief amongst these complaints was his firm conviction that the Jews were parasitical in nature and were thus draining the lifeforce from Germany. For de Lagarde, the ongoing presence of Jews was undermining the purity of racial and spiritual strength of the German Volk. “Every Jew,” he wrote, “is proof of the enfeeblement of our national life and the worthlessness of what we call the Christian religion.” De Lagarde’s anti-Semitism was a foundational element in his vision for a mystical, romanticised German religion that would signal a return to the “primeval voice of nature.”[1] He represents a particularly unique voice in the lexicon of late-19th century conservative intellectuals for both the harshness of his anti-Semitism as well as his call for a new religion to form the basis of a new state.[2]  

The trajectory of de Lagarde’s life offers insight into the formation of his often-contradictory intellectual views as well as the stridency of his personality. Born in Berlin as Paul Bötticher in 1827, de Lagarde’s early years were marred by tragedy and difficulty. His mother died during his birth, leaving him to be raised by his strict disciplinarian father. The emotional isolation of this experience resulted in an increasing sense of loneliness and homeless, which in turn corresponded with the formation of a personality marked by stubbornness, arrogance, and an embedded sense of being at war with a cold and careless world. In 1854, the twenty-seven-year-old was officially adopted by his maternal great-Aunt, an event which finally conferred a longed-for sense of legitimacy and which represented the possibility of a new beginning free from the oppressive and stifling presence of his father. As a symbol of his fresh start, the surname Bötticher was officially changed to de Lagarde.[3]

De Lagarde’s intellectual development reflected something of the uncertainty and difficulty of his upbringing. De Lagarde studied philosophy, theology, and languages at the University of Berlin, receiving his first doctorate in philosophical studies in 1849. De Lagarde earned a second doctorate from the University of Halle in 1851, after which he received a scholarship from the King of Prussia to study oriental manuscripts at the British Museum Library. Fully expecting to merge seamlessly from his studies into a professional academic career, de Lagarde’s expectations were dashed as he found the transition difficult and without quick success. Part of this difficulty can be ascribed to de Lagarde’s cantankerous and belligerent streaks, which generated conflicts with professional colleagues and those within the academy.[4] From a practical perspective, his perceived rejection by the academic elite meant de Lagarde was forced to seek alternate means of employment. He eventually decided to settle for a role as a preparatory schoolteacher, with his scholarly projects being relegated to a hobby status. Only a few select articles were admitted for publication during this time. This period in de Lagarde’s life, however, is vital for understanding the vehemency of his later work. De Lagarde’s experiences of rejection, both within his family home and by the academic community, created the conditions necessary for political dogmatism and scapegoating.

Despite a reluctant acknowledgment of the honourable role of the Prussian statesman von Bismarck in securing the unification of the German states in 1871, de Lagarde strongly believed that von Bismarck had neglected to acknowledge and deal with the increasing dominance of the Jews within Germany society, a theme which would occupy much of de Lagarde’s future polemical writings. De Lagarde eventually secured a professorship at the University of Göttingen in 1869, taking over from the orientalist and theologian Heinrich Ewald. Yet even his entry into the academic world was marred by feelings of rejection and inadequacy, which according to Bernhard Maier manifested in “histrionic self-dramatization.”[5]  Ewald had resented de Lagarde, possibly on account of his own forced retirement from the University. This toxic dynamic enhanced de Lagarde’s own sense of academic fraudulence and illegitimacy and a corresponding rise in polarising and combative behaviour can be observed. Throughout his tenure as Professor, de Lagarde managed to offend and ostracise many of his professional colleagues, and he became known as something of a notoriously difficult personality, even if a degree of respect was allowed for his important translations of various Syriac and Aramaic texts.[6] As Professor, he was viewed with reservations by his students, who described him as having a hysterical streak and a propensity to speak in broad terms about subjects with which he had no professional experience.[7] His reputation for rudeness, stubbornness, and dishonesty meant that his experience with academic life was largely lonely, and de Lagarde appeared to have internalised his loneliness as a symbol of his own righteousness and exceptionality amidst a climate of mediocrity. De Lagarde’s aloofness within the academy was attested to by Göttingen university student Theodor Nöldeke, who spoke of de Lagarde’s commitment to a lofty romantic idealism, which was considered a somewhat passé attribute in a scholarly discipline (Oriental linguistic studies) dedicated to the rigors of the scientific method.[8] In coming years, it was the romantic ideal which would prove the most powerful of de Lagarde competing drives, and his credibility as an Oriental scholar was to soon superseded by his outspoken political commentary.

Nöldeke observed in de Lagarde a “burning ambition which has never been satisfied,” and it is perhaps his insatiable need for recognition and professional expansion which led the Orientalist to consider channelling his scholarly abilities toward the political sphere. Assuming the role of frustrated cultural Prophet, de Lagarde began expressing his loathing of the current state of German culture and politics, which he felt was heading toward an imminent collapse of apocalyptic proportions. The Kaiserreich and its Prussian emperor King Wilhelm I represented for de Lagarde a fundamental betrayal of Germanic identity. Instead of advocating for the autonomy and distinctiveness of the German Volk, it had instead become a mere federal state under the control of Prussia. Such political shifts threatened to level cultural distinctiveness and replace it with an enforced pan-European homogeneity. The remedy to the cultural calamity facing Germany was to identify and attack the source of the menace and advocate for a cultural rebirth similar in concept to the theological notion of being born again (cf. John 3). The ultimate goal, de Lagarde articulated, was for each individual“to become a German and nothing but a German.”[9]

Under the corrupted political conditions of the Kaiserreich, the process of individual Germanisation was certainly not inevitable, even for naturalised Germans who had been endowed by Providence with an inner “drive toward truth.”[10] What was required was a fresh commitment to the German Volk as the primary lens through which all other aspects of life were viewed. According to de Lagarde, the dual threat of Judaism and Liberalism represented the internally destructive forces through which the spirit of the German Volk was being eradicated in pursuit of profit, materialism, and superficiality. De Lagarde blamed Jews for inventing the stock market as a deliberate way of enslaving the world and demonising the lower and middle classes, who were capitalism’s inevitable victims. In language evocative of the racial anti-Semitism of Hitler’s National Socialism, de Lagarde described the Jews as a bacterium that could not be negotiated away. The only possible solution was extermination.[11]

De Lagarde’s most significant work is Deutsche Schriften (German Writings), which is an eclectic collection of essays documenting his bold transformation from a linguistic theorist to a political and religious commentator. First appearing in 1879 and running to five editions by 1920, de Lagarde’s overarching purpose here was to advocate for a cultural rebirth which would see the disparate elements of religion, politics, culture, and history united under the banner of a re-awakened German national identity. The assertive reclamation of national identity was a necessary reaction to the loss of nationhood that was a result of the failed experiment of Jewish orchestrated liberalism which had plunged Germany into a materialistic nihilism. Mourning the loss of national autonomy and spiritual vibrancy, de Lagarde saw the contemporary crisis reflected in the educational deficits of German youth, who lacked a firm understanding of German literature and culture, and who had become infected with the plague of boredom.[12] The condition of German youth reflected broader materialism and nihilistic moral decay, in which the rampant individualism of von Bismarck’s liberal agenda diminished the concept of a collective national purpose and responsibility.[13] The liberal fragmentation of life into segments of specialisation meant that there was no concept of an overarching vision or Weltanschauungg. Instead of a shared commitment to co-create the Germany of the future, the spirit of liberalism had fostered national inertia, in which each individual understood themselves as a self-contained universe with no obligations toward anything other than the pursuit of one’s own interests.[14] For de Lagarde, the individual only acted correctly when, in a spirit of idealism, one acts “out of inner needs against his own advantage, his own comfort, and against the world surrounding him.”[15] In these brief words lay the heart of de Lagarde’s nationalistic idealism: the German individual must relinquish self-interest to usher in a new era of German autonomy and distinctiveness.

Throughout Deustche Schriften de Lagarde offers a sustained criticism of the Church, which he felt had become yet another casualty in the Jewish-liberal war on the German Volk. For de Lagarde, the corruption of the Church necessitated its own cultural-religious rebirth so that it could better represent the völkisch Germany of the future. The Church could only be the true Church if it was divorced from its Jewish origins and subservient to the national interest. True Christianity had not yet been realised in the German nation due to the corruption of its institutions, which had inevitably fallen victim to the liberal zeitgeist. Additionally, the very essence of Christianity had been distorted and its dogmas and doctrinal positions infected with Jewish poison. In an 1873 essay titled “On the Relationship of the German State to Theology, Church and Religion: An Attempt to Guide Non-Theologians,” de Lagarde argued that the very basis of Protestantism and Catholicism was compromised due to the corruptive Jewish influence of the apostle Paul.[16] De Lagarde’s harsh criticism of the apostle is worth quoting at some length:

Paul has brought the Old Testament to us in the Church, and through its influence the gospel has been ruined- as far as this is possible. Paul has blessed us with Pharisaic exegesis, which proves anything from anything…Paul has brought us the Jewish sacrificial theory, and everything connected with it. The whole Jewish view of history has been foisted on us by him. He did this against the vigorous opposition of the early Church which, Jewish though it was, thought less Jewishly than did Paul, and who at least did not consider sophisticated Jewishness to be a Gospel sent from God.[17]

De Lagarde’s novel theological reasoning was at significant variance with traditional interpretations, and his dismissal of Paul’s role as a Jewish expositor of the gospel necessitates a disavowal of the significance of the Old Testament in shaping Christian identity. De Lagarde also accused the Church of propagating theological views that had little or no scriptural precedent, including the Trinity and infant baptism. Indeed, so controversial were de Lagarde’s theological positions that Swiss theologian Walter Nigg concluded that the Orientalist cannot have been viewed as anything other than an outsider amongst the Christianity of his time. His revisionist theological agenda and outspoken criticisms of the institutional Church had by necessity opened him up to the charge of heresy.[18] In such radical approaches to theological questions de Lagarde betrayed his own indebtedness to the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who had blamed Paul for the “degeneration of Christianity,”[19] and who accused the Jews of all manner of cultural ills. It was to Fichte’s fierce nationalism that the Nazi party would appeal over a century later to legitimize its congruency with the great German intellectual tradition.[20]

If the traditional understanding of Christianity as having Jewish origins was false, how did de Lagarde conceive of the true nature of Jesus? What did the de-Judaized Jesus look like, and what did he require of humanity? The answer, at least in part, was to conceive of Jesus not in theological and doctrinal categories but as a cosmic energy or life force that inspires feelings of awe, reverence, and mystery. The cosmic Christ cannot be explained through abstract appeals to dubious dogmatic positions but instead must be believed in through an unwavering faith and a commitment to godly action in the here and now. Through the act of creation God instituted the immutable structures of life,[21] and each nation and culture are set apart to fulfill their own unique destiny. The fall represented the entry of evil into the cosmos, which de Lagarde referred to as a dark spirit marching through the world. This evil interrupted the natural order of creation and represented chaos, confusion, and corruption.[22] In this respect the Jews were to be considered as the bearers of God’s holy wrath against evil as they lacked a homeland and were cursed to aimlessly wander the earth.  

The arrival of the gospel in the person of Jesus should not be considered synonymous with “Christianity,” but instead stood quite apart from the phenomena of the institutionalised Church. In its true form, the gospel was an exposition by a religious genius (Jesus) on the laws of the life of the Spirit.[23] In glorifying the death and resurrection Christianity had located its centre of faith in an ancient historical event rather than in the enduring, eternal truths of Jesus’s teaching. De Lagarde, predictably, blamed Paul for this travesty. Paul had infused the gospel with the spirit of Phariseeism and had arrogantly avoided the remaining disciples in pursuit of his own missionary agenda.[24] Ultimately, it was the emphasis on Christ’s ethical and moral teaching which was important for de Lagarde, and this is because it offered clear answers questions about how to best respond the to the challenges of the age. In this sense, Lagarde’s limited Christological understanding reflects the pioneering work of 12th century French abbot Peter Aberlard, whose interpretation of the atonement emphasised the moral aspects of Jesus’s mission.[25] It was the element of praxis within Jesus’s teaching that enabled scholars like de Lagarde to draw inspiration for their own attempts at overthrowing the oppressive and unjust forces of the day (i.e., Judaism and Liberalism). Just as Jesus had subverted the political and religious forces of his time with a call to become born again, so too should individual Germans resist the evil forces of liberalism a become reborn into a true German nation.  

De Lagarde’s political philosophy and theological views offer a striking insight into the role of context as the driving force of his vision for Germany. Observing the climate around him, de Lagarde determined that the liberalism of the von Bismarck era was ultimately fuelled by the external menace of international Jewry. Each segment of public life was corrupted and in need of reform, with educational institutions being particularly notorious co-conspirators in the nation’s downfall. The Church, too, was playing an important part in this process, but was envisaged by de Lagarde as instrumental in shaping a shared Germanic national religion of the future, even though he concurrently felt a disgust at the shallowness of contemporary Protestantism. As has been shown, de Lagarde was by no means universally popular, especially within the academy. His arrogance, insecurity, and bitterness meant that those who encountered him often found his personality nauseating and the extremity of his racist views off-putting.[26] Nevertheless, he was a potent voice amongst a new breed of theologians, philosophers, and political commentators whom each sought a national rebirth free from the destructive forces of Jewish-fuelled liberalism.

