Eberhard Arnold and National Socialism, Part Four

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 Eberhard’s death.

This article is the fourth 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: A building at the Alm Bruderhof.

The Establishment of the Alm Bruderhof: 1934

On the last day of the year in 1933, the Bruderhof got a letter from Kassel’s department of education. Beginning in 1928, they had received ongoing funding for their education program. This would now be revoked. The letter also revealed that the community would not be given a Nazi-approved teacher. Rather, they were to await further instructions, which likely meant the children would need to attend public schooling. “The Bruderhof had to act quickly. Christmas holidays would last until January 8; before that date the twenty German children of school age had to be off the property” (132; evidently, children of non-German parents would not be subject to this requirement).

On January 12, a police officer checked in on the Bruderhof school, only to be told that any children of German parents had left. Friends and relatives had stepped up to take them into their care in the interim. The children soon met in Trogen, Switzerland, under the care of the single woman, Lene Schulz. “It was not an easy task. Apart from their lessons, the children and counselors had to do their own cooking, cleaning, and laundry. The woman in charge of the home, Tante Laura, was very strict. Everything had to be just so, and they were not allowed to make any noise. They felt far away and lonely” (134).

Around this time, too, the Bruderhof faced increasing pressure to vacate their land in the Rhön Mountains. On September 29, 1933, the Reich Hereditary Farm Law (Reichserbhofgesetz) passed, preventing the further subdivision of farms: “In some parts of Germany it was customary for a farmer to divide his property among his sons when he died. Over the years, this had led to the creation of smaller and smaller farms to the point that they were too small to support a family. Now the new Nazi minister of agriculture, Richard Walther Darré, attempted to win the support of the peasantry by introducing new inheritance laws with the aim of preserving farms large enough to be self sufficient” (137). The land occupied by the Bruderhof over the last six years was one that had been pieced together from such subdivisions. But the 1932 purchase of a plot in the middle of the farm was not yet complete. Its owner, Emil Möller, would use this fact in accordance with the new law as a wedge to reclaim the entire plot.

Möller stood to gain much from the reclamation, should it be approved. Not only would his original plot be greatly expanded, but over six years the community had invested much in both labour and capital in the land. Formerly unproductive zones now yielded crops, areas had been reforested, swamps drained, buildings erected, a windbreak installed, and a three-thousand-tree orchard had been planted just a year earlier. Despite protestations, an assessor arrived on January 31 to determine how the farm might be used in future, and the Reich Farmers’ Union also paid a visit. “It felt like plans were already being made for the liquidation of the Bruderhof” (140).

In addition to these pressures, in early January the Bruderhof had been informed that they would no longer be allowed to accept visitors unless they were willing to become members or were relatives of members. A guest from the Werkhof in Switzerland, for example, agreed to stay six months with the community, a time stipulated by the local police as appropriate for someone considering membership. Drifters and homeless people would need to be turned away, and the Bruderhof sent word to the neighbouring villages that no one should be directed to seek hospitality among them anymore. Now it was only the police who visited regularly, in order to check that the community was abiding by the new rules.

Eberhard made preparations for the future, whatever it might bring. His leg had not recovered, and he could see himself being imprisoned or even murdered by the state. He ordained Hans Zumpe and Hannes Boller in the Hutterite tradition as ministers of the Word. They would take respective responsibility for the Rhön Bruderhof and a new site when it was acquired.

First, the community sought new land in Switzerland. It was not granted to them, however, due to their views on compulsory military service. Eberhard then suggested the country of Liechtenstein, a tiny nation between Switzerland and Austria. He and Emmy left Germany at the end of February to assess their options. Enquiries led them to a hotel, high up in the village of Silum. The owner was interested in letting it. On the way back, after visiting a friend in hospital, Julia Lerchy, she gifted them 6,500 Swiss Francs, a much-needed offering at such a time.

The production of new craft items and the taking in of new foster children (whose guardians sponsored their education) would fund the new “Alm Bruderhof” (“Alm” is German for alpine pasture). The Liechtenstein authorities “agreed to let them stay as long as they didn’t take children from Liechtenstein, they didn’t try to convert the Catholics, and they conducted no sales in the principality” (159). Because of the country’s small size, travelling to Switzerland regularly to sell goods and to offer to foster children would not be difficult. Other challenges presented themselves, however. The site was “high on a mountain with no access road, no insulation or heating, and no level land for agriculture” (159). Nonetheless, within a few weeks the children and a number of adults had moved in. The change in situation was greatly encouraging for the community. They also attracted positive attention from people near and far. As Eberhard wrote to the Rhön Bruderhof for Easter, “Men proposed to cut us off so that we should have no influence on the world around us. But God has disposed otherwise; the world now takes more notice than ever of what, through God’s leading, goes on among us.”1

The next few months saw some minor developments in the Bruderhof story. Eberhard had to spend Pentecost in hospital back in Fulda. His leg had become crooked and was causing him continual pain. In June, Hardy (studying in England) met with the pastor-theologian and later member of a resistance movement against Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He had heard about the Bruderhof’s stand and wanted to learn more from Hardy. The two agreed on key matters such as a community of goods and nonviolence, though Bonhoeffer held beliefs about the formal structure of the church that Hardy and Eberhard felt didn’t do justice to the reality of the Holy Spirit. In regard to the Rhön Bruderhof’s farmland, their lawyer suggested submitting genealogies to establish the Aryan inheritance of the Bruderhof. Eberhard put together some records on himself and Emmy, but documentation for other members of less Germanic vintage was strategically avoided.

