Karl-Heinz Becker came from a family of jurists. His father was a public prosecutor; his maternal grandfather was law professor Karl von Gareis (1844–1923). Following his father’s premature death in 1910, Becker’s family moved to his Catholic grandfather’s in Munich where he and his two brothers attended high school. During this period, he received military training in the Wehrkraftverein (a Bavarian scouting association) together with Hans Frank (1900–1946), later Governor General of Poland. He performed agricultural service in 1917. He was drafted into the armed forces in June of 1918 but did not have to take part in the fighting. After earning his accelerated wartime high school degree in 1919, Becker was stationed in East Prussia with the border patrol and deployed on the Ruhr against the Spartacists in 1920.
Becker initially studied law and economics at the university in Munich – where he again encountered Frank, for whom he had little regard – and at the university in Kiel. He started studying theology in 1922 at the universities in Erlangen, Berlin and Marburg. Since they were not associated with confessional Lutheran theology, Berlin and Marburg tended to be unusual for Bavarian theology students.
In 1921, Becker was one of the co-founders of the League of New German Boy Scouts, a short-lived reform movement within the German Boy Scouts. They rejected traditional nationalism and paramilitary forms and sought contact with the youth movement. Becker visited Sweden for recreation and education during his summer vacations in 1923 and 1924.
After earning his degree in theology in 1925, he became an assistant pastor in Traunstein and in Central Franconia. In mid-1930, he was called to his first parish of his own in Ezelheim near Neustadt an der Aisch. He married Ruth Springborn, daughter of a West Prussian landowner, in 1935.
As a pastor, Becker had to deal with National Socialism, which was tremendously successful in Franconia in particular. Although Becker took a negative view of the republic, like many members of his generation, he had nothing but contempt for the personality, speaking style and racist agitation of Hitler, whom he had heard for the first time in 1920 at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.
Becker had been warning his ecclesiastical superiors about Nazi ideology tirelessly in letters from 1931 onward. It was partially veiled as Christian and attracting more and more pastors. He demanded rigorous steps against Nazi pastors since the party violated every moral precept in word and deed. Becker’s appeal to the Bavarian Clergy Association to distance itself from the National Socialist League of Protestant Pastors was also of no avail.
Becker made his warnings public throughout Bavaria in newspaper articles and letters to editors. He supported his case with his reading of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, his knowledge of law, his knowledge of Swedish Lutheran political ethics and his theological formation by Karl Barth (1886–1968).
After the Nazi seizure of power, Becker published numerous academic studies on the relationship of theology and law, political ethics – especially the issue of authority – and criticism of the Lutheran theology of the orders of creation. Martin Luther’s pronouncement On the Freedom of a Christian superior to every ideology was the underlying foundation of his argumentation. Becker’s texts were initially situated in the domain of dialectical theology, printed by Christian Kaiser Verlag in Munich and in the journal “Evangelische Theologie”. His study of “The Reformers and the Kingdom of Christ in Münster in 1535” was published in the “Confessing Church” series in 1939. Under the guise of an historical account, Becker described a brutal dictatorship in which justice had been degraded from a helper of the state’s against human sin to a mere instrument in the service of sinners’ delusions (37).
During World War II, Becker had several treatises on law and political ethics printed at his own expense by small printers in Hungary and Romania. The owners had hardly any idea what they were printing. Becker’s criticism of Nazi legal philosophy and practice contributed to vanquishing the illusionary state of mind and to disenchanting “religious” chauvinism under the Nazi regime (F. W. Kantzenbach, Einzelne, 138).
Becker, chairman of the Markt Einersheim chapter of the Brotherhood of Pastors, especially distinguished himself in the Bavarian Kirchenkampf with his firm opinions against the so-called Aryan Paragraph. Internally, he criticized the regional church’s unduly compliant stance toward the government’s racial policies, which he regularly termed “zoology”. Supported by his brother Fritz (1904–1944), he tried to move his church government in August and September of 1936 to give its backing to the Provisional Church Government’s Memorandum to Hitler, which was critical of the regime. He himself shared the text with his parish.
Becker only swore his oath of allegiance to Hitler in the summer of 1938 with an addendum demanding the regional church’s solidarity with pastors in the so-called destroyed regional churches.
Becker kept his church council and parish in Ezelheim informed about ecclesio-political events. In the fall of 1934, he organized assemblies and statements in his parish, which was aligned with the Confessing Church, protesting the attempted forcible incorporation of the regional church in the Reich Church. He held services on the anniversary of the “seizure of power” only in 1933 and 1934.
Most likely because of his knowledge of foreign languages and seiner familiarity with modern Swedish theology, Becker was supposed to be a member of the Confessing Church’s delegation to the Life and Work Movement conferences in Oxford and Edinburgh in 1937. He had published several essays beforehand, which were discussed at the conferences unattended by the Confessing Church.
Becker was able to travel to the Ecumenical Seminar in Geneva illegally in July of 1938. He smuggled in a letter from the Reich Chamber of Literature to the publisher of the “Evangelische Theologie” Ernst Wolf (1902–1971), which dictated its contents exactly and threatened to ban it. Becker also negotiated there on behalf of the Confessing Church with leading ecumenists about other churches’ acceptance approximately forty German “non-Aryan” pastors, a heatedly debated topic at the time.
Despite his clear opposition to the state and party since 1931, Becker dodged a criminal complaint for misuse of the pulpit in 1937. Nevertheless, his license to teach religion class was revoked in January of 1938. Following two further criminal complaints for misuse of the pulpit, Becker was called up for a Wehrmacht exercise in August of 1939. Directly afterward, he took part in the invasion of Poland and the Battle of France.
From 1940 onward, Becker was a Wehrmacht chaplain with the rank of major. This assignment brought him to Belgium, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Southern Russia and finally Vienna. Becker witnessed the crimes against the civilian population in Southeastern Europe. This knowledge and his studies of the Christian moral foundations of law entered into his publications, the printing of which was sometimes a risky affair. In 1944, Becker was put on trial for high treason after having been denounced but the case had not been decided by the war’s end.
After a brief period in American captivity, Becker returned to Ezelheim where he served until 1949 when he was called to the parish in Solnhofen in Central Franconia. He was then called to the parish in Oberammergau in 1956 and transferred to Stübach in 1959. Karl-Heinz Becker entered retirement in November of 1965. The astuteness of his political and theological judgments speaks for itself. (F. W. Kantzenbach, Einzelne, 107).