The Christian Community Under National Socialism

On the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Christian Community, this important book was published in the autumn of 2021 by the publisher Urachhaus (in German), which closes a gap in dealing with the history of the Christian Community.

Frank Hörtreiter, a pastor of the Christian Community, theologian, and classical philologist, has taken on a complicated, hitherto largely unexplored topic in years of work: how the priesthood and the members of the Christian Community understood National Socialism and how the then still very young movement experienced and survived the time before and after the ban in June 1941. The book has a clear structure. The first part, consisting of six chapters, deals with the most important actors, topics, and steps in chronological order: 1. Friedrich Rittelmeyer (first ordained priest and arch-leader of the Christian Community); 2. The relationship between F. Rittelmeyer and the priesthood of that time; 3. The members; 4. The proximity and distance of the Christian Community to National Socialism; 5. The prohibition; and 6. The time between prohibition and the end of the war. Each chapter consists of equally clearly structured subchapters, which can also be read on their own and make it easier to approach. This is followed in the second part by numerous historical documents (partly as facsimiles), which have already been mentioned and commented on in the first part. An appendix with detailed lists, including church chronicles and literature references, rounds off the 400-page book and provides suggestions for further engagement with the history of the Christian Community in the broadest sense.

Both in terms of content and style, the printed and explained passages from the book ‹Deutschtum› by Friedrich Rittelmeyer (1934) represent a heavy fare for younger people right at the beginning of the book. On one hand, only philosophers or historians deal with this topic today; on the other hand, Rittelmeyer’s mode of expression is difficult to access. However, this presentation is of fundamental importance to be able to understand the position of the then-formative leading figure of the Christian Community on National Socialism. It is worthwhile to read the very differentiated and precise analysis by Frank Hörtreiter, which does not attempt to absolve Rittelmeyer of time-related prejudices, and at the same time, clarifies how the concept and understanding of words were ordered at that time about ‹the Jews› or ‹races›. We read with relief that for Rittelmeyer, National Socialism was clearly not ‹German enough›, because the first arch-leader of the Christian Community had understood the (spiritual) destiny of the Germans quite differently from National Socialism, namely as an ideal that completely renounces the exercise of external power.

In my opinion, one of the book’s great strengths is that Frank Hörtreiter makes relevant passages from priestly periodicals, estates, and all sorts of previously unpublished documents accessible to all readers who do not belong to the priesthood of the Christian Community. Without them, it would be almost impossible to make this topic understandable.

The Courage to See

Writing this book, even more than 75 years after the end of the Second World War, requires courage because it means, among other things, having to deal with the dark sides of one’s own movement and reporting as objectively as possible about fellow priests who became National Socialists after their ordination (Johannes Werner Klein, who had already left the priesthood in 1929 and therefore played no role for the time illuminated, and especially the Dutchman Jan Eekhof) or National Socialists, but were later concealed and consecrated after the war (Friedrich Benesch and Werner Georg Haverbeck).

Furthermore, the author answers the critical question of whether the Christian Community can be counted as an opponent of the Nazi regime or even an active resistance. The answer must (unfortunately) – derived from the documents – be: No, this is not the case, even though it was banned and both leading pastors and members had been imprisoned in prison or even in concentration camps. The author also poses the uncomfortable question of how to deal with the persecuted Jews in the communities and refers in this context to the research work of individual congregations on this topic, which has so far only been carried out very sporadically.

Through the many printed documents from the pen of numerous priestesses, priests, and members of the Christian Community, it is possible to convey an authentic and lively impression of the time and its drama. At the same time, it becomes clear again and again that gaps in the presentation and question marks are unavoidable, especially after such a long time.

Frank Hörtreiter: The Christian Community under National Socialism. Urachhaus, Stuttgart, 2021

Gestapo in the Audience

Particularly exciting were the reports looking beyond the German borders and describing how the (few) pastors who were employed in the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden, and occupied Norway were able to continue their work during the war.

Very moving are the testimonies that show how much has been dared in secret by individuals: pastors celebrated, baptized, or buried illegally; a mother held a confirmation-like celebration for her children; a father sent letters to his son from the front as ‹Christian instruction› as a substitute for confirmation; a woman who, as a faithful parishioner with perfect memory, knew the wording of the act of consecration by heart, spoke it regularly to a small group in the concentration camp for months.

A crucial aspect for Anthroposophists, which Hörtreiter meticulously elaborates, is the relationship of the Christian Community to the Anthroposophical Society, which was already banned in 1935. How did it come about that the Christian Community was only banned in 1941? Again, the book does not give one answer to this question but several approaches. We can only reveal this much here: The Christian Community owes it, among other things, to the fact that the majority of the priesthood did not distance themselves internally from Anthroposophy but had taken strict care to concentrate on their actual religious core after the prohibition of the Anthroposophical Society and, for example, at lectures, which the Gestapo also attended. To deal with purely religious-Christian questions and not to mention Rudolf Steiner’s name.

I find the successful mixture of the many multifaceted documents, which allow numerous contemporary witnesses to have their say, and Frank Hörtreiter’s own texts very praiseworthy. He knows how to present facts objectively and, simultaneously, is not afraid to take a personal stand in his characteristic, direct language and to clearly name the failures of the Christian community.

It is gratifying that this successful and influential book is now available as a ‹preparatory study› for a ‹fundamental presentation› of the history of the Christian Community on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.

Translation: Monika Werner

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