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Statement on the Trials of Nazi War Criminals

The following text was read by the former Bishop of Stuttgart, Martin Haug, in the final session of the national Synod of the Evangelical Church of Germany on March 19, 1963. Text published in the Freiburger Rundbrief (January 1964): Nr. 57/60, pp. 37-38. Translation courtesy of Victoria Barnett.

For months now in the Federal Republic and West Berlin we have experienced with growing intensity the trials that are judging the crimes of the National Socialist era—a process that until now appears to have aroused the international community more than our own people. In these trials—the largest of which is the Auschwitz trial—we are confronted with the crimes that members of our own people perpetrated against millions of Jews and other national groups, against men, women, and children, in their incomprehensible enormity and full brutality. Through this we are unavoidably forced to confront the Nazi past of our people, which until now we have avoided or not taken seriously enough.

The obvious question is why the persecution and judgment of these crimes by our German courts comes so late—almost twenty years after the total surrender and after these criminal acts—as well as how our justice system will address this enormous task. The Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany has been told that after the Nuremberg trials concluded, the former occupation powers kept the confiscated documentation under seal. Only in 1958 were German judicial officials given greater access to this secret archive, at least by the three western former occupying powers. In that same year the Central Office of Regional Justice for the Prosecution of National Socialist Crimes (Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Verfolgung nationalsozialistischer Gewaltverbrechen) in Ludwigsburg initiated systematic preparations for these trials. This was not for the sake of a new general “denazification,” but for judicial proceedings against only those persons who bore personal responsibility for or had carried out particularly atrocious acts. In the proceedings to date ca. 1000 individuals have been charged, leading to ca. 500 trials before the respective courts in the Federal Republic and Berlin.

I.

First and foremost here we see that our courts face an unprecedentedly significant and difficult task. They will have to look into an abyss of injustice and inhumanity that defies comprehension. The historical sources of the guilt to be punished here extend far beyond what can be encompassed and punished by the usual norms and sentences of human law. It will take much effort for our courts to assess the exact facts after such a long time and correctly determine the measure of responsibility borne by each defendant. In every single case they will have to consider the powerful influence of state and party terror at the time, the ways in which refined propaganda and suggestive commands influenced consciences that had been intentionally put to sleep, retaught and led astray, as well as the seductive nature of uncontrolled power. Nonetheless it is important to adhere to the personal responsibility of every person of sound mind, particularly those with greater responsibilities over other people. Within the limitations of human justice, every society must for its own sake recognize and punish injustice as reprehensible.

The State can only consider an act of mercy when justice has been served. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34)

It is not the duty of the court to undertake some kind of purification of our entire people through these trials; they can only bring individual criminals to justice and judge them. But they do have the supreme office of restoring our people’s destroyed connection to justice, thereby contributing to the internal recovery of our people.

With respect to several verdicts already handed down in recently concluded trials, we cannot ignore that the question has arisen in the prison chaplaincy and in our congregations, as to whether the sentences of some crimes during the Nazi era are not disproportionate to those of crimes in our own times. We do not overlook the difficult task of judges and juries in these trials of Nazi criminals, given the continuing confusion of conscience among a large sector of our people. When the murderer of multiple children has been captured after seventeen years the court that judges the murderer automatically gets the approval of the people. With the looming trials of Nazi criminals however our courts must reckon with the lack of understanding and the deep internal resistance from one sector of our population. Precisely for this reason we do not want to abandon our courts in their grave responsibility. They must perform their duties. “For judgment will again be righteous.” (Psalm 94:15)

II.

In connection with these trials we see that the church and our pastors and congregations will face new pastoral tasks. The church will have to offer pastoral help in any case to those facing prosecution in the court, whether they still live in fear of the discovery of guilt that remains undisclosed, or are now in detention and under trial confronting criminal deeds that perhaps still remain incomprehensible to them and yet must now be accounted for. The church will be with those affected, with God’s word and prayer. It should call those summoned before the court to their ultimate and decisive responsibility, to responsibility before God who has seen and sees all our ways. It should measure the accused by the eternally valid standards of God’s commandment and in this way help each of them acknowledge and confess their sins before God and humans. For those who are penitent, it may offer forgiveness for all their sins for the sake of Jesus Christ, proclaim God’s boundless, full mercy, thereby opening the way for a new beginning and a new future, however the verdict of the human court may fall.

The Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany extends its hand in this service to prison chaplains and parish pastors. We ask pastors and congregations to offer faithfully this Christian service to everyone affected by these trials as well as their families. For those directly affected, however, we deeply pray that they may use the period of tribulation, opening themselves to the word of God’s judgment and grace, in godliness and confidence.

III.

Finally however we appeal to all members of our congregations and to our entire people. For in church and as a people we have all been affected by these trials, and through them we have once again been confronted with the task of cleansing our past.

We cannot fail to acknowledge that young people today are in a different position with respect to this history, and for that reason must and do see some things differently than the generation that consciously lived through the period of National Socialism and had some responsibility. But we ask all young people to realize that this critical confrontation with our past is not just a matter of what happened in the past, but concerns the recovery of a sustainable foundation for the rebuilding of our complete German life, in all its areas and relationships, and therefore it concerns their future as well.

We in the older generation are now being asked once again whether we finally want to acknowledge and face the extent to which during the Nazi era Germans, using the powers of state violence, commanded and carried out indescribably horrifying mass crimes, instead of repressing this memory and thereby denying any responsibility for it. Past injustice does not come to rest by remaining silent about it, and it is only foolishness to speak of soiling one’s own nest, when the truth is that we are cleaning a badly soiled nest.

Nor is it helpful to hide ourselves behind the injustice that during and after the war was perpetrated by other nations against the members of our people. This does not blot out the mass murder of Jews and other groups, which is now associated with the name of Germany.

If this however is the case with our common burden, we will not be freed from this by the judgments against individuals who were responsible for past crimes. For these crimes were only possible because our people handed over political power to a regime that replaced God and God’s holy commandments with the “northern race” as its highest value, and which in place of God and the savior Jesus Christ put faith in the nation and its “Führer,” in the place of respect and love for neighbor put contempt for other peoples and the demonization of political opponents. Consciences became disoriented and, among many people who perhaps had been respectable people in bourgeois life, the sense of duty became so perverted that some even became capable of crimes, and others believe up to today that they can avoid any responsibility for what happened because they were only obediently doing their duty. Even citizens who were not involved in these crimes, perhaps even knew nothing about them, also bear some guilt, because they were casual about the upending of all moral values and legal norms of our people. Nor can we exclude ourselves and our congregations from this guilt. For wherever it would have been the task of all Christians to protect the victims of this system, especially the Jews who lived among us, with the word of truth that has been entrusted to us and with the public confession to God’s irrevocable lordship over all areas of our life, there were very few who had the insight and courage to resist.

In the face of the ongoing trials, this shameful recognition prevents us today from disowning the crimes that are on trial, as if we weren’t involved. It was the wrong track of our entire people and our dereliction as Christians that made these crimes possible. We cannot sugarcoat this and should refuse all attempts at self-justification. Rather, we are commanded to be summoned, together with those now being accused, before God and his judgment. God judges in order to save us. In the word of the Cross, in the message of the salvation of the world with God, in the Gospel of Jesus, the savior of all human beings, and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, God turns toward us anew with God’s abject compassion, which reaches so wide that even the most difficult, maleficent sins are forgiven, granting us a new, healing beginning.

Such a changing of our ways, which doesn’t deny the grim past but instead faces it in order to overcome it, is therefore possible, and it is being demanded of our people for the sake of the future. For that reason we cannot let ourselves casually, or out of revulsion, or stubbornly push away what is happening in these trials or what is yet to be revealed. Instead, we must take it on and be given this bitter lesson. There are many ways to do this. It should be addressed in school classes and church instruction; parents should not avoid the questions of their children. This topic must have a place in (church) men’s groups and at the Protestant and Catholic continuing education centers. Only the person who makes the effort at such knowledge will be able to join others in East and West to combat all forms of rape and contempt for humanity, and contribute to genuine human values and an orderly, peaceful life together with the peoples and the nations. In fellowship with the church of Jesus Christ throughout the world and with creative love, that person will seek new contacts to the peoples and nations, across all borders and walls, especially to those with whom we Germans have been such terrible enemies, and will restore justice to the extent possible.

If we are prepared to do this, and trust in God’s mercy in God’s judgment upon our people, then this curse will be transformed into a blessing, liberating us for a new life and work in our people in the present and the future.

Bethel, Germany, March 13, 1963.