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Religion under National Socialism: The Case of the German Adventist Church

  • Roland Blaich (a1)


In May of 1948 a letter from Major J. C. Thompson, chief of the Religious Affairs Section of the American Military Government in Berlin, arrived at the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists in Washington, D.C. Major Thompson's office was responsible for seeing that all Nazis were removed from leadership positions, and his letter was part of an ongoing correspondence about the denomination's need to come to terms with its Nazi past. The Adventist denomination, he complained, was “one of the very few in Berlin which have not cleaned house politically to date. Most of the denominations finished this task long enough ago to have forgotten about it.” The letter must have been particularly embarrassing to Adventist leaders as it went on to compare Adventists to Catholics, who “actually had little housecleaning to do because of their strong opposition during the reign of Hitler to the entire Nazi regime.”



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1. Major J. C. Thompson, OMGUS Berlin, to W. B. Ochs, 20 May 1948. Archives, General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, Silver Springs, Maryland (hereafter cited as GC), RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s–Central and Northern Europe.

2. Membership in the German Adventist church grew between 1933 and 1945 mostly due to the acquisition of new territories.

3. J. L. McElhany to Adolf Minck, 24 April 1947. GC, see n. 1.

4. Among these was Otto Schuberth, Educational and Sabbath School Secretary of the Southern European Division, who was in Germany in 1945, and again in 1948. Otto Schuberth to J. L McElhany, 14 May 1948. Ibid. Others included L. H. Christian, president of the Northern European Division (in 1945); W. B. Ochs, general vice president of the GC (in 1947 and 1948); and D. G. Rose. On Christian, Rose, and Ochs, see Ochs, W. B., “Report to the Officers on Recent Visit to Germany (18 July–8 August 1947),” and Maj. J. C. Thompson to W. B. Ochs, 20 May 1948. Ibid.. On Rose, see D. G. Rose to J. L. McElhany, 5 April 1948. Ibid..

5. Maj. Thompson to W. B. Ochs, 20 May 1948. Ibid.. Thompson's office had data on membership in the Nazi party and affiliated organizations, as well as other pro-Nazi activities, based on Fragebogen information. American military authorities were more strict in handling the denazification process than were either the British or the Russians.

6. Some of the themes that were featured as signs of the times in their publications during the twenties and early thirties included the League of Nations, Locarno, and the idea of a United States of Europe (which were opposed), disarmament, the “yellow peril” and the coming war between the races, resurgent Islam, the Great Depression, and Bolshevism.

7. German Adventists were particularly concerned about efforts to negotiate a concordat between the Reich and the Vatican. Two examples are found in Kirche und Staat, no. 2 (1923): 19ff, and no. 5 (1930): 67. It is interesting that the Adventist press commented on the Hitler Concordat of 1933 only in positive terms, noting that the Catholic priest was finally removed from the “political pulpit.” Der Adventbote, 15 February 1934 (hereafter cited as AB).

8. This was the assessment of Fritz Holl in an interview with the author on 28 July 1986. He found Adventists “too narrowly informed.” They had not considered “the broad currents of time and thought.” Holl was treasurer of the Baden-Württembergische Vereinigung.

9. The membership of the church in Germany fluctuated significantly during the Nazi period. In 1933 there were 37,769 members. Even though many members left the church during the thirties, membership increased to 38,282 by 1939 due to the incorporation of the eastern territories. Ochs, W. B., “Report to the Officers on Recent Visit to Germany (18 July–8 August 1947).” GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s–Central Europe and Northern Europe.

