EKD-Bulletin 02/2000

2 - 2000


First EKD confession of guilt over crimes against Jews

"Statement on Peace" 50 years ago

Fifty years ago the EKD admitted its share of responsibility for the Holocaust for the first time. At its session held in Berlin-Weissensee on 27th April 1950 the EKD Synod passed a "Statement on the Jewish Question". lt says. "We confess that we have become guilty before the God of compassion by our omission and silence and thus share the blame for the terrible crimes commited against the Jews by members of our nation." Neither the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt in 1945 nor the Darmstadt Statement of the Council of Brothers in 1947 had used the word Jews.

lt was Adolf Freudenberg (1884 - 1977), a pastor of the Evangelical Church in Hesse and Nassau, who took the initiative for a statement by the EKD Synod. He submitted a draft to the German Protestant Committee for Service to Israel, the specialists on the "Jewish question", in Kassel in February 1950, in order for them to recommend it to the EKD Synod.

The draft said: "Millions of Jews were deprived of their rights, robbed, expelled from their homes and murdered by German people. The objection that these facts were not known is insufficient for us to deny our responsibility for these horrendous crimes." lt went on: "Bowing our knees to God and addressing the unambiguous plea to the Jewish people, forgive us our trespasses so that we may find peace I can give the church the inner authority to say a word on peace."

The question of guilt had been haunting Adolf Freudenberg for quite some time. He was a lawyer who resigned his position in the Foreign Office because of his Jewish wife and was a member of the Confessing Church while studying theology. From 1939 to 1947 he headed the newly formed Committee for Refugees of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. In March 1943 he and Gerhard M. Riegner, General Secretary of the Jewish Worid Congress, sent a memorandum to the governments of the USA and Great Britain, appealing to them to save the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries from a "carefully planned extermination campaign".

In January 1943 Adolf Freudenberg answered a letter on the "question of guilt" which Hans Asmussen, coauthor of the Barmen Declaration" of 1934, the theological foundation of the Confessing Church, had sent to ihe WCC. "Our preaching must deal ( ... ) with our, the German people's concrete sins", wrote Adolf Freudenberg, adding that this was only possible "if we call ourselves to account in the most radical way".

This correspondence with Hans Asmussen paved the way for the first encounter between the WCC and the EKD in Stuttgart in October 1945. Adolf Freudenberg's suggestion that the confession of the responsibility for their share of the guilt for the persecution of the Jews should be included in the Stuttgart Declaration was not taken up, however. lt is a "crying shame" that the little word "Jews" is missing in ihe crucial sentence, he wrote to Hans Asmussen, who had meanwhile become President of the EKD Church Office.

Adolf Freudenberg, Protestant Chairman of the German Coordinating Council of the Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation from 1950 to 1964, continued to urge the EKD to act. He always combined this issue with the need for theological re-orientation, but this often fell on deaf ears. His initiative for a statement by the EKD Synod went too far for the "Committee for Service to Israel", which was steeped in the tradition of mission to the Jews. Nevertheless the committee asked the EKD Synod to include the "Jewish question" in its forthcoming debate on the peace issue. lt was not brought up by either the EKD Council or the Chairman of the Synod at the session in Berlin, however. In the end it was an ordinary member of the Synod, Rev. Heinrich Vogel, who suggested the confession of guilt.

Hartmut Schmidt



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