Religion and the german resistance to Hitler

By Paul Chapman
The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the Kairos Center or its staff.
While studying in a Graduate School Library in Switzerland in 1956, I came across a book that described how in Germany in 1933, Hitler promised a new beginning for Christians. He established a national church embracing a positive Christianity that was under his control. Many of the pastors, actually a majority, were encouraged by Hitler and soon swastikas were hanging in their church sanctuaries. One commentator wrote, “Hitler’s electoral base was predominantly Protestant, the Protestant churches were stridently nationalistic.”((Von Moltke, Helmuth James, Letters to Freya, Knoft: New York, 1990, Page 14)) While many Protestant churches slid into racism and neo-paganism others were appalled and did not submit to Hitler’s leadership, often at great risk. Reading these reports sparked my life-long interest in the German resistance to Hitler. I have sought to understand how Christianity can keep us alert to systemic evils in our time and prepare us to live lives of resistance. I wondered whether in similar circumstances the church in the United States, longing for a more vibrant presence in the local community and the nation, would ever succumb to such a demagogue.
The question is still relevant.
While Hitler had been able to seize power in 1933 and win the loyalty of many citizens it stands to reason that in a country as enlightened as 20th Century Germany, there would be other people who were appalled by his policies. In reality there were many more resistors than we generally hear about. One British observer, Christopher Sykes, spoke of ‘a great and unexpressed secret opposition, a movement covering all of Germany, and of which foreign opinion was unaware.’((Van Roon, Ger, German Resistance to Hitler: Count von Moltke and the Kreisau Circle, Van Nostrand: London, 1971, Page 50)) We know of Dietrich Bonhöffer, and perhaps have heard of Sophie Scholl, one of the student leaders of the White Rose. Yet there were many more, neighborhood groups and individuals who in their own way refused to cooperate with Hitler’s policies. We will never know the identities of myriads of people who, in little ways, secretly opposed Nazism. Thousands were caught – and executed. The book by Walter Zahn, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter((Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Illinois, 1964)), reports on an Austrian peasant farmer who boldly and without community support of any sort, stood tall in resistance – and was executed.
Most resistors wisely kept their opposition secret; nevertheless, between 1933 and 1945, thousands of men and women were executed for treason. There’s the story, for example, of the woman who wrote to her soldier son stationed in Russia, “I hate this awful war.” The letter was read by the SS and she was executed for undermining troop morale.
One of the first organized groups to distance themselves from Hitler’s policies consisted of Protestant Christians. While the Nazis were getting control of the majority of the churches, Pastor Martin Niemoller formed the Pastor’s Emergency League (PEL) opposing Hitler’s interference in the life of the church. Subsequently, supporters of the PEL affirmed the Barmen Declaration of 1934((Two decades later I had the privilege of knowing Lenie Immer whose father, Pastor Karl Immer, was the host minister of those who signed the Barmen Declaration. Lenie told me that as a teenager she sat at her typewriter all night as Karl Barth, leaning over her shoulder, dictated the Declaration.)), a theological document, stating that Christ alone was the head of the church and for the state to take dominance of the church was anathema. Pastors who affirmed the Barmen Declaration constituted the Confessing Church. Ultimately divisions within the church and an aversion to being involved in politics limited the churches’ effectiveness in opposing Hitler. Many pastors were inhibited by Luther’s teaching of two realms (altar / throne) and believed that the church had no role to play in the politics of the state.
As Hitler’s atrocities became known throughout the land, various resistance groups formed, usually gathered around common interests or a charismatic leader. Some focused on removing Hitler, perhaps with a coup d’etat. Others sought to lay the ground work for a totally new Germany to replace the present regime once the war was settled. There was the Sperr Circle, a Catholic group in Barvaria, the Cologne Catholic Labor Leaders, the Goerdeler Group made up mostly of established politicians and the Freiburg Group created after Kristallnacht and made up of academics who were Christians. It s significant to note that most of the officers in The Reichswehr (the armed forces) were opposed to Hitler.((The Army’s leaders, drawn mostly from the country’s elite, looked upon Hitler as crude and basically ignorant of military strategy. Attacking Russia just as winter was about to begin, for example. Despite their dislike, the officers had taken a vow to personally obey him and they were conflicted in their loyalty. In the end, though they longed for an end of the Hitler reign, they did not have the courage or the circumstances to organize a coup d’etat that they longed for.)) The group that has been of special interest to me is the Kreisau Circle, which was made up of many of the brightest and most caring and imaginative young leaders of the nation and which was organized by Helmuth von Moltke.
