Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 5: September 1998
The Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement
The Twisted Cross, Doris L. Berger. The University of North Carolina Press: 1996. 341 pages. $16.95
reviewed by Irene Groot
In this thoroughly researched and tightly written book, Doris Berger traces the development of the German Christian movement in the Third Reich. While the history of this pro-Nazi Protestant sect is interesting in and of itself, the greatest value of The Twisted Cross lies in documenting how changes in theological ideas and language can be used to promote a sociopolitical agenda.
Despite opposition from many prominent Protestants such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth and general indifference from the Nazis themselves, the German Christian movement was influential as a change agent in the 1930s and ’40s. At its peak, it had more than 600,000 members, roughly 2 percent of the German Protestant population. For 12 years, the People’s Church — as the movement called itself — effectively promoted Nazi anti-Semitism in the name of Christianity.
Trend spotters will find the chapters "The Anti-doctrinal Church" and "The Church Without Rules" of special interest. Ominous parallels to dissident varieties of American Catholicism abound. The People’s Church was anti-doctrinal, anti-legalistic, anti-intellectual, anti-hierarchical, and anti-Roman; favored emotion-charged liturgies; disapproved of authoritative texts; and focused on developing the sense of community. It reinterpreted theological vocabulary, symbols and sacraments in the "spirit" of the German volk. The movement met on Protestant real estate in congregations under the leadership of pastors to create the illusion of continuity with historical Christianity.
The People’s Church was explicitly anti-doctrinal. "Considerations of orthodoxy, dogma or confession", they argued, "must not interfere with the spiritual communion of all Germans." In 1935 a German pastor remarked that the Jewish influence on Christianity built "a fence of orthodoxy as the Pharisees once did."
German Christians were anti-intellectuals who disliked authoritative texts. In a 1937 meeting, they accepted a resolution stating, "A demon always resides in the written word." Berger explains, "Through banal objections about vocabulary, German Christians discarded core tenets of Christianity and exposed their revolutionary transformation of the content of Christian faith."
The movement rejected the universal nature of Christianity and had an abiding hatred for Roman Catholicism. Hopes to expand German Christian influence through supra-confessionalism were consistently dashed against the rock of German Catholicism and its ties to the Vatican. The People’s Church began and ended at the German border.
Liturgists like Christian Wilhelm Bauer developed new rituals to provide experiences in communal self-affirmation while disguising the movement’s doctrinal nihilism. Bauer wrote, "[C]reation of a genuine spiritual community depended on access to the irrational". He developed liturgies that blended Biblical language with fairy tales and myth, forming a syncretistic stew not altogether unfamiliar to American Catholics who have attended a liturgical workshop. Only those elements of Christianity that created a spirit of community found a place in the German Christian rituals. Hymns, including pseudo-psalms, were used to produce emotional involvement while suspending reason and judgment.
A lack of objective reality characterized the movement. While not submerged in the neo-paganism that pervaded both Weimar and Nazi Germany, the People’s Church was influenced by the mythological and subjectivist spirit of the age. The historical resurrection became "a symbol of the resurrection within our own volk". Christian symbols and holidays were reinterpreted as expressions of the "spirit" of the volk. Use of the cross was discouraged and Advent wreaths were re-interpreted. In short, Christianity was transformed from a religion based on the historic act of atonement to a ritual expression of Nazi ideology.
The People’s Church, wholly engaged in building community, had little interest in the rights of individuals. The Sterilization Law of 1933 as well as the Euthanasia Program of 1939 met no German Christian opposition. On the contrary, Genetic Cultivation and Christianity was written to justify Nazi eugenics in German Christian terms.
At the end of World War II, the People’s Church shouldered part of the blame for Germany’s widespread capitulation to Nazism. Nonetheless, it was rapidly re-absorbed into mainstream German Protestantism. The history of this period, as well as that of the Weimar era which preceded it, merit close attention since, in some respects, it parallels our own times. When we hear appeals for an American democratic model to replace the hierarchical magisterium and "horizontal consensus" to replace the pope, we have to ask: Is horizontalism a neologism for collectivization pre-Nazi-style? It would seem to be a very short step from "The Church is People" theology to "The People’s Church". Ideas have consequences — and they are not necessarily what we intend.
Irene Groot is a teacher and writer whose work has previously appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin.