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Krystallnacht and Christianity

By Gary Kohls
November 9, 2010

Editor’s Note: On the anniversary of Krystallnacht, the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazi-led mobs destroyed Jewish stores and terrorized Germany’s Jews, Gary Kohls reflects on the failure of Germany’s Christian churches to stand for Jesus’s non-violent teachings, a pattern he sees repeating today in the United States:

I am what could be called a cradle Christian.

I was born to German Lutheran parents, both of whose families had immigrated to America partly because of the chaos following the Franco-Prussian War and their quasi-pacifist beliefs (or at least partly because of their resistance to the war and the forced conscription policies that had been instituted by the father of modern Germany, Otto von Bismarck.

Neither my father nor any of my uncles ever were forced to serve in the military, mostly because they were too young for World War I (the “war to end all wars”) and too old for World War II. No combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder craziness existed in my family, who reverently went to church every Sunday.

In my recollections about the 60+ years of attending weekly Sunday worship services in the Lutheran church of my birth, I can honestly say that I never heard a sermon, decent or otherwise, on Jesus’s clear command for his followers to love, and not kill, their enemies.

I have come to understand the reasons for that reality: Lutheranism came out of the right-wing of the Reformation and therefore traditionally, Lutherans tended to be nationalistic, politically punitive, doctrinaire, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Christian supremacist, racist, sexist, pro-war and often harsh in their parenting style - and that Martin Luther was no proponent of the nonviolent ethics of the pacifist Jesus.

Actually, before leaving Lutheranism about 15 years ago, I had tried to be a good loyal, albeit somewhat boat-rocking church member.

It had never been my intention to leave. I had even devoted several years serving on the national board of Lutheran Peace Fellowship, a very worthy peace and justice-oriented organization that had been marginalized by the denominational leadership to near-invisibility for the entire 60 years of its existence.

In my lifelong history with the church I don’t recall hearing any homilies on the love your enemies text or even the Golden Rule commands that theologians and scholars tell us are so central to the ethical teachings of Jesus, although I do recall an occasional quick reading of the Beatitudes when the gospel of Matthew came around every three years in the lectionary cycle.

I suppose my pastors chose to preach on the Epistle lesson or perhaps the Old Testament lesson for that Sunday.

Come to think about it, I don't even recall hearing any sermons about what Jesus had to say about when and where he justified the use of violence, especially as it pertained to modern war where the mass slaughter of the innocents, the women, children, babies, unborn fetuses and the elderly noncombatants is inevitable and expected.

An Anti-Jesus Conspiracy

I have wondered again and again about how to explain this incongruity. After much thought I can only conclude that there has been a conspiracy afoot to de-emphasize the radical love teachings of Jesus and that the conspiracy been going on for 1,700 years.

One of the saddest examples of this 1,700-year emasculation of the radical ethics of Jesus happened in the country of origin of my ancestors and it involved the religion of my ancestors.

Germany is infamous for what happened during Adolf Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” (1933 – 1945), and its two major denominations – Lutheranism and Catholicism – were partly responsible.

The ruling Nazi Party knew that Christianity had essentially been the state church of Germany for centuries. They knew that there was considerable power in these churches, power that might emerge to oppose Hitler’s war aims.

Therefore, the Nazis (mostly baptized Christians many of whom had left the church) felt that, because the church was too powerful to be crushed, it needed to be preemptively weakened.

The Nazi strategy that evolved could be best summed up like this: "if Nazism was incompatible with Christianity, then Christianity had to be made compatible with Nazism."

And so, after 1933, the German state church was changed into something totally grotesque, un-Christ-like and Nazified; and when the wars of German imperialism were declared, the churches easily went uber-patriotic, draping swastika flags over their alters and pulpits and obediently sending its baptized members to kill and die in Hitler's wars.

A few dissident Protestant clergymen like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller and a significant number of (less well-known to me) courageous Catholic bishops and priests -  who had managed to maintain their fidelity to Jesus’ ethical teachings - were “disappeared” into the prison camps.

For all intents and purposes, however, the vast majority of the churches cooperated with Hitler’s agenda.

In fairness to the church, one must acknowledge the fear that the leadership felt about having their church property threatened by the Gestapo if they voiced opposition to the wars or the persecutions of non-Aryans.