I hope the story of von Moltke is better known than I realize. George Kennan, the American diplomat, called von Moltke “the greatest person morally, and the largest and most enlightened in his concepts that I met on either side of the battle-lines in the Second World War…The image of this lonely, struggling man, one of the few genuine Protestant-Christian martyrs of our time has remained for me over the years a pillar of moral conscience and an unfailing source of political and intellectual inspiration.”((Balfour, Michael & Julian Frisby, Helmuth von Moltke: A Leader Against Hitler, Macmillan: London, 1972, Page 169))
The group was named for the von Moltke estate, near Breslau, where the meetings were held. The original members of the Kreisau movement who gathered around von Moltke came from the intellectual elite of the land, and most were from landed and noble families. Several were lawyers, others economists, educators and clergy. Some were politically well established. Others had lived and studied in other countries as well as Germany. Most counted Christianity as important to their spiritual life which helped form their social-ethical values. The fundamental statement of the Circle begins, “We see in Christianity the most valuable source of strength for the religious-ethical renewal of the nation, for the conquest of hatred and deception…and for the peaceful cooperation of the nations.”((The First Kriesau Conference, 22-25 May 1942))
The young members answering von Moltke’s call were deeply committed to Christianity, yet wanted a church more united and more relevant to the life of the world. Horst von Einsiedel believed firmly in the Christian way of life and was connected to the nascent ecumenical movement being born in Geneva. Adam von Trott was in contact with Visser’t Hooft who in turn introduced him to Reinhold Niebuhr. Bernd von Haefton was a member of the Confessing Church where he worked with Bonhöffer and was a friend of Martin Niemoeller. Von Haefton wrestled with the implications of his faith for his daily life and condemned the church for its failure to energize the laity to challenge Hitler’s injustice. Harald Poelchaul, who later was appointed Chaplain of Tegel prison where a thousand resistors sentenced to death were incarcerated, was a close friend of Paul Tillich. He was very critical of the intransigence and inwardness of the Christian church which failed to bring the light of the gospel to societal issues. Eugen Gerstenmaier was trained in philosophy and theology, having studied with Emil Brunner and was influential in helping members of the Circle hone their own theological perspective.
From the beginning von Moltke wanted an ecumenical group. He was convinced that while the Protestants were inclined to be about private salvation, Catholics were more engaged in public issues and the hierarchy was able to exercise more power than the Protestant leaders. In frequent consultation with Bishop Preysing of Berlin, von Moltke enlisted many Catholics to join with the Protestants. Socialists and Labor Union leaders likewise participated in the Circle.
The list of Catholic members and sympathizers that von Moltke drew into the Kreisau Circle was impressive. Several were Jesuits, primary among them, Alfred Delp, S.J., who had studied with Heidegger was also a close friend of Karl Rahner. Delp implored the church and each member to take the contemporary world seriously, “Since every historical moment can be an opportunity for the Kingdom of God.” He lamented the spiritual homelessness of contemporary Germans.
There were but two formal meetings of the Kreisau Circle to which all the members were invited; most of the work of the Circle was carried on in correspondence and in meetings of affinity groups; von Moltke was the primary organizer and appears to have had unlimited energy for keeping the members informed of the work of others. His formal occupation was working with the Abwehr, the military intelligence office (led by a sympathizer, Admiral Canaris, who covered for him.)((Dietrich Bonhöffer and Hans van Dohnanyi also worked for the Abwehr)) In this position, von Moltke was able to travel extensively and on occasion to warn other countries of German plans, and thus avoid serious troubles for those countries. For example, in Copenhagen on October 1, 1943, he warned a friend who was close to the Danish foreign ministry that the Führer had given orders that Danish Jews were to be rounded up the next day. Thousands went into hiding and were saved.
As the work of the Circle continued, experts among them were assigned to draw plans for the future of the country, according to their areas of expertise. Their common goal was “to create the spiritual foundations on which the communal life of Germany could be rebuilt and on which the new government could base its work.”((Van Roon, op.cit, page 111))
Above all the Kreisau Circle did not want the restoration of the former social structure, which obviously had failed. Aware of the problems presented by a society so divided between the upper class and the majority, von Moltke himself worked toward a more equitable society.((The European Union, formed years after the war, includes some of the structures that had been envisioned by the Kreisau Circle, most notably overcoming national borders.))
