Eberhard Arnold and National Socialism, Part Two

Avoiding covert resistance on the one hand and complicity and compromise on the other, Eberhard Arnold guided his community in the face of Nazi threats. They continued to witness to the kingdom of God in Nazi Germany until their expulsion after his death.

This article is the second in a series on Eberhard Arnold and National Socialism. It follows Emmy Barth’s study, An Embassy Besieged, and page numbers are given in parentheses. The first article can be found here.

Image: Nuremberg rally, 1937.

The Bruderhof under Nazi Rule: January–September 1933

In the socially tumultuous interwar period before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Eberhard Arnold regularly observed key events taking place within Germany and the wider world, in order to better understand the mission of the Bruderhof in this time and the needs of the surrounding people. This excerpt from a letter in 1923, when nationalist movements saw considerable growth as a response to poverty and economic hardship, demonstrates his skill in reading historical events even while living in the midst of them:

There is a sharp increase of grim nationalism. The new bitterness over the world situation is expressed not only in helpless anger against fate, in a general apathy, or in anxiety over one’s own personal life. Rather it is expressed primarily in ever wider circles of young people in hatred against the French and the Jews, [and] in tough preparations of new militaristic formations…. And yet it seems that these so-called nationalistic and swastika circles have no real content. It is again merely love to those nearest, and hatred against those further away, the common struggle for economic existence, a somewhat wider circle of empty egoism.1

Eberhard’s prescience is particularly notable in view of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch ten months later in November 1923, where the Nazi Party staged a violent coup in Munich.

The story proper begins on December 31, 1932, New Year’s Eve. By now the Nazis had seen a large increase in public support, their military strength was growing, Mussolini and the fascists had been in power in Italy for the last ten years, and Japanese militarism and nationalism continued to fuel the occupation of Chinese territories. Eberhard, citing these events and others, addressed the Rhön Bruderhof: “We stand now confronting this – a most insignificant group of people, so small and so lacking in talent that we cannot even be thrown into the scales against present events. What can we do against these political and spiritual powers? We are less than a gnat on an elephant, less than a grain of sand on the seashore, less than a drop in a bucket of water.” But the church must continue its task in obedience to God, even if from a worldly point of view this is worthless: “For it is not that you have something to say, that you have responsibilities, that you have something to bring into the world. Rather, that which is planted within you must be brought to the whole world.”2

Just one month later, on January 30, Hitler was announced Reichskanzler, head of the German government. Eberhard’s second eldest, Hardy, was studying in Tübingen at the time, and his commitment to the Sermon on the Mount sprouted lively conversations with the faculty and students. He invited his father to lecture at the university, and at the end of February Eberhard travelled there to speak on Christian witness. He encountered a palpable nationalistic fervour in the critical questions he received, with audience members calling into question the requirement that Christians be pacifists. Others, however, stayed afterward for further discussion, exploring topics such as a theological understanding of the government. Eberhard made the threefold claim that governments are instituted by God, run by human beings, and in colleague with Satan: “Unless we see these three facts together, as they are clearly shown in the New Testament, then we cannot do justice to the government.”3

Around the same time, the question of the relationship between the Rhön Bruderhof and the Werkhof came to an end. The latter had been founded in November 1930 in Switzerland by Leonhard Ragaz and others around him. Like Eberhard, Ragaz had been strongly influenced by the work of Christian socialist Hermann Kutter. Moreover, Eberhard and Ragaz corresponded and endorsed each other’s work throughout the twenties. But in 1932 the Werkhof faced sharp ideological divisions. Some members suggested uniting with the Rhön Bruderhof, a proposal Eberhard welcomed as one that would demonstrate church unity to those outside the communities. Ragaz, however, ultimately rejected the proposal, suspicious that the members of the Bruderhof thought themselves to be the only true church. The exchange “led to serious discussions in the Rhön brotherhood on the meaning of the term ‘church’” (40). Fruitfully, Eberhard concluded, “If anyone asks us if we, a group of weak and needy people, are the church of God, then we must answer: No, we are not. We are the objects of the love of God like all other people…. But if they ask, Is the church of God with you? Does the church of God come down where you are? Then we must answer: Yes, it is so.”4

Outside the community, things were moving quickly. Any last checks that would have limited Nazi power under Hitler’s chancellorship were overridden in the Enabling Act, which passed on March 23, 1933. The act gave Hitler the ability to pass laws without the assent of the rest of parliament, as well as the authority to subvert protections on civil rights that had been set out in the Weimar Constitution. Nazi power had been consolidated. During this time, the Bruderhof members continued to discern their role in the changing circumstances. On March 26, Eberhard counselled others to uncover the traces of goodness remaining in Nazism, as he had done with other social and political movements like communism and the Youth Movement: “If one encounters such a national movement by simply rejecting it, finding nothing ideal, nothing good and positive in it, one soon finds oneself completely outside it…. [W]e must find the vision to recognize the positive values in the present‑day national movement.”5

Pressure was mounting. One married couple decided they couldn’t remain part of a community that might face imprisonment or even violence. Eberhard sought an audience with Hitler himself, and the rest of the community voiced their support for his plans. He stated, “I look into the future without fear. I believe we can speak very clearly with this government, if from the first we take the initiative and openly express what we feel is positive and what we feel is negative.”6 Eberhard framed the Nazi regime in terms of the misuse of the governmental power God had given them. For the Nazis, at least ostensibly, everything was subservient to the needs of the nation. “But,” Eberhard objected, “that is not the final purpose of government: it must go further. The final purpose of governmental authority is to place the nation in the service of justice, for good against evil.”7 Moreover, the church could not be coerced into neglecting its calling, which came from God. Eberhard rehearsed the argument he would forward to the officials, “We appeal to you: allow us to live in this country – ruled by you – as a church with a quite different mandate.”8

On March 28, two days after making these statements in a Bruderhof meeting, Eberhard travelled over sixty miles north to the Hesse state capital, Kassel, to meet with the regional governor. But “he showed little interest in what Eberhard had to say, and the trip was a disappointment” (47). On the way home, Eberhard headed to Fulda. The district administrator there was more receptive, though he warned that various accusations made against the Bruderhof would have to be investigated – accusations of communism and sedition, for example.

