About the Authentic Church

Being German and therefore having to begin with beginnings, I started writing my life story by writing the life story of my father.  My father’s life story, though brief — he died at age 27 — was very wrapped up with the German Bekennende Kirche, the Authentic Church, so that in order to understand him, I found myself having to learn about this institution.  The following paragraphs can serve as a very short introduction.  The literature on this topic is large, and what I have written here below is subject to addition and correction as I get more deeply into it.

About the English Translation of Bekennende Kirche

The name Bekennende Kirche (BK) is conventionally translated as “Confessing Church”  or sometimes, “Confessional Church.”  This is a technically correct translation; bekennen means in the first place to admit or confess.  Readers steeped in theology will know that theological declarations of principles, such as one at Augsburg in 1530, are “confessions.”

Yet the translation can easily mislead and put off a lay reader, because it creates the impression that this church somehow laid emphasis on confessions, in the sense of going into a dark booth and reciting your sins to a priest.  The BK had nothing to do with that kind of confession.

The verb bekennen, particularly in the reflexive form, sich bekennen,  also means to profess, to bear witness, to recognize and accept, to declare in favor of, to adhere, to embrace, to cling to.  These meanings come closer to the heart.

The BK arose because a sizable number of German Protestant clergy felt that the established official church leadership had let go of and turned its back on Christianity, had abdicated, abjured, denied, abandoned and played Judas to the faith in favor of National Socialist (Nazi) ideology. The BK was, by contrast, the church that adhered to, bore witness, professed, embraced, clung to, and upheld the original faith.  The core meaning of Bekennende Kirche is the real, true, genuine, and authentic church.  Pastor Martin Niemöller, who as much as any German defined the character of this organization, called it “the real church.”[1]

From this perspective, the conventional English translation of “Confessing Church” creates some estrangement, and from a partisan viewpoint appears almost cowardly by comparison with “Authentic Church,” the translation I think better.  The “Confessing Church” translation is also unfortunate because there is an American religious trend — completely unrelated — by the same name.

All that having been said, I will avoid the whole conundrum and move forward by referring to the organization from here on simply as BK.

Another potential linguistic confusion for the lay reader arises from the name of the Protestant Church in the German language.  It is the Evangelische Kirche, the Evangelical Church.  It is not to be confused with the fundamentalist, born-again evangelical trends in American Protestantism.  In Germany then and now, the Evangelische Kirche was and is the established mainstream church, encompassing approximately two thirds of all religious believers.  This is why my mother, when we emigrated from Germany to the States in 1953, found a tolerable fit not in any of the American evangelical denominations, but in the Episcopal Church.

A Very Short History of the BK

After taking power at the beginning of 1933, the Nazi party moved to integrate the Protestant churches, which enjoyed a great deal of regional autonomy, into a single centralized Reich church headed by a Nazi bishop subservient to Hitler.  By late summer, the Nazi church faction, the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) had taken over the majority of the regional church federations and ousted its leaders.  The displaced dignitaries were thus forced into an oppositional role.

At the same time, a younger cohort coalesced, critical both of the Nazi faction and the displaced old guard.  Among its leaders were Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men whose names later became legendary.  Principal among the Young Reformers’ demands was the separation of church and state, so as to preserve the church’s independence from the overbearing secular authority.

Neither grouping, however, at first took a clear stand in defense of Christians of Jewish ancestry.  A plank in the Nazis’ Aryanization platform condemned Christians whose grandparents were Jewish as non-Aryans and moved to defrock them and oust them from their congregations.

The outspoken anti-Nazi theologian Karl Barth in Basel promptly and publicly upbraided the Young Reformers for their “flabbiness” in the face of church Aryanization. Stung by Barth’s words and their consciences, in the fall of 1933, Niemöller and Pastor Gerhard Jacobi of Berlin — my mother’s pastor — founded the Pastor’s Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund), which spoke out against the expulsion of converted Christians of Jewish ancestry from the church, gave aid to its victims, and opposed organizational and doctrinal encroachments by the Deutsche Christen.

The League soon had pledges of membership from more than a third of the Protestant clergy in Germany.

The PEL’s energy in the face of the Nazi takeover of the church led in May 1934 to a nationwide meeting of oppositional clergy in Barmen, about 20 miles south of Essen (and, coincidentally, the birthplace of Frederick Engels).

The Barmen meeting created an elected council of delegates, the Bruderrat (Council of Brethren) and adopted a joint statement of theological principles, the Barmen Declaration, written largely by Barth.  The unanimous final vote at the Barmen conference was the high point of enthusiasm and unity of the diverse forces present.

The Barmen text had no explicit political content, but political implications lay not far below the surface.  The leading thesis of the Declaration, notably, took implicit aim against the so-called “natural theology” of the Deutsche Christen, which elevated the swastika to parity with the cross, equated the Third Reich with the kingdom of God, and conflated Hitler with Christ.  A corollary Barmen thesis said, in veiled language, that Christians owed obedience to the state only to the extent that the state respected the principles of the church.

The Barmen conference was the founding event of the BK. In the fall of 1934, a follow-up conference held in Niemöller’s church in Berlin-Dahlem drew the practical consequences of the Barmen principles.  It called on Protestants to disaffiliate from the official Reich church and to recognize the BK as the sole legitimate church authority, i.e. the real church.  Thus the German church was formally split in two.

