A Church Undone

Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940

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Mary M. Solberg
Mary M. Solberg
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , April
     486 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In assessing what happened to Christianity in Germany during the Second World War, popular treatements tend to focus on outliers: the success stories. Figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Jägerstätter, Maximillian Kolbe, and the Lubeck martyrs come to mind. It is with good reason that we are able to name these martyrs: the faithful witnesses were relatively few in comparison to overwhelmingly popular movements that sought to bring together the Nazi movement with Christianity. Until A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement 1932-1940, however, dissemination of texts which helped illuminate the ways in which German Christianity was overtaken by Nazi ideology have been limited to German scholarship. But thanks to Mary M. Solberg’s work, we have for the first time collected together many of these documents illustrating the theological basis upon which this marriage between German National Socialism and Christianity took place.

Included in this work are well-known texts such as the “Aryan Paragraph,” responses to the paragraph, and Karl Barth’s early argument against Nazi theology (“Theological Existence Today!”). But also here are essays from leading German theological lights of the era, such as Emanuel Hirsch, Gerhard Kittel, and Paul Althaus. These essays display with eerie clarity the ways in which Judaism was found to be incompatible with Christian faith, which is to say that being Jewish was also incompatible with being German. Some, such as Kittel’s “The Jewish Question” make the argument for Jewish specificity, that Jews cannot logically assimilate to German culture, and must thus make their own culture more visible (225-27). Others, such as Hirsch’s “What German Christians Want for the Church” take issue with luminaries such as Barth directly, arguing that Christianity should be allowed to develop in a historical fashion according to the contours of the age.

What appears in these more academic selections is a pluriform approach to “the Jewish question”: exclusion of Judaism from Germany did not occur in only one way, but relied upon several interlocking assumptions that together contributed to what would become the Nazi-Christian synthesis. In some cases, such as Kittel’s, outright exclusion was not advocated, but rather the table was set for future exclusion of the Jews by encouraging the Jews to make their identities more conspicuous. Arguments such as Hirsch’s make more banal appeals to the historical development of Germany as a people instead of straightforwardly leaning on anti-Semitic slogans. Even in works such as Friedrich Weinenke’s “Outline of German Theology,” the supercession of the Hebrew Scriptures by the New Testament was not novel, though in its context reads like a match on otherwise innocuous gasoline. 

Alongside these more academic essays, however, appear documents which illuminate the structural nature of the German Christian Faith Movement, authored by pastors and laypersons. Documents such as a “Germanic” version of the Sermon on the Mount, the original guidelines for the German Christian Faith movement, and popular brochures and pamphlets show the ways in which more academic ideas had populist consequences. The Organization for German Christianity’s “Jesus and the Jews!” echoes many of the arguments of Kittel, for example, prooftexting from the New Testament to show the justness of excluding Jews from national life.

The selections of the work are judicious, and represent not just the scholarly debates of the era, but the ways in which, rhetorically and structurally, academic ideas flowed into the German mainstream, justifying intellectually, pragmatically, and theologically, the horrific consequences which were to come for the Jews during the Second World War. This book is a must-own for anyone who works in the areas of Holocaust studies, 20th century Protestant theology, or Jewish-Christian relations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary M. Solberg is associate professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. She is the author of Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (1997). She teaches on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the conduct of the churches in Hitler’s Germany, and the Holocaust, as well as contemporary theologies and health care ethics.


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