German and Other Heroes – 4
This beautiful memorial stone stands in the main cemetery of the city of Hanau, 25 km east of Frankfurt. It is devoted to a brave woman who had been virtually unknown until the end of the 20th century. The stone was erected in 2005, but she had already died in 1977. Last year, an historian published a wonderful biography: Manfred Gailus, Mir aber zerriss es das Herz. Der stille Widerstand der Elisabeth Schmitz, Göttingen 2010 (My Heart Was Torn Apart. The Quiet Resistance of Elisabeth Schmitz). Steven D. Martin, an American theologian, has made a film about “Elisabeth of Berlin”, based on Mr. Gailus’ research (see www.vitalvisuals.com).
In Berlin, where she lived from 1915 up to 1943, Elisabeth Schmitz had been an active member of the “Bekennende Kirche” (Confessing Church), the Protestant minority who resisted identification and total collaboration with the Nazi regime as practiced by the “German Christians”. And she was a minority within this minority. She criticized the BK’s timidity and vacillation, and took a strong stand against its more traditional anti-Judaism and the new racist anti-Semitism which she found even there. And she helped many of her Jewish or “non-Aryan” Protestant friends, supported them, hid them, and assisted them in getting out of Germany.
Never before have I seen such lucidity in the contemporary observation and condemnation of Nazi barbarism as in her letters since 1933 and in her anonymous memorandum of 1935/36, which she had duplicated and sent to a number of people in the Protestant opposition. And rarely has anybody in the Christian Churches, at that time, ever demanded a new, i.e. a truly Christian theology of the relationship between Christians and Jews, as she did. It has taken more than 60 years after the Nazis for such a process of theological recognition and search for commonality to come to fruit.
As a whole, Protestantism, i.e. my Church, failed dismally in the 20th century; it betrayed its own God and its chief “hero”, the Jew Jesus Christ. As a kind of national religion, it was closely allied with the Prussian-German state. It supported not only militant nationalism and war, but later also ethno-national racism and the persecution of religious minorities. Typical of the 1930s, one notorious Protestant built an institute with up to 30 employees who searched parish registers for traces of Jewish, “colored”, Sinti or Turkish “blood” in the genealogy of Protestant families, only to denounce them to the Nazis. He was not taken to account by the Church after the war, he remained its accepted member and employee. To be sure, there was soul-searching, there were public confessions of guilt in and by the Protestant Church, but “sweeping under the carpet – deleting from memory – not talking about ‘that’ – all these remained dominant ways of dealing with its own past (…) between 1950 and 1990 (Gailus 2010, p. 180, my translation)”.