German Protestantism in the early 1930s had approximately 18,000 pastors.  Of these, approximately one third adhered to the Nazi-affiliated Deutsche Christen (German Christians),  and somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 pastors  belonged to the BK. [2]

With its now open and public oppositional stance in matters of belief and church policy, the BK attracted additional support.  In some important localities, such as Frankfurt/Main, it drew 12,000 people to a show of solidarity in 1935, and in that region it enlisted a majority of the clergy.  In Westphalia, ninety per cent of the active Protestants, some half a million people, held membership cards in the PEL.[3]  New parishes affiliated with the BK formed in many parts of the country.

With its new strength in 1935, the BK won the reinstatement of a few of the ousted church dignitaries, and more importantly, it isolated and discredited the Deutsche Christen in public opinion and forced the regime to change tactics.  Instead of trying to take over the church by frontal assault, the Nazi regime now sought, for a period, to reconcile the BK with the Nazi-dominated official church.

This new tactic lasted until June 1936, when Niemöller on behalf of the BK addressed a memorandum to Hitler, politely but firmly denouncing the regime’s anti-Christian and anti-Semitic tendencies and deploring the concentration camps and the abuses of the secret police as un-Christian.

Now the glove came off.  The regime responded by arresting more than 700 BK-affiliated clergy, murdering many of them, confiscating BK funds, and prohibiting the BK from accepting offerings at its services.   Subsequent Nazi decrees in the following years prohibited the BK from teaching, holding examinations, or ordaining clergy.  In effect, the BK was driven underground.

Despite the repression, parts of the BK continued to function.  Its national and some regional councils continued to meet in secret.  BK parishes met in banquet rooms of restaurants, and when this was outlawed, in factory halls, warehouses, barns, private houses, or in open fields.  It maintained an underground seminary, administered underground theological exams, and held underground ordinations, such as my father’s in March 1941.  Newly-ordained BK pastors could not draw salaries as civil servants as the legal clergy did,[4] but subsisted by passing the hat and by donations for performing baptisms and funerals.  (This was my father’s situation as vicar in Essen-Werden in 1940-41.)

A number of individuals within the BK made notable efforts in opposition to the regime and in assistance to victims of persecution.

Among them was Heinrich Grüber, who in late 1938 founded the “Büro Grüber” in Berlin which assisted Jews, particularly Jews who had converted to Christianity, in hiding or escaping from Germany.[5]  [6]

Elisabeth Schmitz wrote a courageous memorandum calling on the BK to rise to the defense of Jewish people against Nazi persecution.

Individual parishes passed the hat to support Jewish individuals in hiding. BK members helped to forge residence passes, Aryan certificates, ration cards and other documents necessary for survival.

There were numerous individual acts of assistance and solidarity.

Countless members of the BK were punitively drafted, arrested, sent to concentration camps, and murdered.  Niemöller, Bonhoeffer, and Grüber, among other leading figures, were sent to concentration camps. Bonhoeffer was executed there shortly before the end of the war.  Niemöller and Grüber survived.

The Myth of the BK

The Allied authorities at war’s end declared the BK an “active anti-fascist resistance movement,” and from that seed was born the postwar myth of the BK.

Faced with an overwhelming weight of guilt for the Nazi atrocities, many Germans in the immediate postwar period sought to distance themselves from the past events and to identify themselves as members of the German resistance.  The BK, as one of the few non-Marxist organizations that opposed some Nazi policies and was persecuted for it, became in many eyes a shining beacon of heroic resistance to the Nazi regime.  Its mere existence and survival salvaged to some degree the German national character.

And in fact, some leaders and members of the BK demonstrated great heroism, and many paid the ultimate price for it. Yet the soft-focus image of the BK as a disciplined and cohesive resistance network locked in battle with the Nazi regime, along the lines perhaps of the French Résistance, was vastly inflated. This myth underwent critical demolition during the 1960s and ’70s as church archives and other sources opened up and historians worked their way through tons of surviving documents.  The much more fine-grained, gritty, and stomach-churning panorama of the BK that emerged (and is still emerging, as work continues) forms an important framework for my father’s brief life story.

The BK was not cohesive; it was torn by inner conflict.  It was not consistently a resistance organization; rather, it was a resistance network at some times and places, and at other occasions it conciliated and collaborated.  Many of its leading figures walked a tightrope, resisting one moment and collaborating the next.  This conflict arose from the nature of the major forces that made up the movement.

The Nazi takeover of the established regional churches in most of the German provinces in the summer of 1933 ousted many hundreds of church officials from their posts, and drove them into opposition and to the conference at Barmen.  These unseated dignitaries naturally sought to recapture the power, privileges, income, and other benefits of their positions.  They had little or no quarrel with Nazi ideology or politics in other spheres.  Many of them had contacts within the Nazi party or government.  Most of them believed that they would regain their posts by demonstrating that they could be just as useful to the Nazi regime, or more so, than the moronic Nazi puppets who had displaced them.  Their strategy was conciliation and collaboration.

