By Karsten, Lena
History Today , Vol. 57, No. 12
'I FEAR THERE WILL COME a time when the only people Germany can rely on are the Christians. And there are only a few of those', wrote my grandfather in despair, seventy years ago. Where were the Christians during the Third Reich? remains a burning question. My grandfather, Dietrich Karsten, was born on July 3rd, 1911, in Colmar, Alsace (then part of Germany). His father was a hard-working Protestant pastor and family bonds were tight. He would eventually have five siblings. After the end of the First World War and with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Alsace was transferred to France and the family were forced to move. They made their new home in Mecklenburg in the Protestant heartland of northern Germany. Dietrich was himself ordained as a Protestant pastor in what was now Nazi Germany in 1936. He died as a soldier in Russia in 1942 having won the Iron Cross fighting for Hitler.
Millions of Germans met their deaths in the war on the soil of countries they were invading, wearing swastikas on their chests. But my grandfather's calling as a Christian minister and his strong anti-Nazi convictions made his story all the more incomprehensible to me--that he, of all people, should give his life for such a cause.
Remarkably, Dietrich Karsten left over 300 letters, written from 193242--the decade that separated Dietrich the theology student from Leutnant Karsten who directed machine-gun fire on a frozen lake in Russia. These letters offer the possibility of gaining some deeper understanding of Dietrich. They also throw up questions. Is it so surprising that numerous Christian Germans saw Hitler's seizure of power as heaven-sent?
Many in the Protestant Church were enthusiastic for the Nazi-led national revival, which they thought would bring a renewed spirituality and strength to the country. These Christians were tired of years of humility and uncertainty since 1918. Some went further, acknowledging the Nazi leader as their supreme authority and embraced German nationalism and Nazi ideology as integral parts of their faith, calling themselves the 'German Christians'. They developed a hybrid religion which paganized their Christianity. These German Christians were not satisfied with following their own brand of religion but tried to take over the Church entirely. Pastor Dietrich Karsten's eventual death in Hitler's service would begin to make sense if he had taken a wrong turn here and joined this popular faction, as so many did. But he did not, writing to his mother on Ascension Day, 1933:
I don't think that file Church will get much further if it doesn't know whom to believe in. And only if there is no talk of race and national identity but --surprisingly--of Jesus Christ, then and only then is it seriously trying to be what it ought to be.
In 1932 Dietrich had been an enthusiastic and carefree student under the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) at Bonn University. Only a few months later-with the Nazis' rise to power--Dietrich's world had been turned upside down and he was desperately trying to make sense of it.
... If we followed all the demonstrations, attempts to politicise, manoeuvres to force us into line here at the university--which poison everything like a toxic fog--we would be turned to the devil's side within fourteen days. To differentiate between the spirits, you need a natural instinct and also a lot of quiet time. Otherwise, we'll all end up 100 per cent Nazi. Last Monday, our student leader told us the following: 'Compulsory SA service for terms 1-3 and the others should join if they want to finish their degree'. [To parents, November 12th, 1933]
Dietrich's attitude to the Nazis is unequivocal, no doubt guided and influenced by the staunchly anti-Nazi Professor Barth. …