the Protestant Churches of Nauen District, Brandenburg
- PROTECTING THE CHURCH
At the time Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the parishes of the Nauen District were led by Superintendent Grasshof, who had been in post for less than a year. But two years later ill health forced his retirement, and he was followed in quick succession by two very brief Interim (temporary) Superintendencies. By 1936 the position was again vacant, and this time it was filled by Ulrich Bettac, who remained as Interim Superintendent for four years.[i]
Bettac was born in 1879, and began his ministry in a parish of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern province, north of Brandenburg, from 1908 to 1912. He then moved to a second parish in the same province from 1912 to 1922. During that time he became associated with a movement of pastors, six of whom met in Berlin on October 9th 1918, to set up the “High Church Union of the Augsburg Confession”. Bettac was elected Chair, a post which he held for six years. Their main concern was what they saw as the over-dependence of the Church of the Old Prussian Union on the monarchy and the State, and the danger that, if the monarchy collapsed, as by then seemed inevitable, the essential foundation of the Church would be seriously undermined. In their view the Church to which they belonged was dominated by a “Calvinistic Court Christianity and German National Protestantism”, and of all the provincial churches of Germany was the least influenced by any more Catholic understanding of the church’s nature and life. So they aimed to restore a sense of the Church as the successor to the ancient apostolic faith and tradition, and to revive some of the inherited liturgical forms of worship which gave expression to that vision. Their purpose was not to move closer to Roman Catholicism, but to renew the Protestant (Evangelische) Church by a rediscovery of genuine Catholicity. In that sense they had much in common with the Oxford Tractarian Movement of the Church of England in the 1830s, its reaction against Parliament’s claim to reform the Church, and its assertion of a far more ancient foundation and constitution, giving it independence from the State.
In a pamphlet written two years later for the High Church Union, in which he described that day in Berlin, Bettac wrote: “We had great concern for our dear Protestant Church, and above all for the Kingdom of God, a concern which found a clear response in our hearts, and in our most industrious work from early morning to late evening we succeeded in identifying the most important elements from among the great complexity of new thinking, pulling back the choking climbing creepers and laying bare the high core of the church’s life”. The group “believed we had felt God’s mind and God’s nearness immediately in the work…. and so in our High Church efforts we looked, not to our human discoveries, but to the ways and will of our great God.”
In 1921 Bettac moved to a new pastorate near Potsdam, and finally in 1929 to Beetz in the northern part of Nauen District.[ii] Perhaps the theology he had worked out with the High Church Union guided his response to the Nazi threat which nearly twenty years later threatened the same church.
“Herein lies the whole difficulty”, he said in a letter to Posth, “to find a place for Confessing Church brothers, and on this basis, I have taken and do take the view that the Confessing Church hurts itself through its isolation. What does it matter if the brothers get themselves legalised? Indeed, they would then enter into regular pastorates and we could work through the whole church like leaven, until the extremely patched up German Christian wineskin bursts.”[iii]
Whether this was a tactical decision or a matter of conviction, it gave Bettac the position he needed to oppose the influence of German-Christians in Nauen District, and to support Confessing Church members and sympathisers as much as possible. He regularly invited Confessing Church speakers, including those who themselves rejected the official church bodies, to District pastoral conferences, which he organised, and set up informal meetings for any who would have nothing to do with even his District meetings because they were still within the official structures. He told curate Böck, newly appointed to Staffelde parish, that they were intended for members and friends of the Confessing Church, and expressed the hope that he was not inclined to the German-Christians: “Openly, I would like to inform you that I belong to the mild Confessing Church orientation, and for that reason I also….. take the position that we all must build a common front against the German Christians in order to save our church. I would be delighted if you stood the same way.”[iv]
He opposed changes to church practices that he knew to be politically motivated, such as the request of the Berlin church authorities for younger people to be appointed to church councils, since he knew that younger people were more likely to be sympathetic to National Socialist ideology.[v] And he worked hard to frustrate the appointment of German-Christians to District parishes, inciting parishioners to object, knowing that the Berlin authorities were reluctant to impose a minister they themselves favoured in the face of local opposition. He wrote to Frau Eichler of the Vehlefanz parish about a new curate proposed for that congregation, admitting that he did not know his orientation: “If I may give you advice confidentially, it is this: As soon as Herr Pastor Klähn is there, establish his church-political position by asking him openly. If he is not a ‘German Christian’ I would ask you to work with him, but if he is a ‘German Christian’, reject him and turn to me again, so that we can get another temporary pastor in there”. [vi]
