An Excerpt from Faith in the Face of Tyranny

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This is an excerpt from Faith in the Face of Tyranny: An Examination of the Bethel Confession Proposed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Hermann Sasse in August 1933, written by Torbjörn Johansson and translated by Bror Erickson (1517 Publishing, 2023).

During a pause in the Wagner‐Fest in Bayreuth in 1933, Hitler took to the radio waves to address the German peo‐ ple. He encouraged them to vote for the national socialist Deutsche Christen (German Christians) in church elections the following day, July 23rd. Hitler appealed for support for his political agenda, meaning that this party stood firm on the foundation of national socialist ideology. When the elec‐ tion results were gradually shared, around seventy percent of the voters had selected the Deutsche Christen. [1]

The German church’s struggle deals with opposition to national socialism’s attempt to subordinate the church to itself. After the crushing defeat, the opposition sought various ways to act. Many pastors and theologians want to focus on the confession and the question of truth to, as some expressed it, “put the German Christians before the question of confession.” [2] The catastrophic result in the church election, and this desire for clarity in the con‐ fession, provide the background for the so‐called “Bethel Confession.” In the history of the church, the confes‐ sion was unsuccessful and was replaced by the “Barmen Declaration” (1934), which became a big tent confession for the churches’ opposition. However, the Bethel Confession still has lasting worth as a theological document. As mentioned above in the foreword, it is called “a shining, sharp and impressive witness” in a standard work on the churches and the Third Reich. Later it is said: “Despite the difficult application of this form which is heavy with numerous passages from the Bible, Luther, and above all the confessional documents, in many points, this confession was still more precise both theologically and politically than the famous Barmen Declaration of May 1934.” [3] 

The work of confession shall be seen against the back‐ ground of the common political situation in Germany during this period. Hitler came to power on January 30th, 1933, and quickly began to change society in a totalitarian direction. The totalitarian trait meant that the state wanted to put as much of society and human life under its power and influence as possible. From womb to tomb, a person should be enveloped by the national socialistic ideology and different organizations and institutions established for this purpose. It was particularly important to shape youth, and for this task, Hitler’s Youth was created. Neither was religion exempted from the all‐encompassing ambition of the Nazis. The idea was to transform the faith of the people so that it conformed with the state’s values. The express goal of the Nazis was Gleichshaltung, that is, to alter the entire society according to its ideology.4 A central theme in the ideology was its Führerprinzip, meaning that all should be arranged in a hierarchic system under a leader, a Führer. All societal sectors would be put under the highest leader’s power. The will to unite all under Adolf Hitler’s leadership came in slogans such as Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (one people, one empire, one leader).

Earlier, Hitler had clarified his attitude towards Jews, among other places, in Mein Kampf. Immediately after his ascent to power, his attitude came to be expressed in concrete measures. The so‐called “Aryan Paragraph” was adopted on April 7th, 1933, and meant that Jews could not hold civil offices. A question that was felt early in the German Evangelical Church was to what extent the Aryan Paragraph should be applied among the clergy. If the ecclesiastical decision‐making organ introduced this order, Jews would not be able to inhabit the pastoral office. The German Christians drove this line, and the question led to a deeply polarizing situation in the church where different groups opposed the new orientation.

This is an excerpt from Faith in the Face of Tyranny: An Examination of the Bethel Confession Proposed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Hermann Sasse in August 1933 (1517 Publishing, 2023), pgs 1-4. Now Available.

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[1] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologe-Christ-Zeitgenosse. Eine Biographie, Neunte Auflage (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2005), 348.

[2] Among these were Martin Neimöller. Related by Eberhard Bethge in a fore‐ word to the Bethel Confession in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 2 (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1959), 81.

[3] Klaus Scholder, Die Kirchen und das Dritte Reich, Band 1, 647f. The Danish pastor and Bonhoeffer acquaintance Jørgen Glenthøj writes in an unpublished manuscript that the Bethel Confession was regarded as “the greatest theological document during the German Church struggle.” Glenthøj is among the editors of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, Band 16: Konspiration und Haft, 1940‐1945 (1996).