German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 4: Adolf Stoecker

The Church leader, preacher, and politician Adolf Stoecker (1835–1909) presents a challenge to those interested in the history of German anti-Semitism and its influence on the Nazi movement. On the one hand, Stoecker reflects negative attitudes toward the Jews which were hardly unique within the context of late 19th century Germany. A common interpretation is that he was motivated by a desire to see the Jews convert to Christianity, and as such his own position on the Jews has been considered somewhat “softer” in its approach than some of his more radical contemporaries.1 Unfortunately, this view overlooks the breadth of Stoecker’s position, which includes clear references to a racially informed anti-Semitism. His proclamations, many of which were expressed through speeches and sermons, cast doubt on his claims that he was only interested in cultural and religious reformation and not in inciting persecution or fanaticism.2 The complex dynamics of Stoecker’s anti-Semitism, therefore, must be considered when analysing his contribution to questions relating to the Church and state, and his subsequent impact on theologians within the German Christian Movement.  

Stoecker was born in the Saxon town of Halberstadt within the Kingdom of Prussia. A child of humble, working-class origins, Stoecker showed enough intellectual promise that he was eventually sent to Halberstadt University where he commenced his training to become a pastor.3 Stoecker quickly distinguished himself as a zealous defender of Lutheranism. Renowned for his oratorical and polemical skills, Stoecker earned the nickname the “second Luther” for his fierce fidelity to the theology of the great reformer.4 Upon ordination, Stoecker joined the Prussian army in the capacity of Chaplain and was quick to interpret the fortunes of war as acts of divine providence. In a sermon delivered to Prussian soldiers, Stoecker argued that their victory over France in the 1870 Siege of Metz was directly attributable to an act of God, stating that “from the Emperor to the common soldier, the German nation as a body was truly religiously moved.”5

As Stoecker’s star rose quickly across Germany, he soon published widely on a range of social and political issues.6 Stoecker was eventually appointed to the position of Court Chaplain under the reign of Emperor Wilhelm I. Despite his relatively low rank, Stoecker became influential due to his political and religious views, which the public interpreted as representative of the Emperor’s own position.7 One of Stoecker’s most important roles as court chaplain was to oppose the Social Democratic Party, which he loathed for its atheistic philosophy and inherent materialism.8 Fiercely nationalistic and committed to the health of the German Volk, Stoecker formed the Christian–Socialist Workers Party in 1878. A major philosophical foundation of the party was the strident belief that the Christian faith should be directly involved with national politics.9 For Stoecker, the concept of the separation of Church and State was anathema, and his heart for the spiritual and material wellbeing of Germany’s working classes was fuelled by his own Christian convictions and desire to implement social reform.

In his attempts toward these ends Stoecker was only marginally successful, owing in part to the perception that he did not address the material concerns of workers.10 Richard Gutteridge also notes that Stoecker’s pontificating was perceived as “condescending to the masses from the authoritative heights of royalty and nobility.”11 However, Stoecker’s political influence spread irrespective of a general cynicism toward his regal position, and his increase in standing was accompanied by an escalation in outspokenness in relation to Germany’s Jews. In offering a sustained polemic against the Jews, Stoecker tapped into a cultural environment already witnessing negative shifts in attitudes toward Judaism. In 1879 Stoecker launched his anti-Semitic campaign with a statement succinctly summarising his own position on the Judenfrage: “We Germans, out of cosmopolitan enthusiasm for the emancipation of Jews, are foolish enough to ruin our nation.”12 This assessment of the Jews as responsible for the corruption and downfall of the German nation struck a resonant chord with the public and formed the ideological platform for Stoecker’s future anti-Semitic work. 

As his theological proclamations grew more stridently nationalistic, Stoecker involved himself with some disturbing acts of anti-Semitic advocacy. In 1881 he presented von Bismarck with a petition stating the need for “the preservation of the German people from alien domination.”13 The petition received 250,000 signatures, including those of various members of the Christian clergy.14 Stoecker was also skilled at political networking and lobbying, which he successfully cultivated in the attempt to expand his party’s ideological and religious powerbase. The German Conservative Party (DVP) had itself cultivated close ties with Stoecker’s Christian Socialist Party, and as a result of this symbiotic relationship the Tivoli Programme was launched in 1892, the purpose of which was to campaign against the “aggressively pushy, demoralizing and subversive Jewish influence on the life of our people.”15 The rationale for the Tivoli programme appealed to those who had suffered a loss of status and power under the liberal and modernizing tendencies of von Bismarck’s Germany (e.g., the working classes). Because of this many found themselves eager to embrace the Jewish scapegoat provided to them via Stoecker and the Conservative Party.16   

