The Hamburg Institute for Social Research triggered off throughout Germany a broad and passionate debate about the role of the German Wehrmacht in the Second World War by having conducted an exhibition named The Crimes of the Wehrmacht. The core matter has been the question of morality in the fields of guilt and responsibility of the entire Wehrmacht and all its sectors, up to individual members of the Wehrmacht as far as German warfare under the Second World War was concerned. On the occasion of this exhibition, we have experienced a number of events that have been conducted by the German Churches, as well. Whenever Christian Churches enter into a critical debate about the role of the German Wehrmacht in World War II, they cannot do so without critically reflecting their own roles in German history. This is all the more true as both large Christian Churches, the Protestant Church and the Catholic Church, have been linked with the German Wehrmacht in an institutionalised way.
Church in Hitler’s Army
The mere existence of a military religious welfare in itself is remarkable. It is further on remarkable, that – in the 30’s under general armament and under the introduction of the general compulsory military service in 1935 – the military religious welfare has been constantly extended and strengthened with every new conquest later on. Military religious jurisdictions have been set up in Austria, Poland, France, Norway and in the Balkan countries. Military chaplains were involved in the African military operation. So, the military religious welfare in the Wehrmacht was represented even beyond Europe. In view of the religious policy conducted by the Nazi-regime, this was not at all self-evident.
This circumstance, however, is easy to explain. At the beginning of the war already, the German Reich looked back to a long history of military religious welfare. In Prussia, Christianity and the military professionals had joined in a particularly close and characteristic relationship. Military religious welfare has been a loyal confederate to monarchy. Monarchy, on the other hand, has been based on the traditional elite of nobility, army and church.
This linkage between the military and the church was not disrupted with the failure of 1918. During the period of Reichswehr military chaplains were employed both in the army and the navy. The German air force did not share the common Prussian-Christian history, since this sector of the armed forces had only been set up under the Nazi armament politics. There were independent air force communities in the beginning of the 1930’s, but this was, however, a passing phenomenon. The fact that the SS-units did not have any military religious welfare is certainly not surprising at all. In the army and the navy, however, the military religious welfare was firmly rooted. At that time, one would have spoken about the Royal Army, the Imperial Navy and the National Socialist Air Force.
The «Case of Emergency»
25 years after the days of August 1914 it happened that the so-called «case of emergency» occurred, which had already constantly been referred to during the 1930’s. Like in the «World War», this time again the Protestant and Catholic military chaplains joined the military forces when the war started. They felt, however, no enthusiasm with what they did and thus shared the feelings of the soldiers and the German population. Although it had happened from time to time that the spirit of 1914 was conjured up, the atrocities of those years of the world war were still too fresh in people’s minds so that a new attack was no reason for hurrahs.
In terms of organisation, the military chaplains were closely incorporated into the Wehrmacht. They had comprehensive official duties, bringing them in touch with all sectors of the armed forces and were in a position to build up contacts to any member of the Wehrmacht, irrespective of their hierarchical level. At the same time, they were in a position to perceive the acts of war in an independent manner, as compared to officers, soldiers and administrators. This was due to their position: being holders of an ecclesiastical office and in view of their non-combatant status, they did not come under the military command structure according to the Hague law of war. The protestant military religious welfare was headed by Evangelischer Feldbischof der Wehrmacht, Franz Dohrmann, who was supported by Feldgeneralvikar Münchmeyer. The Catholic Feldbischof was named Franziskus Justus Rarkowski. He was supported by Feldgeneralvikar Georg Wehrtmann. Both the Protestant and the Catholic fieldbishopric were placed under the command of the Amtsgruppe Seelsorge at the supreme army command in Berlin. One Protestant and one Catholic military chaplain with rank of major were commissioned to every division. They were subordinates to a superior military chaplain ranking as a lieutenant colonel and attached to the army high command. These were each subordinates to their superintendents/deans who were ranking colonel. 8 military chaplains each were attached to one field hospital. Half of them, however, performed their duties not in the hospitals but elsewhere in various sections of the army. As far as the reserve army is concerned, the religious welfare was taken care of by civilian chaplains who performed this off-duty task. Organisation in the naval religious service was similar to that of the army. The most senior navy dean, however, Friedrich Ronneberger, took every possible step to protect the military religious welfare in the navy from influence of the field bishop and pursued his own politics.
