Born in Germany in 1883, Eberhard Arnold grew up in an upper-middle-class family. Following his father, he studied theology and philosophy, receiving a doctorate in the latter. Soon after, however, he left the Lutheran state church, receiving a believer’s baptism and later committing himself to pacifism. He married Emmy von Hollander in 1909 and they would eventually have five children. Eberhard and Emmy were increasingly drawn to the Sermon on the Mount, and they agreed that the best way to follow Jesus’ teachings was through living in community. They moved into a large house in the village of Sannerz, invited others who shared their vision to live with them, grew their own food, and ran a vibrant publishing ministry. Increasingly convinced by the outlook and practices of the early Anabaptists, Eberhard later traveled to North America to meet their Hutterite descendants, who agreed to unite with what was now known as the Bruderhof movement. When the community in Germany found itself in increasing tension with the Nazi government in the thirties, the authorities raided its buildings in search of seditious material. The community sought refuge in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Eberhard died at the end of 1935, after complications following a leg amputation. The Bruderhof in Germany was dissolved by the Gestapo in April 1937, migrated to Great Britain, and expanded from there.
Eberhard Arthur Julius Arnold was born on July 26, 1883, in Königsberg, East Prussia,1 the third child to Elisabeth and Carl Franklin Arnold. The two sides of the family together enjoyed a rich heritage of prestigious academic positions in theology, philosophy, education, and law. Eberhard’s father, Carl, held a doctorate in theology and philosophy. He was teaching at a high school when his son was born and later took up a professorship in church history at Breslau University. “In short, Eberhard Arnold was born into an upper-middle-class family, proud of its heritage and intellectually gifted.”2
Eberhard had an older brother, Hermann, an older sister, Clara, with whom he fostered a close relationship, and two younger sisters, Elisabeth (Betty) and Hannah. Eberhard’s father was stern and studious. He expected Eberhard to follow in his own footsteps and become a theologian in the Lutheran church. The younger Arnold ultimately chose a different path, however, yet his religious influence would be bigger than his father ever dreamed – although not at all as he imagined. Eberhard’s mother, Elisabeth, maintained the household affairs. Eberhard described her as warm-hearted and hospitable, even if she, too, could be a strict parent.
As is often the case with gifted children, Eberhard had a penchant for daydreaming and neglecting his studies. On the other hand, he demonstrated empathy and understanding for others, and valued justice. He was puzzled by class differences in German society and once invited a homeless man into the family home. During a trip to the mountains, he gave away his hat to an older, less well-off man. This resulted not only in parental reprimand but lice, too, from the cap he received in exchange!
Spiritual Development and Conversion
Eberhard’s spiritual quest began in his teenage years. Having had high expectations for his confirmation, he was disappointed with the dry and spiritually deficient teaching he received. He spoke to his father about his experience, but Carl had his own difficulties. He displayed a commitment to strict moral conduct and a certitude in his faith, yet his religious life routinely left him “crushed and depressed,” and he “found neither strength nor joy in prayer.”3
As reflected in his later work, at this time Eberhard not only began to develop a thirst for inner growth. His journey inward corresponded with a sharper awareness of the world around him, one of class distinctions and resultant injustices. Why did he get to wear a swanky black suit and his sister a nice white dress for confirmation? Poorer families could not attend church or celebrate special occasions in the same way. Eberhard’s first resolution was to treat his family’s two maids with greater respect and to aid them in their duties from time to time.
In another formative period, Eberhard spent a four-week summer vacation at the home of his uncle Ernst Ferdinand Klein, an evangelical Lutheran pastor. This relative impressed him deeply. The church counsel had transferred Ernst to Lichtenrade, near Berlin, after he had publicly denounced the exploitation of textile mill workers by their bosses. In Lichtenrade, following his convictions, he protested the behavior of a local choirmaster toward schoolgirls, which resulted in both the choirmaster’s dismissal and villagers boycotting Ernst’s church services.
During his vacation, Eberhard had begun reading and contemplating the New Testament. He discovered Thomas á Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ shortly afterwards. Both texts fostered his growing adolescent passion for Jesus. In the following weeks, he attended meetings for youth in his hometown, run by a local pastor. At the age of sixteen, on October 2, 1899, Eberhard began a private study of John 3 in his room, reflecting on what it means to be born again. He experienced an inner conversion and committed himself to following Jesus’ call.
