In classic German style, there’s a long word used to describe efforts to work through and overcome the past as the nation reckons with the Holocaust and other Nazi war crimes: vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. After attempts toward the denazification of the government and other cultural institutions amid the post-war rebuilding and reconciliation, this process of working through the past has included the reappraising of academics, corporations, and others who supported the Nazi regime. Such reflection has also included painful but necessary looks at the actions of church leaders.
Historian Robert Erickson, who taught for years at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington, documented much of this with his groundbreaking research on the topic. His 1985 book Theologians Under Hitler examined how prominent Lutheran theologians in Germany supported the rise of Adolf Hitler. A documentary version of the story also tackles this uncomfortable past. Other historians have explored the actions of Pope Pius XII in response to Hitler, the Holocaust, and resistance efforts.
Now a new work can be added to this valuable canon. Historian and former denominational executive Lee Spitzer spent years researching for his new book Sympathy, Solidarity, and Silence: Three European Baptist Responses to the Holocaust. The book tells inspiring and disappointing stories of how Baptists in England, France, and Germany reacted to Hitler, the Holocaust, and the war’s refugees. And like Erickson’s work on Lutheran theologians and other historians’ scholarship on the Catholic Church, Spitzer’s work is enlightening for Christians well beyond the particular faith community he analyzed. And we need to pay attention to these stories.
“Historical reflection, especially when it exposes evil, failures, and mistakes (whether intentional or not), offers opportunities for us all to reflect, repent, seek forgiveness, and perhaps subsequently experience reconciliation and healing,” Spitzer wrote in the book. “It takes courage to be willing to open oneself up to the past and its periods of horrifying atrocity without flinching from its raw power to astonish, accuse, and assault our sensibilities.”
The former general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, Spitzer is now the historian for the Baptist World Alliance and an affiliate professor of church history at Northern Seminary in Illinois. He also was born into a Jewish home before converting to Christianity as a teenager.
His newest volume builds on his 2017 book Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship. In that publication, Spitzer looked at responses of U.S. Baptists to the news coming across the Atlantic in the 1930s and 1940s. He focused his attention on how Southern, Northern (now American), and National (Black) Baptists reacted (and he included a number of citations to Word&Way articles). It’s a mostly disappointing story of saying and doing too little. Which is why it’s important we wrestle with why and how Christians reacted that way in order to better live out our calling amid today’s moral challenges.
By moving across the pond, Spitzer’s second volume takes us closer to the action, thus amplifying the ethical questions, the political pressures, and the physical risks for all involved. We see Baptists in England and France expressing concerns about the rise of Hitler, the mistreatment of Jews, and the plight of refugees. And particularly in the chapters on France, Spitzer gives us heroes worthy of praise. Several Baptists courageously sheltered and rescued Jews from certain death, including some Baptists who were executed by the Nazis. Some of those Spitzer wrote about are honored as “the righteous among the nations” by Israel but remain little-known today by Baptists or other Christians.
The tone of the book shifts as Spitzer takes us to Germany. Other than a rare exception, Spitzer documents how German Baptist leaders praised Hitler as he came to power (even with messianic language) and strongly defended their Führer as Baptists in other countries criticized the authoritarian government and the persecution of Jews. Some German Baptist leaders and ministers even joined the Nazis Party.
They also rewrote their denominational confession of faith to dejudaize it (one of the main people behind the previous confession had been the Baptist son of a Jewish rabbi). Even worse, Spitzer shows how the new 1944 confession invoked Romans 13 to justify submission to their head of state (i.e., Hitler). But this fact has been overlooked for decades because after the war German Baptist leaders left out the head of state part in their English translation.
“The new confession was a sophisticated and intentional theological and ecclesiastical capitulation to Nazism,” Spitzer wrote. “It represented the culmination of a decade’s worth of German Baptist willingness to welcome, accommodate, submit to, and even represent Nazis authority and power.”
And the moral failures don’t end with the war or just with German Baptists. Unlike with the government, Baptists didn’t denazify their denomination, schools, or pulpits. Additionally, global Baptists prioritized unity and bringing Germans back into fellowship and so did not push for confession, repentance, or acts of repair by the German Baptists. Spitzer therefore faults Baptists in Germany and globally for failing even today from attempting vergangenheitsaufarbeitung.
“We need to rediscover the heroes and heroines that can inspire us to strive for higher levels of faithfulness and virtue,” Spitzer wrote. “We must humbly acknowledge the shortcomings of our historical response to antisemitism and confess that among us are individuals and institutions that fell far short in expressing the righteousness, justice, compassion, and love of the God we claim to follow.”
Spitzer’s book particularly resonates today. A bloody war rages in Europe because of an authoritarian leader who persecutes Christians in his own country. Millions of people are displaced from their homes by conflict. National and religious leaders elsewhere struggle with how to respond, including wondering how to treat religious leaders who support the authoritarian ruler trying to take over other nations. We cannot learn from the past if we don’t know it.
That’s why we’re giving away a copy of Sympathy, Solidarity, and Silence autographed by Spitzer to a paid subscriber of A Public Witness. We’ll ring in the New Year by selecting that winner. So if you’re not already a paid subscriber, upgrade today for your chance to receive a signed copy of the book.
Additionally, you can hear more from Spitzer about his book on a recent episode of our Baptist Without An Adjective podcast.
And if you don’t win the signed copy, you can get started on your book reading for 2023 by buying yourself a copy.
As a public witness,