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Conflict and concession: nationality in the pastorate for Althaus and Bonhoeffer

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2017

David Robinson
New College, University of Edinburgh, Mound Place, Edinburgh EH1 2LX, UK,
Ryan Tafilowski
New College, University of Edinburgh, Mound Place, Edinburgh EH1 2LX, UK,


In their 1920s expatriate theologies, Paul Althaus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer claim to be bound by a conflictual international ‘law’, which mandates violent competition while authorising the strong to displace weaker peoples. We argue that acknowledging such correspondence helps to reveal a surprising turn in their diverging ecclesiological judgements over the 1933 Aryan Paragraph. Ironically, although Althaus holds to the productivity of conflict between peoples, he supports the exclusion of Jewish pastors in Germany as a concession to fragile völkisch identity. In contrast, Bonhoeffer's new pacifist leanings coincide with his incitement to conflict on behalf of Jewish colleagues, overriding the use of Pauline admonition to defer to the ‘weak’ conscience.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 Paul Althaus’ Communio Sanctorum: Die Gemeinde im lutherischen Kirchengedanken was published in 1929, while Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio: Eine dogmatische Untersuchung zur Soziologie der Kirche, followed in 1930. A comparison of the two works in light of their broader ecclesial tradition can be found in Schäfer, Rolf, ‘Communion in Lutheran Ecclesiology’, LWF Documentation 42 (1997), pp. 133–62Google Scholar.

2 On hearing news of Althaus’ forthcoming publication, Bonhoeffer wrote to his dissertation adviser Reinhold Seeberg about his own timeline in a letter dated 10 Oct. 1928.

3 English-speaking readers have been acquainted with Althaus mainly through Ericksen's, Robert Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)Google Scholar. Ericksen's study, nuanced though it is, primarily emphasises Althaus’ complicity with National Socialist ideology. There has been a larger tendency in wider post-Holocaust scholarship to interpret historical personalities according to a victim–bystander–perpetrator taxonomy. For a representative work, see Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933–1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 1992)Google Scholar.

4 Forstman, Jack, Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), p. 202 Google Scholar.

5 Haynes, Stephen, The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), pp. 80–2Google Scholar.

6 We leave das Volk untranslated as the English word ‘people’ does not capture the connotations of spiritual kinship, blood relationship, and commonality of heritage and soil that Althaus encodes into the term.

7 The theme is first raised in Liebenberg, Roland, Der Gott der Feldgrauen Männer: Die theozentrische Erfahrungstheologie von Paul Althaus d.J. im Ersten Weltkrieg (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2008)Google Scholar and subsequently developed in the work of Tanja Hetzer and André Fischer.

8 Althaus, Paul, ‘Die Entdeckung des Deutschtums im ehemaligen Mittelpolen’, in Kargel, Adolf and Kneifel, Eduard (eds), Deutschtum im Aufbruch: Vom Volkstumskampf der Deutschen im östlichen Wartheland (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1942)Google Scholar.

9 Hence Althaus rejects Emil Brunner's language of ‘ordinances of sin’ (Sündenordnungen) because it is ‘theologically impossible’ to distinguish between ordinances of sin and ordinances of creation, as sin and creation are always inseparable. See Althaus, Theologie der Ordnungen, 2nd edn (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1935), pp. 15–16, 48–61.

10 Althaus, Paul, ‘Kirche und Volkstum’, in Evangelium und Leben: Gesammelte Vorträge (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1927), pp. 113–14Google Scholar.

11 Ibid., p. 115.

12 Ibid., p. 116.

13 Althaus, Paul, ‘Der Weg des Glaubens’ (11 Nov. 1923), in Der Lebendige: Rostocker Predigten (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1926), p. 198 Google Scholar.

14 Althaus, Paul, ‘Vaterlandsliebe (Patriotismus)’, in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (hereafter RGG), vol. 5, ed. Gunkel, Hermann and Zscharnack, Leopold (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1931), p. 1441 Google Scholar.