When he took over as Interim Superintendent he had inherited a thorny problem at Markau, a parish of 950 people some three miles south of Nauen. Since the death of Pastor Ideler in January 1935 the village had been badly served by a series of four temporary Vicars, two of whom were accused of embezzling parish funds, one of which had so angered people by his German-Christian preaching that seventy-five parishioners signed a petition to have him dismissed- a number greater in fact than those who had attended Communion while he was in post in 1935. A third caused trouble by refusing to accept the authority of the neighbouring pastor who was his supervisor. Several plans to link Markau with other parishes, in order to provide enough resources to support a pastor, were put forward, for example by Herbert Posth, who suggested a link with Gross Behnitz and Restow, with the pastor living at Gross Behnitz. But Otto Schmidt, the Interim Superintendent before Bettac, came up with a grand plan to move the District Superintendent’s office to Markau and appoint a German-Christian (perhaps himself) as permanent Superintendent. However, this plan aroused such opposition (for a variety of reasons) that Schmidt suddenly resigned as Interim Superintendent, to the frustration of the Provincial church authorities, because it could well have left them no choice but to appoint Bettac as the only potentially capable candidate, thwarting their hopes to undermine the strength of the Confessing Church in the District. Wedged between these rival political interests in the meantime, attendances at Markau’s services continued to decline, with no more than half a dozen regular members, and on some Sundays no one present at all. Bettac’s efforts to persuade the authorities to appoint the curate currently serving the parish (a Confessing Church member) as pastor came to nothing, as did his later proposal for a neighbouring Confessing Church curate to take over. Markau was still vacant, served by temporary clergy, when Bettac gave up as Superintendent in 1940, and it was only in 1942, with the arrival of Pastor Glockner, that rebuilding could begin. [vii]
Bettac had more success in ensuring a Confessing Church replacement for the German-Christian Pastor Kahle at Linum,[viii] and in blocking the appointment of a German-Christian assistant for Friedrich Siems at Nauen.[ix] He fully supported Herbert Posth over Ribbeck, to keep German-Christians out of that parish, but was frustrated by Posth’s intransigence in refusing to give way to Walter Pachali, who was perfectly acceptable to Bettac, though not to Posth. However he continued to support Posth publicly.[x] He argued with his friend Konrad Isleib of Hackenburg, who contended that what was needed most was unity. As Isleib put it: “The essential aim [is] to establish a unifying band which encompasses the individual church groups, in order to have a Protestant church for our nation which is at least externally united….. a church that our nation and Fatherland need and that our Führer expects from us…. The civil war and the disunity must be overcome. We must come out of the paralysing ecclesiastical discord and fruitless battle of groups; we must come to a clear relationship between church and state”. Bettac answered that, although in the interests of unity he was willing to work with most people, even moderate German-Christians, he refused to have anything to do with extreme German-Christians, and that Isleib had failed to grasp the most important point at issue. [xi]
It was not that efforts in the District to secure positions for Confessing Church members rather than for German-Christians always went smoothly. At Gross and Klein (Great and Little) Behnitz, Kurt Fritzsche had been serving as Curate. The parish patron, Dr Ernst von Borsig, nominated him as the permanent pastor because, as he explained, his “calm, serene, determined and very loving manner” made him “the most suitable candidate” over many others. Fritzsche was open that he belonged to the Confessing Church, and the church council, who had themselves joined the Confessing Church in May 1937, confirmed him as their choice in early March 1938. The reaction of some in the parish was swift. On March 7th the mayor, teachers and 101 other parishioners sent a complaint to the Berlin church authorities, objecting to Fritzsche on the grounds that he was a “lawbreaker by conviction”. They protested against the idea that “there could be some other law for a German church than there is for the German nation”, and that “for the sake of our German nation…. we can make no allowance for teaching which tears apart the national community”. They further demanded that the authorities appoint German-Christian pastor Friedrich Siems of Nauen as their parish supervisor until someone more acceptable could be found. Two days later this was answered by two other petitions, signed by a total of 392 parishioners (some of whom had earlier signed the complaint, but now withdrew their support), urging Berlin to confirm Fritzsche without delay, particularly as the petition against him had been submitted after the statutory time allowed for protests. Von Borsig argued that these two petitions represented three quarters of the adult parishioners of Klein Behnitz and 80 percent of Gross Behnitz, and that many of those who had signed the earlier complaint were people “who never had any time for Christianity or for the church”. Fritzsche was duly confirmed as permanent pastor, the authorities perhaps being partly reassured by Fritzsche’s expressed willingness to work with them.[xii]