10. Adventist leaders were rightly concerned about possible confusion with other Adventist groups. Friends in the Propaganda Ministry caused the Völkischer Beobachter, the main Nazi paper, to publish, on 10 December 1937, an article clarifying the difference. A reference to this is found in a letter by Braeckow, Reich Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment (ProMi) to Gestapo Berlin, 11 September 1940. Bundesarchiv Potsdam (hereafter cited as BA), Files of the Reich Church Ministry (RKM) 51.01/23388, Nr. 00251–52. Some government insiders who were enemies of the church used their position to bring about a ban. One such official denounced Adventists as “much worse” than Jehovah's Witnesses. J. Schlichtig, Prussian Ministry for Art and Education, to Reinhardt, RKM, 4 May 1933. The letter is part of a file containing materials pertaining to an investigation of church leaders. RKM, 51.01/23387, Nr. 00272.

11. An example is the case of Georg Dürolf, president of the Rhenish Conference. His case is documented by the Gestapo. Hauptstaatsarchiv Düsseldorf, RW 58/10820.

12. Adventists believe that in the latter days will come a time of persecution, a “time of troubles,” which will end with the special intervention of God.

13. AB, 1 August 1933. This article is remarkable as one of the very few statements calling on members to remain loyal to principle.

14. One of these made the point that when Paul wrote the injunction in Romans 13, Rome was governed by a monster, Nero. How much more ought they to obey Hitler. “Be Subject to All Human Authority.” AB, 15 February 1934.

15. Archiv für Europäische Adventgeschichte, Darmstadt (hereafter cited as AEA), U1–2, Nr. 0113.

16. In Unser Dienst am Volk, the report on Adventist welfare for 1934, Hulda Jost made a similar point. While offering a series of proof texts demanding subordination to the authorities, she also reserved the right of conscience: “The sanctuary of conscience must be beyond the reach of the state; it is holy territory.” Arguing for the Rechtsstaat, she added: “No despotism deserves the name state.” AEA/B9–7.

17. Hartlapp, Johannes, “Die Lage der Gemeinschaft der Siebenten-Tags Adventisten in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus.” Thesis at the Friedensau Seminary (unpublished), 1979, 107–8 (appendix).

18. Circular, Minck, “To the Union Conference Secretaries of the German Union Conference,” 26 10 1933. AEA/MED, Abteilungen. Berichte und Rundschreiben, 1933–1935.

19. Circular to the churches of the Rhenish Conference, 2 November 1933. Hauptstaatsarchiv Düsseldorf, RW 58/10820.

20. The decree was effective in Prussia and Hesse only, but was understood as a general ban by the church.

21. On Kotz's delay and resignation, W. A. Spicer to M. E. Kern, 11 December 1933. GC, RG 21/1933–, Spicer, W. A. Also, Auszug aus dem Protokoll des Ausschusses der MED, 10 August to 12 December 1933. AEA, U1–2, Nr. 0079.

22. Gestapo Berlin to H. F. Schuberth, 6 December 1933. AEA, U1–2/0361. Evidence for the events and reasons for the ban is sketchy. Much of the credit for working behind the scenes to reverse the ban belong to Hulda Jost, director of the Adventist Welfare Work. Due to her valuable political connections in the Reich Propaganda Ministry, Jost's influence among the German Adventist leadership grew significantly.

23. The Central European Division included Switzerland, Austria, and several Eastern European countries in addition to Germany.

24. According to one theory the prohibition was the work of Lutheran government officials who were enemies of the Adventist Church. M. E. Kern to C. H. Watson, 13 December 1933. GC, RG 21/1933–Watson, C. H.

25. AB, 1 February 1934. Also G. W. Schubert to C. H. Watson, 29 July 1934. GC, RG 11/1934–36–Schubert, G. W.

26. AB, 1 February 1934, carries an article by G. W. Schubert explaining the reorganization. The Division Committee met 11–19 December 1933.

27. Hambrock, F., President of the West Saxon Conference,14 January 1936. AEA, U2−1/0261.

28. Minck to the Gauleiter of Danzig-Westpreussen, copies to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and the Reichskirchenministerium, 24 June 1941. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23388, Nr. 00268–69.

29. Dated 9 August 1934, to be read 18 August AEA, U1–2/0113.

30. Signed by E. Gugel for the German denomination, and A. Minck, H. Fenner, G. Seng for the East German, West German, and South German Union, respectively. AEA, MED/Hannover Vereinigung.

