Between Dogma of the Church and Freedom of the Real World in Treacherous Times Hans Ehrenberg and the battle against National Socialism
“During the Reformation the struggle was really within the church, today we struggle with the secular: secularism.” – Hans Ehrenberg to Karl Barth 22.2.1934[1] “The future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation. Those who look upon it have survived it: they are its product and its victors.”  –… The post Between Dogma of the Church and Freedom of the Real World in Treacherous Times Hans Ehrenberg and the battle against National Socialism appeared first on VoegelinView.




“During the Reformation the struggle was really within the church, today we struggle with the secular: secularism.” – Hans Ehrenberg to Karl Barth 22.2.1934[1]
“The future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation. Those who look upon it have survived it: they are its product and its victors.”  – G.R. Elton[2]
Sir Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (1924-1994) who is cited above, was a German-born British historian. He was also the nephew of Hans Ehrenberg (1883-1958) whose fate it was to live through the trajectory that began with WWI and its defeat, proceeded to the building of an unstable republic, and ended with the ominous beginnings of the Second World War. When Elton, whose name was Ehrenberg before he changed it in Britain, says that “(t)hose who look upon (the past) have survived it: they are its product and its victors” he is expressing simultaneously a personal and a general truth. Indeed, he might have had his uncle Hans in mind.
The main subject of this paper is Hans Ehrenberg who left his academic career mid-stream, to become a Pastor in Bochum. Before this step, and perhaps expressed somewhat whimsically, he saw himself briefly as a missionary among socialists.[3] While he ended up working for the Volksmission in Heidelberg after WWII, before that time, mission was voiced but suspended because church problems were urgent.[4]
By sheer coincidence, and because of his methods, Elton has been a favorite historian in my family.[5] Thus, this paper too is guided by the following three ideas of his: 1. We must understand an age in its own terms; 2. We can only judge an age by the criteria appropriate to itself; and 3. We must avoid the error of looking only for what has significance in a later age.[6] In current historical writing, especially that of socio-political history, Elton’s words of caution are often intentionally overlooked. Contrary to point 2, especially socio-political historians judge previous ages by criteria of our own age. And contrary to point 3, current scholars and the media commonly select what is popular now, or what serves a special, for example, current political or legal purpose.[7]
Equally relevant for this essay are Rolf Schörken’s notions about history.[8] He makes an important distinction between experiential history Erfahrungsgeschichte and oral history. For purposes of brevity, I shall deal only with the former. According to him, experiential history is not a sub-discipline of established scholarly history. Rather it is a necessary perspective if one does not want to do history without people who (actually, rather than virtually) experienced and suffered it. Importantly, it is a necessary perspective when one wants to know how a historical catastrophe, which most likely will have been a major challenge, is processed, meaning is worked with and through, particularly by young people who survived it. It is thus that one learns what impact, be it mentally, socially, or politically, for example, the experienced catastrophe has on survivors.[9]
It is in this spirit, and that of the theologian and sociologist Günter Brakelmann (b. 1931) on whose work I rely heavily that I chose against reviewing missionaries generally in exchange for a detailed view of one Christian individual living and acting in the Nazi context (Poewe 2006).[10] The carefully documented experiences of Hans Ehrenberg’s biography and autobiography offer a depth of understanding that general views miss. For example, over the space of this paper readers are made aware of compromises or choices that individuals find themselves making during such fatal crises of totalitarianism and war. We come to observe which institutions and structures radical movements overwhelm to produce an ever more pervasive Gestapo state and what ideological obfuscation is used to block perception and numb resistance. We also learn something of the troubled history of the churches and Christians generally in relation to the Nazi state. Finally, this one life highlights the shocking reality of how state legitimated persecution destroys Church laws and cuts into the very essence of a person, redefining him as a foreigner in the country, not only of his birth, but of a long ancestry, as a Judenchrist, or as a “pastor of Israel”.

Hans Ehrenberg’s background, participation in, and insights from his WWI experiences

Hans Ehrenberg grew up in a liberal enlightened family atmosphere – Jewish but distanced from any form of traditional Jewish practice. He felt fully integrated in the German intellectual and social world and belonged to the economically secure German educated bourgeoisie or middle class (Bildungsbürgertum).[11] After graduating from the Wilhelm Gymnasium in Hamburg, he studied economics, law, and political science in Göttingen, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Munich. Then came his one-year voluntary military service which he saw as duty to the fatherland. After basic military training, he began anew with an increasing interest in religion and the study of philosophy, the latter ending with a doctorate in 1909 and habilitation in 1910 from Heidelberg.[12]
Major influences on the development of his religious interests were first Dostoyevski, then Tolstoy, and Ernst Troeltsch. He began to study theology but was still nondenominational and unchurched. At his conversion through the Gospel of John, he described his relationship with Christ as strongly mystical. At age 26, he was baptized on 3 November 1909 in the Protestant Trinitatis-Church in Charlottenburg, Berlin. His cousin, Franz Rosenzweig who explained the conversion of Hans to his concerned parents, saw this development as natural: “In all things we are Christian. We live in a Christian state, attend Christian schools, teach Christian books, in short, our entire culture is founded on a Christian foundation.”[13]
And then came World War I. Ehrenberg now age 31 was trained in artillery, participated in several battles, suffered a nervous breakdown, gained officer status, was awarded medals, served to the end, and was demobilized 18 November 1918. He experienced this horrific war almost as an anthropologist would in the role of participant-observer. The first main topic of his copious war publications was the question about “how the front experience affects the personality?”[14] His initial reflections about this question, very much what Schörken sees as a historical study of impact Wirkungsgeschichte, reveals a sense of hope for a future government that is not the continuation of a bourgeoisie state, but one whose constitutional principles are the experiences of the war’s participants. According to Hans Ehrenberg, a war of such horror is unforgettable. It becomes a symbol that embodies the will of the people for their future. Prophetic words, but I think not in a direction he might have wished.
By 1917, it was clear to Hans Ehrenberg that Germany was heading for defeat. He saw it in the dominance of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, their militaristic thinking, their loss of political goals and foreign political creativity.[15] He saw it in the divide between the national conservative Luther cult and the more liberal Luther trend, meaning the political use of Luther’s teachings to support diametrically opposed political positions. The national conservative camp favored interpretations of Luther’s teachings that justify continuation of an authoritarian state; the national liberal camp saw Luther’s theology as help to make critical decisions in favor of democracy and the Republic.[16] Through the politician and pastor Friedrich Naumann and the liberal Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, both of whom he knew personally, Ehrenberg empathized with the social reform camp.
Then came the collapse of the alliance, the defeat proper, and with it, an increasing self-deception that made misguided illusions the master of German politics. Hans Ehrenberg was appalled that in the name of science a race teaching was promulgated, which characterized German Jews as a foreign body, and this when German Jews did not fight for a Jewish Volk during WWI, but for Germany. Jews were anything but foreign, they were a natural part of the Königsberg establishment as I knew from my own family’s history. In short, they were the best of us.

Brief Political activities

Ehrenberg’s membership of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the end of WWI was short as was his service from 1919 for one and a half years as City Councillor (Stadtverordneter) in Heidelberg. It was at this time too that he was offered the equivalent of an Associate Professorship (Assistenzprofessur) at the university of Heidelberg. Important is, what he wanted to become was a Pastor and leave politics.
Nevertheless, in 1928 and 1932 when Bochum experienced two church elections (Kirchenwahlen), he participated again. In the church, heated discussions took place about the so-called “politische Listen” of the Deutsche Christen and the Religious Socialists.[17] In the end, the electoral Committee of the Old town municipality agreed to a parish list (Pfarrbezirksliste), consisting of supporters who were critical of the Deutsche Christen. To this committee Hans Ehrenberg belonged as the Chairman of the presbytery. And in this Committee, Ehrenberg and a very active parish member and secondary school teacher of the Goetheschule, Dr. Robert Petry (1895-1963) analyzed critically the Deutsche Christen Program. Particularly interesting are their disagreements with the Deutsche Christians’ sense of Christianity. The DC’s program, they argued, was basically not a confession but liberal. What the D.C. called Reichskirche also was liberal and democratic. The sentence of the DC Program “Die innere Mission darf keinesfalls zur Entartung des Volkes beitragen” revealed clearly that völkisch thinking conflicts with Christian thought. The DC’s conceptualisation meant, in effect, that Bethel, an institution that served physically and mentally challenged individuals, is contributing to the degeneration of the German people (Entartung des Volkes). In short, DC ignored the Cross. Race was idolized or trans figured (verklärt), Jewish mission was fought down, the foreign mission was despised, Christ was diminished, the Bible ignored.[18] All this frantic activity gained the Pfarrbezirkliste 47 seats, the D.C. 13. As for HE, he learned, if he did not know it already, that the church struggle had long since begun and so had the struggle against his person as “Pastor from Israel.”[19] Following a letter of Hans Ehrenberg to Karl Barth 22.2.1934, Brakelmann analyzed the situation this way: “It would have been suicide to have publicly described National Socialism when it came to power as anti-Christian, as secular and demonic.”[20]
Ehrenberg stepped back from political activism. He parted with Idealism that to his mind carried within it the law of its own demise. As Ehrenberg said, “The Idealists ‘are … nolens volens the Bible of today’s human beings Menschen’.”[21] One could also say, Idealists are people who replace human beings with humanity, the latter taken as reality though it is but a sum and an idea that can never be a living reality.[22] He left philosophy and returned to focus on Christianity. What preoccupied him were questions about a church above all churches, a confessional church as Corpus Christi on earth.[23]

Ehrenberg as Acting Observer to stem the “Nazi flood”

Having abandoned a professorship of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, Ehrenberg returned to Bochum, where he became the observer of worn-out people, housing needs, alcoholism, massive unemployment, indeed, of every power of corruption found in a terminally ill civilization.[24] In 1932, at the time of Germany’s highest unemployment, when the Weimar Republic seemed finally to dissolve itself, when ever more people were prepared for radical solutions, his book Germany in the Smelting Furnace was published.[25] In his church community of 5,500 members, he experienced the problems up close and undisguised. Sharpened by his philosophical and theological perspectives, he sought to penetrate the intellectual, spiritual, and religious reality of his contemporaries.[26]
Bochum with a population of around 320,000 in the 1930s, was a town of uncountable independent networks, associations, groups, unions, in short what Germans call Vereine und Bünde. While it would overwhelm this study to name all, it is important to name a few and this for two reasons: firstly, to draw attention to their diversity of interest and their explicit or implicit political orientation and secondly, to show how susceptible they were to the penetration of an extreme movement. They were ready-made social spaces that the Nazi movement would flood much like a tsunami floods a coastal city.
For example, in his church district alone there were at least twenty-two different confessional groups. Ehrenberg called the phenomenon Vereinsprotestantismus, meaning literally club-Protestantism having to do with youths, women, young men, education, city mission groups, employment, and much more. Added to them were numerous working groups carried by synods that dealt with youth and welfare, worldviews, apologetics, catechism, press and publishing, and various other special interests. They worked well in normal times. But these were not normal times.
Then there were numerous national groups with whom preachers, presbyters, and church members cultivated loose relationships. In normal times, Protestant preachers spoke during festivities, on memorial days or at monument inaugurations to groups like the Warrior and Militia Society; League of German Men and Front Fighters; Steel Helmet; Pan-German Association; Young German Order; Bismarck-Youth; Queen-Luise League; Wehrwolf; Cavalry, Artillery and Naval Association; and National Association of Non-Commissioned Officers and Patriotic Women’s Association to name but the few that are translatable.[27] These leagues had a long history of association with the German national government and its military history.[28] If they played a questionable role in pre-WWI times, imagine their use after defeat.
But it was the right-wing-national scene in Bochum with which Hans Ehrenberg came into conflict first. They drew attention to themselves during parades and propaganda speeches with their incessant anti-republican and anti-Semitic rhetoric. And since various proletarian freethought associations, which belonged politically to the Communist Party, agitated strongly for leaving the church, for militant atheism and worldview materialism, Hans Ehrenberg landed in a two-front war against national-völkisch extremism on one hand and bolshevisation of Germany on the other. He experienced firsthand the rapid growth of both, radical right and left politics and mentalities. Soon the radical right and left were involved in street brawls, continued them in the rented spaces of the Church and Protestant club house, and pressured and persecuted Hans Ehrenberg and his close colleague Albert Schmidt, both pastors. Finally, alienated church members that had not, however, left the church participated in the battles and, indeed, brought them into the church. In short, what Ehrenberg experienced outside of the church was mirrored inside it.[29]
In response, Ehrenberg published widely. He organized numerous events large and small to counteract this rapidly growing popular accommodation to contemporary majority expectations. The best-known speakers that he invited included people like Karl Barth (1886‒1968), Otto Dibelius (1880‒1967) – both anti-Nazi who supported and co-founded the Confessional Church – but also Friedrich Gogarten (1887‒1967) who in 1933 joined but three months later disjoined the German-Christian movement that did Hitler’s work inside the church.[30]
Ehrenberg understood an important paradox, namely, that an occupant of the office of church minister is bound simultaneously to the dogma of the church and the freedom of the reality of the world. With respect to the latter, he recognized a more troubling paradox yet, namely, that of participating in worldly reality while opposing it. To work with this paradox in his context, he broke reality down further. (See my figure below). Thus, he distinguished the relationship of the Church to national politics from that to social-democratic politics. Above all, he warned against the idea of seeing social democracy as an ‘opposing-religion’ – opposing Christianity, that is. Instead, he reminded people that emancipated Christians, Jews, and Pagans who had leading positions in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and who shared with their proletarian followers a worldview consisting of elements of atheism, materialism, and Darwinism both entered the SPD through the de-Christianized bourgeoisie. Thus, social democracy itself is a part of the church. Vis-a-vis social democracy, therefore, the church does not have political responsibility but a missionary one. The SPD cannot be a church, but since both are universal and world-open, there is nothing that prevents the church from inviting social democracy into its fold. While Ehrenberg could envision the mission inviting social democrats with its ideological histories and followers, he was unable to overcome the fatal conflict with Deutsche Christen, national and völkisch groups.
Thus, where the church vis-à-vis nationalism was concerned, Ehrenberg reminded his fellow Germans that it is, after all, a lesser evil to deny God (an SPD tendency) than to replace him with an idol that people confuse with God (a Nationalist/Fascist tendency). Social democrats violate the first commandment; the völkisch, who nationalize God, violate both the first and second commandments.[31]
While it is unlikely that Hans Ehrenberg and Dietrich Bonhoeffer met in person, they knew of one another’s work both before and after the establishment of the Confessional Church in the 1930s. Thus, Bonhoeffer read Hans Ehrenberg’s edited books on Eastern Christianity.[32] Both were interested in the Russian works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and through them in the Russian Orthodox Church. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s report called House of the Dead, which is about his experience as convict in a Siberian prison camp, took on special significance during Ehrenberg’s own harrowing experience in Sachsenhausen.[33]


Two major sources describe vividly the situation in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during Ehrenberg’s presence there from 10 November 1938 to 20 March 1939. The first is Hans Reichmann’s experiential report. A Jewish jurist, he was detained in Sachsenhausen from 9 November to 28 December 1938, a time that overlapped with that of Ehrenberg’s detention whom he met and discussed in the report.[34] The second is Ehrenberg’s Autobiography of a German Pastor.[35] Both Reichmann’s and Ehrenberg’s documents were first published in England. The former’s is excerpted extensively in Brakelmann’s Ehrenberg biography, which I use here.[36]
In September 1938, the Gestapo banned Ehrenberg totally from preaching and speaking publicly. By the November Pogrom 1938 his home was searched and destroyed. A few days later he was taken to Sachsenhausen near Berlin.[37] According to Reichmann, denigration of new arrivals started at reception. As soon as the door of the railroad car opened the detainees were bombarded with vulgar anti-Semitic insults. These were accompanied by punches, kicks, slaps in the face and blows with a stick. It was a major attack on the human personality of the arrivals. Here and throughout his report, Reichmann drew parallels with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead—which according to him described the same organized inhumanity and brutality, the same physical and intellectual torment – except for those practices that have their source in the racial antisemitic determination to depersonalize and annihilate.[38]
In the Jewish block was gathered a remarkable society: physicians, jurists, high-end bureaucrats, businessmen, professors, musicians, and an evangelical pastor. For the most part, these were elderly, well-groomed, sophisticated men that were now placed into the hands of 17-to-21-year-old SS-recruits who belonged to NS-Death-Skull units. The “fun” for these coarsened youths consisted of proving the others’ “inferiority.” They made these elderly intellectual Herren (distinguished men) run, bend their knees and skip, throw themselves on the ground and roll. As Reichmann says, the young SS-recruits “play” with the prisoners as they like. Driven by fear of clubbing and enervating punishment, the men obey. Increasingly, “the undisguised drive of the pervert becomes apparent – untamed, wild, and dirty. They screech like vultures and beat down on us like a vulture on his prey. They bring the forward rushing man to the fall by extending a leg and then beat him up with the butt of the rifle. And when one old man falls over others, it raises the pleasure of torturing.” And this pure hell is also found in Dostoevsky.[39]
Reichmann described being overcome by utter powerlessness Ohnmacht when he saw how innocent and defenseless human beings were maltreated and driven to death.
Thirteen thousand men are held in check by a dozen machine guns and a few hundred young boys,” he wrote. “Thirteen thousand men, a war-strength unit, are turned over to the merciless cruelty of children. Daily buckets of dirt are poured over honorable human beings. Eighteen-year-olds have detainees – that could be their grandparents – bark, crow, or scream ‘my mother is a whore.’ And all this increases their pleasure.”[40]
Those who read Hannah Arendt or heard her interview with Joachim Fest in 1964 where she described similar behaviour observed by Ernst Jünger in his book Strahlungen, will understand this as “banal.”[41]
Reichmann took it a step further. Describing ever more forms of degradation, he reflected:
In the camp I searched for a concept that would capture the essence of the German concentration camp and the practice of its guards. Two comrades participated in this search. They came up with this formulation: ‘The German concentration camp is a mixture of stupidity, brutality, and meanness’, precisely and justly said: ‘Satanism’.” And so, Reichmann concluded, “I profess this conceptualization: ‘The German concentration camp is evil itself’.”[42]
Before death, stood the painful process of dying from malnutrition and overwork, from beating and kicking, from wounds and illness. Here, where elderly Jews vegetated, where septic rashes and pneumonia spread, death held a rich harvest. Hans Ehrenberg, as Protestant pastor, was confronted with these deaths daily. He described himself as corpse carrier or rather as “foreman of the corpse command.” One day, when a not exactly apathetical SS-man asked, “Why specifically are so many Jews dying?” the corpse-command, which consisted of four men, explained it had no doubt to do with the sudden change from office work to the conditions in the camp. To which the response was, “Then you can thank us for finally making healthy human beings of you.”[43] As Hannah Arendt explained, the stupidity aspect of banality consists of total absence of any sense of fellow feeling, any empathy, any recognition of, or respect for, human life.
Brakelmann summarized the experiences described in the published documents of the “Jew” Hans Reichmann and the “Jewish-Christian” (Judenchrist) Hans Ehrenberg this way: “Reichmann recognized that the Confessional Church, as he experienced it in Martin Niemöller, Hans Ehrenberg, Ernst Tillich and Werner Koch, was the strongest provocation against the totalitarian state.”[44] And further on, Brakelmann wrote:
Hans Reichman created a literary memorial for two citizens of Bochum: an evangelical Pastor and a Rabbi. Together they (Ehrenberg and Reichmann) experienced the ‘hell of Sachsenhausen.’ The Christian and the Jew, both were self-aware German citizens, both had to experience together exclusion and disenfranchisement, persecution, and torture. They symbolize the fact that the final goal of national socialist praxis was the extermination of the total Jewish-Christian tradition.”[45]

Letters and Significant Distinctions

And yet, Ehrenberg emerged from that experience having discovered new love Agape and new dimensions of it. Far from being misled by revenge, he recognized in each persecutor, and everyone who murdered, a human creation of God. The “Stronger,” meaning God, stands even behind “Satan.”[46]
Analyzing Nazism and making his listeners in England understand it, was more important to Ehrenberg than describing the torture of daily life in the camp. He did it, for example, in the form of a letter “To the Gestapo.”[47] Pointing to the Gestapo’s comparison of Hitler with Christ, he wrote: “Don’t you say: ‘until now it has been Christ: from now on it will be Hitler. Christianity has had its opportunity for two thousand years and has failed; now let Hitler have a chance: he’ll make better use of it!’ such words I have often read in your periodicals.” [48]
Following a run-in with Nazis in his church in December 1936 when they were contesting his pastoral office and flooding his congregation with “religious” speeches, he concluded:
Further, the Third Reich introduced four words relating to religion in its annual census-forms: evangelical, catholic, atheist (by which Marxist was meant), and ‘God-believing’, which meant non-atheist Nazi outside the Church, with the result that I wrote in my parish magazine in Bochum: “Germany is now divided into three great religious camps: the evangelical, the catholic, and the ‘God-Believing’, the latter being comparable with the oriental religion of Islam.”
