by Roland Blaich, 1998 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer
Tonight I am going to do what historians do: I am going to tell you a story. It is the story of two church leaders whose denomination experienced a time of shaking. The first is Dr. John L. Nuelsen (1867-1946). A German American, he had come to Europe in 1912 to serve as bishop of the Europe Central Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which included Germany. The other, Dr. F. H. Otto Melle (1875-1947) succeeded Nuelsen as bishop of the German Methodist Episcopal Church, which was organized in 1936. The focus for my story is on their contrasting response to the challenge of Nazism. As with all history, the story is incidental, as it were, for I am chiefly interested in the insights it offers.
Nazi foreign policy was hampered from the start by a hostile foreign press. It carried alarming reports of atrocities and persecution of the political opposition and of Jews, and of the beginning of a persecution of Christians in Germany. Protestant Christians abroad were particularly outraged over the church controversy within the Lutheran state churches where the so-called "German Christians" with the support of the government gained control of church administration and set about to fashion a centralized Nazi church based on principles of race, blood and soil. Their militant attack on Christian, as opposed to Germanic, tradition and values gave birth to a Confessing Church, whose leaders fought to remain true to the Gospel, often at the risk of imprisonment. This led to calls for boycott and intervention, particularly in Britain and the United States, and threatened to complicate foreign relations for the Nazi regime at a time when Hitler was still highly vulnerable. Concerned, Nazi officials sought for effective means to influence foreign public opinion. Since foreigners distrusted the German media, controlled as it was by the Propaganda Ministry, it was of limited impact. The most effective way was to shape foreign public opinion from within. And so it was that Nazi authorities discovered that Methodists and Baptists, while insignificantly small in Germany , were major denominations in the Anglo-Saxon world and offered their best chance in those countries provided their German leaders could be enlisted in the Nazi cause.
Within days after the Enabling Act of 24 March 1933 launched the Hitler dictatorship Nazi authorities approached German Methodist leaders with the request for help. Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath and Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels met with Bishop Nuelsen. They gave him opportunity to visit prisons in the Berlin area and talk with political prisoners to verify that they were being treated fairly. The Methodist superintendents in Germany and their bishop responded with telegrams to the British and American press protesting the reports of alleged atrocities. And Nuelsen joined General Superintendent Dibelius of the Lutheran Church in a short-wave broadcast to America assuring the outside world that in Nazi Germany discipline and order reigned without bloodshed.
And so began what would eventually turn into Methodist collaboration with the Nazi state. In frequent letters to editors and in articles for the American press German Methodist leaders painted a positive image of Nazi Germany. Most significant were their periodic visits to America. Since the press was always interested in news about Germany these visits were opportunities to reach wide circles of the American public. They also offered occasion for meetings with other public opinion makers. In late 1933 Bishop Nuelsen spent twenty-four days lecturing and meeting with bishops and various church bodies, including the Federal Council of Churches, and had opportunity to explain to them the situation in Germany. In 1935 he went again on a lecture tour all across America. In speeches and interviews he contrasted Hitler's remarkable achievements to the bleak years of the Weimar Republic. He credited Hitler, whom he described as a man of unquestionable character and peaceful intentions, with saving Europe from godless Bolshevism. While he did express reservations about Nazi centralization of cultural life, and about their racist policies, he stressed mostly the stability, order, and renewal of values. German streets were free of prostitutes and beggars, and unemployment was no longer a problem.
Addressing what he claimed were American misconceptions of the religious situation in Germany, Bishop Nuelsen tepidly explained that the controversy within the Lutheran Church, rather than about an issue of faith, was about organizational reform with the goal of centralizing leadership. He argued that in a state church such as the Lutheran Church, which was financed by tax money, the state naturally expected to take a hand in organizational matters. Comparing religious liberty in Germany favorably to that in European countries like Austria, Switzerland, France, and Britain, Nuelsen said that in no country did the Methodist Church enjoy greater freedom than in Germany.
Bishop Nuelsen, whose episcopal residence was in Switzerland, presided over a large parish that reached from Scandinavia to North Africa. With the Nazi Revolution German Methodists began to feel the need for their own identity, desiring to form their own episcopal church. The 1936 General Conference in Columbus opened the way for this organizational restructuring, and before long the German Central Conference elected Otto Melle bishop of the German Methodist Episcopal Church. Nuelsen remained in Switzerland as bishop of the remaining non-German area until his retirement in 1940.
