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About My Father (3)

Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus on the day of his ordination, March 16, 1941, Essen

(Continued from About my Father (2))

The ink was hardly dry on Albrecht’s BK ordination certificate when the official church got wind of it and took steps to prevent a repetition.  In a letter dated May 7, 1941, while Albrecht’s regiment was nearing the Soviet border, the then president of the Konsistoriat in Düsseldorf, the governing body of the official church in Westphalia, Karl Koch, wrote:

Through a series of coincidences, the Konsistorium has learned that in March of this year, apparently at the end of the month, the Council of Brethren (Bruderrat) held another illegal examination, namely in the house of the Rhineland Mission in Barmen, with the participation of Pastor Delius, a member of the executive committee of the mission.  So far we have learned the names of 4 candidates who were examined, 3 of them in the 2nd exam, 1 in the 1st exam.  The latter was the son of Pastor Immer in Barmen, who is in the military service and apparently obtained leave for this illegal examination.  Among the 3 former is the BK-vicar Nikolaus [sic] from Werden.  Pastor Schlingensiepen ordained two of the candidates immediately afterward in the Clausentrasse Hall, namely a certain Lütje and another from Marienberghausen.

The recent candidates are being inoculated with the line that this is not an examination but just a kind of conversation about religion, but a candidate who recently visited the General Superintendent and was asked about it was very indignant at the thought that the exam was not being valued as such, and he argued to the contrary that the exam was divided into separate subjects like regular exams and that they got a grade for each subject.  It is therefore an idle play with words when the Council of Brethren wants to make the state agencies believe this is not an examination.  This is also clear from the fact that the BK itself attaches to these exams the legal consequences that follow , especially from the 2nd exam, as just happened again, namely ordination.

In my view it is absolutely necessary for the church to take energetic steps against these continuing illegal and secretly disguised examinations.  In a meeting with Oberkirchenrat (chief church director) Euler and Kirchenrat licensee Sinning we resolved that the Konsistorium’s plan to suggest Sup. Lic. Sachsse for appointment to the Theological Examining Office depends on the immediate and total cessation of the illegal examinations.  If Sup. Sachsse is unable to give this assurance or is unable to achieve this result, then the Konsistorium must report the matter to the minister via the EO with the request to permit the commencement of disciplinary proceedings against the principal participants of the Council of Brethren, Pastors Schlingensiepen and Beckmann.  …. And we at the Konsistorium will send the Rhineland Mission a special message with a reminder that the Mission obtains from here every year substantial funds from the collection.

Karl Koch

Koch was one of the high dignitaries of the old church who had been ousted from their posts when the Nazi-led Deutsche Christen took over most of the churches in 1933-1934.  This drove him into the arms of  the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors’ Emergency League) and then into the BK, where for a time he played a leading role.  Shortly thereafter, he regained some of his former positions, and became a collaborator of Bishop August Marahrens, a notorious two-faced dignitary who, like Koch, had been ousted by the Nazis, joined the BK, was then reinstated, and made his career posing as a Christian on the one hand and on the other hand supporting the extermination of the Jews and praying for Hitler and blessing the invasions of other lands.

At the bottom of the letter, a handwritten note, probably by Koch, adds:  “All payments to the Rhenish Mission are hereby blocked until further notice.”   Copies of the letter went to church officials Euler, Sinnning, Sohns, Horn and another whose name is illegible.

  • Karl Euler headed the Konsistorialrat of the official church in the Rhineland, and had distinguished himself in 1933 by hounding Ernst Flatow, a hospital chaplain in Cologne, born of Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity, out of the church.  Flatow was deported to the Warsaw Ghetto where he died.
  • President Karl Friedrich Horn was President of the official church in the Rhineland and founder of the so-called Ordnungsblock, a group of clergy who tried to stake out a middle position between the Nazi-led Deutsche Christen and the BK, a stance which led Karl Barth, earlier a friend, to break off relations with him.
  • RAL Sohns was an SS Sturmbannführer who was in charge of Rhenish official church finances.[1]
  • Waldemar Sinning was a nonentity who followed orders.[2]
  • The “minister” Koch mentions would have been Reichsminister für Kirchliche Angelegenheiten — Minister for Church Affairs — Hans Kerrl, a close confidant of Hermann Göring.  Kerrl had previously served as the Nazi Minister of Justice; he lived in a lakeside villa stolen from a Jewish businessman’s family.  The liquidation of opposition in the churches was his principal business.

Notice banning students who took BK classes

The BK had established its own seminaries shortly after the Dahlem conference in late 1934.  Bonhoeffer ran one in rural Finkenwalde under the protection of a sympathetic nobleman.  There were five altogether. [3] Victoria Barnett’s book, For the Soul of the People, describes how the BK seminary in Berlin (the Kirchliche Hochschule) ran.  Students enrolled at the regular university would walk singly or in small groups, to avoid attracting police attention, to a pre-arranged meeting place at someone’s apartment, always a different one, to hear lectures and hold discussions.  The safest meeting place was in an apartment upstairs from a local Nazi party office.  The Gestapo was always close on their heels.  Then, in August 1937, Himmler’s decree made the taking and giving of BK theological exams, and by extension participation in study leading to such exams, criminal acts.  University students found a notice on their classroom doors announcing that any who visited classes taught by the BK would be banned permanently from all universities in Germany.