The ideological legacy left by de Lagarde was exploited by future National Socialists who were able to appeal to historical congruency to legitimise their own philosophy.[27] An important qualification to this influence has been pointed out by Vincent Viaene, who suggests that de Lagarde’s political and religious philosophy did not hold to the same social-Darwinist assumptions that fuelled Nazi ideology.[28] Nor was de Lagarde’s philosophy inherently nihilistic in the way it conceived of the world. This meant that his solutions to the crisis of “cultural despair” tended to be more constructive when compared to a Nazi cosmology, which understood life as a continuous struggle between the strong and the weak. Being something of an intellectual anathema in his own time, biographer Robert Lougee further points out that the Nazi appropriation of de Lagarde lacked the spiritual depth and warmth that he was occasionally capable of displaying.[29] Instead of being interpreted as a direct influence on the emergence of conversative fascist politics, then, de Lagarde is best viewed as a virulent anti-Semite who captured a mood of discontent and offered a constructive set of proposals to restore the true spiritual foundations of the German Volk. In so doing, he helped foster a longing for cultural redemption which was to be seized upon by the National Socialists in the coming century. 

Notes


[1] Paul de Lagarde, Lebensbild und Auswahl, ed. Klara Boesch (Augsburg: Bärenreiter, 1924), 52. See also George L. Mosse, “The Mystical Origins of National Socialism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (1961): 81–96.

[2] Fritz Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 51.

[3] Bernhard Maier, William Robertson Smith: His Life, His Work and His Times (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 114.

[4] See Richard S. Levy, ed., Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, 2 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 409.

[5] Maier, William Roberts Smith, 115.

[6] Maier, William Robertson Smith, 115.

[7] Maier, William Roberts Smith, 115.

[8] A letter dated 18 February 1883 from Theodor Nöldeke to William R. Smith outlines Nöldeke’s observations about the character of Lagarde. This letter is held by Cambridge University Library in a wider collection of correspondence relating to William R. Smith (CUL 7449 D 511).

[9] See Thomas L. Gertzen, “To Become a German and Nothing but a German…”: The Role of Paul de Lagarde in the Conversion of Egyptologist Georg Steindorff,” The Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 60 (2015): 279–89. 

[10] Stern, Politics, 61–63.

[11] Stern, Politics, 73,

[12] Paul de Lagarde, “Liberalism, Education and the Jews,” in Deutsche Schrifften: Gesammtausgabe letzter Hand, 5th ed. (Göttingen: Becker & Eidner, 1920)

[13] See Robert W. Lougee, Paul de Lagarde, 1827–1891: A Study of Radical Conservatism in Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 260–61.

[14] Stern, Politics, 65.

[15] De Lagarde, Deutsche Schriften, 408.

[16] See Klaus Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. (London: SCM, 1987), 1:81–82

[17] De Lagarde, Deutsche Schriften, 62. 

[18] Walter Nigg, Geschichte des religiösen Liberalismus. Entstehung, Blütezeit, Ausklang (Zürich: Niehans, 1937), 286–88.

[19] See Fichte’s thirteenth lecture in “Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters,” in Fichtes Werke Band VII: Zur Politik, Moral ind Philosophie der Geschichte, ed. I.H. Fichte (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1971), 190.

[20] Fichte’s nationalistic ideology is outlined in his “Addresses to the German Nation,” in which he describes the German nation as “sufficiently united in itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples.” See the thirteenth address in Johann Gottfried Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. Gregory Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[21] A theological position that would be more fully developed in the interwar and Third Reich era by Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus.

[22] Paul de Lagarde, Mittheilungen, 4 vols. (Göttingen: Dietrichsche verlagsbuchhandlung, 1884), 2:75.

[23] Paul de Lagarde, Über das Verhältnis de Deutschenen Staates zu Theologie, Kirche und Religion. Ein Versuch, nicht Theologen zu orientieren (Göttingen: Dietrichsche verlagsbuchhandlung, 1873), 69.  

[24] De Lagarde, Über das Verhältnis, 67.

[25] Abelard’s atonement theory is set out in Peter Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. Steven R. Cartwright (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).

[26] Despite a familiarity with de Lagarde’s written works, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found the racist element of the growing völkisch movement troubling and sought to distance himself from it. See Robert. C. Holub, Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 178.

[27] This is particularly evident in the ideology of Alfred Rosenberg. See Steven E. Aschheim, Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (London: MacMillan, 1996), 61–4.   

[28] Vincent Viaene, “Paul de Lagarde: A Nineteenth-Century “Radical” Conservative — and Precursor of National Socialism?” European History Quarterly 26 (1996):527-557.

[29] Lougee, Paul de Lagarde, 288.

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The “National Socialist Bible” of 1940: An Experiment in Contextualization

The so-called “Nazi Bible” of 1940 was an experiment in theological revision undertaken by scholars attached to the Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life. The Institute, based in the Thüringian town of Eisenach, emerged in 1939 as a centre for research into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. This relationship was of paramount concern within the climate of National Socialism, as many within the Nazi hierarchy believed Christianity to be irreconcilable with the national feeling due to its Jewish origins.[1] Anxious to free Christianity from the “stain” of its Jewish foundations, the Nazi-supporting Institute’s research was understood as an effort toward religious liberation. It also had the secondary aim of transforming the corporate experience of the German church through its production of a “Nazified” catechism and hymnal. 

The Institute cloaked its activities under the veneer of objective, academic “research.” As Susannah Heschel observes in her seminal work on the topic, a recurring motif in the literature produced by the Institute was the concept of an “Aryan” Jesus. Using the very best tools in critical biblical scholarship —tools that were largely developed within the German theological tradition— established scholars such as Walter Grundmann produced monographs, pamphlets, and conferences that expanded on the theme of the racial origins of Jesus and the Germanic foundations of Christianity. An important example of this is Grundmann’s 1940 text Jesus the Galilean and Judaism, in which he suggests that the diverse ethnic Galilean region in the 1st century casts significant doubt on whether Jesus was of Jewish descent.[2]

In contrast to its protestations toward neutral objectivity, the Institute’s research methodology was in praxis guided by a priori ideological commitments. These commitments held that National Socialism, and the person of Adolf Hitler in particular, were divine revelations of God for the age. These beliefs had been clearly expressed in the proclamations of Nazi–supporting theologians in the pre–War period, such as Julius Kuptsch’s conviction that Hitler and Jesus shared an “essential kindredness.”[3] Prior to 1939, many of the Institute’s scholars had been attached to the Thüringian branch of the German Christian movement (the Kirchenbewegung Deutsche Christen, hereafter ‘KDC’).[4] The KDC faction was especially radical in their devotion to National Socialism, and its members displayed a willingness to forego many elements of Christian tradition and theology out of sympathetic deference to the totalizing claims of Nazi Weltanschauung. Future leaders of the Institute, such as its director Siegfried Leffler and Walter Grundmann, would have their origins in the KDC, and it was through their organizational efforts that the Institute would eventually come to fruition.[5]

As a major project of the Institute, the “Nazi Bible” was an attempt to contemporize scripture in a way that would harmonize Christianity with the central tenets of Nazi ideology. Titled Die Botschaft Gottes (The Message of God, hereafter ‘BG’),[6] it confined itself to the New Testament —the Old Testament being relegated to a relic of unenlightened Jewish history. What is offered in the final product is a de-Judaized version of various New Testament texts which loosely follow the progression of the gospels. These are supplemented with a compilation of material taken from the epistles, followed by a section on the early church.   

Several intriguing (and disturbing) editorial and hermeneutical principles can be discerned through careful analysis of the content in the BG (an online version can be found here). The question of what New Testament material has been deemed worthy of inclusion is paramount and highlights the editorial team’s boldness in placing themselves in the role of judge as to what counted as authoritative scripture and what should be discarded. Unsurprisingly, any aspect of the gospels that accentuated the Jewish background of Jesus was deemed unsuitable and was simply omitted from the final version (i.e., Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel). Other translations of key biblical texts use various literary flourishes and embellishments to accentuate Jesus’ clash with Judaism, although these can often be subtle. One interesting example pertains to the BG’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches his hearers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt 5:20). In the BG’s version the text reads:

I tell you: If your behaviour is not better than

that of pharisees and scribes, you

will not enter God’s kingdom![7]  

The interesting thing in this example is that the use of “behaviour” as a replacement for righteousness diminishes the theological import of the teaching and bypasses the deeper theological link between fidelity to the law and spiritual righteousness. What is left is ethical instruction divorced from its Jewish context, which is of course precisely what the editors were trying to achieve throughout the BG. 

The Christology that emerges from within the BG tends to emphasize the humanity of Jesus over his divinity. This undoubtedly stems from the Institute’s broader tendency to locate the primary significance of Jesus’ mission in his protest against Judaism. This element of the Institute’s theology can be glimpsed in the BG’s interpretation of the miracle stories. Grundmann had openly acknowledged that the miracles narratives could no longer be reconciled with scientific truth,[8] and instead, the BG emphasizes the role of the miraculous as a polemical device that offers little more than a statement as to Jesus’ supremacy over the religious traditions that had come before him. Many of the miracle narratives are retained, but they occur in quick succession as if to bombard the reader with an overwhelming sense of Jesus’ strength and power. It is also noteworthy that themes of personal responsibility and submission to appropriate channels of authority are accented, as in the BG’s translation of the interaction between Jesus and Gentile centurion (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).[9] Finally, there is some evidence that the Institute’s Christology was informed by a broader German philosophical tradition that understood the divine as a representation of historical progress and the totality of human consciousness. This is revealed in its translation of the famous prologue at the commencement of the Gospel of John. Here the Logos has been substituted for what appears to be a Hegelian reference to the “eternal spirit” (ewige Geist)[10] Although this may appear to be a minor change, it has broad theological implications — especially when one considers how the language of “spirit” was utilized by German Christians during this time. 

Archival material courtesy of the Landeskirchenarchiv in Eisenach.

Staff at the Landeskirchenarchiv in Eisenach have been kind enough to send me some primary source material relating to the planning and administrative phases of the BG in the lead–up to its release. These documents reveal efforts on the part of the BG’s working group to have the final version endorsed and promoted by the German Bible Society — a strategy that would undoubtedly have aided the Institute in promoting the BG to audiences it may not otherwise have been able to reach. An endorsement from the Bible Society would have been deeply symbolic, as it would likely have served to reassure those who viewed the Institute’s theology as too radical to be accepted within mainstream German Protestantism. It is unclear to me from the documents presented whether this endorsement was received, although statements from correspondence between the Institute and Bible Society Committee members indicate that the latter held reservations about distributing such a text. 

That the Institute felt comfortable approaching the German Bible Society for distribution reveals the extent to which they believed their project operated within the boundaries of both responsible research practice and acceptable theology. This may strike contemporary interpreters as absurd given its clear ideological bias, but on this point, it is worth considering what kind of document the BG really was. Although it presented itself as a faithful translation of scripture to be used in the ecclesial life of German churches, in a truer sense it was an early example of what theologians might refer to today as contextual theology. One reason (and there are many compelling reasons to interpret the BG in this way) for this is because a similar language of oppression and liberation is shared in the rhetoric of the German Christians and later contextual theologies that seek to cast off the shackles of foreign influences. For theologians such as Siegfried Leffler, Wolf Meyer-Erlach, and Walter Grundmann, the German nation required liberation from those forces that had long oppressed its Volk and hampered its cultural flourishing. Whether this was true or not is largely irrelevant; for the purposes of constructing a theological methodology, what mattered was that they believed it to be true and so had acted on this impulse. In short, the BG was a document that aimed to set German believers free from accumulated religious baggage (i.e., Judaism) that had distorted the “real” meaning of Christianity. Through this translation, it was hoped that ordinary Germans would re-engage with Christianity in a way that made sense of their unique experience in history.   

While the Institute’s theology may appear to negate any claim to be operating within the Christian sphere due to the moral violations and political oppression it supported, both history and ethics are rarely so neatly defined. It remains a perplexing aspect of German Christian history — and indeed of National Socialism generally— that its supporters believed and acted in good conscience.[11] When judging the legacy of Die Botschaft Gottes and its manifest distortions, we do well to do so in a spirit of humility, for it is often in the pursuit of noble moral and ethical goals that we are most liable to lapse into violence. 

Notes:


[1] A powerful example of this can be found in Martin Bormann’s ‘Circular on the Relationship of National Socialism and Christianity.’ An English translation can be found in John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933–1945 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001 [orig. 1968]), 383–86.  

[2] Walter Grundmann, Jesus der Galiläer und das Judentum (Leipzig: Georg Wigand, 1940). A reprint was offered in the following year, bringing the total number of copies to five thousand.  

[3] Julius Kuptsch, Im Dritten Reich zur Dritten Kirche (Leipzig: Adolf Keil, 1933), 30-31. 

[4] On the history of the KDC, see Oliver Arnhold, “Entjudung” – Kirche im Abgrund: Die Thüringer Kirchenbewegung Deutsche Christen 1928–1939 und das “Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf des deutsche kirchliche Leben” 1939–1945 (Berlin: Institut Kirche und Judentum, 2010. In English, see James A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors: A Study of the Ideas of Three Deutsche Christen Groups (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 171–218. 

[5] Significant literature dealing with the origins and activities of the Institute include Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Oliver Arnhold, “Entjudung” von Theology und Kirche: Das Eisenacher “Institut our Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf des deutsche kirchliche Leben” 1939-1945 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2020); Dirk Schuster, Die Lehre vom “arischen” Christentum. Das wissenschaftliche Selbstverständnis im Eisenacher “Entjudungsinstitut” (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017).

