Dean G. Stroud is professor emeritus of German studies at the University of Wisconsin in LaCrosse, a former Presbyterian pastor, and author of the new book Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.
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From time to time while researching, translating, and writing an introduction to Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, I asked myself why it was that no one else had done a book like this. The sermons I was reading from inside Hitler’s Germany were interesting and inspiring, to be sure, but to know that that these preachers were preaching in a church where both friend and foe were in the congregation, where one phone call to the Gestapo could send them to jail or worse, where if all went well they might be back again next Sunday to risk arrest and imprisonment again — to know that these men knew all this and still chose to go to the pulpit every week and proclaim the gospel made each sermon fascinating. Search as I may, however, I could find no similar book in print — neither in Germany nor in the United States.
There were collections of sermons by individual preachers, but these gave no sampling of the sermons in general. Thus one could read Barth’s sermons and Bonhoeffer’s homilies, as well as those by others who became famous after the war. But sermons by lesser-known pastors who simply said “no” to Hitler were much less easily available.
I came to believe that one reason sermons from the Third Reich by opposition pastors had not been collected and translated was simply that no one expected to find anything interesting in them. Early on in my research I mentioned to someone that I was researching sermons against Hitler by German pastors, and this person assured me that I would find no such thing — for, in his mind, no German pastor ever said anything against Hitler! He insisted that all of them were Nazis who hated Jews and that was the end of it.
Later, eating lunch one day at the university I shared a table with a professor of history (not German history). I mentioned that I was working on a book of sermons from the Third Reich. This professor commented that he would not find such texts interesting because “they were all Nazis anyway.” When I said that I was devoting my time to opposition pastors, he was taken aback and allowed that those would indeed be worth reading.
So I was working against a common assumption that Germans in general and Christians in particular had sold their souls, one and all, to the Nazis.
I also found that historians dealing with Hitler’s Germany often mentioned the “German Christians” who sided with Hitler and distorted the gospel to fit Nazi ideas but rarely had anything to say about the Confessing Church and its opposition. What’s more, even when the Confessing Church was discussed, it was as a political organization and never as a worshiping community. Historians are interested in firsthand historical accounts but generally seem to dismiss the sermon as a valuable source document. But for me each sermon from that period is a vital primary source for better understanding daily life in Nazi Germany — every sermon provides a snapshot, as it were, of Sunday morning in Hitler-land!
Yet another reason that these documents have been paid so little attention is that, following the war, there was an eagerness to condemn Germans in general for Nazism. People could not understand why I would be interested in German or Germany. Even among Germans the second and third generations following the Third Reich had little sympathy for their “Nazi” parents and grandparents — this was made evident in post-war German movies and novels.
And so it was that I would return again and again to these texts others were ignoring, and enter briefly the life of a preacher and his congregation on a given Sunday when Hitler’s shadow covered the land — and hear the most amazing thing: the gospel of Jesus Christ.