This found the Nazis’ most sensitive spot. But what I wrote was nevertheless true. Their creed admits of only one doctrine: ‘God is God, and Hitler is His Prophet!’ and with this dogma they conduct their nihilistic campaign against Jews, Democrats, Socialists, Bourgeois, Conservatives, Intellectuals, non-Nordics, incurables and the “Aryan” peoples of Europe and America; strangely enough they do it with the help of the non-Aryans of the Far East. In all your actions you claim that you are obeying God … without a Saviour or Law or Gospel or Cross, without Eternal Life, without Heaven or Hell, without Repentance and Grace, without Bible or Church, without Love or Salvation. In this way you, today, in your depravity and degeneration, represent a kind of watered-down imitation of the Mohammedan power which threatened the annihilation of Europe during the thousand years between A.D. 700 and 1700. You are filled with the same intolerant crusading fanaticism, but you do not belong to the West.”[49]
Some readers may find Ehrenberg’s comparison of the Nazi “God-believing” with Islam politically incorrect. But such a response overlooks the context within which Ehrenberg’s remarks were made. Therefore, I shall add a few words.
Ehrenberg does not use “Islam” in its full meaning as a complex religion that must be understood in terms of its theology, spirituality, practice, and origin. Rather, he uses it as the Nazis used it in their journals, popular literature, and in the SS-Ahnenerbe.[50] Nazi officials saw “Islam” from the self-serving perspective of a potential ally with whom they perceived themselves as sharing “positive values” of bravery and medieval knighthood, including “Arabic holy warriors” and the Futuwwa.[51] When Ehrenberg writes about Nazi “depravity and degeneration” as representing “a kind of watered-down imitation of the Mohammedan power which threatened the annihilation of Europe…between A.D. 700 and 1700”, he is referring to what SS intellectuals like Ludwig Ferdinand Clauss and Sigrid Hunke[52] praised as the Arabic Islamic “blitzvictories”.
In his Autobiography Ehrenberg remembered the Nazi-view of Islam as described in Nazi news journals, for example, the “Schwarze Korps,” a “weekly organ of the SS” (1943 p. 25, 27). Most likely, he also checked the Völkischer Beobachter, NS-Monatshefte, Der Arbeitsmann, Der Angriff, and Die Zukunft. These journals even found their way into PhD dissertations, as that of Sigrid Hunke for example.[53]
Ehrenberg’s words “real things” or “real conflict” and the SS seeking “the help of non-Aryans of the Far East”, point to real relationships and events.[54] For example, the Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach (1907-1974) visited Teheran and Bagdad in the fall of 1937 to discuss specifically the national Arabic Youth Movement known as El-Futuwwa. In return, a delegation of the El-Futuwwa under the leadership of Bahaeddin Tabbah visited the Nuremberg Nazi Party Congress in September 1938.[55]
Going back a few years to 1934 when von Leers spoke at a Hauer[56] conference about “Change and Demise of World Religions”, he encouraged leaving Christianity, which was “in essence Jewish”, and considering Buddhism and Islam instead. Opposing the Jewish Geist, he pointed to the centrality of race, Germanic religiosity, and militancy in cooperation with leadership.[57]
No doubt, Ehrenberg was aware of several other popular authors who were favored and reviewed by von Leers. I mean Anton Zischka (pseudonym Donkan), Dagobert von Mikusch, and Giselher Wirsing. It was their books about Arabic futuwwa and Iranian, or Turkish heroes, prophets, holy warriors, and nationalists that von Leers discussed. All these authors were, in some form or other, supporters of the Hitler regime. For example, since 1943 Wirsing cooperated closely with the SD (Security Service). He also controlled Signal a leading Nazi propaganda magazine and Zischka, as well as Mikusch, worked for radical National Socialistic news journals like Völkischer Beobachter (mouthpiece of the Party) or Der Angriff.
Finally, Zischka concluded, “the deed of the renewal of Arabia is that of a single outstanding man, Ibn Saud, just as the renewal of Germany occurred thanks to the visionary power and determination of one man: what Adolf Hitler accomplished in the heart of Europe, Ibn Saud achieved in the desert of Nedschd.”[58] – Having first “washed” their language of its most obvious Nazi stains, both Zischka and Mikusch, like Hunke, continued writing and politicking unmolested after 1945.[59]
In short, while völkisch Nazis initially encouraged literature about Germanic sacred heroes like Eschenbach’s thirteenth Century Parsifal and, in 1935, Japanese ones like the Samurai,[60] they also favored books about Mohammed and Ibn Saud.[61] All books shared certain themes, for example, the relationship between prophet and warrior, the confession of a unitary God, the recognition of a new religion, the resource of jihad, and the transformation of cruel nomads into Ritter (knights). Hans Ehrenberg will not have known everything said here. Amazing is how much he knew!
Nor could he have done other than work for and become a Pastor in the Confessional Church. Like Bonhoeffer, he was also acquainted with George Bell. His understanding of the Confessional Church’s resistance against Nazi terror has little in common with Dramm’s understanding of that time.[62] Ehrenberg experienced Sachsenhausen firsthand and could only write about it because he took refuge in England. For that very reason, however, his little book (1943) leaves no doubt but that the Confessional Church was, its participants were, in a life and death struggle against Hitler and the Nazis. As said, it was not just an inner-Church struggle.