Involvement with the Salvation Army
Following his awakening, Eberhard gradually divested himself of many former commitments and habits. He was no longer interested in horseracing, and his ivory walking stick, a mark of his culture and class, no longer accompanied him. He visited his schoolteachers individually and asked them forgiveness for his attitude and behavior in class. His academic performance improved, and his classmates considered his departure from his former laddishness quite dull.
Eberhard’s new direction in life put him in tension with his family’s values, especially those of his father. He began refusing to attend the usual parties and social events, viewing them as pointless. When he did attend a New Year’s Eve celebration, he challenged the guests to redirect their lives to Jesus. Another time, Eberhard criticized his parents for the receptions they held twice a year for wealthy, distinguished guests. Wouldn’t the money be better spent if struggling, working-class families were invited instead? In any case, the point was not taken well by his father.
During this time, Eberhard took up an interest in the local Salvation Army chapter. Unlike him, the soldiers predominantly hailed from poor and working-class backgrounds. But despite the malnourishment visible on their faces, they sang with great enthusiasm for Jesus. Eberhard contributed to the work of the Army from his teens into his early twenties, leading meetings and preaching to strangers on the street. After witnessing a drunken fistfight, he accompanied one of the combatants home and resolved to get up an hour earlier each morning to walk with the man on the way to his place of work. Wary at first, the man eventually joined the Army and committed his life to Jesus.
Eberhard’s extracurricular commitments meant that his schoolwork began to suffer again. His parents responded by sending him to a boarding school in the town of Jawor in Lower Silesia (modern Poland). He passed his final exams at the beginning of 1905, aged twenty-one.
Studies and Engagement
Eberhard had his heart set on medicine. “He dreamed of a selfless vocation in compassionate service where physical and pastoral care would go hand in hand.”4 His father, however, had other plans. Eberhard would study theology at Breslau University, where Carl taught. But Eberhard found the courses unfulfilling and their content trivial. This tension between parental and personal wishes was further exacerbated when he received a letter from the Salvation Army founder, William Booth, formally inviting him to serve in the organization. For the time being, he accepted his father’s direction and declined the opportunity.
After Breslau, Eberhard enjoyed semesters at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, where Martin Kähler delivered lectures and Paul Tillich attended classes at the same time. Eberhard also developed a friendship with the theologian Karl Heim, a slightly older figure who was looked up to by the local theology students. Eberhard got involved in the Halle chapter of the Student Christian Movement, later taking up a leadership role. He participated in public gatherings for the revival that was sweeping the area, and began contributing articles to the associated Evangelical Alliance Magazine.
If all of this wasn’t exciting enough, it was at one of these revival meetings that Eberhard first met Emilie Monika Else von Hollander. She had been working as a nurse and was on vacation in Halle. Emmy, along with her sisters, was drawn into the revival taking place in Halle. The daughter of a law professor, she also shared his social and intellectual background. Eberhard and Emmy’s first encounter left an impression on both of them. Eberhard would later tell her, “‘I fell in love with you the very first moment I saw you.’ Pale with excitement, she replied, ‘It was just the same for me.’”5 Within a month, the two were engaged.
Baptism, Graduation, and Marriage
As was true of almost anyone born into the Lutheran Church, Eberhard and Emmy had been baptized as infants. In May 1907, however, Emmy’s sister Else revealed her desire to be baptized as an adult. This wasn’t something practiced by confessional Lutherans, and Else’s parents, disapproving of her decision, wrote Eberhard to provide theological reasons for Else to not go through with it.
Over the next five months, Eberhard and Emmy exchanged letters on the issue of baptism. Initially, Eberhard agreed with the Lutheran position held by the von Hollander parents. By June, though, both Emmy and Eberhard began expressing their doubts to one another concerning the church’s doctrine. Through much prayer and Bible study, the two independently resolved to receive a believer’s baptism.
