An account of two Lutheran pastors in villages of Thuringia.
In 1927 a young Lutheran minister, Friedrich Leffler, became the pastor of a group of villages around Niederwiera in Thuringia, Central Germany. A year later he was joined at nearby Flemmingen by his close friend and brother in law Julius Leutheuser- they were married to two sisters. Between them they were responsible for seven churches and 13 small villages or hamlets. The area was still predominantly agricultural, in the upper Wiera valley, with small farms following a very traditional way of life.
But Thuringia was a region of big contrasts- not far away there were also areas of industrialisation, making glassware, metal work and toys, in town factories and village home industries. Many of the villages and towns further down the Weira Valley were well industrialised. Along with this growth of industry had come a change in ideas- a growth of Trades Unions, and growing interest in socialism, or even in Marxist communism. Along with that came a growth in Freethinking, a questioning of traditional Lutheran and Christian ideas. Saxony, Thuringia and Prussian Saxony- Central German industrial areas, centres for radical and militant working-class movement. In the chaos at the end of WW1 local workers’ councils had tried to bring about great changes- at Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz they proclaimed that capitalism has collapsed and that the revolutionary proletariat have taken power to bring about the absolute will of the working-class and the elimination of all servitude. These movements had been suppressed, but the ideas frightened the good villagers of the Upper Wiera. They longed for a return to the stability of the past. But the Churches, especially perhaps the Lutheran Churches, had always been heavily dependent on the leadership of local princes. The disaster of WW1 swept away the Kaiser and the authority of the princes, and left the Church feeling leaderless, threatened by these new socialist and atheist movements.
In Leffler and Leutheuser they had found pastors who sympathised deeply with these feelings. Both had been born in 1900, which is significant- they were both just too young to have served in the war. As students they had been involved in circles which studied and celebrated old German sagas, and talked about the ideal German community and sense of togetherness, such a contrast to the barbarism (and now communism) of Russia, the intellectual pride and vanity of France, and the commercial materialism of Britain. Leutheuser in 1918 was a cadet officer, then did theological studies, interrupted by participation in the Freikorps (Free Corps) battles in the east, as newly independent Poland sought to secure land that had been part of Germany.
Before coming to Weira, they had served their curacies, apprenticeships, in Bavaria to the south, a predominantly Roman Catholic region of Germany. The Lutheran Protestants were a small minority, and felt that, as a minority, it was important to keep clear of politics, to restrict their preaching to spiritual matters and to cultivating family piety. Leffler and Leutheuser strongly disagreed with this view, and believed that the churches and Christian Faith must serve now Germany by bringing about a revival of genuine German culture and confidence, after the defeat of 1918. In Bavaria there was a new leader, Adolf Hitler, who seemed to promise all these things- so both joined his National Socialist Party. But the Bavarian Lutheran Church made it very clear that such thinking and activity was not welcome. So the two transferred to the Thuringian Lutheran Church, a predominantly Protestant region, where they hoped their ideas would find more recognition.
In Flemmingen there is a war memorial, with the words “Blessed are the peacemakers- they shall be called children of God- in memory of the sacrifice of war, violence and expulsion”. Strangely ambiguous, perhaps. Soon after their arrival, the two established something which was very new in the German Protestant churches- a National Socialist Pastors’ and Teachers’ Circle, where ordained and lay worked together. Traditionally pastors were set above their congregations, but here were two who were prepared to work much more closely. Study groups were set up, to look not just at Christian doctrine and the history of faith, but how these were to work out in the present day. Discussion of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s “The Foundations of the 19th Century”, the writings of Marx and Lenin, the history of Social Democracy and National Socialism, on the Race problem, and the history of German Faith. Real experience in warfare and revolution and united in the struggle against Social Democracy and/or traditional ecclesiastical institutions. Frustration by modernity, as a source of renewal for the whole society and expression of the people’s soul.
