Living the Truth, Speaking to Power
A reflective review of two books by Hans A. Schmitt: Quakers & Nazis: Inner Light In Outer Darkness, by Hans A Schmitt. University of Missouri Press, 300 pages, cloth, $29.95; and Lucky Victim: An Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, 1933-1946, cloth, Louisiana State University Press, 254 pages (out of print).
What stance does one take in the face of those who have power? More specifically, do members of the Religious Society of Friends take stances different from others?
These central questions are at the heart of what Quakers feel called to be, and nowhere were these questions more relevant and potentially tragic than in Germany during the years that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi minions ruled there.
From the middle of the 17th century Children of the Light or Friends of the Truth, as they originally called themselves, felt called to direct the Light of divine wisdom into dark areas of human existence and witness to the Truth that they knew best from experience. During the three hundred years of Quaker history, few comers of life were as devoid of official light or truth as Germany in the Hitler years. It is good to be able to report that the tiny handful of German Quakers acquitted themselves well, even though there were numerous restraints on their speaking.
The phrase "speaking truth to power" goes back to 1955, when the American Friends Service Committee published Speak Truth to Power, a pamphlet ii at proposed a new approach to the Cold War. Its title, which came to Friend Milton Mayer toward the end of the week in summer 1954 when the composing committee finished work on the document, has become almost a cliche; it has become common far beyond Quaker circles, often used by people who have no idea of its origins. (One current example: Anita Hill entitled her memoir of her sensational charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Speaking Truth to Power.)
To speak truth to power sounds so much like an integral part of Quakerism that some modem Friends have simply assumed the phrase goes back to the seventeenth century rather than arriving late in the middle of ours. It reflects what many contemporary Friends would like to believe is the characteristic Quaker stance toward political authority, hallowed in practice if not the exact words. Yet in its origins it was a political statement, entitling an explicitly political document.
Our confusion about this phrase and what we think it represents is what makes Hans A. Schmitts book, Quakers and Nazis: Inner Light in Outer Darkness such relevant reading for Friends. A Frankfurt-born historian, who retired at the beginning of this decade from a productive career at the University of Virginia, Schmitt has told a compelling story about how the tiny German Yearly Meeting responded to monstrous evil.
There were only 199 Friends in Germany in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of what he believed would be a thousand-year Reich; forty-four left in the next three months, but sixty-three joined. Miraculously, the yearly meeting gradually increased in numbers throughout the Nazi years.
An American citizen since his service in the U.S. Army in World War II, Schmitt sees himself as a Lucky Victim, the title he gave his own 1989 recollections. History, he holds, works indiscriminately on people: some are in the right places, happen to meet the right people, and become "lucky," while others, in the wrong places, encounter the wrong people, and find that rather than lucky they are more apt to be "victims."
His words about his own family could easily describe almost everyone in either of his books: "They were quite as ordinary as I, never rising above respectable obscurity. But they displayed solid talents for survival under various difficulties, and some of them upon occasion defied convention." Schmitt believes himself one of these ordinary, lucky ones, simply by happenstance.
The Quaker band of believers in Germany was "lucky" in this sense, even though some fell victim to the regime they had to endure, as Schmitts non-Quaker father did. They happened to live in an extraordinary period, times demanding more than simply surviving in a specific time and a specific place; most felt compelled to do what their religious faith required. They did not so much speak truth as they did live the truth, allowing their scattered and mostly uncoordinated examples of faithfulness to speak to power.
Enough of them defied convention sufficiently to merit our admiration and attention. By their very existence and their growth during the dozen dark years of the Third Reich, these Quakers demonstrated that ordinary middle-class people could remain faithful to their testimonies and accept the drastic consequences of radical faith. In now having their history told, they continue to inspire by their example.
Some examples, among numerous ones:
Leonhard Friedrich, Treasurer of German Yearly Meeting, was taken into custody in 1942 on the Stuttgart train platform on his way to something as mundane as a finance committee meeting. Though pleading that his aid to proscribed Jews only mirrored his commitment "to the principle of Christian love, the sixty-seven year old Quaker spent the rest of the war in Buchenwald."
