Future of 'Nazi Church' Divides Berlin

By Niels C. Sorrells
Religion News Service
Saturday, September 16, 2006


Normally, there's very little desire to highlight Germany's Nazi history here.

And normally, when it comes time to decommission a Protestant church here, it's a straightforward affair.

But Berlin's Martin Luther Memorial Church seems bound to be an exception on both counts.

From the outside, it's an ordinary church with a bell tower in need of renovation. The inside seems standard at first, until one takes a closer look at the elevated lectern. Carved into the wood is a sermonizing Jesus Christ; in the crowd gathered around him are a Nazi soldier and one of Adolph Hitler's infamous brown-shirted storm troopers.

Planned in the 1920s but completed in 1935, the church is a bizarre blend of the Protestant faith and National Socialist dogma. A carved soldier decorates the baptismal font. Tiles on the wall include Nazi symbols. The spot now occupied by a bust of Martin Luther once was filled by a bust of Hitler. Even the Christ figure on the altar's cross is strong, athletic and defiant, embodying the Nazi concept of the Ubermensch more than the traditional Jesus surrendering himself.

"You can tune it out," said Walter Jungnickel, a Lutheran minister who helps manage the church and has preached there a few times. "But it would be hard to preach and compete with this every Sunday."

The odds are against ministers having that problem in the future. Though the church remained active until two years ago, it now is slated to be decommissioned.

With its listing bell tower, the church normally would also be a likely candidate for demolition.

But that isn't such a simple option for this church.

"Before we can destroy it, we have to prove we took every step we could to save it; otherwise people will say that the church is trying to cover up its history," said Matthias Hoffmann-Tauschwitz, head of church construction projects for the Evangelical Churches of Berlin, Brandenburg and the Silesian part of Oberlausitz.

Monica Geyler and Beate Rossie, art historians with the Berlin Forum for History and the Contemporary, say demolition should not be an option at all. The two women have surveyed the church and are pushing for it to be turned into an educational facility. Other groups have suggested making the church a memorial or museum.

The problem, said Hoffmann-Tauschwitz, is money. Stabilizing the tower will cost about $1.3 million. Converting it to a memorial or museum could easily cost three times that amount.

The church is not prepared to pay that much for a building it does not plan to use, nor is it willing to give the land to just any organization. But finding a private group willing to spend money to develop a memorial is difficult. Hoffmann-Tauschwitz said a few groups have shown interest but have not committed themselves. The church is willing to search a while longer, but at some point the tottering tower will become too dangerous to ignore.

"It is clear that the church only has a future if we can find someone who can use it but can also explain it," he said.

Geyler and Rossie say it would be a shame to lose a historical building. While there are some other German churches with Nazi iconography, none has as much as Martin Luther Memorial Church.

Jungnickel says most of the congregation simply ignored the Nazi art. He says he's had to console one woman who would like to see the church stay open, since it was the church where she had her confirmation.

"She said she had never paid attention to the art," Jungnickel said. "One can't think badly of these people. It was their church."

It's an accident of history that the church is tied so closely to the Nazi regime. The building was planned before the National Socialist Party took power in Germany. Hoffmann-Tauschwitz says its basic architectural style is typical of 1920s churches.

Once the Nazis came to power, certain members of the church found ways to meld Lutheran theology with Nazi ideology, according to church officials and historians. Rossie and Jungnickel said these church members relied on anti-Semitic writings by Luther to link the church and political party. Some even tried to jettison the Old Testament and remove Jewish influences from their faith.

"It wasn't necessary for the Nazi Party to order these decorations," said Jungnickel, adding that many members of this particular congregation were more than happy to ingratiate themselves with the Nazis.

Construction ended in 1935. The church's new organ was first used by the Nazis at their 1935 Congress in Nuremberg, where the party drafted its program to exterminate Jews.

Hoffman-Tauschwitz said some of the more egregious Nazi symbols were removed in 1937 after the German government passed a law banning Nazi symbols in churches. Many more were removed after the war, especially after U.S. troops began to use the church for worship.

Many tiles in the church have empty spaces where swastikas used to be.

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