One must also acknowledge the long legacy of church-supported Prussian militarism and anti-Semitism and the fact that there was no history of nonviolent resistance to those anti-Christic realities.

Putting Up with Empire

German resistance efforts would have had to have started decades or generations earlier. The consequences of the failure of the churches to organize resistance to its oppressive political parties (or the corporate cartels) early enough are now obvious.

The church, living by the sword, did indeed die by the sword, for no viable German Christian church is in existence today, except in name only.

The occasional urban cathedral or church building that may have luckily survived the indiscriminate mass bombings by the British or American Air Forces are now just museum pieces. 98 percent or more of Germans, the same percentage that were devout church members several generations ago, have left the Nazi-compatible German churches.

The question for American Christianity is: Has it learned the lessons that Jesus tried to teach it 2,000 years ago, lessons the German church failed to live or preach? I don't see how very many churches can answer positively.

Gospel nonviolence, the clear theme of Jesus's ministry (refusing to return evil with evil in an attempt to make enemies into friends, the only effective way to stop the violence begetting violence cycle) should make Christian pacifism and conscientious objection to war and killing a no-brainer imperative for the disciples of Jesus.

The physical survival of the church – or at least its moral survival - may be at stake.

If German Christianity had not been immersed in the spirit of Prussian militarism and German imperialism for generations and had instead taught what Jesus taught, devout German Christians in substantial numbers would have refused to kill and die for Kaiser Wilhelm or Hitler.

Certainly, if the German churches had taken the Sermon on the Mount seriously and actually practiced the love ethic found there, the Nazi Party would have had very little electoral support during the years of the Weimar Republic.

And the sons of the church, the lawmakers and national leaders would have had the wisdom and courage to vote their best antifascist consciences. Active nonviolent resistance from church-members would have totally prevented Hitler's ascent to power.

Instead, the German church, reliably war-compatible over the centuries of its existence, now became thoroughly Nazi-compatible - and it was therefore totally incapable of resisting the satanic forces that eventually destroyed Germany along with the German church.

The Night of the Shattering Glass

Seventy-two years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938 German “Aryan” Christians (during the orgy of terror known as Krystallnacht) destroyed virtually every Jewish synagogue and small business in Germany – a typical over-the-top (and pre-arranged) act of Nazi retaliation for the shooting, by a young Jewish man named Greenspan, of a German functionary in Paris.

Eventually, in the suicidal and homicidal retaliatory cycle that violence always starts and can never stop, Christian bomber crews from the US and Britain massively and indiscriminately terror-bombed German population centers, murdering millions of noncombatants and destroying thousands of churches.

The irony of Christians from one nation killing Christians from another nation, and doing so in the name of Christ, is what also happened at Nagasaki.

Japanese Christianity and German Christianity, both weakened almost to oblivion by church-supported wars, are good examples of the validity of Jesus’s aphorism that “he who lives by the sword will surely perish by the sword.”

The thoroughly militarized United States, along with its patriotic, flag-draped churches, is already suffering in many ways for its aggressive wars and its crimes against humanity that have been waged over the last half-century.

When Christian America, as happened to Germany, goes down in literal or figurative flames in future retaliatory strikes that it provoked, the churches are likely to go down right along with it, and the tiny minority of true peace churches are as likely to be destroyed as are the Just War/Pro-War churches.

It should be obvious to any thinking person: America needs to build a larger number of true peace churches that are willing to implement the Sermon on the Mount teachings (rather than modifying it), and it must do so soon.

That probability that churches will be destroyed in one way or another makes the mission of peace groups like the Every Church A Peace Church movement ( ) increasingly important.

If a significant minority of American churches were to become actively opposed to the organized mass slaughter that is war, the chances of planetary, national and church survival would surely be enhanced.

Our secular leaders are leading our dying nation into moral and economic ruin because of its endless bankrupting wars which were started during the Cheney/Bush administrations, at the same time provoking eternal enmity from the people, nations and religions that our ruthless multinational corporations and military have been treating so unjustly.

The American churches have an obligation to take the leadership and resist the empire. They have the teachings of Jesus on their side.

The future of the creation and the creatures, including our progeny and the progeny of our future friends and past enemies, may depend on what American Christianity does in the coming months and years. We don’t have all that much time.
Dr. Kohls is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church.

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