[6] Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf des deutsche kirchliche Leben, Die Botschaft Gottes (Leipzig: Georg Wigand, 1940). 

[7] BG, 23. 

[8] Walter Grundmann, “Unsere Arbeit am Neuen Testament. Grundsätzliche Bemerkungen zu dem vom ‘Institut zur Erforschung des jüdischen Einfluess auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben’ herausgegebenen Volkstestament,” Verbandsmitteilungen 1 (1939): 13.  

[9] BG, 35. 

[10] BG, 99. 

[11] On this theme, see Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2003). 

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Hitler and Christianity: Some Trends in Interpretation

A question was recently put to me by a reader who was curious to hear my thoughts on whether Hitler should be considered a “Christian” or an “atheist.” What had spurred this on was this reader’s consideration of the somewhat ambiguous topic of “Positive Christianity” — the allegedly Aryanized form of Christian doctrine that was to have served as National Socialism’s official form of religion. 

Issues surrounding Hitler’s views on the person of Jesus Christ and the institution of the church are frequently obscured by prior ideological or religious commitments. On the one hand are those who have sought to restore the integrity of Christianity in light of accusations that it played an important historic role in the justification for anti-Semitism. This process of reconstruction required identifying occasions where Nazi ideology was opposed to the normative framework of Christian ethics. The suggestion was that the outcomes of Nazi policy were so clearly at odds with Christian moral teaching that both Hitler and the National Socialists more broadly could not be seen as “Christian” in any meaningful sense. This hermeneutical approach tended also to accentuate the völkisch, pagan, and esoteric elements of some aspects of Nazi philosophy as evidence of its radical break with Christianity. Blame for the violent excesses of Nazism could then be dispersed amongst various contributing elements, thus diffusing the culpability of the Christian tradition within German religious history.  

This was a major trend in scholarship in the decades following the war, and there was much that could be cited as evidence to support this interpretation. The Nazi persecution of the churches, which intensified in some areas throughout the 1930s, was considered representative of their general disdain toward Christianity. John S. Conway’s book on the topic remains a useful account of this aspect of Nazi policy. Hitler’s private conversations as revealed in the diaries of Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer also point to the dictator’s fundamental loathing for the church, clergy, and internal doctrinal squabbling. In his diaries for 1942-43, Goebbels would additionally reflect Hitler’s post-war plans for the abolition of the churches, in which the Nazis would exact their vengeance for ecclesiastical failure to offer united support to National Socialism. Speer, too, would recount an occasion in which Hitler suggested that the appearance of Christianity in Germany was a historical misfortune. Finally, the alleged occult foundations of Nazi ideology, which have been documented by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, were often perceived as a distorting influence on Germanic religion. A familiar refrain in this regard was that the worship of volk and race that was a feature of many esoteric ideologues and preached by Hitler replaced the proper worship of God. A Lutheran understanding of sin would have prevented recourse to a national mythology that understood the German volk (racially conceived) in divine terms. 

The original 25 point NSDAP program of 1920.
Point 24 of the program advocated “the standpoint of positive Christianity.”

The scholarly tide turned in the late 1980s and continues to the present day. In terms of the study of Nazism and the churches, the focus now is on exploring the links between theology and anti-Semitism as they have been expressed throughout major strands of German intellectual, political, and cultural history. There is now less importance placed on protecting the reputation of the church from their involvement in the Third Reich through movements like the German Christians (Deutsche Christen). Aside from the role of institutional Christianity in facilitating Nazism, it is often pointed out that there is evidence too of Hitler’s high regard for Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ. Positive references to Jesus can be found in Mein Kampf and many of his early speeches, in which the historical figure of Jesus was extolled for his fearless polemic against Judaism. Curiously, Hitler (along with Goebbels) was one of the few Nazi leaders to retain their membership of the church at a time when other leaders (such as the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler and party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg) were actively encouraging the renunciation of denominational affiliation. Some have pointed to Hitler’s regard for the Catholic church as a symbol of enduring institutional power as evidence of his favourable disposition toward Christianity. These factors can be construed as pointing towards a degree of sympathy between Hitler and Christianity that has been too easy to dismiss. 

In response, others have suggested that any positive reference to Jesus or Christianity showed by Hitler was mere political manipulation. Hitler knew that he could not achieve power without the support of the churches, and his proclamations endorsing the church as the backbone of German society should be seen in the light of his attempts to convince voters and consolidate power. There is truth to this, but I do not think it warrants the conclusion that Hitler was a religious cynic or firm atheist (itself a popular way for some Christian apologists to deal with the problem of Nazism). Yet nor was Hitler a Christian. While there is much in Hitler’s rhetoric that points to some belief in the transcendent, I suggest that this was more in line with a German philosophical tradition (primarily, Idealism) that viewed the concepts of the will and the collective human spirit in metaphysical terms. This would help explain his somewhat vague language of “providence”, which need not reference a Christian God —or indeed any God— but might simply point to a Hegelian understanding of history as moving toward a higher teleological purpose. 

Further Reading

Bergen, Doris L. Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 

Buesnel, Ryan, “Positive Christianity: Theological Rationales and Legacies,” Religion Compass (2020), https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12353

Conway, John S. The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933-1945. Vancouver: Regent College, 2001 (original 1968). 

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology. London: Tauris Parke, 2004. 

Heschel, Susannah. The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 

Koehne, Samuel, “Nazi Germany as a Christian State: The “Protestant Experience” of 1933 in Württemberg,” Central European History 46/1 (2013): 97-123. 

Lochner, Louis Paul. (ed). The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943. New York: Doubleday, 1948. 

Scholder, Klaus. The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. London: SCM, 1988. 

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. London: Phoenix, 1995. 

Steigmann-Gall, Richard. The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Ullrich, Volker, Hitler: A Biography, 2 vols. London: Vintage, 2017.   

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Chuck deGroat and the Narcissistic Congregation

I have recently had the opportunity to read Chuck deGroat’s confronting book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (1). DeGroat’s purpose in this study is twofold: first, he explores the how and the why of narcissistic abuse within churches, and in pursuit of this goal he draws on his experience working with perpetrators and victims as he seeks to understand the complex dynamics involved. A secondary aim of the book is to provide readers with the knowledge and insights necessary to prevent narcissistic abuse before it occurs in congregational contexts.  Throughout his timely work, deGroat does a fine job of describing the devastation wrought by narcissistic leaders within the church whilst simultaneously extending a measure of gracious understanding to narcissists themselves. 

One of the few weaknesses of the book, however, is that it largely absolves congregations from complicity in fostering narcissistic churches (the title itself assumes that narcissism will always come from “without”). Perhaps this is hyper-criticism on my part, and I suspect that any study aiming to penetrate the complex and often hidden world of congregational dynamics would require its own volume (or two!). Yet it is a point worthy of being made. In the wake of narcissistic abuse from a church leader, it is often said that their hellish mixture of charisma, manipulation, and deceptive conduct had the effect of “fooling” innocent parishioners —thus absolving the congregation of any complicity. The cunning minister was perceived as being able to capitalize on a pervasive sense of blissful ignorance on the part of the congregation, whose goodwill toward the leader left them powerless to resist their evil machinations.

While the above scenario is an all-too-common reality, the dynamics involved in the relationship between narcissistic leadership and church congregations are likely to be more nuanced than they first appear. It is perhaps rather too reductive to assume that in all cases of narcissistic abuse within the church it is the result of a sole individual (i.e., a pastor or other leader) manipulating a whole congregation for her or his selfish benefit. That this can happen is clear, but one suspects that a range of enabling factors are at play that helps shape the ecclesial environment in which narcissism emerges. 

Within the church context, I suggest that the problem of narcissistic abuse in leadership often has its origins in the expectations of congregations toward their leaders and that these expectations can reflect narcissistic longings. Most often, these expectations relate to an uncritical desire for self-preservation and a need to protect/enhance the institutional image. These expectations are then thrust upon the leader, whose job it is to realize these goals on behalf of the congregation. 

This dynamic can help foster an environment whereby the leader feels themselves to be solely responsible for the “success” of “failure” (whatever these words precisely mean) of the church’s missional outcomes. It is easy to see how when times are good this dynamic can generate a sense of grandiosity and self-reliance in the mind of the minister or pastor. Perceiving themselves as an instrumental factor in the church’s success, the leader retreats into an internal sense of their utmost necessity, which is often reinforced by the congregation’s eagerness to celebrate and affirm the giftedness of the leader. Conversely, when the minister is perceived as “failing” the church (i.e., through declining numbers or decreased offerings), then the blame can frequently be placed at the foot of the minister without any concurrent examination about how congregational dynamics may have played a contributing part. 

In both of these scenarios, the tendency of the congregations to outsource responsibility for the plight of the church to the “professional” leader can have disastrous consequences. Furthermore, it reflects an underlying sense of entitlement and avoidance of shared responsibility that reflect narcissistic traits. That these occur on a collective rather than individual-level does nothing, in my view, to lessen their impact. On this point, I was reminded of the justifications offered by many ordinary Germans in the post-war period who, keen to distance themselves from complicity in Nazism, chose instead to lay the fault solely at the feet of Adolf Hitler. It was Hitler, they alleged, who had “fooled” and “hypnotized” an entire nation of people who would have otherwise disapproved of such terrible excesses. Their guilt was that they had not discerned sooner what was truly happening. The reality, as we now know, was far more damning.     

I conclude that any assessment of narcissism within churches should remain cognizant of the potential for an institutional form of narcissistic behaviour that operates behind a veneer of culture and tradition. While it is certainly the case that many church leaders possess an uncanny ability to manipulate congregations using a mixture of fear, charm, and power, this is often enabled by a group dynamic that confers upon leaders’ unrealistic expectations based on dubious notions of what it means to be “successful” in the marketplace of contemporary church life. 

Notes:

Chuck deGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (InterVarsity, 2020).

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What is Fascism and who are today’s Fascists?

Presentation: Café of Dangerous Ideas, February 27th, 2021

Ryan Buesnel

rbuesnel@csu.edu.au

In his 2018 book How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley offers an assessment of the state of American politics under the leadership of Donald Trump and suggests that there are troubling signs that fascism is on the rise in the United States.[1] He bases this on what he determines as the ‘10 pillars’ of fascist ideology which he saw as being revived under the Trump administration. Included in this list are appeals to a mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. The presence of these elements, or some combination thereof, suggest that a movement has distinct fascist leanings, and the then President Trump is held as representing the strongest example in recent history of a return to classic fascist politics. Stanley concludes that, in its essence, fascism is about dividing people so that political power can be achieved and/or maintained. 

This is a neat summary indeed, but does this do justice to the complex and nuanced history of fascism as it has manifest throughout time? Our answer to this question will largely depend on the working definition we use when determining what fascism is and what it isn’t. Unfortunately, the problem of definition is not easily resolved. For one, we might consider the fact the scholars of fascism have struggled to provide a clear definition, preferring instead to acknowledge some common themes shared amongst them rather than offer a clear-cut and infallible definition. This has been helpfully acknowledged by Kevin Passmore, whose careful analysis of fascist movements throughout history acknowledges their often-contradictory elements. He notes:

Difficulties arise when scholars claim that their pet theory provides the only way to understand fascism. Since any given political movement is too complex to be encompassed within a single concept, they soon encounter evidence that won’t ‘fit.’ They get around the problem by claiming that their theory explains the most important aspects of fascism. Difficult features are dismissed as less significant. Unfortunately, this division of the features of fascism into primary and secondary is arbitrary – or determined by political preference.[2]  

This difficulty of achieving a consensus is not born out of abstract intellectual debate, but rather a very awareness of the diverse historical iterations of fascist movements and the significant differences between them. Generally, fascist movements tend to reflect some combination of the following: 

  • Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
  • Increasing militarization 
  • Control of the mass media
  • A close relationship between religion and government 
  • A charismatic, visionary leader
  • Use of terror for the purposes of suppression/repression
  • Fraudulent elections
  • Disdain for human rights
  • The protection of corporate power

It is important to point out, however, that these elements (which are not exhaustive) are applicable in a variety of contexts and to different extents. As one example, communism and fascism utilise totalitarianism as a tool for the governance of the state. Both Nazism and Soviet Russia employed vast spy networks and secret internal police as a way of suppressing opposition. Both regimes tended to devalue the individual in favour of the collective good and the idea of national strength through unity. Both regimes also appealed to the more affluent and economically prosperous elements of society as responsible for exploitation and oppression. The channels of media within both contexts were also subject to state censorship and control. This is not intended to disavow the major ideological differences between communism and fascism but is simply pointing out that there are considerable shared features as well. At least on the operational level, fascism and communism often operate using similar tactics.   

An interesting question arises when we consider how many of the elements ascribed to fascism need to be present before we might consider something to be truly fascist in orientation. To illustrate this difficulty, I would like to draw attention to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or NAZI) as an example of the highly contextual nature of fascist politics. For many, the Nazis are the very definition of fascism, and this is certainly justified to a large extent. Yet, if we cast our mind back to Jason Stanley’s ’10 pillars’ of fascism, we can observe that not all of these elements are applicable. It is inaccurate, for example, to state that the Nazi’s were anti-intellectual. Certainly, Hitler made plenty of proclamations expressing his distaste for intellectuals, and the early phases of the movements certainly contained a boorish, thuggish element. Yet, many elements of the Nazi leadership and supporting organisations were engaged in offering what they felt was an intellectual and philosophical foundation for National Socialism. Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century is an example of this, as is the work of various religious organisations who sought to provide evidence of the non-Jewish origins of Christianity. It is also relevant that National Socialist leaders, including Hitler himself, frequently appealed to key figures in German intellectual history as precursors of the movement. Included in this list of intellectual luminaries was Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Schiller. It is more accurate, then, to speak of a specific Nazi brand of intellectualism (which was based on racism and anti-globalisation) rather than dismiss the movement as being ‘anti-intellectual.’

