Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education
Theologians Under Hitler - Overview written by James Lehman
Dr. Robert Ericksen is a renowned scholar of the Holocaust and is currently a professor at Pacific Lutheran University where he teaches several courses, including one on the Holocaust. In this book Ericksen takes an in depth look at three prominent 20th century Protestant German theologians: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch. All supported Hitler and the Nazi party during the rise of the Third Reich. Ericksen questions how church and university scholars could support a cruel, inhumane dictator, such as Hitler.
In this book Dr. Ericksen first explores the many crises’ that resided in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. This precipitated from World War I by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which forced Germany to pay unrealistic war reparations, and placed the guilt on Germany for causing the bloodiest war of the era. This caused many of the German people to feel that they were betrayed by their government (Weimar Republic) and the other nations around the globe. Furthermore, democracy was imposed on Germany and many felt that Germany was losing its cultural values, or as Germans call it, their Volk. This led many theologians including, Kittel, Althaus and Hirsch to call for a new nationalistic Germany, a Germany that would once again be powerful and have a strong sense of pride. Then in 1933, Hitler and the National Socialist party actualized this vision by rising to power on the basis of nationalism and the preservation of the Arian race. Ericksen then examines the lives of Kittel, Althaus and Hirsch to see how these individuals ended up supporting Hitler.
Gerhard Kittel came from a very prestigious and scholarly family. Prior to the war, Kittel was a professor of New Testament theology and a leading scholar in the field of Judaism and its relation to early Christianity. It was this relationship with Judaism that led Kittel to become the theological expert on the “Jewish Question.” Kittel joined the Nazi party in 1933 with the hopes that a religiously based anti-Jewish policy would prevail over radical and vulgar racism. After the end of the war, Kittel claimed that he was innocent, that he began disagreeing with and denouncing the Nazi party and Hitler at the onset of the war. However, there is no evidence of any criticism from Kittel. He did not even stand up for the Church when the Nazi party condemned the churches; rather, he demanded that the church must respond to the historical hour of the German people. In fact, Kittel’s scholarship made the extermination of the Jews theologically respectable. For example this particularly powerful passage describes Kittel’s dilemma with Jews:
It is not a question of whether individual Jews are respectable or disrespectable; also not whether individual Jews are unjustly ruined or whether that occurs justly to individuals. The Jewish Question is absolutely not a question of individual Jews but a question of Jewry, the Jewish Volk. And, therefore, whoever wants to get to the root of the question may not first ask what shall become of the individual Jew, but what shall become of Jewry…(discussing the issue of assimilation of Jews) It can be weary, delicate, and yet, because it weakens and infects, dangerous resignation, which eats away the marrow of a Volk; it can be a cold, calculating, perhaps a self-tormenting and lacerating relativism; it can be a wild agitation and demagoguery to which nothing is holy. It is always spiritual homelessness, and therefore poison and decomposition (55).
Paul Althaus was a prominent Luther scholar who exhibited to the world a warm humane personality. Althaus, like many other Germans during the beginning of the 20th century, believed in a united Germany and was opposed to further “de-Germanization.” Even though Althaus was perceived to be a very humane individual, he still warmly greeted the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933. Althaus strongly desired a Germany that was powerful; where its people were strong and where the church was respected. This ultimately led Althaus to side with Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933. Specifically, Althaus argued that the “rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party is a year of grace by God’s hand.” During the Nazi rule of Germany, Althaus sought to be a mediator between the church and the state. However, he did sacrifice certain foundations of the church in order to support his nationalistic beliefs. For example, Althaus states, “…theology and nationalism should meld together for the best of Germany.” Furthermore, Althaus looked at war as a necessary means of the militaristic German state to resolve differences with other nations. By the end of the war, Althaus drifted away from the Nazi party. However, Ericksen argues that his allegiance to the Nazi party as a prominent scholar and university professor from 1933-42 should not be forgotten.
Emanuel Hirsch was arguably the most prominent scholar in Germany during the early 20th century. Much like Althaus and Kittel, Hirsch was very nationalistic, particularly after the letdown of the Treaty of Versailles. Hirsch closely related the German state with the Volk and saw Hitler as a resurrection for Germany. One particular quote portrays Hirsch’s reasoning for supporting Hitler and it reads as follows:
You know that I am not a National Socialist and that I have more than mild doubts about the NSDAP. But I cannot get around the fact that a situation has developed without my assistance. And Hitler now is the only representative of a will to break with the mistakes of the twelve years from 1919 to 1931, the only candidate on 10 April to offer a new German beginning (146).
Hirsch even went so far as to condemn other scholars who did not support Hitler. He was an informant for the Nazi party, and throughout the Nazi era Hirsch reported to Berlin on the activities of his colleagues and his students. Hirsch retired from the university as soon as the war ended. Hirsch’s reasoning for retiring was that his vision was becoming too much of a problem; however, it is commonly believed that he retired to avoid being removed for political reasons and avoid being forced to go through the process of denazification.
Each of these Protestant theologians was unique in their perspectives, and yet they still all were nationalistic Germans that supported Hitler and the Nazi party. One important thing to note is that these men were not extremists; rather they represented a position that was common to many professors, theologians and pastors in Germany during the first half of the 20th century. A major point that Ericksen leaves the reader with is the possibility of a similar recurrence in the future. Moreover, Ericksen questions whether current theologians would do any better if faced with a similar crises. Ericksen argues that theology and scholarship alone will not prevent the catastrophe of theologians and scholars supporting a totalitarian regime like Hitler’s.
Tips for using this text in the classroom
This is a difficult book for teachers to just hand over to their students. Conducting the Fry readability analysis shows that this books reads around a 13th grade/or college level. It is packed with information and terms with which many students may not understand. However, the book contains many well researched primary sources. There are many quotes like the ones above that a teacher could use in the classroom when discussing topics such as the rise of Hitler, nationalism, and German people during Nazi rule. Conclusively, this a very rich book containing a lot of information and sources and it can be an excellent source in the classroom as long as there is guidance, whether this be showing the movie before reading the text or just pulling pieces out of the text.
There is also a movie called Theologians Under Hitler that correlates with this book. This film can be found and purchased at www.vitalvisuals.com. Furthermore, there is also a workbook that coincides with the movie and also the book. Segments from the movie would be a powerful tool for students before they looked into the book or some of its primary sources. The movie would also help students understand some of the terms that may be confusing when just reading the book.
 Volk refers to a German phrase that is explained as the German way of life, a profound, mystical and emotional bond that is felt with German people. Many Germans refer to Volk as being untranslatable.