The group around Niemöller, which came to be known as the Dahlem wing,  had less investment in the prerogatives of the old church, or were more willing to sacrifice the emoluments of office for the sake of principles.  This group included many of the lower-level clergy.  They were deeply offended by the  theological distortions that the Nazi-sponsored Deutsche Christen introduced.  The Deutsche Christen equated the swastika with the cross.  The Third Reich was the Kingdom of God.  Hitler was Jesus in modern form.  The Old Testament was too Jewish and should be dropped.  Not far beneath the surface of Nazi theology lay contempt for Jesus and the disciples because they were, after all, Jews.   A Christian didn’t have to go into the fine points of theology to be  offended.  Even after the Deutsche Christen were relegated to the background, the indelible stain of Nazi policy on the church was obvious and unpalatable.

The Dahlem tendency saw in the conservative, conciliationist approach the spiritual death of the church.  If the conservatives had their way, centuries of religious doctrine would be jettisoned, replaced by a vicious caricature.  The church’s central function of spreading the gospel would be snuffed out.  The church would become an ornamental appendage of the state.  The clergy would be reduced to mumbling ceremonial platitudes at baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  The survival of the church as a living body required severing ties with the gangrenous official church and rebuilding on new foundations.

The conservatives saw in the Dahlem tendency the destruction of the old order which had elevated them to power, and which they hoped to see restored.  The Dahlem wing, in their eyes, could only provoke the Nazi regime to retaliation and repression, and imperil their expectations.  They believed that the BK either would be crushed or, if it survived, would offer them no places.

The picture was complicated by differences between Lutheran, Calvinist (Reformed), and United congregations; on whether the official churches had been taken over by the Deutsche Christen or were intact; and by regional and local divisions.  There were many intermediate opinions, attempts at compromise, switching of sides, and so forth; but on the practical issue of whether Protestants should cut ties with the official church and recognize the BK as the authentic church, opinion was polarized.  Matters came to a split at a BK conference in Bad Oeynhausen in February 1936.[7]  Each wing now organized its own provisional leadership bodies and administrative apparatus within the BK.  These were soon dissolved and replaced by others.  Intra-BK politics became intensely heated. The factions frequently appeared to be sabotaging one another.  The authority of the federal council of brethren that supposedly united all BK tendencies was limited and in dispute, and its relations with the separate councils of brethren of the German church districts were tenuous.  There was much confusion and chaos.

Even after the arrest of Niemöller in July 1937, the conservatives in the BK enjoyed a degree of tolerance from the regime and could operate semi-openly.  Some of them were Nazi party members or had inside connections that sometimes protected them, and these connections could in individual cases prove useful to rescue selected BK victims of repression.  Some in the Dahlem wing also had protectors on the inside, and were repeatedly released after being jailed.  Many of the estalished lower-level BK clergy led a double existence, leading BK parishes but drawing their salaries from the official church.  At services in some parishes, the collection plate was passed twice, once for the official church, and a second time for the BK.

The newly ordained clergy ordained under BK auspices were at particular risk because they were “illegals”  — their examination and ordination were not recognized by the official church.[8][9]  Women were marginalized.  Although permitted to take a full degree in theology as of 1927, neither the official church nor the BK ordained them as pastors.  They could at most work with women and children, at a fraction of a man’s pay.  Still, as the war decimated the ranks of male pastors, the BK offered the only opportunity for women to put their theological studies to some practical use. [10]

As a result of the conservative presence in the BK, and the general climate of repression after 1936-37, the BK as a whole was unable to take any action, take any position or make any statement on any issue of current importance outside the narrow bounds of church administration and church doctrine.  The persecution of the Jews and other minorities, the repression of “Bolsheviks,” the invasion of neighboring countries were all issues on which the BK as a whole was shamefully silent, or even displayed support for the regime.  This was true not only of the conservatives, but also of most of the Dahlem wing most of the time.  After the repression following the Niemöller memorandum to Hitler in 1936, overt political opposition to the regime and its policies, outside of narrow church issues, became extremely dangerous.  Many of the Dahlem figures knew full well that their opposition to Nazi theology and to the Nazi takeover of church administrations was a political struggle, but after 1936 they did not dare to call on their followers to employ political tactics, nor to form alliances in the mutual interest with other oppressed and persecuted groups.  The regime and the BK’s own conservative wing repeatedly attacked the Dahlem wing for harboring “Bolsheviks.”  The Dahlemites took pains to declare that the BK was not a haven for political opponents of the regime, to clothe its pronouncements always in theological terms, and to keep the issues narrowly focused on church matters.

Unlike the resistance organizations in France, Italy, and other occupied countries, the BK never derailed Nazi trains, ambushed Nazi soldiers, executed Nazi collaborators, or took any other acts of positive physical resistance against the Nazi state.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alone among BK leaders, cultivated ties with members of the landed aristocracy who plotted to assassinate Hitler, and for this the BK disavowed him.[11]  The BK’s resistance was the resistance of the turtle withdrawing into its shell.

The taboo against political opposition in the BK is the reason modern church historians like van Norden and Ludwig took such notice of a few letters that my father wrote in which he expressed overtly political ideas.  Although most of these expressions were quite modest, they were a noteworthy rarity among BK adherents.