One other interesting issue relates to the relationship between Nazism and the German churches. As noted above, one of the hallmarks of fascist politics appears to be the close relationship between church and state. Within Mussolini’s Italy, this relationship was a close one, as the Vatican sought to adapt itself to the spirit of the times.[3]  The dynamic of church and state relations within the Third Reich had altogether different nuances when compared with the Italian fascist state. One of the interesting things about Hitler is that in the early years of his political career he spent considerable effort courting church support. In the Nazi party policy platform issued in 1920 and written by Hitler, point 24 suggested that the Party supported the idea of “positive Christianity.” This led many German Christians to believe that the Nazi party was Christian in orientation. Unfortunately, this does not bear the weight of scrutiny. As 1930s Germany grew increasingly militarized and combative, so too did Hitler’s response to the churches grow more dismissive and bitter, forcing a wedge between church and state which would not be overcome. Ultimately, the Nazi’s felt that the churches were ineffectual and of no consequence to the advancement of the regime. This is what led Hitler to state that he intended to let the churches “rot like a gangrenous limb.”[4]

Another point worth mentioning, which is seen by Stanley as an essential feature of fascism, is the notion that its ideology seeks reversion back to a mythic past. On the one hand, this is certainly a feature of Nazi rhetoric. Disillusionment with the Weimar Republic and industrialisation was a widespread phenomenon within Germany at this time, and in this climate, many longed for a return to a pre-republic and pre-industrialised agricultural ethnic community. Yet in important ways the Nazis were embracers of the most cutting-edge technology and were at the forefront of scientific discovery. Unfortunately, these discoveries were to have grotesque applications via the war and concentration camps, but this does not alter the basic fact that the Nazis were not anti-modernity or anti-scientific. This is observed by Douglas O’Reagan, who has recently written a study of how Nazi scientific and technological discoveries were utilised by Allied powers in the post-War period.[5]  

Stanley’s conclusion that Fascism is about dividing people to maintain power is also problematic when applied to the example of Nazi Germany. Because of the legacy of anti-Semitic feeling within German history, Hitler’s demonization of the Jews met with deep sympathy from large swathes of the population and required little manipulation of public mood. In response to the perceived threat of ‘international Jewry and finance,’ the Nazi’s promoted a myth of cultural unity based on the idea of Blut und Boden (blood and soil), in which ethnic Germans were called to be united in their shared racial identity.[6] So, although the Nazi’s reflected the fascist tendency to identify national enemies, these enemies were mostly considered external. Internally, the racial purification of the Volkgemeinschaft (people’s community) would lead to a future without division.  

It is also noteworthy that the National Socialists were legally elected, which would appear to be incongruent with many assessments of Fascists as achieving power through dubious or illegal means. Inspired by Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s Stormtroopers had attempted to steal power from the Bavarian Government in 1924 by forcibly storming Munich’s Field Marshall’s Hall. This resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. This led to a change in philosophy, in which Hitler held that all future elections must be undertaken within the spirit of the law (although not without the aid of propaganda!).

Concluding Remarks

What I hope to have introduced above is the difficulty we face when attempting to understand what constitutes fascism. It is beyond the scope of this presentation to offer a more detailed treatment of fascism throughout history and in contemporary discussions, but I would like to leave you with a concept for thinking about fascism which I find helpful. 

I suggest that we might do better to speak of a fascist instinct or ‘spirit,’ rather than forming fixed overidentifications of fascism with certain political movements. Historically, fascist movements have been broad and have displayed markedly different approaches to ideology and governance based on a range of geographic, ethnic and cultural factors. They can be manifest on far-left movements as well as its more obvious associations with far-right political groups. After all, technical differences in ideology may not feel particularly relevant for those on the receiving end of fascist violence and repression. I would further suggest that the fascist impulse forms in response to a range of societal factors which emerge in times of economic hardship, perceived moral decay and decadence, as well as traditional fears of immigration. Indeed, this was the topic of Fritz Stern’s important study on the rise of Nazism, which he located as originating in the despairing and turbulent years of post-WW1 Germany.[7] If we wish to avoid such ideas and movements gaining currency in the future, we need to do a better job of engaging with and responding to the reasons why fascist ideas emerge in the first place. The resilience of fascism in the post-WW2 era is evidence that it continues to connect with new adherents and sympathisers who, to differing extents, feel that fascist ideology provides answers to the chaotic nature of contemporary life. 

So, what is ‘dangerous’ about all of this? In reminding ourselves of the fluidity and adaptability of Fascism ideas, we are compelled to consider whether fascism can be so narrowly defined as it often is in contemporary discourse. It seems to me that the elements indicative of fascism as discussed above are currently replicated in a variety of political movements not traditionally associated with far-right politics. As an example, the censoring of media and the phenomenon of de-platforming undertaken by various tech giants seems indicative of a fascist approach to controlling popular discourse via manipulation of the media, even though these companies would justify this with recourse to creating a more just and equitable world. The genocide of the Uyghur peoples by the Chinese Community Party also conjures up disturbing images of the Nazi atrocities. When we add these instances to the problem of classification and definitions discussed above, it appears prudent to exercise caution before we label something or someone as Fascist. Perhaps the Fascist instinct is not simply a matter of political ideology but is instead a recurring feature of humanities psychological response to grief, powerlessness, and a sense of loss. If this is the case, fascist ideologies will remain a part of our cultural and political landscape until these underlying factors are addressed. 

Notes:


[1] Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (New York: Random House, 2018). 

[2] Kevin Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13-14. 

[3] Mark Donovan, “The Italian State: No Longer Catholic, no Longer Christian,” in Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality, eds., John T.S. Madeley and Zsolt Enyedi (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 113. 

[4] John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches,1933-45 (Toronto: Ryerson, 1968), 15. 

[5] Douglas M. O’Reagan, Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploration of German Science After the Second World War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2021). 

[6] Clifford R. Lovin, “Blut Und Boden: The Ideological Basis of the Nazi Agricultural Program.” Journal of the History of Ideas 28, no. 2 (1967): 279-88. 

[7] Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Los Angeles: University of California Press,1974).

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The German Christian Rally at Berlin’s Sportspalast, 28 February 1934: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, Dr. Christian Kinder Respond to the Kirchenkampf

From: Ryan Buesnel, The German Christian Rally at Berlin’s Sportspalast, 28 February 1934: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, Dr. Christian Kinder Respond to the Kirchenkampf, Journal of Church and State, , csaa103, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcs/csaa103

On February 28, 1934, about twenty thousand members of the various German Christian movements and their supporters gathered at Berlin’s Sportpalast to hear speeches given by theologians and clergy who supported Hitler and the Nazi movement. The purpose of the gathering was threefold. Firstly, the meeting functioned as a propagandistic exercise in virtue-signaling. As a movement that went to considerable lengths to publicly demonstrate its endorsement of the Third Reich, German Christian gatherings such as this one were marked by their outward displays of Nazi ideology, ritual, and imagery. Secondly, this rally served an educational purpose. In the speeches given by movement leaders, German Christian pastors and laypeople had their support of the Nazis legitimized on theological grounds, thus removing any remnants of cognitive dissonance between the aryanized racism of Nazism and the Jewish origins of Christianity. However, the 1934 rally also represents an attempt by the German Christian movement to appease those who had become increasingly critical of its actions. This was done via reassurance that the movement was simply carrying on the work of the Reformation, and that all theological and political division should melt away under the shared experience of being German. 

The rally was held in response to a series of crises facing the Protestant Church during the early 1930s. This period —known as the Kirchenkampf (church struggle)—was marked by growing internal divisions concerning the trajectory of the church and its relationship to the politics and ideology of the Nazi Party. The German Christians, who were themselves a politically and theologically diverse movement, were nonetheless united by a sense that God had “raised up Hitler for the redemption of the German people.”[1] It was this belief that motivated their ecclesial activity in its attempts to transform Protestant theology and install leaders sympathetic to the Nazis in church leadership roles. In so doing, the German Christians hoped to synthesize the ideas of National Socialism into a new era of post-confessional and post-doctrinal Christianity. 

Although not the only major German Christian rally held during these early years of Nazi rule, the February 1934 meeting is particularly important for our understanding of how German Christian leaders viewed their own missional tasks, as well as their vision for a united German national church. As a unique window into the motivations of its leaders, the speeches given at German Christian rallies are an excellent repository of primary source material that can assist historians in determining the movement’s internal dynamics and activities, as well as its trajectory throughout the years of Nazi rule. Yet, despite the importance of the 1934 speeches for the study of the church struggle in its formative years, a detailed analysis of their content has been largely overlooked by the scholarly literature, which has tended to focus instead on the German Christian rally held on November 13, 1933. A central reason for this is the 1933 rally’s notorious theological proclamations, which included a speech by the Berlin Church leader Dr. Reinhold Krause stating that “[w]e expect that our nation’s Church as a German People’s Church should free itself of all things not German in its services and confession, especially the Old Testament with its Jewish system of quid pro quo morality.”[2] In giving voice to such sentiments, the 1933 rally clearly articulated the radical goals and priorities of the German Christian movement and its future intentions for the Protestant Church. The rally’s tone was one of bombastic proclamation rather than reasoned persuasion, and it is hardly surprising that the infamous nature of this event has made it particularly interesting to scholars.

The 1934 rally was, by contrast, a subtler affair, which demonstrated a more conciliatory approach to resolving the struggle emerging within the churches. Rather than beating its critics into theological submission, the 1934 rally reflected an emphasis on supraconfessionalism and the centrality of “Germanness” as a unifying force. This article therefore offers an assessment of the theological and political themes reflected in the speeches of the Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller and Reich Leader Dr. Christian Kinder, as later published in booklet format in 1934.[3] It suggests that, regarding the ongoing Kirchenkampf, the 1934 rally demonstrated that the German Christians were willing to adapt their approach from one of direct confrontation with their opponents, as at the 1933 rally, to one of attempted reconciliation. Although the theological and political themes of the two rallies were similar, the differences in tone and approach demonstrate a greater degree of subtlety in German Christian activity than is often understood.  

The Kirchenkampf and the Historical Context of the February 1934 Rally

In his two-volume work on the history of the German churches during the Third Reich era, noted historian Klaus Scholder documents the unrest that was emerging in German Protestantism at the end of the 1920s. In assessing the rise of ecclesial division, Scholder posits a split between the conservatism of the Landeskirchen (regional churches) and the Word of God theology which had been popularized by Swiss theologian Karl Barth.[4] In arguing for the freedom of the gospel, Barth felt that the church had become too infatuated with the political theology of the time, including the increasingly popular völkisch movement, and had smugly acted as if its institutional survival depended on its own efforts.[5] Much of Barth’s polemic was directed against the theological legacy of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose emphasis on natural theology and the primacy of religious “feeling” had left a theological legacy that confused folk consciousness with divine revelation.[6] In a controversial article written in 1930, Barth crystallized his position and dismissed the Church’s obsession with political and cultural relevance as an affront to its intended purpose as a witness to a gracious yet transcendent God:“Therefore, because the Church intends to clog and poison her own well by an unhealthy relevance, one must speak against her with final anger… if one has love for her.”[7]

Such a forceful denunciation of the ecclesiastical status quo was bound to attract criticism. This was provided by Otto Dibelius, the Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg. In a 1930 report to the Prussian General Synod, Dibelius took exception to the transcendental implications of Barth’s theology and argued instead that although the church-state distinction was important, this did not imply that state power was inherently godless. In Dibelius’s estimation, the “flesh and blood” character of the church was vital for the furtherance of a Christian state[8] in which the Kingdom of God would be actualized.[9] What Dibelius emphasized was that the abstract theological reasoning of Barth left no room for an understanding of the church’s practical mission to a German people who had become estranged due to irrelevant, outdated dogmas which did not reflect the national experience. In the same year in which these debates were taking place, the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party recognized the strategic importance of gaining the support of the church. By 1931, supporters of the Nazis had begun campaigning for the election of Nazi supporters to offices in the various regional churches.[10] These developments were met with unease by those who continued to have reservations about the increasing intrusion of politics into the church. 

