“Hitler went overboard, for sure,” a deacon once told me, “but something had to be done about those Jews.”
The year was 1985. My deacon was a good German Baptist who had come of age in post-war Germany.
A decade later, a 60-something woman called me in tears, insisting that I visit her without delay. In the middle of the night, she told me, a repressed memory from her childhood had worked its way to the surface of consciousness. She had remembered the boxcars crammed with desperate people passing through her German community and the hollow-eyed horror etched onto the faces.
“Maybe I was too young to understand,” she told me, “but my parents and grandparents had to have known. Those people were Jews headed for the camps, weren’t they? Who else could they have been? And we said nothing. We did nothing.”
The Holocaust (some call it the Shoah) has always haunted me. There are several fat volumes on the subject in my library and, for the past two months, my attention has been fixed on the response of the Church – in Germany and in North America – to the persecution and mass slaughter of European Jews. I return to this research episodically. It is always deeply troubling, but I can never lay it aside for long.
If I thought Nazi-era Germany was an aberration I could probably move on; but in Donald Trump’s America, who can think that? The Church of Jesus Christ is confronted by an anti-Gospel once again. And once again we either celebrate effusively or lapse into pitiful silence.
That’s why Elisabeth Schmitz is such an inspiration to me and, hopefully, to you too.
In 1935, Schmitz penned On the Situation of the German Non-Aryans, a 24-page document calling on the Confessing Church to stand in solidarity with the Jewish people of Germany.
Other progressive Christians had taken a stand for baptized non-Aryans, but Schmitz wanted the Protestant churches to defend German Jews in their full Jewishness. That’s why she made 200 copies of her manifesto and hand-distributed them to leaders like Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. She wrote anonymously. Martyrdom would have interfered with her work.
Almost certainly you have never heard of Elisabeth Schmitz. Neither had I until a couple of weeks ago. Most of what I know about her comes from awkward Google translations of German sources. But I was pleased to learn that Baptist ethicist David Gushee has given Schmitz the attention she deserves in several of his very readable books including A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good. An hour-long documentary on Schmitz was produced in 2008; you can find a brief clip here.
Schmitz spoke out against the persecution of German Jews when Christian leaders like Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth could not. Her protest was a direct response to “German Christianity,” a state-sponsored religion grounded in four heretical precepts: Adolf Hitler is the completion of the Protestant Reformation; baptized Jews must be immediately dismissed from the Church; the Old Testament should be dropped from the Christian Bible; and neither Jesus of Nazareth nor the first generation of Christians were Jews.
In 1933, on the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, 20,000 German Christians flocked to a rally in which the four most noxious tenets of German Christianity were celebrated. Holocaust scholar Doris Bergen thinks it’s a mistake to characterize the German Protestant response to National Socialism as “silent.” Too many German Christians happily proclaimed their support for Hitler from the housetops.
Although it was primarily a response to German Christianity, the major concern of the Confessing Church was the independence of Protestant congregations. The plight of the Jewish community was at best a secondary consideration.
A penetrating article in The Christian Century reminds us that Martin Niemöller, now famous for his post-war “first they came for the socialists” confession, was a conservative pastor who initially welcomed the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists. He disliked the communists and so did Hitler. Only when the Nazis made it impossible for German Protestants to proclaim the gospel without interference did Niemöller lift his voice in opposition.
It is difficult to assess Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attitude toward the Reich’s anti-Jewish policies because he rarely addressed the subject. In 1933, he wrote The Church and the Jewish Question, arguing that Christians were obligated to challenge state-sponsored evil, to minister to the oppressed (regardless of race or religion) and might even be required to sacrifice themselves as a stick jammed into the spokes of the state’s wheel of oppression.
We have all seen the famous quote on Facebook: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Although these words have frequently been attributed to Bonhoeffer, they do not appear in any of his writings. It was Elisabeth Schmitz who denounced silence in the face of a horribly specific evil other members of the Confessing Church seemed hesitant to name.
As the full dimensions of the Holocaust unfolded, Bonhoeffer’s writing certainly took on a confessional cast. In The Cost of Discipleship (1937) he denounced “cheap grace” in the strongest terms.
For it is the will of our Lord himself not to give what is holy, the gospel, to dogs, but to preach it only under the safeguard of the call for repentance. . . . It is not enough to lament the general sinfulness of human beings. . . . Rather specific sins have to be named, punished, and sentenced.
But the German icon wasn’t as specific about the mass slaughter of European Jews as we might like. Perhaps he was reluctant to state the obvious. Perhaps, knowing his audience, he decided to save his breath.
In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Tegel prison for trying to smuggle Jews out of Germany. And yet, in all his voluminous writing after 1933, Bonhoeffer never addressed the specific sin of abandoning the Jewish people in their darkest hour.