That did not, however, spell the end of his troubles in the parish. On November 11th, 1938, the day after the Kristallnacht burning of synagogues and wrecking of Jewish businesses, Fritzsche discussed the events with his confirmation class. Some of them reported him to the local authorities for having said that “Jews are also people like us”, that “the Jew from Paris is only one criminal”, and when they blamed Jews in general “That is not true”. Principal Lehman, who was quoted by class members as saying that anyone helping a Jew is not a German, then banned Fritzsche from holding confirmation classes in the school. Fritzsche was censured both by the local Gestapo and the Berlin church authorities, but no further action was taken against him.[xiii]
From 1938 Bettac was himself increasingly attacked by German-Christians: Georg Gartenschläger of Bötzow complained that he ignored German-Christian pastors’ requests for funds, in contrast, for example to Posth’s successful application for help with a kindergarten at Ribbeck and for on-going youth work.[xiv] When at a pastoral conference Curate Stehlmann challenged Friedrich Siems, asking him how he could reconcile his views with his ordination vow, Siems stormed out and demanded that Stehlmann be disciplined. But Bettac refused. [xv] In 1939, when the Berlin authorities suspended Günther Harder’s salary, Bettac ensured that it was restored.[xvi] But in 1940 his wife left him, which forced him to give up the Superintendency. Rumours that Berlin intended to appoint a German- Christian provoked Herbert Posth into writing “We must immediately act energetically against it, before it is too late”. But there was little Bettac could do, and Pastor Simon, a moderate German- Christian from the neighbouring District of Oranienburg became Interim Superintendent from 1941 until his death in 1944, an appointment that proved uncontroversial in the event. Following Simon’s death 1944 Bettac was re-appointed for a year. He retired from his pastorate at Beetz in 1950, and died nine years later.[xvii]
The battles fought by Bettac, Harder, Posth and others kept German-Christian influence in Nauen District to a minimum, more so than in many other areas. But their success was limited to the churches themselves, and Hitler’s fading interest and support for the German-Christian movement, once he realised that they were not going to have their way unimpeded in the churches, perhaps gave the Confessing Church the leeway to achieve what it did against them. But there is little, at least not in the written records, about wider matters- the 1938 Confessing Church liturgy on the growing threat of war, and the 1943 ‘Word of the Church’ on the murder of disabled people and Jews stand out as rare exceptions.[xviii]
Of course, once Hitler and the Nazi Party had consolidated their power in Germany it became increasingly risky to oppose the policies of the State itself, in contrast to protests about the way the State undermined the independence of the Church. The Insidiousness Law (or the Treachery Act) of December 1934 subjected such opposition to the severest penalties, including death.[xix] And once war broke out in 1939 any action deemed to undermine Germany’s war effort or plot against the authorities was clearly treason. Even before war came opposition would struggle against the almost universal acclamation of Hitler as the restorer of Germany’s greatness. The Anschluss with Austria, bringing a once proud Empire, now reduced to a dwarf state, into union with the Reich of all Germans, the “rescue” of the Sudeten Germans from the “tyranny” of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Poland to recover lands torn away after 1918, all these increased his popularity, as did miraculous and lightning victories up to 1940 over Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. Only when his invasion of Russia careered into disaster at Stalingrad in 1943 did doubts begin to emerge. Until then there were few who were prepared to take the path outlined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his April 1933 “Kirche vor der Juden Frage” (The Church Facing the Jewish Question), for when the State acts in dereliction of its task to maintain justice: first to remind the state of its responsibilities; second to care for the victims of the state’s injustice; and finally, when all else fails, not merely to bandage those who are “under the wheel”, but to jam itself into the spokes of the wheel. And even then, he said, that extreme action would only be possible if an “Evangelical Council” authorised it.[xx] The chance of that happening even in the early years of Hitler’s rule was negligible.