The consequences were swift: Eberhard was forbidden to meet Emmy for one year. This punishment was painful, but he and Emmy had expected nothing less. Eberhard’s application to sit his final examination in theology was accepted the next year, but he ultimately felt it would be dishonest to undertake this while withholding from the Silesian state church his intentions to be baptized. Following the revelation, he was denied the opportunity to sit the examination. His relationship with the von Hollander parents disintegrated, and Emmy left their residence after refusing to temporarily cut off contact with Eberhard. Their baptism was a sharp break from the state church in a time and place where church and state were anything but separate, and Eberhard’s father took it as a personal affront.
The years that followed were tumultuous. Eberhard changed his course of study to philosophy at the University of Erlangen. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Friedrich Nietzsche, making use of the Weimar archives overseen by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the late philosopher’s sister and posthumous publisher. Despite financial distress and numerous speaking engagements with Christian groups, Eberhard received the highest possible mark for his dissertation and passed his exams with highest honors at the end of November 1909. The couple were married before the year was out. Their house in Leipzig soon became a gathering place for all kinds of Christians, writers, students, and radicals. Bible studies and discussion evenings were held weekly, and Eberhard continued his public lectures.
Children, Tuberculosis, and Convalescence
The couple later moved to Halle, where Eberhard had already been commuting to deliver lectures and contribute to various Christian organizations. But while the work was centered in Halle, it saw him traveling around the country, and he was met with enthusiastic reception almost everywhere he went. Emmy gave birth to their first child, Emy-Margarethe, in March 1911. Soon after, Emmy suffered a heart attack that brought her to the edge of death. The birth of her second child, Eberhard Heinrich (Hardy) in August 1912, was without complication.
In February 1913, Eberhard was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He completed his present lecture circuit and had two operations on his larynx. By the end of April, the family had left Halle and were living in the Tyrolean Alps. Eberhard carefully followed the routine of rest prescribed by his doctors, reading when he could and occasionally writing. Although the Arnolds lacked a formal source of income, friends provided some financial support, despite the Arnolds not having asked for assistance. Coincidentally, the area happened to be of great historical importance, being an early center of the Anabaptist movement. Alongside taking the opportunity to read texts from the movement, Eberhard wrote and published Vital Signs of a Living Church.
In December 1913, Emmy gave birth to their third child, Johann Heinrich. Eberhard took up photography and began thinking about returning to city life and taking up former work commitments, his health having somewhat improved. In the meantime, he wrote more articles for Evangelical Alliance Magazine and started planning what was to become one of his major writings, The Inner Life.
World War One
Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Eberhard received an official telegram the same day, ordering him to report for duty in Halle, but he was discharged within weeks on account of his tuberculosis. He supported the war effort all the same, reworking his recently completed The Inner Life into a book directly addressing the war, War: A Call to Inwardness. The original had made no reference to war at all.
Eberhard began work as editor of Die Furche (the furrow), which, alongside other Christian publications, did its own part in providing an ideological rationale for the war and extolled the superiority of German Christianity. In May 1915, his older brother, Hermann, died of war injuries in an army hospital, leaving behind a widow and two children. In December, Emmy gave birth to Hans-Hermann, a name chosen in memory of Eberhard’s late brother.
Through 1916, Eberhard began to review his position on the war. Emmy drew attention to the overt anti-Semitism of other Christians who supported the war, and in his work as chaplain in Berlin’s military hospital he saw how wounded soldiers were shattered by guilt for their role in the fighting. The hateful, unchristian character of warfare was becoming clear to him. The gospel was for all humanity. Eberhard began revising War: A Call to Inwardness, removing justifications for the war and expanding the work considerably. Emmy gave birth to the couple’s final child, Monika-Elisabeth, in February 1918, named after both her mother, who had passed away the previous year, and Eberhard’s mother.
The Call to Community
Following the war, Germany experienced widespread social change. Young people in the Weimar Republic turned their backs on the social conservatism and aristocratic pretensions of the failed Prussian empire. Thousands of them left the cities for the country, roaming through farmland and mountains in their search for meaning. This Youth Movement rejected the crass materialism of the cities in favor of the rural life, with its simple pleasures of folk dancing and hiking, and it renounced the sterility of factory life to embrace the hard work – and the stench – of the farm. For these people, the collapse of civilization as they knew it was proof of humanity’s need for nature, or for God. And although many of them soon drifted into the hedonism and directionlessness that characterized the post-war period, others, like the Arnolds, saw in the Youth Movement an affirmation of their spiritual quest for wholeness.
