BERLIN - The question of what turned German soldiers on the Eastern Front during World War II into brutal murderers has been very much on the national mind since the airing of the recent German TV trilogy “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” (Our Mothers, Our Fathers).

What made people brought up with middle-class values massacre civilians and let their prisoners die of hunger, pursuing a course of annihilation that amounted to systematic genocide?

Answers fill whole libraries. Arguments include ideological indoctrination, anti-Semitism absorbed from previous generations, anti-Communism, racial or cultural arrogance, and not least theology – because most of those following Hitler’s orders and carrying out the war across Eastern Europe had been raised as far more serious Christians than we can imagine today.

Nevertheless, belief in the message of Christ did not stop the lack of restraint and inhumanity. On the contrary – it seems to have acted as a spur for the removal of all civilizing reins. The war against the Soviet Union was a crusade of the Christian West against Bolshevism and Judaism despite the fact that at its core the Nazi regime’s ideology was anti-Christian.

Today, we tend to remember the opposite picture. The thinking of Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is prevalent in German churches today. But in 1940 Bonhoeffer was a lonely voice when he said “We the church must confess that we have not proclaimed often or clearly enough the message of the One God [...]. She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. The church must confess that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred, and murder. And that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims.”

Because of such statements, Bonhoeffer was executed – on express orders from Hitler – at the Flosssenbürg concentration camp in 1945.

Bonhoeffer (source: wikipedia) 

Ideological weapon

Just how Christian belief could be twisted into an ideological weapon during a war of annihilation is illustrated by a report written by the pastor of the Wehrmacht’s 7th Infantry Division, which is kept in German military archives. The Protestant minister worked alongside a Catholic priest in the elite unit that had been created in the 1920s in Munich as the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment (also referred to as the List Regiment) in which Hitler had been a runner during World War I.

From June 22, 1941 to the end of the war, the 7th Infantry Division was deployed on the Eastern Front. Their files indicate that the unit felt bound to a particularly strict code of military honor.

Even the notorious Reichenau Order – Field Marshal von Reichenau’s secret “Order Concerning Conduct of Troops in the Eastern Territories” dated Oct. 10, 1941, stating that “the soldier in the eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war but also a bearer of ruthless national ideology and the avenger of bestialities which have been inflicted upon German and racially related nations” – was communicated to this elite unit much later, and even then only incompletely. For a long time, the type of atrocities against civilians that other units deployed near the 7th Infantry engaged in remained absent from its legacy.

In his report covering the period from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 1943, pastor Grieninger sums up on two cramped pages the “pastoral care given to the [7th Infantry] troops: Participation in services can be described as excellent. The man on the front line knows about the importance of a strong heart and the power of belief on good – and bad – days."

Unlike other divisions that were created later than the 7th Infantry and were often less well equipped and trained, the men in this proud Bavarian unit of longstanding tradition were staunchly loyal to their religious beliefs, Grieninger reported. His account was accepted by his superiors who allowed him and his Catholic colleague – this it itself was unusual enough – to continue their ministry.

Grieninger wrote that the power of religious belief was imperative to be able to withstand both the physical and spiritual burdens of combat, and that the soldiers were devoting their lives to protecting the fatherland that had been given them by God.

God didn’t put us in this world to be happy, the pastor preached, but rather to make us "Rise above our egos. Heartless blind fate is not at work here but rather our Father’s holy love. Trusting in this divine guidance summons us to service despite the dreadfulness of war.”

Such words have often been spoken in the past, and still are. That the pastor – even in this official report that would be read by other departments – avoided using pompous Nazi rhetoric is to his credit. Nevertheless it was only a short step from this theology of "divine guidance" to that of Hitler.

Reinhold Krause, the Berlin head of the Deutsche Christen, a pro-Nazi protestant movement, said in the 1930s: "Our religion – in the sense of fighting, heroic Christianity – is the honor of the nation."

Deutsche Christen aligned itself not only with the anti-Semitism of the Nazis and their “leader principle” – the Führerprinzip – according to which the word of the leader was above the law, but aimed to set Protestantism in Germany up along the same lines. This led to a schism within German Protestantism and the creation of the Confessing Church of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a founding member.