The relationship between religion and politics continues to draw the public’s attention. The public might be well served to revisit that relationship’s history—specifically the chapter involving the Third Reich.
A new documentary, “Theologians Under Hitler,” examines how three prominent men of faith came to ally themselves with the Nazi party during the 1930s and 1940s. Producer-director Steven D. Martin spends 64 minutes dissecting how respected German theologians of the day embraced Adolf Hitler’s ideology and spun it for the German people.
“During the darkest days of the 20th century, three of the church’s greatest teachers—Paul Althaus, Gerhard Kittel and Emanuel Hirsch—gave their full support and allegiance to Adolf Hitler,” says the narrator at the beginning. “This program will examine their stories in an attempt to discover what went wrong.”
Martin blends a voice-over narration and classical score to supplement historical photos, film footage and, notably, extensive interviews with American and German scholars. Occasionally the documentary relies too much on generic visuals like clouds, gardens and church steeples, but some of the important ideas discussed here are simply difficult to illustrate.
The documentary uses the work of Robert Ericksen, history professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. Ericksen’s 1985 book, Theologians Under Hitler, was a pioneering work on the German church’s involvement with Hitler’s programs.
“If you looked around the university community, you almost could not find real resistance to the Nazi state,” says Ericksen in the documentary. “If you looked in the church, you didn’t find much resistance.”
The documentary progresses in three sections. In “Act 1: The Crisis,” Martin sets up how the Enlightenment affected Christendom, with the church’s efforts to make Christianity more palatable to a reason-saturated culture.
“Nineteenth-century liberal Protestant theologians, in an attempt to address the concerns raised by the Enlightenment in Europe, created a portrait of Jesus as the ultimate moral guide and teacher,” says the narrator. “His example of humility and service was lifted out of the specifics of his Jewish milieu.”
Thus, belief in Jesus was tantamount to belief in the potential of humanity. From there, one could make the leap to Hitler’s Aryan ideal. Martin effectively conveys this kind of information, drawing on other experts like Dartmouth University’s Susannah Heschel, who talks about how the German people, after World War I, identified with Christ and awaited their own resurrection.
From there, Martin moves into a profile of Emanuel Hirsch, dean of theology at Goettingen University when Hitler rose to power in 1933. Hirsch argued that the volk should be the basis of German society. The concept of volk not only established a mystical and emotional bond among the German people, but it complemented the church and provided a sort of lens for its work in the world, said Hirsch.
Like Hirsch, Paul Althaus was born in 1888. Althaus became interested in Lutheran involvement in politics, the documentary says, and by the 1930s, Althaus found himself in the Nazi camp, believing that Hitler was a conduit for God’s plan.
“Act II: The Rebirth of Germany” continues the examination of Althaus, whose 1933 pamphlet “The German Hour of the Churches” essentially advocated the combination of church and state. Althaus called 1933 “the year of grace of God’s hand” when Hitler emerged supreme. He equated faith in God with faith in Hitler.
“Faith and folk were one,” says the narrator.
One of the documentary’s strengths is its presentation of the Deutsche Christen—or “German Christian”—movement that came to prominence in the 1920s. It championed a radical, nationalist agenda that merged church and state—to the point of draping a swastika on the church altar.
At this point, Martin brings in Doris Bergen of Notre Dame University, who points out how the Deutsche Christen movement thought the church had become too feminized and sought to portray the institution as young and virile.
The documentary also touches on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church, a decision that perhaps inadvertently points out how this documentary would make an excellent companion piece for a Bonhoeffer study.
The third and final act takes viewers further into the abyss of church-state collusion with “The Case of Gerhard Kittel.” Simply put, Kittel was broadly admired in the 1920s as a pious man—and then he appears to have sided with evil.
Kittel was founding editor of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, still a seminal work in the field. He had Jewish friends and evidenced Jewish sympathy, but then something changed.
In 1933 Kittel gave a lecture called Die Judenfrage—The Jewish Question—that was later published. The ideas he espoused led to his inclusion as a Nazi researcher on Jewry.
“He became one of the most viciously anti-Semitic leaders in the Christian church in support of the Nazi ideology,” says Ericksen in the documentary.
Martin even includes a letter from one of Kittel’s colleagues at Cambridge University. When Kittel’s new ideas became public, the colleague wrote:
“No one in England, Jew or Christian, troubles about the views of Nazi professors who have given themselves to Hitler and sinned against the light. It is just not worthwhile. … But about you we are troubled and grieved because we reckoned you to be on the side of the angels.”
The documentary concludes by telling how Hirsch, Althaus and Kittel fared as the Nazis lost power and were defeated. The fate of each stands in contrast to the others.
Martin’s brief epilogue mainly works to establish the relevance and application of Third Reich theologians to today’s religious and political quagmire. The power of the pulpit shines through.
The DVD, available for group showings, comes with an extra photo gallery, an interview with an archivist, and an interview with Rudolf Weckerleng, pastor of the Confessing Church.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s Note: Acceptable for all audiences.
Producer/Director: Steven D. Martin
The movie’s official Web site is here.