Meanwhile, it became clear that Eberhard’s calling was no longer aligned with the publishers’ vision for Die Furche. Throughout 1919, he became increasingly convinced that the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t humanly impossible (a common interpretation) but the pattern for Christian discipleship. The church was supposed to take Jesus at his word. Eberhard was scouted out by Otto Herpel, a fellow pacifist, and soon became director of Herpel’s Neuwerk (new work) publishing house. His position on the Sermon on the Mount also resulted in increasing tensions with other leaders of the Student Christian Movement. He resigned as secretary, though the organization still valued him and shortly after elected him as a member of the executive committee. The Arnolds now sought to close the gap between what they believed and how they lived.
In 1920 Eberhard and Emmy, with five young children, left their comfortable suburb of Berlin for a new life in the impoverished farming district of Fulda, in Hesse. Although their first lodging was in the storage rooms of an inn on the edge of the small village of Sannerz, from the start they opened their doors to wandering musicians, artists, anarchists, and drifters. If the words of Jesus could be lived out in the first century, they could be lived out again now; if Christ could pour out his Spirit on earth two thousand years ago, he could do so again today. Such was the faith of the Arnolds as they ventured to create a community of work and of goods: a life in which everything belonged to all and yet to none. From now on their house would be open to the destitute; their lives would be consumed in caring not only for souls but bodies as well. The community became known as Sonnherz, “sunheart.”
Life at Sannerz
The community eventually moved across the street to an empty villa, and it grew rapidly over the next two years. The Neuwerk publishing house garnered a lot of interest from figures in Germany and Switzerland who held values similar to those of Eberhard and Emmy. A group of Quakers contributed funding, and the magazine and books attracted a wide readership. The latter piqued the interest of the Kansas Mennonite J. G. Evert, who informed Eberhard of Hutterite communities in the United States, a movement the community at Sannerz would later identify with. At the end of 1922, the publishing house released an anthology of writings from the Blumhardts, a father-son pair whose theology had made quite an impression on Eberhard and continued to influence his thought throughout his life. Yet the publishing work was only part of the community’s mission. Sannerz welcomed two thousand visitors in 1921 alone. It would go on to host visitors as diverse and distinguished as the Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber and Prince Günther von Schönburg-Waldenburg, a member of the high nobility who made financial contributions to the community over the years.
Back in 1917, Eberhard had suffered a skiing injury, resulting in a detached retina in his left eye. He received treatment in Berlin and was able to recover. Just three years later, in 1920, Eberhard’s health in general came under increasing stress with the constant demands of the publishing house and the everyday work required in community living. Initially causing a cold and heart palpitations, one day while chopping wood he got a splinter in his left eye. He again suffered from a detached retina. Eberhard travelled to Frankfurt regularly for treatment, but the eye could not be saved. Reflecting back on this later that year, however, Eberhard described the injury as “the best thing that could have happened to me,” providing occasion for him to reconsider what was most important in life.6
When Eberhard recommenced his lecture circuit, life at Sannerz had brought about a new zeal. He could proclaim Jesus with an authenticity not previously possible in his comfortable life in Berlin. Some hearers were drawn to Sannerz, but Eberhard’s call was to discipleship with Jesus, not to his specific community.
The Arnolds and the community at Sannerz came under increasing scrutiny from the start of 1922. Some accused them of having too high an opinion of themselves and their lifestyle; others accused them of confusing human action with what could only be a divine work. The different visions for Sannerz held by its members began to clash. In summer, while traveling in Holland, Eberhard was notified by telephone that the shareholders of his fledgling publishing house had met to liquidate the firm. They accused him of financial irresponsibility, idealism, and even fraud. The value of the mark had plummeted as hyperinflation rattled the Weimar Republic, and the publishing house’s loans (which had not been due for months) were suddenly recalled. Heinrich and Elisabeth Schultheis, a socialist Christian couple who had taken over the leadership responsibilities at Sannerz until the Arnolds returned, were deeply concerned, along with other members. Heinrich demanded Eberhard’s immediate return; the latter trusted that the funds would be available when needed. Miraculously, just before leaving Holland, a friend surprised him with a large envelope of guilders which, when converted to marks, came to the exact amount due at the bank the next day. Too late, however; the Arnolds returned home to find the publishing venture liquidated by the very friends they had left in charge.
