Preaching in Hitler's Shadow -- A Review

PREACHING IN HITLER'S SHADOW: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.  Edited by Dean G. Stoud.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013.  Xii + 203 pages.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been rightly honored for his stand against the Nazi tyranny of the 1930s and 1940s.  Because of his execution at the end of the war, together with his vast collection of writings, including his Letters and Papers from Prison, we honor him as a martyr.  But as important as his witness was, he was not alone in standing against Hitler’s grotesque campaign that included an attempt to subvert the Christian heritage of Germany.  We know may know a few other names, including Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller, who played significant roles in the resistance to Hitler, but many others joined them in responding to this challenge.  In Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, we are introduced to some of these preachers.  Bonhoeffer, Barth and Niemoller are included, but others, some well known, and others whose names have largely been forgotten appear as well.    

This collection of sermons from the 1930s and 1940s is edited and introduced by Dean Stroud, professor emeritus of German studies at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse. He is also a former Presbyterian pastor who has had a long interest in sermons of resistance to Hitler’s program in Germany.  Stroud notes that he hoped to find sermons that directly denounced Hitler.  He went on this journey with a question in mind – what should the church do in a situation like this?  He found some who spoke directly, and they often ended up arrested, beaten, or dead.  In the course of his explorations, he discovered that the responses came in a wide variety of forms.  Some were subtle, but still offering a strong response to the encroachment of an alien ideology that sought to co-opt or destroy the church of Jesus Christ.  While Stroud doesn’t include pro-Nazi sermons, he does detail the ideology and actions that drew a response from these preachers.

Why would we want to read these sermons?  Stroud offers these sermons up as expressions of resistance to evil tyranny, sharing the gospel in the face of an ideology that stood in complete opposition to it.  This is important because Hitler sought to use God – and allegiance of the majority of the German people to the Christian faith.  He sought to take the religion of the majority and turn it into a militant and nationalistic ideology that would benefit his purposes.  Indeed, prior to his election as Chancellor, he proclaimed himself a protector of the Christian faith.  The form of Christianity that he sought to offer was known as “positive Christianity.”  This form of Christianity was a racial religion.  Stroud writes that “it is, therefore, essential to notice how the preachers treat race – either directly by mentioning it or indirectly by intentionally ignoring it.  It is vital to note how the sermons refer to Jews, Judaism, and the Old Testament” (p. 7).  If the Nazi interpretation of Christianity is seen as positive, then according to Stroud, “every sermon in the second part of this book is an illustration of negative Christianity at its best” (p. 7).  Since preaching negatively – that is casting in doubt Nazi ideology – could land you in jail or worse, most of these preachers suffered for their preaching.

In order to prepare the reader for the sermons, Stroud offers an outline of this Nazi ideology.  Therefore, we learn of the insistence that Hitler was Messiah and that the Volk (the German people) were chosen of God.  With their racialist world-view the Nazi’s saw the German people engaged in a life and death struggle for supremacy.  If life is a battle then there is no room for compassion or empathy.  Anything that would detract from the advancement of the superior German race needed to be eliminated.  Thus, the Jews were targeted.  Christianity as a faith, because it is seen as weak and hostile to Nazi goals would have to be dealt with accordingly.  In order to subvert Christianity Jesus had to be reclaimed as an Aryan – anything Jewish about him scrubbed off.  This meant that sermons that affirmed the Jewishness of Jesus subverted this ideology.  Jews weren’t the only persons targeted.  Anyone seen as being weak was liable to be eliminated – especially persons who were mentally ill or physically challenged.  Several sermons in the collection address “Aktion T4,” which was an effort to eliminate anyone deemed useless to German society.  This policy brought about significant reaction, including from Pope Pius XII.  Added to these pieces one must acknowledge the creation of the German Christian Movement, an attempt to mold Christianity in Nazi form.  Interestingly it was largely a failure.  They attempted to control the churches, but the majority embraced the Confessing Church.  In response to these attempts at control Martin Niemoller formed the Pastor’s Emergency League as a means of protesting.  Karl Barth led the effort to create the Confessing Church, even writing the Barmen Confession – before he was forced to leave the country. 
As one reads through the sermons, Stroud wants us to pay attention to the Christocentric focus, because this focus is central to the resistance to the messianic claims of Adolph Hitler. The Kingdom of God, which Christ brings into existence, stands in contrast to Hitler’s Reich.  Preaching the Gospel, therefore, became a form of resistance to an ungodly ideology.  
Stroud includes twelve sermons in this collection, introducing each one by placing it in context and introducing us to the preacher.  Besides the sermons by Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Niemoller, one should pay attention to the sermons preached by Paul Schneider, the first pastor to be executed for his opposition to Hitler’s regime.  One will want to attend to Helmut Gollwitzer’s sermon about Kristallnacht, as well.  Gollwitzer was a student of Barth and successor to Niemoller after Niemoller was imprisoned.  There is an important sermon by Catholic Bishop Clemens August von Galen responding to the Aktion T4, for it speaks to the preciousness of life.

I am greatly appreciative of Stroud for including the sermon by Rudolph Bultmann.  We don’t usually think of Bultmann as a preacher nor as an opponent of the Nazi regime.  Yet his “Sermon about the Parable of the Great Banquet” is a powerful statement of support for the Gospel.  Bultmann bemoans the decline of religion in Germany.  He asks:  What has come of the Christian instruction given to our youth?  Who feels bound today by Christian morality?  We all know that Germany today no longer is a Christian country, that church life is only a remnant, and that many wish and hope that even this remnant will disappear” (p. 149).  Is this a word that we would expect to hear from the scholar who sought to “demythologize Christianity”?  Perhaps this sermon will cause us to rethink our view of Bultmann.  Again, hear Bultmann’s call for an active faith.

Rather the Christian faith is an attitude of the will.  It is only alive in us when it continually proves itself in new ways.  It does not suffice to have decided for faith in God once in the past, but rather this decision for faith as to be implemented anew time and time again whenever he encounters us, when his call meets us.  (p. 153).

This book edited by Dean Stroud is a much needed complement to several other recent books that invites us to consider the role of preaching during the Nazi era.  There is the Isabel Best’s The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress, 2012) and Angela Dienhart Hancock’s Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic 1932-1933 (Eerdmans, 2013).  What these books do is give us a fuller picture of how some in the church responded to this threat to Christianity and to humanity as a whole.  What Stroud has done here is broaden our knowledge of who was preaching and the effect of that preaching.  We should be thankful for this gift; for I believe it will help empower preachers of today to take more seriously their task.  


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