31. Circular to all presidents, ministers, and elders, 4 April 1938. AEA, U1–2/0131.

32. G. W. Schubert gave Hulda Jost credit for saving the church. Schubert to C. H. Watson, 29 July 1934. GC, RG 21/1934—Central Europe. The Gestapo later confirmed that the welfare work of the church was the primary reason why the church was spared. Gestapo (Müller) to ProMi, 1 October 1940 (copy). BA Potsdam, RKM, 51.01/23388, Nr. 00177.

33. One example is the report on a welfare program in Planitz. AB, 1 April 1935.

34. One example is the visit by several teachers from Friedensau. Thomalla (ProMi) to RKM, 5 January 1939 (includes copies of reports filed with the ProMi by the teachers). Also, see the report on his visit to the United States filed by Hambrock, F., president of the West Saxon Conference. BA Potsdam, RKM 15.01/23388, Nr. 001–108. The most significant examples, however, are the reports on Jost's visit in 1936. These are found at the Auswärtiges Amt, Politisches Archiv, R62293. See Blaich, Roland, “Selling Nazi Germany Abroad: The Case of Hulda Jost\,” Journal of Church and State, Autumn 1993.

35. GC, RG 2/General Conference Officers, 23 July 1939. The educator in question was Dr Wilhelm Michael of Marienhöhe Seminary. He was a past president of the Friedensau Seminary. Also, see the Report of the CED Committee, 31 May to 5 June 1939, AEA, U1–2, Nr. 0069.

36. L. H. Christian to C. H. Watson, 23 April 1934. Christian was the president of the North European Division.

37. Kern to Schubert, 23 September 1935. GC, RG 21/Box 94 (MED).

38. New policy adopted by General Conference Committee 10 March 1938. GC, RG 21/1939 McElhany, J. L. See also Circular by J. L. McElhany, 14 March 1938. Ibid.. An example discussed in this document is the book, The New Caesars, published by Pacific Press for missionary outreach in the United States. Even though already printed, the General Conference Committee held that the book would be damaging to the church in Europe, and had the book withdrawn and destroyed.

39. One such is the “Circular to Gospel Workers and Church Elders of the Hanover Conference,” of 20 March 1935. AEA, MED/Hanover.

40. Circular, Rhenish Conference, November 1934. Hauptstaatsarchiv Düsseldorf, RW 58/10820, BL 106.

41. Circular, Hanover Conference, 20 March 1935. It asked to report the names of “incorrigible fanatics to our office.” AEA, unnumbered.

42. In fairness it needs to be pointed out that there were Adventists who sheltered and otherwise helped Jews. Among these were G. Seng and M. Budnick, presidents of the South German and East German Union, respectively. On Budnick, see Bundick to W. K. Ising, 25 July 1947. GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe. On Seng, author's interview with Otto Gmehling, 7 September 1978. Gmehling was president of the West German Union, 1949–62, and president of the Central European Division, 1962–1970.

43. Cited in Hartlapp, 75.

44. Reform Adventists were outlawed 29 April 1936. Helmreich, Ernst Christian, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit, 1979), 383.

45. Circular to the Gospel Workers of the Hanover Conference, 23 July 1936. It was based on a decision by the Division Committee, Nr. 454, of 14 July 1936. This decision is also cited by Minck in a letter to the War Ministry of 26 August 1936: “That under no circumstances should members of the Reform Movement be granted fellowship, nor should they be permitted to take refuge in our ranks.” Minck to Field Marshal von Blomberg. GC, RG 21/1936—Central Europe. Minck was concerned that the loss of Sabbath privileges in the military was due to confusion of Adventists with the Reform Adventists who had just been outlawed. Minck claimed after the war that “most of them came to our services and were happy to find refuge in our midst.” Not surprisingly, the German copy of his letter bears a pencilled question mark next to this claim. Minck to McElhany, AEA, D/1, Nr. 0386.