[To be continued]

Related posts: Margot Nicolaus memoirs

Profile of my Father

About my Father (1) and (2)  [in progress]



  1. [1]Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 42.
  2. [2] Matthew Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, Indiana University Press 2004, p. xxv
  3. [3]Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 55
  4. [4]The separation of church and state, an ideal of the Weimar Republic, had not penetrated to the bottom line of church finance in Germany.  Both of the major churches, Protestant and Catholic, relied principally on the church tax, and the clergy were paid by the state as civil servants.
  5. [5]After the war, the “Büro Grüber” became the Evangelische Hilfsstelle für ehemals Rasseverfolgte (Protestant Aid Agency For the Racially Persecuted); my mother’s first job in Frankfurt was with this agency.
  6. [6](The “Büro Grüber” is the topic of a book by the historian Hartmut Ludwig, who also wrote the short profile of my father in the Protestant Profiles book.)
  7. [7]See the informative article Kirchenkampf in the German Wikipedia, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Spaltung_der_BK 
  8. [8]Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, p. 188 [link].
  9. [9]I found this out during a visit to Essen in 2001. I stopped at the church office in Essen and asked what records they had of my father, who was ordained in 1941 by the BK.  The answer was, none.  I went away thinking it was merely a paperwork error.
  10. [10]Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 66.
  11. [11]http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Kriegszeit

Thumbnail Profile of My Father

This thumbnail profile of my father appears in Protestantische Profile im Ruhrgebiet: 500 Lebensbilder aus 5 Jahrhunderten (Protestant Profiles in the Ruhr Region:  500 profiles from 5 centuries), edited byMichael Basse, Traugott Jähnichen and Harald Schroeter-Wittke, Hartmut Spenner publishers, Kamen (Germany) 2009, pp. 592-593.  The author is Hartmut Ludwig, a church historian and Doctor of Theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin.  The translation from the German is mine.

Nicolaus, Albrecht (Born May 8 1914 in Kiel, died July 16 1941 near Kiev).  “If I have one hope for this country, it is this, that it … may know that God himself did it, in order to awaken it once again and hopefully for the last time, with inconceivably hard mercy, from its unbounded dreams — dreams that cost too much blood, too much innocent blood — and, if it pleases HIM, to make a new beginning with it.”  Albrecht Nicolaus wrote these words to his wife Margot two days before the German onslaught on the Soviet Union.

Born on May 8 1914 in Kiel, he grew up in Essen-Werden, where his father was an office employee with Krupp.  After his high school completion exam (Abitur) in 1933 and his labor service (Arbeitsdienst), he studied theology in Marburg, Tübingen, Berlin and Basel from 1934 to 1938.  He belonged among the young theologians who identified already as students with the radical Bekennende Kirche (BK) and whose political analysis led them away from the Nazi state.  The theology of Karl Barth “became ever more precious to him in various trials by fire.”

Nicolaus asked Pastor Wilhelm Busch, head of the Protestant youth movement in Essen, for a “clear word” about the plebiscite of March 29, 1936, in which Hitler wanted the people to ratify his breach of the Treaty of Versailles via the German army’s march into the demilitarized Rhineland.  Nicolaus hesitated to “write a blank check for everything that will follow — and all this with a little ‘x’ — it is a real cross to bear!”  The Gestapo intercepted the letter.

After the Munich pact of September 1938, Nicolaus wrote to friends in England about his disappointment with the attitude of England and France toward Hitler’s demands.  “This is the policy of men who focus on guarding the peace while losing freedom and independence.  There is cowardice in the noisy celebrations of so many who feel that the war has been postponed for a little while.”  This letter also landed in Gestapo hands.

In the spring of 1939, Nicolaus sat for his first theological examination before the examining committee of the BK in the Rhineland.  In April 1939 he became vicar in Braunfels on the Lahn.  He was arrested there at the beginning of September.  At first, he refused to make any statement about his examination by the outlawed BK.  On December 24 he was released from prison in order to be drafted into the army.  The official screamed at his bride, “The pig is not worthy of the front.”  He was drafted in April 1940.  He married on October 3, 1940.  He sat for the second theological exam with the BK and was ordained on March 16, 1941, in Essen-Werden.

On June 20, he wrote his wife:  “God alone knows how torn up the heart of a Christian is in this war, on this side. … I stand at the gates of Russia and I am supposed to be fanatically enthusiastic about victory, victory, victory at any price — but if the censorship reads this letter, I will be liquidated tomorrow, a saboteur of victory, a miserable traitor!  Quo vadis, Germania?”

Albrecht Nicolaus became a casualty of war on July 16, 1941 near Rzadkowka in the Kiev district.

— Hartmut Ludwig

About My Father (1)

My father as baby, 1915

Growing up as a bomb baby in Germany, as I did, it was common not to have a living father.  About 2.5 million German children lost their fathers in World War II.  Source.  In my case, my father lost his life two months before I was born, so we never knew one another.

From my mother, I learned that she had met him while both were students of theology under Karl Barth in Basel.  While on a ski trip there, she lost a ski during a storm and would have perished, but Nico (as everyone called him) defied all odds to rescue her, and so she came to trust him.  (See her memoirs.)  He was good on the guitar and could play the violin.  They were both active in the underground fraction of the German Protestant Church, the Bekennende Kirche (BK).  They helped Jews hide or escape, they published newsletters — once, my mother told me, he was almost caught transporting a mimeograph machine — and they listened to BBC.  He was ordained as a pastor.  He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo.  He was drafted and killed in the war in Russia.

