German and Other Heroes – 5
Elisabeth Schmitz, a Protesting Protestant – Part 2
Elisabeth Schmitz was born into a typical Wilhelminian upper middle class family: Protestant, conservative and patriarchal, a family in which “Bildung” (education and culture) was considered a central achievement. She went to one of the first grammar schools for girls and also to university. She studied German literature, History and Theology in Berlin and became closely acquainted and friends with the family of the famous liberal Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack.
She was a grammar school teacher in Berlin until early 1939. In 1933, she joined the Protestant opposition against the Nazis. She participated in discussion
groups, communicated with a network of liberal friends and exchanged letters with well-known Protestant theologians. In April 1933 (!), e.g., she wrote to Karl Barth:
Among the circle of my closest friends I devastatingly experience the consequences of the persecution of the Jews. To me, the flood of ingratitude, injustice, hatred, lies, bestiality which has hit our Jewish co-nationals, seems such terrible proof of the sin and guilt of the “Christian” side that we ought to be, in a sense quite different from its usual meaning, in the grip of deadly fear of God’s judgement. But the Church is celebrating festivals of victory, celebrates Easter in the “mood of victory which has currently caught our German people” as someone said in a sermon here (…) and as has certainly been said in similar words in thousands of others (quoted in Gailus, p. 84).
A few weeks later, when Barth published his vehement protest against the Protestant Church’s self-transformation into a racio-national Church of the Third Reich, she wrote to him in emphatic agreement:
(…) today we experience, in the Church, a movement of godlessness of dimensions previously unknown (…) It also seems to me that the “blood”-madness is gradually producing an atmosphere of pathology and stifling heat equal to that of the mania against the witches (Gailus, p. 85).
In 1935/36, Schmitz wrote the famous anonymous memorandum (see my part 3). After the November pogroms in 1938, she fell ill and asked for permission to retire early, at the age of 45. In her application, she pointed to her physical and psychological problems and said she had come to the conclusion that she could not represent her subjects any longer in a way which the National Socialist state expected from her. She was lucky; her application was accepted and she even received a (reduced) pension.
When Helmut Gollwitzer gave a courageous sermon of repentance on November 16, 1938 at Berlin-Dahlem, Elisabeth Schmitz sent him a letter of gratitude (she had sent him other letters before the sermon, and it is quite likely that they were a factor in his decision to speak out):
When we remained silent on April 1, 1933, when we remained silent about the “Stürmer” boxes (newspaper boxes with the violently anti-Semitic paper “Der Stürmer”, which were all over Germany, GK), about the satanic inflammatory articles in other papers, about the poison¬ing of the soul of the German people and its youth, about the destruction of lives and marria¬ges through so-called “laws”, about the methods of Buchenwald – here and in thousands of other instances we have become sinners at November 10, 1938. (…) It seems that the Church even this time, when the stones are really screaming, will leave it to the understanding and the courage of the individual minister whether he will say something and what.
(…) Nothing is impossible in this country, we know that. (…) We have seen the annihilation of property, for this purpose the shops had been marked during the summer this year. If one moves to marking people – then a conclusion is near which I do not want to describe more precisely. And nobody will dare say that these orders will not be executed just as promptly, as unscrupulously and obstinately, as maliciously and satanically as the present ones. (…) I am convinced that – should it come to that – with the last Jew Christianity too will disappear from Germany. I cannot prove it, but I believe so (Gailus, p.121-122).
When the Nazis continuously increased their pressure on the Protestant opposition during the war, and when more and more people among her circle of friends and communication were under threat of arrest or even death, Elisabeth Schmitz withdrew to Hanau in 1943, to her parents’ house. She continued to help endangered friends and saved at least one more person from deportation. After the war, she became a teacher again. Although she was known to the relevant authorities as an anti-Fascist, she never spoke about her activities in the Nazi era in public and nobody, neither the Church nor the city of Hanau, cared about them. A single woman all her life and very conservative in her appearance, she had towered thousands, millions of other Protestant Germans in her beliefs and her religious and her general humane thinking, attitude, and actions.
- German and Other Heroes – 4
- German and Other Heroes – 3
- German and Other Heroes – 2
- German and Other Heroes
- Forced Labor and German Industry – 8