Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
George Santayana (1863-1952)
Here is an extended gloss, by American Anglican theologian Leander Harding, on a now old, mostly forgotten book which contains reflections upon the church's struggle against Nazism ex post facto from some of those who were in the thick of it:
"Man’s Disorder and God’s Design, published by Harper and Brothers in 1948, is a remarkable collection of essays prepared for the first assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam. The authors include some of the most respected theological voices of the 20th century: Karl Barth, H. Richard Niebuhr, George Florovsky, Gustaf Aulén, and Lesslie Newbigin. Sober reflection on what European churches learned from Nazi persecution and the war years is a dominant theme in the book.A powerful section, “The Shame and the Glory of the Church,” provides one of the most moving accounts of Church life which I have ever read, written by Edmund Schlink, who was a professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg. This essay on the life of the Church under Hitler speaks, as the editors say, “for the Church upon whom fell the first and the hardest part of the struggle to manifest God’s glory amidst man’s disorder” (p. 77).
Schlink reports that there was a great falling-off among Christians. Many people became ashamed of the name of Christ and stopped attending church. Some preferred the neo-pagan ceremonies offered by the state to baptism and marriage in the Church. “Families were torn asunder: children denounced their parents, husbands opposed their wives, brothers and sisters took opposite sides in the cleavage between faith and error. Love grew cold in many hearts. Its place was taken by delusions and hardness of heart” (p. 98). The defections reached into the clergy: “Many became preachers of the anti-Christian myth and entered the service of the Nazis to replace the loyal pastors and church leaders that had been deprived of office. Many became false teachers and then persecutors of the Church” (p. 98).
For Schlink, even more stunning than the apostasy was “the way in which it was usually taken for granted with an easy conscience. When the Nazi philosophy began to influence Christians, many of them did not even notice that this Nazi talk about ‘the Almighty’ and His ‘providence’ had nothing to do with the Living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but that it was directly opposed to Him. … It became evident that people were not all that clear about Christian teaching. In many churches, even before the Nazi regime, preaching had become an arbitrary religious explanation of personal destiny and world events. Otherwise, when the crucial moment came, it would have been impossible for a man of our own time to gain such an ascendancy and for him, with his personal philosophy, to become the object of such widespread faith and hope” (p. 99)."Schlink's comments are very illuminating as to the shape apostasy takes in the modern church. Read Harding's entire piece here.
If I remember correctly, Edmund Schlink was Doktorvater to my lecturer in the Lutheran Confessions, Comparative Symbolics and Church History, Maurice Schild, who studied in Heidelberg in the early 1960s and succeeded Sasse in the chair of Church History at Luther Seminary, Adelaide c. 1970. I don't remember Dr Schild mentioning Schlink often, but I do I remember references to Sasse and Peter Brunner, who "wouldn't hurt a fly" and yet was imprisoned by the Nazis. It would be very interesting, to say the least, to have a couple of hours with Dr Schild and record his experiences and memories of these men, not least for what they may have passed on about the shape of apostasy in the modern church.
Further reading: Lutherans Against Hitler: The Untold Story by Lowell Green (Concordia Publishing House, St Louis Mo 2007)