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Tödt, Heinz Eduard


Komplizen, Opfer und Gegner des Hitlerregimes. Zur "innere Geschichte" von protestantischer Theologie und Kirche im "Dritten Reich".


Gütersloh: Kaiser/Gütersloher Verlagshaus 1997. 422 S. gr.8. Kart. DM 68,-. ISBN 3-579-02029-3.


John S. Conway

Shortly before his untimely death in 1991, Heinz Eduard Tödt was persuaded to come out of retirement to give a final series of lectures in Heidelberg, which both summarize his life-long scholarly researches and offer his insightful analysis of Protestant theology and its church during the fateful years of the Third Reich. The texts were preserved, have been edited by two younger colleagues, Jörg Dinger and Dirk Schulz, and are now published. Fortunately the lecture format has been maintained, making them easily readable and readily comprehensible to the layman. This is not a factual narrative but rather an informed commentary, affording us a wise evaluation of the men and events with whom T. was so closely involved.

T. begins by warning against two dangers evident since 1945: on the one hand, the kind of apologetic self-justifications which white-washes too much; on the other hand, the kind of sensationalist journalism which blackens too much. Instead T. prefers to search out the "inner history" of the Church in those turbulent years in order to account for the puzzling behaviour, which now looks so regrettable, of so many of its leading figures. How can we explain the fact, for example, that Martin Heidegger, the leading German philosopher of his day, who had an immense impact on Protestant theology, so enthusiastically endorsed the new Nazi regime while Rector of Freiburg University in 1933? Or why did Emanuel Hirsch, without question Germany’s most outstanding theologian, give his unqualified support to the Nazis and persecute his critics with such fierce intolerance? Why was Karl Barth, the most prophetic voice of the 1920s, silent on the important political questions of 1933, insisting on continuing his theological meditations as though nothing significant was happening? Why was Hans Asmussen, one of the leading figures of the Confessing Church, despite his personal mistreatment by the Nazis, unable to find any sympathy for the much greater sufferings of the Jews? The answers, T. suggests, point up the ambivalences and frequent dilemmas and clashes of priorities which confronted all church members at the time.

T. rightly points out the confusion, both doctrinal and organisational, from which the German Evangelical Church suffered in 1933. Hitler’s appeal for national unity and social cohesion was alluring, and the call for reform seemingly irresistible. Hence the success of the opportunistic "German Christians". Only in 1934 did the famous Barmen Declaration attempt to regain firm theological ground. Even if conceived as a purely doctrinal statement against anti-theological errors, the statement provided a basis for mobilizing church resistance to the Nazis’ totalitarian pretensions. But its chief author, Karl Barth, is still being accused of undermining the liberal Weimar Republic or of claiming an absolute priority for his own theological positions. T. answers these charges effectively.

Particularly interesting are T.’s own autobiographical reflections. An enthusiastic Hitler Youth leader at the age of sixteen, he was quickly disillusioned when he heard Baldur von Schirach declare that the churches had no future in the new Germany. In September 1939, however, although he did not want a war, had no personal hatred of Poles, and was not suborned by the Nazi propaganda, "I too marched, not against my will". Basically he campaigned out of nationalist loyalty to his German Fatherland, not for Hitler, not realizing that the two could not be separated. Hence his admiration for those in the church or in the resistance movement who had earlier abandoned such illusions.

He rightly deplores the recent tendency to down-play the moral imperatives of the tiny minority who tried to overthrow the Nazi system, and is insightful on the kind of spiritual resources these men developed to sustain their dangerous and fatal enterprise. Likewise he regrets the fact that much of the recent writings about the Church Struggle "from Leipzig through Munich to Tübingen" (215) has de-emphasized the achievements of the Confessing Church in favour of the efforts of the lack-lustre "middle" with its fateful attachment to the idea of a Volkskirche. His admiration for the staunchness of the Confessing Church, the Barmen Declaration, and the prophetic leadership of Barth and Bonhoeffer, is very evident. But, at the time, like so many others, T. himself was confused by the pull of rival loyalties. Only afterwards, while in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, did he learn of the full horrors of the Nazi atrocities, and first recognised the validity of Barth’s stinging critiques. As a soldier on the eastern front, he had no connection with or knowledge of the mass murder of the Jews. But he still asks himself, "did I want not to know?"

In his epilogue, T. stresses the need to avoid using present-day views and expectations about the churches in order to judge their behaviour during the Third Reich. Rather, we need to understand the criteria which prevailed at the time, even if we can no longer agree with them. The inner history of the churches shows enough miscalculation and guilt, not from the standpoint of what we know now, but from what they knew then. But this is part of the tradition, which cannot be expunged, but only repented. This insightful series of popularly-written lectures can be seen as a part of this necessary process of metanoia, and as such deserves a wide readership.