Provoking Conversation on Community: The Martin Luther Memorial Church and the Nature of Community

“Provoking Conversation on Community: The Martin Luther Memorial Church and the Nature of Community”
Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose Faculty Retreat, September 2015

Along with a faculty colleague, I was asked to give a twenty-minute talk on community from the perspective of my academic discipline. Four other colleagues from disparate disciplines responded to our talks, and a faculty-wide discussion emerged out of these interactions. It was a rich time together. Below is my contribution, meant to provoke discussion. The article from which this talk was developed–“Church-Building in Hitler’s Germany: Berlin’s Martin-Luther-Gedächtniskirche as a Reflection of Church-State Relations”–can be found here.

“Ambrose is a community of transformative Christian higher education – with a vision for the welfare of our city and our world.” With the words of our Ambrose University purpose statement, Interim Academic Vice President Ken Draper has challenged us as faculty to think about the meaning of community. My role is to stir you up a little by addressing some hard questions Ken has posed to me: What are the uses and abuses of community seen through a historical lens? What is the state of the discussion? What can we learn from history’s insights on community?

Thanks to Ken, these questions have been rattling around in the back of my head for the better part of the past month. There are so many ways to come at them. We could analyze the emergence of Mesopotamian river valley civilizations and their growth into empires, with the attendant emergence of hierarchy, patriarchy, technology, and violence—all of which seem intrinsic to these civilizations, and maybe to civilization itself. We could track the rise of the medieval university community—the Urquelle, the original source, of what we do at Ambrose—and the connection between the university and the tradition of Christian monastic community. Or we could meditate on the novel Anabaptist community of the Reformation era—since our Mennonite contingent continues to grow at Ambrose, may it ever be so.

But if the historical case studies through which we could examine community are many, by far the most studied form of historical community is the modern nation, and no one interested in national community gets very far without reading Benedict Anderson’s groundbreaking book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Published in 1983, Imagined Communities is the product of Anderson’s attempt to find a better explanation for the power of national community than the Marxist or liberal views of nationalism as anomaly or pathology. For Anderson, the nation is an imagined community because the members of even the smallest nation know only a few of their fellow members—their shared identity is the product of their participation in shared stories, experiences, beliefs, education, institutions, rituals, print culture, and vernacular language. And it is an imagined community—a “deep, horizontal comradeship” (p. 7). Nations, as we know, are powerful imagined communities—people are willing to kill and be killed for them—and it is Anderson’s great contribution to have explained their nature and origins in modern Western history.

For many years now, my own research has centred on one of the more noxious imagined communities of history—National Socialist Germany. In power for a scant 12 years, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime turned Germany upside down, mobilizing its people and resources into a powerful war machine, based on the racialist, utopian dream of creating a blood-pure Germanic Volksgemeinschaft—the meaning of this word lies somewhere between people’s community, national community, and racial community. This Nazi vision of national community had no place for Jews, communists, or Gypsies (that is, the Roma people), or for so-called “asocials” (rebellious youth, homosexuals, cultural modernists, free thinkers), or for the physically handicapped, mentally handicapped, or mentally ill. Beginning in 1933 and escalating radically after the onset of the Second World War in 1939, roughly 6 million Europeans—the vast majority of them Jews—were murdered in the quest to “purify” and strengthen this Volksgemeinschaft and enable the German racial community to rule Europe and, ultimately, the world. The eventual failure of this quest cost the world the lives of at least 70 million people, if we employ a rough estimate of the death toll from the Second World War.

Since my PhD days, I have studied the experience of German Protestants in Nazi Germany. I’ve tried to understand how they were shaped by the experience of living in Hitler’s Third Reich, and how district superintendents, parish pastors, and ordinary Christians responded to the conflicts which erupted both within the German churches and between those churches and the Nazi state. Sadly, more often than not, German Protestants accommodated themselves fairly easily to the nationalism, authoritarianism, antisemitism, patriarchy, violence, and militarism of Nazism. While there were a few critics and resisters, for the most part, the story of the German churches under Nazism is a story of grey rather than of black or white. And you can read all about it, if you buy my book at the Ambrose Bookstore: Faith and Fatherland: Parish Politics in Hitler’s Germany (under $30!).