The Methodist General Conference provided Germany's delegation with new opportunities to work in Germany's behalf. As senior bishop Nuelsen presided over the Conference. And once again he lectured widely across the United States. Melle had come several weeks before the General Conference was to begin so that he had ample time for a lecture tour of his own. His trip was co-sponsored by the German Foreign Office and the Reich Committee for National Health which also paid for his travel expenses. Melle's specific assignment was to lecture on the benefits of the Nazi eugenics law and on Nazi achievements in the alcohol question. Generally, he was to correct the negative image of Nazi Germany in America.
Starting in New York, Melle's speaking engagements carried him to major cities across the country. He lectured at universities, in churches, and to pastoral conferences, and he met with public opinion makers at receptions and banquets. While Nuelsen had been somewhat guarded in his remarks about Nazism, Melle openly endorsed it. "The Lord Blesses Every Step That Hitler Takes," proclaimed the headline of a New York Times article about one of Melle's lectures. Other papers, as well, described Melle as a man of "unreserved admiration for Hitler." "I am often asked," quoted him the St. Louis Star-Times, "if anything has really changed in Germany. My answer is that to me many of the things that have happened seem like a miracle. Economically, Hitler has succeeded reducing unemployment from about 7,000,000 to 1,000,000. Socially, he not only has brought new hope to the young, but has purified public life to a great extent. Plays and movies are pure now, and a parent may take his child to the theater without fear. On the newsstands pornographic magazines have disappeared. Anyone who buys or sells salacious material is in danger of being sent to a concentration camp." Melle claimed that his listeners at times voiced open admiration for Hitler. In his report to the Church Ministry he told of a meeting with some three hundred high school students in Columbus, Ohio. "I will never forget how the eyes of the young people of both genders glowed as I told them about German youth and about the Reich Chancellor, who had given to youth a renewed sense of self worth and faith in the future of Germany instead of the pessimism of the postwar years which had led to the brink of despair."
Speaking to Methodist listeners Melle compared the Nazi revolution to the American Revolution when, as he pointed out, English Methodists and even Wesley himself had then been unable to appreciate the American position. And yet out of the American Revolution was born the American Methodist church. Though controversial now, the Nazi Revolution and the accompanying church controversy might, he said, in the end lead to similar religious renewal and show the rest of the world the way. Mindful of the Methodist stance on temperance, Melle told them that Hitler gave youth "a wonderful example." He did not smoke, nor did he drink, and under his leadership Germany experienced a return to sound moral standards. At times Melle would pass among the audience a picture of Hitler with a caption that identified him as a Christian believer. His lecture tour concluded with a luncheon at the German embassy to which Ambassador Dr. Hans Luther had invited prominent religious leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Montgomery, chaplain of the U.S. Congress.
Throughout his tour Melle had kept in touch with German diplomats. He filed a detailed report with the Church Ministry and other government agencies about what he called his "service to Volk, Fatherland, and Adolf Hitler's new Reich" which, he emphasized, was coming from the heart ["es war mir ein Herzensbedürfnis"] Given the publicity which the German Methodist press had accorded his lecture tour, and in the knowledge that he had pleased Nazi authorities, Melle could now confidently face the upcoming election of the first bishop of the German Methodist Episcopal Church several weeks later.
Melle's first important propaganda assignment after he became bishop was in Britain at the Oxford World Conference on Church, Community, and State of July 1937. Because of the continuing church controversy in Germany, the Nazi state barred German delegates from attending. The notable exceptions were the leader of the pro-Nazi Baptists, Paul Schmidt, and Bishop Melle. They carefully planned their intended role at the conference in meetings with government officials in Berlin. While in Britain they were in constant touch with the German embassy which appears to have served as coordinator. In spite of Melle's and Schmidt's attempts to prevent it, the conference voted a message of concern and solidarity regarding persecuted fellow Christians in Germany. And so, at a time when the Western press carried daily reports of new arrests of prominent leaders of the Confessing Church--among them Martin Niemöller, who was well known and highly respected abroad--Melle addressed the conference, stressing that in Germany there was "complete freedom to preach the gospel," and faulting the churches for failing the German people. He expressed gratitude for the Nazi Revolution and what he called the "national resurrection of the German people" which, he said, was a sign of the grace of God: God in his providence has sent a Leader who was able to banish the danger of Bolshevism in Germany and to rescue a nation of 67,000,000 from the abyss of despair to which it had been led through the World War, the Versailles Treaty, and its tragic consequences, and to give it new faith in its mission and future. Melle's widely reported statement scandalized the delegates and much of the Protestant world, for it was taken as a stab in the back against Christian brothers in their very hour of need. In Germany, however, the Nazi press hailed Melle as a patriotic German and a man of integrity.