When looking at the broad organisation of military religious welfare and the variety of duties the chaplains performed, we must still remember, however, that the religious welfare was only a small segment of the overall Wehrmacht. Just field army taken for itself counted a strength of 2 900 000 individuals, reserve forces, navy and air force not included. Looking at the number of 148 active protestant military chaplains and the 428 interim military chaplains, plus the same number for the Catholic Church, then we realise what dimensions we are talking about.
Quite a number of soldiers have hardly ever noticed the existence of the military religious welfare.
2. Practical Duties
Probably the role of military chaplains in the German Wehrmacht may best be illustrated when analysing their day to day duties. Subsequently, we may add further considerations.
Military Chaplains’ Personal Equipment
It was possible to make out a military chaplain at first sight. Since he had obtained an officer’s rank he wore an officer’s uniform, however, he had no badges. The officer’s uniform gave him access to the soldiers, besides it made him respectful, if necessary. The lack of badges shortened the distance between him and the lower ranked soldiers. The uniform included an armband and the official chaplains cross which he wore in a chain around his neck. It was – as a matter of rule – put between two buttons. During official acts it was worn openly.
1 1/2 year before the outbreak of the war the field bishopry had already submitted a hymnbook to the highest command level of the army. It was oriented to the Christian year, however, did not meet with any response. Instead the religious welfare group edited a Protestant Field Hymnbook which came up to their requirements. The official book included the vocational duties of the German soldier, the oath of allegiance, extracts from letters from the front written by brave German soldiers, prayers, chorales and passages from the Bible. Besides Christian chorales the wording of which had been slightly changed (in order to stop hebrewism) there were also outspoken patriotic songs and a certain number of songs of national socialistic character. The navy was provided with their own Hymnbook for the Navy.
The Bavarian regional Church was the only civilian church to publish a handbook for their field chaplains. It was denominated Der Dienst des Feldgeistlichen (The Duty of the Field-clergy). The remarkable thing with this text is the theological introduction. It breathes the spirit of conservative Lutheran theology and is characterised by the fact that it does not make concessions to Nazi ideology.
A Field Agenda was not available at the outbreak of the war. The chaplains got along with their own regional agenda or they sat up their own, basic ceremonies. At the end of 1940 the Field Bishopry published Evangelische Feldagende für Kriegspharrer (Handbook on field rituals for military chaplains). It comprised 75 pages and included a very basic ceremony (song, lection, prayer, sermon, intercession, blessing), words from the Holy Bible, war prayers, a funeral ceremony, and recommendations for the religious welfare of the wounded.
It was only during the Poland operation that the chaplains were equipped with their individual field suitcases. Besides equipment for the religious ceremony each of them contained one crucifix, two candlesticks, two antependias and candles. The container was constructed according to World War One experiences and was too clumsy for a mobile war so that it happened that it was left behind and just the content – packed in rucksacks – was moved along with the chaplain.
Religious services in the Army were different from congregational services held in peace times. External circumstances, the actual reason for holding services, the composition of the congregation – it all depended on the current military circumstances. As a matter of rule they were held outside as field services. Whenever this was not possible one would use any suitable space: cinemas, barns, halls etc. In occupied areas the regional churches were at disposal and were used after coordination with the owners. In enemy territory it was possible to seize churches. It appears, however, that this has not happened.
In September 1941 Hitler published an extra order relating to the occupied eastern war areas:
- Religious ceremonies for the Wehrmacht may be held as outside field services only, and not within former Russian churches. It is forbidden to involve members of the civilian population in the field services held by the Wehrmacht.
- Churches which have been destroyed by the Russian Army or during war acts may not be rebuilt by members of the German Wehrmacht nor be re-utilised as before.
There are, however, numerous indications that this order was not strictly obeyed anywhere and anytime. In Russia religious ceremonies have been held that involved the civilian community.
Attending religious ceremonies was voluntary and depended on the military circumstances and the communication lines. In this context the religious attitude of the superior played a major role. If he attended the service, others would join him who would probably not have attended otherwise. If the chaplain’s wishings were included in the order of the day, the preconditions for a crowd to attend were good. Under advancing and combat situations the only possible ceremony were improvised devotions in the bunkers or during breaks. This was, of course different with resting troops or reserve units.
