By Johannes Reimer, first published on Evangelical Focus
A word of clarity should be allowed before I start to explore my topic. I do not attempt to compare conservative, egocentric, populist political leaders of today with Adolf Hitler. No German, me included, should ever try to compare current politicians with the German fuehrer Adolf Hitler. Others may do this. For us, Germans, however, the Third Reich and the cruel inhuman regime of Adolf Hitler bears too much pain.
Dealing with his time must, however, be allowed, even to a German like me. Especially, when considering the role Evangelicals played in the rise of the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler. The fact that the vast majority of German Evangelicals supported the Hitler regime and only a tiny minority saw the anti-Christian nature of the fuehrer, leads me to write this article.
I am deeply concerned about the rise of populist politicians in countries with a large Evangelical population. Again, I am comparing the Evangelical response to the rise of dictator like populists, not the nature of those politicians itself. I am not discussing the Trump’s, Bolsonaro’s, Duterte’s or Kagame’s of our time and I do not compare them to Hitler. But I am concerned that all those figures are guided by a spirit of intolerance and Evangelicals seem to greatly support them.
Why do we do that? What is wrong with our Evangelical political orientation which seems to lead many of us to follow leaders with obvious anti-Evangelical tendencies?
Is it the inherent Evangelical tendency towards a mentality that favours a rigid legalistic, Law and Order framework? Or is it rather the overarching dream of living a quiet and peaceful life under a powerful protector, whom if we support and will rarely interfere with our lives, even though he/she may destroy others?
Is it our sometimes-simple mind, a kind of naivety, which drives Evangelicals to support more or less headless political Rambo’s? Or is this even an intentional disobedience, a lifestyle outside of God´s will, which encourages this questionable behaviour to take root amongst us? Do Evangelicals shy away from democratic societies and rather prefer authoritarian?
These and similar questions bother me since a change in the political culture in traditionally democratic societies becomes more and more obvious and the extreme right-wing populist political movements occupy more and more territory. Never ever would I wish a kind of Nazi regime to become reality again anywhere in the world.
My family is of German origin, emigrating to Russia in 1804. We never experienced the Hitler regime, except the cruel retaliation of the Soviets on Russian Germans after World War II. We arrived in Germany in 1976 as German outcasts, deeply hurt by the Soviets, blamed for all the horrors of the Nazi regime and finally pushed out of the country. Germany welcomed us warmly. Only years after our arrival here, did I dig into the story of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
One of my missiology students wrote his PhD dissertation on Erich Sauer, a famous pietist theologian, whom I admired dearly for his salvation-historic approach. But the day, my student sent me his chapter on Sauers role during the Nazi regime, I was flooded with questions I had never expected to be confronted with. Sauer appeared as a faithful Nazi, who called Adolf Hitler “our beloved fuehrer” and signed his letters with “heil Hitler”(1). Similar to many other Pietists, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites and other Evangelical Free churches.(2)
The Methodist bishop F.H. Otto Melle (1875–1947), president of the Association of Evangelical Free churches, attended the Ecumenical World Conference in Oxford from 12 to 26 July 1937. In his speech at the conference he praised the Nazi politics and spoke about a divine sending of Adolf Hitler. He significantly attacked regimes of critical Christians in Germany(3). And he was by far no exception.
The vast majority of German Evangelical Christians welcomed Adolf Hitler and his regime. Few warned their churches. Some resisted. And we all know the names of the heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer(4). Their courage cannot be praised high enough. Many, however, stayed indifferent and silent. Even after the news of millions of Jews being killed in concentration camps reached the German public(5). How come Evangelicals, claiming to hear and follow the voice of the Lord, missed seeing the true nature of an anti-Christian and anti-human regime?
The majority of researches researching these issues, point towards the disorder, moral decay and the permanent fear of a communist ideology in the East of Europe, threatening the Weimar Republic of Germany(6). Hitler promised to end all of this by force and introduced law and order back into the country, at the same time fighting any communist ideology at home and promising to restore Germany’s dignity after the World War I humiliation. Germany would be great again, he promised. Others point to the a generally accepted anti-Semitic spirit in German Christian churches as well as their deep admiration for a functioning strong national state(7).
This seems to be the toxic mix, which blinded the Evangelicals. They saw in Adolf Hitler a man of order and a power figure able to protect them from persecution and destruction as had happened before their eyes in the Soviet Union. His rhetoric against certain amoral movements and a quasy-religious justification of strong measurements to be taken by the government, added to the excitement of the Christian and at the same time self-centred, apolitical simple Evangelicals mindset. Self-protection is probably the main reason why they appeared unable to see the fatality of a regime which was responsible for millions of deaths all over Europe, amongst them 6 million Jews.
