Whenever I teach the history of 20th-century Europe, I incorporate stories from Christians who resisted the evils of totalitarianism. That list always includes martyred anti-Nazis like the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the university student Sophie Scholl. But thanks to theologian James R. Edwards, this fall I can add one more name to that cloud of witnesses: the German Lutheran Ernst Lohmeyer, who stood fast against Nazism and survived fighting in two world wars, only to be executed by Soviet authorities in 1946.
Having first encountered Lohmeyer’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark in graduate school, Edwards’s interest was kindled on a 1979 visit to Greifswald, East Germany. A local pastor told him that “we cannot mention the name of Ernst Lohmeyer” in the city whose university Lohmeyer served as theology professor and president. As he began a decades-long research project, Edwards “joined the small company of people dedicated to remembering, recovering, and recording the life of Ernst Lohmeyer.”
His labors have resulted in a new biography, Between the Swastika & the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, & Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer. I hope it finds an audience among many Christian readers, for whom Lohmeyer’s life should serve as both an inspiring and cautionary tale.
The story begins at the turn of the 20th century, in the home of a Lutheran pastor whose fourth son followed him into the clergy. Young Ernst concluded his 1912 ordination sermon with Jesus’ admonition that the “truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The liberating power of truth became a recurring theme in his life, forming him, as Edwards writes, “to follow a unique course in life as a scholar, leader, and witness.”
Though he continued to serve the church throughout his life, Lohmeyer found his primary calling as a scholar of diverse interests. The same year he was ordained, he defended his doctoral dissertation on the biblical concept of covenant, then adding a second dissertation, on scholastic philosophy, in 1914.
Carrying a Greek New Testament in his kit, Lohmeyer continued his studies even as he served in the German Army through the end of the First World War. Just weeks after his discharge, Lohmeyer finished a book on the role of smell in the Scriptures.
Edwards admits that this “may strike some readers as an exercise in academic irrelevancy,” and indeed, I fear that my summary thus far suggests one theologian writing about another theologian for the edification of still more theologians. But the story picks up momentum with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the religious response to the Nazi revolution.
Unfortunately, Edwards makes the confusing claim that “German Christians” accounted for “no less than three-quarters of German Protestants throughout the Nazi era.” If he means the supporters of the deeply anti-Semitic Deutsche Christen movement, who denied the Jewishness of Jesus and saw Hitler in messianic terms, it’s hard to credit his numbers. In editing her recent collection of German Christian documents, Mary Solberg stresses that the Deutsche Christen “were numerically never more than a minority within the Protestant church in Germany,” perhaps 600,000 out of over 40 million by the mid-1930s.
This is not to deny that most Christians in Germany supported Hitler’s regime, nor to minimize Lohmeyer’s courage and integrity in opposing such accommodation within the nation’s churches and universities. Rejecting the anti-Semitism of theologian Gerhard Kittel—a scholar of Judaism!—Lohmeyer penned a letter of support to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, affirming “that the Christian faith is Christian only insofar as it bears the Jewish faith in its heart.” With fellow theologian Martin Niemöller, he condemned Nazi efforts to exclude “non-Aryans” from the Protestant clergy and supported ministerial candidates who belonged to the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. For Lohmeyer, Nazism was an Ungeist, “‘an antispirit’ that crippled all free intellectual inquiry.”
Such statements eventually made his position at the University of Breslau untenable. Before relocating to Greifswald in 1935, Lohmeyer preached on the Lutheran theme of Anfechtung, or “trials”:
If God were to snatch us out of trials we would then be tried in ways that would be endlessly deeper and greater than all the trials that we must endure in human circumstances. But, dear friends, even in the deepest trials the sound of his voice is perceptible, blowing over us like incense.
Those trials took new forms in the last years of Lohmeyer’s life, during active service in the Second World War. How, Edwards asks, did this “believing Christian of uncommon moral rectitude and courage” cope with his participation “in a military campaign on the eastern front that was conducted in flagrant violation of standards of international law”? Edwards concludes that Lohmeyer remained a man of high moral character, even as a Wehrmacht officer charged with administering captured Russian villages. But it was clear to Lohmeyer’s daughter, Gudrun, that her father “brought the shadows of the experience home with him.”
