This past summer, my girlfriend and I traveled with members of several Lutheran churches on a Lutheran pilgrimage—of sorts—to see many of the sites related to Martin Luther and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
Beyond these sites, we sought also to learn about the more recent history of Germany: the fall of the Wall in Berlin, the struggles between East and West during the Cold War. We also stopped at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and it was here that I learned of a remarkable pastor who preached against Hitler and the Nazi party and was imprisoned and killed for his commitment to the Gospel. His name is Paul Schneider, and he is known as the Preacher of Buchenwald.
Paul Schneider was a pastor during the Third Reich who began preaching and speaking out against Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party after their rise to power. The Nazis were attempting to force the church to conform to their ideology by implementing Nazi ideas into confirmation classes, by having the churches ring their bells for national events, and by preventing pastors from criticizing the party. Paul Schneider, recognizing this insidious attempt to co-opt the church, joined the Confessing Church, a group of pastors, including Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed the conforming German Church. He hoped that more pastors would recognize the dangers represented by the Nazi party and speak authoritatively against it.
Schneider’s actions put him on the watch list of the Nazi party. They placed spies in his congregation to collect grievances against him.[i] It was clear that the Nazi Party had no misgivings against removing those who opposed them and creating ways to silence any opposition. Schneider was arrested several times for refusing to ring the church bells for national events, for refusing to add the Nazi salute to the confirmation curriculum, for refusing to add Nazi ideology to a funeral service, and for preaching against the Nazi party from the pulpit.[ii]
The Nazis pressured the German Church to remove Pastor Schneider from his congregation and transfer him to another congregation, hoping that this transfer would shut him up. However, he continued to speak out against the National Socialists in his new parish. Schneider was arrested and removed from that parish on the last Sunday before Lent in 1937. He was given papers for deportation and was expected to leave the country. But Schneider defied those orders and returned to his congregation to preach. He was arrested the same day and was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp on November 27, 1937.[iii]
Paul Schneider continued to protest the National Socialists even in Buchenwald, leading morning devotions for other prisoners. He refused to salute the flag or take his hat off during flag-raising ceremonies, saying, “I will not salute this criminal symbol.”[iv] He refused to stop preaching to the other prisoners and to the guards around him.
For his actions of insubordination, Schneider was put into solitary confinement and beaten regularly. He was not given food to eat.[v] Still, even here, Schneider could not keep from preaching the Gospel.
When we visited Buchenwald, we were able to see the solitary confinement cells which had barred windows that faced out into open area where prisoners would gather for roll call. It was from one of these windows that Pastor Schneider could be heard preaching for as long as he could. One prisoner remembers in a letter to Schneider’s wife:
“I already knew your husband from the beginning of my detention at Buchenwald because every morning when we had lined up for roll call, the voice of your husband rang out through his cell window when he preached to the prisoners. A short time after that we could hear from outside how your husband’s preaching was disrupted by their beatings.”[vi]
Another prisoner remembered some of his words:
“Friends, listen to me. Pastor Paul Schneider is speaking here. They are torturing and murdering people here. For the sake of Christ, have mercy. Pray to God. Remain steadfast and true. God, the almighty Father, will take this evil from us.”
Paul Schneider was executed on July 18, 1939, because his actions in living out the Gospel that he preached threatened the ideology of the Nazi party. Our Church, which believes in a Gospel that preaches love rather than hate, which preaches the lifting of the lowly rather than praising “perfection,” which preaches inclusion rather than division, posed the greatest internal threat to the Nazi party’s power. And yet, the church in general conformed and was silent, while voices like Paul Schneider’s were forcibly made silent. Rather than preach the truth of the Gospel, the German Church (Reich Church) conformed to the Nazi party to feel safe and secure, failing to look to God alone to assure its future.
Despite everything that Paul Schneider faced, his reasons to stand up against the Nazi party never changed. Their promotion and adoration of themselves defied the Gospel. In undermining and dismantling the church, the Nazi party created their own civil religion, a “Positive Christianity,” — “a Christianity purged of Jewish influence and combined with nationalistic zeal… a Nazi religion.”[vii]
It was not the actions of one person that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the war. It was the action and inaction of those that would not speak up. It was the pride of a people who became convinced that they were perfect, who began to worship themselves.
In his introduction to the biography of Paul Schneider, the Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan writes,
“Positive Christianity bears a family resemblance to more recent versions of civil religion. Virtually every state must and does appeal to religious sources to legitimize its policies, making claims to divine authority. While rarely is the fusion of national hubris with divine sanction as potent as in the case of Nazi Germany, in every nation the church needs to examine its role in serving as an agent for legitimizing state policies. In many instances, it may be hard for the faithful to distinguish between the core articles of Christian faith and the tenets of civil religion. The overidentification of church and state has plagued the history of the church in various instances throughout the centuries. We are reminded again of the responsibility of Christians to serve God above all things and to know the difference between worship of God and the worship of the state.”[viii]
The lesson that we should learn from the calamities of the Third Reich is not merely that we must be wary of tyrannical leaders. The lesson that must be learned—especially by Christians—is that, when pride in our nation becomes worshipful, we can easily lose sight of what the message of the Gospel really is. German pride raised up a leader who thought of himself as a god and the leader of the superior race. He neutralized the church because it questioned his authority. He killed millions because their race was deemed inferior. And through it all, many of his people loved him because he made them to believe that they were more perfect than anyone else.
Is there anything more antithetical to the Gospel than that?
I am not going to sit here and tell you all the ways that I see pride and superiority dismantling our country and perpetuating an understanding of “better than” and “perfection.”
But I am going to ask you these questions:
Are there any current issues that you think suggest we may be more concerned about national pride than about the well-being of people in need?
Do the leaders of our country use language that suggests there are certain people or groups that are superior and inferior?
Do the reactions of our leaders suggest that some lives are worth saving and others are not?
Do some leaders of our country use religious language in passing but only to support their cause?
Finally, if the answers to these questions are affirmative and the Christian church fails to speak a prophetic voice against it, do we truly worship God, or do we worship the idols of the State? [I’ll leave it to you to name the idols.]
**For more information on Pastor Paul Schneider:
Books: Paul Schneider: Witness of Buchenwald by Rudolf Wentorf
Wikipedia (for Quick Facts): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Schneider_(pastor)
(Interesting perspectives) http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/paul-schneider-german-opponent-of-hitler/
[i] Rudolf Wentorf, translated by Daniel Bloesch, Paul Schneider: Witness of Buchenwald, forward by Craig L. Nessan (Vancouver: Regent House, 2008), 66.
[ii] Ibid., 10
[iii] Ibid., 11.
[iv] Ibid., 335.
[v] Ibid., 336.
[vi] Ibid., 337.
[vii] Ibid., 12.