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Theologians Under Hitler GERHARD KITTEL, PAUL ALTHAUS AND EMANUEL HIRSCH by Robert P. Erickson (Yale: $20; 245 pp.)

October 06, 1985|Gordon D. Kaufman | Kaufman is professor of theology at Harvard University; his latest book is "Theology for a Nuclear Age." and

The American experience of religious pluralism in a context of religious liberty has not prepared us well to understand the demonic sorts of evil that deeply held religious convictions--including devout Christian faith--can foster. This is a question, however, well worth exploring, especially in a time of increasing religious involvement in political activity. Robert Erickson's study of three Christian theologians in Nazi Germany who fully supported Hitler throws light on the kinds of perversion to which Christian beliefs and attitudes are easily susceptible, and is therefore timely and useful.

Erickson examines in detail the services to the Nazis of Gerhard Kittel, an important New Testament scholar who specialized in the historical question of the relation of Christians and Jews during biblical times; Paul Althaus, a widely respected middle-of-the-road Lutheran theologian who attempted to find a mediating course between the so-called "German Christians" (who wholeheartedly supported the Nazis) and the Christian Resistance movements; and Emanuel Hirsch, one of the outstanding German theological minds during the first half of the 20th Century, who thoroughly fused his Christian faith with his Nazi convictions. All three of these men held important academic positions before and during the Nazi period (in Tuebingen, Erlangen and Goettingen, respectively), and there is no reason to question either the sincerity or the Christian devotion of any of them.

Each was deeply troubled about the cultural malaise in Germany after World War I. Coming from conservative and authoritarian backgrounds, they associated this unrest with the socialistic and egalitarian ideals widespread in the Weimar period; and they were hopeful that Hitler would restore good order to Germany, leading the people forward to their proper destiny. Their Lutheran faith had emphasized St. Paul's claim that "the powers that be are ordained of God . . . (and that) whatsoever therefore resisteth the (authorities) resisteth the ordinance of God" (Rom. 13:1-2), and this seemed to them to provide a basis for full support of the Nazi regime. So they did not hesitate to work out theological justifications of such support in detail--including religious arguments for persecution of the Jews. As one reads this material, it becomes very clear how easy it was to use fundamental Christian symbols and ideas to legitimize and support utterly inhuman institutions and practices.

It would be a mistake to assume that these German theologians were particularly obtuse or perverse men. Erickson goes to some length to show that they were basically of good character, persons who desired to support and help their country, and that the positions they took were--given the context within which they were living--carefully thought out and thoroughly reasonable. One cannot read his account without wondering whether, if present right-wing and nationalistic tendencies in the United States were to move in a fascist direction, there would not be many American Christians who found similar ways to understand their faith. The fundamental Christian symbols and ideas are open to a wide range of interpretation, and there seems no way to prevent their being put to thoroughly demonic uses--all in good faith.

It is unfortunate, in view of the importance of the subject matter of this book, that it suffers from rather serious limitations. I can mention only two things in this connection. First, Erickson is dependent largely on secondary sources for much of what he says about theologians other than those at the heart of his investigation; he does not seem to know very well the modern theological scene, which provides the context for his study. His discussion of the 19th-Century background of what he calls the modern "crisis in theology" (Chapter 1) is simply not very reliable; his interpretation of contemporaries of Kittel, Althaus and Hirsch--theologians like Barth, Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer--is often crude or misinformed. This means that the principal value of his book is confined to its detailed presentation of the connections of his three subjects to the Nazi movement. This is an important contribution (particularly for English-language readers) but a rather limited one.

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