Those tidbits were approximately the sum total of my knowledge of this man from whom I have half my genetic material and little else.  I assembled these few stones into a mosaic that made up the image of my father in my head.  It wasn’t much, but it was good.  Compared to many of my peers who did not know who their father was, or might have preferred not to know, or who had living fathers who abused them, I was well set up in the paternal role model department, at least in the imagination.

If I did not know more, the reason was partly that my mother did not know more.  Their whole relationship, from first acquaintance to last contact, spanned less than four years.  They lived together a total of five months.  Less than nine months elapsed between their wedding day and his death.  And then, directly after the war, in my mother’s move from the village of Fürstenhagen to the city of Frankfurt, a small truckload of items got lost forever, including the briefcase containing his letters and other memorabilia.  She had left only three photographs of him.

My mother’s memoirs, which I found among her papers after her death in 1997, gave me a much better picture of my mother, but added little of substance to my picture of my father.

There the matter might have rested indefinitely.  But one day in the summer of 2009 I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman who identified herself as a staffer at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.  She wanted to know if I was the “Kolja” Nicolaus who was the son of Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus and Margot Nicolaus born in September 1941.  (Indeed I am.)  A German historian in Berlin was looking for me.

Weeks later, after several false starts, I made an email connection with Hartmut Ludwig, a Dozent in the Theological Faculty of Humboldt University in Berlin.  Although he holds a Doctor of Theology degree, Ludwig refused the usual German honorifics, Doktor and Professor, and insisted on being addressed simply as Herr Ludwig.  His writing and teaching is focused on the modern history of the Protestant Church in Germany, particularly during the Nazi period.  During his digging in various archives, he had come across some letters from my father that had aroused his interest. He had pursued this thread, and had written a short chapter about my father as part of a German book, Protestant Profiles, that appeared in 2009.  (I have translated this text here in a separate post.)  In his research he found a mention of my birth, wondered if I were still alive, and whether I had any relevant material.

I sent Herr Ludwig, of course, my mother’s manuscript, together with all surviving documents in my hands, such as birth and death certificates, which might be helpful in nailing down dates.  We carried on a correspondence by email. This gave me a chance to polish up my rusty German writing skills and learn how to make Umlaute on an English-language keyboard.  In the fall of 2010, my wife, my elder son Fred, and I visited Berlin as part of a European trip, and we had a very pleasant dinner with Ludwig and his wife at the historic Hotel Albrechtshof.  It was an appropriate venue:  here the underground federal council of brethren of the BK had met during the Hitler period.

Ludwig knew a great deal more about my father than I did.  As a professional historian with a number of publications, he had access to the archives of the German Protestant Church; to the private archives of Karl Barth; to the university archives of Tübingen, where my father had studied; to the archives of the Krupp works, where my father’s father, my father, and my father’s sister had worked;  to the recently opened archives of the Gestapo in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt; and to several others.  He was able to photocopy some of the documents for me; others I later obtained from the archives myself, thanks to his lead.  I have been repeatedly impressed by the depth and detail of the archives’ holdings, and I am grateful to the staff members of the archives for their efficiency, friendliness, and readiness to assist.

Among the documents were copies of letters my father wrote to my mother from the Eastern Front in 1941, which had been circulated privately among members of the BK and so found their way into the archives.  There was also a letter my father wrote to Pastor Busch in Essen, asking for guidance on a political question — a letter intercepted by the Gestapo.  And there was a letter my father wrote to friends in England, likewise intercepted, that landed him in a Gestapo prison.  The German archives also contained files kept on my father by Gestapo officials in Essen and in Frankfurt, together with the files of the prisons where he was kept.

I am immensely grateful to Prof. Ludwig  for his initiative, which has given me the impetus and the foundation for piecing together a new, evidence-based portrait of my father.  Naturally, as a son I look at my father through a different lens than Ludwig, the historian of an institution and a movement.  Wherever possible, I have drawn on my mother’s memoirs and I have added some links via Google to people, places, and events that touched my father’s life.

My Father

Martin Karl Nicolaus' personnel file card with Krupp

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, was born in Kiel on May 8, 1914.  His father, Martin Karl Nicolaus, born in Essen in 1885, had gone to work for the Krupp works in Essen in 1910, in the Hollerith department.  Hollerith cards were the computer data storage medium in that epoch.  A copy of Martin Karl’s personnel file card, preserved in the Krupp Archives, is on the right.

Only a year later, Krupp transferred Martin to the Krupp works in Kiel.  This was probably the Germaniawerft, where Krupp built U-boats.  In June of 1914, shortly after the birth of my father, Martin withdrew from the Krupp workers’ pension system, probably because he was promoted to lower management.

In Kiel, Martin met Anna Kroneberg, and they married.  Their first child, Lieselotte Nicolaus, was born on August 10, 1912.

Anna Nicolaus, nee Kroneberg, 1915

Anna Kroneberg had a sister, Minna, also in Kiel, who met and married K. J. Heinrich Brüggensiecker; and they had a son, Heinrich, a year after my father was born.  (Heinrich reappears much later in my and my mother’s story.)

After the end of World War I, in 1919, Krupp transferred Martin back to Essen; there he worked, apparently in the office of the Gussstahlfabrik (the cast steel plant) until the end of his life in 1942.