About half-way between Flemmingen and Niederwiera stands strange derelict building “Wiera Valley House of Culture”. Was this the place where they sought to win the youth through the fellowships of the Youth Movement? Here the stress was on a more romantic note and on singing, games and festivals- similar to the “German Folk Evenings” and the “German Festival Evenings”- appeal more to the sphere of feeling and acquisition of knowledge than to rational consciousness. The young women were trained by the Pastors’ wives and two female helpers. In Women’s Circles a theme such as “The Destruction of Family Life in Russia” might be dealt with. The youth service they conducted drew in over 100 according to the Activity Report of the Church Committee of Niederwiera for 1930.
The Wiera River is little more than a stream at this point, near its source. In the churchyard of Niederwiera is the barely legible gravestone of pastor Michael Zimmer- it says he came from Alsace and “found a homeland here”, perhaps bringing with him a sense of resentment at loss of Alsace to France after 1918 (it had been taken from France in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war that had led to the unification of Germany in the new Reich.
In March 1931 Friedrich Genzel, a member of the Church Consistory (Kirchenrat) visited Altenburger Land, and Niederwiera congregation on March 1st, when he attended the Parish Evening for the Day of National Mourning. He saw a programme enacted by various groups in the Parish, especially young men. There were troopers’ and soldiers’ songs and readings from World War authors Walter Flex and Ernst Jünger. The congregation listened and participated in singing Ein Feste Burg. There were war memories and celebrations of soldier’s death, but no place for recognition of the traumatic memories of the war in the Parish, nor for commemoration of the Parish dead. Max von Schenkendorf’s “Wenn alle untreu werden” pledging faithfulness to dead heroes for the future was featured: “We will preach and speak about the holy German Reich.” The Kirchenrat’s reports noted positively the conspicuously high participation of young men “farmer’s sons in large numbers, and young workers not in low numbers”, which Leffler and Leutheuser (who took part in the Parish evening with their youth) had gathered around themselves. The reports point to the main working focus of both pastors: based on intensive work pursued with youth and men. Genzel stressed that clearly the youth work on a religious basis should lead to love for Volk and Fatherland, yet wished “that the leaders of such youth associations should always realise the core of their undertakings, that their real task is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In the Church service Siegfried Leffler had preached on the text “No-one has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In it he presented the lost war as the German Passion, and as God’s offering of sacrifice, “so that our grandchildren may be the prouder of the sacrificial deeds of our field graves, and the less we will lose the holy quest of our fallen brethren.” Kirchenrat Genzel remarked in the Visitation Report: “Even if one may now think that the comparison between Christian death and the death of our war-fallen in particular was going too far, there is no doubt that the sermon stemmed from glowing love for Volk and Fatherland, and its simple delivery won the way into the hearts of the congregation, took hold of them and moved them powerfully within.” He emphasized Leffler’s nationalist attitude once again, but stressed to the Consistory the convincedly Protestant basis on which it stood. This especially gave him access to the rising generation of youth. At the beginning of his pastoral office Leffler had introduced Children’s services. Since then no single child had been withdrawn from religious instruction, and no-one had resigned from the Church. On one point, however, Kirchenrat Genzel had had to remark that the reports of the Parish council showed a decline within three years in participation in the Lord’s Supper, from 74% to less than 50%. This points to the fact that Leffler is clearly welcomed by the youth, but the style of services and preaching has less appeal for the older members of the congregation.
The glorification of war was also an essential component of the local work of Pastor Julius Leutheuser. Visible still today as a relic of his pastorate there is a stone in the cemetery dedicated to the memory of those who fell in the First World War. There are no names engraved on the stone, instead the rhymed inscription: “They gave their life, they gave their blood. They gave it up with holy courage. For us! ” These activities indicate the attention that the culture of nationalist war memory was given as part of Parish work.
It was during these years, of course, that the Nazi Party leaped ahead in General Elections, from 2.6% of the total vote, giving them 12 seats, in 1928, to 18.25% of the vote and 107 seats in 1930. These, of course, were the years that saw the beginning of the Great Depression, following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The left-wing parties held most of their vote (though some Social Democrats shifted to the Communists) and the Catholic Centre and Bavarian People’s parties remained firm. It was the smaller right-wing parties who collapsed and fed Hitler’s eventual triumph.
