This article is the third in a series on Eberhard Arnold and National Socialism. It follows Emmy Barth’s study, An Embassy Besieged, and page numbers are given in parentheses. The first article can be found here.
Image: Building construction at the Rhön Bruderhof.
Nazi Interest in the Bruderhof: October–December 1933
On October 14, Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and the disarmament negotiations that had been taking place. The powers couldn’t agree on a way forward, and Hitler found their demands unreasonable and degrading. A plebiscite for November 12 was announced to gauge public support for this move, though some communities, such as the Bruderhof, feared that abstaining or voting “no” would have adverse effects for them. (The plebiscite was to take place at the same time as the parliamentary “election,” though opposition parties had already been banned.)
Germany’s withdrawal and the upcoming plebiscite marked the nation’s further descent into totalitarianism. A week later, Eberhard revealed, “Every day I am astonished that we are still allowed to be together, still in this place.”1 On October 27, he visited the district administrator in Fulda to enquire into the possibility of voting “no” in the plebiscite. The administrator replied that such actions would land the community in a concentration camp. This was deeply distressing, and on the way back to the Bruderhof Eberhard slipped and broke his leg. The doctor prescribed six weeks bed rest.
Back home, Eberhard penned six letters to Nazi authorities. Barth provides generous quotations from these, including the entire content of a personal letter to Hitler, and a transcription from the meeting in which Bruderhof members discussed and offered their support for the letters. In these, Eberhard sought to clarify the history and values of the Bruderhof to officials, seeking the community’s welfare in a hostile and threatening Germany. He wrote to Hitler, “Our Bruderhof in Germany pleads with our beloved Reichskanzler to grant the Hutterian Brethren in Germany today the same freedom of conscience that Prussian kings once granted to the Mennonites, who have similar beliefs. We brethren, as ministers of Jesus Christ, cannot participate in military service or in government or judicial actions because we believe that love is the highest good.” Toward the end of his message, Eberhard issued an implicit challenge to Hitler, that he follow instead in the way of Jesus: “We entrust these documents to our beloved Reichskanzler and ask God from our hearts that at God’s hour he may become, instead of a historical instrument of supreme state authority, an ambassador of the humiliated Christ.”2
Eberhard and other Bruderhof members also discussed the community’s options in regard to November 12. He recommended that each member, rather than supplying a simple “yes” or “no,” submit statements on the day to express their views. In full, the statement reads:
My conviction and my will bid me stand by the gospel and for the discipleship of Jesus Christ, the coming kingdom of God, and the love and unity of his church. That is the one and only calling God has given me as mine. In this faith I intercede before God and all men for my people and their fatherland and in particular for their Reich government with its different calling, given by God, not to me but to my beloved rulers Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler.3
On the day, the community walked to the polls and submitted their statements, which they had pasted to their ballots. Two election officials turned up at the Bruderhof so that the bedridden Eberhard could submit his vote as well. On November 14, the local newspaper published the election results: “The Bruderhof’s statements had been counted as ‘yes’ for the plebiscite, and ‘not valid’ for the parliamentary election” (98).
Less than one week after the election and plebiscite, on November 16, “around 8:00 in the morning, the Bruderhof was stormed by 140–160 uniformed men: armed SS, rural policemen, and Gestapo, led by Inspector Dr. Hütteroth of the Gestapo office in Kassel” (98–99). Barth provides a carefully reconstructed account of the day, based on numerous primary sources. The men formed a circle around the Bruderhof land and descended on it from all sides. Many had been gathered together on short notice from other villages, such as Gelnhausen, which was twenty-five miles away, to quash any hints of communism that were allegedly brewing within the community.
The first interactions were tense. Bruderhof men were commanded to line up against the wall, with one SS raider drawing his revolver to speed up the process. They thought they might be shot. The raiders searched them and the immediate environs for weaponry but found none: “They kept asking where the weapons had been buried. ‘We are Christians. We have no weapons,’ Heiner replied. At this they laughed” (99). The men were herded inside and they, along with everyone else present, each received a comprehensive questioning, which was transcribed. Moni, Emmy’s sister, “had her wits about her. She closed the door to Eberhard’s room and told the intruders she must first treat the sick man. There was a little wood-burning stove in the room, and into it she threw potentially incriminating documents – meeting transcripts, notes, and letters containing Eberhard’s sharpest criticisms of the Nazis” (100). Nonetheless, the raiders turned the buildings upside down looking for seditious material. Each book with a red cover was confiscated from the library on suspicion of its communist content. Finally, at 5pm, after nine hours, the contingent left.