46. G. W. Schubert to E. D. Dick, 1 April 1937. GC, RG 21/1937—Central Europe.

47. Unsigned letter by unidentified officer of the East German Union to Budnick, 25 November 1936. AEA, U1–2, Nr. 0450.

48. On the 1935 crisis, see Hulda Jost to Reich Minister of the Interior, 16 December 1935. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23387, Nr. 00294. Much of the credit for saving the church goes again to Hulda Jost. McElhany to Watson, 30 January 1936. GC, RG 11/1934–36: I—McElhany, J. L. On the 1937 crisis, see G. W. Schubert to R. Rühling, 15 March 1937. GC, RG 21/Central Europe.

49. Gestapo Berlin (Müller) to Reich Church Ministry, 23 January 1936. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23387, Nr. 00292. No measures against the denomination were planned. It might be noted that “purely religious” meant that no resistance to Nazi designs was detected. In the Nazi state all resistance, including the religious, was always seen as political opposition. See Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler, 132.

50. L. H. Christian to C. H. Watson, 23 April 1934. GC, RG 11/1920s. Christian was president of the Northern European Division.

51. 18 March 1942. AEA, U1–2/0146, 0260.

52. One example is “Saturnalia,” an article in the Adventbote of 1 March 1933.

53. In his defense after the war, Gugel argued that, while in Switzerland his children were compelled to attend school on the Sabbath, they never did so in Nazi Germany. Gugel to Minck, 17 July 1947 (trans. W. K. Ising). GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe.

54. At one point Hitler intervened personally on behalf of some postal workers. Jost to Capt. Wiedemann, Reich Chancellery, 6 April 1937. GC, RG 12/1937—Central Europe. Gugel had negotiated with Field Marshal von Blomberg's office to secure Sabbath privileges for Adventists in the military. Gugel to Minck 17 Jul 1947. GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s/1950s—Central Europe and Northern Europe Files. Blomberg's letter was published in AB, 1 November 1935.

55. Decree of 18 May 1936. Kerrl, RKM, to ProMi, to 9 September 1936. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23387. Also, Jost to Thomalla, 5 August 1936.

56. Ministerialblatt des Reichs– und Preussischen Ministeriums des Innern, Jg. 1937 Nr. II, 17 March 1937. Decree issued 8 March 1937. See Circular, Hanover Conference, 25 March 1937. AEA/Vereinigung Hannover/MED.

57. G. W. Schubert to E. D. Dick, 27 April 1937. GC, RG 21/1937—Central Europe.

58. Minck to RKM, 22 March 1937 (copy). Private archive of the author.

59. On ProMi intervention and failure, see J. L. McElhany to E. D. Dick, 1 December 1936. GC, RG 21/1936—McElhany, J. L. According to a 7 February 1937 letter by Hulda Jost to the General Conference Committee, many lost their jobs with the government, while others began to work on the Sabbath. GC, RG 21/1937—Central Europe. In one instance, Joseph Goebbels himself intervened in a letter to RKM of 29 August 1936, asking that “for reasons of effective and clandestine foreign propaganda” the denomination's request should be granted. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23387, Nr. 00359.

60. Examples are problems with the Gestapo in Lüdenscheid and Düsseldorf in 1939, AEA, V/1–1, Nr. 0091.

61. Schubert, G. W. to the General Conference Committee,7 February 1937. GC, RG 21/1937—Central Europe.

62. Minutes, 602d Officers's Meeting, 23 July 1939. GC, RG 2/General Conference Officers.

63. Ibid..

64. Circular to the Conference Presidents of the East German Union, 27 March 1940. AEA, U1–2, Nr. 0250.

65. GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe. The circular was signed by Minck. A general ministerial conference was held at Friedensau in June.

