Between the Swastika and the Sickle

The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer

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James R. Edwards
  • Ada, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
    , May
     2019.
     344 pages.
     $30.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802876188.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his book, Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer, James Edwards presents the reader with an intricate “fugue” in narrative (3–6): the story of Ernst Lohmeyer, a prominent New Testament scholar in mid-20th-century Germany. Edwards first stumbled across the puzzle of Lohmeyer’s life in the 1970s when Edwards was working on his dissertation on the Gospel of Mark. As he labored in the library finishing his dissertation, he discovered the 1967 version of Lohmeyer’s Mark commentary, which had a supplemental pamphlet written by Gerhard Sass. In his remarks, Sass made a cryptic remark about Lohmeyer’s “unresolved fate” (8). That caught Edwards’s attention. Over the years since then, he has interviewed Lohmeyer’s family and friends, spent countless hours in the archives reading hundreds of letters, and pulled together the transcripts of the final trial to build Lohmeyer’s biography and to remember this man. 

Interweaving his own experiences in tracking down the puzzle pieces, Edwards tells the story of Lohmeyer’s life and career. Lohmeyer set significant trends in biblical studies, for example, giving attention to the social setting of early Christianity and arguing for the classification of certain biblical passages (like Phil 2:5–11) as early hymns. His life and scholarship spanned the turmoil of World War I (chapter 5), the Nazi party’s rise to power (chapter 8), the brutalities of World War II (chapter 12), the victory of the Allies, and the transition to Soviet and then communist control of East Germany (chapters 13–14). Edwards traces how, as the Nazi regime came to power and anti-Semitism broke out across Germany, Lohmeyer took a courageous stand as a professor at University of Breslau (chapters 8–10), as well as how academic political intrigues led to Lohmeyer’s dismissal from the faculty at University of Breslau and his transfer to the University of Griefswald (chapter 11). Edwards chronicles the complexities of Lohmeyer’s military service on the eastern front, and he retraces Lohmeyer’s return to rebuild the University of Griefswald as Germany lost to the allied powers and his tireless work to reopen the university there (chapters 12–14). On February 15, 1946, the night before his inauguration as president of University of Griefswald and the reopening of the university after the tumult of World War II, Lohmeyer was arrested and later executed by the new Soviet administration (chapter 14–16). They attempted to stamp out his memory “as if he never existed” (6). This book undoes that attempted erasure.  

Throughout the book, Edwards follows the introductory metaphor of the fugue as he introduces many voices around the main theme of Lohmeyer’s life. For instance, Edwards chronicles Lohmeyer’s engagement with scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Buber. By focusing on one particular man’s story, Edwards guides the reader through the complexities of the German political, ecclesial, and academic scene between the 1920s and 1940s. In this sense, the book reminds the reader of Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright’s, The Interpretation of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1988), a history of interpretative trends in biblical studies from 1861 to 1986. However, while Neill and Wright’s book spans 125 years and includes a broad cast of characters, Edward’s book witnesses to one life within a thirty-year drama of injustice, tyranny, and oppression.  

The book defies tidy categorization in a specific genre. As such, it presents the reader with the complex dimensions of human life and pushes against the detachment of the discipline of biblical scholarship from its larger cultural context. While the book offers an account of Lohmeyer’s life, it is more than mere biography. It is a history of New Testament scholarship, a detective story, a memoir of the author’s journey to uncover the truth, a eulogy for a scholar of integrity, an exoneration of a man falsely accused, and a recovery of his memory. Finally, as the reader discovers in the final chapter (chapter 17) when Edwards exegetes Lohmeyer’s last letter from his prison cell, the book is a theological witness to the mystery of grace.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Whisenand Krall is assistant professor of Biblical and Theological Studies and assistant program director in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Social Science at Fresno Pacific University.  

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James R. Edwards is the Bruner-Welch Professor Emeritus of Theology at Whitworth University.

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