Although much of Stoecker’s anti-Semitic statements, writings, and sermons relate primarily to the questions of culture, politics, and religion, it is possible to discern in his public pronouncements distinct strands of the biological and racial anti-Semitism which increased in influence in the latter part of the 19th century. These sentiments draw attention to the complex interplay between race and religion in Stoecker’s views on the Jews. In his public speeches, for example, Stoecker spoke of race as being an “important element in the Jewish question,” and that any reconciliation between the Jews and Germans would require a “sincere rebirth from the depths of the consciences of upright Israelites.”17

In considering the future direction of German religious, political, and cultural life, Stoecker again references the racial, evolutionary component of the Judenfrage when he references the Old Testament as representing a “lower stage” of revelatory development, and that it was now replaced by the far superior Volk Christianity of 19th century Germany.18 Jeremy Telman highlights the various ways in which Stoecker’s anti-Semitism represented a marked departure from the traditional forms of Christian anti-Semitism which had been a feature of German Protestantism since Luther. Telman states that “Stoecker understood the Jewish people as having certain racial traits, and he believed these traits, to the extent that such modern Jews had an influence on German life, endangered the purity of German culture.”19

In his study of the Nazi theologians’ appropriation of Luther, Christopher Probst references Stoecker as one of the key figures used by the Deutsche Christen to perpetuate the crude notion that its own theological revisionism was merely a new expression of a long anti-Semitic tradition within German intellectual life.20 Stoecker’s influence was such that it led the pastor Paúl le Seúr to regard him as an early prophet of National Socialism. Le Seúr views Stoecker as the model of faithfulness and loyalty, both for his political activism (including his anti-Semitism) and his unswerving faith in God. Thus, in Le Seúr’s view Stocker is a proto-typical National Socialist who is to be revered in the Third Reich as one of their ideological forebears.21

That the Nazi employment of Stoecker ignored his somewhat complicated relationship with Judaism (particularly in relation to his own hopes that Jews would fully integrate themselves in German cultural life, in part through conversion to Christianity) was an act of deliberate selectivity designed to limit balanced or otherwise nuanced references toward the Jews throughout history. The Nazis largely ignored, for example, Stoecker’s repeated claims to operate from a basis of political and social concern only.22 The National Socialist and SS member Johann von Leers argued in a 1934 reprint of Theodor Fritsch’s Handbuch der Judenfrage that despite Stoecker being anti-Semitic, he was not so in the sense that this term came to be understood in the National Socialist period.23

Major voices within the secondary literature emphasise Stoecker’s so-called moderation, with George Mosse suggesting that his anti-Semitism was qualitatively different than the crude “street corner variety” common to the late 19th century. Karl Kupisch points to examples of Stoecker denouncing both racial and religious anti-Semitism in various speeches and writings —evidence which apparently reinforces the idea that his sole concern was with fostering a Godly, orderly society.24 It remains clear, however, that Stoecker’s own contributions toward anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are especially important considering 20th century developments under Nazism. Most significant for this thesis, Stoecker reintroduced the Judenfrage to the theological and ecclesial sphere in a new and powerful way. It was Stoecker who developed the link between Christianity and Völkisch ideology, describing the new faith as a “Christian Volk-consciousness.”25 Under the guiding hand of various Nazi theologians, the fusion of these two disparate philosophies led to a complete and utter distortion of the gospel in the Third Reich era. Stoecker’s position as a Christian preacher and member of the Imperial court was also important for the politicisation of anti-Semitism. If the Nazi party was able to capitalize on an already existing prejudice toward the Jews, then Stocker must be considered one of the most important historical figures in terms of both legitimizing anti-Semitism within the realms of theology and the ecclesia, and through the popularising of his ideology through his political proclamations.26

Not least, Stoecker’s championing of the cause of the lower-middle classes, as well as his scapegoating of the Jews as being responsible for their plight, was a position which would find a particularly vehement expression in the turbulent interwar years. This theme was so important to Nazi propaganda, in fact, that it was often included in instructions given to National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) members who were scheduled to make speeches on behalf of the party. In a 1943 list of instructions for speakers presenting on Hitler’s birthday, special mention is made of the need to include a reference to Hitler’s combatting of the “Jewish seduction of the working class and its terrible results.”27 That Stoecker advanced a similar cause in the latter part of the 19th century is but one example of his enduring significance in establishing links between this earlier manifestation of anti-Semitism and its eventual expression in the Third Reich. Stoecker’s racial inferences in his public proclamations, while being far less explicit than those of de Lagarde or Dühring, are important reminders that Stoecker lived and worked in an era in which the Judenfrage was beginning to take on new and sinister implications. While Stoecker himself did not believe he was motivated by hatred toward the Jews, his speeches and writings gave Nazi ideologues the raw material necessary to establish its policies as congruent with the experience of Germany’s past. 