15 Althaus, Paul, Leitsätze zur Ethik (Erlangen: Merkel, 1929), pp. 63–4Google Scholar.

16 Ibid., p. 53.

17 Althaus, Paul, ‘Kampf’, in RGG, vol. 3, ed. Gunkel, Hermann and Zscharnack, Leopold (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1929), pp. 595–6Google Scholar.

18 Althaus, Paul, ‘Die Stimme des Blutes’ (18 Apr. 1930), in Der Gegenwärtige: Predigten (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1932), pp. 158–9Google Scholar. Here Althaus characterises violent conflict as the ‘grandeur’ and the ‘glory’ of history.

19 Althaus would express this theme most poignantly in ‘Kirche, Volk und Staat’, in Gerstenmaier, Eugen (ed.), Kirche, Volk und Staat: Stimmen aus der Deutschen Evangelischen Kirche zur Oxforder Weltkirchenkonferenz (Berlin: Furche-Verlag, 1937), pp. 1920 Google Scholar.

20 Paul Althaus, ‘Krieg II: Krieg und Christentum’, in RGG, vol. 3, pp. 1307–8.

21 Althaus, Leitsätze zur Ethik, p. 55.

22 Althaus, ‘Kirche und Volkstum’, p. 131.

23 Ibid.

24 Althaus, Leitsätze zur Ethik, p. 55.

25 Citations of Bonhoeffer's primary writings refer to the English translation (DBWE) by volume number. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 17 vols, ed. Victoria J. Barnett et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996–2014); translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, 17 vols, ed. Eberhard Bethge et al. (Munich: Chr. Kaiser/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1986–99).

26 DBWE, vol. 10, p. 325. In a letter to Reinhold Seeberg on 20 July 1928, Bonhoeffer observes that ‘the war and especially the period of revolution simply passed most of [the congregation] by’; as a result, they show striking differences to the intellectual ethos Bonhoeffer knew in Berlin.

27 DBWE, vol. 10, p. 371.

28 Ibid., pp. 370–1.

29 Ibid., p. 360.

30 Ibid., p. 372.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., p. 373 (translation altered).

34 Bonhoeffer expressed his opinion on the ‘injustice’ of the Versailles settlement to American audiences in 1930–1. After recounting those killed in the war from his own family, he notes the attribution of ‘sole guilt’ for the war, and its attendant penalisation, as ‘the beginning of a new epoch of suffering and grief’. See DBWE, vol. 10, pp. 411–15.

35 Ibid., p. 373.

36 Ibid., p. 374.

37 Bonhoeffer's adoption of the ‘Volk without room’ mentality is also called ‘inadvertent’. Bethge, Eberhard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Man of his Times, ed. Barnett, Victoria, trans. Robertson, Edwin, et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), p. 119 Google Scholar.

38 Bonhoeffer's critical independence is also noted with respect to the theologies of Harnack and Barth. Ibid., pp. 65–77.

39 DBWE, vol. 10, p. 373.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Tödt, Hans Eduard notes Bonhoeffer's likeness to Althaus alongside Seeberg and Hirsch. See Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer's Theological Ethics in Context, trans. Stassen, David and Tödt, Ilse, ed. Stassen, Glen (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 81 Google Scholar.

43 DBWE, vol. 10, p. 377.

44 Ibid., pp. 377–8.

45 The extent of Bonhoeffer's pacifism has been a matter of controversy, particularly with respect to his later involvement in the assassination plot. With regards to the immediate post-Barcelona period, Reinhart Staats refers to his position as ‘semi-pacifism’, in part because of his objection to the injustice of the Versailles treaty. See ‘Editor's Afterword’, DBWE, vol. 10, pp. 608–9.

46 Althaus and Elert's ‘Theologisches Gutachten über die Zulassung von Christen jüdischer Herkunft zu den Ämtern der Deutschen Evangelischen Kirche (Erlanger Gutachten)’ first appears in Junge Kirche 1 (1933), pp. 321–4. We abbreviate this document as ‘the Erlangen Opinion’ or as ‘the Opinion’.

47 Erlangen Opinion, p. 321.

48 Ibid., pp. 321–2. Althaus resists the application of this passage to the question of ethnic relations within the visible church also in ‘Kirche, Volk und Staat’, p. 9.

