(first published in the Methodist Recorder 17 July 2014)

It is a year of anniversaries, every year is but 2014 especially so. As well as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, it has been the 70th anniversary of D Day, and shortly many in Germany and elsewhere will mark the 70th anniversary of the 20th July Plot, the most serious attempt on Hitler’s life. The event itself has taken on almost mythical status and the conspirators honoured as heroes; for many that is, but not for all.

Some in Germany consider those who plotted the death of Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg as nothing other than members of the aristocracy seeking to bring the war to an earlier end in order to prevent total defeat and the loss of ancestral lands to the approaching Soviets. Some will ask why it was that the conspirators were willing to support the regime whilst the war was going well but only turned against Hitler the moment things looked desperate.

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Nevertheless it will have been clear to von Stauffenberg, von Trott and their co-conspirators that, should the attempt fail, they would be in a very precarious position. Some committed suicide the moment they heard that Hitler had survived, a number were executed within hours, and others faced a show trial that sought to ridicule them before they too faced the firing squad or hangman’s noose. Almost 5,000 were condemned to death though many would not have been directly involved in the conspiracy.

We should never underestimate the ruthlessness of the Nazi regime and, because we cannot fully comprehend what it was like to live as citizens of the Third Reich, we ought to be cautious about making judgment on the inaction and complicity of millions. But we can take lessons from their experience.

Resistance in Germany may have been limited but it did exist in many forms. If a comment critical of the way the war was being conducted was sufficient to get you hauled before the Gestapo with the prospect of torture and death then it is understandable that there were fewer significant acts.

What is more difficult for us to understand is the complicity. The 20th July plot has indeed inspired books, documentaries, dramas, and a Hollywood blockbuster but to a certain degree these have masked the fact that the vast majority didn’t resist. Most were unwilling to conspire against the regime and were in fact supporters or at best indifferent. We somehow need to believe that such barbarity could not have gone unchallenged; for it to be any different would be almost too much for us to bear.

I would argue that it is only by addressing both the support that Hitler and the Nazis enjoyed and the acquiescence of so many that we can really get to grips with what actually occurred and be alert to what may yet be repeated, albeit in another guise. As Christians it is only by admitting the complicity of the church that we can begin to move on from what many regard as the darkest episode in human history.

Shortly after 1945, with the newsreels of concentration camps and mass graves stunning audiences, the church looked for martyrs, Christians who would surely have resisted the regime. The Confessing Church was the obvious place to find them and Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most likely candidates. Having survived long-term imprisonment Niemöller became a popular figure for the church to gather around; he had after all stood up to Hitler and loss of liberty was the cost of doing so. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price being executed just days before the surrender was signed. They were without doubt very brave men; however it would be false to claim that they were entirely without blemish when it came to the nurturing of the environment that led to the slaughter of six million Jews.

The position of the church in Nazi Germany is shameful by most people’s standards today. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight; we can see what the outcome was and we are understandably horrified that so many fell for the world-view of Hitler and his inner circle. But even taking this into account there are still huge question marks hanging over all the denominations.

In a sense the Roman Catholic Church should have been in a better position than the Protestant churches because, looking to Rome, their mind-set was beyond national boundaries. The Protestant Churches, in particular the Lutherans, had a much clearer national identity and were quickly drawn into the movement that rid the nation of the Weimar Republic; they clearly saw the Nazis as a better option than atheistic Bolshevism. One leading Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus felt convinced that Hitler was ‘a gift and miracle of God’. Many pastors and theologians became members of the party in the early 20s, including Martin Niemöller’s brother Wilhelm.

What criticism there was from the churches arose out of concern, not for Jews per se, but for Christians with Jewish ancestry. Under the racial laws there was no difference, all were Jews despite Christian baptism and church allegiance, but to the churches there was an altogether different view. To the churches even someone with Jewish roots could be a Christian, but faithful Jews were believed to remain part of a race that had killed the Christ and were solely responsible for the fate that now befell them. The so-called justification for the Final Solution could be found in the writings of Martin Luther.

It is insufficient to claim that the silence of the churches was due to fear of what might happen to them once the Jews had been dealt with. This view grew in popularity during the post war years in order to justify the inaction. But documentary evidence, discovered in the early days after the Allies took control of Germany, clearly supports the argument that church leaders played more than a minor part in protecting Nazis during the de-Nazification process.

As Methodists we would do well to examine the actions of the Methodist Church once Hitler came to power. There was a feeling amongst their co-religionists that Methodists were not proper Germans owing to the fact that the church originated in England and had been greatly influenced by those in the United States. The consequence was that many German Methodists felt the need to prove their loyalty to the new regime. Methodist Church leaders significantly collaborated with the state in attacking the criticism levelled at it by others. In 1935 Bishop Nuelsen spoke favourably of Hitler whilst on a tour of the United States; Nuelsen liked the order Hitler had brought to Germany and claimed that he was a man of unquestionable good character with only peaceful intentions.

Otto Melle became Bishop of the German Methodist Episcopal Conference in 1936 and he lost no time in expressing support for the regime. By then the intentions of the Nazis should have been known. Jews and those of Jewish descent were already finding life increasingly difficult. But in the eyes of Melle, Hitler could do no wrong. In fact he was to be admired as a wonderful example to young people; he was after all teetotal and he didn’t smoke.

Clearly the actions of the regime against its political opponents were of less importance.
Even in the summer of 1944 Melle was still a faithful believer in the Nazi regime. He had already concluded that Roosevelt had sided with the devil in becoming an ally of Russia in the war against fascism.

As we approach the anniversary of 20th July it is tempting to laud the conspirators; however the lateness of their attempt to rid the world of Hitler raises questions about their motives. The church continues to extol the virtues of Niemöller, and in particular Bonhoeffer, but before we continue to paint in radiant light the Confessing Church, and the small number of resistors from other denominations, it would be wise for us to seek a greater understanding of the part they played; even they had held views that nurtured the mind-set that led to the garnering of almost unqualified support for the Final Solution. Thus many German Christians would give thanks to God in their relief at hearing Hitler’s voice on the radio late that evening.