Albrecht was five when the Nicolaus family moved to Essen.  He did his primary and secondary school education there. His education proceeded on the college-bound track, and he completed his Abitur — the final exam that qualifies a student for entrance to university — in the spring of 1933 at the Reformrealgymnasium.

Lieselotte and Albrecht Nicolaus, Christmas 1930

Directly after his Abitur, Albrecht entered the Arbeitsdienst (labor service).  Instituted during the Weimar Republic in 1931 as a voluntary program to combat unemployment and to do public works projects, the Arbeitsdienst became compulsory with the Nazi takeover.   From April 1933 to March 1934, Albrecht did his labor service at Camp 2/44 in Stolzenberg, a place name that no longer exists, somewhere in Pomerania (northeastern Germany).  The work was very probably farm labor.  These camps had a partly economic and partly propagandistic purpose.  Apparently, some of the latter stuck to Albrecht.

In April 1934, at age 19, Albrecht enrolled as a theology student at the university in Marburg, an institution affiliated with the Protestant church.  There he joined a Wohnkameradschaft, similar to a fraternity house, affiliated with the DCSV, the German Christian Student Association, a group somewhat similar to the YMCA.

At the same time, on April 4, 1934, Albrecht joined the SA, the Sturmabteilung, the brown shirts. The photograph to the right shows Albrecht and his mother and an unidentified third person (possibly his sister Lieselotte) at a summer camp near Marburg in August, 1934, during the time that Albrecht was an SA member; perhaps this explains the haircut.  While in the SA, Albrecht earned two certificates of proficiency in sports.   He left the SA on March 1, 1935.  The DCSV, the German Christian Student Association to which Albrecht belonged at Marburg, was banned by the Nazis in 1938.

Albrecht passed his Hebrew language exam at Marburg in July 1934, and his Greek language exam in February 1935.  (He would have done his Latin earlier, in high school.)  Theology students needed to demonstrate proficiency in all three Biblical languages. In July 1935, Albrecht took and passed two exams in theological doctrine, with Profs. Maurer and Schlier at Marburg, earning a grade of B (“Gut“).   He obtained a waiver of one fourth of his fees and a scholarship of 60 Reichsmark while studying at Marburg.

Albrecht's vacation worker file card at Krupp

From July 1 to November 25, 1935, Albrecht worked at Krupp, where his father and sister also worked (she had begun there in 1929 as an accounting clerk).  He was a Ferienarbeiter (vacation worker) in the Büro für Arbeiterangelegenheiten — Office of Workers’ Affairs, probably what we would call today the “human resources” department.  He returned there a second time the following year, from July 1 to October 31, 1936.  (See file card, left; from Krupp Historical Archive)

Albrecht (right) and his father Martin in Essen, 193?

In November, 1935, Albrecht registered at the University in Tübingen in the theology school.  He immediately filed an application for a waiver of half the university fees.  In addition to evidence of satisfactory scholarship, he had to submit personal information and family financial data, which is duly preserved in the file.

The application attested that the family owned no land or other capital assets, real or otherwise.  Its only significant source of income was Martin’s salary as office employee (Büroangestellter) at Krupp, which came to 382.50 Reichsmark per month or 4,590 Reichsmark per year.  His earnings were below the threshold for the income tax and the wealth tax.  The family had no debts.  Lieselotte’s pittance went to subsidize Albrecht’s studies.  His summer job earnings covered part of his unpaid debt for fees at Marburg.  He did not belong to the Nazi student association or to any political party.  Albrecht’s mother had to undergo a serious neck operation and was being treated at the Krupp clinic.  The father’s health insurance would cover only a small part of the expected but still unknown medical bill; thus the family’s financial situation was strained.  The application was granted and Albrecht continued his studies at Tübingen.

Pastor Wilhelm Busch

The following spring, while at Tübingen, Albrecht wrote a letter to Pastor Wilhelm Busch which began his troubles with the Nazi police.

Pastor Busch was a prominent senior clergyman in Essen and was a mentor to the young Albrecht and a friend of the family.  Busch had begun as pastor of a parish of coal miners (Essen was a center of coal and steel production) and then became Youth Pastor, leader of the city’s Protestant young people.  The chief meeting place of this youth association was the Weigle Haus.  In 1933, the Hitler Youth made a practice of attacking various Catholic or Protestant youth club houses by night and taking them over.  Busch gathered about 100 of his older youth together and organized them to guard the Weigle Haus and defend it.  When the Hitler Youth crowd assembled and attacked in early 1934, Busch’s guards defended the house vigorously with hoses, sticks, and fists.  Not expecting resistance, the Hitler hoodlums, pursued by the defenders, fled to the nearest train station, where bystanders joined in beating them up.  The Weigle Haus was saved.   [Source]  The battle made Busch a hero with the city’s youth, but a marked man in the eyes of the regime.  Thus it was no surprise that Albrecht’s letter to Busch was intercepted by the Gestapo (the Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police).

The original of Albrecht’s letter, written in the pointed and slanted Gothic handwriting of the day, has been lost.  But the Gestapo made a typescript, which survives (right).  The Gestapo official’s large diagonal handwritten note in the left margin says “Send immediately: express mail to D[üssel]dorf & Tübingen.” 