A Wehrmacht religious ceremony was being held outside areas and interconfessionally. It used to be part of the duty and the order was passed to attend. It should satisfy the soldier’s needs and be celebrated without confessional differences according to the unity of the force. Those who wished not to attend had to notify that. In these cases the numbers of attending soldiers were extraordinarily high, depending on the kind of attending army units.
A compulsory component of each religious ceremony was a prayer for the Führer, the people and the fatherland. The wording was printed both in the field hymnbook and in the chaplain’s field agenda. The wording was as follows:
In your hands, O Lord, is the rule on all the territories and peoples in the world/ Bless our German people in your magnificence and power and place the love to our fatherland deeply in our hearts/
Let us be a brave race and be worthy of our ancestors/
Let us preserve our forefathers’ faith like a holy heritage./
Bless the German Wehrmacht which has been called upon to maintain peace and to protect our native land./
Give our families the power to make the greatest sacrifice for the Führer, the people and the fatherland./
Bless particularly our Führer and supreme commander when performing all his duties./
Under his command let us all look upon devotion to our people and our fatherland as our holy duty so that we may reach the eternal holy land in your light and your peace through belief, obedience and faithfulness. Amen.
We do not need to discuss the theological qualities of this text. It is interesting to know how the military chaplains utilised it. There were few who strictly avoided using it. Others gave it a more critical underpinning: It appears that the Führer is in particular need of intercession. Others have merely from time to time referred to the Führer in free prayers and have prayed for the right perception. There were, however, quite a few that had no problems at all committing this prayer.
The sermon to the soldiers was a matter of intense debate during the Second World War. The supreme command, the field bishopry, officers and chaplains took their positions during lectures, at conferences, in official bulletins, instructions for subordinated chaplains and particular in handbooks. As a matter of fact two important fractions were holding opposite positions. On the one hand we ha the religious welfare branch directly placed under the supreme military command and the German Christian minority, and on the other hand, the Field Bishop and the majority of the military chaplains.
Oberst Edelmann, head of the religious welfare branch uttered in a lecture held in 1941:
In his sermon, as well, a military chaplain has to be militant. He has to stand up for the soldiers’ virtues, for bravery, the preparedness to fight, for daringness, as being part of the divine world order. He has to present this war for German living space as being a fair and justified battle before God and the Führer, a human blessed by the Lord. There is no room for pure clerical questions in the army, but there is room for asking about value and meaning of life, for hints concerning our soldiers’ preparedness for sacrifices and their belief in the Endzieg. So the thing is to use the sermon as a supportive tool to shape soldiers who are – in the faith in God – prepared to dare everything and thus contributing to the military success.
The field bishop, on the other hand, defended different attitudes. This is revealed in a lecture held by dean Schackla, later on adopted and published by Dohrmann in the bulletin «Mitteilungsblatt». In Schackla’s view there is no other gospel to be preached in peacetime than in war times. The truth of the gospel is exclusively bound to Christ, as it has been laid down in the Holy Bible. It is not reflected in nature or in human history. Therefore, war is no part of prophecy but a reason for intercession. War is neither disaster nor a creative historical principle. War is the Lord’s judgement on the sins of mankind. A sermon has to trigger off «eternal powers», thus helping the soldiers to overcome their personal fate during the war, to live on with their conscience and their soul under the circumstances of war.
Whereas according to Edelmann, the sermon could merely exist as part of psychological warfare, according to Schackla the gospel of Christ was an essential part of the Church’s responsibility. A sermon was meant to support the soldier under extreme circumstances of his existence. It aimed to get in touch with every individual human being and as such was part of the pastoral duties.
The difference to war sermons held during World War One is evident. Almost nothing is left behind from former hurrah patriotism. Parts of Nazi ideology only meet with approval at a minority of German Christian priests. The basic model of the Lutheran distinction between opus Dei alenium (God’s alien work) and opus Dei proprium (God’s work proper) combined with a divine order, is dominant and comes through again and again in the sermons held during World war Two. Besides, one theological lack has become evident: I am not aware of one single sermon which would have passed from the belief in Christ to frank criticism of the political and spiritual realities and would have encouraged others to act in this manner, as it is the case with the 2nd thesis of the Barmer Theological Declaration dated 1934. The third article of faith is clearly underrepresented: The national principle has priority over the ecumenical and catholic principle.
As far as the divine content is concerned, sermons held by military chaplains do not differ from those held by priests in civilian parishes. Priests have undergone the same studies with the same theological lecturers (Karl Heim, Paul Althaus, Werner Elert, Emanuel Hirsch and, partly, Karl Barth). They share a national protestant tradition and are under influence of so-called «Lutheran Renaissance» experienced in the 1920s. The divine liberalism, the religious socialism and even the so-called dialectical theology of Karl Barth have not evidently shaped the collective self-esteem of protestant Christians in Germany. With the military religious welfare in the Wehrmacht we are facing the German majority Protestantism with all its inherent problems as a bridging phenomenon between Wilhelmism and fascism.
Religious welfare in Field Hospitals
Pastoral services rendered to the sick and wounded soldiers have been one major part of the duties of military religious welfare. As far as the reserve army is concerned, the regional churches were involved in these services. Since they seconded the chaplains for the field hospitals in reserve units. The Field Bishop as well placed particular importance on an appropriate pastoral service to wounded soldiers.
In the regular army, every chaplain was in contact with sick or wounded soldiers. The regionally based chaplain in occupied zones took care of the field hospitals in his area of responsibility. Field hospital chaplains were constantly doing pastoral work in the field hospitals anyway, unless they were seconded to take care of the army. It was a drastic confrontation for district chaplains getting in touch with soldiers who had been wounded in combat. A number of priests have put their lives at risk to rescue wounded personnel out of the firing zone. A few of them died; others have been honoured with military decorations for their deeds. The divisional chaplain further met with the wounded behind the front line at meeting areas for the wounded and then at medical aid stations. From there soldiers were taken to field hospitals or back home to civilian hospitals.
In this field as well the political party carefully watched the acting of the chaplains and did its best to limit their scope of action. Besides, the party attempted to neutralise the clerical offers by providing competitive offers such as entertainment, written material etc. Furthermore, it hindered chaplains to get in touch with soldiers or cut of their contacts to soldiers’ families.
Pastoral services in the field hospitals have been a matter of discussion on conferences among the priests. The field bishopry included a lecture held by Martin Doerne in his official bulletin and thus provided the military chaplains with a kind of pastoral divine guideline for pastoral service in the field hospitals.
Doerne describes pastoral service in the field hospitals as one particular field of hospital service, this means that comforting and honest pastoral service should be provide.
It is an essential part of pastoral service in field hospitals to have a deeply rooted divine attitude towards the gospel and the religious service.
Therefore the major objective is neither to thrive for an affirmative public view of priesthood nor to look upon field hospitals as a platform for missionary work. The emphasis is on talking to the individual human being. One should start with basic questions to find out about the background and then slowly attempt to speak about the gospel as a possible guideline in people’s life. When being faced with criticism of the church one should be prepared, not become aggressive and regard possible debates as a starting point to proceed to prophecy. The very core of pastoral service in field hospitals is the divine service even though this may cause substantial difficulties. The central aim of the religious welfare in field hospitals is to provide comfort,
not just for our own service, but also a comfort about the gospel still making sense and having a future in our German men’s world.
In the war 2,95 million German soldiers were killed. Speaking about the military chaplains’ official duties, one – in the first instance – should speak about funeral ceremonies. It happened, of course, that in their home regions they held weddings and baptisms. One military chaplain reported of a remote war wedding. Globally, however, and like official functions relating to Russian civilians, they played no major role. They did not determine the military chaplain’s daily life. Regarding funeral ceremonies, however, the situation was different. Wherever war moves, death will follow: killed, wounded, murdered by partisans fighters, killed by epidemic diseases, starved to death, death by freezing, killed in accidents – individually or in masses. A number of chaplains said that the number of funerals they conducted was by far more than 1000. In this context, however, let me say that only a minority of the killed in war times is buried under official funeral ceremonies by a priest.
The political party not only interfered with the military chaplains’ right to conduct funeral ceremonies. They also achieved that those killed soldiers who had not explicitly said that they wished to be buried when dead, received no funeral at all. In both cases, reality largely depended on the commandant’s view of these things and the general attitude in the concerned unit. These regulations either became an instrument of impeding any clerical activity or they were just paper work. There was a lot of scope left in between.
The field agenda provided military chaplains with some assistance by furthermore presenting a collection of passages from the Bible and some prayers. The funeral ceremony itself was regulated by the field bishopry. It was rather basic: hymn, prayer, lection, sermon, intercession, the Lord’s prayer, the song «Ich hatte einen Kameraden». If a soldier who was not member of a Christian church was buried, this happened in accordance with a particular ritual that did not involve any priest.
With respect to what was actually said at the grave, there was the temptation to speak of an heroic death for the Führer, the people and the fatherland and to hold a splendid necrology on the dead person. This did not only happen when Nazi officers came to speak at the funeral. The one or another military chaplain had difficulties in keeping a distance to nationalistic pathos. Times when military success was achieved were particularly temptative in this context. The field bishopry was aware of the problem and made it clear that the grave one should speak of God and not about humans. When saying so, he particularly referred to German Christian chaplains.
The divine attitude of the field Bishop Franz Dohrmann in this matter may become clear with the following prayer:
Almighty, eternal Lord. In the youth of his life you have called our fellow to you, who had left home to defend our country against the enemy’s attacks. We humbly bow before your acting even though it appears hard to understand. Although again and in deep sorrow we have to give back to earth one of us who has sacrificed his life for us and for our people, as Christians we rest assured that in the middle of war You have thoughts of peace for each of us who entrusts to your leadership. So give us all trustful obedience to your divine will.
Here, all essential topics are enlisted: Mourning for the dead, his sacrifice for his country, people and fatherland (not for the Führer), Christian comfort in view of sorrow involved in death (not proud sorrow) and trust in the Lord’s overall regiment (not in the future of Germany).
Printed Religious Material
Written religious documents were subject to severe censorship and to an extremely complicated license procedure. Not only was the number of titles restricted. Not only were the contents according to the guidelines of psychological warfare controlled. In March 1940 the supreme command claimed the prohibition of mailing authorised religious documents by civilian chaplains and clerical organisations. Exclusively military chaplains were authorised to hand over printed religious material and only those items which had been enlisted under the license procedure beforehand.
The situation was different in the navy. The chaplain was in charge of running the ship’s library and could therefore influence the troop’s spiritual nutrition. One navy chaplain reported that he collected the incoming magazines and regularly ran introductory sessions to present and evaluate the printed material onboard the ship.
What kind of written religious material was dealt with by the military religious welfare of the Wehrmacht? We had to divide it up in various sections. First of all, there are the New Testament, Passages from the Bible and Prayer Books designated for the soldiers. There is the «Michael’s Book» by Hanns Lilje, a compound of German war prayers over the centuries. Furthermore, these booklets often encompassed words of great soldiers such as Moltke or Hindenburg or the «Alter Ziethen». Collections of Prussian anecdotes to praise the Prussian-Christian tradition make out a group of itself. These show the control exerted by the Nazi Wehrmacht over the Prussian tradition as distinctly as the efforts to show how essential Christianity has been for the Prussian army. Apologetically scriptures dealt with current topics to reveal that the German people and Christianity belongs together and that faith provides the soldiers with particular strength and that is therefore superior to the non-faithful. Scriptures of a people’s missionary character called soldiers back to the faith of their ancestors and the church, which has proved over centuries and gives the individual soldier the strength to stand up for peace in times of quarrel.
3. Inner Conflicts
Chaplains have indeed noticed inhumanities and acts against the dignity of human beings. Inner conflicts became evident when interviews have been conducted with former military chaplains when there was a confrontation between military religious welfare and warcrimes. Military chaplains, however, have not been unbiased when watching the events taking place around them in war. They were, on the other hand, characterised by a strong national protestant mentality, which guided their general views.
The Military Profession and Christianity
For historical and biographical reasons, military chaplains felt and experienced close links to the traditional officers of the Wehrmacht. This becomes particularly evident when analysing the protestant field bishop of the Wehrmacht, Franz Doohrmann, who was both a priest and an officer and whose traits of character were almost interchangeable in this respect. He, who had been a divisional chaplain in World War One and district military chaplain in time of the Reichswehr at Stettin, stood for that type of a priest having adopted the Tradition of Prussian Military Religiousness. Manners, outer appearance, language and spirit of this kind of religiousness were ideally incorporated in this protestant field bishop.