49 Erlangen Opinion, §2, p. 322.

50 Ibid., §3, pp. 322–3.

51 Ibid., §7, p. 324.

52 Althaus had earlier remarked that, despite more than a century of Jewish emancipation and assimilation, ‘the foreignness (Fremdheit) between the Jewish and German ethnic types (Volksart) [is] now felt more strongly than ever’. See Leitsätze zur Ethik, p. 54.

53 Althaus would later point to the ‘particular we-consciousness’ (das eigentümliche Wir-Bewußtsein) of the German Volk, which arises out of ‘commonality of soil, i.e., of living space, commonality of blood and race [and] a common historical destiny’. By this definition of ethnic kinship, authentic membership in the German Volk is fundamentally inaccessible to a Jewish person. See Althaus, Völker vor und nach Christus: Theologische Lehre vom Volke (Leipzig: Deichertsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1937), pp. 5–6.

54 Erlangen Opinion, §4, p. 323.

55 Althaus, Paul, Der Brief an die Römer: Übersetzt und erklärt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1932), p. 101 Google Scholar.

56 Erlangen Opinion, §5, p. 323.

57 Ibid., §6, p. 324.

58 Ibid., §5, p. 323.

59 We render die Belastung as ‘strain’, but it also carries the meaning of ‘pollutant’ or ‘pathogen’. The language of pollution is especially striking in light of Althaus’ later call for the protection and purification of the Volk's ‘inheritance of blood and inheritance of spirit’. See Völker vor und nach Christus, p. 7.

60 DBWE, vol. 12, p. 363.

61 The link is noted in Haynes, Legacy, pp. 65–6.

62 Ray continues that, though Bonhoeffer could not have foreseen the lethal outcomes of such speech, ‘“der Jude” (the Jew) and its presumed referent – Jewish persons – had an exclusively negative connotation in German communal discourse’. Ray, Stephen, Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), pp. 76–8Google Scholar.

63 DBWE, vol. 12, p. 367 (translation altered).

64 Niemöller's arguments from 1 Cor 8 were in circulation several months prior, but he published the ‘propositions on the Aryan paragraph in the church’ in early Nov. 1933. Bethge, Bonhoeffer, p. 306.

65 Junge Kirche 2 (30 June 1933), pp. 22–3, cited in Bethge, Bonhoeffer, pp. 288.

66 DBWE, vol. 12, p. 431.

67 These were written by the end of Aug. 1933, shortly after the August version of the Bethel Confession. See DBWE, vol. 12, p. 425, n. 1.

68 Ibid., p. 426.

69 Ibid., p. 427.

70 The phrase comes from Bennett's, Jana Marguerite book title Water is Thicker than Blood (Oxford: OUP, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 DBWE, vol. 12, p. 427.

72 Ibid., p. 428.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., p. 431.

75 Ibid., p. 430 (translation altered).

76 Bethge, Bonhoeffer, p. 288.

77 Nietzsche claims that this creative enterprise is undertaken because of the social powerlessness of the innovators, whom Nietzsche problematically associates with the ‘Jewish, priestly people’. Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Ansell-Pearson, Keith, trans., Diethe, Carol (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), pp. 1824 Google Scholar.

78 Bonhoeffer claims that, although Nietzsche contrasts this state with slavish, self-righteous Christianity, nevertheless life beyond good and evil ‘belongs rather to the original, albeit concealed material of the Christian message’. DBWE, vol. 10, p. 363.

79 DBWE, vol. 12, pp. 430–1 (emphasis original, translation altered).

80 Bethge, Bonhoeffer, p. 305.

81 This line is taken from his pamphlet on the status confessionis. DBWE, vol. 12, p. 373.

82 One of his stated reasons for the move was the lack of understanding shown to the Bethel Confession. See Bethge, Bonhoeffer, pp. 303, 323.

83 Bethge, Bonhoeffer, pp. 658–9.

84 See DBWE, vol. 15, pp. 456–8.

85 See Jennings, Willie James, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

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