More than forty people left Sannerz in the following weeks, firmly convinced that spiritual and temporal matters could not and should not be mixed. Heinrich Schultheis and his supporters took over the Neuwerk publishing house and relocated thirty or so miles away to Gelnhaar. But the original enthusiasm with which the public had received the Neuwerk publications had gone. Soon, as Eberhard’s biographer observes, Schultheis’s “ideal had turned into an institution, the movement into a business.”7 At Sannerz, following the schism, Eberhard immediately began to publish again under the name of Gemeinschafts-Verlag Eberhard Arnold.
The new publishing house took responsibility for Die Wegwarte (the chicory)8 in 1924, a recently established magazine with a small circulation, brought to Sannerz through Adolf and Martha Braun, a couple who would soon become an integral part of the community. In the same year, Eberhard proposed the Quellen (sources) series, a collection of texts both historical and contemporary from the Christian tradition, with commentary from qualified scholars. He entertained a bold vision for one hundred volumes and considered bindings encompassing “all the colors of the rainbow” to represent the inclusive, nonpartisan nature of the undertaking: “No one would be excluded – regardless of how contradictory or apparently irreconcilable they seemed.”9 Volumes on Nicolaus Zinzendorf, Jakob Böhme, and Søren Kierkegaard were among the first to appear, with Eberhard’s own contribution on early Christianity from AD 70–180 constituting volume one and appearing in 1926. The book was dedicated to the Arnold parents, with an extended comment on Eberhard’s love for his father, who would die in April 1927.
During this time, Eberhard became more acquainted with and grew in his appreciation for certain radical movements throughout church history, such as the Moravians, Quakers, and Waldensians. His attention was drawn to the Anabaptists in particular, with the Hutterites making the greatest impression. It is in 1926 that the first reference to the community at Sannerz as a Bruderhof (place of brothers) appears, a name that would later come to characterize the movement. It signaled Eberhard’s initial identification with the Hutterites, who used the term to refer to their own communities.
In time, more and more people came to join the community. In 1926, in need of expansion, the Bruderhof began looking elsewhere. Around thirteen miles to the north, a large farm in the Rhön Mountains was selling for 26,000 marks. Trusting that God would provide the funds as needed, the Bruderhof agreed to move, and Eberhard signed off on the purchase in November 1926, making a down payment of 10,000 marks.
The Growth of the Rhön Bruderhof
The first years at the Rhön Bruderhof were difficult as the community faced food shortages and financial pressure. Bills were paid at the last minute and resources were shared – no guests were turned away. Adults would go without milk and eggs so that the children were well fed. The Bruderhof had to rely on its friends and connections, but even this went beyond the spontaneous exercise of goodwill – at times the Arnolds found the need to approach others and directly ask for their financial support. Steadily, though, the community grew. By 1930, the Bruderhof numbered seventy people.
Increasingly, the Bruderhof developed a spiritual affiliation with the historical Hutterites. Members took to libraries throughout central Europe and enthusiastically hunted down rare, old manuscripts. In some cases, they engaged in the laborious task of copying them out by hand in order to revive or preserve them. In 1927, Eberhard received a letter from Elias Walter, a Canadian-based elder of the North American Hutterites whom he had reached out to the previous year. Soon after, the Hutterites gifted the Rhön Bruderhof a collection of old Hutterite texts. Selections of Hutterite writings were also republished in Die Wegwarte during this period.
As the Rhön Bruderhof grew, Eberhard looked to its future, seeking to join with like-minded groups. He had seen numerous community attempts collapse and wanted the Bruderhof to avoid isolation from the larger body of Christ. In 1928, community members voiced an eagerness for uniting with the Hutterites. Eberhard wrote to Elias Walter again in August that year, declaring the community’s intentions and requesting two Hutterite ministers to lead them. Developments were slow at first, but Eberhard continued to offer to put his community under the leadership of the North American Hutterites. Walter replied that they could only proceed after meeting him in person. Eberhard would need to travel to the United States and Canada: “He must be prepared to answer questions about his hopes and desires, the history of the Bruderhof in Germany, his personal faith, his knowledge of the Bible, his family life, and his opinions. At the end of all this – maybe! – uniting would take place.”10
Eberhard’s Trip to America
Eberhard left Bremen for New York on May 30, 1930. America made a strong first impression on him: “The Americans laughed behind his back at his knee britches and sandals. He found American cities insufferable, the small towns in bad taste. He wrote home that the country was held firmly in the grip of mammon.”11 On top of this, the trip had placed renewed strain on his bad eye. After meeting the Mennonite historian John Horsch in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, he headed west to Chicago and then to South Dakota.
