Christ’s Ambassador in Hitler’s Germany
We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.(2 Cor. 5:20)
The Apostle says that we are ambassadors of God, representing Christ, the messiah king, the regent of that last kingdom. When the British ambassador is in the British Embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich. The grounds of the embassy are inviolable. In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid. We are ambassadors of the kingdom of God. This means that we do nothing at all except what the king of God’s kingdom would himself do for his kingdom. When we take this service upon ourselves we enter into mortal danger. (Eberhard Arnold, 1934)
What makes a martyr? According to Augustine, it is not the death suffered but rather the cause lived for. A martyr in this sense is one who bears witness to divine truth no matter the cost: “You will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.” (Mark 13:9) Eberhard Arnold, who risked death by proclaiming the gospel in Nazi Germany, was such a witness.
Eberhard was born in 1883 in Königsberg, East Prussia into an academic family. To his parents’ embarrassment, as a sixteen-year-old he experienced a conversion and threw himself into evangelization work with the Salvation Army. From then on, Eberhard’s life would be marked his uncompromising desire to live out a radical way of discipleship to Christ. He felt called to devote his life to telling others about Jesus.
Following secondary school, he studied theology in Halle an der Saale, where in 1907 he met and was engaged to his future wife, Emmy von Hollander, also the daughter of a professor whose family belonged to the German Baltic aristocracy. Both of them participated enthusiastically in a revival movement then sweeping Germany, and through seeking in Scripture became convinced that believer’s baptism was God’s will. When their convictions became known, Emmy’s mother threatened suicide if she were re-baptized, and he was barred from taking the doctoral examination in theology despite having already submitted his dissertation. Undeterred, both left the established Lutheran church and received believer’s baptism the following year, though without joining any other denomination. He switched his studies to philosophy, receiving his Ph.D. in 1909. They married immediately afterward.
Trusting that God would provide them with their growing family’s material needs – they were supported by donations -- Eberhard cared for a growing fellowship group as pastor and continued his evangelization and publishing work. Already by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was dissatisfied with free-church Christianity, which seemed to him to focus unhealthily on personal salvation while avoiding the demands of Jesus in the gospels, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Social injustice and the horrors of war only strengthened his conviction Christian discipleship demanded more.
Increasingly Eberhard turned to the writings of the Radical Reformation, seeing in the early Anabaptists’ zeal and readiness for martyrdom the spirit of early Christianity. He already shared their understanding in regard to believer’s baptism and the nature of the church; now the war had clarified his convictions on another point found in the Schleitheim Confession: that a follower of Jesus must go the way of self-sacrificial love, renouncing all violence or participation in the coercive power of the state.
Matters reached a head after Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the revolutions that swept Europe the following year. Eberhard and Emmy began hosting a series of forums in their Berlin townhouse to seek answers in Jesus’ teachings. Through this search they felt a call to radical discipleship: to give up everything for Christ. They moved from Berlin to a remote village, Sannerz. There, with a handful of like-minded seekers, they began to live in community of goods after the example of the first church in Jerusalem. Soon, inspired by the sixteenth-century Hutterites, they adopted the name Bruderhof – literally, “place of brothers.” Over the next fifteen years, the community’s ranks swelled with young people from all over Europe, eventually numbering 150.
In 1929, Eberhard, whose appreciation for the witness of the early Hutterites had only deepened after a decade of community living, made contact with their descendants living in North America. In 1930 he traveled across the Atlantic to visit them for a year, and in 1931 was ordained as a minister by all branches of the Hutterian church and given responsibility for the German Bruderhof and for mission in Europe.
The Rise of National Socialism
Trouble began immediately after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. On hearing the news that President Hindenbergh had appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Eberhard remarked: “The President has no idea what demons he is conjuring up.” The community became a target for official hostility almost immediately, branded as communists. Eberhard and his fellow members refused to use the Heil Hitler greeting or fly swastika flag. In repeated addresses to the community and its guests, Eberhard publicly denounced National Socialism as “tyrannical despotism” and “a movement in absolute opposition to the Cross.” His rejection of Nazi anti-Semitism and racism would remain resolute in deed as well as word: throughout the following years, the community would continue to include people of Jewish, Romani, and non-European descent.