While Bonhoeffer was being shunted to the margins of the Confessing Church, Karl Barth became her most prominent spokesman. Schmitz worked tirelessly to convince Barth to address the Holocaust head on, even visiting him in his Swiss exile on several occasions. Though not indifferent to the plight of the Jewish community, Barth insisted on expressing his opposition to National Socialism in strictly theological terms.
In his Barmen Declaration of 1934, Barth emphasized that the Christian Gospel must not be dictated by political leaders or even by the current political situation, no matter how grave: “We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.”
Schmitz held a doctorate in history from the University of Berlin and, like Barth and Bonhoeffer, had studied at the feet of the great Adolf von Harnack. But her theology was painfully practical. “After all,” she wrote, “for the church, this is not about a tragedy taking place, but rather about our nation’s sin and, since we are members of this nation and accountable before God for this nation of ours, about our sin.”
In On the Situation of the German Non-Aryans, Schmitz confronted the obvious excuse that criticism of the Reich would spark a ghastly backlash:
And if, in some cases, the Church cannot do anything for fear of its utter destruction, why does not she at least know about her guilt? Why does not she pray for those who suffer this unjustified oppression and persecution? Why are there no intercessory services? The church makes it hard to love her (emphasis mine).
Schmitz called Christian theologians to let their hands be sullied with the muck of injustice – a perspective that flowed from lived experience. Martha Kassel, a close friend, had been forced to surrender her medical credentials because of her Jewish heritage. Though a baptized Christian, Kassel retained close ties with her family and the larger Jewish community. Eventually, she became so disillusioned with the German Kirche that she renounced her membership.
Deprived of an income, Kassel moved in with Schmitz, an association that quickly attracted the attention of the Gestapo. This deep dive into the Jewish community forced Schmitz to feel the full horror of the situation. After Kassel emigrated in 1938, Schmitz continued smuggling Jews out of occupied Europe. Then, when that was no longer possible, she hid Jewish families from the Nazis, even opening her own home for that purpose.
Schmitz’s appeal to the leadership of the Confessing Church was ignored. She was just an unordained school teacher, after all. When Schmitz died in 1977, only seven people attended her funeral. But, on November 11, 2011, she was posthumously awarded the honorary title “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Niemöller, Bonhoeffer and Barth didn’t make the cut.
Even the collapse of the Third Reich and the liberation of the concentration camps failed to alter the attitude of most German Christians toward the Holocaust. In the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt of 1945, the churches of Germany apologized for not “witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently,” but never mentioned the Holocaust by name.
Even this tepid mea culpa was too much for many German Christians. They blamed the Allied armies for their misfortune.
Have we anything to learn from Elisabeth Schmitz? Contemporary America is a very different place from Nazi Germany and, contrary to persistent rumor, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler.
But then, even Hitler wasn’t Hitler until he was. When Der Fuhrer rose to power in 1933, most German politicians saw him as a simple demagogue who could easily be twisted to their purposes. We know how that turned out.
As the crude rhetoric of antisemitism makes a comeback in American popular culture we urgently need to take the measure of our moral failure. The racial history of our nation is the stuff of tragedy. There is the decimation of our native population, the endless horrors of the slave trade, the prolonged humiliation of Jim Crow, the ancient oppression of women and the strategic injustice of American immigration policy. And we must also reckon with homophobia, mass incarceration and the spiteful ignorance currently being hurled at our Muslim population.
Trump is idolized by one-third of the American population because he never mentions these realities. In fact, he buries the guardians of memory under an avalanche of invective. The German Church never acknowledged her complicity with the National Socialists, and the white churches of America are equally resistant to truth.
We have believers like Schmitz, to be sure. The prophets of God are never completely silenced. But we also have our version of German Christianity; let’s call it American Christianity. Its high priests are men like Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress.
How low did the Nazis have to go before German Christians pushed back? There was no bottom. And how low will Mr. Trump have to go before American Christians have had enough? It will never happen.
When a president questions the citizenship of his African-American predecessor and calls for an immigration ban on all Muslims and a border wall to keep out the Mexicans while refusing to denounce latter day Nazis, we have a problem.
But our problem isn’t just the president. Our problem is a Church that either falls silent in the face of evil or breaks forth in jubilant praise.
Schmitz spoke truth in 1935: “The Church makes it hard to love her.”
Indeed! We either celebrate the appearance of Antichrist or withdraw behind a shield of sophisticated theology.
There has always been something tacky about the language of protest. It lacks subtlety. It disturbs the peace. It invites backlash. It reduces complicated issue to simple slogans.
But if, like Elisabeth Schmitz, you find yourself on a first-name basis with the oppressed, things get really simple really fast and only words of protest seem to fit.
Are we there yet?
I don’t know.