Marie Pleissner let drop her opposition to Germanys invasion of Poland in 1939 to one of her students, who reported her to the authorities; she endured a year in prison until her father won her release. Another Friend, arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and incarcerated by the Russians until 1949, commented sadly when the Allies executed the Nazi who denounced him that the betrayal "cost me in all 5 years, it cost [the betrayer] his life."
The example of average people like these left Quakers an inimitable legacy, one able to banish the easy and condescending modem cynicism that denies bourgeois people the intestinal fortitude plain old guts to respond creatively to injustices that threaten others and not immediately themselves. German Quakers demonstrated that it is possible to "do good" by simply being there and responding out of a base of transcendent values.
German Yearly Meeting was overwhelmingly middle-class: in 1934 one quarter of its 216 members were school teachers or librarians, there was one farmer, and the two "workers" were either skilled artisans or employed in a book shop--hardly the stuff, one would think, of principled and continued opposition to the demands of a totalitarian state. Such people fell victim early on to restrictions placed on non-Nazis in the teaching profession, yet, Schmitt reveals, none left the Society of Friends to save a job.
(One exception, whom Schmitt did not find because he did not see the Douglas Steere papers at Haverford College, enthusiastically supported Hitler. Elizabeth Krukenberg-Conze, from Bad Teinach, embraced Nazism, because she believed herself led to do so by the Inner Light. By 1937 she was comparing Hitlers actions against his enemies to Jesus expulsion of the money changers from the temple.)
Like Schmitts father, who was married to a non-observant Jew, Friends rued the rise of Hitler and the anti-Semitism that ensued. Schmitt recounts a poignant tale in his memoir, subtitled An Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, 1933-1 946, how on January 30, 1933, at the age of 11, he feigned a sore throat so he could avoid facing a difficult French lesson in school. that evening his father returned from his office at a dyeworks, rushed into the sickroom, closed the door presently a commonplace action before a serious discussion in the Schmitt household and decried the weakness of "that old asshole" of a German president who, fearing internal conflict, had appointed Hitler chancellor.
Julius Schmitt had voted Communist in the most recent election because he was worried about such an eventuality; his hapless wife had, however, opted for the winner, the aged von Hindenburg, the official who had just placed power in Hitlers hands. She endured her husbands reproach as the whole family stood by shocked at the fathers unaccustomed but strongly-felt outburst.
Changes were gradual and in some ways barely noticeable at first, even as they progressively affected the texture of German life: more people wearing the Nazi brownshirt uniform, more giving the "Heil Hitler" salute, pictures of the Fiihrer appearing everywhere, teachers explaining in class how grammatically the words "Jew" and "rogues were similar; these changes were as inexorable as the turning seasons.
Even children could not avoid getting caught up in the new regime. In September 1933, the Fiihrer came to Frankfurt to open construction of the new Autobahn. Hans, one of 35,000 school pupils taken by streetcar to cheer their leader, found himself caught up in the excitement of the moment and involuntarily gave the stiff arm salute when the fleshy-looking dictator rode by in an open car; he prudently kept this impulsive act of betrayal from his father, even though he confided in his mother.
Although Hans found some refuge in a troop of Jewish Boy Scouts, he looked too Aryan and he had not been Bar Mitzvah to remain there very long, even as a desirable "token goy." Because of his half-Jewishness, he was not eligible to attend the Saturday indoctrination sessions that were required for good German students, so he became an authentic outsider. When a peer tried to get him to join the Hitler youth, telling him that they would not hold his mothers Jewness against him, he used the standard excuse of German boys, "My father wont allow it. "And he wouldnt have, of course.
Their sons untenable position at school and with his peers agonized his worried parents. They visited a new Quaker school for German children such as their son at Eerde, just across the Dutch border in the Netherlands. Hans, not a very good student anyway and disliking the rote approach to dissecting knowledge that seemed all too commonplace in his school, was an easy convert to the idea of going to Holland, even among unknown "Quakers."
His parents had the idea in the back of their heads that he would be the first to get out and would lead the way for the three others to follow him to an Anglo-Saxon haven. His father, lest his absence be noted even to see off his son, age 13, went to work as usual that September day in 1934. His mother took him to the station and stashed his bicycle in the luggage car. He had never traveled alone before; now he would cross an intentional border.
