Elisabeth Schmitz of Berlin: Conscience of the Church

Elisabeth Schmitz of Berlin: Conscience of the Church

[Originally published April 2022]

On 9-10 November 1938, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and killed almost 100 Jews. In the aftermath of what was called Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. German Jews had been subjected to repressive policies since 1933, when Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became chancellor of Germany. However, prior to Kristallnacht, these Nazi policies had been primarily nonviolent.
After those two days, conditions for German Jews grew increasingly worse. During World War II (1939-45), Hitler and the Nazis implemented their so-called “Final Solution” to what they termed the “Jewish problem,” and carried out the systematic murder of some six million European Jews in what was later called the Holocaust.
During these years of oppression and genocide in Germany, Christians (mostly Lutherans, but including Roman Catholics and other Protestant groups) had to choose whether they would side with Hitler and his Nationalist Socialist Party, or reject those views and policies. Many German Christians embraced Hitler’s ideology as their own, celebrating Germany’s new leadership in the state churches, called “The German Church.” Swastikas were hung behind pulpits across the land, and pastors routinely preached propaganda sermons. Hitler controlled the church.
Other Christians experienced deep internal struggles: soldiers who felt betrayed by officers when forced to carry out exterminations against their consciences, or teachers who were told to support the Reich’s programs of racial hatred. For them, to be a good German was to go against the teachings of Scripture, and to be a good Christian meant that they would have to deny their country. A third group of German Christians found that they could no longer accept Hitler’s, and their country’s, new courses of action.

Elisabeth Schmitz was one of these latter Christians. She was born in Hanau, Germany on 23 August 1893 to August and Clara Marie Bach Schmitz. She was the youngest of three sisters, whose father taught high school. Elisabeth was a gifted student and graduated from high school in 1915, during World War I. She went on to study at the universities of Bonn and Berlin, majoring in history, theology, and German, one of the few women so well educated in her day. She studied with the theologian Adolf von Harnack, and was in his doctoral seminar with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

 After earning her doctorate, Elisabeth taught German, history, and Protestant religious education at the Luisen girls’ secondary school in Berlin from 1929 on. A devout Lutheran, in 1934 Schmitz joined the Confessing Church, a new movement of believing Christians who opposed Nazi efforts to unite all German Protestant churches into the single state-sponsored and pro-Nazi church. She signed a "Red Card" joining the Confessing Church in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial parish, led by Pastor Gerhard Jacobi. In 1935 she wrote an anonymous 24-page Memorandum, “On the Situation of the German Non-Aryans,” calling on the Confessional Church leaders, soon to hold a synod in Berlin, to take a public stand against the persecution and advocate for people of Jewish origin. She made 200 copies in her apartment and distributed them to Church leaders.

Elisabeth's moral advocacy was a much-needed challenge to the national and church betrayal of core values related both to the sanctity of human life and human rights. Germany as a nation, and German Christians as individuals would one day suffer deep guilt, shame, and remorse for their heinous treatment of Jews and other minority groups. Elisabeth took active steps that Christian may similarly follow when such moral harm and betrayal occurs.

In her Memorandum, Elisabeth warned of a further increase in anti-Jewish measures. She thought her church had a duty to stand by all of the victims of this persecution openly, and not just the Protestants of Jewish origin. Her position against Hitler caused her to be transferred, as a disciplinary action, to the Berlin-Lankwitz school. It was on 1 April 1939 that the forty-six year old Schmitz retired early because she refused to teach according to National Socialist principles.

Meanwhile, she had given asylum to her physician friend, Martha Kassel, a Protestant of Jewish origins, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. She then began helping many other Jews to escape the country. After Kristallnacht, her predictions came true; her Church also continued to remain silent. So, Elisabeth continued doing what she could. Along with a circle of former fellow teachers and pupils, Schmitz provided help for Jews living in hiding after the mass deportations began, even housing some temporarily in her own home. In 1943, her Berlin apartment, where she had been sheltering Jews, was bombed and utterly destroyed. Schmitz then returned to her hometown of Hanau to help care for her aging parents. After the war, she resumed her teaching career at the Karl Rehbein School and lived until 1977, always supporting Jewish people with food and funds.

Elisabeth's Memorandum was archived under another author's name for many years. In 1999, however, the original was found in the basement of a church and it was discovered that Dr. Schmitz had been its author. She had argued the case that for the Protestant Church to remain silent, in the face of the oppression of Jews, was a deep violation of its own integrity, and that the Church itself would suffer moral internal wounds as a result. How could it remain the Church without dealing with the turmoil within? She warned the Church to wake up.

The issues she spoke against in her day are still with us in ours: extreme nationalism, racial devaluation, the dismissal of life’s sanctity, and the absence of a biblical-based Christian public response. We salute Elisabeth's courage. We rise to listen to her words today, echoing down through the years between us. May God help us to resolve our own moral dissonance so that we may be healed, see clearly the dangers of our world, and engage them with integrity under the guidance of the Spirit.

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
Posted in