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Book review: Between God and Hitler: Military chaplains in Nazi Germany by Doris L. Bergen

10 November 2023

This author contributes something new, says Natalie K. Watson

MANY books have been written in the past 75 years or so on various aspects of religion in general, and the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches in particular, during the Third Reich. Names such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Ludwig Müller have become part of a mainstream narrative that centres on the split between the German Christians and the Confessing Church. So, is there anything new to say or even to explore, and what purpose would it serve?

Alongside those who ask “Where was God in the atrocities of the Second World War and the Holocaust?”, one could also ask “Where were the representatives of official religion?” And, here, Doris L. Bergen’s monograph on military chaplaincy in Nazi Germany makes a remarkable contribution to exploring new ground. The relationship between the Nazi government and Christianity is a complex one, but, to all intents and purposes, Nazi Germany was a country that claimed (and repurposed) Christian heritage. There was an established tradition of chaplaincy within the military going back to the time before and during the First World War, and even, although in much reduced form, to the days of a largely demilitarised Germany after Versailles.

Chaplains were present at many of the most horrific crimes perpetrated during the Holocaust and the War, in concentration camps and sites of mass murder perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen in the East. Yet, somehow, there is very little written about them. What was their role, the purpose of their office? Who were they? And where would they be found? And by whom?

AlamyA German military chaplain (Roman Catholic) during a funeral, in 1940, from the Süddeutsche Zeitung

The picture that Bergen presents here is the result of painstaking and nuanced research, going far beyond a commonplace “in their own words”, taking in official documentation, some fascinating evaluation of photos, testimonies by Holocaust survivors, and some post-event narratives. The overall thesis of her book is strong: military chaplaincy served to normalise and legitimise the actions of the regime, to create and utilise a form of “manly” Christianity which could serve the war effort; and chaplains were carefully selected, “ideologically sound” men, officers in rank, and thus a far cry from the image of the “padre” who stood alongside the troops and handed out cigarettes to those numbed by the horror of war.

Bergen takes into account some of the changes that were made to chaplaincy to the armed forces in post-war Germany: in East Germany, military chaplaincy was never established, while in the West German Bundeswehr it has a strong tradition and yet a very different purpose, though also a history that attempted to disguise and legitimate some of what is documented and evaluated in Bergen’s work.

Thus there is indeed something new to say, and Bergen conveys her findings with expertise and poignancy, in a way that contributes not only to the study of the history of religion in Nazi Germany, but also, perhaps more implicitly than explicitly, to the growing body of chaplaincy studies: of what it means to work within an organisation whose values are significantly different from the Christian message of peace and love.

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, editor, and writer, living in Peterborough.


Between God and Hitler: Military chaplains in Nazi Germany
Doris L. Bergen
Cambridge University Press £30 (978-1-108487-702)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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