The work of resistance was increasingly dangerous and von Moltke continued to find strength for his life in the Christian gospel. In 1942 he wrote to his English friend, Lionel Curtis, “Those whose hearts are stirred by a new longing for God, are compelled to give this longing fresh and authentic expression and to build their house anew for their God…The risks and sacrifices that are today demanded of us, require much more than ethical principles.”((Van Roon, op.cit, Page 126))
Plans for a future Germany depended on a negotiated peace. Members of the Kreisau Circle, especially those with connections abroad tried again and again to make contact with the highest authorities in England to work for a negotiated peace. They traveled extensively toward this end but none of these efforts succeeded. It was a great blow to the Circle when Roosevelt and Churchill declared in 1943 that their goal was unconditional surrender. There would be no negotiated peace. Yet, even in defeat there would still be the need for an organized German society.
Getting rid of Hitler was still an essential goal of the resistors everywhere. As the hope that the military would initiate a coup d’etat faded, the resistors needed to find another way of replacing Hitler. Von Moltke himself was absolutely against assassination on Christian grounds. He did not believe that good would result from evil. Others, including Bonhöffer believed that assassination was a last resort and plans were made resulting in the attempt by Claus von Staffenburg on July 20, 1944. At first, it was reported that Hitler had been killed, at which point many of those who had agreed to take over the new government assumed their new positions. When it was soon learned that the assassination attempt had failed, the fate of the resistance was doomed. Over 7,000 were executed immediately as a result.
Von Moltke had already been in prison for seven months, having been arrested as part of a general sweep of the Abwehr. His arrest had nothing to do with the Kreisau Circle nor with the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life. Eventually however, the Gestapo learned of von Moltke’s participation in the Kreisau Circle and new charges were brought against him.
There is so much that can be written about his months in Tegel prison, dozens of his letters having been smuggled out by the prison chaplain, Harald Poelchau. Anticipating his execution, von Moltke had no regrets. He was at peace having done what he could to live a life inspired by the life of Jesus. He even wrote to his wife, Freya, with apologies. “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.”((Martin Luther’s hymn, Ein’ Feste Burg))
A special court had been created by Hitler to deal with these conspirators. The prosecutor/judge was Roland Freisler, a wild man who before demanding the death sentence screamed at the defendants, as he had done with Sophie Scholl earlier. But with von Moltke, the exchange was quite different – both being seasoned jurists with hostile respect for each other’s competence. They agreed that both National Socialism and Christianity claimed ‘the whole man’ and that the two were incompatible. At one point in the trial von Moltke was able to say, to great satisfaction “We shall be hanged as disciples of Christ.”((Van Roon, Page 279)) Freisler agreed.
Pending execution, Von Moltke was at peace and, somewhat triumphantly, wrote to Freya, writing in the third person, “And so your husband stood before Freisler not as a Protestant, not as a landed proprietor, not as a nobleman, not as a Prussian, not as a German… but as a Christian and nothing else….For what a tremendous task your husband has been chosen (by the Lord God.)”((Letters to Freya, Page 410))
“It is not granted us to see God face to face, yet we cannot but be overawed when suddenly we realize that throughout life God has gone before us as a cloud by day and as a pillar by night, and that he is allowing us suddenly, in a single instant, to perceive this. Now nothing further can happen…”((Gollwitzer, Helmuth, Kathe Kunn, Reinold Schneider, editors, Dying We Live: the Final Messages and Records of some Germans Who Defied Hitler, Harvill: London, 1956, Page 106))
He was hanged on January 23, 1945 at age 38; 71 years ago.((One final word about Helmuth’s wife, Freya von Moltke, who was his support throughout their married life and an active member of the Circle from the beginning. It was she who preserved his daily letters, which constitute the record of his daily activities, by hiding them in the bee hives at Kreisau. They have now been edited by Beate Ruhn von Oppen, in a single volume, called Letters to Freya. Freya attempted after to war to maintain the Kreisau estate, now in Poland, but after a year found the task impossible, so moved with her two young sons to Norwich, Vermont, where I had the great privilege to become her friend and learn firsthand about this extraordinary life.))