Two years later, in 1939, Melle went on yet another American tour. The occasion was the so-called uniting conference in Kansas City that created the United Methodist Church. As Nazi totalitarian rule had deepened, anti-Nazi sentiments abroad continued to build. In America, particularly, it reached levels of outright hostility. Among the growing number of troubling signs was an open letter of protest from the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America responding to the Niemöller trial. Under cover of de-Judaizing Germany, it said, Nazi authorities had been waging war against Christianity with the goal of de-Christianizing the entire nation. It called on the Christian world to mobilize against what they termed this "deadly attack." German Foreign Office and Propaganda Ministry officials were concerned that if this trend continued it might lead to military conflict with Germany. And so once again the German Church Ministry turned to Melle and Baptist leader Paul Schmidt requesting that they take steps "at once" to counter the adverse propaganda. The Uniting Conference offered an excellent opportunity, not only for propagandistic statements by the German bishop, but also to meet with prominent Methodists who were likely to attend the conference, such as Secretary of State Cordell Hull or Alf Landon, former governor of Kansas and Republican nominee for president. Once again Melle met with Nazi officials to plan his agenda. His main job at the conference was to prevent anti-German speeches. To this effect the Ministry also contacted Bishop Nuelsen in Switzerland who as senior bishop presided over the conference.
As usual, a lecture tour throughout America was part of Melle's task. His lecture itinerary suggests a dizzying pace. Realizing the futility of denying there were problems in Germany, Melle adopted a seemingly objective approach. He admitted that there were indeed things happening in Germany which, he said, "we will not excuse." But he reminded his listeners that America had its problems, as well. And just as Germans who might base their view of America on reports about organized crime and gangsters like Al Capone were bound to get it wrong, so were Americans who based their view of Germany on reports in a sensationalist press.
While Melle met with a receptive audience in some places, he found that the general level of hostility towards Germany had grown significantly since his last visit. Reporting back to Germany, he wrote, "We are already at war with the United States--a propaganda war." The most that could be hoped for now was American neutrality. Thus he was gratified when the Conference at Kansas City adopted a resolution against what was called the "war policy of President Roosevelt." While Melle claimed credit for this and also for influencing Alf Landon and Landon's foreign policy address to the Conference, I have not been able to verify his claim from other sources. Pleased with Melle's performance, the German embassy commended Melle for his ability to "skillfully adapt to American conditions," and recommended that the Foreign Office sponsor yet another Melle trip for the following year.
The war which began in September of 1939 ended all such opportunities. But less than a year before the war's end, in July of 1944, after the Allied invasion in Normandy diminished the hope of a German victory, Melle found yet another opportunity to serve his country as well as his church. On 5 July 1944, he took the initiative with a proposal addressed to Hitler for a propagandistic offensive directed at America. "The soul of a people is malleable," he argued, claiming special insights into the psyche of the American people. If it were possible to alienate the American people from Roosevelt and his policies, America's fighting morale would weaken. "Roosevelt has driven the American people to war with his crusade to defend liberty and Christianity. Now, however, he has joined in alliance with Bolshevism," argued Melle, and Christians were bound to be troubled by this. He suggested to press the "bad conscience" of Americans by demonstrating how religion flourished in Germany while American bombers destroyed Christian churches, and their own godless Bolshevist allies advanced to wipe out all religion in Europe. Melle recommended to reinstate radio worships in Germany, and to place news about this in the foreign press, along with a statement by Hitler blasting the false propaganda which claimed that National Socialism planned to eliminate Christianity. This, Melle reasoned, would weaken the Allied cause while building German morale. The Church Ministry forwarded the letter to Hitler's office along with its endorsement, commending Melle for his long service to the Reich. It never reached Hitler, however, since the Reich Chancellory and Hitler's secretary refused to submit it.