The Nazis solidified their power quickly over the following weeks: harassment of Jewish businesses, introduction of the policy of Gleichschaltung, the Reichstag fire, the Enabling Act. Toward the end of February, Eberhard gave a lecture in the university town of Tubingen where his oldest son Hardy was studying. The audience was made up of a few hundred students and some professors. The encounter stretched over several evenings. Eberhard was confronted by young Nazis, communists, and pietistic Christians, who each for their varying reasons assailed his message of nonviolence:
Sad to say, almost the only question raised was about the use of weapons. There was very little interest in matters of faith. A storm trooper asked if I hadn’t ever struck a child! A theology student quoted Jesus, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” A National Socialist quoted "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" to justify obeying the government. A communist asked, "If things were the way the speaker has said, that Jesus wills that we live in complete community of love, why is official Christendom attacking political communism which wants the same thing?" Another student said the Bruderhof was a cancer to the German nation because we didn’t take up arms to help the Fatherland which was bleeding to death.
I pointed out that to discipline a child you don’t smash his skull; that the Bible quotes were taken out of context (do you think Jesus meant the daughter-in-law to strike her mother-in-law dead?). Christians have completely failed in the social sphere. They defend mammon and capitalism; as a consequence bloody communism came to bring the message that Christians have abandoned. We should be ashamed, and show the communists by deeds that Jesus Christ is greater than Karl Marx.
Then I went further into the nature of the state and said, "Certainly the government is from God and should be acknowledged with respect insofar as it fights against evil and protects the good. But the government is not only from God; it is also from men and conducted in a purely human manner and must be treated with extreme caution. Thirdly, the government is also from the devil, for it is the beast of prey out of the abyss. Unless we see these aspects together, as they are clearly shown in the New Testament, we will not have the right conception of government.
Local harassment of the Bruderhof escalated, with house searches by the police, threats by neighbors with Nazi sympathies, and marches by the SS, SA and Hitler Youth through the center of the community. On Good Friday 1933, the community gathered to discuss how to go forward:
Emmy Arnold: We must know exactly what is actually happening. Nothing is being written about it. … He said no one could risk using the word “justice” for fear of immediately being labeled a communist. He is surprised he hasn’t been taken away yet… Now the Jews are being persecuted, next it will be the Christians.
Else Boller: It is urgently necessary for us to make perfectly clear to the authorities why we live as we do and what our purpose is. Hitler says terrible things in his speeches.
Eberhard Arnold: We want to put all our efforts into building up this place, as long as we have it, as a memorial to God’s honor, so to our last moment here we want to do the very utmost that can be done… It is inherent in imitatio, in being Christ-like, that we are ready for imprisonment and death. We are prepared to leave here; we are also prepared to remain. We shall not flee without an especially valid reason. We shall stay firmly in this place that was shown to us until God sends us a direct call to leave it. And so we continue with our building and daily work…We carry on working as before so that no one can say, “The Bruderhof has changed its way of work because of the change of government.” If that can be said of us, then it would be right to accuse us of cowardice and unfaithfulness… I believe it possible to speak very plainly to this government… So we must ask God that an interview will be possible and that we are granted a completely frank exchange. Then we must take up the cause of prisoners and those in distress, inquire at places where we can get authentic information, do our utmost and be extremely alive, even without the magazine. We cannot publish a magazine at this moment. So we must follow the Hutterian example, speaking person to person, the way of personal contact.
Accordingly, during the following summer and fall of 1933 Eberhard repeatedly visited various offices in the regional government to get information and try to warm up Nazi officials. On October 27, he had a very difficult meeting with a certain Doctor Stachels, who told him of an upcoming national plebiscite, in which the German people would be called upon to affirm Hitler’s policies. The Nazi official told him: “If you don't say yes, Doctor Arnold, there is only one thing left--concentration camp."