There were challenges that had some impact on the State’s actions. The sermons of Cardinal von Galen, Roman Catholic Bishop of Münster, against euthanasia, helped to persuade Hitler to abandon the policy officially in August 1941, though the practice did not end there. And perhaps more telling were protests from relatives of those marked for elimination.[xxi] Hitler’s response to a determined campaign against the killing of Jews would have been predictably violent, and no such campaign ever emerged, partly because it was mainly happening in territories further east, the facts deliberately obscured from view. After the war (and even earlier) many said that Hitler went “too far”, but the early support for his broad aims was such that protests against his extreme methods came too late to effect any real change.
The traditional Lutheran separation between Gospel and politics, with the Church responsible for the preaching of the Gospel, and the State having almost total freedom in political matters, was certainly a key factor in the failure of Protestants to oppose Hitler’s coming to power. Karl Barth, with his Reformed theological background, reacted against that when the German churches followed their political leaders almost unanimously into the slaughter of 1914 to 1918. But his insistence that all theology must stand wholly and solely on God’s self-revelation in Scripture perhaps failed to give room to develop adequate tools to interpret that revelation for the conflicts of the 1920s. Barmen could say “We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords”, but the solid theological and political thinking needed to translate that into practical politics was still lacking.
Even had events given such a practical theology time to develop, it would still have struggled with prevailing opinion. Even so respected a theological scholar as Gerhard Kittel could say in his 1933 lecture, expanded into his pamphlet “Die Judenfrage” (The Jewish Question) that Scripture records “not only the history of redemption, but also the history of rejection”, and that “One of the fundamental laws that the Old Testament never wearied in proclaiming is that intermixture with other peoples is the gravest sin for Israel…. Genuine Judentum has recognised at all times, and still knows today, that such intermixture of peoples and races means the loss of self-identity and decadence.” His animosity was not to the Orthodox Jew who remained true to his faith, but to the secularised and assimilated Jews (including those who had been baptised as Christians) who were a poison seriously undermining Germany’s coherence and strength.[xxii] The Nazis, of course, failed to recognise any such distinction between “faithful” and “rootless” Jews.
Not that the reasons why so many Christians voted for Hitler and the Nazis in the first place were peculiar to Germany. The sense that Faith and patriotism belong closely together, the desire for national greatness, the impatience with the responsibilities of democracy and the longing for strong and clear leadership and direction, the resistance to socialism and especially Marxism, the distrust and antipathy towards those who do not share the culture, history and faith of the majority, the fear that “alien” influences will seriously weaken the life of the community, and a search for scapegoats who can be blamed for the ills and insecurities felt by society- these are found in most countries and in many congregations. What was distinctive about Germany was the unbearable experience of humiliation in 1918 and the early 1920s, the loss of a revered monarchy, and the emergence of an obsessively determined leader who knew instinctively how to articulate the fears, hatreds and longings of his people. Against that overpowering torrent people like Bonhoeffer, Bettac, Harder, Posth and the rest could try to stand, but could barely deflect one degree. The truth is that in all our minds the deep convictions and emotions of faith and politics lie uneasily together, sometimes contradicting one another. Which has the stronger influence on the other is perhaps the most important question. And that will be the case whether the church commands the loyalty of the majority of the population, as it did in early 20th century Germany, or of a minority, as is more likely to be the case today.
