And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews

Article excerpt

by Wolfgang Gerlach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. 304 pp. $45.00.

As the title of this heavily documented, revised, and abridged dissertation suggests, it is the thesis of this book that the witnesses even in the so-called "Confessing Church" (leaders in the various Lutheran, Evangelical, Reformed, Methodist, and Moravian synods and groups that, unlike the "German Christians," protested that their confessional Christian stance required that they resist the encroachment of the Nazi policies into Church practice and polity) were largely silent not only as the Nazi reign of terror against the Jews of Europe began and reached its climax, but even long afterward. Gerlach contends that "[m]any tried to vindicate themselves by falsifying, omitting, or downplaying the record of their failures," that some of them condemned his studies and others similar to his as "arrogant" and "irresponsible," the work of "people who had no idea of the pressures on Christians during the Nazi era." Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Gerlach himself admits that it is probable that he too "would have remained a silent witness," would also "have failed, either out of fear" or because his "perspective had been blurred by traditional anti-Judaism".

Gerlach develops his book in four sections: Part 1: The Defamation of the Jews, 1933-35; Part 2: The Isolation of the Jews, 1935-38; Part 3: The "Elimination" of the Jews, 1938-45; and Part 4: The Legacy of the Church Straggle. As would be anticipated, he finds "German Christian" theologians such as Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, and Gerhard Kittel uncritically supportive of Hitler's National Socialism and its policies that foster German self-esteem.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the evidence that he gathers shows Dietrich Bonhoeffer consistently speaking and writing his concerns for all Jews as they were defamed, isolated, and killed, and not just concerned, as most of the "Confessing Church" bishops and pastors were, about "non-Aryan Christians," pastors and then later lay members of the Church who were former Jews who had been baptized as Christians, or, as defined by the Nuremberg Laws, Christians with one to four Jewish grandparents, or Christians married to Jews.

Gerlach finds that Karl Barth was consistently opposed to the "Aryan paragraph" that the "German Christians" introduced into the proceedings of the German Evangelical Church as early as September of 1933, the ruling that excluded everyone of "non-Aryan" (Jewish) extraction, as well as anyone who was married to a person of "non-Aryan" extraction from the ordained ministry of the Evangelical Church, and later from participation in its worship services.

One of the gems uncovered by Gerlach, one of the isolated examples of courage shown by the Evangelical Church press, was what Gerlach calls a "provocative piece in large letters on the title page" of the Breslau Evangelischer Ruf, quoted here in full from Gerlach's book:

VISION

Worship service. …