How effective German Methodist efforts were in influencing public opinion abroad is difficult to assess. While their efforts provided an alternate viewpoint for the media, in the long run they were not able to halt the escalating hostility of Americans, including Methodists, toward Nazi Germany. Increasingly, Methodist churchmen in America questioned the wisdom of Melle's policy, and some were quite blunt in stating "that any church that gets freedom in Germany is not worthy of being a church." In 1938 the Board of Home Missions and Church Extension of the Methodist Episcopal Church issued a statement protesting what they called the "most flagrant exhibition of intolerance and disdain for human personality" and "crimes against civilization."
What I have presented here is only a summary of the highlights of German Methodist collaboration with the Nazi state. The story has its parallels in Baptist and Adventist history. Why the Nazi state sought to enlist Methodist support is clear. Why Methodist leaders were willing to be used in this way is more difficult to determine. As is usually the case, their policies were to a degree determined by factors outside their control. The new environment of Nazi totalitarianism which posed unprecedented challenges was certainly one of these. But within this environment German Methodism itself was also changing.
Because of its foreign origin German Methodism had long struggled with discrimination in Germany, having constantly to prove its Germanness in an increasingly nationalistic society. Like other minorities which suffer from prejudice, German Methodists had to try harder to be convincing. As they did so they developed a uniquely German Methodist culture which stressed its German--as different from British and American--roots, emphasizing Luther and German pietistic tradition. As this sense of German identity grew and growing nationalism displaced their sense of global identity and solidarity German Methodists became more susceptible to the normative forces of German society. This transformation was underway for some time, but was especially evident from the start of the First World War.
When Hitler came to power, the tide of Nazism swept many Methodists with it. But strangely, perhaps, while it affected the membership, it was the pastors who were most susceptible to Nazism. Many of them welcomed the Nazi revolution as "ordained by God," and formally joined the Nazi Party. Using their Nazi connection as leverage, a powerful group of pastors and laymen even attempted to restructure and reform the church in accordance with the Nazi view. While Bishop Nuelsen was able to foil their coup, he could not prevent the German Methodist Church from becoming partly Nazified. A changing clergy and constituency in a new and highly dangerous political environment were determining factors which no leader, regardless of his ability, could ignore and which were bound to affect policy.
But whereas the people may yield to societal pressures and trends, the leader should have the historical insight and perspective to judge the times. Nor should leadership simply reflect the constituency and its wishes. Leadership does not follow, nor does it merely administrate; it leads. And as educator a leader can do much to teach and inculturate, and thus take an active and creative hand in shaping history.
It seems that Bishop Nuelsen did not lack these qualities. Not least among the requisites for leadership, Nuelsen possessed a reflective and probing mind. While a boy in Sunday school he was considered a troublemaker--a sure sign of leadership potential. None of his teachers wanted him in class because he raised so many questions and then was not always satisfied with the answers he received. He, for one, was not ready to believe without good reason for his faith or his trust. He understood early on that rarely are things either black or white, that few serious problems have quick and simple solutions, and that for the most fundamental questions there are no final answers.
Nuelsen's educational background was solid and varied. He had a strong foundation in liberal education, which he received first in Germany and then also in the United States, followed by theological studies at various universities culminating with a D.D. from the University of Denver. He also studied Hebrew, Assyrian, ethics and philosophy at the University of Halle and the University of Berlin, Germany. For 12 years he was an academic, teaching ancient languages and exegetical theology. Reflecting on these 12 years late in life he described them as "the most blessed ones for my spiritual life." A scholar, Nuelsen was the editor of the Deutsch-Amerikanische Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche (German-American Journal for Theology and Church) which circulated also in Germany and drew on contributors from various denominations. He published some twenty books and put Methodism on the map with the scholars of Germany. In the words of one who knew him well, as teacher he was "never pedantic, always inspirational; as a scholar he united brilliancy with solidity; as a theologian he was not a straightlaced fundamentalist, thank God! Not a negating modernist, thank God again! And with emphasis! He was always an Essentialist." Before coming to Europe in 1912 to assume his responsibilities as bishop, Nuelsen capped his education with practical experience in the field. He served in the ministry and evangelism, and then as bishop based in Omaha, Nebraska.