This ongoing unrest preempted serious internal church struggles, which were heightened during the first two years of Hitler’s rule (1933-34) as the question of the church’s relationship to Nazism grew steadily more pointed. By September of 1933, the Pastors’ Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund) had been formed in Wittenberg by Herbert Golzten, Günther Jacob, and Eugen Weschke. The League aimed to protest the implementation of the Aryan Law[11] and advocate for the authority of scripture in the life of the church, with the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller soon emerging as its leader.[12] The League enjoyed early success in terms of numbers, attracting some 7,036 members in its first four months of activity.[13] For theologians and clergy sympathetic to the Nazis, however, Hitler’s election was interpreted as a sign of God’s will for Germany manifested in the political sphere, and the electoral success of the Nazis afforded an opportunity to reconsider the theological and political foundations of the church itself. The formation and activity of the German Christians’ pro-Nazi factions within the Protestant churches illustrates the willingness of clergy and theologians to accommodate key Nazi ideas relating to race and nation. In actual fact, many of these church leaders viewed Nazism and Christianity as different manifestations of the same inner essence, leading to an assumption that in advocating for a nazified church, the German Christians were simply wanting to restore Christianity and the church to its rightful origins.[14] As one influential voice within the early German Christian Movement put it, “National Socialism and its leaders are striving for the realization of Christian principles.”[15]

Hitler envisioned the German Christians as playing an important role in facilitating the creation of a unified Reich Church that would function under Nazi control. Moving toward this goal, Hitler appointed Ludwig Müller as his “representative on matters concerning the Protestant Church” on April 25, 1933.[16] Müller had been a military chaplain in Wilhelmshaven in the First World War, continuing in chaplaincy roles in the post-war period. An early supporter of the Nazi Party, Müller was an inherently sycophantic personality who longed to increase his own power and influence. Although often derided for his incompetence as a leader,[17] Müller’s efforts helped fuel the successful church election campaign of 1933.[18] The aim of the campaign was to secure German Christian representation at the local parish level, hoping to thus secure a dominant position within the German Evangelical Church. The campaigning strategy was fruitful, with the German Christians enjoying a resounding victory in July. In her assessment of the election results, Shelley Baranowski writes that the German Christians attracted about 75 percent of the vote, thus ensuring its ongoing influence over church affairs.[19] Müller’s own influence within the churches was also assured, having been elected to the role of Bishop by the Senate of the Prussian Church in August. His influence was further enhanced in September when he became the Reich Bishop.

Riding high on their recent success, about twenty thousand German Christians and their supporters gathered at Berlin’s Sportspalast in November 1933 in a public demonstration of support for the Nazi Party. Featuring a range of speakers from the movement, the rally addressed various issues of vital significance to the German Christian leadership, including the forced removal of clergy who were not sympathetic to Nazism, the exclusion of the Old Testament from the biblical canon, and the adoption of the so-called Aryan Paragraph. One of the more extreme speeches given at this event came from Dr. Reinhold Krause, the chairman of the Berlin chapter of the German Christians and a fierce advocate of an aryanized, neo-pagan Christianity. His proclamations at the 1933 rally were divisive and unorthodox,[20] and suggested that many of the established traditions and doctrines of Christianity were outmoded and corrupted by Jewish influence. What he proposed was the “elimination of the Old Testament from religious instruction, as well as the expurgation from the New Testament of distorted accounts.” He continued his speech with a call for a “return to the heroic conception of Jesus, not as a God enthroned to be conceived dogmatically, but as a fearless fighter and leader.” [21]

As much as the movement might have felt emboldened by recent victory, such outspoken advocacy for a nazified Christianity did not receive the blanket support it so earnestly desired, and the fallout from the rally has been described by German historian Kurt Meier as “a fiasco beyond compare.”[22] It was difficult for many of the attendees to avoid forming the impression that the church’s autonomy was being progressively undermined by the state, causing a number of German Christians to renounce involvement with the movement.[23] This feeling of suspicion and anxiety was heightened by the institution of the so-called “muzzling decree” of January 1934, which was designed by Müller to prevent criticism of the church and threaten dissenting pastors with a range of disciplinary measures. Understandably, this further antagonized critics of the German Christians, resulting in additional unrest and a growing sense of impending crisis. Some Protestant leaders felt compelled to personally complain to Hitler and President Hindenburg in an attempt to denounce what they perceived as the strategic undermining of the church by the German Christians.[24] About 320 ministers from various Reformed congregations met in Barmen-Gemarke to formulate a response to these ecclesiastical developments and to explore the formation of a Free Reformed Synod.[25] It was this gathering that ultimately gave rise to the now famous Barmen Declaration.

These increasingly schismatic overtures necessitated a response from Müller. In the period following the 1933 rally, he undertook a range of concessional actions to calm the ecclesiastical storm. One of these was to dismiss the radical German Christian leader Joachim Hossenfelder and replace him with the moderate Dr. Christian Kinder, who was tasked with presenting a more conciliatory face of German Christian activity.[26] At this stage in the history of the church struggle,  many German Christians hoped that factional splits might be healed by these efforts towards reconciliation. That these steps were taken points to the complexities of the Kirchenkampf and highlights the difficulty of drawing a clear line between the German Christians and their theological opponents.[27] Müller’s concessional measures pointed to the possibility of a reconciliation between the two groups, even if this appears an impossible outcome, with the benefit of hindsight. The attempts at damage control in the months following the 1933 rally suggest that there was an expectation that the current theological and political disputes might be resolved through negotiation. It is therefore in the spirit of controversy and subsequent attempts at unification that the 1934 speeches should be interpreted. What emerges throughout Müller’s and Kinder’s speeches is an ongoing tension within the German Christians which, although ultimately insisting on the supremacy of Nazism as the appropriate religious response to the national context, also understood its future actions as requiring broad church support. This is further reflected in the degree of rhetorical moderation that the 1934 speeches exhibit, which was lacking in the proclamations of the 1933 rally, demonstrating that the German Christians were capable of altering their approach to mitigate ongoing controversy.

The First Speech: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller

In interpreting Müller’s public speeches, it is important to bear in mind the he was in fact directing his words to two separate audiences, the Protestant churches and the Nazi Party leadership with whom he sought to curry favor. Although many members of the German Christians were themselves Nazi Party members, Müller moved within the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, which meant that his statements were often platitudinous. Hitler’s patience with internal church affairs was always limited, which necessitated extra effort on Müller’s behalf to demonstrate his usefulness and loyalty. For this reason, Müller’s speeches betray a distinct element of flattery, a feature evident in the speech he gave on February 28, 1934. Nevertheless, when compared with other public pronouncements made by Müller in the early years of Nazi rule, the 1934 speech is generally more subdued and measured. This is likely to have reaffirmed Hitler’s growing sense that Müller was incapable of the strong leadership required to unite the churches.[28] 

After expressing his gratitude for being asked to address the gathering, Müller’s speech begins with an acknowledgement of the inseparable nature of the Nazi Party and German Christianity. For Müller, it made no real sense to speak of church and state as separate entities within the contemporary political climate, as they represented two expressions of the same essence. Müller’s idea that National Socialism and German Protestantism belonged together called into question many traditional assumptions about the origins and nature of Christianity, primarily related to the notion of an Aryan Jesus—a militarized Christianity in which Jesus functioned as a martyr to Judaism—and the strong emphasis on the need for cultural and political reform in light of a shared national destiny.[29] In the future, Müller would solidify these theo-political concepts in his 1939 text, “Was ist positives Christentum?” (What is positive Christianity?),[30] but the 1934 speech reveals the extent to which he had already committed himself to shape a new theological grammar that better reflected the militarized rhetoric of the age:We stand as National Socialists on the ground of Positive Christianity…It is very clear that only as ‘German Christians’ can we take up the fight in the Church. We are Christians who are staunch and immoveable to the eternal truth that Christ brought.”[31]  

The “fight” referred to by Müller encompassed both the spiritual and physical realms. The church’s special role in a militarized society centered on ensuring the spiritual health and vitality of the German people. Rather than take a prophetic role in the Third Reich to question the moral and political legitimacy of Nazi policy, the German Christians instead saw the ideology of the party as the standard to which the church should conform.         

The idea of the Nazi Party as a revelatory expression of God’s sovereign will for the moral and spiritual redemption of the nation was a major preoccupation of German Christian leaders. Yet Müller’s presentation of it in his speech is noteworthy, as he sought to align the mythology of the Nazis’ “time of struggle”[32] with the experience of the Protestant Church in its battle to free itself from the distortions of false dogma and Jewish influence. Müller made reference to the small but dedicated gathering of sympathetic German Christians who discerned the religious and political shifts taking place and gathered together during the early 1930s to work towards ecclesial change. It seems clear that in describing the origins of the German Christians in this way, i.e., mirroring the political trajectory of the Nazis, Müller was attempting to further point to what he called a self-evident “inner connection between Protestantism and National Socialism.”[33] 

Müller next turned his attention to the weightier matter of church and state relations in the Third Reich. As mentioned previously, he was tasked by Hitler with uniting Germany’s twenty-eight regional Evangelical churches in order to bring them under more effective state control. Müller’s speech reflected the centrality of this mission and offered an assessment of the authority upon which the church based its call to unification. Rather than appealing to a shared spiritual identity in Christ, however, Müller made it clear that it was the initiative of Hitler and the Nazi revolution which spurred the churches into action:“The unification of the 28 regional Evangelical Churches into one large German Protestant Church has only become possible thanks to the victory of the National Socialist revolution. Without this unification of the people, unification of the Church would have been completely impossible.”[34] The reason the initiative for church unification was taken up by the Nazi government was because the church had failed to properly represent the will of the people. It had become too caught up in abstract doctrinal and confessional disputes, thereby rendering it incomprehensible to the ordinary German believer: “The harsh criticism of the Church should urge all of us who are in the service of the Evangelical Church to carry out a rigorous self-examination as to how much the Church is to blame for the huge crowds of people who have turned away from the Church.”[35]

For Müller, the German churches risked oblivion unless they could find a way to better connect with a German people revitalized by National Socialism. The argument for a “German Christianity” was further buttressed by an appeal to the authority of a national hero, Martin Luther. Müller praised Luther for his work in crafting an expression of Christianity that captured the internal spiritual essence of the German Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). According to Müller, Luther’s chief contribution to German history was to begin the process of liberating the church from foreign influence, especially the dominance of Roman Catholicism. In translating the Bible into German, Luther had begun an unfolding process of “germanization” of the church in which race, nation, and faith were brought into closer alignment. From Müller’s perspective, the German Christians were simply continuing Luther’s Reformation in the twentieth century in their attempts to liberate German religion from the corruptions and distortions of Judaism.[36]

Yet there were also strong indications that Müller sought to move beyond Luther. If indeed Müller saw in the National Socialist government a spiritual revelation of God, which necessitated a decisive break with the past, this represents a significant point of difference with Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine which, despite its ambiguities, at least posited a qualitative difference between the nature of state power and church power. Moreover, in Luther’s thought, it was the gospel that constituted the final authority in the life of Christians.[37] For Müller, no such separation was possible because the church and the state were inextricably bound together: “We do not stand next to or against the state, but we stand in the middle of the state as its most loyal helpers and its firmest supporters… Our relationship to the Third Reich is not a relationship of distrust, but of absolute and firm trust.”[38]

Müller’s description of the church as being in the “middle” of the state is interesting and hints at a conception of the church having a dual function as a witness to the gospel and as an enabler of Nazi policy on ecclesiastic matters. Müller continued this line of thought with an appeal for ecclesial unity based on trust in the righteousness of Nazism. In a deeper sense, this reflected a belief prevalent amongst German Christians that the Nazis and German Protestantism constituted a different manifestation of the same primordial essence, described by Müller as an “innermost driving force.”[39] Insisting on this point made it easier for Müller to convince his hearers that the church-state unity he espoused was natural and healthy. This was not a question of the church being compromised by a close alliance with a neo-pagan or atheistic regime,[40] but rather a simple call for the church to recognize the sacred and divine nature of the Nazi mission. Thus, Müller argued, the Church should have no qualms about placing its trust in the guiding force of National Socialism.“The state has an interest in ensuring that order prevails in the inner life of the Church, and that is also the will and desire of our leader. We also have the greatest trust that the Führer will find the right, contemporary form for cooperation between state and Church—and such an agreement of trust is worth more than ten concordats!”[41]

Furthermore, to define National Socialism solely as a political party was to misconstrue its essential function as a mirror of the collective will of the people, he argued. Its ideology and political activity were not about self-serving power but were simply an attempt to grant back to the German people a dignity and ethical framework that had been corrupted in the postwar period. This was a point on which many could agree, as it was not only the German Christians who experienced the despair and anger of those turbulent years. Considering this point, Müller stated, “National Socialism is not a party in its own right, but rather a popular movement that wants to encompass the whole of the people by imparting a new self-confidence to the individual. The inner being of the National Socialist gains its strength through the power of trust, belief, obedience and loyalty.”[42]It was therefore the moral character of Nazism that revealed its inherent righteousness. This is further evidenced by Müller’s suggestion that it was Nazism that provided the opportunity for the church to fulfill Luther’s vision for a united German church. The great reformer, argued Müller, was “so deeply connected to German blood and soil” that it rendered his nationalism and theology fundamentally intertwined.[43] These words would have provided a powerful stimulus for those engaged in critical reflection about the nature and purpose of the church in the Third Reich.

Müller then moved to the closing points of his speech and implored his listeners to undertake the essential work of proclaiming Christ. Müller was referring to Jesus who had been recast as a warrior against Judaism, a view that would be more fully developed by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life at Eisenach from 1939 onward. Müller viewed Jesus as a prototypical symbol to be emulated in the fight against the Jews. In a spirit of fearlessness, contemporary disciples of Jesus should also be willing to go into combat against the shared enemy of international Judaism and Bolshevism with discipline and zeal:“Anyone who is at once grasped by him [Jesus Christ] and his truth becomes a fighter on his own, who never has a slave soul or a submissive nature but who, with courageous trust, is ready to fight against all ungodly power.”[44]

The combined power of God, state, and church, then, was the only way that Germany could rise up against its enemies and fulfill the mandate that had been revealed by God via the Nazi state. While it is certainly true that Müller’s speech reflected the stridency typical of the German Christians, its ongoing emphasis on unity distinguishes it from the speeches at the 1933 rally. The historical timing of the speech during a particularly polarizing period in the Kirchenkampf would suggest that the theme of unification was deliberately chosen as a corrective to the divisions of November 1933. As justification for a unity based on the advent of National Socialism, Müller further called upon his listeners to reflect on the moral qualities he saw embedded in Nazi ideology. Assuming a clear spiritual bond between National Socialism and the true, i.e., non-Jewish, essence of Christianity, Müller was able to frame his advocacy of unity as justified by sound theology and continuity with German Reformation history.

