One of the most interesting books to come across my desk in recent days is Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. Dean Stroud has done a remarkable job translating and compiling sermons from courageous preachers who understood their times, recognized their fellow pastors’ defection from the gospel, and unapologetically proclaimed the truth no matter how the cost.
What struck me most about these sermons was their forceful clarity in the midst of moral and nationalistic confusion. These pastors knew “what time it was” and they knew Jesus was King, even though the churches were falling to Hitler and the world seemed to be draped in shadow.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Stroud a few questions about his experience in writing and editing this important book.
Trevin Wax: Dr. Stroud, you started this project as a book about sermons preached during the Third Reich, but then decided to offer translations of these sermons. Why did you think it was important for English readers to have access to these sermons?
Dean Stroud: As a former preacher, I know well the difficulty and importance of preaching. I know too that taking anything out of context is asking for misunderstanding and trouble.
In all my reading about the Third Reich I never found mention of preachers and sermons as primary sources for understanding the period. Historians don’t view sermons as important because they ignore the central role of the sermon in the Christian tradition. Also, there is the secular historian’s assumption that all Christians went along with Hitler.
I want the preachers to speak for themselves as much as is possible. The best way to judge these preachers is to have access to the complete sermons, with cultural notes and a good introduction to the situation of Christians in Hitler’s Germany. Also, by making the complete sermon available, readers can judge to what extent these texts remain true to the gospel and confront the evil of their time.
Trevin Wax: Many readers may be unaware of the extent to which Hitler sought to utilize the churches and their “positive Christianity” to fulfill his nationalist aspirations. What were the basic tenets of the “Nazi religion” that infected the German churches?
Dean Stroud: In the book I do refer to Nazi religion and devote some space to it. However, many scholars are uncomfortable using the word “religion” for Nazism.
Readers can decide if Nazism was a religious movement as well as a political one. But Nazism did have many of the hallmarks of a religion—even a fundamentalist one. Some tenets were:
- the divine election of Adolf Hitler
- the racially pure Germans as the new chosen people
- the sin of Judaism and the demonic evil of Jews as the enemies of God and state
- the worship of brutality and war
- the complete submission in faith and trust to the Führer.
The purity of one’s blood was central to God’s election.
The term “positive Christianity” was part of the Nazi Party’s movement. It was more of a means by which the Nazis could police pastors and priests than it was an expression of Christianity. In the book’s introduction I quote the entire statement and discuss it (pp.6-9).
Although I did not use the term, I do think that in this country, we could substitute “politically correct” Christianity for “positive Christianity.” This would bring us close to its authentic tension with the gospel.
“Politically correct” Christianity in Nazi Germany was racist, anti-Semitic, radically nationalistic, and centered on Hitler as the new expression of God’s chosen servant. We here know what politically correct Christianity entails. Just think of “marriage” and “life” issues. It is where the traditional tenets of the faith rub against the culture and where Christianity is no longer acceptable.
Trevin Wax: What theological or sociological developments in the early parts of the 20th century do you believe contributed to so many churches’ willingness to collaborate with Hitler?
Dean Stroud: I believe liberal Christianity and the disbelief in the Bible as God’s Word set the churches up for the great fall into Nazism. This is why Barth and Bonhoeffer and the other preachers are so important. They took the Bible as God’s inspired Word and not as an historical document without divine authority.
There was also the great collapse of German society following WWI. But the spiritual damage had been done by the misuse of higher criticism since the Enlightenment. Niemöller in particular addresses this problem in his sermon, but Schneider touches on it as well. It is still with us in our post-Christian culture that does not take the Bible or preaching very seriously, much less any idea that God is not pleased with our way of doing things.
Trevin Wax: Evangelical pastors are probably familiar with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two of the most well-known and outspoken critics of Hitler. Who are some of the other important pastors whose sermons you included in this book? And why did you believe we should know them?
Dean Stroud: The pastor I came to know and admire the most was Paul Schneider. He was a small-town pastor who fought the Nazis from the day they got into power until the day the Nazis murdered him the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Other important pastors are Niemöller who went to concentration camps for his preaching, von Jan who was almost killed by Nazis after his sermon on the Night of Broken Glass, Bultmann who like Barth was a major theologian, and Gollwitzer who was sent by the Nazis to the Russian front (where they expected him to be killed).
Each pastor in the book showed Christian courage in their preaching. We should know these men because they stood firm in the faith in a time of evil and put themselves as risk for the Gospel. They can be Christian examples for us today. Also, most people think all Christians went along with Hitler, which is untrue.
Trevin Wax: You deliberately chose to exclude any sermons from the “German Christians” at the time, and instead collected twelve sermons from those who resisted Hitler. How did you narrow the number to twelve, and why were these the most important?
Dean Stroud: Sermons from the Third Reich are difficult to find. Most did not survive the war. Also, many pastors offered no resistance to the Nazis.
A major hurdle is that sermons from that period are still under copyright protection. I was fortunate to find these sermons and to receive permission to translate and publish them, and in the case of Bonhoeffer, to use the Fortress translation. I did have more than these twelve but not many more.
A good friend and I selected these sermons because each offers a different perspective on Christian opposition and each reflects a different style of preaching. In addition, I wanted a cross section of pastors from various years of the Third Reich. I can say with confidence that no two preachers preach alike. That made translating them interesting and challenging. I love each of these preachers and each sermon. It was a work of love.
Trevin Wax: What Bible themes and passages surfaced most regularly in the Confessing Church sermons you’ve studied?
Dean Stroud: Some of the themes are: the authority of God and the idolatry of the Nazis, the Jewish identity of Jesus, the judgment of God on Germany’s sins.
I was surprised by the confidence these preachers exhibited in the final victory of God and defeat of Hitler, even in the early years when Nazism was winning everywhere. They never doubted God—not for one minute. What an example for us!
Trevin Wax: What lessons should Christians today learn from these courageous pastors? How do we avoid the same kind of blindness and failure that destroyed the witness of the German churches during this critical time in history?
Dean Stroud: I suggest looking at “politically correct” Christianity as a guide to where the culture is in deep opposition to Christianity. Consider where the gospel upsets people the most and see if that is not the place for the gospel to be proclaimed.
Read each sermon as an example of opposition to the “positive Christianity” of the Nazis, and then translate that opposition into contemporary words. None of these sermons offers greeting card Christianity or culturally acceptable Christianity.
The book took about ten years to do. What kept me going in part was how amazingly contemporary each of these sermons is. Each one could be preached today, and pretty much understood as the prophet voice it is.