Most importantly, Nuelsen was a man of faith who found his source of strength and wisdom in a personal and close relationship with his Lord. His personal faith experience was clearly evident in his publications and profound Bible talks. He was a spiritual father to many. He was not one to confuse spirituality with a program, and he knew to differentiate between God, the church, and church organization. The latter was not the end but merely a means that might be changed as needed. Christ had taught his disciples "that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them. . . It will not be so among you." For him leadership was thus first and foremost moral leadership. He understood that authority does not simply derive from title and office; it is based on respect and trust which must be earned. Nuelsen believed in the universal priesthood and equality of all believers and thus he embraced what might be called Christian democracy. He understood that if it was to have any meaning at all, the religious liberty that his church claimed for itself must first be practiced internally. Thoroughly familiar with Roberts Rules of Order, he was a recognized authority on parliamentary procedure. But that did not mean that he was merely a neutral "vote counter," as he put it, who must not have or express any personal conviction. As chief teacher of his church, he knew he must provide the perspective needed to make a wise decision, and he must share and explain his vision. Once this was done, he must accept the decision of his constituents for his church. But as for himself, he must still follow his own conscience.
Unlike so many other clergy, John Nuelsen was neither fooled nor intimidated by Nazism, nor did he buy into any of it. Having been brought up in multiple cultural environments (he was the son of a missionary to Switzerland and Germany), he was a cosmopolitan and had no place for the narrow dogmatic racist nationalism of National Socialism. While he loved the German people and their rich cultural heritage, his allegiance was to Christ and to His Church. His nationality and ethnicity were incidental.
Given his insights and sterling leadership qualities, why then did Bishop Nuelsen use his influence in behalf of Nazi Germany? Part of the answer lies in earlier history. Nuelsen had come to Europe during a time of crisis which culminated in the First World War. During and after the First World War he had labored hard in organizing American relief for the starving population, and especially for orphans and needy children. The German government recognized and honored him for this work, and the University of Berlin awarded him an honorary doctorate. Throughout the Twenties Nuelsen used his influence in America to lobby against the unfair provisions of the Versailles Treaty.
With the Nazi accession to power Nuelsen found himself in a difficult situation. Given his record of support for the German cause, it was impossible to refuse the Nazi request for assistance without incurring the "enemy of the state" label. The consequences for the church could be harsh. For a while he thought that Nazism might overcome its birth pains and moderate. As a student of history he knew that revolutions passed through several stages. He hoped, with some reason, that by working with the government he might influence it to moderate its policies. Evidently heeding Nuelsen's warning of serious foreign complications during his meeting with Goebbels and other cabinet members, Nazi authorities had decided to limit the boycott of Jewish businesses to only one day, rather than one month, as was their plan. And Nuelsen thought that once the Nazi state entered what he called the second stage of the revolution, its leaders would increasingly feel the pain of isolation and international hostility. The more they were isolated, the more they would need the Methodist church, and the more likely they would listen to advice.
Increasingly, however, Nuelsen had grave doubts. In a confidential letter which he wrote in August of 1933 to his fellow bishops in America Nuelsen characterized Hitler's Germany as a "ruthless and unscrupulous dictatorship" where it "would require merely a stroke of the pen of Hitler" to wipe out the German Methodist Church. He saw "very little chance for Methodism in Germany" if the Nazi government remained in power. "Twenty years from now," he predicted, "its young people will have been weaned away and trained as one hundred percent Nazis." Greatly distressed, he saw "the whole work slipping away," calling it the "greatest disappointment of my life." He soon realized that Nazism "cannot be understood if considered merely as a political or social movement." It was a mystical religion, a "racial religion," complete with a "theology of Hitlerism," which was now "the official religion in Germany." "It is dogmatic, it has no need to argue and to prove; it proclaims; hammering its few doctrines into the minds of the masses by endless repetition. It is totalitarian, that is to say it claims the whole man and all of man, . . . Whoever is not 100% for it is against it. And those who are against it are not tolerated."
While Bishop Nuelsen perceived the perils of Nazism as few churchmen did, he was compelled to work with German Methodist leaders most of whom had neither his insight, his sense of perspective, nor his vision. Though an American citizen, still he was responsible for German Methodism, keenly aware that many of his pastors resented him as an outsider who did not truly understand the demands of the new age that had begun in Germany.
