Monday, November 7, 2011

"They Facilitated the Horror": A New Study Of German Chaplains in Hitler's Army

In the National Post today, Canadian professor Doris Bergen talks about her research on the paradoxical place of German chaplains in Hitler's army, and how their presence did not stop and may even have facilitated the atrocities committed in places such as the Eastern Front. Here's an excerpt:

"For all her work she had done on the Holocaust, she had never given much thought to the role of Christian chaplains who served the cause of the Nazi Germany.

The chaplains were always in a strange position, she explained. Pure Nazi ideology was at its core pagan. The SS, for example, never allowed chaplains in their midst. Hitler probably would have thought Nazism was enough for the troops, she said. At the same time, 95% of Germans were baptized Christians who continued to belong to the mainstream churches. German soldiers had the words Gott mit uns (God with us) on their belt buckles.

“What I tried to show that the chaplaincy was in an uncomfortable position, that they were also in a position of suspicion.” In the field, the chaplains had to keep adjusting themselves. While there were many who wanted their services there were fanatical Nazis among the troops who hated the chaplains and would taunt them.

“That pushed the chaplains into a position that wouldn’t offend some of the troops. It pushed them in a direction to make their lives easier.”

I'm currently in the process of reading Michael Burleigh's book Moral Combat: A History of World War Two, which proves from documentary sources that rank and file German soldiers (including chaplains) could not have been present in invaded Soviet Russia without witnessing the massacres of Jewish and Slavic civilians by specialized Nazi formations. The presence of chaplains, and their vain attempts to intervene in these massacres, is indeed the starting point for Prof. Bergen's study. It doesn't surprise me that most of these German chaplains shared the mindset of many Germans - that Hitler was good for Germany, that Nazism was a bulwark against Communism and atheism, that Jews were enemies, etc. Not every Christian had the clarity and the courage of those who followed Barth, Bonhoeffer and the confessing church. I wouldn't want to have made those choices myself.

I will look for Bergen's study in print. Her subject is a cautionary tale that all military chaplains and people of faith should study.


styler said...

One wonders whether the title reflects what the author learned or what she was looking for.

I'm reminded of those photos I found online of the military cemeteries on the Eastern Front. Were the chaplains at the funeral services facilitating or were they serving the poor in spirit?

In any event, a worthy and intriguing field of research.

mad padre said...


I am sure that the author's title reflects some bias. However, it as as you say a worthy and intriguing subject.

It's difficult for me to imagine a military chaplain who exists apart from his or her culture. Hence it does not surprise me that German clergy were influenced by nationalist, anticommunist, and antisemitic views that led them to have willingly become military chaplains in the 1930s and early 1940s. Most Germans were happy to go along with Hitler when it looked like he was good for Germany. Other clergy may have had no choice. Even Bonhoeffer came very close to conscription.

I remember those funeral pictures you put me on to. A German chaplain on the Russian front would have done a lot of funerals and ministered to men in spiritual need. Like most soldiers, he would also have known something of what the SS and the Einsatzgruppen were up to. Burleigh's book makes that quite clear. Did some chaplains ignore or tune out the genocidal agenda of the Nazis to make their lives easier, as the professor claims, perhaps thinking that they would do what they could as pastors for their soldier charges? No doubt. After all, it would take a special sort of courage to stand up for one's conscience and one's faith knowing that you would go to a concentration camp.

Today there's an expectation that military chaplains will be ethical whistleblowers, but that assumes a working ethical framework. Back then, whistleblowing was not an option. Martyrdom was, but that isn't an easy calling for most of us.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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