And perhaps one key to that is expressed by Helmut Thielicke, in his autobiographical “Notes from a Wayfarer”. Describing his teenage years in the Reformed parish of Barmen-Gemarke, where the Barmen Declaration was formulated a decade later, he speaks of its “Religious atmosphere……. dominated by Calvinistic sobriety, but it also possessed a power and an aura which even a young person could not escape. The theology preached from the pulpits was a powerful, biblical Pietism.” But then he goes on to say “I only realised a long time afterward that the style and form of language, atmospheric conditions, as well as the intimacy and communal spirit of the group were very often of greater influence than the contents of the Gospel itself. This may have been the reason why a considerable number of religious people were taken in by National Socialism, especially in the early days, for there were people among the Nazis who had spent their youth in this climate. They were thus able to imitate the style- with, of course, fraudulent intentions- with which these religious people were familiar.”[xxiii] That fundamental weakness can be recognised in congregations in many countries and at all times.
In the same book Thielicke reflects on the political mood of 1920s Germany: “For us the Weimar Republic had no future.…. Compared with the splendour of the Kaiser’s reign, this ‘journeyman saddler’ seemed a dull figure to us. Of course, this…. was only the reflection and crude expression of our encounter with the collective opinion of middle-class adults….. This was one of the reasons why….. Nazism was able to sweep everything before it like a torrential river, encountering almost no resistance. This political indifference on the part of the middle class and its offspring had created a vacuum which the Nazis were able to fill with their ideology.”
After WW2 he was asked by an American press office to write an article for American newspapers explaining how “the land of Goethe and Beethoven should have sunk to the inhumanity of National Socialism….. I portrayed National Socialism as (a) model case of what can happen to a nation that has become insecure and disoriented for some reason. As a result…. the German people had not recognised in Hitler the ‘beast from the abyss’ but had taken him to be an angel of light. Americans should take care that they do not find themselves in a similar position and should learn from Germany’s dreadful experience”.[xxiv]
This paper depends for most of its information on Kyle Janzten’s book “Faith and Fatherland: Parish politics in Hitler’s Germany”, published in 2008 by Fortress Press, Minneapolis, an account of Protestant churches in three districts of Germany in the 1930s, Pirna in Saxony, Regensburg in Württemberg, and Nauen in Brandenburg. It is supplemented in this section by information on the early career of Ulrich Bettac from “Eine sächsische Lebensgeschichte: Erinnerungen 1889–1972” by Karl Buchheim, published by R. Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich, in 1996; by Bonhoeffer’s “The Church and the Jewish Question” from “A Testament to Freedom” edited by Geoffrey B. Kelly and E. Burton Nelson, published by HarperOne in 1995; by the reference to Cardinal von Galen in Victoria Barnett: “For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler”, published by Oxford University Press, 1992; by the reference to Gerhard Kittel in Richard Gutteridge “Open thy Mouth for the Dumb: The German Evangelical Church and the Jews, 1879 to 1950”, published by Basil Blackwell Oxford in 1976; and by Helmut’ Thielicke’s “Notes from a Wayfarer”, translated by David R Law and published by James Clarke & Co, Cambridge (1995)
[i] Jantzen: “Faith and Fatherland”, p 112
[ii] Buchheim: “Eine sachsische Lebensgeschichte”, pp 114-5
[iii] Jantzen, pp 85, 116, 125-6
[iv] Jantzen, pp 125-6
[v] Jantzen, p 127
[vi] Jantzen, p79
[vii] Jantzen, pp 76-79
[viii] Jantzen, pp 82-3
[ix] Jantzen, p 87
[x] Jantzen, p121
[xi] Jantzen, pp 34-5, 128
[xii] Jantzen, pp 39-41, 75-6, 80-2
[xiii] Jantzen, p100
[xiv] Jantzen, p 127
[xv] Jantzen, p 129
[xvi] Jantzen, pp 116-7
[xvii] Jantzen, pp 78-9, 112; Buchheim p 115
[xviii] Jantzen, pp 108-9, 116
[xix] Jantzen, p 95; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treachery_Act_of_1934, accessed December 2020
[xx] Kelly and Nelson (eds): “A Testament to Freedom”, p 132
[xxi] Barnett: “For the Soul of the People”, pp117-118
[xxii] Gutteridge: “Open thy Mouth for the Dumb”, pp 111-113
[xxiii] Helmut Thielicke: “Notes from a Wayfarer”, p37
[xxiv] Helmut Thielickes, pp52, 71