Not only historical and biographical reasons have established such close links between the priest and the officer, even the soldiers in general. Besides, their pastoral duties have supported mutual understanding, more than enhancing a certain distance where criticism would have been an alternative. This does not mean, however, that protestant military chaplains have been without any criticism at all as far as the Wehrmacht and their commanders are concerned.
Basically, the Prussian Christian Ethos of the Soldier and the corresponding religiousness would not put into question the ugly facets of war, fight, cruelties and atrocities. The right of a state to enter into war, the necessities of discipline and self-control, the principle of order and obedience, violence and counter-violence were beyond criticism. The extent and actual legitimacy of warfare, however, and resulting violent acts are controversial. The understanding of the general criminal character of World War Two, however, has been extremely limited, provided the involved individuals have faced this at all.
Brutality of Warfare and Brutalisation Among Soldiers
The subject of the cruelty during the German warfare as a major problem was tackled by the Bavarian dean and divisional chaplain Rudolf Schwartz in his work about sermons in war times. He tries to reflect the situation under which sermons were held and tells his brethren:
I am thinking about bomb attacks, about German brutality during the war and other things. It is without doubt that one gets into internal conflicts as a priest in view of this situation.
Having held a sermon in 1943, Rudolf Schwarz spoke about military discipline and manners in the Wehrmacht, and namely in his own division. He told the listening soldiers:
Do you really think that the same hands that have stolen the parcel another soldier received from home, that these hands may still be folded in prayer to the Lord: Give us this day our daily bread? Or do you think that those who do not care about a young girl’s honour, that those may later stand in the light of God; The same God who told you: You shall be holy? Do you think that those men that take any woman to satisfy their corporal needs, that those men will be near God; the same God who said: You shall not breach a marriage? (….) Others may look upon this as unimportant, it still remains for us: You shall be holy. (….) Nobody speaking so, would receive a military decoration or be honoured elsewhere, all he could earn was some sort of pity or a mocking smile.
In reports set up by military chaplains, war crimes and the genocide of the Jewish people play a rather minor role. Even active members of the Bekennende Kirche such as the later superintendent Heinrich Link from Essen, who had been divisional chaplain during the war, asserted that they knew nothing about all these cruelties.
There are however, a number of reports set up by military chaplains dealing with war crimes and crime against humanity. Priest Link, e.g., reported about an anti-Jewish murder, which was detected by the Wehrmacht jurisdiction:
This is one case that occurred during the invasion in Poland. It occurred that a member of the medical force – after the fighting was over – shot an escaping Jewish couple to death. This was a matter of great concern in the division. The military court came into action. The officer was officially apprehended and came before court. He was sentenced capital punishment. This reflected the unanimous view of the war court that came together on this occasion. This death punishment had to be confirmed at an superior commanding level. As it happened repeatedly at that time when crimes were committed against the Jewish community, the confirmation was denied, owing to an order given by the Führer.
Another military chaplain with catholic background attended the war in Latvia and witnessed a mass execution of Jews at Dünaburg by the militia from Latvia. The subsequent indifferent attitude of the Wehrmacht where he was doing pastoral services deeply disillusioned him. Similar war atrocities and arbitration killings were reported by the later founder of the Protestant Academy at Bad Boll, Herr Eberhard Müller.
During World War One the German war jurisdiction was – compared to that of Western Powers – relatively mild. So – for example – the number of death penalties was substantially lower than in the French or English jurisdictions. Hindenburg, Ludendorff and many others attributed it partly to the mild war jurisdiction that the army at that time was facing increasing disciplinary problems that got out of control. As the critics say, severe punishment would have been in the right place here.
Thus the fundamental tendency for future developments was set: It resulted into an increasingly severe criminal law for the war. National Socialism enhanced this trend. Whereas before arguments were such as «military discipline» and «discipline of a man», during the Third Reich political and ideological aspects got more and more influence in the discussions. Besides, independence of justice, as well, was removed step by step within the Wehrmacht. War jurisdiction during the Second World War is probably among the gloomiest chapters of legal history in Germany.