The Second Speech: Dr. Christian Kinder

Dr. Christian Kinder was a dedicated leader in the German Christian movement with a reputation for aligning himself with its more moderate factional elements. A member of the German Christians since its inception, Kinder remained faithful to the movement even after it fell out of favor with the Nazi hierarchy. As Hitler’s war progressed and defeat was all but certain, he showed no signs of wavering in his support for the Nazi regime, eventually becoming president of the Schleswig-Holstein Church in 1945.[45]

The immediate background of Kinder’s speech at the 1934 rally was his promotion to the position of Reich Leader of the German Christians. Tasked with the onerous job of uniting the factional elements of the German Christians, Kinder’s initial actions as leader were bold and swift. He implemented new guidelines for the movement and also approved a name change, from “Faith Movement of German Christians” to the more strident “German Christian Reich Movement.”[46] However polarizing these actions were, Kinder’s enduring advocacy for a unified, post-confessional church indicates that he took seriously his mandate to deal with ecclesial division.

As we have seen, an issue of crucial importance to critics of the German Christian movement was the need for the church to remain autonomous from the state.[49] In its early stages, the Pastors’ Emergency League and its supporters were not primarily concerned about Nazi racism and anti-Judaism, but were worried that the Nazis’ intention was to place the party at the head of the church in the place of Jesus Christ. They were right to be concerned, as proved by the 1933 Twenty-Eight Theses of the Saxon National Church for the Internal Strengthening of the German Evangelical Church, a document drafted by Walter Grundmann.[50] The purpose of this document was to clarify the issue of the German church’s relationship to the Nazi state and the implications for theology and ecclesiology. Included in Grundmann’s Theses is an exhortation for the church to “commit itself to the doctrines of blood and race because our people share a common blood and a common existence.”[51] Although the Theses gave passing acknowledgment to the timeless sovereignty of Jesus Christ over the church, they also suggested that the creeds and doctrines of the past needed to be reassessed in light of the contemporary national situation.[52]

Kinder addressed Grundmann’s Theses in his speech, attempting to walk a fine line between advocating for their necessity and conceding that they did not replace the confessions of faith as authoritative in the Church: “I also attach great importance to making sure that the 28 Theses are not a confession, but simply guidelines for the Church to follow. Not everyone will be committed to them individually, but against all the slander of our opponents, we emphasize how we [the German Christians] see the Evangelical Church in the present time.”[53]

The value of the Theses was not that they reflected a rigorous theological process, but instead that they promised to reduce the threat of schism and disunity. Ongoing division in the church would be a national catastrophe, as the external enemies facing Germany required the nation to band together as a united front. As such, the Theses was presented by Kinder not so much as a theological absolute, but rather as a call to put away denominational differences. What was needed was a national Christian community to help degrade the pervasive spirit of individuality: “Many evangelical minds and hearts have lost the sense of what the Church really is through the spirit of individualism. Such devastating individualism can only be overcome through the Church, as the community that has progressed through the generations, in which each individual is not only a member but a living link in the whole organism.”[54] That the specifically religious content of the Theses could be overlooked simply by calling for ecclesial unity is curious, but not overly surprising given the agenda of the rally itself. The call for a rebirth of the church was entirely predicated on the successful display of national spirit and unity by the Nazis.“It was in the birth hours of National Socialism when the German people, in the company of their comrades and possessed by the same spirit and inspired by the same will, no longer thought of themselves but as members of one community for whom they should live and sacrifice.”[55] It was this model of national unity and willingness to sacrifice for the whole that the Protestant churches needed to emulate as the basis of their existence in the Third Reich:“National Socialism binds our people. We German Christians want a new beginning in the Church; we want the Church to become a Church again. National Socialism has opened our eyes to the deeper connections between the German Volk.”[56] 

If National Socialism was the fabric that would hold the church together in the new age, what should be made of historical dogmas and traditions? Kinder attempted to address this in his speech, and it was there that one could glean an insight into the true heart of his message. Like Müller, Kinder made several references to the German Christians’ continuity with the past, including his insistence that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for all eternity and will remain the cornerstone of everything we do.”[57] Nevertheless, Kinder was more concerned with reiterating the uniqueness of the present moment—“Our time is different from that in which the confessions were formulated”[58]—and what it requires in terms of ecclesial change. The distinctiveness and revelatory nature of Nazism, therefore, had clear implications for how Christian history was being interpreted by the German Christians:

Our ideological training has emphasised that today it is not about empty dogmatic disputes but the struggle of values… Due to the tremendous changes in the life of our Volk we have also received valuable new knowledge about our Church life. This knowledge extends to almost all areas of Church life. Under the awakening of the German people and all the knowledge connected with it, we feel as if suddenly a bright light is shining into the darkness of the Church building.[59]

Kinder acknowledged that National Socialism prompted the revitalization of the church, and he further affirmed the claim of Nazi ideology over every sphere of German church life. Yet he also rounded this out with an assurance that Jesus Christ would remain the “cornerstone in everything we do.”[60] This stance is similar to that adopted by Müller in that it attempts to balance a fixed commitment to the nazification of the church with theological orthodoxy, i.e., the Lordship of Christ over the church, which might have reassured some critics who were sitting on the fence. The crass, steamroller approach of November 1933 had now shifted to one that promised that the demands placed upon the church by Nazi policy and ideology could be affirmed without sacrificing the integrity of the Christian faith.  Hence, Kinder could affirm that “it is a foundation of the Evangelical Church that it preaches the ancient Gospel to people in a new form.” Kinder was therefore advocating for a merging of the old and the new, what we might today call “contextual theology.”[61]   

Further themes discussed by Kinder included the need for the church to immerse itself in the political affairs of the state and an extrapolation of the future intentions of the German Christians. His speech closed with what is perhaps the clearest indication yet that the purpose of this rally was to reassure rather than divide. In assessing the ongoing task of the German Christians, Dr. Kinder made the bold claim that it should not consider its activity as constituting a “new” church:

I already stated earlier that a strict separation must be made between the tasks of the Church itself and those of the German Christians. The Church rests on its creeds and has its life in faith. It must preserve and increase this substance, to keep it in lively contact with the present and to shape it. Our organization of German Christians should not and must not influence this.[62]

Thus, Kinder ended his speech with a reassurance that the German Christians did not seek to impose their will on the broader church through blunt force. It was instead hoped that their efforts at revitalizing theology and the ecclesia would be recognized for what they were, an attempt to reclaim a Christian heritage that had been dismantled by loss of national identity and confessional splintering. Although the increasing bitterness of the Kirchenkampf in the ensuing years clearly indicates that unification was not ultimately possible, Kinder’s conciliatory speech suggests that a preoccupation with only the tone and content of the 1933 rally diminishes our understanding of the scope of the German Christian movement’s response to its critics.

Conclusion

The speeches offered by Reich Bishop Müller and Dr. Christian Kinder at the 1934 German Christian rally represent more than just an object of historical curiosity. Historically situated within the tumultuous Kirchenkampf, the tone of these speeches is characterized by attempts to justify the need for a “German Christianity” and to implore critics of the movement to focus on that which united rather than petty doctrinal squabbles. This approach is at odds with the radical nature of the 1933 rally, where Dr. Reinhold Krause’s dismissal of Jewish morality with its “stories of cattle traders and pimps” was deliberately combative and resulted in the withdrawal of many German Christians from the movement.[63] The noticeably more conciliatory approach taken by Müller and Kinder at the 1934 rally therefore reflects a degree of flexibility in the German Christians’ approach to dealing with dissent and conflict with the Protestant churches. This adaptability is easy to overlook in the history of the German Christians, particularly because the 1933 rally has commanded the most scholarly attention. By early 1934, however, German Christian leaders were forced to reckon with the reality that the transformation and unification of the church was not going to be a straightforward process. Indeed, the ultimate failure of the churches to unite under a single, post-confessional banner was one of the central reasons why Hitler removed himself from ongoing involvement in church affairs. 

The attempts at ecclesial harmony displayed at the 1934 rally do not detract from the German Christians’ broader commitment to the goal of nazifying the Protestant Church, but instead inform a more nuanced historiography that acknowledges the complex nature of the Kirchenkampf between November 1933 and February 1934. In the months following the 1933 rally, attempts were made on behalf of the German Christian movement to recover lost ground and incorporate its critics into a vision for a German Reich Church in which they could also participate. The speeches given by Ludwig Müller and Dr. Christian Kinder in February of 1934 are emblematic of this contentious period in German church history and represent a rare moment when German Christian leaders engaged with the criticisms of those whose voices were rapidly being silenced in a culture of pro-Nazi religious zealotry.

Notes:


[1] James Zabel’s 1976 study of three major German Christian groups remains invaluable for understanding the diversity within this movement. See James A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors: A Study of the Ideas of Three Deutsche Christen Groups (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976); Roger J. Newell, Keine Gewalt! No Violence! How the Church Gave Birth to Germany’s Only Peaceful Revolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 57

[2] As quoted in Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 150.

[3] Published as Die Deutschen Christen: Die Reden des Reichsbischofs und des Rechleiters der Deutschen Christian, im Berliner Sportpalast am 28. Februar 1934 (Berlin: Gesellschaft für Zeitungsdienst, 1934).

[4] Karl Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. (London: SCM, 1988), 1: 121.

[5] Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors, 7-8

[6] On this issue see Newell, Keine Gewalt!, 51-52.

[7] Karl Barth, “Quousque Tandem?” in Karl Barth, “Der Götze wackelt”: Zeitkritische Aufsätze, Reden und Briefe von 1930 bis 1960, ed. Karl Kupisch (Berlin: Käthe Vogt, 1961), 28.

[8] Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 1: 123.

[9] On the conflict between Barth and Dibelius, see Eckhard Lessing, “‘Selbstsändigkeit’ und ‘Freiheit’ der Kirche: Eine Notiz zum Kirchenverständnis Dibelius und Barths,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 2 (1989): 426-36. 

[10] Hans Buchheim, Glaubenskrise im Dritten Reich (Stüttgart: Deustche Verlags-Anstalt, 1953), 67, 71-75.

[11] The Aryan Law mandated the removal of Jews from a range of professions, including universities, civil institutions and the church. 

[12] On the aims of the Pastor’s Emergency League, see Douglas S. Bax, “The Barmen Theological Declaration: Its Historical Background,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 47 (1984): 18.

[13] As noted by Kurt K. Hendel, this number would decline drastically over the ensuing years, with less than five thousand members remaining in 1938. See Kurt K. Hendel, “The Historical Context of the Barmen Declaration,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36, no. 2 (2009): 134.

[14] This was not a particularly novel theological position. In 1921, a high school teacher named Joachim Niedlich had formed the League for a German Church, which sought influence in the Prussian Church Synod. Its purpose was to “rid the Church of its Jewish embrace.” The League counted the influential Houston Stewart Chamberlain as a member. See Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 74.

[15] Julius Kuptsch, Im Dritten Reich zu Dritten Kirche (Leipzig: Adolf Klein Verlag, 1933), 30-31.

[16] Volker Ullrich, Hitler, trans. Jefferson Chase (London: Penguin, 2017), 1: 642-3.

[17] Gary Dorrien, Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 264.

[18] Contrary to the view that Müller was incompetent, his biographer writes that “as Prussian state bishop and German Reich Bishop, he was undoubtedly the most important figure in the Church hierarchy of German Protestantism.”

See Thomas Martin Schneider, Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller: eine Untersuchung zu Leben, Werk und Persönlichkeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993), 152.   

[19] Shelley Baranowski, “The 1933 German Protestant Church Elections: Machtpolitik or Accommodation?” Church History 49, no. 3 (1980): 298.

[20] Doris L. Bergen describes the language used by Krause as crude and abrasive, attacking the “debilitating remnants of Judaism” that were unacceptable to the National Socialists. See Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 17.

[21] These translations of Krause’s speech are taken from an article that appeared in the New York Times on November 14, 1933. That news of the rally had caught the attention of the international community suggests a broad awareness of the radical nature of German Christian activity. See “Revision of Scripture is Urged on Germans; Return to Heroic Conception of Jesus and Segregation of Non-Aryans Proposed,” New York Times, November 14, 1933. Krause’s extreme position also earned the respect of Hitler, who remarked that amongst all the clergy Krause was the “most upstanding of the lot.” See Ullrich, Hitler, 644.

[22] Kurt Meier, Kreuz und Hakenkreuz: Die evangelische Kirche im Dritten Reich (München: Traugott Bautz GmbH, 1992), 49.

[23] It was Krause’s speech in particular that fanned the flames of ongoing controversy. This resulted in further division within the churches. See Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 115.

[24] Robert P. Ericksen, “The Question of Complicity,” in Glaube-Freiheit-Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburstag, ed. Katarzyna Stoklosa and Andrea Strübind (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 104.

[25] Bax, “The Barmen Theological Declaration,” 19.