Increasingly Nuelsen agonized over the terrible dilemma he found himself in. He intended to resign in 1934 after he reached the age of sixty-seven because, as he put it, to create the impression that he was in agreement with the Nazi regime was incompatible with honesty. The government wanted him to stay on. As he wrote to fellow bishops in America, it was clear that underlying Berlin's suggestion that he stay on was "the expectation that the Bishop will use his position to influence public opinion in America" in favor of Nazi Germany, "in plain words to carry on a pro-Nazi propaganda. But this very thing I cannot do with a clear conscience. Dr. Melle can say in public, as the papers reported him saying, that the present religious movement in Germany is the greatest event that has happened for the last 2000 years. I cannot say that. The longer the more I find myself opposed to the Nazi regime."
But in the end Nuelsen concluded that his church in Germany needed him now more than ever, and he decided to continue until the General Conference in 1936. But it was not merely to protect the church from Nazi persecution that he stayed on and continued to use his influence abroad in Germany's interest. He feared that as he departed the German Methodist Church would sever ties with the mother church. The church in Germany would then be deprived of the moderating influence of Methodists abroad, and fall prey to rampant nationalism. At the same time, his public relations work in America assured him of Nazi support and gave him the leverage among German Methodists to keep the German church tied to the world church. It was this concern that seems to have been uppermost in his mind. Were he to fail in this quest, as he warned one of his Nazi pastors, he would then not hesitate to "sound the alarm in the Christian as well as the secular press" in America without giving heed to the consequences.
But Nuelsen's vision extended far beyond denominational confines. For some time Methodism on the European continent had stagnated and declined. As the Board of Foreign Missions considered withdrawing from Europe altogether Nuelsen pleaded with them to stay. For him the question of whether the Methodist Church maintained a presence on the European continent or not was not merely the denominational question whether or not we have Methodist congregations in a number of European countries. The issue is very much larger and infinitely more important. It is not a matter of denominational prestige. It is a question of upholding at this critical hour the gospel of the universal Kingdom of God and of brotherly love beyond the borders of the own country in the tremendous conflict with narrow, bigoted, in fact anti-Christian nationalistic interpretation of Christianity, with this modern paganism in the garb of the Gospel of Christ. The witness of our Methodist fathers against Calvinism cannot be compared in its importance with our witness against the curse of nationalistic Christianity. I am convinced that God has given the Methodist Church this particular mission in Europe. We dare not fail in this hour of crisis. If this terrific nationalistic wave in the state churches cannot be checked, there is no hope for Europe. . . . Let me stress this point. It is not a matter of denominational pride; it is the question of the supernational program of Christ over against the pernicious nationalistic corruption. This issue has never been so clearly cut and of so immediate importance as it is today.
For the next two years he tried to accommodate the Nazi state without offense to his integrity, and at the same time he sought to stem the tide of blind nationalism within his church that threatened its very Christian essence. By 1936 the tension between his duties as bishop and his need to guard his own integrity had become intolerable. "I am glad and thankful," he wrote to an American friend, "that I am relieved from this evil, that in my public speeches I have to restrain myself so that I will not endanger the entire work. I would not be able to endure this much longer." His last official duty in Germany was to preside over the reorganization of German Methodists and the election of their first bishop. Nuelsen used this occasion for a clarion call to witness: "And should it happen," he said, that the state should act in ways that are manifestly anti-Christian, then a free church is more at liberty to raise its voice in obedience to God's word. We shall not rush into martyrdom, but neither must we seek to escape it by entering weakly into compromises born in cowardice. The calling of a free church includes a special calling to witness, and thus also to be a church of martyrs when that is necessary.
Unlike Bishop Nuelsen, Bishop Melle faced no dilemma. Where Nuelsen saw peril, Melle heard the call of opportunity. While their nation teetered on the brink of the abyss he and his superintendents saw the "hand of God" at work.