Shaken by this exchange, Eberhard returned from Fulda by taxi, but walked the last stretch by foot, as was usual. Walking in the dark on treacherous terrain, he slipped and suffered a compound fracture of his leg. This injury would eventually prove fatal.
Brought to his house and in considerable pain, Eberhard immediately gathered the community to report about his day. As one of his sons recalled: "He told us about the dismal answer he had received [from the Nazi official], and that non-participation in the forthcoming plebiscite would mean concentration camp. He was in great pain, but he spoke to us with fiery love to strengthen the faith of us all, so that all might be ready to hold out through need and maybe even death right to the end. To gain time he suggested that we should go to the voting, but that everyone should write the same statement, namely that we recognize the government but have a different calling from Christ." Two days later, Eberhard addressed the community again, reminding them that God might call on them to give the same sacrifice offered by the early Christian and early Anabaptist martyrs:
The deepest need we have to fear is by no means the need of being persecuted, however difficult it will be when outward hardships are laid upon us. The deepest need is when fear overcomes a person, fear that he might become weak in the face of persecution. For this fear tells him that he is already losing his firm connection with God. So in these difficult, uncertain times it is essential that in the face of the threatening danger, we find the wisdom that prevents fear from overcoming us.
We are attacked by a power that cannot tolerate the existence of a church that acknowledges Jesus Christ alone as the Lord before whom she bends her knee. Everything depends on whether we surrender ourselves, whether we have an undivided heart ready to give up completely anything we may have of our own and to wait--knowing our own inadequacy--for the undeserved grace of being newly united and gathered by God, receiving from him the certainty that no link of the chain will break when the tugging and tearing starts. In silent devotion we want to hold ourselves ready for whatever God wants to do with us.
With the November 12 plebiscite looming, Eberhard – who was now confined to bed by his injury -- unleashed a flood of letters to Nazi officials and government agencies explaining the Bruderhof’s faith and way of life and pleading for toleration. His recipients ranged from the local district magistrate to the newly installed Reich Bishop Ludwig Mueller to the minister of the interior.
Love Your Enemy
On November 9 Eberhard wrote in the name of the community to Hitler himself. It was addressed to “our beloved Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler” – Eberhard had reminded the community often of Bodelschwingh’s saying that “to convert a man, you must love him.” Yet in what followed, Eberhard made clear that though he addressed Hitler with respect as chancellor, mindful of Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 to respect all government authority, he did not acknowledge him as Fuehrer. He affirmed the Bruderhof’s loyal obedience to the Reich Chancellor and his government as having been set over them by God – so long as that obedience did not clash with their supreme commitment to their “leader [Fuehrer] and liberator,” Jesus Christ. Noting that he was enclosing his correspondence to various government agencies, he concluded his letter with a prayer for Hitler’s conversion: “We place these documents into the hands of our beloved Chancellor, for whom we ask God from our hearts that at God’s hour he may change from being an historical instrument as a wielder of supreme state authority to being an ambassador of the humiliated Christ, to whom alone it was given to reveal the perfect love of God’s heart.”
On the day of the plebiscite, all Bruderhof members went to the poll, as required. But rather than voting Yes or No, they affixed a handwritten sticker on their ballots, drafted by Eberhard, stating that while they interceded for the government, “My conviction and my will bid me stand by the Gospel and for the discipleship of Jesus Christ, the coming kingdom of God, and the love and unity of his church.”
Four days after the November 12 plebiscite, the Rhön Bruderhof was surrounded by 140 Gestapo soldiers and storm troopers. His wife Emmy recalled: "No one was allowed to leave his room or place of work, and at every door stood one of these men. Then they pushed their way into the rooms and searched everything. . . . They searched longest in Eberhard's study, in the archives and library, looking for writings 'hostile to the state.' Eberhard himself lay on the sofa with his newly-operated leg, while these people pushed their way in and searched. They probably would have liked to take Eberhard away at that time and put him in a concentration camp. But what could they do with this sick man? Late that evening a big car drove off loaded with books, writings and records."