Today we know, how wrong it was to concentrate on one’s own well-being and overlook the authoritarian spirit of the Nazi regime. There will be no Christian world-wide praising Hitler of a “divine” calling any longer. We all see the diabolic nature of his regime. It is strange, however, that on the other hand, Christians seem to hallow similar authoritarian regimes, who promise to end chaos and moral decay, introduce law and order by using force and make their nations great again.
Can´t we learn from the experience of the past? Are Evangelicals in principle less democratic? Or why is it we tend towards supporting strong populists with a character of a dictator?
The German Evangelicals fell into the Nazi trap because of:
(a) their apolitical and less reflective stands;
(b) their preoccupation with their own social safety;
(c) concentration on certain moral behaviour as existentially central (for example homosexuality);
(d) deep fear of communism;
(e) nationalistic, ethno-confessional orientation.
To see a politician entering the battle against their fears, was read as God´s divine intervention. Signs of a clear anti-Christian spirit were overlooked or even excused.
It is, indeed, dangerous to stay apolitical, less informed and neglect the whole picture. It might not take long and the passionately welcomed law and order politics may turn against the Christians themselves. We could go on. All of this happened in Nazi Germany.
And this happens in many countries with authoritarian regimes today. Evangelicals overseeing it are ill advised. Instead of pushing their limited agendas, they should follow the Spirit of God, who brings justice, love and compassion to everyone. No, it is not our national states, who must become great again, but rather the Lord, whom we serve. We build His kingdom, not ours. And His kingdom does not exclude the other to the expense of your own greatness, but rather reaches out to all the nations of the world, making them into disciples of the Great King, Jesus our Lord (Matt. 28, 18-20).
As Evangelicals we must address the pressing issues involved. We need a clear theology of Evangelical political involvement. We must understand the correlation between God´s mission in the world and our own political responsibility(8). We need an Evangelical concept of what democracy and autocracy means for us. Aiming for the kingdom of God, a theocratic reign, can easily be misunderstood as anti-democratic? But is this the case? Is the foretaste of the kingdom as presented by the Body of Christ, in any way authoritarian, or rather basically congregational and truly democratic?
We need a working praxis theory of fighting disorder and amorality in our societies in the Spirit of love, justice and humility. All of this will include our decision to obey God more than the rulers of our day (Acts 5:29). I do invite my fellow Evangelicals to discuss those and similar issues.
Johannes Reimer is professor of Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology at the Ewersbach University of Applied Arts, Germany and director of the department of Public Engagement at the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).
1. See more in Horst Afflerbach: Die heilsgeschichtliche Theologie Erich Sauers. TVG, STM 16. (Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus 2006), 148.
2. The theme is well researched. Compare, for instance, the German works: Marion Kobelt-Groch und Astrid von Schlachta: Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit. Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen. In: Schriftenreihe des Mennonitischen Geschichtsvereins. Band 10. (Bolanden-Weierhof: . Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein 2017), Daniel Heinz: Freikirchen und Juden im »Dritten Reich«: Instrumentalisierte Heilsgeschichte, antisemitische Vorurteile und verdrängte Schuld. Göttingen: V&R Unipress 2011; Andrea Strübind: Die unfreie Freikirche: Der Bund der Baptistengemeinden im „Dritten Reich“. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag 1991); Karl Heinz Voigt: Schuld und Versagen der Freikirchen im „Dritten Reich“. Aufarbeitungsprozesse seit 1945. (Frankfurt am Main: Otto Lembeck 2005); Karl Zehrer: Evangelische Freikirchen und das »Dritte Reich«. Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Berlin 1986).
3. See for instance more: Matheson, Peter, ed.: The Third Reich and the Christian Churches: A documentary account of Christian resistance and complicity during the Nazi era. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1981); Barnett, Victoria: For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press1992), and other.
4. See in this regard: Gerlach, Wolfgang: And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews. Translated and Edited by Victoria J. Barnett. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 2000).
6. Victoria J. Barnett: The Role of the Churches in Nazi Germany. Compliance and Confrontation. In: Dimensions, Vol 12, No 2; Online: https://www.adl.org/news/op-ed/role-of-churches-nazi-germany (12.08.2020).
7. See my attempt to discuss this correlation in: Johannes Reimer: Missio Politica. (Carliste: Langham 2017).