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Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Salvation Army in Hitler's Germany: The 1930's.

Research is currently being conducted into the above with a book due out in the relatively near future. I am here only looking at the 1930s. As a Christian historian, I have spent many years studying how the various churches reacted to National Socialism. There has in historiography generally been a broad look with some specifics as well as individual stories. Throughout this though, the Salvation Army has remained something of an enigma. This is partly due to the paucity of extant records through war-time destruction, but also due to a desire - common to all religious movements - to distance themselves from the Nazi era.

In the last sixty years in Germany we have gone through the loss and guilt and are now interested in achieving a fuller understanding. The younger generations in particular want to know the facts. The Salvation Army was part of that time and here are some of the questions looked at, some of the material uncovered and some of my personal views.

Let us say straight away that at no time did the International Salvation Army endorse the Nazi Regime. What limited documentation survives indicates that International Headquarters treated the NSDAP with tolerance towards a necessary authority within which to work. Struggling to cope in 1934 - 5 with the still visible effects of the world-wide Great Depression, Hitler seemed able to bring at least stability and to many people, hope. The Salvation Army's continuance in socio-religious work and as a moderating/stabilizing influence in Germany depended on working with the government in power.

International Headquarters in London liked to know what it could about the country's and their leaders in which the Movement operated. It liked official endorsements from those leaders (note President Theodore Roosevelt's well publicized words and support for the Salvation Army). The writer has seen a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf - in English - which was apparently kept in the Library at I.H.Q. (clearly purchased from the Red Cross which was selling copies to raise money for disabled service men). Certainly Salvation Army youth and music group visits to and by other countries were encouraged. Pictures remain of Salvation Army flags being carried alongside the swastika in several countries.

Did the officers however support the regime as anything more than a pragmatic approach to keeping the Salvation Army alive in an increasingly repressive Germany or was there a genuine support for the NSDAP? Many officers certainly adopted the pragmatic line and as time went on, were (at least privately) anti-Hitler. These officers tended to be non-German. The majority (who were native German almost without exception) followed their countrymen in the increasingly nationalistic late 1930s. This is not surprising and as it appears that IHQ was adopting a wait and see what happens approach (perhaps not wishing to upset the government), understandable.

It is also worth suggesting that as Salvationists were in some cases attracted by dictatorial organization, working within a clear dictatorship as Germany had become held no fear as it was perhaps an understandable way of operating. A few surviving letters from officers however show that there was a genuine fear that there would be a communist takeover in which, as in Russia after 1917, the Salvation Army would not be allowed to operate.

What is most interesting is why the Salvation Army was allowed to continue after other Protestant Churches were forced to close. There is very limited anecdotal evidence that Hitler knew of the good works of the Salvation Army in the immediate First World War period. In being part of the German Army's post World War One crackdown on left-wing groups, he attended rallies of workers - some of whom were being helped by Salvation Army relief efforts. What would he have seen - a militaristic, dictatorial organisation devoted to the good of the people!

During the 1920s and early 1930s on his way to power, Hitler used many places for his speeches and there is a photograph apparently showing him inside a large hall with a Salvation Army emblem on the wall. (It is hoped to date and establish the hall's identity for the book although many senior retired and active officers here and abroad are still of the opinion that saying nothing is the best). This is not surprising and an enhancement shows in the audience not only civilians but people in a variety of uniforms. Why was he using such a hall? Had he been invited to do so? If so, is it important? I think that should the picture prove accurate, it only suggests that Hitler was willing to use whatever means he could to get his message across. (Conversely, in these days when Army halls across Europe are let out for any variety of private uses and government agencies, we should not forget that 80 years ago, their usage was more carefully controlled).

Further evidence will be forthcoming that once in control, Hitler realised that as the social work programme he would introduce needed support, what better organisation to help than the Salvation Army. It is expected to show that in return for favours (be they financial or merely being allowed to remain as an identifiable entity), the Salvation Army was allowed to continue its work. Would there be anything wrong in be able to demonstrate that as in the USA today, the Salvation Army was in receipt of government funds allowing social work to continue alongside its religious activities? If there was no demonstrable financial support, is there a difficulty with the idea that the Salvation Army survived for some time in an increasingly harsh regime?

These are hard questions and perhaps the answers will be surprising. We have a last chance to talk to those few who were involved and certainly their memories are being recorded. In the question of a Church at a particular moment in history, there are other issues in the world facing the churches. Many movements balance the pragmatic issue of survival with the desire to speak out - the Salvation Army in the Southern USA with their segregated Corps, and the Salvation Army in apartheid South Africa are two other examples historians will continue to explore.

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