After the raid, persecution of the Bruderhof intensified. In December 1933, the school superintendent of the district of Fulda, formerly a good friend, came to test the Bruderhof pupils as to whether they had been "patriotically instructed". After finding the children completely unfamiliar with Nazi ideology, he ordered them to sing the Horst Wessel Lied and other party songs. The children were silent. As a consequence, the school was ordered closed, and the superintendent arranged for Nazi teachers to be sent after Christmas to take over the children’s education.
In response, Eberhard arranged for all the school-age children to leave Germany soon after New Year. Eventually, all were reunited in a newly rented property in Silum in the principality of Liechtenstein, perched at 4800 foot elevation. Here a new school was started, with a community to support it. Over the next two years, Eberhard would make repeated trips up the rugged Alpine road to Silum, in winter going on crutches for the last half mile often through knee-deep snow.
By May 1935 Eberhard was having increased discomfort in the leg, and Emmy was concerned that it was becoming more crooked. For the last half year, he had been suffering from persistent swelling and pain, inadequate bone healing, and heartbeat irregularity. He was hospitalized briefly.
But soon the pressing need to hold the community together and protect it from Nazi persecution put him on his feet again. In the months that followed, Eberhard visited half a dozen Reich offices in Berlin, including the Gestapo, to seek out sympathetic “hobbling about in Berlin until nine or ten in the evening” and fighting “with all his might” to fend off continued attack’s on the Bruderhof’s survival. When he took leave of the community to travel to Berlin, he would often say, “I don’t know whether I shall come back, but I will never betray the church.” Surprisingly, many of the officials with whom he met came to respect him for his convictions and even stopped greeting him with the Nazi salute: “Oh, it’s you -- we know that you don't say Heil Hitler.”
In March 1935, Hitler announced the introduction of compulsory military conscription, effective on April 1. The penalty for non-compliance was death. All German males of military age left Germany for Liechtenstein before the deadline. Although this ensured their safety for now, they could not reenter the country, and their sudden departure dealt a heavy blow to the community’s farm, publishing, and handcraft businesses.
By now, the Bruderhof was not only impoverished but isolated. Eberhard’s attempts to join forces with other Christians who rejected National Socialism had met with mixed success. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had responded warmly, and friendships forged with Dutch Mennonites and Quakers would later prove crucial. But most German Christians he approached – including the Pastors’ Emergency League and even prominent German Anabaptists – were wary of the Bruderhof’s pacifism, arguing that it was their obligation according to Romans 13 to serve in Hitler’s armies. Martin Niemoeller, the courageous anti-Nazi pastor who would later gain fame as a survivor of the concentration camps, was typical. When Eberhard sent representatives to his house to ask for solidarity, he refused even to shake their hands, declaring: “I am proud to have served as a U-boat commander in the last war. If Hitler calls me back to my post, I will go.”
Meanwhile, Eberhard, accompanied by his son, traveled throuhout England for three months to raise funds. He could not afford the time for further medical care, and spent the summer and fall shuttling between the Rhoen Bruderhof, Berlin, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland to hold the community together, raise money, and deal with proliferating official attempts to close the Bruderhof down. In November 1935, in desperation over the condition of Eberhard's leg, Emmy had already contacted an old friend of theirs, Doctor Paul Zander, a surgeon in Darmstadt and longtime friend. An appointment was scheduled for November 13, 1935.
