Theologians Under Hitler (2005) DVD

Documentary-Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 4 min.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:1-4

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This PBS documentary, based upon the research of Robert Erickson, Ph.D. (Pacific Lutheran University), introduces us to three respected Christian scholars, well known in their native Germany and also in Great Britain and the US as well: Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel. How in the world could such learned, erudite men have supported Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party? By careful analysis of their lives and teachings the film helps us understand not only this question, but the even the more important one, “Could something similar happen here?” When you see this film the disturbing conclusion probably will be, “Yes, it could.”

With a plethora of archival film clips and stark photos of swastikas displayed in churches the film quickly dispels the notion held by some of a faithful church defending the weak. There were exceptions, but they were definitely that, and the filmmakers are careful to point out that even some of those opposed to Hitler harbored anti-Semitic views, some of them more concerned about the Nazi’s encroachment on the church’s power than about the persecution of their Jewish neighbors.

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From a lot of the material presented about the history of the time it appears that several factors led to the enormous failure of Christian leadership. Because the Allies placed all the blame for WW 1 on Germany and forced crushing demands of reparation, the German people, so many of whom were unemployed during the 1920s, felt betrayed by their leaders. A united Germany, forged by Bismarck in the late 19th century, was a fairly new entity, and so to bring together the various states the concept of “volk” grew up, meaning not just “people,” but a people informed by Nordic myths and a destiny of ruling over inferior peoples—if you will “the German way of life.” Sound familiar?

The three theologians in the film were, like their counterparts in America and Britain, patriots who loved their country and wanted to see it prosper. To them it looked like Adolph Hitler was the strong man the people needed to regain their national dignity and rightful place among the nations. In 1933 Paul Althaus called Hitler’s rise “a gift and miracle of God.”  In the same year Emmanuel Hirsch wrote that Hitler was a “sunrise of divine goodness.”  And Gerhard Kittel, the editor of the still revered and used seminary text book Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, leant his Biblical skills to the Nazis to find a “moral” rationale for the destruction of European Jewry.

I find the film disturbing in light of the tendency of right-wing preachers who identify America and the flag too closely with Christianity. Some politicians also pick up on this, promising to bring back a supposedly glorious Christian past to the nation. That past included a time when prayers could be led by teachers in class rooms and when the church (largely Protestant) blessed the status quo—despite racist, sexist, and gender oppression. Remember Cardinal Spellman blessing Vietnam-bound troops and Billy Graham’s frequent visits to President Nixon where he never raised any question about the ongoing war?

Hitler also played on people’s fear that their traditional values were being destroyed, and so he promised to get rid of the threat—in his case, the Jews. Here, today, the threats to be removed are illegal immigrants stealing jobs, gay activists destroying traditional marriage, or abortion clinic doctors, plus, of course, the Muslim President betraying our nation.

PBS producer/director Steven D. Martin has given us a good film for making us look more closely at the church and whether or not it is rooted in the Kingdom of God or in the country in which it resides. I think after seeing and reflecting on the film and our own situation, your answer too to the question the filmmaker raises, “Can it happen here?” will be “Yes, God help us, it can.”

Note: #1 When I wrote the above, I assumed the DVD was easy to find. However, it is not listed on IMDB’s site, nor do two large libraries in my area stock it, though they do have the book it is based on. I was shocked to see that someone on Amazon is selling this DVD for $85. Apparently since it’s airing on PBS in 2005 the film has sadly dropped out of sight. You might check with your seminary or social justice center to see if they offer it. Otherwise, borrow Prof. Erickson’s book of the same title if you want to pursue this relevant subject during this election year. 

# 2 For the scholarly minded among you I recommend as companion reading for the film Dr. Arthur Cochrane’s excellent book The Church’s Confession Under Hitler. Focused on the formation and meaning of the Barmen Confession, the book provides historical background to the church’s embrace of Nazi ideology, frequently mentioning the three theologians and the criticism (largely Karl Barth’s) of them.

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