 March 23, 1936

Dear Pastor:

My letter was actually supposed to be about a different matter, but in the meantime something very pressing has come up: the plebiscite.

The ballot, which I received yesterday, drove me into something of a corner and I still don’t see the way out.  But I don’t want to risk my small capital of connections with the fatherland prematurely through light- or wrong-headed moves.  Still — a new parliament?  Because by giving my approval to March 7, I make out a blank check for everything that follows, all with a little “x” — it’s a real cross to bear!  Quite a bit more could be said on this topic.

Please don’t  make too much out of the fact that a young man of “today” wants to borrow civic advice from an old soldier of “yesterday.”  But I would be grateful to you for  a clear word.

Sincerely, your

(signed: Albrecht Nicolaus)

The event of March 7 was the German army’s march into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone under the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno.   The plebiscite, scheduled for March 29, was to approve a new Reichstag (German parliament) composed almost entirely of Nazi party members, and to give a gloss of popular ratification to Germany’s flagrant breach of these treaties.  The plebiscite was exactly as Albrecht feared, a blank check for everything that followed.

A note in the Gestapo file indicates that Albrecht’s mail was placed under Postkontrolle (mail control) after this letter was intercepted, but nothing further of interest was found, and the mail watch on Albrecht was stopped for reasons of economy three weeks later. (It was resumed, however, two years later on account of another letter, discussed below.)

The Gestapo clerk in Tübingen writes on April 16, 1936,  that  “until now the only information we have on him is that he is active as an organizer among the so-called Bekenntnis-students in Tübingen.”  (Image to the right)

There is no indication that Busch received Albrecht’s letter, or that if he did, answered it.  He certainly did not answer it in writing, or the answer would be in the Gestapo archives.[1]  Busch was imprisoned and released several times during the Nazi era.  He married my parents on Oct. 3 1940 and baptized me on Oct. 12, 1941.  Busch survived the war and became an influential figure in postwar religion and politics.

Karl Barth

In 1937, Albrecht moved to Basel, Switzerland, to study under Karl Barth.  Barth is today revered as something of a Protestant saint.  In my parents’ time, he was a highly controversial figure.  He was a professor of theology at Bonn, Germany, when Hitler came to power.  He was instrumental in the formation of the Bekennende Kirche in 1934 and was the principal author of its theological manifesto, the Barmen Declaration.  The following year, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, was fired from the university, and forced to leave Germany.  He returned to his native Switzerland to teach at Basel, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of theology in Europe.  He was a member of the trend of “dialectic theology,” which had remote roots in the German philosopher Hegel, and became its foremost advocate.  His thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics, which he began in 1932,  is considered a monumental classic of theology.

Barth’s most controversial teaching, in his academic work as in the Barmen Declaration, centered on the thesis that the sole source of the church’s truth was the teaching of Jesus Christ.  That may sound like a Sunday school platitude, but it was intended and received as a stab in the heart to theologians — particularly Nazi theologians — who held up church tradition, culture, history, nature, natural law, philosophy and of course political ideology and political leaders as equally or more important sources of church doctrine.  Students from Germany sympathetic to the BK came to Basel, particularly because the German theology schools had been largely purged of anti-fascists.

My mother Margot came to Basel at the same time.  In her memoirs (elsewhere on this website) she writes:

In the winter semester of 1937/38 there was a bunch of about half a dozen Germans of anti-Nazi background in Basel as students of theology, all of them eager to learn from Professor Karl Barth: Albrecht Nicolaus from Essen, Joachim Hanschkatz from Finsterwalde, Helmut Hesse from Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Maria Netter, Günther Völker, Ruth Wendlandt and myself, Margot Eickhoff, from Berlin. We all became good friends and, in the case of Albrecht Nicolaus and Margot Eickhoff, we got married two years later.

Lectures were delivered and seminars held at the old, old university building in Basel, overlooking the Rhine river from a high point. The benches and desks in the building were ancient: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch scholar, had sat there some time at the end of the 15th century! And I was sitting there now!

Karl Barth’s lecture halls were always crowded with students anxious to hear what the world-famous professor had to say. In the beginning it was very difficult to understand him because he had a very thick German-Swiss accent that was a strain on our ears. Eventually, we got used to it. The professor also wrote volume after volume, all very scholastic stuff with lots of quotes in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

Barth’s domestic life was equally interesting.  In the heart of one of the stodgiest institutions in one of the most hidebound countries in Christendom, the famous Calvinist theologian was living in a ménage à trois.

Once a week the German theology students were invited to the midday meal (the main meal of the day) at various theology professors’ houses. This was a generous way of sustaining the German students on their meager budgets. So there I was at the great master’s house, at the great master’s table. Naturally, the great master sat at the head of the table and his wife to his right. There also sat the master’s two sons, also students of theology, and the invited guests. But who was the lady who sat at the master’s left side? The lady’s name was Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The master called her Lulu. He and Lulu did most of the talking. Barth’s wife was icily polite but mostly silent. It fast dawned on the invited students what was going on here.

Officially, Lulu was Professor Karl Barth’s secretary and co-worker. For him she had studied Hebrew, Greek and Latin and wrote all his manuscripts and letters. She had a room next to the master’s study and that’s where she devoted her life to Karl.

