Eberhard Arnold’s Life and Work

Eberhard Arnold was born in 1883 in Königsberg, Germany, into a long line of academics. His father, Carl Franklin Arnold, expected him to follow in his own footsteps and become a theologian in the Lutheran church. Eberhard chose a different path, yet his religious influence would be bigger than his father ever dreamed – although not at all as he imagined.

Eberhard’s spiritual quest began in his teenage years. On a summer vacation at the home of his uncle Ernst Ferdinand Klein, an evangelical Lutheran pastor involved in social reform, he began to read the New Testament. This relative impressed him deeply. By the time Eberhard returned home, he had become aware of the poverty around him and middle-class complacency toward it, as well as the complacency of respectable Christians toward the challenging truths of the Bible. Under the continued guidance of a young pastor near his home – and to the bemusement of his family – he prayed to be “converted”.

Eberhard took his newfound faith so seriously that most people in his life did not know what to make of him; he sought out former teachers and begged their forgiveness for his previous unruly and dishonest behavior; he challenged his family to invite the poor off the street, not just their small set of well-to-do academics. But by the time he entered university a religious revival was sweeping Germany, and his enthusiasm for its cause soon gained him popularity as both a writer and speaker.

It was at one of these revival meetings that Eberhard first met Emmy von Hollander. The daughter of a law professor, she shared his social and intellectual background and, like him, was active in the revival movement. Within a month the two were engaged. During that year of 1907, the question of baptism emerged as a central theme. Thorough study convinced the young couple that the baptism intended by Jesus was baptism of believing adults – not infants. Both were baptized in 1908.

The consequences were swift: Eberhard was denied the opportunity to sit for his exams in theology, and he was forbidden to meet Emmy for one year. This punishment was painful, but he and Emmy had expected nothing less. Their baptism was a sharp break from the state church in a time and place where church and state were anything but separate, and his father – a professor of church history whose name was synonymous with good society – took it as a personal affront.

The years that followed were tumultuous. Eberhard changed his course of study to philosophy, writing his doctoral thesis on Friedrich Nietzsche. He passed his exams with highest honors at the end of November 1909, and the couple were married before the year was out. Their house 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.

War came in 1914, and although Eberhard was called to the front, he was discharged within weeks on account of his tuberculosis. He supported the war effort with nationalistic fervor all the same, publishing propaganda as the newly-hired editor of Die Furche (“the furrow”), a magazine run by one of his boyhood friends. As the war dragged on, however, he became increasingly disillusioned, and by 1917 he was a convinced pacifist.

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 farms 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 renounced the sterility of factory life to embrace the hard work – and the stench – of the farm. For them, the collapse of civilization as they knew it was proof of man’s need for nature, and for God. And although many of them soon drifted into the hedonism and moral decay that characterized the post-war period, others, like the Arnolds, saw in the Youth Movement an affirmation of their spiritual quest for wholeness.

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. 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 tramps. 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, it could happen again today. Such was their faith as they ventured to create a community of work and of goods: a life in which everything belonged to all and yet to none. The Sermon on the Mount was not merely an ideal, but a way to live. 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. They called their new community the Bruderhof – “place of brothers.”

Meanwhile, it became clear that Eberhard’s calling was no longer aligned with the Die Furche publishing house. His insistence that Christ’s teachings were meant to be practiced in daily life was causing increasing controversy with its directors and led to his resignation during the spring of 1920. Within weeks, however, he was publishing again. He had no money and only a tiny staff, but he felt compelled to publicize as widely as possible the truths that he and Emmy, with the small circle that gathered around them, had begun to recognize.

The community eventually moved across the street to an empty villa, and it grew rapidly over the next two years. Business was relatively good, and dozens of articles, pamphlets, and books were written, edited, and produced. Yet the publishing work was only part of the community’s mission. The Bruderhof welcomed two thousand visitors in 1921 alone.

But the summer of 1922 brought trouble: 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 Arnolds had left Sannerz several weeks earlier to visit a sister community in Holland, but while they were gone inflation suddenly soared and loans that had not been due for months were suddenly recalled. In the end, a friend surprised them 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, they returned home where they found 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. But Eberhard immediately began to publish again, and in time, more and more people came to join the Bruderhof. In 1926, in need of expansion, the community moved from the village of Sannerz to a farm in the Rhön hills.

As the community 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.

By 1931, however, the movement of people actively seeking community that had swept Germany only a decade earlier had all but dried up. So Eberhard looked farther afield, visiting the Hutterites of Canada and the United States. Rooted in sixteenth-century Moravia, this group still lived in small communities, sharing all things in common. They were perhaps too narrow-minded and dogmatic for his liking, but they nevertheless represented the purest form of communal Christianity he had ever met, and he was amazed to find that they were still living in community after 400 years. Joining them, he felt, was a safeguard for the Bruderhof. Yet in spite of his enthusiastic adoption of early Anabaptist spirituality, his hopes for a close economic relationship with the North American Hutterites never materialized.

Meanwhile back in Germany, the first of two Gestapo raids on the Bruderhof occurred in 1933. Eberhard was not intimidated and sent off reams of documents to the local Nazi officials, explaining his vision of a Germany under God. He even wrote to Hitler, urging him to renounce the ideals of National Socialism and to work instead for God’s kingdom – and sent him a copy of his book Innerland. Not surprisingly, this letter was never answered.

Following the raid, Eberhard quietly began the process of evacuating the community’s children to a new property in Liechtenstein. When a Nazi-sanctioned teacher showed up to take over the school in 1934, she found no pupils waiting for her. With hostilities in Germany rising, the whole community soon moved to Liechtenstein, but did not stay for long; from there they left for England, and later Paraguay. Remarkably, not a single member was ever deported to a concentration camp.

Eberhard did not live to shepherd them through these changes, however. His death came suddenly in 1935, the result of complications following the amputation of a gangrenous leg. Under very trying circumstances, others took up the work he had begun – and it survived.

“It may seem strange that such an insignificant group could experience such lofty feelings of peace and community, but it was so,” Eberhard wrote 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.”1

1. Eberhard Arnold: Selected Writings (Orbis, 2000)

Read a full biography of Eberhard Arnold, Against the Wind, or visit our Books page to learn more.