Whatever distress the event may have otherwise caused the community, the members had stood together in their convictions, answering questions calmly and honestly. “To their amazement, the police got the same answer from everyone they questioned…. ‘There is a peculiar unity here,’ one of them said. ‘Nobody is afraid’” (101). Afterward, Eberhard wrote to the lead inspector on November 20 and even thanked him for the visit! He continued, “We are happy that the governments of both the Reich and the State of Prussia are now in a position to ascertain the real facts and true state of affairs with respect to all the complaints made against our brotherhood, which up to now we have had no opportunity to respond to.” But Eberhard also expressed his disappointment. He had hoped to engage in “a heart-to-heart talk” over the Bruderhof’s aims and values but felt this had been denied him: “After so many of you visited, the one point that grieves me deeply is that in proportion to the rest of your investigation you all took so little time to inquire about my and our inmost thoughts and feelings.”4
After the raid, the Bruderhof focussed on two major questions, the future of its education program and the future of the community itself. On November 16, an officer had remarked that there was basically nothing wrong with what Bruderhof adults wanted to do and believe in their own time; it was their influence on the children in their care that was of concern to the state. In response to this, Eberhard began writing to the authorities, requesting that the children not be sent to the nearest school as this might result in harassment, and the daily journey would be a difficult one for some of the children. He recommended instead that a Nazi-approved teacher be supplied. The Bruderhof would provide the teacher free board and a suitable salary.
There was a large number of foster children resident at the Bruderhof. Many who grew up in the community later remained there for the rest of their lives. But others were reclaimed when their guardians committed to Nazism. Trudi Hüssy, the Bruderhof teacher, recalled a number of such situations. She writes of one, “One evening in November 1933, there was a knock at the door. Karl Erhard’s father came in, dressed in a storm trooper’s uniform. He greeted us with, ‘Heil Hitler!’ and produced an official document to the effect that he was to take the boy with him. There was nothing we could do.”5 Still other children were sent back to their guardians temporarily while a solution to the problem of education at the Bruderhof was sought.
On December 5, the Fulda school inspector showed up. “On this visit, the children in Lene Schulz’s class answered his questions well in math, geography, and history. But when he asked them to sing one of the Nazi songs, they didn’t know it. Neither could they answer where Hitler was born or what he had done for the German people” (110). Not long beforehand, Bruderhof member and Swiss national, Hans Meier, had travelled to Switzerland to make enquiries. He found a Christian commune willing to look after the children, but the government wouldn’t allow it as they wanted to keep a good relationship with the Nazis in Germany. A trip to Czechoslovakia yielded similar results.
A meeting was to take place on December 11 between Gestapo and regional officials to further discuss the situation with the children at the Bruderhof and perhaps also the Bruderhof’s fate. They allowed Eberhard to make a submission, and he supplied a lengthy response, which Barth calls “the most comprehensive statement in writing by the Bruderhof to make clear its position to the National Socialist government” (114). Key aspects of the community’s survival strategy under Nazism can again be seen in the document. For example, Eberhard offers a four-point positive affirmation concerning various aspects of Nazi ideology and practice: commitment to the common good, commitment to community, and the fight against unemployment. Point three is worth quoting in full. Eberhard praised the regime for “ridding the public atmosphere of the spirit of bolshevism, of mammonistic corruption, sexual impurity, and marital unfaithfulness – a cleansing also strongly demanded and represented as part of our church’s task.”6
But this was not an uncritical embrace of all things Nazi. Records of other statements demonstrate sentiments quite the opposite of these, and Eberhard was making a concerted effort to speak to whatever traces of goodness may have remained in the movement. He proceeded to offer a strong case for allowing the Bruderhof way of life to continue under the regime: “The present government insists more strongly than ever before on the primacy of the state, which claims absolute authority and dominates the nation with its ideology. For a church bound to Christ, obedience to God and dedication to his kingdom take precedence over everything without exception and must remain paramount. We are profoundly disturbed that in the present situation anyone pledged to that obedience and commitment inevitably comes into a severe conflict of conscience.”7 If the Bruderhof could not be allowed to continue, Eberhard went on, they would need to migrate. He addressed a number of other issues as well in the letter, and he included another request that the children be allowed to continue their education at the Rhön Bruderhof, perhaps under a Nazi-approved teacher.