Eberhard visited all four Hutterite settlements in South Dakota. Historically the hub of North American Hutterites, others had migrated to Canada after the US government had conscripted Hutterites during World War I. Eberhard was impressed by the warm reception he received, alongside the cheerful dispositions, their simple life, and their teaching and worship. He also noted, however, their “lavish standard of living.”12 Months later, in Alberta, Canada, Eberhard would openly criticize their accumulation of wealth, which wasn’t shared with the poorer settlements, and he reproached them for neglecting mission, the communities predominantly consisting of descendants of the original Hutterite immigrants.
When his eye took a turn for the worse, the Hutterites Eberhard was staying with made sure that he took a lot of time to rest. Their assessments of him were generally very positive. One person described him as being “like a second Jakob Hutter,” the sixteenth-century Anabaptist and founder of the Hutterites.13 An elder from the James Valley community in Manitoba would also reflect, “There is no question of us teaching and instructing him; it is rather we who have to learn from him.”14
But not everyone whom Eberhard met offered him the same enthusiastic reception. When he arrived at the Rockport community in South Dakota, an elder, David Hofer, ignored him for days. When they finally spoke, Eberhard made his appeal for unity between the Rhön Bruderhof and the North American Hutterites. Hofer rebuked him. The true church is not confined to a narrow collection of communities in the United States and Canada – and now Germany. Rather, God’s people can be found throughout the world, and it is God and not human beings who determines who belongs to his people. Moreover, Eberhard was seeking a model for community in human tradition. He needed to return to Scripture. Anyway, how could the Hutterites provide such a model when they lacked a central leadership structure and were divided among themselves? Hard though it was, Eberhard would later recognize Hofer’s comments as prophetic and took the criticisms seriously. However, he did not leave Rockport until Hofer had pledged to support whatever decision the communities in Canada would come to on uniting with the Rhön Bruderhof.
After traveling back and forth between the settlements in South Dakota, teaching, conversing, and copying manuscripts treasured in the homes of some of the oldest ministers, in August Eberhard left for Manitoba in Canada, home to ten communities. The people showed such hospitality and took such an interest in him that he hardly found time to write home. After about a month they all agreed to unite with the Rhön Bruderhof. While Eberhard had originally hoped to have been home by Christmas, he still needed to visit the eighteen communities in Alberta. Eventually, in December 1930, the Rhön Bruderhof was formally received into the Hutterian Church. He was baptized again in the presence of Hutterite elders so that no one from the communities could question the validity of his previous baptism. About a week later he was also ordained through the laying on of hands.
Eberhard’s North American trip was not over, however. Having been accepted into the Hutterian Church, he spent another three months revisiting the Canadian settlements and requesting financial support for the Rhön Bruderhof. The trip was a partial success, but the money Eberhard had counted on for building a new community did not materialize. Although the Hutterites ate luxuriously compared with the impoverished Rhön Bruderhof, this was the Great Depression and they had very little cash.
After almost a full year, Eberhard arrived back in Bremen on May 1, 1931. He brought with him Hutterite clothing, including head coverings for women, which were to be worn as a sign of unity with the North Americans. Notably, he also bore an abundance of historical texts, so that “the Rhön Bruderhof suddenly found itself housing the most comprehensive library of Anabaptist writings in Europe.”15 Nonetheless, the Rhön Bruderhof also maintained something of its distinctive character, holding on to photography, musical instruments, and various songs and folk dances. The following decades would see repeated tension between traditional practices required by the Hutterites and “freedom of the Spirit.”