BK Pastor Hans Asmussen

BK Pastor Heinrich Vogel

Before the end of May, 1941, the Gestapo arrested 23 people involved in the Berlin BK seminary  including the principal lecturers, Pastors Hans Asmussen and Heinrich Vogel.  They were all imprisoned in the pretrial detention facility (Untersuchungsgefängnis) in Berlin until their trials in December that year.  All were convicted of violating the Himmler decree of August 1937.  Most were sentenced to time served and then released, except for Martin Albertz and Günther Dehn, who served additional time.  That was the end of the Kirchliche Hochschule and of the BK’s theological exams.

On July 6, 1941, a secret memo by Nazi party boss and Hitler confidant Martin Bormann called for the total elimination of all religious opposition.  All members of the BK”s federal governing body were arrested, at least for a time.  At least 18 BK clergy were murdered in concentration camps; there was a special block at Dachau for them and for other clergy deemed oppositional.[4].

The BK’s illegal education, examination and ordination of theological students came to an end in the spring of 1941.[5]   My father, Albrecht Nicolaus, was one of the last pastors, perhaps the very last, whom the BK was able to ordain.

Practically all the “illegals” — theology students, vicars, and clergy ordained by the BK — were drafted, as a deliberate policy aimed at decapitating the BK parishes.  By the summer of 1941, 270 of the 300 illegals from the Rhineland and 132 of 154 from the Berlin region were in the military and on the Ostfront.[6]  By contrast, clergy belonging to the Deutsche Christen, the Nazi-affiliated group, were able to obtain deferments and discharges rather easily.  Of the BK illegals, it is estimated that more than half lost their lives in the war.[7]  Albrecht’s schoolmate and brother in law, the BK pastor Helmut Wolf (the husband of his sister Lieselotte) was another victim; he was killed in 1944.

Besides the stick, the official church also extended to the young BK clergy the carrot of legalization.  Clergy ordained by the BK were not recognized by the official church. They could not draw civil servants’ salaries, as did the clergy of the official church.  If they died, their families were not entitled to church pensions. Depending on the location, they could be denied entry to church property, and were frequently harassed, arrested, and sometimes beaten by Nazi hoodlums.  Nevertheless, theology students in major parishes overwhelmingly opted for the BK, and the official church had a difficult time replenishing its aging ranks.  The official church therefore offered to legalize BK clergy, but on condition that they take the theological examinations a second time, with official church people — Nazi sympathizers and collaborators — as examiners.  Candidates for legalization also had to expressly disavow allegiance to the BK and swear an oath of loyalty to the Nazi state.[8]  The legalization proposal touched off a firestorm of controversy between the BK and the official church, and within the BK.   Albrecht never applied for legalization, and my mother never initiated a proceeding to have him legalized posthumously.  Thus, when I asked the official church registry in Essen in 2001 for records regarding my father, the answer was that no such name was on its pastoral roster.  My father remained an illegal to the end.

The history of the German Protestant Church after the Nazi defeat in 1945 is a very large chapter covered by a massive literature that I do not have time or inclination to survey.  I want to conclude this review of my father’s brief life by sketching the subsequent fates of his theological mentors.

Karl Barth, of course, survived the war in Switzerland and became one of the giants of 20th century theology.   He died in 1986.

Pastor Wilhelm Busch of Essen was imprisoned several times during the Nazi era but survived; he continued after the war as a preacher and church leader, and was active in the Social Democratic Party.  He died in 1966.

Pastor Johannes Böttcher, who ordained my father and in whose pastoral office in Essen Albrecht’s first theological exam took place in 1939, together with  Pastor Heinrich Held, also of Essen, who was one of my father’s BK examiners, are credited with saving the lives of 50-60 Jews who lived hidden in the cellars of bombed-out buildings in Essen.  Even after Sept. 17, 1944, after the deportation of the last Jew, when the regime declared the city officially “Jew-free,” these BK pastors secretly brought them food purchased with ration stamps donated by members of BK parishes for “needy members of the parish.”  Böttcher survived, became a local church leader, and died in 1949.  Held also survived, became a leader of the post-war church, and died in 1957.

Pastor Heinrich Schlier, another of my father’s BK examiners, survived the war and became a famous professor of theology at Bonn before converting to Catholicism; Pope Paul VI appointed him to the papal Bible commission.

Pastor Johannes Schlingensiepen, the unofficial dean of the BK’s educational effort nationwide, survived and became a major leader in the postwar Protestant church; he died in 1980.

Helmut Gollwitzer became a Russian prisoner of war,  was released in 1950, returned to Germany, and was a prominent theologian and political activist; he died in 1993.

[end]

  1. [1] Günther van Norden, Politischer Kirchenkampf, Die rheinische Provinzialkirche 1934-1939, Verlag Rudolf Habelt Bonn 2003, ISBN 3-7749-3156-9, pp. 158-160.
  2. [2] Id., pp. 107, 245, 247.
  3. [3] http://www.niemoeller-haus-berlin.de/ausstellung/tafel17.html
  4. [4] http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Kriegszeithttp://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfarrerblock_(KZ_Dachau) 
  5. [5] Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, Carsten Nicolaisen (ed.), Theologische Fakultäten im Nationalsozialismus, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1993; ISBN 3-525-55718-3; p. 290
  6. [6] Barnett, p. 87, citing Bethge as source.
  7. [7] Barnett, p. 87
  8. [8] Günther van Norden, Politischer Kirchenkampf, Die rheinische Provinzialkirche 1934-1939, Verlag Rudolf Habelt Bonn 2003, ISBN 3-7749-3156-9, p. 245.

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