Eberhard’s exchanges with officials prompted him to make a specific request when he arrived home. Barth summarises:

He walked through the kitchen and asked the girls to bake a cake. “I think we will soon have a visit from the police,” he explained. Two days later he asked if the cake was ready.

“Oh, Eberhard, I didn’t think you were serious!” Sophie answered.

“Of course I’m serious,” Eberhard said. “We need to be ready for our guests” (48).

On April 12, the investigation team arrived: “six rural police led by the district chief of police, five SS men, and a representative of the Nazi Party. They stayed for five hours, looking through the bedrooms, the library, and the office for anything that would ‘endanger the state’” (48). They were also welcomed with cake and coffee. Despite the apparently friendly encounter, however, the community were at unease about their future in Germany.

Ahead of May 1, which had gained increasing recognition from the late nineteenth century as a day to celebrate workers, Hitler opportunistically presented the Nazis as a party for workers and announced that festivities would take place across the country. (Not without irony, a widescale, organised crackdown on trade unions took place the following day, with headquarters closed, records confiscated, and key members imprisoned.) In keeping with totalitarian Nazi policy, the Bruderhof received a visit from the police a day ahead of May Day, in order to “make sure its members would take part in the national festivities” (54). The community gathered to discuss the event and decided it would hold its own celebrations, distinguishing itself from the strongly nationalistic character of the Nazi-approved ones.

An antisemitic, nationalist, and pro-Nazi movement was gaining ground in the churches. Hitler, too, wanted a single national church run by these “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) to replace the current system of autonomous regional churches. In July 1933, the Nazi-sponsored Ludwig Müller took up the position of Reich Bishop (Reichsbischof) in what was intended to become a unified Protestant – and perhaps later, Catholic also – national church. Back at the Bruderhof, Eberhard spoke of the increasing tendency for the church to become one with and indistinct from the world. A number of those in the community had remained formal members of the official churches. But in response to recent events, they revoked their memberships as a sign of their commitment to the gospel and disconformity with the world. Eberhard counselled the community in view of the way things seemed to be going: “We will not deliberately have ourselves arrested through human heroism. But we do want to be ready to go to prison or to be dissolved and driven out of the country if this must be.”9 He also spoke of a readiness to die for Christ if the circumstances should arise.

In late September, while Eberhard was away visiting family in Halle and Breslau, the Bruderhof was warned, by the Fulda chief of police, among others, that they would be required to join the state thanksgiving celebrations on October 1. Emmy wrote to Eberhard to inform him of the requirement. She feared it “could be the first of further difficulties.”10 The problem, it seems, was not the idea of a harvest thanksgiving itself – "We would so much like to celebrate thanksgiving with a real religious celebration and a children’s festival!” Emmy stated in the same letter – but participation in the Nazi cultural takeover. In the end, the community decided to participate, focussing on the positive features of the event, such as the celebration of creation and farming life. They donated potatoes and other vegetables from their farm as a further symbol of goodwill.

During this time, nonetheless, the Bruderhof also experienced antagonism from others in the area: “A field of cabbages ready for harvest was ravaged. Villagers resented the fact that the community’s young men were not volunteering for the SS and SA, and because they would not say, ‘Heil Hitler.’ They were often called traitors and hypocrites” (77–78).

Hardy had been studying at Tübingen up until spring in 1933 when he transferred to Zürich in Switzerland “to escape the oppressive Nazi mood” (78). After finding it difficult to make friends there, he again transferred when fall came, this time to Birmingham in England. Hardy stayed at the home of the Quaker John Stephens, who knew the Arnolds from when he had stayed in Berlin. Before Hardy left, Eberhard spoke to the community about Quaker origins – their pacifism and their radical stance on the state. But the Quakers Hardy met seemed to live quite different lives. They were ambivalent about events in Russia and Germany, and they were more interested in upholding the individual exercise of conscience – whether that resulted in going to war or not – than a common commitment to peace. A group that might have otherwise proved to be a friend in these times demonstrated once again to the Bruderhof that they were more or less alone in their stand.


1. Overview and Literature
2. The Bruderhof under Nazi Rule: January–September 1933
3. Nazi Interest in the Bruderhof: October–December 1933
4. The Establishment of the Alm Bruderhof: 1934
5. Escape from Germany: 1935
6. Exiled to England: December 1935–1937

1. Letter to Brother Lutz, 30 January 1923, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 22–23.

2. Meeting Transcript, January 1, 1933 (EA 53), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 25–27.

3. Meeting transcript, February 1933 (EA 68), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 35.

4. Meeting Transcript, March 2, 1933 (EA 71a), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 40.

5. Meeting transcript, March 26, 1933 (EA 85), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 30.

6. Meeting transcript, March 25, 1933 (EA 33/100), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 43–45.

7. Meeting transcript, March 26, 1933 (EA 85), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 45–46.

8. Meeting transcript, March 26, 1933 (EA 85), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 45–46.

9. Meeting Transcript, July 17, 1933 (EA 33/23), cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 68–69.

10. Emmy Arnold to Eberhard Arnold, September 28, 1933, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 77.