Karl Barth’s colleagues – we found out – had repeatedly told him that his marital infidelity was untenable for a Christian theologian and they implored him to separate himself from his mistress. But Karl Barth insisted that Lulu was sent to him by God and that he would insult God if he let her go. For Karl Barth’s wife divorce was unthinkable — he was a world-famous theologian.

Margot Eickhoff (later: Nicolaus) 1932

At least one student whom Margot knew was so devastated by the contradiction between the master’s writings and his home life that he quit school and went home.  But most of the students seemed to be far more impassioned by matters of doctrine than by prurient pursuits.  Margot, who was an attractive young woman, reports on her evening at a theology students’ dance party:

One of Karl Barth’s sons invited me to a dance at a party given by a fraternity to which a lot of theology students belonged. I was pretty worried that I would be a failure at dancing — I had never been at a dance before. I felt obliged to go since it was considered a privilege to go. I was able to buy a simple and inexpensive long cotton dress, pink with little black decorative bands, and there I was with a son of the famous professor, in line being looked over by the theology professors and the music started and we were supposed to dance. But did we dance?

No, Sir. All the Swiss and some of the German theology students stood and sat around a table upon which stood a bottle of cheap red wine – and all they did was discuss – of all things – the resurrection of the dead. Will you believe me? This went on for hours and hours. The Swiss students talked and talked while their French speaking colleagues danced and danced. The son of Karl Barth who had invited me to the dance never danced a single dance with me or anybody else.

Just before the end of the affair the other son of Karl Barth, Marcus, came and invited me to a waltz which I managed to do since he was a strong leader. His brother took me home in a taxi and said that he enjoyed my company although he had not spoken a single word to me all evening.

Albrecht became a special person for Margot in the course of a ski outing.  At that time and in that place, one could still cross from Switzerland to Germany and back without difficulties.  Margot writes:

 I wanted very much to go skiing in the mountains since a lot of students enjoyed doing it. Although I had never been on skis before, I did not think that there was I any thing to learn – it looked sooo easy – and so, one weekend a group of German students decided to spend a weekend in the nearby Black Forest, just across the border from Switzerland in Germany.

With a couple of borrowed skis I joined the group. Albrecht Nicolaus was part of our group. We decided to do the easy climb up the Feldberg, and the weather forecast promised beautiful snow. Barely halfway up the Feldberg, a snowstorm started with such wildness that I one could hardly see anything ahead. Under these conditions, the group split and it so happened that only Albrecht Nicolaus, “Nico” was near me. He encouraged me to go on and on because I became so tired that I only wanted to sit down in the snow and wait for the storm to subside. Without Nico’s encouragement I would have frozen to death sitting in the snow. […]

Suddenly my left ski loosened itself from my foot and disappeared in the white nowhere. Without a ski, my left foot got stuck knee deep in the snow. This time, I thought, I’m going to die in the snow.  But Nico did not want to leave me to die. He said that he would go back to the restaurant on top of the mountain and get (borrow) another pair of skies and come back to me. Quite frankly, I thought he could not possibly find the way back to the top of the mountain and then come back and find me in the white hell.

Where I was, I waited and waited and waited. When I had almost given up hope, there was Nico with a fresh pair of skis. He helped me to put them on and then kept to my side as we went on through the white unknown downhill, down, down.

Suddenly, there was a clearing and a small hotel was in sight. It was a youth hostel. We were safe. We got quarters for the night, separately, of course. The next morning we took the train back to Basel. When we arrived, our friends told us that they had already prayed for our dead souls.

In that night three experienced mountain guides had lost their lives in the snow storm.

This happened quite some time before Nico asked me to marry him. But from that day on I knew that I could rely on him with my life.

My father as a student, 193?

In Basel, Albrecht found not only his future wife and mother of his child, but also a new clarity and conviction.  Years later, after the war, Margot wrote to Karl Barth thanking him for his guidance.  After his time in Basel, Margot wrote, Albrecht “underwent a profound transformation in his nature.”  In Albrecht’s last letter before his death, she wrote, “my husband remembered very particularly the insights he gained through your work, which became ever more precious to him in many a trial by fire.”

Continued with About My Father (2)

  1. [1]The opinion is that of Günther van Norden, Die Jugendarbeit des Pfarrers Busch in Essen (The Youth Work of Pastor Busch in Essen), in Evangelische Kirche an Ruhr und Saar, Beiträge zur rheinischen und westfälischen Kirchengeschichte, Bielefeld 2007, p. 169

My Writings

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My Soap Box

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Putting it Together

For years I worked to keep the different pieces of my life separate and compartmentalized.  It felt safer that way.  But it was hard work, and it often kept me from experiencing myself as a whole and integrated person.  Now that I’m approaching 70, it’s high time for me to put it all together and be what I am in the time I have left.  It would be awkward, after all, if at my funeral different friends were to tell stories about me that came as complete news to other friends, who had no idea.  So, in this web site, I am working towards my integrity — integrity not only in the common sense of honesty and openness, but in the special sense of togetherness and completeness.  This will take some time and some work, but it’s what I feel motivated to do now.

I’m writing primarily for myself, and secondarily for my kids, but you’re welcome to look over my shoulder and kibitz if you feel inspired or annoyed.  This web site is a work in progress, and I welcome your suggestions and contributions.