It is tempting to explain Melle's collaboration simply as the work of "a man keenly able to tell which way the wind blows," a man unable to distinguish between opportunism and opportunity. The truth is not that simple. A careful reading of his public and private statements suggests that Melle himself believed in what he thought were Hitler's intentions. A self-declared patriot, he had preached the God-and-country gospel long before the start of the Hitler dictatorship. In 1921 he appealed to young German-American Methodists not to forget that "in your veins flows German blood, and that God has breathed into you a German spirit." It seems to have been that German spirit which moved him. Melle, it seems, was very much a product of his time, and representative of the changing face of German Methodism. His educational foundation was weak. He had taken college courses here and there, but never subjected himself to the rigors of an academic discipline. While he held a doctoral degree, which he prized highly--he always insisted on being called "Doctor Melle"--it was an honorary degree awarded by a German-American college. He became bishop via the administrative route after serving as missionary in the Balkans, as superintendent in Austria, and then as president of the Methodist seminary at Frankfurt.
A non-reflective person, Melle's speeches and essays, while oratorically impressive, were shallow. He was a cheerleader, not a thought leader. Melle seems never to have been plagued by spiritual struggles or self doubt. Born into a Methodist family and indoctrinated into the Methodist faith, he is typical of so many in the church who have simply been handed the "truth." They have never searched, have never questioned and struggled, and have never experienced a time of shaking. They simply act. But, to possess your inheritance, says a German proverb, you must first struggle to acquire it.
What Melle lacked as a scholar and thinker he tried to make up for as a doer, as a man of decision, a mover and shaker. He engaged a great deal in self-promotion, projecting himself as a man of vision and destiny. His propaganda trips abroad were always accompanied by a flurry of news reports about them in his church press. He was a successful fund raiser, especially when in America. While Nuelsen preferred to be an educator and consensus builder--a role in which he ultimately failed--Melle preferred to work behind the scenes. A drill-sergeant in the First World War, he valued organization and control. His leadership style was authoritarian and fit the Nazi führer principle.
A leader must have vision and be able to judge the times. Melle thought he did. In 1925, years before the Nazi revolution, Melle had thought he sensed a turning point approaching in the history of German Methodism, and he wondered whether they would grasp the true significance of the times ahead. Judging the times in 1933 "by the light of God," as he said, it seemed clear to him that God had answered their prayers. To be sure, God had not yet sent a religious revival. But He had "given us in Adolf Hitler a great political leader." Melle believed with "profound conviction," as he put it, that in the Third Reich the time of the Free church had come, a time which their Methodist forebears had "hardly imagined," and with it the chance to move into the mainstream." In 1938 he felt certain that history would "detect God's leading finger" in their work.
The proof of a policy is in its results. And Melle saw some of his hopes fulfilled as his church received special consideration. The Methodist Church attained status as a corporation of public law, a privilege later to be explicitly confirmed in the annexed Warthegau where all other churches lacked legal footing. Methodists received permission to buy a Jewish synagogue. Hitler became godfather to a Methodist pastor's son. And a Methodist congregation requested and received a major gift of 10,000 Marks from Hitler for the purchase of an organ; the so-called "Hitler organ." It was by far the largest gift ever by Hitler to a church, and made for "propagandistic reasons," as a Nazi memo states. Whether these attainments were worth the sacrifice in principle and integrity was openly discussed abroad. In Nuelsen's judgment it was "a rather disastrous gift." American Methodists were quite embarrassed when Christian Century reported on Hitler's gift in an editorial entitled, "Will Hitler Adopt the Methodists?" and described German Methodists as "the one church group in Germany willing to play ball with Hitler."
On the surface it appears that Melle's advocacy of German interests was consistent with Nuelsen's policy, the essential difference being the degree of advocacy of Nazi interests to the point of outright collaboration. In reality, however, Nuelsen's policy differed from Melle's not only in degree but also in premise and intent. Nuelsen's work as a friend of Germany was born not of political calculations but of moral constraints. Melle, on the other hand, sought collaboration in order to advance the interests of his church and because he saw it as a patriotic duty.
The history of the church in times of adversity often exposes flaws that are normally hidden. One of the most disconcerting aspects of church history in the Nazi era is how easily Christians were swept along. Bishop Nuelsen's critique of his own church may help us understand why. Aside from the obvious issue of crossing the line of separation of church and state, the most serious problem, it seemed to him, was that nationalism had found a home in the church. Unable to differentiate between God and country, Christians had never asked themselves whether they were Christians who happened to be German, or Germans who happened to be Christian. For all too many, it seems, the honest answer would have been the latter. Nationalism was--and still is--a powerful force.
