Book Review: Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich

Wittenberg, Nationalsynode

Bergen, Doris L. Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. 360

Few events in modern history prove to be more horrific for mankind to grasp than the Holocaust of the Jews in 1930s–40s Europe. With the full power and legal authority of the German Government, the Jews were systematically exterminated. The hatred for the Jews was fueled by a rapid anti-Semitism that convinced a nation the Jews were a less-than-human scourge that must be eradicated from the human race. As the smoke from World War II began to clear and the inhumanity of Nazism became evident, the world began to search for answers. How could something like this happen in a civilized nation? How could the rest of the world look the other way and allow this to happen? And most importantly for the purposes of this review, how could the church become implicit in this mass crime? After all, Germany is not a land of heathens, but the very cradle of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Yes, there were notable voices of protest within the German Church, but for the most part, the German Christians, a movement within German Protestantism, embraced Nazism and gave their hearty endorsement of the movement, its leaders, and its ideology.

Author Doris L. Bergen brings unique credibility to this subject matter. She holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina and serves today as the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include the issues of religion, gender, and ethnicity in the Holocaust and World War II. In addition to the Twisted Cross, Bergen has authored or edited three other works related to her area of expertise.

In Twisted Cross, Bergen explores the unique conundrum known as the German Christian movement of the 1930s and 40s. While the German Christians only constituted a small minority of the Protestant Church in Germany (Bergen estimates less than 600,000), their influence far outweighed the disproportionate size of the movement. Moreover, unlike the German Confessing Church, which stood in open opposition to the Nazis and was eventually forced underground, the German Christians threw their full support to the Nazi government and became useful tools in the hands of skillful Nazi manipulators. The German Christian movement provided ample cover for the Nazi leadership in effectively anesthetizing the moral conscious of the German people. Bergen is clear to note that Nazi leaders were strongly anti-Christian in their own beliefs and viewed the Church as weak and feminine. Yet, at the same time, the Nazis saw the value of sympathetic voices within the Church, and how church leaders could ease the conscious of the nation as the government ramped up its violence against the Jews. What is most surprising, as Bergen observes, is that German Christians supported Nazism out of conviction, not opportunism (p. 3).

As Bergen notes in her first chapter, the book is organized along thematic lines with the goal to examine major ideas and their consequences within the German Christian movement rather than provide an in-depth study of the group’s organizational evolution (p. 14). Bergen explores the contribution of race (Volkstum) to the German Christian movement, and tries to help non-German readers appreciate the significance of race to the German identity. To understand the German Christian movement, one must try to understand the significance of race. Through American eyes, race tends to focus on color differences. In Germany, however, race was much more encompassing. For example, Americans would see a white man who comes from a Christian family, baptized in the Christian church, and openly professes, or identifies himself as a Christian, as a Christian white man. Americans would contrast this with a black or Hispanic man who may or may not consider himself a Christian. The racial contrast is the color of the skin. In Germany, however, race was much more subtle and significant. Yes, the Germans identified races of different colors as non-whites, but more importantly was the distinction between Aryan and Non-Aryans. Using the example from above, if the Germans saw a white man from a Christian family who was baptized in the Christian church and openly identified himself as a Christian, yet had a Jewish grandmother, he would be considered a non-Aryan, and thus marked for exclusion and persecution. The German Christians skillfully blended the mistrust and discomfort Germans felt towards foreigners of another color with the mistrust a German must feel towards a Jew. Bergen goes to great lengths throughout her book to help non-German readers appreciate this significant racial distinction. Bergen quotes Karl Barth, who observes that the German elevation of race as a second revelation next to the Scriptures is at the very root of the heresy that grounded the German Christian movement (p. 21).

Consisting of eleven chapters, Twisted Cross examines the following topics: “One Reich, One People, One Church,” “The Anti-Jewish Church,” “The Antidoctrinal Church,” “The Manly Church” “Non-Aryans in the People’s Church,” “Catholics, Protestants, and Dreams of Confessional Union,” “Women in the Manly Movement,” “The Ecclesiastical Final Solution,” “The Church without Rules,” “The Bride of Christ at War,” and “Postwar Echoes.”