When Julius Schmitt found he couldnt keep a job because he was married to a Jew, Hans mother and younger brother, of dark hair and looking less than the ideal Aryan, followed the next year, the family was broken up, never to be reunited. His mother, with a doctorate in law from the University of Heidelberg, was employed at Eerde first as a housemother, then as a teacher of Latin, Greek, English, French, and math, to help pay the two boys fees; in September 1941, after the German occupation of the Netherlands, Elisabeth was sent to oversee the education of the schools eighteen remaining Jewish students in a separate house nearby.
That twilight existence lasted less than a year, for in April 1942, a Dutch policeman, doing service for his countrys Nazi occupiers, appeared at the door and explained he had come to arrest her. "I know you need time to pack," he said, thinking to give her time to escape. "Ill be back tomorrow." Twice more he returned to find her still there, for Elisabeth Schmitt had decided she could not leave her charges.
Sent to the Westerbork camp in Holland, she was released when the SS commandant discovered that she was the widow of an Aryan and mother of his two children. When she arrived back at Eerde, she found that all of the Jewish youngsters had been shipped off. The grieving houseparent could do little but await her own liberation. Of such chances were lucky victims made.
Vati Julius Schmitt remained in Germany, eking out a shadowy existence in Frankfurt. Speaking no English, he gave up on getting out of Europe himself, but he worked so his family could. After Hans got to the United States, father and son wrote each other regularly and grew closer despite the distance in space and circumstances that separated them.
Julius died in 1941. Four months before his death, he got a job in a defense plant at which he worked up to 60 hours weekly, even receiving a Christmas bonus, but only half of what workers married to Aryans got. A few Friends from the tiny meeting in Frankfurt, the only people from whom he had found support, attended his bleak December interment.
Eerde school was a wonder to the young German. Although Quakers were few and far between in this "Quaker" institution, there was a weekly meeting for worship for which all dressed up, down to making sure they wore socks without holes.
Unlike the usual European education, schooling at Eerde was marvelously liberating. One teacher, a kind of Tolstoyan anarchist, taught French but could not bring himself to ask students to do more than to read something and then give him their reactions. Another Schmitt described him "as the most remarkable teacher I have ever met" was a Prussian-like disciplinarian able to drill 12-year olds in the intricacies of Latin grammar so that Schmitt, after only one year of instruction, would be exempted from college-level Latin courses in the United States; this marvel had an ability to demand that his predominately German charges command idiomatic English, not the stilted textbook variety. A music teachers passion was German music and its history practically all else he dismissed as "modernism."
Schmitt kept up with what was going on around him by reading daily newspapers in German, French, Dutch, and English and was appointed a kind of "news anchor" for the entire student body. He also served in the unheard-of student government, an innovation allowing the students to make rules for the non-instructional side of Eerdes life; neither Schmitt nor the other youngsters had ever imagined, much less experienced anything like this kind of student power. It was, he reflected later, "a community of material equals." He literally grew up, at first from homesickness, then physically, later because he had to make his own decisions; the school was undoubtedly the formative influence in his life. Reopening after the war, Eerde ceased being a Quaker school in 1958.
When he left Eerde on the exact date he had arrived three years before he had passed the British examination for the Oxford School Certificate and was eligible to attend the University of London. When he arrived, a problem appeared: he was only sixteen, and the minimum age for entering the school of journalism, his chosen field of study, was eighteen. Had he not, the head wanted to know, read the catalogue that had been sent to Holland?
Hans had indeed, but he thought that fulfilling the academic requirements took precedent over age. The stiff British regulations of course won out, so the youngster betook himself to the nearby proprietary Pitmans College of Business and proceeded to buckle down to learn the shorthand its founder was famous for. He stayed a year, long enough to have a fling with a German-speaking girl from Lithuania.
Coming to the United States with the help of Friends in 1938, he entered college at Washington & Lee University and went on to get a history Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. After struggling to enlist in the army, he was sent to Germany and served in a denazification unit from which he got an inside view of young Germans much like himself, except that he had been lucky enough to encounter Friends.
