The Pastor of Buchenwald with Parallels

This book (see biblio info at end) is a nice companion to the Wentorf biography of this dear German Reformed pastor who died in Buchenwald. It includes a number of letters from Pastor Schneider stitched together with significant background material by his widow. Not as detailed as Wentorf, it rounds out the picture with womanly warmth. I do not propose to rehearse the basic narrative — please refer to the earlier review. Here, I list a few of the stories that particularly struck me from the book, which I present to whet the reader’s appetite with a view toward inspiring a perusal of the book. Then, I propose a few applications to our own day and age from Paul Schneider’s witness.

Paul Schneider had a deep love for his blood and soil. He was an agrarian by instinct. At age 34 he reminisced in this manner:

hochelheim“Here, on this piece of ground where my cradle stood, where I received my first impressions of childhood, I am more than ever convinced that we do well to cherish our memories of home, to remember its customs and its love. This little town, high up in the meadow land at the opening of the valley, the powerful woodland, the humble old cottages, the little shops, the street corners, the people — many of them hardly changed since I was a boy — the splashing fountains, still the same. All these capture my soul with a good, strong love. My body and my soul rest quietly in the lap of home.” (11)

During his time working as a young man as a factory laborer, “he found it much more difficult to learn what relation his Christian message had to the everyday work of his comrades. Gladly he joined his comrades in those outings that broke the monotony of the dull work; but returning to his diary, he confessed failure: “although I am afraid to wander alone, I am driven to the discovery that no one shares my interests. Loneliness frightens me and the company of men also frightens me. I have nothing more.” Which reminds of Siegmund’s lament:

Was Rechtes je ich riet,
andern dünkte es arg;
was schlimm immer mir schien,
andre gaben ihm Gunst.

But when he quit to continue his training, “they stayed up half the night bidding him farewell and, in the early morning, brought him to the train. They were genuinely sorry to see him go… He never forgot their last words to him. It was the greatest of compliments: ‘You are one of us. Try to stay like that.'” (20-21)

“What the human heart finds most difficult is courage. He has courage who is completely set free from himself and only he has it. We must learn to hate ourselves. The darkest hours of our life also lead us nearest to God and we should be grateful to him for them.” (21)

On his ministry to the sick: A dying young woman testified, “a happy dying hour is greater than the whole of life. That is what Pastor Schneider has taught me and who dare question it?” (26) By “happy,” of course, Schneider did not mean worldly euphoria, but a conscience that is reconciled with an offended God.

“Another incident is described by our deaconess: ‘I remember a young epileptic, who had a very bad attack, which lasted three days and three nights. His body was so fearfully distorted that, apart from the doctor, we all stood helpless around his bed and, despite the use of strong narcotics, we could not give him rest. The devil grinned at us from this helpless lad. Then Pastor Schneider came in and he soon had us all on our knees praying for the mercy of God. He took the sick lad in his arms and, what the nurse could not do, he did as he spoke gently to him and gave him rest and sleep. So often he had come like that.'” (26-27)

On a walk through the woods with his wife, “a gypsy encampment was pitched. The men lay round the fire. Paul went over to them and spoke to them with a sense of intense urgency. Paul did this quite naturally, without condescension, and placed before them the decisive question of accepting Christ. On the way back I used the moment we had alone to ask him to be careful. He replied that he could only promise not to seek martyrdom. But, whenever he was called to witness, he must witness, because on earth there is no other salvation for men than in Jesus Christ. My heart sank and I began to speak about his wife and children. That moment I can never forget. We stood on the stone bridge which led over the water. He looked at me with an indescribable look straight in the eyes, and said: ‘Do you think God gave me my children only that I might care for their outward needs to keep them strong in body? Do they not depend on me also to care for their eternity? And my wife? Perhaps it is for you that I must suffer, perhaps in this way and in no other can you break through to true faith.’ Silent and inwardly shaking we walked home. I can never forget.” (42-43)

In addition to these glimpses into the man Paul Schneider, there are small yet significant indications of the land and times. When Schneider arrived to his new pastoral charge in Womrath, the village hanged colorful banners in welcome. Later, the first time he was released from prison, the church bells were rung (65). Despite the stereotype of the “two kingdom” view that allegedly prevailed in Germany, there was a recognition of the pastoral office that had a public, civic aspect.

In 1936, there was an election in which one could only vote “yes” — there was no “no” box (43). We would like to see more information on this matter. What was the exact question on the ballot to which one was supposed to vote yes? There is work for a good historian to delve into.

The German Reformed were much more accommodating to symbols and days than the Scottish. The advent candles are mentioned (102) as well as “feasts” (105). However, the Reformed genius of not resting in such externalities and being willing to dispense with them when they became a hindrance was alive in Schneider and actually led to his first church conflict in Hochelheim (28-29). “Anyone who knows anything of village life, the love of old customs and their close connection with new clothes, will know what a difficult task Paul had undertaken.”

The works of German liberalism are well-known to every theology student, but there was an evangelical current in parallel. For the record, here are two authors that influenced Schneider that we may add to the list for further study: Ethical writings by K. Heim, and dogmatics by Adolf Schlatter.

The above anecdotes testify to the kind of man that was forged prior to the conflicts with the state in 1930s’ Germany. In the remainder of this review, I will advert to those conflicts with an emphasis on drawing parallels to our own situation.