For the purposes of our discussion today, I want to share with you a newer bit of research. It’s the story of the construction of the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin between 1933 and 1935, and I think it will be a useful way to explore the uses and abuses of community, because it details the efforts of a Berlin parish to work out the relationship between two forms of community: a Protestant Christian community and a Nazi German community.
It might surprise you to know that over 900 German churches were built or substantially renovated under Hitler’s rule. It’s a phenomenon that complicates our after-the-fact assumptions of a fundamental hostility between Nazism and Christianity. In the case of the Martin Luther Memorial Church, the impetus for construction dates back to 1908, when the newly appointed pastor, Hermann Rieger, requested the construction of a new church, which was urgently needed for his growing south Berlin parish of Mariendorf. But the process of acquiring suitable land, saving money, building a parish hall, and planning for construction took 25 more years! Military defeat, political revolution, and two massive economic crises in 1923 and 1929 stymied all progress. By 1931, conditions were so bad that the Old Prussian Union church authorities announced there would be no church building until the spring of 1934, at the earliest.

All that changed in 1933, when the National Socialists seized power and the pro-Nazi “German Christian Movement” swept church elections in the Old Prussian Union Church. With the support of Curt Steinberg—one of Germany’s leading church architects and a National Socialist supporter—the Mariendorf project was revived as an emblem for a new era in both church and state. Plans were reworked and construction soon began, with a cornerstone ceremony taking place on 22 October 1933. By the time it was finished two years later, the Martin Luther Memorial Church had become a celebration of the union of Protestant Christianity, German patriotism, and National Socialism.

We can see this throughout the building, even today. The church bells—consecrated on 11 August 1935—captured historic Protestant and patriotic themes: the Evening Bell (Feierabendglocke) bore the inscription “work and pray” together with Albrecht Dürer’s famous image of praying hands; the Parish Bell bore the image of the old Mariendorf village church; the Faith Bell was graced with an image of Martin Luther; and the Fatherland Bell was marked with the image of a swastika and an Adolf Hitler quotation, “May God show us favour as we go about our work, shape our will in the right way, and bless our judgement!” Together, these bells incorporated references to the new National Socialist government into the traditional partnership of patriotism and Protestant faith so often manifest in ecclesiastical settings.

Similarly, just inside the front doors, the church vestibule was a “hall of honour” to traditional German religious nationalism and militarism. Around the top of the wall, artists painted the first verse of the famous Luther hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” (“Ein feste Burg”). Relief masks garnished the two side walls: on one side was the face of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, former General and Chief of Staff of the German Army and hero of the Great War; on the other was the face of the new Reich Chancellor and Führer, Adolf Hitler. Hanging above was a wrought iron “heroic chandelier” fashioned in the shape of an iron cross and decorated with gold oak leaves. Rounding out the décor was a plaque with the names and death dates of parishioners who had fallen in the Great War.

Within the sanctuary itself, however, this mixture of German patriotism and Protestant Christianity was overshadowed by powerful elements of National Socialist ideology. Above the altar hung a shining gold-plated crucifix depicting a muscular, heroic Christ—body rigid and head erect. Here was the embodiment of the Aryan Jesus celebrated by “German Christians” and spoken of by Nazi leaders.

To the left stood the oak baptismal font, which joined the Christian celebration of baptism with images of the ideal Nazi family. On the front, representing Jesus’ invitation to all children to come to him, a robed, bearded Christ figure is standing with his arms around a German boy, who looking up and raising his arm. It is an ambiguous image—the boy may be reaching up towards Christ or offering up a Hitler salute. On the other side of Christ is a pious German girl, with her head bowed and her hands folded. She is praying—occupied with the interior world of emotion, as per Nazi ideology. On either side of the font were images representing the ideal Nazi woman and man. She is a solid but kindly mother—her hair pulled back in a bun—cradling a baby, keeper of hearth and home. He is a member of the Nazi Party paramilitary, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers), dressed in a trench coat, holding his hat as he bows his head in prayer—this captures the purity of his devotion to God and Nazism.

To the right of the altar stands the raised oak pulpit, depicting a contemporary version of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, dressed in a traditional robe, is surrounded by a cross-section of contemporary German society. Prominent positions are given to a soldier, who stands with folded hands just behind Jesus, an SA-Man, who looks somewhat like the Nazi hero Horst Wessel, and a member of the Hitler Youth. This may illustrate the Sermon on the Mount, but it also represents the National Socialist ideal of the Volkgemeinschaft—the national-racial community—to perfection.

At the opposite end of the sanctuary, the choir loft was dominated by an impressive 50-stop, 3,300-pipe Walcker organ. Inaugurated in Advent of 1935, the organ was already famous across Germany, having been employed in public performances during the 1935 NSDAP party congress in Nuremberg the previous September.