  1. Jeremy Telman summaries this view in “Adolf Stoecker: Anti-Semite with a Christian Mission,” Jewish History 9 (1995): 93–112 (93).
  2. See Richard Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb! The German Evangelical Church and the Jews, 1879-1950 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976), 5. Telman acknowledges the tendency of historians to overlook Stoecker’s sermons as a source of insight into his views on Judaism. See Telman, “Adolf Stoecker,” 99. The only explicit treatment of the content of Stoecker’s sermons is Hans Englemann, Kirche am Abgrund: Adolf Stoecker und seine antijudische Bewegung (Berlin: Selbstverlag Institut Kirche und Judentum, 1984), 71–77. 
  3. A more detailed overview of Stoecker’s biography can be found in Peter Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (London: Peter Halban, 1988), 139–45. See also Dietrich von Oertzen, Adolf Stoecker: Lebensbild und Zeitgeschichte, 2 Bände (Berlin: Vaterländische Verlahs-und Kunstanstalt, 1910).
  4. See Harold Green, “Adolf Stoecker: Portrait of a Demagogue,” Politics & Policy 31 (2008): 108.
  5. As quoted in W.R. Ward, Theology, Sociology and Politics: The German Protestant Social Conscience 1890–1933 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1979), 44–45. 
  6. Green, “Adolf Stoecker,” 108.
  7. Green, “Adolf Stoecker,” 108. 
  8. Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 5.
  9. See Karl Kupisch, Adolf Stoecker, Hofsprediger und Volkstribum (Berlin: Haude & Spenersche, 1970), 80.  
  10. Richard S. Levy, “Our Demands on Modern Jewry,” in Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, 2 vols., ed. Richard Levy (Santa Barbara: ABC–CLIO, 2005), 1:525. 
  11. Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 5.
  12. See Adolf Stoecker, Christlich-Sozial. Reden und Aufsätze (Berlin: Velhagen & Klasing, 1885), 380. 
  13. Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 6.
  14. Franz-Heinrich Phillip, “Protestantismus nach 1848,” in Kirche und Synagoge: Handbuch zer Geschichte von Christen und Juden. Darstellung mit Quellen, ed. Kark Heinrich Rengstorf and Seigfried von Kortzfleisch, 2 vols. (Munich: DTV, 1988), 2:299–300.  
  15. Felix Salomon, Die neuen Parteiprogramme mit den lezten der alten Parteien zusammengestellt, 2nd ed. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1919), 23. 
  16. For a review of the German Conservative political movement in the late 19th century, see Hans-Jurgen Puhle, “Conservatism in Modern German History,” Journal of Contemporary History 13 (1978): 689–720. 
  17. Adolf Stoecker, Reden und Aufsätze, ed. Reinhold Seeberg (Leipzig: Deichertsche, 1913), 143–44. Emphasis mine.
  18. Stoecker, Christlich-sozial, 360.
  19. Telman, “Adolf Stoecker,” 106.
  20. Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 137. See also Holger Weitenhagen, Evangelisch und deutsch: Heinz Dungs und die Pressepolitik der Deutschen Christen (Bonn: Habelt/Rheinland, 2001), 473–74.  
  21. See the forward to Von Paúl Le Seúr, Adolf Stoecker: der Prophet des Dritten Reiches (Berlin: Hochweg, 1936). 
  22. Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 9.
  23. Theodor Fritsch, Handbuch der Judenfrage (Leipzig: Hammer, 1934), 512. 
  24. Kupisch, Adolf Stoecker, 43–44.
  25. Walter Holsten argues that Stoecker was influenced more by Germanic ideology as opposed to the “pure Gospel.” If this is indeed true, it has important implications for the future direction of German Christianity. See Walter Holsten, “Walter Stoecker als Symptom seiner Zeit,” in Christen und Juden, ed. Wolf-Dieter Marsch and Karl Thieme (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald, 1961), 200.  
  26. Gutteridge notes that Stoecker himself “boasted that he had converted the Jewish question from a matter of literary interest into a subject for debate in public meetings and thereby encouraged its political treatment” (Open Thy Mouth, 11). 
  27. Redner-Schnellinformation, Lieferung 55, 12 April 1943.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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