Modern Lessons from a 76 Year Old Crime
By: Dr. T. Scott Caulley
This month Germany is observing with national shame the anniversary of the Reichskristallnacht, the night of the 9th to the 10th of November, 1938, when the Nazis ordered the destruction of synagogues and Jewish prayer houses across Germany. In that one night some 1400 synagogues were destroyed—burned to the ground where possible. 20,000 Jews were arrested and sent off to the camps, and hundreds of Jews were murdered outright.
In Tübingen, where my family and I lived for a total of twelve years, a local city official received orders from the Nazi party in Stuttgart to burn the synagogue that stood in the Gartenstrasse. The first attempt did not work—the building did not catch fire. So the perpetrators returned and intensified their efforts, this time with success. By the time the fire finally got going well, there was a crowd of onlookers. The city fire department was also on hand to ensure that surrounding buildings were not damaged. In Hechingen, about 20 km south of Tübingen, the synagogue was not burned, but only smashed (pews, other furniture and contents, as well as the windows). This was decided because the building sat within the crowded historic old city, and burning it would have certainly destroyed nearby buildings.
Joseph Goebels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, used the murder of an embassy official by a young Polish Jew as pretext to unleash the attack on the synagogues around the country. The attack was carefully styled as a spontaneous reaction to the murder, but was in fact Goebel’s well-orchestrated kick-off to the general “war to defend Germany against world Jewry”.
To underscore the necessity of this “war of defense”, Goebels arranged an elaborate show trial for the polish youth. The Ministry of Propaganda enlisted as expert witness the Tübingen theologian and Professor of New Testament, Gerhard Kittel. Kittel was the star student and successor of Adolf Schlatter, known for his anti-Jewish writing. Five years earlier, Kittel had published an anti-Jewish tract which called for removal of Jews from all relevant aspects of society. In 1936 he joined the government’s “Department for Research of the Jewish Question”, a part of the “Reich Institute for the History of New Germany”. Three years after the murder of the embassy official, Kittel actually interrogated the young man in prison in Berlin. Kittel certified that the young man did not act from personal motives, but that his Jewish race and way of thinking made this act inevitable.
A synagogue burns on Krystallnacht
The night after the Tübingen synagogue was burnt to the ground, and synagogues all over Germany were burnt or smashed, the Tübingen City Council met. The meeting minutes show no discussion of the events. Although a few individuals spoke out about these actions, church organizations and University administrations were largely silent. Confirmed by records discovered later, Goebels knew from this silence that the way was open for Hitler to pursue his “Final Solution”.
Gerhard Kittel is remembered today as the founding editor of the much-loved Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The first volume is dedicated to his teacher and mentor, Adolf Schlatter. Schlatter’s work on the New Testament has enjoyed a renaissance in Germany and is also well thought of in more theologically conservative circles in America. The lesson is that one can be a conservative Christian and still harbor hatred in his heart.
The penance now served by German Christians for their corporate silence is something we cannot join. But let us learn from their experience as we contemplate our own complicity in the injustices of the world. We cannot sanction injustice by hiding behind our conservative theology. Let us remember that “our war is not against flesh and blood”. Let us confess that “Christ is Lord”, not a country or a government or a political ideology. Let us recommit to the core Christian values of justice, and mercy, and peace.
 Dr. Caulley is Associate Professor of New Testament at Kentucky Christian University