THERE are many general books on the Third Reich and the Holocaust with astronomical numbers of victims and perpetrators. In this admirable monograph, diligently researched and well-documented, Ian Harker gives us instead a single case-history. It is “extraordinary” in many respects, beginning and ending not in urban, anti-Semitic Munich, but in rural Schleswig-Holstein, conservative and nationalistic, but with practically no Jews.
The Churches, Catholic and Protestant, did little to support the fragile Weimar Republic. For the Lutherans, the peculiar doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was conducive rather to abdication from politics than to active engagement. Yet Ernst Biberstein was a convinced Nazi from an early stage, not an opportunist. He joined the NSDAP in 1926, never questioned its tenets or leadership, and remained loyal to the end.
He was an equally convinced Christian, and his deep, personal faith in God never wavered either. He seems to have sleepwalked through his career in infamy, starting as a Chaplain in the SA and leaving the ministry in 1935 for a stint in the Main Security Office in Berlin, before becoming Gestapo Chief in Upper Silesia and eventually SS Commander of an Einsatzgruppe (murder squad) in the Ukraine.
The unprecedented Nuremberg trials broke the bounds of contemporary jurisprudence. Even so, Biberstein’s claim to have known nothing is incredible, and his plea that he was merely obeying orders is shameful. He was sentenced to death, but served only a short prison sentence. A disquieting feature of the period is the attempts of the church authorities to get released and to rehabilitate their own people, apparently more concerned for criminals than for victims.
Is Christian faith a mitigating or an aggravating factor? Harker has no doubt about who has the greater sin. Biberstein never showed any sympathy or remorse; and he died as a handyman in an old people’s home at the age of 87. His case reveals the inadequacy of an exclusively individual faith and of the standard interpretation of Romans 13 as an unconditional command to obey “the powers that be”, taken in isolation and used as an excuse for collaboration with the powers of darkness, when they turn demonic, as in Revelation 13 and, indeed, in Germany 1933-45.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.
Pearls Before Swine: The extraordinary story of the Reverend Ernst Biberstein, Lutheran pastor and murder squad commander
The Holocaust Study Centre, Canterbury £7*
*copies are available from the author, firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 07908 633878.