[26] It was this appointment that provided the catalyst for Alfred Rosenberg to formally exit the German Church. See Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich, 165.

[27] Manfred Gailus has challenged the oversimplification of the Kirchenkampf in the post-war period, arguing instead that its complexity defies clear-cut boundaries between those who supported the Nazis and those who were critical. See Manfred Gailus, “1933 als protestantisches Erlebnis. Emphatische Selbsttransformation und Spaltung,” Geschichte und Gessellschaft 29, no. 4 (2003): 481-511.

[28] Ullrich, Hitler, 644.

[29] Gall, The Holy Reich, 13-51. It is important to note that despite the clear use of “Positive Christianity” as common phraseology within the German Christian movement, recent scholarship by Samuel Koehne has challenged its legitimacy as a coherent theological concept. See Samuel Koehne, “Nazism and Religion: The Problem of ‘Positive Christianity,’” Australian Journal of Politics and History 60, no. 1 (2014): 28-42.

[30] Ludwig Müller, Was ist positives Christentum? (Stuttgart: Tazzelwurm, 1939).

[31] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 8.

[32] David Redles describes the “time of struggle” as one marked by sacrifice and faith for a glorious German future. These elements were seized upon by Müller and the DC as indicators of a shared telos between the Protestant churches and the National Socialists. See David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 105.      

[33] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 7.

[34] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 10.

[35] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 9.

[36] German Christian leaders would often appeal to Luther’s anti-Judaism as a historical precedent, which justified their own position. Of particular relevance was Luther’s notorious 1543 text “On the Jews and their Lies.” The DC theologian Wolf Meyer-Erlach was one such figure who drew heavily on Luther’s treatment of the so-called “Jewish question.” See Christopher J. Probst, “An Incessant Army of Demons”: Wolf Meyer-Erlach, Luther and ‘the Jews’ in Nazi Germany,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23, no. 3 (2009): 441–60

[37] Martin Luther, “Secular Authority: To What Extent Should it be Obeyed?,” in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 387.

[38] Müller, Die Deustche Christen, 11.

[39] Müller, Die Deustche Christen, 11.

[40] The view that the German Christians “were not Christians but pagans” has been advocated by Karla Poewe in New Religions and the Nazis (New York: Routledge, 2006), 7ff. This problematic interpretation has been challenged by Horst Junginger in “Nordic Ideology in the SS and the SS Ahnenerbe,” in Nordic Ideology Between Religion and Scholarship, ed. Horst Junginger and Andreas Åkerlund (Bern: Peter Lang, 2013), 39-72.

[41] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 12.

[42] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 10.

[43] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 10.

[44] Müller, Die Deutschen Christen, 14.

[45] Susannah Heschel, “Confronting the Past: Post-1945 German Protestant Theology and the Fate of the Jews,” in The Protestant-Jewish Conundrum: Studies in Contemporary Jewry, ed. Jonathan Frankel and Ezra Mendelsohn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 51.

[46] Helmreich, The German Churches, 152.

[47] Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, 2nd edition (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1976), 116; Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich, 165. 

[48] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 17.

[49] On this topic, see Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 5-8.

[50] The full Theses (in German) can be found in Kirchliches Jahrbuch 1933-44 (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1948), 30-32. 

[51] Quoted in John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001), 353.

[52] Conway, Nazi Persecution, 355.

[53] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 20.

[54] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 20. In October of 1934, Kinder released a pamphlet further expounding the 28 Theses for the DC movement. See Robert Melvin Spector, Mass Murder and the Holocaust, History and Analysis, 2 vols. (New York: University Press of America, 2005), 1: 283. 

[55] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 23.

[56] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 23.

[57] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[58] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[59] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[60] Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 28.

[61] Interpreting the German Christians as being rooted in the framework of contextual theology is an intriguing position taken by Notger Slenczka, “Theologie Im Kontext der ‘Deutschen Freiheitsbewegung’ Überlegungen zum Anliegen kontextueller Theologien am Beispiel der Deutschchristlichen Theologie,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 8, no. 2 (1995): 259-99.

[62] Kinder, Die Deutsche Christen, 34.

[63] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 69-70.

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Søren Kierkegaard and the Corsair Affair: Public Shaming and the Assertion of the Individual

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s trial by public opinion unfolded due to an ongoing campaign of character assassination on behalf of the satirical magazine the Corsair.  Founded in 1840 by novelist Aron Goldschmidt, the Corsair had earned a reputation as being fearless in its espousal of views contrary to the conservative climate of 19th century Copenhagen, and its tone was often mocking, sarcastic and ironic.[1] No one of prominence in society was safe from the magazine’s reach, which attacked anyone it saw as deserving of its unwelcome attention.[2] Kierkegaard’s biographer Walter Lowrie described the essential task of the Corsair as ‘dragging down the great and revealing that they were not really superior to the vulgar,”[3] and it is through the magazines public denigration that Kierkegaard was to suffer one his most sustained struggles in what was already a turbulent life.  

Kierkegaard had come into direct conflict with the Corsair due to a negative review of his 1845 book Stages on Life’s Way.[4] Never one to ignore criticism of his work, Kierkegaard sarcastically challenged the magazine to target him as their next victim, imploring its editors to ‘abuse’ him so that he too might be immortalized by featuring within its pages.[5] Over the ensuing months, the editors of the Corsair took up Kierkegaard’s challenge with gusto, repeatedly maligning the philosopher for his social awkwardness and unusual physical characteristics. These attacks often took the form of caricatures and cartoons, which would exaggerate aspects of Kierkegaard’s appearance such as his dress and physical gait. As a result of this sustained campaign of mocking, Kierkegaard felt the full weight of crushing humiliation as public opinion toward him was increasingly shaped by the Corsair– one of the most widely read periodicals in Copenhagen at the time. In one of his diaries from this period, Kierkegaard reflected on the toll the controversy was taking on his ability to live a normal life: 

Young students titter and grin and are happy to see a prominent person trampled on…The slightest thing I do, if it is merely to pay a visit…if the Corsair finds out, it is printed and read by everybody, the man I visit is embarrassed, gets almost angry with me, for which he cannot be blamed.[6]

For Kierkegaard, this experience remained a painful memory throughout his life, perhaps made more bitter by the fact that he was in part responsible for its commencing. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the so-called ‘Corsair Affair’ can be viewed as an experience that played a vital role in the formation of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. This is especially evident in the development of Kierkegaard’s understanding of the relationship between the individual and the crowd. Kierkegaard had indeed suffered at the hands of the Corsair and the judgement of what he referred to as the ‘phantom public,’ yet he was ultimately able to incorporate the harsh lessons of this experience into a renewed championing of the individual in the face of the societal demand for conformity.  

Background to the Corsair Affair

The origins of the Corsair Affair can be found in an interchange between Kierkegaard and the minor Danish literary critic Peder Ludvig Møller.[7] Møller had published a critical review of Kierkegaard’s 1845 book Stages on Life’s Way in a collection of his writings. Although by no means dismissive of Kierkegaard’s literary gifts,[8] Møller expressed his view that although Kierkegaard was an intelligent and talented writer, he did not think that his work displayed thematic consistency. His erratic style and use of pseudonymous authorship compelled Møller to describe Kierkegaard as ‘the philosopher with the many names.”[9] Møller’s review went on to attack Kierkegaard personally rather than confine his review to the contents of the book. This is particularly evident in his treatment of Kierkegaard’s sexuality and his troubled relationship with his former fiancée Regine Olsen. Here Møller accuses Kierkegaard of maliciously toying with the innocent Regine’s heart, resulting in the break-up of their engagement several years earlier:

But to spin another creature into your spider web, dissect it alive or torture the soul out of it drop by drop by means of experimentation– that is not allowed, except with insects, and is there not something horrible and revolting to the healthy human mind even in this idea?[10]

Møller’s agenda was broader than offering an objective analysis of Kierkegaard’s literary qualities, and its impact on the eccentric Dane was instant. Kierkegaard initially responded by writing two articles in a publication named Fatherland,[11] designed to both clarify the intention behind Stages on Life’s Way and to discredit Møller and the Corsair personally. For Kierkegaard, Møller’s review of Stages on Life’s Way had failed to grasp the meaning of the text, and its gossipy, snide tone merely pointed towards Møller’s superficiality and dilettantish character as a literary critic. It was the purpose of Kierkegaard’s article to draw attention not only to Møller’s ignorance but to the role of the Corsair in cultivating a culture of mediocrity. Ultimately, Kierkegaard longed for the abolition of the magazine altogether. Amongst other criticisms, Kierkegaard held that the Corsair had repeatedly failed to report on matters of substance and that it had overlooked an essential opportunity to be a vital tool of existential communication.[12]  

Betraying misplaced confidence in his ability to endure a sustained attack from the press,[13] both of Kierkegaard’s articles provoked the Corsair to target him as its next victim.  This reckless act was very nearly catastrophic for Kierkegaard. The scurrilous nature of the Corsair’s subsequent character assassination affected him deeply, and the trauma of this event was to have lasting repercussions for how Kierkegaard understood his life’s work. What ultimately resulted from the Corsair Affair was a protracted period of self-reflection in which Kierkegaard wrestled with the dignity and uniqueness of individual existence in an intellectual climate of Hegelian speculative philosophy, which was dominant in Europe at the time. Within this climate, the philosophical concept of the ‘individual’ had become a causality of Hegel’s emphasis on the broad sweep of history, in which individuals were a mere cog in the dialectical wheel. Kierkegaard reacted strongly against this trend, seeking to restore the role of subjectivity as a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry.[14]

Interpreting the Press through the Lens of the ‘Single Individual.’

A recurring theme in Kierkegaard’s writing is his concept of the ‘single individual’ (den Enkelte). This apparent tautology delineates an important distinction between the individual as an existing entity in nature and the higher task of becoming a truly ‘single’ individual separated from the crowd of other ‘individuals.’ A ‘single individual’ is not an inherent reality or inevitable feature of earthly existence but is instead an inner reality one must choose to acquire. To embark on the journey toward individuality is theoretically possible for everyone, although few will choose this path. Two of the reasons for this, according to Kierkegaard, stem from a lack of will or ability. Of these, the first is worse because it points to a more damning weakness, in which the prompting of the individual conscience is ignored in order to fit in with society or live an easier life. The second factor preventing people from obtaining their individual status is an ignorance of their enslavement to society and the pressures of being part of ‘the crowd.’ This was a more hopeful state, however, as it allowed for the possibility of enlightenment and growth.   

A decision to become a ‘single individual’ was, for Kierkegaard, a necessary step toward religious enlightenment. It is impossible to divorce Kierkegaard’s philosophy from his Christian convictions, and his understanding of salvation and redemption was closely related to his view of the dignity of the individual. For Kierkegaard, the forgiveness of sin, which is conferred in the receiving salvation, is only part of the Christian requirement. What salvation ultimately leads to is a sense of estrangement from the world, in which the newly constituted individual found themselves living according to a higher authority. This naturally led to a degree of ostracization: 

If someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid —not of the crowd but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule.[15]

Thus, true individuality was something that stemmed from religious conversion. Yet to accept the challenge of becoming an individual meant that all guarantees of meaning and purpose were forfeited. Instead, becoming a ‘single individual’ meant a life of increasing complexity and trial, guided only by a sense that to remain in the alternative state of submission was worse. Kierkegaard understood part of his task as a writer as helping to guide his readers toward making an active decision toward the attainment of their individuality, which was mediated through Christianity. His message was targeted not for the masses, but for the few who were brave enough to accept the challenge.[16] This is reflected within a diary entry from the Corsair period:

From the very beginning, neither the pseudonymous writers nor I have asked for a public but, polemically opposed to any kind of phantasmic nonentity, have always been satisfied with a few individual readers, or, indeed, with that single individual.[17]

The Corsair disaster affirmed to Kierkegaard the sinister role mass media played in curating a culture of distraction which prevented people from accessing their true selves. Of the many crimes of which the media was guilty, the most significant was that it hampered people from coming to an awareness of the purpose of their individual existence. It did this by encouraging its readers to become obsessed with trivialities rather than existential reflection. Kierkegaard felt frustrated that despite the immense power of the media to influence opinion, it chose instead to wallow in the scurrilous. Also, the media —through its obsession with scandal and gossip— introduced to 19th-century Copenhagen society the concept of what Kierkegaard referred to as a “phantom public.” The abstract concept of the ‘public’ functioned as a mechanism for promoting the assimilation of individuals in broader groups. The individual, motivated by fear and a longing to be accepted by the community, subsumed themselves in broader society to avoid judgement and ostracization. In so doing, they lost all sense of uniqueness and true diversity. The media encouraged this through its dictation of cultural trends, fashion, and moral norms.[18] For Kierkegaard, the particularly frustrating aspect to this was that the very concept of a ‘public’ was ill-defined and even non-existent, meaning that the individual sacrificed their unique identity in pursuit of a social ideal which is mythical in character. 

