Today, November 9-10, marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (1938), or “the night of broken glass,” which marked a turning point in the persecution of Jews in Germany by the Nazis from economic and cultural to outright violence. This Sunday, November 11th, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One (1918), known as Armistice Day, where we get our Veteran’s Day from. These events, as we know, are connected.
After World War I, the harsh conditions imposed in the Treaty of Versailles created a loss of economic prosperity and political weakening for the German people which led to a corresponding loss of confidence in themselves and fear for the future. Germany was in shambles and was not recovering. By the early 1930s, Hitler arose and was seen as the savior to restore Germany’s fortunes. His charismatic personality and rhetoric convinced the German people, including the church, that his program for recovery would bring Germany back to prominence as a leader among nations. From a religious perspective, he even convinced the Lutheran church in Germany to go along by exploiting their own fears and latent prejudices, even after he began his moves to oppress the Jews.
After Hitler’s rise to power, persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany grew each year. But, things took a violent turn in November of 1938. Using the assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a German born Polish Jew as pretense, the Nazi government unleashed a wave of violence against Jews across the country. The Wikipedia entry for Kristallnacht states: “Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked, as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were either destroyed or damage. The British historian Martin Gilbert wrote that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world. The British newspaper The Times wrote at the time: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”
“Additionally, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps.”
Before and after Kristallnacht, many in America praised Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The German American Bund built quite a following with large rallies and organizing, and even Charles Lindbergh and his “America First” campaign emerged by 1940 to keep America out of the growing War in Europe. They were successful in influencing Congress and the American people to embrace isolationism as evil grew until we were attacked at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Going back a few years before this, even some from the Southern Baptist delegation to Berlin from America in 1934 for the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) congress praised Hitler for cleaning up German society from what they identified as immoral behavior.
The Baptist World Alliance meeting in Berlin in 1934 should be seen with great interest for those studying the rise of Naziism, how it was viewed at the time, and how people around the world turned a blind eye to what was growing and what would lead to Kristallnacht and then later the Holocaust. William Lloyd Allen, chronicled the response of the 1934 Southern Baptist delegation to Berlin by saying that parts of the delegation (especially correspondents from the state Baptist papers) were favorable to Hitler’s approach, even after he had begun to crack down on the Jews and take firm control over Germany. But, they joined with Baptists around the world who apparently targeted Germany in condemning racial hatred and nationalism while passing a resolution that claimed nationalism could lead to war.
Allen, writing as a church history professor from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1982, wrote an article on this entitled, “How Baptists Assessed Hitler.” He asked why Southern Baptists visiting Germany in 1934 responded favorably to Adolf Hitler when they returned to the United States? Did they not have discernment? Couldn’t they see the monster that he was to become? Other Christians in Germany, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were seeing it. Why couldn’t members of the Southern Baptist delegation? We must remember that Hitler was pulling the German people out of the morass of economic depression that occurred after World War I. Because he helped restore the economic fortunes—in large part by military spending and expansion—of the German people and was filling them with pride again over being German in a growing Nationalistic fervor, many were looking upon his attempts at resurrecting the German nation with approval.
Allen also points to the way that Southern Baptists of this time period did theology and saw the world. Instead of thinking holistically, they saw morality from a personal perspective. The Southern Baptist delegates approved of Hitler’s personal stance against the use of alcohol and tobacco. He opposed women smoking cigarettes and “wearing red lipstick in public.” Other Baptist visitors from the South were excited that Hitler had cracked down on sex literature and risqué and violent movies and that he was burning books, especially those of the Jewish and communistic variety.
Allen shows us that Southern Baptists concerned deeply with personal morality, order in society, and social sins related to alcohol and sex were not able to see the larger evil that was emerging in the culture. They missed the forest of anti-Semitism and growing nationalism and militarism that would soon engulf the world, because the branches of personal immorality and debauchery were being pruned by force and that pleased them. Order and “right” living was more important than justice and mercy. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, they should (to paraphrase) not have neglected the former while attending to the latter. Personal morality and holiness before God is extremely important, as is right worship and theology. But that morality and holiness and theology is worthless if it does not lead to justice, mercy, humility, righteousness, and sacrificial love toward God and others, especially those who are being oppressed. There is no holiness when one turns a blind eye to his neighbor in the ditch along the side of the road or allows exploitation of the weak and needy. This is even more true when one, through their religion, perpetuates that exploitation through neglect or support. Holiness is defined by who Jesus is and what he did and commands us to do, not just by our personal behavior. Because Baptists and other evangelicals in the Germany of 1934 were more focused on the creation of a society that would be good for them and their way of life in regard to moral virtue, as they tried to understand God’s intent for them, they missed the evil means being used to bring about the ends of which they approved. Their eyes were blinded by their own vision of what was appropriate and they missed the evil incarnate right in front of them.