While Ehrenberg calls his book an Autobiography, it is written in the form of a series of letters, independently of whether they were sent. The form was chosen deliberately, because Ehrenberg claimed that he simply did not have the talent of narration for which the British were famous. Thus, in the above-mentioned letter addressed “To the Gestapo,” without losing his poise, Ehrenberg first voiced his astonishment at the perfect way “you” (the Gestapo) “practice organized murder in your camp, and still more, because you not only murder people physically…but above all murder the souls of your inmates by the thousand.”[63] And he continued:
“… you also understand how so to isolate the camp that not even the Party, not to mention the general public, really know what is going on. When I had to report myself to the Gestapo in Bochum after my release the official wanted to know what I could tell him to amplify his own meagre knowledge of the conditions there. People simply will not believe the rumors which are in circulation, and this is less amazing when I tell you that even among your political enemies the majority won’t credit them. When we leave the camp, we are warned that if we say anything at all about it, good or bad, we shall be brought back again and this time there will be no release.”[64]
In England, he broke this imposed silence. Active in the church again, he gave numerous talks to explain Nazism to British Christians. He described the joy he experienced when his listeners would say suddenly: “Now we’ve understood. Nazism is a religion.”[65] And yet, there are uncountable scholars who do not understand to this day the simple fact that Nazism was an alternative religion opposed to Judeo-Christianity.
In his letter to Martin Niemöller, Ehrenberg asked and answered the central question that bothered what he called the “Nazi-pestered world” about the Germans: “Who amongst you has really been able to resist Hitler?” he was asked frequently. To which Ehrenberg answered “Niemöller.”[66]
Ehrenberg was aware that in 1939 many Britons fought Hitler too but, he added, for Niemöller and himself “alike the standpoint we adopt is the same as Luther’s in his struggle with Rome: ‘We fight not against Pope and Bishops, but against the Devil himself’.”[67] This answer was rarely accepted, although it was also that of Bonhoeffer.
Make no mistake, the variety of resisters, from army to Confessional Church and much in between, were a vital force in the war against tyranny. And what made them look weak and ineffective was their greatest strength. In London 1934, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon entitled “My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness.”[68] His emphasis on facing ‘factual reality’ was the experiential component that he shared not only with Hans Ehrenberg (1883-1958), Hans Reichmann (1900-1964), Aurel Kolnai (1900‒1973), Eric Voegelin (1901‒1985), Hannah Arendt (1906‒1975) and numerous other resisters, but also with us refugees.
Hans Ehrenberg, the scholars mentioned in the previous paragraph, and many missionaries that I mentioned in past publications,[69] understood history and tradition without, however, losing its experiential and, indeed, embodying components. This triune history that we have, that we are, and that we embody, was always their foundation.[70] Having experienced it in their everyday life, and having embodied it as trauma, gave them the understanding that love and pain were never separate. They gave Germany and the world the strength to rebuild and the reason to keep the peace for more than seventy years now.


Ehrenberg is a witness of the fact that pastors and missionaries, who in crises are called upon to do the work of scholars, medical personnel, educators, evangelists, relief workers, and more, are keen  observers of the world around them but officially or unofficially perceived to be in the way.[71] Unlike recent cultural historians who tend to theorize continuities to establish war crimes or genocides for the purpose of apologies and reparations, Ehrenberg experienced, observed, participated in, and resisted a dangerous past that, try as he might he could not prevent – nor could anyone else. As Ehrenberg saw it from 1919 to 1943, he and others lived in treacherous times between the dogma of the Church and the freedom of the real world – a free world, however, that was in a permanent state of infighting over the conduct and defeat of WWI and the Republic that followed it.
Ehrenberg and Germans generally who survived the Second World War and the disastrous shadow-years following that war did not see themselves as victims but as survivors, even victors, as Elton emphasized. Especially the young among them, became part of building a democracy as Rolf Schörken shows in his book.
Ehrenberg’s picture of the time he lived in, and especially just before he left Germany for England, gives hope. As a Christian scholar and self-identified missionary-at-home he recognized the source of the problem that he witnessed as the process of Nazification that came from the Party, its völkisch and nationalist base, and the Deutsche Christen who did the Party’s work in the church. Rather than despairing, he mobilized resistance fully aware that survival might demand compromise or leaving the country to continue elsewhere.
Rather than spread hate, during his time in England he gave talks and, in the form of letters, to family, colleagues and foes, described pictorially how the process of Nazification gathered steam and was becoming institutionalized in the courts, and as the Gestapo and the SS-concentration camp system. All he wrote, he experienced personally. Nor did he project these “evil” forces on “Germans” as such. Rather he compared them carefully with Dostoevsky’s forced-labour camps in Siberia. They shared “the same organized inhumanity and brutality, the same physical and intellectual torment” … except for the specific German anti-Semitism that started with denigration and ended with the annihilation of Jewish physical existence. The “racial” aspect was not unique to Nazism either. In 1869, ten years after Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species, the famous missionary David Livingstone lamented to his son that humanity was being divided “by the science of the day into mutually exclusive groups placed on a hierarchic scale, with Africans near the very bottom”[72]—Livingstone, on the contrary, found among Africans a very great deal to “admire and love.”[73]
Finally, this paper sits on the integrity of three historians, all of whom experienced the pain of the Nazi past, either in their family (Elton), or as direct experience as young flak helpers at the end of what they too saw as a brutal war (Schörken and Brakelmann). Both, indeed, all three emerged from their respective experiences determined to work continuously for democracy. It is not the world of today but rather their experiences, of which they inform us today that determined their perspective.
*This article was originally published in Interkulturelle Theologie. Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft 48. Jahrgang 1/2022. It is republished here with permission from the author and the original publisher.


[1] Günter Brakelmann, Hans Ehrenberg. Ein judenchristliches Schicksal in Deutschland, Band 2, Waltrop 1999, 232.
[2] G. R. Elton, The Practice of History, Oxford 22002, 1.
[3] Günter Brakelmann, Hans Ehrenberg. Autobiographie eines deutschen Pfarrers, Waltrop 1999, 180.