Throughout, Bergen attempts to show the seemingly bazaar contradictions within the German Christian movement to traditional Christianity. Examples include the belief in a non-Jewish, Aryan Jesus, the singing of hymns to Jesus and to Hitler, referring to Hitler as “the Great Shepherd,” the use of church publications and sermons to propagate anti-Jewish Christianity and support Nazi racial policy, the subjugation of Christian doctrine to racial beliefs, and identifying historic Christian holidays and celebrations with German race and Nazi ideology. To the modern reader, many of these illustrations of the German Christian movement seem incomprehensible. How can one profess to be a “Christian” yet smear with hatred the very person of Jesus Christ and the people from whom He traces His lineage? How can one believe in Yahweh, yet at the same time believe the Hebrews are the root of all evil in the world? Faithful to her thesis, Bergen explores all of these contradictions and attempts to show the disastrous consequences of the underlying beliefs. As Bergen notes, “through their anti-Jewish people’s church, the German Christians endorsed the crimes of the thousand-year Reich” (p. 26).

In the chapter on “The Ecclesiastical Final Solution,” Bergen zeros in on the complete abandonment of biblical Christianity and the full embrace of Nazi ideology. The Old Testament was essentially disregarded, and the New Testament was rewritten in ways that reinforced the underlying belief that it was a Christian responsibility to war against, and ultimately eliminate the Jewish influence in the world. By the end of the 1930s, the German Christians’ quest for an Aryan Church resulted in the complete dejudzization of Christianity (p. 142). The epic contrast between good and evil was found in the Christians’ “bitter crusade” against the Jew. Bergen quotes Julius Leutheuser, writing from the Eastern Front in 1941: “We call our people to build a National Church, as this final world struggle breaks out, the struggle against Judaism. We now hold the means to strike the weapons from the hands of Judaism for good” (p. 151).

In “The Church without Rules,” Bergen explores the German Christian opposition to theology, theologians, and intellectualism in general. In describing their effort, Bergin describes the three “antis” of the German Christians: anti-intellectualism, anticlericalism, and antilegalism (p. 173). Their motivation, she notes, was to disarm and discredit their opponents. Yet, in spite of their anti-intellectual message, the German Christians were able to capture a majority of the professorships and deanships in theology at German Universities (p. 176).

Twisted Cross provides a valuable contribution to the study of Christianity and the church in the hands of an unbiblical, unschooled leadership. While several books provide a good historic review of the church in Nazi Germany, Twisted Cross digs deeper into the heart of mankind and to the compromises he must make in order to embrace such extraordinary contradictions to the very thesis of Christianity. For this reason, Twisted Cross should find a place on any bibliography concerning the Christian church in 1930s Germany, or any study attempting to discern how orthodox Christianity can be subjugated from within in order to match the moral and ethical climate of the culture it finds itself. Without question, Bergen shows how far leaders can stray from orthodox Christian teaching when motivated by political correctness and the quest for political power. Christian leaders today face the same temptation to set aside orthodox beliefs in order to secure “a seat at the table,” believing in the long run they can influence the unbelieving leaders to follow more biblical policy, but as Bergen demonstrates in Twisted Cross, such men and women are often viewed as useful idiots in the hands of the powerful, and it is ultimately Christian doctrine that is compromised.

Yes, God has His Josephs and Daniels who serve as godly influences to world powers, but Joseph and Daniel served with both strong conviction and an uncompromising belief in the ultimate sovereignty of God. The warning for today’s church is obvious–compromising on biblical doctrine for the sake of influence is a losing proposition. There is always a temptation to look back at the monsters of Germany in the 1930s and 40s and think with an air of confidence, never here, never again. Yet this belies the fact that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The German monsters were not unique to human history, but rather, quite the contrary, an unfortunate reflection of us all. As Bergen notes, “The ‘ordinary men’ whose transformation into mass killers…were not just ordinary men or even ordinary Germans: they were also ordinary Christians” (p. 10).

    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.

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