In particular capital punishments were the field where military chaplains got in touch with war jurisdiction. It was their responsibility to take pastoral care of the delinquents in the period between the proclamation of their sentence until the execution. This specific duty has brought a number of chaplains to the limits of their corporal and spiritual powers and some of them even beyond. The necessity of maintaining discipline with the help of jurisdiction in the Wehrmacht in view of instincts in human beings that are brought to daylight during a war was not the basic problem. The extraordinary severness, however, of individual sentences, e.g. death penalties for juveniles of 17 or 18 year olds for having left their watch post for fear during battle, was a major concern and gave rise for inner conflicts to the chaplains. It was them who stood closely to the sentenced until the end and felt what such murders by law did to the concerned and how much misery this caused.
In the majority of cases, the chaplain was faced with accomplished facts. His endeavours were directed to giving the sentenced the chance of speaking openly one last time, of providing him with pastoral comfort and strengthen him with the communion before his last walk. A letter to his family was written. Then the chaplain accompanied him to the place of execution, they prayed a prayer while a ribbon was put before the sentenced’s eyes and he was tied to the execution pole. The very next moment the deadly shots fell.
The field bishop Franz Dohrmann issued an instruction in 1942, which related to the pastoral services to convicted protestant soldiers who waited to be executed. He laid down that the pastoral service should be provided immediately after the case had become known. Based on files and through personal contacts to the judge the chaplain should make himself an idea about the convicted and get in touch with him, handing over the New Testament, the field hymn book and appropriate booklets for the silent hours that would come. In the New Testament certain passages had been marked. In the period between conviction and execution the chaplain was in charge of «helping him finding his inner rest and final strength». It was his responsibility to convince the death candidate that his dying was an atonement for what he had done and warning others who may be endangered to commit misdeeds.
The cynical views of a number of officers in whose eyes it was essential to stop the delinquent from committing further misdeeds was partly enabled by Christian chaplains successfully calming down the convicted in the last time of their lives. This factor could be determined mainly for those who looked upon military religious welfare as part of psychological warfare. The priests themselves were faced with a different challenge. They were facing the alternative: Either this man will be executed, even under any humiliating circumstances one could imagine, or he has the last chance of speaking to and encountering a chaplain who did not look upon him as an «inferior subject» that needs to be exterminated, but as a human being who is loved by the Lord.
Traditional war Images and the Realities of Internecine War
The chaplains, of course, did notice that the Wehrmacht got increasingly under pressure both by ideological motives in the political party and due to the current military situation. Those military chaplains who – as a majority – were members of the «bekennende Kirche» were without any doubt opposed to the ideas from Nazi ideology. Being in opposition to Bolshevism and to the hostile enemy in the West, however, has still been another living heritage taken over from World War One. Thus the apparent self-image was to be placed in the centre of both, representing the core of Germany, the respectable Germany. Forced from outside, with a split conscience, torn internally, but actively taking steps in order to respond to political and military needs which seemed to be inevitable.
The military religious welfare, in this context, encouraged people to endure, to lead, to fight. They did not encourage disobedience, illegal deviance or even resistance. This reveals one major priority of military religious welfare in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. It renounced to criticism of the political and military leadership to be granted the institutionalised possibility of rendering pastoral services and preaching the gospel.
The historical considerations that we have just made in a rather brief manner, do they provide us with any possible recommendations as far as military religious welfare is concerned nowadays?