Such insights placed Kierkegaard at the periphery of contemporary objective philosophy. The Corsair’s ongoing attacks, however, revealed to Kierkegaard the truth of his observations through bitter first-hand experience. It was this underlying self-assuredness which led him to comment in his diary that:

I actually do not learn anything I have not already learned, and I thus learn that there is no external hindrance to the rightness of my thinking simply because I am alone in it.[19]

Being proved right, however, would have been cold comfort as the daily attacks on his person grew more mocking. The real source of comfort to Kierkegaard during this time, and what ultimately sustained him throughout his life, was his conviction that he was bound up in a spiritual reality which made the transient events of his day to day life appear less consequential than they might be. Again, his diary reflects this:

For one can grow weary of all temporal and earthly things, and so it would be tormenting if they were to continue eternally. But the person who receives a vision of ideals instantaneously has but one prayer to God: an eternity…And there is no hurry, there is time enough, plenty of time, still and eternity left…what ineffable happiness, what bliss![20]

Ultimately, Kierkegaard viewed himself as a pilgrim in the world. It is his sense of being a sort of resident alien in the cosmos which allowed him to deal with his tribulations. Whether this points to the truth of his spiritual convictions or a disturbed psychological state is up to the interpreter to decide. What is clear, however, is that it was this sense of being called to a higher purpose which allowed him to cope with the Corsair Affair and utilize this experience for the development of his theology and philosophy. 

Concluding Remarks

Kierkegaard’s experience with the Corsair raises several discussion points for interpreters. One might use the Corsair Affair as a way of discussing the often-problematic way in which the media —and social networking in particular— are used as a form of exacting justice and fostering a culture of tribalism. Additionally, one might draw on Kierkegaard’s complicity in provoking the editors of the Corsair as a source of insight into the Philosopher’s psychological constitution, which certainly appears to reflect some masochistic tendencies. Alternatively, a theologian might explore the individualistic nature of Kierkegaard’s understanding of salvation and how this might challenge more contemporary theological approaches which emphasize the corporal elements of Christianity.     

The deeper challenge presented to us through the example of the Corsair Affair, I believe, relates less to the role of technology and media in shaping our society and more in its questioning of the idea that absorption in a community is a good thing. Kierkegaard existed in a time in which the concept of an individual had been devalued, and his task of reclaiming individuality was often interpreted as self-serving and even arrogant.[21] In our own time, there are constant demands for our allegiance, be this political, cultural, or religious. The noise of these demands can easily drown out the silent voice of the individual conscience, which becomes a mere subject to the will of external forces. Kierkegaard’s admirable willingness to stand firm in his convictions ensured he walked a lonely path, but it was a necessary one for the development of his philosophy.    

Notes:

[1]Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 127. 

[2] See Howard Hong’s introduction in Søren Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair and Articles Related to the Writings, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), ix. 

[3] Walter Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 176. 

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).   

[5] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 50. 

[6] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 212. 

[7] K. Brian Söderquist described Møller as having a negligible influence within the Golden Age of Danish literature and argues that the main reason he is known to history is because of his relationship to Kierkegaard. K. Brian Söderguist, “Peder Ludvig Møller: “If He Had Been a Somewhat More Significant Person”, in Kierkegaard and his Danish Contemporaries: Literature, Drama and Aesthetics, vol. 7, Tome III, ed. Jon Stewart (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016). 

[8] Møller had elsewhere commended Kierkegaard for his witticisms and elegance in his critiques of Heiberg. See the introduction to Søren Kierkegaard, Prefaces and Writing Sampler, edited and translated by Todd W. Nichol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).  

[9] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 99. 

[10] Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 392. 

[11] Both of these articles were attributed the Frater Taciturnus- the same pseudonymous author of Stages on Life’s Way. The Activity of a Travelling Aesthetician and How He Still Happened to Pay for the Dinner and The Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action can be found in Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 38-46, 47-50. 

[12] Nerina Jansen, “A Key to Kierkegaard’s Views of the Daily Press,” in International Kierkegaard Commentary: The Corsair Affair, 24 vols., (ed.) Robert L. Perkins (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990),13:2.

[13] Howard Hong has also suggested that Kierkegaard might well have expected cultural and religious to come to his defense should The Corsair launch its attack. See Howard Hong’s introduction in Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, vii-xxxviii.  

[14] Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegelian philosophy finds its most forceful presentation in his 1846 study Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, 2 vols., trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). 

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper, 1938), 196-7. 

[16] In this sense, Kierkegaard shares some affinity with Nietzsche’s well-known disdain for the ‘herd,’ which functioned as a descriptor for a compliant and docile humanity. For an excellent discussion of the relationship between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche see James Kellenberger, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: Faith and Eternal Acceptance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).     

[17] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 201. 

[18] Although the media could have utilised its power for building people up, it instead chose to promote and encourage the crude and base instincts of humanity, thus further distancing its consumers from the task of attaining individual status. Kierkegaard referred to this process as ‘levelling,’ leading him to write in Two Ages that “for levelling to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of levelling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage- and this phantom is the public. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 90. 

[19] Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 179. 

[20] Ibid, 255. 

[21] One of Kierkegaard’s most vocal critics was the Lutheran State Church Bishop Hans Lassen Martensen, who once described the former as a man “without church and without history, and who seeks Christ only in the ‘desert’ and in ‘private rooms.’” See Hans Lassen Martensen, “I Anledning af Dr. S. Kierkegaards Artikel i ‘Fædrelandet’ Nr. 295,” Berlingske Tidende, 302, December 28, 1854, as cited in Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 360-62.  

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A Boy, a Preacher, and a Wizard.

I remember 1997 well. It was the year that the Ricky Martin phenomenon hit the rural Victorian town of Echuca. The girls at my high school were losing their minds over how hot he was. Little did they know that they were wasting their time. It was the year, too, in which I fully committed myself to a life of music. My drum teacher reckoned I ‘had what it takes’ to make it as a pro, and this was all the prophetic input I needed to chart out the course of my life. But 1997 was also the year of religious enlightenment, for it was in this year that I finally conceded that the Church had more than its fair share of nut-jobs (myself included). There were plenty of warning signs, mind you. But this particular Sunday in February was to take the cake for weirdness.

I remember that Dad was preaching his usual kind of sermon. During this phase in his ministerial career, he seemed to be focussed on the Old Testament. Although I can’t remember exactly what the theme was that day, it was probably something to do with ‘the principles of living in God’s Kingdom’ (a favourite theme of his at the time). He was even harping on about this stuff up home. My Brother and I couldn’t commit any minor misdemeanour without Dad reminding us that we were failing to live up to the ‘principles of God’s kingdom.’ Of course, very few people know exactly what God’s kingdom is. Even Jesus never specifically told anyone. But Dad knew, and apparently, it was related to combatting insubordinate behaviour from one’s sons.

Whatever the topic was that day didn’t matter to me one iota. You see, I happened to be in love with Melissa, and she was sitting a few rows over from me. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her. We had recently shared our first kiss in the back of the youth van on our way back to Echuca after an underwhelming Christian concert in Melbourne. After going in for the kill I was surprised and relieved to find her kissing me back with just as much passion. I felt bad for Marie who was sitting next to us, but what can you do? It was young love and by the time we got dropped of home our relationship status had become ‘official.’ Since that time things had progressed nicely, although the constant intrusions of our parents were a real thorn in our sides. We had taken to going for long outdoor ‘walks’ by the Murray River to get our desired alone time.

Anyway, as I glanced sideways at Melissa on this warm Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I would like to do with her (within the sanctity of marriage of course.). She was responding to my borderline psychotic glare by giving me this cheeky scolding look as if to say that she loved the attention but was also aware of where we were. She was killing me softly just by looking at me. I was utterly transfixed; a teenage boy reduced to a pathetic entanglement of nervousness and infatuation. Even writing this makes me feel awkward, and I kind of feel like I want to punch my teenage self in the face and tell him to stop being so nauseating. But such was the depth of our longing, which we were sure was going to last forever. Nothing could break the spell of our love (note: she left me a few months later), and I planned on gazing at Melissa adoringly until the service ended. These plans, however, were rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Wizard and his family of freaks.

chase-clark-HKKM537I_Ik-unsplashI say Wizard more as a visual reference point than a vocational reality. His long, thin, wispy beard reached down just above his slightly protruding stomach. It was grey, with flecks of brown hair dotted throughout. He was wearing a matching sports tracksuit that looked old and tattered. But what I remember most was his eyes. They were the eyes of a sneaky, wily, and potentially dangerous individual. They kept darting around the room, sussing it out for any potential threats or opportunities. There was a cold and calculating shrewdness in them that immediately raised the hair on my arms. His menacing disposition was complemented by the corner of his mouth, which was turned slightly upward in a faint smirk. If the Norse God Loki was amongst us in physical form, I can imagine him looking exactly like this guy (minus the tracksuit, perhaps).

Although I sensed trouble, I contented myself with just keeping an eye on him. If possible, I wanted to pre-empt some sort of attack that he might unleash. Perhaps he had explosives strapped to his torso? Maybe he had a syringe loaded with some sort of contagious virus? It pays to be prepared for every scenario. As I watched, however, I noticed that he seemed focussed on listening to the sermon with an intensity that would make even the most devout of believers envious. The Wizard rocked back and forth in his pew, with each vocal crescendo of my Dad’s sermon elevating his enthusiasm to a fever pitch. He started dripping sweat, although at least part of this because the Church was located in a stifling former school demountable. Whatever the cause, the sweat accentuated the manic quality of this random visitor and made me even more worried.

In turned out that these fears were well and truly justified. Arriving at the central point of his sermon, my Dad implored the congregation to follow the precedent of Scripture and apply it to our own lives. Without further encouragement, the Wizard stood up unannounced and proclaimed to the entire congregation that he would do exactly what the sermon said. Now, this might sound all well and good, but one got the sense that the reason for this public display was motivated less by a passionate response to the Lord and more by the desire to be seen and heard. The Wizard gazed intently around the room as he made his statement of conviction, almost challenging us to some sort of fight. Once his eyes had completed their 360- degree survey of the congregation they returned to focus solely on my Dad.

Dad, to his credit, took the interruption in his stride. He calmly reassured the Wizard that he would chat with him more about the sermon after the service. He probably assumed that the Wizard was merely caught up in a moment of religious zealotry and would settle back down in his seat like everyone else. This particular Pentecostal church was known for its public outbursts of spiritual adoration, to say nothing of the random outbursts of flatulence from one particular member whom, it was said, had endured a brain injury in childhood. Yet if my Dad sensed that his corrective to the Wizard was the end of it, he was very wrong. Offended by what he interpreted as my Dad’s rebuke, the Wizard struck back in a tone revealing his combative intentions: “But Pastor, I want to talk about it NOW!”

Not one to back away from a confrontation, my Dad stood his ground. “Please sit down and wait until after the service. We will talk more then.” His tone was polite but firm and conveyed a sense that this was a non-negotiable point. This was all the impetus needed for the Wizard to reveal his true purpose. To the shock of the gathered faithful, the Wizard arrogantly strode toward the front of the church, yanked the microphone from my Dad’s hands, and whacked him on the top of the head with it. This was done with considerable force. Dad was knocked out cold, and it is to my lasting shame that I confess I found this image mildly amusing. It’s not every day in which you get to see your own father temporarily unconscious in church due to the actions of a visiting Wizard.

Instead of calling the ambulance, the congregation saw it fit to host a prayer meeting in which we prayed for my Dad’s speedy recovery. This was led by a more conservative member of the congregation who, despite her fundamentalism, really enjoyed the glam rockers Poison (she once told me that the tune Fallen Angel summed up her life prior to conversion). Another strapping gent from the gathering took the microphone (which still worked) and proclaimed to all and sundry that we had just witnessed an attack of the devil. The threat of coming under demonic attack spurned an even more vigorous prayer circle.

This divine supplication must have worked, as after a few moments Dad came to and sat upright. Bewildered, he smoothed his ruffled hair and laughed the incident off. Meanwhile, the Wizard had gathered his family together and forced them outside the church building and into the family car. Here he proceeded to do donuts in the parking lot while laughing and shouting maniacally about something understood by no one but himself. Eventually, he drove off down the street never to be seen or heard of again, except in the faithful retelling of this story at family get-togethers where it has become the stuff of legend.

 

 

 

 

 

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Kilkenny Trains

Dad used to walk me to the train line near Kilkenny station in suburban Adelaide when he felt like a bit of train-spotting. The station was a short walk from my Grandparent’s house, where my Dad spent his boyhood years. I guess these walks were nostalgic for him, but for me, the late afternoon trains rolling in and out of this lonely and neglected station transfixed my imagination.

Then-as now- the station wedges itself in the middle of rundown industrial buildings. Graffiti lines the brick walls, the windows have been smashed out, and the usual debris 70680206_10218760734542412_2286841811903184896_nof squatters and discarded construction materials litter the earth. These remnants of a more prosperous age create an isolated and faintly foreboding atmosphere at the station, despite the major road that cuts through the track just beyond the end of the platform. Positioning ourselves just past the station and away from the city, we would stand alongside the track in the twilight glow. Often Dad would bring my Grandpa’s old video camera to immortalise the moment for posterity. It was one of those 1980s models that had a large microphone attached to the top of it. Cumbersome, inconvenient but cutting-edge technology in those days.

As the trains turned the corner in the far distance, Dad would put his hand on my shoulder and guide my attention toward the faintly approaching light of the first carriage. “That’ll be the 4:44 pm,” he would say. “It’s running a bit late.” As I turned my gaze to the oncoming light, I would find myself stuck in a sort of trance. The approaching noise and light contrasted with the silent calm of our position alongside the track. The impending meeting of the worlds of silence and noise more exciting to me than a feature film.

As the train belted past, I would close my eyes and bask in the rush of air as it blew across my face. Then, just as soon as the last carriage passed, I would turn around and watch it retreat into the distance. The soft glow of its fading light and gentle rattle of  carriages whispered their goodbyes for another day.

 

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