The Bruderhof under National Socialism
After returning to Germany, Eberhard began working on a revised edition of his 1918 Inner Land. The first chapter was completed at the end of 1932, a month or so before Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor and the country formally entered into the National Socialist era. While Eberhard could not possibly imagine all that would take place in the coming years, his work on the book demonstrates a latent resistance to Nazi ideology, with statements such as, “We must never make an idol of created man or of racial instincts.”16 Throughout 1933 he sought a meeting with Hitler. He revealed his intentions to the rest of the Bruderhof, stating, “I believe that this government will gladly hear a deeper and clearer word,” hoping to speak the gospel straightforwardly to Hitler and turn his attention to Jesus.17 The community also became increasingly aware of human rights abuses taking place under Nazi rule.
Eberhard’s hoped-for meeting with Hitler never transpired. On November 9, 1933, he wrote to him on the Bruderhof’s behalf, affirming the community’s loyalty to the government but also expressing his wish that Hitler would rule with justice, ensure the Bruderhof of their religious freedom, and “become an ambassador of the lowly Christ.”18 He enclosed the first chapter of Inner Land, “Light and Fire.” A week later, on November 16, in response to the letter, one hundred and fifty policemen, storm troopers, and Gestapo officers arrived at the Bruderhof, while Eberhard lay in bed recovering from a broken leg. They tore up floorboards, upended the rooms, stripped the community’s library of red-covered books, and confiscated meeting transcripts and letters. Thankfully, knowledge of the Bruderhof’s connections abroad discouraged them from being any more forceful with its members.
During this time, the community started to grow isolated from some of its friends within Germany, some preferring allegiance to the regime, others fearing for what might result from maintaining their relationship. The Fulda school inspector also exerted pressure on the Bruderhof to hire a teacher loyal to Nazi ideology. The community eventually assented to the request, but before a teacher was supplied the children were sent to Switzerland, a few days into the new year of 1934. Unfortunately, the Swiss officials denied requests that the children be supplied papers to stay there permanently.
Cognizant of the worsening situation in Germany, Eberhard sought land for the Bruderhof outside its borders. He and Emmy traveled to Liechtenstein, a sixty-two-square-mile microstate situated between Switzerland and Austria. After speaking with locals, they learned of a residence available for rent in the village of Silum. They signed off on it, like usual not knowing where the funds would come from. On their way home through Switzerland, a friend gifted them a generous amount of money that would cover the rent. The new residence, almost three hundred miles from the Rhön Bruderhof, would soon be referred to as the Alm Bruderhof.19
The Rhön community immediately began migrating to Silum, though both locations remained in use throughout the period and various members regularly traveled between the two. The Bruderhof as a whole was under intense financial pressure from 1933 through 1935, and food shortages were common. But hope and joy could still be found. In 1934, Eberhard’s son, Hardy, who had been studying in England, brought some English and Scottish friends to the Alm Bruderhof. The guests were deeply impressed by life in the community, and the encounter enlivened Eberhard. Indeed, it seemed that the greater the Bruderhof’s struggle over necessities and fear for the political situation, the greater the interest from outsiders, many of whom were soon baptized and joined the community. Print work continued in this period, though sales in Germany plummeted as booksellers feared Nazi reprisal. An audience could still be found in Switzerland, but Eberhard emphasized that, as it always had been, the motivation was missional rather than financial: “People were to buy the books for their message, not out of sympathy.”20 Woodwork, on the other hand, was another story, and the Bruderhof received a small income from the production of goods such as bowls and candleholders.
The Nazi government continued to curtail civil freedoms. In March 1935, conscription was announced. After quickly confirming the news, Eberhard, who was at the Rhön Bruderhof at the time, met with the rest of the community and concluded that it was best that the men of military age seek refuge at the Alm Bruderhof. The men left that night, traveling separate routes to Liechtenstein.
One week later, Eberhard headed north for the Netherlands, from where he would voyage to the United Kingdom. His aim was to procure financial support from like-minded groups in the two countries. Reflecting on the political situation in Germany and Liechtenstein, however – the latter was only growing in its sympathy for the Nazi cause – a second purpose for the trip soon arose. Eberhard would scout out a place of refuge that was at a much safer distance. The Dutch Mennonites happily contributed to the Bruderhof. The English Quakers were not so eager, but after Eberhard limped up the staircases to the office five days in a row to make his appeal they finally yielded. He returned to the Rhön Bruderhof in May, also bringing news of the generous plots of land available in the Netherlands as part of a government project.
