On Being and Finding a Friend
Portmann, John, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Quakers & Nazis: Inner Light in Outer Darkness. By Hans A. Schmitt. Missouri. $29.95. The familiar stereotype of Friends (or Quakers, as they are better known) as solid yet non-threatening moral citizens extends far into the past. In Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1799) we read: "I have always loved the simplicity of manners, and the spiritual-mindedness of the Quakers; and talking with Mr. Lloyd, I observed, that the essential part of religion was piety, a devout intercourse with the Divinity; and that many a man was a Quaker without knowing it." Boswell's point here is that genuinely religious impulses ought to erase rather than create divisions among people and that Quakers exemplify these genuinely religious impulses. Boswell essentially says that Quakers get religion right.
Nothing in Hans Schmitt's admirably well-written book contradicts or undermines the stereotype of Quakers already evident in Boswell's observation. What is particularly interesting about Schmitt's engaging examination of Quaker responses to Nazi atrocities is the way it presses on the notion that many a (religious) person is a Quaker without knowing it. Although Schmitt tends to view Quakers as importantly different from other religious groups, his praise of various Quaker deeds points up paths to goodness that persons of any (or no) faith might take.
A good bit of this book is naturally predictable: Friends did not reciprocate the suffering Nazis inflicted on them. Friends hid and protected Jews from the Gestapo. Quakers emerge as moral victors. What should be no less predictable is the somewhat unsettling fact that the same Quaker who apologized to a Jewish congregation in Berlin for the failure to spare them the humiliation inflicted by a rowdy gang of Storm Troopers also petitioned the German government to commute the death sentence imposed on Nazi murderers of a Communist in the Silesian village of Potempa. In both instances the Quaker's conduct was guided by the same thoroughgoing love Friends felt for all humanity: for Jews who did not share their Christian beliefs and for Nazis who violently opposed their vision of human brotherhood. This kind of loving has landed Quakers in trouble, almost from their beginning. Schmitt's history nicely illustrates how politically dangerous it can be to bestow our sympathy indiscriminately on other human beings.
In order to tell us about Quakers in Germany, Schmitt tells us a good deal about general Quaker history. Like other 17th-century sects such as the Baptists and the Unitarians, the Quakers grew out of the Anabaptist revolt against Roman Catholicism. Anabaptists argued in the 16th century that all people needed to be rebaptized (hence the provenance of the term "anabaptist"). Roundly condemned by Luther, the Anabaptists were Christendom's first fundamentalists, persecuted by Protestants and by Catholics alike.
Fundamentally, Quaker worship precluded all hierarchy and transcended principles of political governance. …