66. The case of Erwin Bauermann may serve as an example. He was sentenced to three years penitentiary for refusing military service on the Sabbath. Upon his release from prison he was transferred to Sweibrücken concentration camp. Hauptstaatsarchiv Düsseldorf, RW 58/26380. Emil Biegmann was sent to Dachau for refusing to work on the Sabbath, and used for medical experiments. He died there in 1943. Hartlapp, “Die Lage der Gemeinschaft,” 66–68. Hartlapp lists several other cases. Rudolf Nettelroth, a church elder, spent one year in army prison for refusing service on the Sabbath. Schildhauer to Dangschat, 24 October 1940.

67. Rom. 12:11. This phrase from the Luther Bible is not found in English versions.

68. Copies were sent to RKM and Gestapo “as proof that leaders, ministers, and members stand loyally by Führer and Reich.” Attached were also statistics on Adventist servicemen, including their rank and awards for bravery.

69. G. Seng to the presidents of the South German Union, 4 February 1943. AEA, V/1–1, Nr. 0154–55.

70. In most cases the denominational leadership was able to bring about a reversal of the ban by appealing to the authorities, oftentimes with the assistance of the Propaganda Ministry. An example is the prohibition in Alsace (1941). Stillhaltekommissar Elsass to RKM, 10 September 1941. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23388, Nr. 00290.

71. By July of 1944, 83 church buildings had been confiscated, 282 ministers had been drafted into the armed forces, and others had been pressed to work in the defense industry. Minck to RKM, 7 July 1944. BA Potsdam, RKM 51.01/23388, Nr. 00369–73.

72. Budnick to W. K. Ising, 25 July 1947. GC, RG 21/Documents. 1920s–1950s—Central Europe and Northern Europe.

73. Among these was a statement by a Russian official that Budnick had served the antifascist cause. Ibid.. Also see Albert Thomas to J. L. McElhany, 8 April 1948. Ibid.. Thomas, who testified in behalf of the accused leaders, was a prominent Adventist layman and government official. He had also been a party member and political functionary in the NSDAP. In 1936 Thomas had assured the Gestapo that the “members and leading men of our denomination are on the side of the government.” Letter to Gestapo, November 1936. Hauptstaatsarchiv Düseldorf, RW 58/10826.

74. Among other memberships paid for by the denomination was that of the director of the Friedensau Seminary. Budnick to Ising, 25 July 1947, and attached dossier. See also the denomination's “Memorandum” to the government, which points to the Friedensau voting record as proof of loyalty.

75. Ochs, W. B., “Report to the Officers on Recent Visit to Germany” (18 07 to 8 08 1947), GC, RG 21—Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe. In reversing its decision, the committee was persuaded by Budnick's concern for his personal safety, since he lived in the Russian Zone. The dismissal, it was feared, might cause Russian authorities to be alarmed and deport him to Siberia.

76. Minck to McElhany, 17 September 1947. Ibid..

77. Albert Thomas to J. L. McElhany, 8 April 1948. Ibid..

78. D. G. Rose to J. L. McElhany, 5 April 1947. Ibid..

79. McElhany to Minck, 24 April 1947. Ibid..

80. Minck's second response to McElhany's letter of 14 April 1947, dated 17 September 1947. GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe.

81. Presented 13 February 1943. Among the documents translated by W. K. Ising. Ibid.. Gugel used similar arguments. In a circular to be read in all churches, he said about sending children to school on the Sabbath: “Since we have tried everything, the Lord will not view it as a real violation of the Fourth Commandment, it seems.” Instead, he commended the government for desiring a good education for their children.

82. D. G. Rose to J. L. McElhany, 5 April 1948. Ibid..

83. “To each of our church members we afford absolute liberty to serve their countries according to their personal conviction at any time, and any place.” As quoted by Minck in his letter to McElhany, 17 September 1947. Ibid..

84. Minck in his defense before the president and vice presidents of the General Conference, San Francisco, 18 July 1950. Minck's notes on the meeting. Private papers of Adolf Minck, property of Gunther Minck. Copy in author's possession.

