Two sermons and a funeral ceremony in the Third Reich (1 of 3)
|March 11, 2014||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
Recently I have been reading Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, edited by Dean Stroud (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2013). The introduction has a useful overview of the church/state situation in the Third Reich. One noteworthy observation from that introduction is Hitler “made more references to God and to Christianity during the first eight weeks following his appointment as chancellor than at any time thereafter” (p. 5).
The book contains twelve sermons in all, but I would like to mention only two of them. Not having read the whole book, I would not want to attempt anything like a review, but these two sermons are significant. One, “Gideon,” was preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer on February 26, 1933, and was based on the story of Gideon in the book of Judges. The other, “A sermon about Jesus as a Jew,” based on Romans 15:5-13, was preached by Karl Barth on December 10, 1933.
Neither one of those two sermons contained anything that would get them in trouble with the Gestapo. If the full text of the sermons had been taken down and read in some Gestapo office somewhere, they could have been read with indifference.
There were to be sure some points that contradicted Nazi doctrine. Bonhoeffer stated for example, in discussing the story of Gideon, that God’s word was more powerful than all the armies of the world. He stated that we should worship God alone, and not any human person; that the cross of Christ nullified human grandeur. The editor states that the mere use of a text from the Old Testament was noteworthy in itself.
Barth stated, as general theology and not as a political sermon directly denouncing Naziism, that Volk, nation, or race were not relevant to the church; that Jesus was a Jew; that the worship of God in Christ forged a closer bond between people than that of racial or national community.
Potentially, these points could be used to nullify National Socialism, but the Nazis understood well that it was no threat to them if the Christians got together in their churches and talked about theology, the Bible, and Jesus. They would have preferred it, of course, if everyone enthusiastically followed the Nazi line, but if some people wanted to talk about religion that could be tolerated for the time being.
Much different was their reaction to an incident that happened at a funeral service in 1934 [the following information is taken from Rudolf Wentorf’s Paul Schneider: Witness ofBuchenwald, trans. Daniel Bloesch (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2008)].
An eighteen year-old boy, Karl Moog, died and was buried in a ceremony presided over by a Lutheran pastor, Paul Schneider (two of his sermons are included in Stroud’s book). What in normal circumstances would have been a conventional ceremony was altered by the fact that there was an honor guard made up of the local Hitler Youth, an SA unit, as well as a unit of the labor service, and some members of the League of German Girls. After the liturgical blessing but before the pastor’s final benediction, the NSDAP district leader spoke, and said that “Karl Moog had now crossed over into the storm of Horst Wessel.”
The Pastor responded by saying in his benediction [according to his letter to the church superintendent describing the incident], “I do not know if there is a storm of Horst Wessel in eternity, but may the Lord God bless your departure from time and your entry into eternity. Let us go now in peace to the house of the Lord and remember the deceased before God and his holy Word” [p. 152 and following].
The district leader then stepped up and repeated his comment about the storm of Horst Wessel, to which the pastor responded “I protest. This is a church ceremony, and as a Protestant pastor I am responsible for the pure teaching of the Holy Scriptures.” Then he left, still according to his account, and went to the church. He added that the great majority the uniformed persons left without going to the church, though they had time to linger in local restaurants.
The next day, Paul Schneider wrote directly to the NSDAP district leader and with expression of regrets that a clash occurred, stated that “It is not acceptable that anyone can say what he wants” at a church funeral [the letter of more than a page in length is quoted in full]. He conceded that there was an earthly storm of Horst Wessel, but this was not biblical Christianity.
Schneider was as conciliatory as possible, offered to meet with the man and discuss “the matter itself and the spiritual realities behind it,” and explained that he was not motivated by political considerations, but only wanted to maintain the integrity of the funeral service. The district leader responded by having Paul Schneider arrested.