The question to know which consequences may possibly be drawn is inevitable in this context. Despite, we should be careful. Today we are not facing ideological dictatorship in our home countries, but democracies based on the rule of law. History does not repeat and any so-called consequence would include judgements on values for which responsibility has to be assumed in the current discussion if we try not to fall into the trap of naïve projection patterns. Furthermore, I by myself should be careful since I am not involved in military religious welfare, but in the church service to the police. So, I may speak to you rather from outside, just like a neighbour. Well, despite or maybe in view of necessary caution, let me speak of the following four items:
Christian Responsibility in the Public Domain
It will be decisive for the quality of the political development and for both internal and external conditions of the military forces if the Protestant churches – under their general responsibilities – will remain one major influencing factor of culture. During the first half of the last century, German Protestantism has been characterised by the shared visions of a Christian sovereign and a god-fearing subject. My sympathies, however, are linked with the shared vision of a Christian citizen who is rooted in his faith, express the freedom of a Christian in his family, his job, political involvement and membership in the church and does it all naturally as part of his daily life to the benefit of his neighbour and the Lord’s honour. This includes both the Christian reformed tradition and the current challenges of our lifetimes. In discussions held in Germany, very often the notion of «resistance» either offered or denied plays a major role. Bringing in at this stage the matter of «resistance», however, is already much to late. In my personal view, it is more important to contribute to general circumstances of life that would render «resistance»needless. The Christian faith which assumes responsibility in the public domain and for the community plays a major role in this context. A Church, which enables human beings to take over responsibilities, which sharpens their conscience, which gives comfort and contributes to the shaping of a conscience, is the equivalent.
Closeness and Clearness
The Protestant military religious welfare has found an honourable representative from his lifetime, Franz Dohrmann. He has always acted within the general framework of one single clerical responsibility; he has never acted as a religious agent of a political or military apparatus. The Christian’s relationship from man to God and to his fellow beings on earth has been structured by preaching the gospel, rendering services to others and the community in faith. It is inevitable, however, that this structure is filled with life by human beings and by institutions. Dohrmann was not afraid of a close linkage to the military forces in terms of space and organisational structure. He, however, has always kept a close contact to the civilian church whenever it was possible. Neither the organisational involvement in the military religious welfare into the apparatus of the Wehrmacht, nor the financial state support has been the cause of theological irritation for him. On the contrary: These formed a protection for the soldiers not being cut from pastoral services during military service, and it still is a precondition for practical pastoral work that makes sense. Both facts are important: The structural, personal, spatial and timely closeness to the target group, and – at the same time – a structural, personal and lasting contact to the church as a whole and on all possible levels. Closeness to the people, a living Church community and clearness in the theological fundament. These things are important.
Christian Self-Esteem and Training
Military religious welfare in the navy is particular exposed to the temptation to be up to date by all means. Frankly opening to human beings, however, is different from rushing after trends, for the fear of being left behind. In this respect, some more Christian self-esteem would have been appropriate. As we all know, justification in a Christian sense of the word is not equal to the recognition, which the holder of an official duty receives from the public. It is instead the recognition of a sinner by Christ, just for his faith without own earnings and dignity. This is the reason for freedom to the benefit of the neighbour and to praise the Lord. The Christian church’s ups and downs depend on this confession of faith. This confession is the point of divergence for all souls. Christian self-esteem serves clarity. It has nothing in common with clerical arrogance nor with anxious opportunism. In order to strengthen an appropriate official self-respect of the Church, we need a firm belief and serenity of our trust in God. Besides, we need a secured vocational knowledge among our priests. Military religious welfare is undertaking a delicate and sensible job. Its workforce therefore depends on a platform of orientation know-how and functional know-how so that they know how to act. In the first half of the last century German academic protestant theology had only come up to these requirements in a very limited way. It has enhanced unreflected links to difficult traditions instead of critically re-viewing them. It has been training that imparted protestant chaplains in the military religious welfare their respectable competences and also their theological deficiencies. Dohrmann has rendered an enormous service to the protestant military religious welfare by carefully and consequently selecting personnel and by providing high quality further training to them. Still today it seems to me that the selection and professional qualification of priests is indeed essential.
Supporting Active Partners
The protestant military religious welfare could mainly remain trustworthy to its ties in those areas where it was not segregated from politics or brought into line in ideological respect, where it was not functionalised by military superiors and treated indifferently by the public. We are facing an important global clerical responsibility which is resulting: In the fields of Church educational work and training and in Church institutions, one should promote and support people acting with responsiveness and who are prepared to be active partners, those who are prepared either as Christians in secular functions or as human beings of good will to take over public responsibility and shape in there particular areas the freedom of a Christian. Military divisional commanders, intermediate officers, doctors and nurses, the staff who are active in youth educational work, judges, lawyers, parents of soldiers – be these people rooted in faith to God and involved in Church activities or merely benevolent and full of understanding. Without their support, however, they were able to provide that service they had been called to – to be witnesses of God’s mercy in a lost world.