85. Minck to McElhany, 17 September 1947. Emphasis in original. AEA, D–1/0384–0390. Emphasis in the original.

86. According to one estimate, 97 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses were subjected to Nazi persecution. Zipfel, Friedrich, Kirchenkampf in Deutschland, 1933–1945, (Berlin, 1965), 176.

87. In some cases the authorities placed the children of Reform Adventists to be brought up by party members. King, Christine E., The Nazi State and the New Religions: Five Case Studies in Non-Conformity (New York, 1982), 110ff.

88. Rose to McElhany, 5 April 1948. GC, RG 21/Documents—Central European and North European Files.

89. Gugel to Minck, 17 July 1947 (trans. by W. K. Ising). GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe.

90. Minck to McElhany, 17 September 1947. AEA, D–1/0384–0390. Emphasis in the original.

91. Sermon on 15 November 1135, as cited in Bentley, James, Martin Niemöller (New York, 1984), 119.

92. On Catholics, see the papal encyclical of 20 October, Ad Summi Pontificatus, or the “Pastoral Word by the German Bishops on the Religious Situation in Germany,” of 22 March 1942. The letter described Nazi measures as those of a state without the rule of law, and opposed to God's expressed commandments, thus lacking authority. A Protestant example is the Barmen Declaration of 29 May 1934. Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler, 162.

93. “I may reject the party with its ideology, but I cannot reject the authorities,” explained Otto Gmehling in a 7 September 1978 interview by the author.

94. In his letter of defense, Minck argued: “After all, each individual is himself responsible to God, how he lives his faith.” A pencilled note in the margin (possibly by W. Mueller?) asks: “Why disfellowshipped? [Warum ausgeschlossen?]” Minck to McElhany, 17 September 1947. AEA, D–1/0389.

95. Minck to McElhany, 17 September 1947. AEA, D–1/0384–0390. Emphasis in the original.

96. One minister asked cynically: “And who shall become the scapegoat this time?” Budnick to Ising, 25 July 1947. GC. RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and Northern Europe.

97. Rose to McElhany, 5 April 1948. GC, RG 21/Documents—Central European and Northern European Files.

98. Minck became ministerial secretary of the CED. The circumstances of Minck's removal at San Francisco are peculiar. Evidently the nominating committee had voted to reconfirm him, but GC officers failed to bring the nomination to the floor. It is interesting that, after Minck had been nominated, Mueller led an attack on Minck, faulting him for not being firm enough toward the Nazis. The day after Minck's nomination had been passed over, General Conference officers convened another nominating committee which supported Mueller, and Mueller's name was presented to the floor for ratification. Some members of the German delegation questioned the legitimacy of the process. Author's interview 7 September 1978, with Otto Gmehling, a member of the German delegation at San Francisco. Also, author's interview with R. Kluttig, Bad Aibling, 15 July 1986. Kluttig was treasurer of the East German Union and a member of the German delegation.

99. According to Otto Schuberth the spirit of nationalism was “at the root of everything.” He argued for reorganization of the German division, combining it with other European countries. Schuberth to McElhany, 14 May 1948. GC, RG 21/Documents: 1920s–1950s—Central and North Europe.

100. A notable exception among the top wartime leaders was Wilhelm Mueller, who claimed to have resisted the policy of compromise. D. G. Rose to J. L. McElhany, 5 April 1948. Ibid.. More typical for the attitude of the German leadership since the war is that of Ernst Denkert, successor of Gmehling as president of the West German Union. Responding on 30 August 1989 to a draft of the history of the congregations in Hanover, he protested: “I detect insinuations of adaptation. I have to protest that.” Ernst Denkert, “Korrekturen und Ergänzungen zur vorläufigen Chronik der Adventgemeinden in Hannover.” Private archive of the author. Only recently has there been some concession of mistakes by the present, and new, leaders. Cf. Erwin Kilian, “Hundert Jahre Adventisten in Hamburg,” AB, December 1989. Kilian spoke as president of the German Adventist denomination.


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