[4] See also his argument, following the Russian Solowjow, that missionization of Jews could only be contemplated following the reunification of Christianity. Brakelmann, Ehrenberg Autobiogrphie,172.
[5] This acknowledges Irving Hexham, professor of history and husband, who more than thirty years ago pressed Elton’s book into the hands of this anthropologist. Little did we know then that the two Ehrenbergs were related.
[6] G. R. Elton, History, Oxford 22002, 18. I omit quotation marks around the words for ease of reading. They are his words, except for the odd omission.
[7] The socio-political historian Jan-Bart Gewald for example quotes in a discussion of a colleague’s work with which he agrees, these words from Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Left Hand of Darkness. He says, “the truth is a matter of the imagination, the soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling” Yes, this is important for a work of science fiction, but not good advice for present historians who write, often enough, committed history. Gewald goes on to ask these questions: “Who do we as literate academic historians write our history for? What sources do we privilege in our work? How do we deal with the material that comes to us from the past?” Which he answers: “It is only in the present that we decide which aspects and traces of the past we wish to deal with and analyze.” See, Jan-Bart Gewald, YouTube, Africa: 60 Years of Independence, Is that why his most significant work is, “unashamedly, a history of the male elite”? in Jan-Bart Gewald, Towards Redemption. A socio-political history of the Herero of Namibia between 1890 and 1923, The Netherlands 1996, Research school CNWS, 357.
[8] Rolf Schörken, Die Niederlage als Generationserfahrung. Jugendliche nach dem Zusammenbruch der NS-Herrchaft, Weinheim und München 2004, 185-186.
[9] Schörken calls this Wirkungsgeschichte, meaning history of impact. Schörken, Niederlage, 185.
[10] Karla Poewe, New Religions and the Nazis, New York/ London 2006.
[11] Günter Brakelmann, Hans Ehrenberg. Ein judenchristliches Schicksal in Deutschland, Band 1, Waltrop 1997, 18 ff.
[12] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 21. Wilhelm Windelband (1848‒1915) stimulated his interest in neo-Kantianism, Hegelian neo-idealism, and from there he studied Fichte, Schelling as well as the most important philosopher of the time Friedrich Nietzsche.
[13] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 23‒24. Hans Ehrenberg’s cousin, Franz Rosenzweig, was an original Jewish thinker, theologian, philosopher, and translator.
[14]  Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 56, 54ff.
[15] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 75, 96-99.
[16] Günter Brakelmann, Für eine menschlichere Gesellschaft, Bochum 2001, 75-98.
[17] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Bsnd 1, 214-215
[18] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 215. Except for the German, this and the previous page are a loose translation of Brakelmann’s rendition of events and findings. See also, Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 209
[19] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 216.
[20] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 232.
[21] Elena Alessiato, Jeder für sich ist weltlos. Ehrenberg’s Kritik an Fichte, in: Traugott Jähnichen/Andreas Losch (eds) Hans Ehrenberg als Grenzgänger zwischen Theologie und Philosophie, Kamen 2017, 114-141, here:114.
[22] Alessiato, Ehrenbergs, 121.
[23] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 148.
[24] Here also see Albert Hoffmann, a missionary of the Rheinische Mission, initially in New Guinea, who in 1918 witnessed the horrors of defeat and the disorienting postwar years. He was asked by the Association for Inner Mission to become a Volksmissionar for the German Volk. Albert Hoffmann, Lebenserinnerungen Eines Rheinischen Missionars. Band II, In der Heimat. Wuppertal, 109ff.
[25] Hans Ehrenberg, Deutschland im Schmelzofen, Berlin, 1932, 11. Germany in Meltdown, is an astonishing book that describes the paralysis of Germans after World War I. About its title he wrote: “The book comes from the Ruhr—from the dying Ruhr area. Once the heart of Germany from which the life cycle of the whole country was fed, it finds itself today in a radical meltdown engulfing its supporters, entrepreneurs, workers, and employees.” And ominously, “… every age has its special reactionary, which does not allow themself to be melted down,” Ehrenberg, Deutschland,11.
[26] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 201.
[27] In German and in sequence: Krieger-und Landwehrvereine; Bund deutscher Männer und Frontkämpfer; Stahlhelm; Alldeutscher Verband; Jungdeutscher Orden; Bismarck-Jugend; Königin-Luise-Bund; Der Wehrwolf; Kavallerie-,
Artillerie-und Marineverein; Nationalverband deutscher Unteroffiziere and Vaterländischer Frauenverein
[28] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 203.
[29] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 204ff. Ehrenberg’ description from his own experience is invaluable. He worked against the trend from all angles, and at high cost for his health, peace, and safety.
[30] It is important to compare missionary Christians with non-missionary Christians to get a sense of a wide range of attitudes of younger and older Germans toward the Nazi state at different stages. For example, see Schörken, Niederlage, 54, 57. For specifically Germans who were members of Christian youth groups like CVJM or Christian Pfadfinder, see Günter Brakelmann, Heinrich Winkelmann. Ein deutsches und christliches Leben 1892-1944, Dortmund 2020, 33, 43. An example of a common compromise might be upholding the centricity of following Christ, yet granting patriotic loyalty to Hitler’s war, while decisively rejecting the Nazi worldview or ideology.
[31] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 1, 223‒224. The two commandments are these: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22 verses 38, 40, King James Bible). Or Commandment 1 and 2 of Exodos 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.