In the following weeks, Eberhard wrote more letters to other officials around the country to make similar requests. The German government even received a letter from the North American Hutterites – perhaps originally drafted by Eberhard, Barth suggests – emphasising their bond with the Bruderhof in Germany and advocating for their security. A friend of the Bruderhof’s living in Birmingham, Otto Piper, had heard about the November raid. He wrote to the German embassy in support of the community.
Eberhard was still recovering from his broken leg at this time. Although now able to get out of bed, he was still heavily dependent on his crutches. Because of these restrictions, Hans Meier and Hannes Boller left on December 18 for Berlin in Eberhard’s place. While delivering letters, the two stopped by at the Gestapo headquarters to further advocate for the Bruderhof’s future. Meier’s notes from the visit demonstrate that things were perhaps worse than they thought. The representative they spoke to made a call and read through the relevant documentation. He pointed to several criticisms of Nazism recorded in confiscated meeting transcripts, as well as references to “Christian communism.” Meier recalls his verdict: “Gentlemen, this material would be quite sufficient for a dissolution, and I cannot represent a more lenient approach. The decision is in the hands of the regional governor in Kassel.”8
Alongside official visits, Meier and Boller also visited the Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh. He wanted to help the Bruderhof but found no case for unity in the community’s plea for special recognition. Generally, Mennonites in Germany had long since abandoned pacifism and were now willing to serve in the military. The two also met the Lutheran Martin Niemöller, a major figure in the later Confessing Church. Although protesting state intervention in church affairs, however, Niemöller was anything but a pacifist. He couldn’t support Bruderhof calls to be exempt from military service. Recalling Hardy’s experiences in Birmingham and the increasing distance between the Bruderhof and Leonhard Ragaz, Barth concludes, “The Bruderhof stood alone. Neither the English Quakers, the Swiss Religious Socialists, the German Mennonites, nor Lutherans who opposed Hitler would join them in the witness they wished to give” (124).9
As Christmas approached, the community began to run low on funding: “The raid of November 16 had created quite a stir locally and damaged the Bruderhof’s business relationships. Word went around that the sale of books and craft items, the children’s home, and the Bruderhof school were being closed down. It became known, too, that the Bruderhof’s open door and lively guest traffic would be ended. All their sources of income were now being choked off; basically the only income left came from farming” (126). Creditors arrived to claim money. But the community still held out hope of celebrating Christmas – if anything on the pattern of the first Christmas, with Jesus born in the lowly manger.
1. Overview and Literature
2. The Bruderhof under Nazi Rule: January–September 1933
3. Nazi Interest in the Bruderhof: October–December 1933
4. The Establishment of the Alm Bruderhof: 1934
5. Escape from Germany: 1935
6. Exiled to England: December 1935–1937
1. Meeting Transcript, October 21, 1933 (EA 170), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 83.
2. Eberhard Arnold to Adolf Hitler, November 9, 1933, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 88–89.
3. Emphasis original, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 95.
4. Eberhard Arnold to Inspector Hütteroth, November 20, 1933, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 104–6.
5. Trudi Hüssy, unpublished memoirs, “Children in Bruderhof Life,” cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 109.
6. Eberhard Arnold, “Material for the Meeting about the Bruderhof,” cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 114–19.
7. Eberhard Arnold, “Material for the Meeting about the Bruderhof,” cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 114–19.
8. Hans Meier, transcription of shorthand notes, December 18, 1933, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 122–23.
9. Nonetheless, the Bruderhof had its friends in North America who, though they could not offer any financial support, wrote letters in support. Barth also mentions Eberhard’s friend, Karl Heim, who was a professor in theology at Tübingen. Of this letter, Eberhard explained, “It is especially reliable because Karl Heim does not share our position.” That is, Heim believed the Sermon on the Mount, interpreted literally, was not binding on Christians and could be read in a number of different ways. The quote is from “Material for the Meeting about the Bruderhof,” cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 114–19.