The “Religious Socialists”

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The “religious socialists” considered themselves to be a nondenominational group unaffiliated with any church. In actual fact, they were overwhelmingly Protestants. They supported the Weimar Republic but called for further socialist development. They unanimously rejected the capitalist economic system and militarism.

Theologically, they endeavored to establish a new relationship between God and history and between the Kingdom of God and the vision of a socialist future. Politically, they were inclined toward the SPD, a few individuals even toward the KPD. This precipitated the dismissal of Erwin Eckert, a pastor in Baden and resolute opponent of the Nazis, in 1931. Some of the major intellects of this innately diverse group were Paul Tillich, a theologian and philosopher of religion at the University of Frankfurter, and Eduard Heimann, an economist at the University of Hamburger.

The religious socialists started opposing National Socialism with political and theological arguments in the 1920s. The December 1924 newsletter of the German League of Religious Socialists in Berlin already pronounced that the swastika and worship of Wotan are enemies of Christianity.

A “Statement against Fascism” was adopted at the fifth congress of the “German League of Religious Socialists” in Stuttgart in August of 1930.

A discussion about National Socialism began in the “Neue Blätter für den Sozialismus”, a journal from the Tillich circle, in 1931. In April, Walther Hunzinger, a student of Tillich’s, wrote that the fundamental issue for the Protestant church is whether it also voices its no to any deification of humans just as passionately against National Socialism as against Communism, or whether it is faint enough toward National Socialism, to expect a reemergence of the Protestant spirit in its abject failure to appreciate the real situation.

Virtually anticipating the Theological Declaration of Barmen (Scholder), he declared in conclusion that its existence as Protestant church will at the least depend on whether – even if it were to become an isolated church for that reason –it preaches the Word, with which it has been commissioned everywhere in uncompromising resoluteness, the Word from the God, to whom alone all glory is due.

In early 1931, Erwin Eckert ventured in a published lecture to enter an ideological debate with the followers of the swastika, which he saw as contradictory to the Cross of Christ, and lamented that Protestant church governments were not doing the same.

In the 1932 church election campaign, the religious socialists firmly warned against the gospel of racial pride, the brutal violation of every other opinion, the glorification of militarism and military rearmament.

The religious socialists received no more than 130,000 votes in the church elections (1931-32) and thus ended up occupying the role of ineffective outsiders in their church. Consequently, their criticism of National Socialism also went largely unheeded. Many Protestants found the religious socialists’ argumentation to be political ideology and made reference to the situation of the churches in the Soviet Union.

A proportionally large number of active members of the resistance against Hitler, including Carlo Mierendorff, Adolf Reich and others, came from the circle around Tillich and Heimann.

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  • © Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn

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