The sequence of conflicts between Party functionaries and fellow travelers on the one hand, and on the other Pastor Schneider, is at once thrilling and heart-breaking. His story deserves careful reflection. But I fear that many Americans, puffed up with self-righteousness in contrast to the “evil Nazis,” and with their own part in defeating that, will be tempted to draw exactly the wrong lessons. There is actually much about the National Socialist movement that should be praised — notably, the restoration of national morale and a tribal concept of citizenship, and the fierce opposition to Bolshevism. On the other hand, where evil should be identified in the movement, I fear many Americans would instinctively adopt, in the analogous crisis of their own time and place, the very position which was on the wrong side of the fence if the analogy to Nazism were carried out.

Here, let me list the conflicts Schneider suffered with the Party, and suggest analogous situations in our own time.

1. There was first, Schneider’s zealous guarding of the rights of the church over against state interference. This was first seen in the cemetery incident (36-37). Later, he refused to turn his sermon notes over to the court, arguing that only publicly-uttered statements are properly in the jurisdiction of examination for treason (96-98). When banished, Paul “knew that this action — banning him from the Rhineland — was illegal. He must fight it. Earlier, he had maintained that the State had no right to banish a pastor from his parish unless he had broken the law…. He had been appointed to his church by God and he could not now betray his trust.” (66-67)

The nub of Schneider’s stance is in the phrase, “unless he had broken the law.” But notice that his stance is rooted in a different vision of what constitutes valid law than that promulgated by the government. How many modern churchman have in effect stated that valid law is “whatever the government says is valid law.” Romans 13 has become the shallow justification for slavish obedience, not just to courts, but even the whims of bureaucrats. Already, pastors may not get “political.” Soon, proclaiming the Bible on certain subjects will be declared “hate speech” — and how many pastors will take a stand against it? One does not have to read the blog sites of conservative churches like the OPC and RCUS very long to see how deeply entrenched this idea is even in leading elders of the church. One elder on the OPC site actually defended the practice widespread in Europe of imprisoning people for the “crime” of holocaust revisionism. (That’s when I quit that blog.) They tut-tut at the vision of Nazi students throwing books onto a bonfire; but they will look the other way if not applaud when internet censorship is introduced! (And the book-burnings were voluntary!) The mirror of Paul Schneider’s experience shows that, at that point where there is something that free men might indeed object to in the program of National Socialism, it is just there that these men fall in line with it. It is ironic indeed, but true.

2. Schneider’s second area leading directly to conflict with the state was his insistence on carrying out church discipline. The first two cases were to correct a man that angrily withdrew his child from Sunday School, thus violating the vows he had made when his child was baptized. The other was a man conspiring with “German Christians” to disrupt and subvert Schneider’s ministry. It was this situation that led to his second arrest and long imprisonment in Coblenz prior to being exiled.

But look how the instruments of the State are being used today by people to subvert church discipline, suing and threatening to sue. Churches obtain legal advice on whether and if so how to exercise discipline. Probably, most of our people do not like this development; but how many are going to take a courageous stand, even if it means losing everything, or being imprisoned? How many will not even on this issue appeal to Romans 13 to justify their cowardice? Such men should not dare to be the ones to feign solidarity with Schneider.

Moreover, the statement of discipline published by Schneider’s Session observed, “when it is suggested that the exercise of church discipline awakens enmity and divides the unity of the congregation, then it is not church discipline that is being criticized, but the false peace and false unity of the congregation.” (50)

What a great phrase: false peace and false unity. Yet “peace and unity” are often virtual maxims governing the polity of the modern conservative churches.

3. In the letter explaining why he would not vote in the 1936 election, Schneider observed, “We may well find a secular, non-Christian school forcibly replacing our own confessional school” (44). “The teachers did their best to twist the bible stories in accordance with the latest Nazi teaching (46).”

Most modern “conservatives” have completely capitulated on this issue. They are as dedicated to secular government schools as any Nazi ever was, and as indifferent if not hostile to the faithful remnant that has been resisting, as the Party was to Schneider. Not only that, but they are fully on board with politically correct speech, racial replacement, judicial sophistry, and all the other unjustified and unjustifiable winds of opinion promulgated by the secular media, entertainment, and schools. In all this, they are one with the faction that Schneider was resisting unto his own martyrdom. Substitute neo-con, Republican, or even just American for the word Nazi in the above quote, and you have it.

4. Schneider warned against requiring children to perform a mindless “Heil Hitler” at the beginning and end of every conversation, suggesting it was idolatry. (92) But how many good conservative churchmen do the same with the Pledge of Allegiance, or by requiring a National flag be planted at the front of the church?

In conclusion, the keynote phrase of Schneider’s witness may be taken as this: “the frightful seduction and idolatry of the spirit of our day.” (100)

We need to remember that when you are submerged in water, you don’t feel wet. People that think they are standing athwart the idolatrous spirit of their age yelling “stop” may actually be yelling in perfect conformity to that spirit. Think of William J Buckley, Jr.

There are many exceptions, but I fear a good number of our seemingly stalwart pastors and elders are passive fellow travelers if not cheerleaders for the form of rebellion against God that engulfs our age like a wind. They have no intention of dying for the rights of the church against the state. They will give up church discipline rather than risk a lawsuit. They work for, not against, the secular government schools. Their instinctive symbolism reeks of state-worship.

In short, most Americans have not yet even framed the question about Nazism correctly. Many of the cartoon-book evils were actually virtues. And many of the true evils of the movement characterize the attitudes of modern churchmen if anything to a greater extent than 1930’s Germany.


Paul Schneider: The Pastor of Buchenwald, by his widow. English edition is “freely translated” from Der Prediger von Buchenwald: Das Martyrium Paul Schneiders by E. H. Robinson. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1956) Lib. of Cong. #BX 9469.S35 A313 1956. The Westminster Theological Seminary Library copy was bequeathed from the library of E. J. Young.

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