[32] Hans Ehrenberg and Nicolai Bubnaff, (eds.), Östliches Christentum, Band 1, München 1923, Band 2, München 1925. See further Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A Biography, London 1977, 47. Regarding involvement in the construction of the Confession in 1933, both Ehrenberg and Bonhoeffer were on the list of recipients (Bethge, Bonhoeffer, 233). Bonhoeffer knew of Ehrenberg’s article about the ‘non‒Aryan’ pastor for Junge Kirche and the accompanying arguments (Bethge, Bonhoeffer, 437).
[33]Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aufzeichnungen aus einem Totenhaus, published between 1860 until 1862 in the journal Wremja.
[34] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 420‒435.
[35] Hans P. Ehrenberg, Autobiography of a German Pastor. Translated by Geraint V. Jones, London 1943. An original German version has not been found yet.
[36] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 420‒435.
[37] Sachsenhausen was a relatively new concentration camp built 1936.
[38] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 423‒5.
[39] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 425. Brakelmann cites Reichmann.
[40] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 425.
[41] From the interview in German of Hannah Arendt by Joachim Fest 1964.
[42] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 426. “Das deutsche KZ ist das Böse schlechthin!”
[43] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 428.
[44] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 432.
[45] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 435. On the same page, “the Jewish Christian Friedrich Weißler jurist for the Confessional Church was tortured and beaten to death. A Jew became the ‘first martyr’ for the Confessional Church.”.
[46] Brakelmann, Ehrenberg, Band 2, 441.
[47] Hans P. Ehrenberg, Autobiography, London, 1943, 20‒37.
[48] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 23
[49] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 24.
[50] SS-Heritage foundation one of over 20 SS (Nazi Protection Units) think tanks.
[51] Karla Poewe, Sigrid Hunke’s “Allah’s Sonne”: The SS-Paradigm, Völkisch Nazism, and Arabic Islam, presented Grenoble Conference, 2012. Published shortened version, Le “Soleil d’Allah” de Sigrid Hunke: Le paradigm SS et L’Islam arabe, in Bernard Bruneteau et Yves Santamaria, Extrémismes Européens et mondes arabo-musulmans. Collection Enieux internationaux, l’Université Grenoble Alpes SPM, Paris, 2021, 67-78. See also, Christian Ingrao, Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine. Cambridge, 2013.
[52]Clauss (1892-1974), researched the Bedouins and converted to Islam. Hunke, his PhD student, graduated with a degree in philosophy and journalism and worked in Himmler’s SS. Poewe 2021, 69.
[53] Poewe, Sigrid Hunke 2021, 69-70.
[54] Karla Poewe and Irving Hexham, Surprising Aryan Mediations between German Indology and Nazism, in International Journal of Hindu Studies 19 (13), 263-300.
[55] Poewe, Sigrid Hunke, 2012, 18.
[56] For Hauer see Karla Poewe, New Religions, 2006.
[57]Johannes von Leers, Wandlung und Untergang der Weltreligionen – die große Heimkehre, in Deutscher Glaube, Drittes Heft, Lenzing (March) 1934, 137. Johannes von Leers (1902-1965), Waffen-SS, propagandist, professor, convert to Islam, is famous for words like, “I see in Christianity the murdering deadly enemy of Germanic and Nordic being (Art).” (Bundesarchiv Berlin, BAB N 2168 2).
[58] Anton Zischka,  Die Auferstehung Arabiens: Ibn Sauds Weg und Ziel. Leipzig, 1942, 5, 15, 16, 241.
[59] Poewe, Sigrid Hunke, 70.
[60] Himmler told Hitler in 1935 that the SS must become the German Samurai and in 1937 wrote a
Foreword to Heinz Corazza’s book, Die Samurai: Ritter des Reichs in Ehre und Treue, in Peter Longerich Heinrich Himmler, Oxford 2008, 281.
[61] Both authors, Zischka and Mikusch call Mohammed’s religion a “new religion” in accordance with Hitler’s
“new religion”. Zischka 1942, 5; Dagobert von Mikusch, Muhammed: Tragödie des Erfolgs. Leipzig, 1932, 12,137.
[62] Sabine Dramm, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance. Minneapolis, USA, 2009, 240, 241.
[63] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 32.
[64] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 33.
[65] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 36.
[66] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 43.
[67] Ehrenberg, Autobiography, 43.
[68] Isabel Best, The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Minneapolis, 2012, 167‒170.
[69] Karla Poewe and Irving Hexham, The Völkisch Modernist Beginnings of National Socialism: Its Intrusion into the Church and its Antisemitic Consequence,” in Religion Compass 3/4, (2009), 676–696, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00156.x .
[70] Dogmatically speaking, Ehrenberg fully accepted the holy Triune God and the teaching of the two natures of Jesus Christ. He thought it required, however, the nineteenth century sense of liberalism to turn attention away from too much emphasis on Paul to that of the synoptic Jesus whom, through the words of the apostle John, “we heard, and saw with our eyes, and felt with our hands …” To Ehrenberg dogma was not primarily content but the power from which the content of sermon and catechesis was drawn, in Brakelmann, Ehrenberg Autobiographie, 173.
[71] In the way can mean many things, but perhaps, the following sentence describes Ehrenberg’s dilemma. “However centred they may think they are, Christian missionaries are caught in the contrary currents and eddies.” Kenelm Burridge, In the Way. A Study of Christian Missionary Endeavors, Vancouver 1991, 53.
[72] Andrew Ross, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire. London and New York 2006, 216.
[73] Andrew Ross, Livingstone, 230.

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