Schmitt has lived out his seventy-seven years because members of the Society acted as they did. He undertook his research on the Quaker response to Nazism as a kind of tribute to the role Friends played in his life and the history of his Vaterland. Schmitt is not overtly religious today and believes that there are serious problems with non-violence. He also believes that pacifism bears some responsibility for setting the stage for the horror that was World War II.
Quakerism, he concludes, can only work in dealing with people like Nazis if its adherents can convince them that Friendly methods would work to their advantage as they perceive it. Schmitt confesses that Quakers did have some success in this respect, for Nazi and Quaker interests occasionally coincided, and they found themselves able to cooperate. But his conclusion is much more sobering:
"In the end, the Nazis were not swayed from their pitiless course or influenced by the generous example set by these emulators of Christ."
After the Nazi attack on Poland in 1939, there simply remained, Schmitt says, citing a British Friend, no peaceful way of stopping the Nazis." Germans Quakers embodied a "ray of hope," but it was dim one indeed and not up to the task of holding back the monstrous and pervasive horror that Nazis perpetuated. Moreover, Nazisms victims came to Friends looking for charity a place to hide, a way out of Germany (perhaps to a place of luck like Eerde!); enlightenment about Quaker ways was the last thing they wanted, and it was not offered. The end result was that German Friends were as thankful as other opponents of the regime when Allied tanks rolled in to liberate their country.
Such blunt historical judgements brought the reviewer for the British Friend up short. Beth Peakall, a Canadian Friend, thought Schmitts chapter on 1 930s appeasement demonstrated his failure to understand the Quaker response to Nazism. It is easy to understand why he questioned pacifism. As a nonbeliever, Schmitt has not embraced the faith that compelled Friends in the 1930s to try to prevent war.
Ultimately, the Quaker conviction that working for understanding between potential combatants can bring peace is based on faith, and that transcends the mere political and diplomatic, even as it draws its justification from the call to do Gods will. As Schmitt totaled the Quaker effort, he decided that it "cannot be measured by an accountants balance sheet of success and failure." German Friends did "not follow [violences] persuasive example nor abet [evil]." That reality remains an inspiration.
He portrays Friends as a charitable people, willing to take unbelievable risks to aid those who suffered, but ultimately able to survive as a yearly meeting in Germany because they were seen by the Nazi authorities as charitable and non-political, and hence never actually threatening their regime. His cataloguing of Quakers straight-out, honest engagement with a world whose values they rejected is long and heroic:
Elizabeth Heims, the Jewish Friend from Munich who tore up her much coveted visa to the United States with the words, "There is nothing I can do for mankind in the United States that I cannot accomplish in Germany." (She died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga). The decision to turn over their membership lists to the Gestapo. The complaint filed with the secret police when one of their informants snored during meeting.
These German Quakers rarely spoke truth directly to power, although they continued to publish their monthly periodical until a 1943 law made it impossible to get paper for religious journals. They also issued a pamphlet series emphasizing leading Quaker or German humanitarians such as Elizabeth Fry and Albert Schweitzer; it survived until one pamphlet was found on the body of a dead Wehrmacht soldier on the eastern front. And they met openly. Despite the Nazi regimes totalitarian nature, they were able to eschew politics because they carved out for themselves a reputation as a religious group, small, a bit quirky, for sure, but devoted to unthreatening charitable tasks. They remained on that narrow line.
As such, they dispensed what assistance they could indiscriminately, even working to secure release of Nazi agitators in Lithuania. They aided Communists, Jews, and Christians; they sent assistance to Sudeten Germans after Germany received the green light from Great Britain and France to dismember Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference in September 1938. They formed a childrens discussion club in Berlin that was open to Jewish children, giving them their only contacts with non-Jews. They delivered books to people in concentration camps and petitioned government bureaus on their behalf.