Already in March 1929, the spread of Leffler’s and Leutheuser’s movement into the surrounding area of settled freethinking had provoked considerable opposition. On Leffler and Leutheuser’s initiative the local group of the NSDAP was founded in Frohnsdorf on 10th February 1930- the Wiere Valley Local Group. The notorious “Assembly Room Brawl” in Langenleuba-Niederhain provoked by the SA- in the room which also served the Circle and was used by them as a “sanctuary”- was regarded by Leffler and Leutheuser’s German Christians as “The keystone for suppressing Marxism in the Altenburger Land”.
Hugo Hahn (Land Bishop of Saxony) described Leffler as “the great blender of the German Christians….. in whom the spirit of Christ and Hitler could live peaceably together.” But he said of Leutheuser: “In him you could sometimes feel evil when he pitched himself as an opponent, and suspect him to be a politician. He was an intransigent. But both these so different men worked ‘inwardly’ united together.”
The first use of the label “German Christians” for the adherents of Leffler and Leutheuser followed in the year 1930; in 1931 there was the first open and official emergence of a list of “German Christians” for the election of church congregational representatives in Altenburg. The notion of a National German Church, transcending the divisions of Catholic and Protestant, crystallised in summer 1933- Siegfried Leffler’s “Letters to German Christians” set this against “The international Christianity of the Confessions, full as they are of Jewish forms and thought patterns”. “In the person of the Führer” he said “we see the one sent by God who sets Germany before the Lord of history. People have often reproached us and thrown at us that we have idolised Hitler, that we have asserted that ‘for us he has taken the place of Christ’. Never has that entered our minds, but the fact is this, that in the pitch-dark night of Christian church history Hitler became for our time, as it were, the wondrous transparency, the window through which light fell on the history of Christianity. Through him we have been able to see the Saviour in German history. Through him the life stream of history surges into Germany. He is the means by which the little word ‘German’ is filled with life and with eternal worth.”
For Leutheuser “the Golgotha of the World War” of 1914-18 would be “through the faith of Adolf Hitler, the way of Resurrection for the German nation”. “So Adolf Hitler is for us the most living witness in the present to the power of the eternal spirit of God in history. Our watchword is not: Adolf Hitler along with Jesus Christ, but through Adolf Hitler to Jesus Christ.”
For them the attempt to bridge the gap to the National Socialist elite who had become distanced from the Church was a priority. It is clear that Land (Regional) Churches with a closer attachment to the Confession and stronger means of disciplinary power were more immune to the theological enthusiasm which sought a “nationalist” character, compared with the Thuringian Protestant Church. The 1921 unification which created Thuringia had brought together seven Churches formerly based in the tiny provinces of the area, which were very different in their theological piety, so the Thuringian Church was forced to be tolerant. Also the liberal influence of the theological faculty in Jena may have contributed to this.
When Hitler came to power in January 1933 there was a concerted attempt to organised Protestants as one Church subservient to Nazi state- Ludwig Müller was appointed as Reich Bishop to bring this about. But the effort was disorganised and provoked discontent and opposition. Resistance to the German Christians grew within the Church- led particularly by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, teaching at Bonn University. At the end of May 1934 Barth and others issued the “Barmen Declaration”, which asserted that the Jesus Christ of the Scriptures is the criterion for faith, not political or other ideologies. Leadership is service not dictatorship. It is perhaps significant that nothing was said specifically about the Jews, an issue which soon become central when the Nazis decreed that even Jews who had converted to Christianity must be excluded.
Barmen came too late to stop Hitler, who no longer needed the German Christians now he had real power. He saw them as an unreliable support, and they soon found themselves marginalised. Leutheuser became an army chaplain and was killed on the Eastern Front 1942. Leffler survived the war, was interned from 1945 to 1948, but after pleading guilty returned to pastoral work in the Bavarian Land Church, where he ministered at Hengersberg 1949 until his retirement in 1970. He died in 1983.