In the days before his admission to the hospital, Eberhard spent much time preparing a series of talks on the history of the early Anabaptists, the history of the Hutterian Brethren, and other Christian groups. His wife recalled: "He was tremendously lively, full of enthusiasm over the working of God in history. He spoke for hours, full of innermost fire and a deep movement of heart. How much he longed that something of this might awaken again in our circle too!" As these words indicate, the community, now numbering 150 people divided arbitrarily between two countries, was demoralized by months of harassment and defections. Worse, it seemed to Eberhard to betray signs of spiritual apathy. Upon arriving in the hospital in Darmstadt, he wrote to his wife:
Already after a few days' distance … the inner life and outward conduct of the beloved brothers and sisters of the Rhön Bruderhof becomes increasingly clear to me. Most of them have too often forgotten the big things and instead focused on the little things. All were diligent in their work and persistent in mutual friendliness (sometimes too much so); nearly all were considerate in an emotional way. They were good-natured in an almost fearful way, lenient and good-hearted toward themselves, their relatives, and all those present, though to be sure not always toward those absent. They loved their very small neighbors, also the very small things close to them, so that their spiritual horizon got smaller and smaller and their God and their Christ shrank to a very small God and a very petty Christ -- something that can never truly happen with God, the true, real God and his Christ…
How small in itself is the life of an individual; how small is the family life of husband and wife with their children; how small also the circle of friends who feel drawn to each other on a personal level; how small are the individual work areas like the kitchen or the sewing room or the office; and finally, how small is the whole [Rhön Bruderhof] with all its little souls!
But how great are God and his kingdom! How great is the historical hour of world crisis, of world suffering, and world catastrophe; and how much greater still is God's hour of world judgment and Christ's hour of coming redemption! How burning should be our longing to learn more and more about all these things, to go deeper and deeper, to have an interest in them. And how ardently we should expect and long for the Day itself, the coming Day, the liberating and uniting Day! …
But please, give all at the Rhön Bruderhof my most loyal greetings; tell them that I shall always remember them before God -- into all eternity -- and that I confidently expect that all, all, will catch on fire again for God's greatness and for the depth of the world's suffering. Then forgiveness and restoration will take place immediately…
When Dr. Zander examined Eberhard, he urged immediate surgical intervention to re-set the bone. The operation, which took place on November 16, revealed that Eberhard’s leg had been mercilessly overused during the previous two years; not only had the fracture failed to heal, but the bone marrow and surrounding tissue were infected. An amputation would be necessary.
Wednesday, November 20, was a national holiday, "Repentance Day.” Though by now Eberhard was mostly unconscious, he awoke and called out loudly so that others heard: “Have Hitler and Goebbels repented?”
The surgery to amputate took place at noon two days later. Though the operation only took ten minutes, Eberhard never recovered consciousness and died at 4:00 that afternoon.
Two years after Eberhard’s body was buried on the property of the Rhön Bruderhof, the community was again surrounded at dawn by the Gestapo and police. This time the purpose of the raid was no longer to investigate. The Bruderhof was dissolved by order of the Gestapo on the basis of anti-communist laws, its assets were confiscated, and its directors were arrested. The other members were transported out of the country by bus 48 hours later, and given refuge by the Mennonite community in the Netherlands. Eventually, new Bruderhofs would be founded in England and Paraguay, and after the war in the United States, Germany, and Australia. Through the continuing life of the church community he founded, Eberhard’s work lives on after him.
Yet he would have objected to any biographical sketch that sought to emphasize the mark he made on history. He would have said that honoring human achievements and human greatness belongs to the values of National Socialism, not of Christ. As he stated in an address given on his fiftieth birthday, six months after Hitler’s rise to power and two years before his own death:
One thing concerns me greatly: the powerlessness of man, even of a man who has been entrusted with some task. Only God is mighty; we are completely powerless. We cannot fit even a single stone into the church community. We can provide no protection whatsoever for the community when it has been built up. But I believe that just this is the only reason why God has called us for this service: we know we are powerless. It is hard to describe how all our own power must be stripped off us, how our own power must be dropped, dismantled, torn down, and put away. But it must happen, and it will not happen easily, nor through any single heroic decision. Rather, it must be done by God.
This is the root of grace: the dismantling of our own power. Only to the degree that all our own power is dismantled can God work among us—not otherwise. If a little power of our own were to rise up among us, the spirit and authority of God would retreat in the same moment and to the corresponding degree. In my es¬timation that is the single most important insight with regard to the kingdom of God.
Let us use this day to give glory to God. Let us pledge to him that all our own power will remain dismantled and will keep on being dismantled. Let us pledge that the only thing that counts among us will be the power and authority of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Submitted by Peter Mommsen