Christian Nazis Seeking to Be Cleansed

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I learned this past summer how, following the Holocaust, a number of former Nazis were able to embrace Christianity without their churches expecting them to repent. It sounds as though some of these men were able to feel cleansed of their sins without doing much in the way of serious soul searching. The issue raises troubling religious, ethical, and psychological questions. A particularly grim sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, sent to me by Ugandan reader Farida Bag on another matter, gives us a powerful perspective on the matter.

I became aware of this particular history thanks to the St. Mary’s College Faculty Writing Group, which I organize each year so that members of our faculty can offer each other feedback on our scholarship. Katharina VanKellenbach, a very smart member of our Religious Studies Department, has been working for the past nine years on a book about Christianity and Nazism.

The book has been shaped by access that Katharina got to letters written from prison and, in several cases, of accounts by prison chaplains about the Nazis they were counseling. Some of the material deals with men who were executed. Katharina’s findings are disturbing for those of us who consider ourselves Christian. We see how malleable the religion can become in the hands of those unwilling to face up to heinous crimes—and also how malleable it can become in the hands of the churchmen who administer to them.

For instance, during the rise and reign of fascism, German churches on the whole did little to stand up to Hitler. Then, after Germany’s defeat, they played a key role in trying to “put the past behind us.” As Katharina points out, forgiveness is all very well, but far too many Christian Nazis wanted to be forgiven without ever owning up to their sins, repenting, or doing penance.

One churchman who did call upon people to be accountable was Pastor Martin Niemoeller, and his story confirms Katharina’s point. He was extremely unpopular and was marginalized by his church because he didn’t give Germans the easy absolution that they wanted. (He’s the opposite of the friar in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.) Even if you don’t know about Niemoeller , you probably know the following, which he wrote:

In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me — and by that time no one was left to speak up.

There’s a dark irony in how former Nazi perpetrators used Christian teaching to feel better about themselves. Their victims, the concentration camp prisoners who survived, often went on to live miserable lives, filled with PTSD nightmares and broken homes and frequently ending in suicide. In contrast, certain of these newly minted Christians would claim that their lives were at peace once they found Christ. Their lives, looked at from the outside, seem relatively calm.

So here’s where I turn to Hopkins, applying one of his sonnets to the the camp survivors.  The sonnet is “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” “fell” meaning bitterness (among other things). The poet talks of waking up in the middle of the night and reports that his heart sees the “black hours.” He experiences gall and heartburn and is disgusted with the taste of himself. Worst of all, God does not seem to hear his cries. Hear’s the poem:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.

However, for all the agony and the failure to find relief—dawn, “light’s delay,” refuses to show up—he is not one of the lost. They are like him “but worse.”

And that may be the difference between the victims and the perpetrators. Those who wrestle with their suffering, I think, find a kind of depth. Whereas those who short-circuit the process with fake salvation are condemned to be trapped forever within their sweating selves.  One sees this, Katharina notes, in the pathologies they pass along to their descendants.

Katharina, by the way, believes that the soul can be nourished if perpetrators and their descendants commit acts of penance and reach out to the victims and the descendants of their victims. She says that rich human relationships can grow out of such encounters, and I have heard her talk about a visit that she herself, the niece of a high level concentration camp administrator, made with children and relatives of survivors and victims.

To hear them talk about it (one of them flew up from Miami to hear Katharina’s talk to the College about her trip) is to see the healing that is possible.  They appreciated Katharina and came to new insights about those they grew up with and those whose stories they had heard. This is healing that does not occur if one simply says, “the past is over, let’s move on.” One doesn’t move on by avoiding the issues.

This has implications beyond Nazi Germany.  Wherever country’s have been involved in unspeakable acts–and that would include the U.S. waterboarding terrorism suspects–we have to face up to what has occurred.  There is no simple forgetting.  Hopkins informs us that, while the struggle is hard, it’s when we avoid it that we are truly lost.

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  1. By The Ancient Mariner’s Lessons for Vick on October 2, 2010 at 6:09 am

    […] these talks for the Humane Society?  Or is he just doing it to improve his image?  (You can read here a post I wrote on repentance without penance.  It involves Nazis who turned to Christianity not to […]


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