From June 30 to July 2, the Night of the Long Knives took place throughout Germany. Though once useful for Nazi ends, the paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung), or Brownshirts, had increasingly grown in power so that a coup was rumoured. Alongside other political enemies, they were to be deposed by the SS, whose loyalty to Hitler was not under question. Over three days, the SS carried out these extrajudicial killings, which “marked the end of any pretense at legality” (171). While many details were not made public, the murders were well-known. “Members of the Bruderhof read about these events with trembling. Eberhard said that the ‘socialist’ aspect of National Socialism was eradicated with brutal murder. Hitler murdered anyone who still tried to represent decency and honor” (172).

A document from August 1934 reveals some of Eberhard’s reflections on Romans 13. The biblical passage begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Eberhard’s thoughts on this text are reprinted in Embassy Besieged.2 Central to his argument is the distinction between God’s relativity and absolutism. Because evil exists, God is relative. He permits state power in order that human wickedness does not go completely unchecked. But God is absolute concerning love. Commenting on the latter half of Romans 13, this is the call of the church, which must have no part in state violence: “There are two regions. The one region is that of evil and of political power. The other region is that of love and of the Holy Spirit without active participation in state power.”

Following this interpretation, “Hitler is a God-appointed lord of hell.”3 But not only Hitler – Eberhard also condemns the British state for its actions in India, Ireland, and Palestine, along with the fascist governments of Austria and Italy. Further support for this claim is found in Revelation 13, where the state is depicted as a beast demanding worship. It is supported by a second beast, the false church, which Eberhard associates with the major Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Ludwig Müller, Reich Bishop of the Nazi-approved German Evangelical Church, receives special mention in this connection. With all of this in view, Eberhard’s point is that the church must follow Christ and his command to love at all times, never taking part in state violence through participation in the police or military.

Bruderhof life under Nazism saw further developments in July and August 1934. Eberhard’s older brother had died in WWI. He left behind a widow and a son. Now, that son was a young man in the SA, and he wanted to spend part of his summer vacation with his uncle in Liechtenstein. His journals from this time reveal a keen interest in the Bruderhof way of life, and he was impressed by the alternative they offered to life under the political status quo in Germany. The man, Hermann Arnold, asked Eberhard if he could join the community. Eberhard was emotional. He accepted his proposal and asked his nephew to call him Papa from now on. Hermann still had a few months schooling to complete back in Germany, however. When he returned, he wrote to officials to announce his resignation from the SA because he no longer believed in Nazi values! Thankfully, no reprisal followed.

Shortly after, Hardy came home from Birmingham to marry Edith Boeker. The ceremony took place on August 26 at the Alm Bruderhof. Trudi Hüssy later recalled of the day that “a courageous spirit was alive again, the joy that can be given when a serious fight is waged. We sensed that we were resisting the Nazi spirit, although some of us were unaware of how serious the situation was.”4 After an economical honeymoon – a hitch-hiking trip in Italy – the newlyweds moved to Zürich with two younger Arnolds, Heiner and Hans-Hermann, all four engaged in study. Hardy had also brought a number of English guests with him to the Alm Bruderhof. Four of them decided to stay and become members.

On August 2, President Paul von Hindenburg died. Hitler moved quickly to assume presidential powers, in addition to his already very generous powers as chancellor, though he did not take the title. The military was to transfer its loyalty from the constitution to the Führer, and each soldier swore a new oath to affirm this. A plebiscite was also announced for August 19. Citizens would vote on Hitler assuming presidential powers – around two weeks after the fact. Even more than the November 12 plebiscite from the previous year, it was clear that the Bruderhof could have no part in Hitler’s consolidation of military might. Eberhard, who was in Liechtenstein at the time, wrote to Hans Zumpe, counselling the Rhön Bruderhof to write to officials and inform them that the community would not be able to vote come August 19. As an added precaution, members hid in the forest on the day in order to avoid persecution.

In October, Eberhard travelled to Berlin, checking in with various officials. “On the whole, his trip was encouraging. ‘I bring comparatively favorable information from Berlin,’ he wrote. ‘A certain understanding has been found in important places. And we have good advocates in some government offices.’”5 In Christmas that year, Eberhard and Emmy celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and Emmy her fiftieth birthday. They also received a call from Heiner in Zürich on Christmas Eve. He had proposed to Annemarie Wächter. The year ended on a note of celebration.


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. Eberhard Arnold to the Rhön Bruderhof, Easter 1934, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 160.

2. Eberhard Arnold, “Christians and the State,” The Plough, Spring 1940, cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 177–82. Cf. Meeting Transcript, August 12, 1934 (EA 263).

3. These words were uttered in the safety of Liechtenstein.

4. Trudi Hüssy, unpublished memoirs, “Hochzeiten in der Zeit Eberhard Arnolds” [Weddings in the time of Eberhard Arnold], cited in Barth, Embassy Besieged, 194–95.

5. Barth, Embassy Besieged, 200, citing Eberhard Arnold to Hans Zumpe, November 7, 1934.