Schmitt believes German Quakers survived sometimes proving useful to the Nazis because they restricted themselves to such charity and never allowed themselves to be seen as political opponents of the regime. Like Brenda Bailey, who wrote an account of her family during these years (A Quaker Couple in Nazi Germany [York, England: William Sessions, 1994]), he openly ponders whether such a non-political stance was the correct one. He quotes an agonized Bertha Bracey, who knew what information lay in the Friends House files in London, when she realized after the war what had happened in the concentration camps: "Did we make the wrong decision not to speak out?"
To speak out, Schmitt knows, would have ended any chance that Friends could have remained in central Europe. "Could Bracey, or any Friend, ever be sure that Quaker measures had been not only insufficient but also mistaken?"
Schmitt shows that they remained silent, for to speak "would have put an end to their work in Central Europe altogether." Schmitt realizes that his personal luck might well have run out had the Quakers spoken, but he also recognizes that simply performing acts of charity failed to derail the Nazi killing machine.
On the question of conscientious objection, German Friends found appealing the defacto position of most yearly meetings in the rest of the world, that is, permitting draft-age men to follow their own consciences as to whether or not to accept military service.
No one, of course, can finally resolve the dilemmas highlighted by this history, and Schmitt does not try. He ends his book by citing Steve Cary, the long-time AFSC staffer who, incidentally, chaired the committee that wrote Speak Truth to Power, when he told an AFSC audience in 1960 that" its important that we keep witnessing to what love can do." And that role is important, as Hans Schmitt attests, from his own life and with his memorable book.
I am reminded of an article that appeared in the Christian Century of February 28, 1979, lauding Friends for the decade-long task of locating the next of kin of French Jews who left personal affects with AFSC workers before they were sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany. On the day the train pulled out, loaded with Jews, AFSC staffers stationed themselves to serve coffee to the deportees, destined for fates no one could be sure of.
Like their German counterparts, the authorities in Vichy France permitted this charitable act because they knew that no Quaker would lie down in front of the train that day, lest they be denied the privilege of serving coffee another time. The human cost of a cup of coffee that September day in 1942 was, in truth, enormously high.
To Schmitts credit, he is more wont to pose this problem rather than solve it, although a careful reading will reveal that he prefers a political approach. He holds that, in the final analysis, Quakers were free to be charitable because of the ultimate success of the armed violence that they rejected on principle.
He continues to explore this dilemma. In November, 1997 he attended a session of German Yearly Meeting to relate his findings and was well-received by an audience eager to be reminded of the action of their fellow believers. He was scheduled to read a paper at an academic conference in Pennsylvania about "righteous Gentiles in Nazi Germany. He even says that some "men and women of goodwill" (hinting perhaps at himself?) have refraining from joining Friends because of this central problem. Hence Quakers save some and dispense coffee to others, while the killing, murder, and rapes go on.
What else can a tiny group, with little practical influence and devoted to good will, do? That is of course a bourgeois question.
Friends have had the leisure to consider this dilemma in the past fifty years, but most of the consideration has been in the privacy of individual hearts or has been approached too often as an abstraction. The value of this book and Schmitts reflections on the luck he encountered in his own personal history might well offer the base to reopen public discussion of such questions among Friends.
As with German Quakers from 1933 to 1945, the response, if it is vital, will be based on more than pragmatism and reason middle-class Quakers are already familiar enough with such calculations.
"Grand history [that is, major developments like the rise of Nazis]," says Schmitt, "calls to action, but ordinary people devise how to come to terms with it." Their responses will be rooted in concrete details like those that dot the pages of this book.
And, more important, the Quaker response will hopefully and finally be marked by transcendent faith. The pressure of tyranny led Schmitts family to decide that he would have to leave the land of his birth that he would live for the future, casting his lot initially with unknown Friends.
After all is said and done, that decision exemplified an act of faith. Acting similarly, Quakers at least might then fulfill the promise that they, however bourgeois, can once again point to an "Inner Light in Outer Darkness."
H. Larry Ingle is semi-retired from teaching history at the University of Tennessee. The author of First Among Friends, the definitive scholarly biography of George Fox, he is a member of Chattanooga, Tennessee Meeting of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association.
- from Chuck Fager's The Best of Friends, Vol. 1, Kimo Press, 1998
For more information about the German Quakers during this time, see Quakers in Nazi Germany
Added 1st Month 24, 1999
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