Sermons after Kristallnacht

Oct 29, 2019

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

The Sunday after a shooting at a gay night club in Florida, it was interesting to see which preachers changed their sermons to respond to the situation. The same for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, or Alton Sterling. Pastors who write sermons early in the week sometimes have to toss it out when the national consciousness shifts due to a major event. Still others ignore it completely.

In the 1930’s life was getting difficult for German Jews. In his effort to promote a pure white Germany, Hitler and his Third Reich had passed laws forbidding Jews to hold public office or teach in schools. They could not move freely, without permission. Laws were passed for bidding Jews to wear eyeglasses or winter clothes.

On the night of November 9, the German Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers) unleashed hell. Hundreds of Synagogues were burned. Hundreds were dragged to concentration camps. Many were killed. It was called Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. The Nazis liked to used evocative names for their atrocities. Today Germans prefer to refer to it as the November Pogrom.

Kristallnacht burning building

I got to wondering what pastors preached about after Kristallnacht, especially those who had the courage to address it directly. Fortunately, we have some of these sermons.

A lot was at stake.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been decrying the dangers of Naziism as early as 1933. When Bonhoeffer gave a speech on the church’s responsibility to care for and advocate for the Jews, a group of pastors stormed out of the room while he was speaking.

More to the point, pastors could be arrested for preaching against the Reich. In March 1935, the Second Confessional Synod of the Old Prussian Union church issued a declaration that stated the nation was threatened by the great danger of a new religion: National Socialism. Pastors were going to read the declaration from the pulpit, until the government got wind of it and forbade the reading of the declaration. Furthermore, pastors were required to notify the government in writing that they would not read the statement. Many pastors refused to comply. Over 700 pastors were arrested, including Pastor Paul Schneider, the first pastor to die in a Nazi concentration camp, according to Dean Stroud in Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow. 

Pastor von Jan

Pastor von Jan

Pastor Julius von Jan served in Oberlendlingen. On November 16, 1938 he preached a sermon on Jeremiah. The kings of Israel had trampled on justice. He quoted these words from Jeremiah 22:

‘Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place… But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become desolation.

Julius von Jan plaquePastor von Jan said God had sent prophets like Jeremiah, but they had been put in concentration camps. Those who have spoken out against the injustices have been ridiculed and have lost their income.

The sermon ruffled some feathers. After this sermon, he was beaten a large group of Nazis, then dragged to City Hall and arrested. He was convicted of misuse of the pulpit and insidiousness. In November of 1939 he was sentenced to 16 months in jail. He was released in May of 1940 after serving five months. (Behind Valkyrie: German Resistance to Hitler, Ed. Peter Hoffmann.)

Helmut Gollwitzer

Pastor Helmut Gollwitzer

Another pastor, Helmut Gollwitzer, had studied under Karl Barth. He served in Berlin-Dahlem after Martin Niemöller was arrested. On November 16, 1938 he preached on John the Baptist.

“Have not our mouths been muzzled…?”

“How, following all the years and centuries of preaching, have we come to this place where we find ourselves today and as we find ourselves today?”

“Our sins have earned us this.” (Jeremiah 14:7)

He knew he could not preach without addressing the current darkness: “It’s not as if I enjoy any of this, but rather it’s that I cannot evade the task—that’s the reason I am speaking like this to all of you.”

“All of you certainly want God to come into your life, to care about our church and about this nation (Volk), just as He cared about the Jewish nation (Volk).”

Gollwitzer addresses John’s question to the baptismal candidates: “O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

“It is a time when no one wants to repent, and yet it is precisely in this unwillingness to repent that we find the secret to the misery of our time. Because ours is a time that cannot tolerate this word, the most vital thing linking people to each other lies broken and shattered: the ability of a person to give another his rights, the ability to admit one’s own error and one’s own guilt; the ability to find the guilt in himself rather than in the other, to be gentle with the other but strict with oneself.”

“These people who have a true desire to be baptized are addressed in this way and are welcomed with the news: God is disgusted at the very sight of you. Surely we today are familiar with the disgust we feel where evil is not simply evil, but rather dresses itself up in a repulsive manner as morality, where base instincts, where hate and revenge, parade about as great and good things.”

“… this truth, that upright men and women can turn into horrible beasts, is an indication of what lies hidden within each of us to a greater or lesser degree. All of us have done our part in this: one by being a coward, another by comfortably stepping out of everyone’s way, by passing by, by being silent, by closing our eyes, by laziness of heart that only notices another’s need when it is openly apparent, by the damnable caution that lets itself be prevented from every good deed, by every disapproving glance and every threatening consequence, by the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves.

“In baptism we find death and resurrection, no and yes, fear and joy, hell and heaven—all tied up together. That is why it is a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ With the forgiveness of sin a lifesaving wall is erected between your present suffering and misery as the foreshadowing of the coming wrath and the wrath itself.”

Then the pastor addresses the baptismal candidates’ question to John the Baptist: “What then should we do?”

“Repentance rebuilds the bridge leading to your neighbor.”

“This neighbor does not excel in any way that would cause the world to find him worthy of help—nowhere is it said that he deserves our help. Nowhere are we told that between him and you there is a common bond of race or a people (Volk) or special interests or class or sympathy. He can only point to one thing, and it is that one thing that makes that person your neighbor—he lacks what you have. You have two cloaks, he has none; you have something to eat, he has nothing left to eat; you have protection, he has lost all protection; you have honor, honor has been taken away from him; you have a family and friends, he is completely alone; you still have some money, his is all gone; you have a roof over your head, he is homeless. In addition to all this, he has been left to your mercy, left to your greed (see yourself in the example of the tax collector!), and left to your sense of power (see yourself today in the example of the soldier!).”

There is a clear imperative in baptism, to love and care for your neighbor.

“Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us—waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence. That is the one who is waiting to see if today this Christian congregation has really observed this national day of penance. Jesus Christ himself is waiting to see.”

Afterwards the Gestapo expelled him from Berlin and forbade him to preach or speak anywhere. He escaped the situation by serving as an army medic. Later he lived in a Russian prisoner of war camp. His memoirs became a best seller.

He wrote of preaching: “…in no other form of speech are things taken so seriously, is our whole existence so challenged, even put at risk. In no form of speech does our word itself so much take the form of action, of intervention in the history of the hearers, as in this.”

Rulers frequently demonize and scapegoat minorities to build support for themselves. I often think about the risks pastors took during this era. They risked being arrested or even losing their lives for what they preached. Thank goodness we do not live in such an era. So what excuse do I have for being afraid to speak the truth?

Quotes in this post came from Dean G. Stroud’s Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons un Resistance of the Third Reich.