Eberhard’s ventures had not looked kindly on his deteriorating health. In the period of 1933–1935 he traveled extensively between the Rhön and Alm Brudherhofs, throughout Germany to meet with government officials and petition for the well-being of the community, and then to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. His crutch accompanied him always, and, although he traveled by other means where possible, he pushed his legs to their limits, placing continual strain on them. His broken leg had never fully healed. Besides this and the stress of Nazi rule, the Rhön Bruderhof was constantly beset with legalism, quarrelling, and complacency during this period, a burden which weighed heavily on Eberhard’s spirit.
A long-time friend of the Arnolds, surgeon Paul Zander met with Eberhard on November 13, 1935, in the Elisabeth Hospital in Darmstadt to examine his leg. A bony growth surrounded the original fracture, and the leg could easily break again. Eberhard would need to undergo surgery to have the growth removed. Emmy arrived two days later and accompanied him at his bedside. Eberhard’s operation took place the next day. He remained conscious throughout, receiving only local anesthetic, as his heart might not have been able to handle general anesthetic.
Eberhard’s condition worsened over the following days and affected his mind too. Uninhibited, he started to preach to visitors and other patients from his bed. On November 20, Repentance Day, he loudly enquired into whether Hitler and Goebbels had repented. When he was coherent, he spoke fondly of his years in the Bruderhof to Emmy, and she read to him from the Bible. On November 22, his leg showing no sign of recovering, the doctor performed an amputation. Eberhard’s oldest, Emy-Margret, and her husband Hans arrived after the operation, but he couldn’t recognize them. Glimmers of consciousness appeared in the next few hours as they sang to him. He passed away just before 4 p.m.
His unexpected death was a shock to the community and all who had known him. The Rhön Bruderhof tried to continue, as had been his wish, until it was dissolved by the Gestapo on April 9, 1937. The Alm Bruderhof continued until 1938. In the meantime, a new property was found in England which became the Cotswold Bruderhof, and when England entered World War II, all members emigrated once again, this time to Paraguay in South America.
The Bruderhof credits its survival of now over a hundred years to the mercy of God, but also to the firm foundation on Jesus Christ alone that was laid by Eberhard Arnold. “It may seem strange that such an insignificant group could experience such lofty feelings of peace and community, but it was so,” Eberhard said shortly before his death. “It was a gift from God. And only one antipathy was bound up in our love – a rejection of the systems of civilization; a hatred of the falsities of social stratification; an antagonism to the spirit of impurity; an opposition to the moral coercion of the clergy. The fight that we took up was a fight against these alien spirits. It was a fight for the Spirit of God and Jesus Christ.”21
This biography is largely based on Markus Baum, Against the Wind: Eberhard Arnold and the Bruderhof, trans. Eileen Robertshaw, electronic edition (Walden, NY: Plough, 2015), which is available for free download here.
1. Then part of the German Empire, today a part of Russia.
2. Baum, Against the Wind, 2.
3. Baum, Against the Wind, 5.
4. Baum, Against the Wind, 14.
5. Baum, Against the Wind, 24.
6. Letter to Peter Bultmann, October 5, 1920, quoted in Baum, Against the Wind, 104.
7. Baum, Against the Wind, 117.
8. The German name for the plant suggests one that stands at the roadside.
9. Baum, Against the Wind, 134.
10. Baum, Against the Wind, 153.
11. Baum, Against the Wind, 154.
12. Letter to Emmy, 24 June 1930, quoted in Baum, Against the Wind, 155.
13. Quoted in Baum, Against the Wind, 158.
14. Quoted in Baum, Against the Wind, 159.
15. Baum, Against the Wind, 164.
16. Innenland, 101, quoted in Baum, Against the Wind, 229 n. 22.
17. Rhön Bruderhof meeting transcript, March 25, 1933.
18. Quoted in Baum, Against the Wind, 177. A translation of the letter appears in Emmy Barth, An Embassy Besieged: The Story of a Christian Community in Nazi Germany (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 88–89.
19. After the German Alm, referring to seasonal mountain pasture.
20. Baum, Against the Wind, 193.
21. Johann Christoph Arnold, ed. Eberhard Arnold (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 23. A transcript of Eberhard’s talk is available in our digital archive.