Finally and most dramatically, a massive triumphal arch 11 metres high and 1.65 metres thick spanned the entire front of the sanctuary. This arch was decorated with 800 ornamental tiles—an evocative collection of 36 images repeating themselves along the span of the arch. Some of these images were Christian: the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the symbols of the four gospels, a crown of thorns, a Luther rose, a cross, a chalice, a dove, a crown, the scales of Christian justice, the symbol of the Protestant Inner Mission, and the Chi-Rho symbol for Christ. Other symbols were pastoral in nature: various plants, tools, and people, representing the bounty of nature and the richness of the human arts and crafts. And then there were images of National Socialism and the German military: relief masks of SA-Men and soldiers, German eagles clasping wreaths and swastikas, more larger swastikas, the symbol of the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization, and an Iron Cross sitting atop oak leaves. (Note that the Nazi symbols were removed from the tiles after 1945.) At the apex of the church, looking down over parishioners, were relief masks of Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, head of the famous Bethel Institution; Paul Gerhardt, the noted German hymn-writer; Martin Luther; Jesus Christ; and Adolf Hitler.

I have to tell you that although I had been researching in the area of Christians in Nazi Germany for well over a decade before I came to know about this church, when I first visited it in 2005, I was speechless. I knew all about the ways in which Christian theology and Nazi ideology had been mixed together in the time of the Third Reich, but to see it carved into wood and stone and inscribed into tile was something else altogether.

Such a dramatic fusion of Protestant, German, and Nazi symbolism raises important questions: Whose idea was this church? How did it come to be decorated in such a manner? I won’t give you the whole narrative of the construction of the Martin Luther Memorial Church—just contact me if you want a copy of the article—but I will make three quick points about it, to help us find our way back to the question of community here at Ambrose.

First, the Martin Luther Memorial Church was not built by fanatics or extremists, but by moderates. The radicals in the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement did not hold sway in the Mariendorf parish, and were actually blocked several times in their attempts to influence both the construction of the church and wider parish life. Second, the Martin Luther Memorial Church was supported by agencies of the National Socialist government and reflected its values. Local clergy and lay leaders regularly employed National Socialist language and invoked National Socialist ideology as they planned, discussed, and dedicated the church building. And third, the Martin Luther Memorial Church was the product of a communal decision-making process. It was collaborative and largely locally driven—free of conflict or inner tension. This brings to mind N.T. Wright’s comment about Nazi Germany in the course of his musings about community in his book Simply Christian, namely, that “a strong sense of corporate solidarity can condition an entire community to go rushing off in the wrong direction” and that “even when communities are functioning well in terms of their own inner dynamics, there is no guarantee that the results will be healthy” (p.31-32) Indeed, in the case of the Martin Luther Memorial Church, the local parish council deliberately pushed the construction project 38 percent over budget, largely in order to incorporate the very decoration we have just seen.

What might this mean for us? Well, to start with, the Protestants of Berlin-Mariendorf were neither ignorant nor bent on evil. The theological education of their clergy was more rigorous than our own. Ordinary Protestants were steeped in Christian culture and surrounded by visible and liturgical reminders of their faith. We cannot easily write them off. Rather, we are challenged to consider how it could seem like the most natural thing for this community to combine, to fuse, to intertwine the core symbols, beliefs, values, and story of Christianity with the core symbols, beliefs, values, and story of National Socialism. From our distance and with our wider knowledge of what happened in Germany, this combination, this fusion, this intertwining seems impossible. It looks like a denial of the faith, as if their immersion in the world of Nazi values blinded them to the proper meaning and implications of fundamental Christian ideas about God, humanity, and life in the world. And yet it happened, as good Christian people got together to build a church in Berlin at the outset of the Nazi era.

I can see much potential for discussion, if we apply the metaphor of church construction to our educational work at Ambrose. At Ambrose, we are part of various communities. We are members of a Christian community, with a somewhat diverse but largely shared set of beliefs, convictions, and practices. We are also members of other communities: 1. communities of higher education, both provincially in Campus Alberta and more widely through accreditation networks for theological education; 2. communities of academics—our various guilds and professional societies (history, psychology, education, biblical studies, etc.); 3. communities we call church denominations; and perhaps most powerfully, 4. the community of twenty-first century Canada. Each of these communities has its own set of beliefs, convictions, and practices. And so, to close, the questions: When, where, how, and why do the beliefs, convictions, and practices of these various communities come into conflict? How will we handle those points of conflict? Which communal membership ought we to prioritize? And more specifically, at what points should we allow our membership in the Christian community to lead us into non-conformity or even opposition to the beliefs, convictions, and practices of the other communities? We know we’re good at accommodation—that’s normal human behaviour. Where should we choose differently?


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