Allen cites reasons for this blindness, chief of which involved how Southern Baptists gave evangelism primacy over other concerns. Quoting Baptist leaders present at the conference, Allen shows how their main, and possibly only focus, was on creating space and freedom for evangelism. They were not concerned with justice or economic issues or the reign of terror that was beginning in Germany that would ultimately lead to the murder of millions. They wanted the door to be open for evangelism so that people could get saved and go to Heaven when they died. Their view of the Gospel and its implications was truncated in the sense that it was only concerned with personal salvation and personal morality and they were willing to accept great moral evil in society in relation to how people were treated so that they could be free to do evangelism. As Allen said, “Some Baptists believed that evangelism and the world order existed on separate planes that never intersected, and that the church belonged only on the evangelistic plane. As long as governments like Hitler’s did not interfere with soul-saving, they could be tolerated.” This view of the almost complete separation of the spiritual plane that they claimed the gospel was concerned with, from the worldly, temporal plane that was of secular concern, explains well how white Baptists in the South were able to separate concern for the treatment of blacks in the society that they dominated from their religion where they worshiped. Also, their participation in the racist segregated culture that dominated the South could very well have blinded them to what was arising in Nazi Germany. Were they separating their transcendent, personal faith from how people different from them were treated and how society was structured in the world that they lived in? There is strong evidence of this.
To understand how the end of World War I led to Kristallnacht, we have to remember that Hitler was not always seen as “Hitler” and his ideas were accepted by many in the 1930s, especially in an America that was also racially segregated and imposed Jim Crow laws upon its black citizens and shut the door to immigrants based on their race and country of origin. Southern Baptists missed what was happening in Germany in 1934 perhaps because it made sense to them at the time. The post-BWA report from The Baptist and Reflector, the Tennessee state Baptist paper in 1934, seems to confirm that theory. Just a year later, in 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws defining who was truly German and who was Jewish were created in Germany, tying citizenship to “blood and soil” and German heritage rather than who lived in Germany. James Q. Whitman in his recent book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, chronicles the connection between Jim Crow, racism, and anti-immigrant fervor in the United States and the Nuremberg Laws and rise of anti-semitism in Germany (See New Yorker review). By 1938, Kristallnacht removed the cover from what was happening as the world began to see the ugliness of German Nationalism run amok. Less than a year later in September of 1939, Germany would invade Poland and World War II would begin.
But, there were some who saw the danger growing and who tried to warn the German church. In 1933, a year before the BWA Congress and five years before Kristallnacht, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian, wrote an essay called, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum features Bohonoeffer’s essay and they say, “On this point, Bonhoeffer was explicit about the church’s obligations to fight political injustice. The church, he wrote, must fight evil in three stages: The first was to question state injustice and call the state to responsibility; the second was to help the victims of injustice, whether they were church members or not. Ultimately, however, the church might find itself called “not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself” in order to halt the machinery of injustice.”
What would have happened if the German Lutheran Church had listened to Bonhoeffer in 1933? What if the church would have stood with Jews who were being persecuted from the very beginning, instead of joining in the blame and accusation toward them that grew throughout the 1930s? Could the Holocaust have been prevented? Could the millions of deaths of World War II have been avoided? German Christians after the war’s end seemed to think so.
On the first annual Day of Repentance and Prayer after the war ended in November 1945, church leadership in the Berlin-Brandenburg region called upon their parishioners to examine their hearts, repent, and ask for forgiveness. They engaged in a period of introspection and asked how the evil of Hitler and the Nazis could spring up in the nation that fostered the Protestant Reformation. How did the land of Luther give rise to the plague of the Third Reich and the ovens of Auschwitz? These ministers issued the following statement about their own guilt:
“We did not fear God above all the powers of men and governments, we did not trust and obey God unconditionally—that is what brought us under the sway of the tempter, that is what cast us into the abyss! That is what gave the demon of inhumanity free rein among us.
“And now the righteous judgment of our holy God has fallen upon us. Before His judgment seat we are not subject to the verdicts and standards of other human beings who also stand in fear of His judgment and are thrown upon His grace. Before God we are being questioned concerning our own guilt, our great, immeasurable guilt. Before God we cannot excuse ourselves.
“Before Him there cries out against us all the innocently shed blood, all the blaspheming of the His Holy name and all the inhumanities which occurred in our midst especially against the Jews. If we know ourselves to be innocent—humanly speaking—of participating in the atrocities . . . we yet cannot, before God, escape the great burden of need and guilt which rests upon us.”
Let Kristallnacht and Bonhoeffer’s call and what happened to the Jews in the 1930s be a warning to us. The Church slept and approved of the evil rising in their nation because they weren’t targeted and they perceived what was happening as benefitting them and enhancing their “way of life.” The Jews were seen as a threat and they went along with the State eliminating them from them. But, after the horrors of the War and the destruction of their country when all was lost, they saw their own role and responsibility in what happened. And, they repented in shame and sorrow.
I love learning from history because it helps me better understand the day I live in. Seeing how Christians in the past reacted to their situation gives me sharper eyes for my own. And, it causes me to ask, “What if the church had been different? What opportunities did we miss? What evil could we have rejected and opposed? How were we subverted?” The 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I that created the situation that gave rise to Naziism, speak lessons that we can still learn from today. Things can go awry in a hurry. We should listen to history, especially after seeing just two weeks ago how anti-semitic violence still plagues us with the murders at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Unless we have eyes to see what is happening around us, it can be easy to go along with the powers and principalities and get your reward in the moment. It’s hard to embrace justice, mercy, and humility and trust in God for eternity and even suffer for it in this life. But, the reward from standing with Christ and not being subverted is beyond comprehension.
(My apologies to William Thornton for the length of this post. I imagine that all those who don’t like long posts stopped reading before the end anyway). 🙂
NOTE: Much of this post was adapted from Chapter 3, “The Subversion of Christianity” in When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus. NewSouth Books (2014).