On the other hand there was the otherworldly pietism of German Methodism. It confined itself to a "limited pietistic gospel of strictly personal piety," a private religion separated from life, as it were. Its mission focused on self-preservation and self-promotion--which naturally included evangelism--with little sense of responsibility to the world. Naive and ignorant as they were about the affairs of this world, it seemed appropriate to simply quote Romans 13:1, "Be subject to all authority," conclude that Hitler had been ordained by God, and abdicate all personal responsibility. This kind of Methodism left no room for a prophetic voice, which was considered political meddling. While thus silent on the crimes of the Nazi regime, the church used every opportunity for applause.
A time of troubles highlights the critical role of leadership, and the dreadful responsibility that comes with it. To always place principle and integrity before expediency and institutional interests is no easy task considering that the leader is responsible for the welfare of the institution. Accused after the war of yielding to the Nazi temptation, Melle claimed that because of his policy the church had survived the Nazi years. This may well be true, but not as the voice of truth in a chorus of lies, not as a light illuminating the darkness of evil, and not as an instrument of peace and justice. A church that loses its moral fibre and its prophetic voice loses its reason for existence, as well.
I belong to yesterday's generation of historians who believe that history--any history--offers enlightenment and understanding to thoughtful people. This story is not so much about what Germans and what Methodists have done. It is about what humans do. As it happens, Methodist collaboration with the Nazi state had its parallels in other denominations, including our own, and so in a way this is our own story, as well.
As I reflect on the Methodist, Baptist, and Adventist experience in Nazi Germany, my distinct impression is that these churches were led by men who were sadly inadequate to the task. The notable exception was Bishop Nuelsen. In our time when once again the strong currents of society--postmodernism on the one hand, and blind fundamentalism on the other--threaten to sweep our church off its footings, we need leaders with the education and breadth of vision to be, as Nuelsen was, an essentialist. Our church will be in danger if its leaders rise to position of responsibility through conformity and by being company men. We need strong leaders, not just administrators, faithful intellectual Christians who have grasped the essence of Christianity, and who will not be sidetracked; leaders who know the difference between loyalty to Christ and loyalty to an institution; leaders who know that evil means must serve an evil cause, and that if integrity is lost there is little left to lose; leaders who understand, as Bishop Nuelsen did, that the essential mission of their church is bound up with their responsibility to the world. And we need leaders who have grown old, as it were, and experienced by studying history, and who have acquired the historical perspective that enables them to judge the times. And who knows, a critical study of history might make them be more careful before they pronounce just where God's hand is in history.
In difficult times and unprecedented situations it may be inevitable that mistakes are made. But we can make them less likely by selecting thoughtful leaders with a strong educational foundation. The ultimate test of education is how well it prepares us for tough times. Knowledge of Bible texts, devotional literature, and management is not enough. Only those deserve our trust who have honestly and critically tackled the difficult questions of life, and who in the process have experienced a time of shaking--intellectually and spiritually--before we place them in critical situations. The best place to do that is at a Christian college.
History's most monstrous crime, the Holocaust, was perpetrated by a people of whom 97% professed to be Christian. Christians in Germany experienced a time of crisis, and their leaders failed them. And so they fell under the spell of Nazi propaganda and lost their Christian moorings.
About the Author
Roland Blaich, chair of the history and philosophy department, is the 1998-99 Walla Walla College Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, an honor given to one faculty member each year in recognition of academic scholarship and service to WWC. Blaich presented his lecture, "A Church in Crisis: Historical Reflections On Church Leadership," in November. Blaich has taught European history at WWC since 1968. His area of interest is church history. Over the years his research has focused on the experience of Adventist, Methodist, and Baptist churches in the Nazi era. Blaich has published articles in professional journals, including Church History Professional Journal, Central European History Journal and Journal of Church and State. Published articles have focused on the Adventist church in Germany during the war.
Blaich has a bachelor of arts degree and a master of arts degree from California State College. He earned his doctorate from Washington State University. In 1992, Blaich received the Burlington Northern Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has been instrumental in establishing WWC's Fine Arts and Humanities Month festivals as well as directing the Distinguished Scholar Series. He has also served as president of the Association of Seventh-Day Adventist Historians.
In addition to teaching and research interests, Blaich enjoys nature photography, landscaping, classical music and traveling.