Hitler's Theologians: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch

The Rise of Positive Muscular Christianity.

By Antifascist

PBS broadcasted last Jan. 2006 on its affiliate stations the documentary, "Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch" based on a book by Robert P. Ericksen with the another title "Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust " published by Yale University Press, 1985.

I found no comprehensive review of the film, but here is a fair review of Ericksen's theme along with another book, "Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler" by Jack Forstman that researches the same theologians. Actually, Forstman deals better with the theological issues than Ericksen and so the reviewer recommends both books. But the Ericksen film is worth watching to. The film concludes that "Brutality is brutality, injustice is injustice, and violence is violence" even when justified by the Christian church. Also, the German Christian church was most responsible for the brutality toward the German Jews because its theologians use the authority of the church to rationalize anti-Semitism. Here is a summary of the three Nazi theologians:

Emanuel Hirsch, born on 14 June 1888, was Dean of Theology at Goettingen University, 1933-1945. Hirsch role in Nazi Germany was to combine the romantic concept of the German “Volk” with that of the Christian. He announced a national German rebirth and compared the new German society to the resurrection of Christ. Hirsch saw 1933 as a "sunrise of divine goodness." His Volk Theology attempted to explain Germany’s post WWI problems.

Unfortunately, Ericksen doesn’t explore in depth the meaning of this synthesis between the Germanic idea of “Volk” and “Christian.” This ideological merging is a critical component of the Nazi totalitarian state. A complete analysis of the Nazi concept of State can be found in Herbert Marcuse’s article on fascist ideology in “The Struggle Against Liberalism in the Totalitarian View of the State” (1934) which can be found in his book “Negations” (Beacon Press, 1968). A central principle of totalitarian political theory is “Universalism.”

‘Universalism’. A belief in an abstract totality as ‘the true and the genuine’. It’s irrational, and its connection with individuals is, therefore, mystified. Specifically, the totality in fascism is ‘the folk’, a mystical naturalistic entity ‘that is prior to all social differentiation into classes interest groups etc.’ (cf ‘the community’)
Marcuse, Negations, Harmondsworth: Penguin University Books
The whole is of primary importance over the member parts. The “Volk” is an organic, racial community. Volk provides a foundation of society and is “divinely willed” and so is prior, or natural to any artificially derived social system of society. This natural organic whole is a totality that defines the scope of all social relations and duties. This realm of divine totality is separate and even opposed to all rational planning and human engineering neutralizing all critical examination of the status quo. Marcuse writes,

Hence all attempts are “a priori” discredited that would overcome the present anarchically conflicting strivings and needs of individuals and raise them to a true totality by means of a planned transformation of the social relations of production. Negations, p. 22.

We can see this same ideological function in the Neo-Liberal economic theory of the “natural market’ and how all interference in the marketplace disturbs the equilibrium of “natural” market forces; also the non-rational belief in Adam Smith’s invisible hand that guides market supply and demand. Intervention and human planning of society’s production apparatus are a priori illegitimate, utopian, and doomed to failure. “Competition” is the law of nature and society thus making existing monopolies and elite classes ipso facto legitimate by their very existence.

The Volk concept justifies the creation of a “classless” society, but this is just the language of Capitalism at the stage of advanced Monopoly Capitalism to justify the current class structure.

A classless society…is the goal, but a classless society on the basis of the and within the framework of –the existing class society.
Negations, page 21.

In 1933 Paul Althaus spoke of Hitler's rise as "a gift and miracle of God," and 1933 “the year of Grace…the Easter moment.” He wrote “The German Hour of the Churches,” and ideologically united Theology, Nationalism and the Church resulting in a Nationalistic Deification of the State. Hitler was equivalent to Martin Luther and even Christ himself. German Christians were to become “Nationalistic Christians” and this movement brought about the "Reich Church" and its "Deutsche Christen theology." Germany was the new Israel. The churches gloried in their patriotism, displayed national flags and honored the war heroes. The Nazi Stormtroopers often married in the Deutsche Church with the symbols of both Church and State. Althaus believed the Christian church had become too feminine and wanted instead a “muscular Christianity.” Those attracted to this movement were strongly anti-intellectual and anti-theological.

Gerhard Kittel is a famous theologian and is well know among New Testament Greek scholars because Kittel edited the ten volume standard reference work used in New Testament Greek word studies, the “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.” The NIV (New International Version) translators relied on this dictionary when translating the Bible. Kittel’s work on this dictionary started the same year he became Hitler’s apologist of anti-Semitism. What is also shocking is Kittel was an expert on Jewish and Christian religious history and cultural Biblicism and did not seem to be anti-Semitic before 1933 . Kittel framed the “Die Judenfrage” (The Jewish Problem) and argued that Judaism and Christianity were perverted by modernism and secularism. He said Jews were a threat and were “over represented” in the professions and advocated removal from German society. He blamed “Liberals” for tolerating Jews and so was responsible for the Jewish problem. He did not advocate extermination, migration, or assimilation, but instead recommended that Jews be given “Guest status” in Germany. Kittel distinguished the Old Testament ancient Jews from the modern “secular” Jews. This is how he justified attacking modern secular Jews in Germany and gave permission to be brutal to them. He claimed that his anti-Semitism was no harsher that Christ’s, and that God called him to deal with Germany’s Jewish problem. Hitler is the resurrection of Germany and the defeat of the Jews.

Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler.
book reviews
by Keith Clements Findarticles.com
April, 1995

Fifty years after the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of the second world war, the twelve years of Hitler's rule still put the most searching questions to Western society, and to the churches in particular. Why was Hitler's accession to power in January 1933 hailed so widely by Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike, and not only at the popular level of street or pew, but by some of the most renowned and sophisticated theologians of the day? It is right that we continue to be inspired by heroes such as Barth and Niemoller, and resisters like Bonhoeffer. But the more discomforting question is why they were untypical.

Jack Forstman's study is therefore to be welcomed as a contribution to a profoundly important, continuing enquiry. As he states in his eloquent introduction, it remains a crucial theological question for today whether and how we can recognize the demonic in society -- at the stage when the evil is still potential rather than fully manifest. Forstman concentrates on seven Protestant professors who were already into their academic maturity by 1933: Karl Barth, Emanuel Hirsch, Paul Tillich, Friedrich Gogarten, Georg Wunsch, Paul Althaus and Rudolf Bultmann. With admirable fairness and lucidity (in what could be a bewilderingly tangled story) he traces their respective stances towards each other, to the Nazi revolution, and in turn to each other's responses to that earthshaking event. Barth and Bultmann, early allies in the dialectical theology movement, remained consistently opposed to the Nazification of theology and church. Barth's great service in being the chief inspiration of the Barmen Confession always deserves underlining. Less often acknowledged is Bultmann's acerbic dismissal of the pseudo-religious Germanic mythology and his forthright denunciation of the proposed "Aryan paragraph". Tillich, largely on account of his religious socialism, fell foul of the regime very early on.

The most tragic figure in the whole drama is Emanuel Hirsch. Of brilliant mind and immense knowledge, and with a passionate desire to revitalize the life of his tired, dispirited and demoralized fellow-Germans after 1918, he was also remarkably close to Tillich on both a personal and intellectual level. Yet he hailed the Nazi era as (to use Tillich's kind of language) a positive kairos. Hitler, he believed, had a God-given mission to unify and uplift the German nation. Hirsch supported the anti-Jewish measures of the 1930s, by which "non-Aryans" were dismissed from civil office and excluded from business life, as an unfortunate necessity. Paul Althaus, perhaps the greatest exponent of Luther of the time, likewise greeted the new Nazi age -- though by 1937 he realized his mistake. Hirsch remained unrepentant for the rest of his life.

Even among those who agreed over the main issue, there were at times sharp disagreements. Barth disagreed with Tillich on the matter of membership in the socialist party, and with Bultmann on the oath of loyalty to Hitler. But overall perhaps the most illuminating case is the bitter dispute between Tillich and Hirsch, precisely because in many respects they were so close. They shared the insight that Christianity always requires a concrete, historical cultural context in which to express itself. But whereas Tillich maintained the "Protestant principle" that finite historical forms are never to be identified with the transcendent, unconditioned reality to which they point, for Hirsch the contemporary historical moment became everything in itself. Germany, its Volk and its national aspirations, became not just the context but the actual content of theology, ultimate concerns in themselves. For Tillich the scene had to remain open to the unremaining criticism of a transcendent perspective, otherwise there would be idolatry.

Obviously any such survey must be selective. But it is strange that no more than a footnote is given to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in whom German Protestantism found its most decisive anti-Nazi embodiment, both theologically and politically. Bonhoeffer may have received over-exposure in some respects, but that is all the more reason to bring him out of his "saintly isolation" into the context of these other figures. Nor can this exclusion be justified on the grounds that "Bonhoffer (sic) was just beginning his theological work in 1933, and his most important work came later". In fact by 1933 Bonhoeffer already had two major treatises to his credit, Sanctorum Communio (written in 1927!) and Act and Being (1930), in both of which he argued with Barth. Bultmann and several of the other senior contemporaries. Both works -- and others, especially his Berlin university lectures on Christology (1933) -- are crucially important for an understanding of his later ecclesiological and social thought.

However, this study will certainly make more accessible to English-speaking students a crucially important piece of modern theological history and some of its chief players. It complements Robert P. Ericksen's closely related study Theologians Under Hitler (Yale University Press, 1985), of which, surprisingly, there is no mention by Forstman, not even when dealing with Althaus and Hirsch who, along with Gerhard Kittel (whom Forstman does not mention either), form the focus of the earlier study. I would argue strongly for keeping Forstman and Ericksen as companion volumes. Forstman shows deeper and more precise understanding of the theological issues themselves, and deals with more figures. Ericksen, however, has a surer grasp of the wider social and intellectual context of post-1918 Germany, and above all of the crisis which modernity was posing for the theologians.

But in neither book is there finally a clear and satisfactory answer to this crucial question: whether one type of theology rather than another guarantees a surer perception and response to politicized evil. That is not necessarily a fault in these or any other such works. Perhaps the question itself is wrong. Maybe we are here expecting a little too much of theology in itself, as an intellectual discipline. Recognizing the devil (or not) takes place at a much more primal level, in the very guts of what it is to be human and to have faith.

Keith Clements is coordinating secretary for international affairs in the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland.


Further reading

The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism

Yesterday and Today: Nazis and the Righteous Right

Muscular Christianity: Masculine Christianity vs Feminized Christianity

Muscular Christianity

Nazism had Strong Ideological Roots in Christianity

It’s Time To Man Up You Girly Christian Men!

Hannity suggests Christianity compatible with torture