Lohmeyer threw himself back into academic work as the war ended and became president of the University of Greifswald. But his “ideal of an intellectually free Prussian university” clashed with the ideological goals of eastern Germany’s Soviet occupiers. He struggled to keep Greifswald from becoming what his wife, Melie, called “a more or less purely political instrument.”
On February 15, 1946, the same day he was to be inaugurated as president, Lohmeyer was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Though Buber, Niemöller, and others pleaded for his release, Lohmeyer was executed on September 19, 1946. His family did not receive official confirmation of his fate until 1957.
A Surprising Resolution
If Between the Swastika & the Sickle is primarily a biography of Ernst Lohmeyer, it is secondarily a memoir of James Edwards, who occasionally notes parallels or connections between his subject’s experience and his own. Both stories testify to the importance of rigor, diligence, and clarity in scholarship.
The book is a “consummation of nearly two decades of effort,” Edwards reports, and it’s clear the research has been painstaking. In addition to reading Lohmeyer’s prodigious writings about biblical studies, theology, philosophy, and spiritual formation—a corpus that includes only two books translated into English—Edwards has drawn on archival materials, from the thousands of letters exchanged between Ernst and Melie to the records of the East German secret police, the Stasi.
It’s also evident that Edwards means his own style to echo Lohmeyer’s, whose scholarly writing was “characterized by . . . directness, precision, and descriptiveness, with not infrequent flares of imaginative and lyrical style.” Edwards’s most effective poetic device is proposing a Bach fugue as a metaphor for Lohmeyer’s life. The “voices” of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism ring harsh and dissonant, creating tension with “the original melody of his life, to be a biblical theologian.”
The “success of the fugue,” he writes, “depends on the resolution of the tension” between those voices. And the resolution of Lohmeyer’s story surprised me.
At first, I expected Edwards to conclude that Lohmeyer, in steadfastly playing his scholarly “melody,” embodied principles like those C.S. Lewis commended in his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.” Encouraging students at Oxford not to suspend their studies for the war, Lewis insisted that Christians ought not to surrender themselves fully to the claims of any government or ideology.
Indeed, few understood the ongoing need for Christian inquiry, no matter the circumstances, better than Lohmeyer. A theologian who wrote a book on the Lord’s Prayer while serving on the Russian Front clearly knew what the German Christians didn’t: that “Thy kingdom come” referred to the reign of God, not the rule of any earthly regime. As a theology professor and university president under two types of totalitarianism, Lohmeyer was “required to render unto Caesar what belonged to Caesar without rendering to either [Nazis or Soviets] what belonged to God.” Edwards poignantly concludes that Lohmeyer “succeeded in the first contest, as he also did in the second—but success in the second came at the cost of his life.”
So it’s bracing to finish Between the Swastika & the Sickle and discover that Lohmeyer died unsure whether his career was actually a success. “It is now clear to me,” he began his last letter from prison to his wife, “that for more than twenty years I have followed the wrong course.” He confessed to Melie that his decision to “devote myself entirely to my work” had “pushed everything related to our love into second place.” In focusing so heavily on the study of God, he had “looked in many places and thought to find him where he was not.”
Reflecting on Lohmeyer’s final epistle, Edwards confesses, “He was now speaking to me, even for me. . . . This exceptional and versatile theologian names perhaps the chief danger that all who devote their lives to the study of theology inevitably face, which is to shift God from the subject of one’s life to the object of one’s inquiry, and thence to a mere idea.”
But here, too, I don’t think theologians are the only audience for Lohmeyer’s story. All Christian scholars risk faith stopping at the head and never reaching the heart and hands. And all those who call Jesus Lord, whatever their profession, need to beware what Edwards calls “the dangers imposed by the prevalence and power, both subtle and outright, of a score of modern isms,” including totalitarianism, militarism, and racism, but also, “especially today, egoism.”
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